Working effectively with vulnerable children

Written by: Angela Greenwood | Published:
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There are many things schools and teachers can do – both little and large – to understand and support vulnerable children. Educational psychotherapist Angela Greenwood advises

Being thought about and held in mind are the ways we (and children) develop the capacity to think, the capacity for empathy, and our own internal space for wondering and holding things in mind – so crucial for education and emotional growth. This happens naturally in secure families and homes.

For vulnerable children however life may be very different. All changes and transitions, all humiliations and hurts may threaten their secure base and get acted out in some way.

When a vulnerable child is triggered into fear or panic and there is not an adequate “containing person” available, the intense feelings will burst out onto the nearest or “safest” scapegoat – often leading to further hurt and even punishment.

If such unavailability has happened repeatedly to a child, they can become programmed to project out even little hurts, because they have no idea that support could be available and that little hurts could be made bearable. For some children little hurts can also trigger panic linked to past trauma – leading to disproportionate reactions. They need help.

They need emotional containment, over and over again, from reliable trusted adults. That is they need to be and feel held and understood, or thoughtfully “wondered about” in someone’s (initially the mother’s) mind.

The good news is that in the school setting significant adults are around all the time and they have many opportunities to respond to children’s behavioural communications in a containing way. If at the same time as managing the situation, these adults can become reflective and curious in a non-intrusive way about a behaviour it can be very containing, because they are demonstrating that they are continuing to think about the child and hold them in mind. It is best to start with “small” things. The younger the better too – but it is never too late.

  • Oh! What’s that about I wonder?
  • Maybe that was the only way you could think of to stay feeling safe? Sometimes it can be hard to feel safe when we don’t know what is going to happen next.
  • I was just remembering that yesterday...
  • I wonder, what made you...
  • I’m just guessing, but I was wondering...
  • Wait a second. I wonder...

Even if the child does not respond to these “wonderings”, a dialogue has opened up in the child’s mind, and the possibility of thinking about and understanding difficulties has been broached.

Understanding (especially repeated) behaviours as unconscious communications, or as “acting out” of something a child cannot get anywhere near thinking or talking about, does not mean allowing anti-social behaviour.

It is about giving the child an experience of being thought about and understood, at the same time as setting the necessary firm boundaries. We may need to bear “hatred”, and remain thoughtful, firm and empathic at the same time.

All this can be difficult though, especially if staff do not understand that, in the heat of the moment, a child cannot help it. Staying with a child’s anxious communication is not easy when it threatens to overwhelm. We may feel the need to switch off, react, blame, get more people involved, or give up. Our own anxieties can also make staying calm and setting appropriate boundaries difficult. We can need help too.

This more formal “reflection exercise” may offer a useful model...

Reflection on a particular incident

Think of an incident with a child/young person that you have experienced recently:

  • What feelings did he seem to be communicating?
  • Reflect on why he might have had those feelings at that particular time?
  • What feelings did he evoke in you or “put into” you?
  • How did you feel pushed to respond?
  • How did you respond?
  • Did the experience “press your buttons”?
  • How did you manage your own feelings?
  • Does this reflection give you any new insights into the child – or into yourself?
  • What opportunities could you take to talk things through in a situation like this?
  • What have you learnt from this reflection?
  • If something similar happened again how might you respond?

In the heat of the moment the capacity to stop and think can make a big difference. The process is: to notice the behaviour, stop for a moment, reflect on possible links or meanings, then when the time is right verbalise the link in a caring, accepting and bearable way – normalising it if you like – as if anyone in that situation and with those anxieties might do the same. An offer of help may also ease anxieties.

For example: “I can see you becoming a bit fidgety Tom. We are going to finish this soon aren’t we, and then we will have to put it ... til tomorrow. Changes are always a bit worrying, especially when we are not sure about the next thing. We will be moving onto ... next, remember. How about I go with you to ...”

Being aware that your words or facial expressions, your tone of voice or gestures could also be triggers is important too. Vulnerable children are often hyper-sensitive to non-verbal cues.

This “relationship-based” way of working is not only important for children, staff need it too. Supporting each other is essential. Healthy schools make time for this. They see staff asking for help as a sign of strength. Debrief sessions at the end of the day, clinical supervision or talking with more experienced and trusted colleagues can be helpful and even necessary.

I remember a conversation with Miss T, a nurture group teacher who was very concerned and puzzled about a child (C) who was often late, and who regularly became “frozen up” when he entered the class, unable to even move to a chair let alone start an activity, leaving staff very anxious and helpless. Then later he would settle and manage well until the end of the day.

We found ourselves wondering about resistant ambivalent attachment patterns and even autistic tendencies, but the teacher described how he could relate well, he enjoyed relationships with other children, and he evoked a lot of care and concern in staff.

Miss T seemed to have a good working relationship with his very anxious mother, who tried hard to bring him in on time each day, and we wondered about the effects of her anxiety on him, and about the issue of separation, which was clearly a problem for them both when he arrived in the mornings. Being the youngest by far in the family could perhaps lead to separation and growing up difficulties for mum and for C too, but we still felt puzzling anxiety and helplessness.

Then Miss T remembered that in the course of conversation the class teacher had mentioned that C had had a very difficult birth and in fact he had nearly died. We acknowledged the huge anxiety that would have caused everyone, and particularly his mother – and little C himself.

Then suddenly it dawned. Miss T became visibly animated. Maybe his huge anxious “stuckness” at the beginning of any new day, any change of room, any task or play opportunity was like a re-enactment of his very difficult, anxious making and traumatic beginning – when he nearly did not make it.

Maybe this almost unbearable anxiety became reactivated in both him and his mother, and (in the transference) in school staff too, any time something new loomed up. Suddenly we could think together about ways to work with this, including empathic conversations with his mum, perhaps counselling for her, and while he might still need the extra support with beginnings, understanding such a good reason for his stuckness put a very different light on offering that support.

Our anxieties began to ease as Miss T and I wondered about a conversation with him and his mum together about his difficult birth, and how that might make all new beginnings difficult for them both, but also how very loved and special he is to them all because of that. We thought about how “bodily” memories of that time might still be inside them all in some deep place, and how all new beginnings might somehow “push” those feelings up to the surface.

It would be important to emphasise that it was no one’s fault of course, and that understanding this could give everyone confidence that he will come through – he is well now, and his difficulties will ease, just as they did for baby C.

Suffice to say, this happened and over time C settled more and more. He successfully transitioned back into class in year one, and when Miss T saw him entering school with mum later in the year, he seemed happy and confident.

If together we can make the link between the anxieties triggered in us, and the child’s anxieties, we can come to understand the child from the inside, and our future responses will communicate that and ease rather than exacerbate the situation.

Then when recovering children are understandably stressed by circumstances we will understand and support that, while keeping everyone safe. We will know to anticipate and talk through changes well in advance, and make any practical adjustments necessary. Slowly trust will develop and a secure attachment pattern will begin to overlay the insecure dysfunctional one.

For schools who want to move in this nurturing containing direction a supportive head is key. A passionate, resilient teacher familiar enough with the theory and practice can offer training and mentoring of staff, and model and live the process. But as the assistant head says in the final chapter of my book: “(The head’s) enthusiasm and belief was key. I think the head is the key person. In fact she supported me.”

  • Angela Greenwood is an educational psychotherapist and author of Understanding, Nurturing and Working Effectively with Vulnerable Children in Schools: Why can’t you hear me? (Routledge, 2020). Visit

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