Look for the helpers (an assembly) #Manchester #WeStandTogether


I was still working in a high school at the time of the 2015 Paris attacks. I wrote an assembly and shared it on Twitter. A number of people found it helpful so I’ve adapted it to apply to Manchester. With the two events horribly similar, this wasn’t difficult. The assembly begins with a personal anecdote, but anyone who is a parent or simply knows a child will be able to substitute their own. Children are fearful and I think as teachers we have a duty to give them a sense of perspective, as well as to protect those who might be vulnerable within our school communities, in the febrile aftermath of an atrocity.


It dawned on me just how terrifying the world can seem to the young when I was travelling on a train to York with my 11 year old daughter. She was unusually quiet, eyeing our fellow passengers when normally she’d be busily Minecrafting. Finally she blurted, “How do we know there’s not a bomb on the train?” I asked her to explain. “Well nobody checked our bags before we got on – like they do in airports. So there could be a bomb on this train.”

A quick smartphone search and I was able to advise her that the odds of us dying in a terrorist attack on the 10.15 from Newark to York were approximately 9.3 million to one. For some context, and because she loves dogs, I reassured her that our chances of dying from a dog bite were greater, around one in 700,000 poor souls suffering this fate.

Unfortunately, these impressive facts didn’t do the trick. Josie remained a coiled spring and was on the platform at York before I was even out of my seat. This saddened me – I don’t want any of my children or indeed any of you to be irrationally frightened of the world, or worried about something so thrilling as travel. It was therefore a relief to find online some better advice than mine, from an expert in childhood called Fred Rogers. Remembering his own fears as a boy, he wrote these words.

Events have moved on since then and, like all of you, Josie has watched the news in horror these last couple of weeks. She knows all about the Manchester bombing; the twenty two victims, most of them very young; the injured, the bereaved, the suddenly motherless. But she also knows about the helpers.

The helpers are the subject of this assembly.

This is Paula Robinson 

She helped dozens of terrified children to safety after the attack. She hadn’t been at the concert, but was walking past with her husband when suddenly terrified and screaming children poured out of the arena. Paula gathered a crowd of around fifty of them and led them to safety at a nearby Premier Inn. She then shared her number on social media to let worried parents know that their daughters were safe.

Stephen Jones is homeless and was sleeping rough nearby when he heard the blast. 

“First there was a bang,” he said. “I thought it was some kind of firework, and then there was a big explosion. I just felt the wind force, and then everyone started screaming and running. Me and my mate we got up and we started running. We realized what had happened, we run back, and all the women and children were coming out with blood.”

Explaining why he ran straight into the danger-zone, not knowing whether there would be a second explosion, Stephen said, “It was children, a lot of children with blood all over them, crying and screaming. If I didn’t help, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself for walking away.” 

As news of the attack spread, and train stations were closed, locals began offering spare rooms on social media under the hashtag #RoomforManchester. Rebecca Topham tweeted: “I have a sofa, floor, blankets and tea 5 minutes from the arena for anyone in need.” Hundreds of others offered spare beds, settees, phone charging points, food, and lifts home.

Elsewhere, cafes provided free drinks for the emergency services with people taking tea to police at the cordon. Members of the public arrived at the stadium where victims were taken to wait for family members, offering food supplies.

Taxi drivers in the city centre turned off their meters and offered free rides to help victims get home.

Next morning, queues formed outside of blood donation centres in Manchester after the NHS put out an emergency call for new supplies. Give Blood NHS was eventually forced to shut down registration because it had been so overwhelmed by donors that it filled its banks to capacity. 

That evening, thousands of people from every part of Manchester packed Albert Square to remember the victims and send a message of defiance. The square was as full as the eye could see as masses turned out to show their solidarity.

There was a huge outbreak of applause as the great and good on the steps of the town hall were joined by youngsters from different community and faith groups and the Lord Mayor of Manchester said the thoughts of the whole city were with those affected. By Friday, a fundraising campaign was generating donations for victims through the hashtag #muslimsformanchester and a walk for peace through the city was organised by Jamia Mosque.

This show of unity is as far from the outcome that Isis terrorists would have been seeking as it is possible to get. That’s why it was so very important. Those murderous bandits despise our modern, multi-racial communities.They want Muslim people to feel loathed in their European homes and driven to join them in Syria. They want them to feel that they have only one true home – within so-called ‘Islamic state’. They want our western countries to become fearful, closed, authoritarian societies. They want us to divide and become weaker, less tolerant, less together – they want us more like them. 

Every individual who does something to ensure they fail to achieve this evil aim is a helper. Manchester has reminded us that we are a great country of helpers. 

There are a small number of haters too, though. People who give the terrorists exactly what they want. Manchester police report that there has been a doubling of Islamophobic hate crimes in the city since the bombing. Whilst social media was dominated by helpers, haters also used it as a platform for their lazy and toxic prejudice.

Nobody works harder to challenge hate than Brendan Cox, because he knows where it can end. His wife Jo was murdered in the street by a white supremacist, about this time last year. An MP, Jo campaigned for racial tolerance and used her maiden speech in parliament to celebrate all that the UK has gained from its racial diversity. She said, ‘We have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.’  It was for this belief that she was fatally stabbed on her walk to work by a cowardly, far-right thug. 

In a series of tweets after the Manchester bombing, her widdower, Brendan, stressed the importance of unity. He wrote, “The pain these attacks inflict is profound & real, it lasts long after the headlines have moved on. But the cause they seek to advance is going to fail. They try to divide us. But we will not divide. We will pull together & live our lives. Britain will respond as it always does under attack: with love for the bereaved, unity & resolve. They will not change us. They will not win.”  He added, “People who use this to push hatred are doing exactly what the terrorists want. Division & hate make us weak, unity & resolve make us strong.”

If anyone has the right to respond to an atrocity with anger, to lash out in rage, it is surely the bereaved. Yet consistently we find that the most eloquent voices for reason, inclusion and love belong to those who grieve the loss of loved ones. These are voices that must be heard by us all with the deepest, most humble respect. 

This assembly finishes with some of the most haunting, heartbreaking, brave and beautiful words that I think a human being ever spoke. The love of Antoine’s life was killed in the 2015 Isis attacks on Paris. Like the young people of Manchester, she was at a gig. Somehow, only days later and in the shock of grief, Antoine was able to say this:

Pupil mobility, the widening gap and misplaced faith in Hirsch 

The first few days of a new job are always testing. Your colleagues are actually strangers so you feel an outsider and under scrutiny. You don’t know your way around or where anything is. People keep telling you stuff but there’s very little you’re actually absorbing  just yet. The things people really do need to tell you they assume you know already. You keep getting names wrong and you’re mortifyingly prone to asking daft questions. 

It’s a tricky time and you may well be having to break the mid-week drinking rule more often than is healthy just to cope. However, experience tells you that this will pass and in truth it’s not long at all before your equilibrium is restored and you’re feeling like part of the furniture again.

Contrast that narrative with the one written by a child who arrives at a new school with no expectation of ever feeling the sense of belonging that is essential to wellbeing because that simply hasn’t been the story so far. According to data published by the DfES in On the Move, the largest group of pupils who change school mid year are ‘informal’ excludees. The poor social and emotional skills which led to exclusion, exacerbated now by hightened anxiety, make this group of pupils extremely vulnerable and it takes a very special school, a genuinely inclusive one, to break the cycle of negativity and failure. 

There are some schools that consistently succeed where others fail, of course. Extraordinary places, often unsung heros of the sector, where needs are met and pupils loved in all of their diversity. Maybe, just maybe, Ofsted will now begin to recognise the contribution such schools make to the public good through its focus on ‘off-rolling,’ flagged in the most recent update for inspectors.

There are many schools that don’t manage to transform fortunes, however, and all too often, the next transition is to PRU, via lawful exclusion this time, or onto another new setting. 

When the ‘fresh start’ fails, unrealistic expectations can be part of the problem – a pupil expected to find the inner resources to maximise the advantages of a new beginning without adequate support to change established patterns of behaviour. Or a pupil expected to be on best behaviour through some notional honeymoon period when in fact high levels of stress, often masked by bravado, are driving survival behaviours. The transfer of information can be poor too, so the new school may have no understanding of what reasonable adjustments need to be made – even when the principle of reasonable adjustment is fully understood. Consequences are then applied, as per the policy, and another move precipitated.

School hopping is of course strongly associated with disadvantage. Over 60% of pupils who change schools mid year are eligible for pupil premium or have SEND. The scale of this problem rarely catches the headlines, but it is enormous. For every ten pupils who start secondary school in England, six will change schools. According to this report, which cites the National Pupil Database, that’s a staggering 300,000 pupils a year. These pupils perform worse than expected with outcomes further compromised by every move. Indeed, when there have been two secondary school transitions, the scale of under-achievement is roughly equivalent to that of children in the care system.

We will never close the gap, or even diminish the difference, until the policy context actively serves to strengthen schools as inclusive communities. A knowledge-rich curriculum, a robust testing regime underpinning it, the most dilerious of academy freedoms – none of these things will do anything to break the cycle of deprivation until the DfE develops some policy around every child mattering again. During the period that Nick Gibb has been urging us to embrace the transformative power of a knowledge-rich curriculum, most recently in Empowering Teachers to Deliver Equity, the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils, already a chasm in the UK, has widened.

It would be farcically naive to maintain that we haven’t yet transmitted enough knowledge for its transformative power to impact on our most disadvantaged pupils. Or that progressive methods or learning styles are somehow undermining the great project, as Gibb implies. There is essential work around social pedagogy, community building, how to create a sense of belonging, that must come first. Rhetoric around closing the gaps will remain no more than that for as long as there is no focus on the marginalised, or for as long as that focus is ideological rather than research-led. Before Hirsch there has to be Maslow and before cultural capital there has to be social.

The most inclusive school leaders know this and enact it by pulling pupils in from the margins, viewing all of them as assets. They are contributors to the sector and to society, of course – addressing their own issues, referring for EHC assessment when necessary, leading on Early Help, building relationships with hard to reach families, providing keyworker support, embracing diversity, investing in their communities – warts and all.

If we are serious about closing the gaps, we need a policy climate that promotes this practice rather than one that actively undermines it. Inclusive schools are rarely on top of the leader board in its current form. By admitting and keeping ‘poor quality’ pupils, to quote the now notorious researh from the Centre for High Performance, they are more likely to be propping up their exclusive neighbours than taking any plaudits themselves. 

The off-rollers; the SEND-lite; the exclusive – too often these have been our ‘rapidly improving’ and Ofsted Outstanding establishments. However, Amanda Spielman has said that the inspectorate is to become a force for good and by asking inspectors to consider pupil mobility as a leadership and management issue, she has taken an important early step in the right direction. 

If the DfE comes to understand that all of the answers are not in ED Hirsch and that actually a horse must be provided with water before it can drink it, then perhaps the real work towards closing the gaps can finally begin.

Attachment Aware Schools: The Meet and Greet

The Sutton Trust Research finding that 40% of today’s children don’t benefit from good enough  parenting to ‘succeed in life’ has major implications for the way we do things in school. Especially the way we do behaviour. It’s interesting to note that the study found that boys’ behaviour is more adversely affected by early parenting, or lack of it, than girls’. Could this be one of the reasons for our enduring problem with boys’ under achievement? With a strong link between insecure attachment and social disadvantage also highlighted in the report, it is clear that attachment awareness must be at the heart of any evidence informed closing the gaps strategy. 

One of the things that makes school such a big ask for children with unmet attachment needs is of course their negative attachment representations, or, to use Bowlby’s term, the internal working model. This makes compliance a problem.

The problem when behaviour policy is not research-informed is that sanctions for non-compliance are deployed, whether they are successful in changing behaviour or not. And of course they are not. Because they only reinforce this internal working model, thereby exacerbating behavioural difficulties and justifying the need for more sanctions. So it goes on and on and on with permanent exclusion all too often the catastrophic result.

The task for inclusive educators is to avoid this self-perpetuating negative spiral altogether by introducing children to the world of secure attachment, so that they can learn to trust the adult lead. This can only be achieved through a focus on the quality of key relationships. As Bomber puts it, “Every relationship has the powerful potential of either confirming or challenging everything that has gone before.”

Her book, ‘What About Me?’ provides essential guidance on what a genuinely supportive school day looks like for children who have experienced significant developmental trauma and loss. It begins with some advice on the critical meet and greet, summarised below. Whilst this advice is aimed at key adults within school, it’s important to note that the principles must be understood by all staff and creatively enacted in the classroom, if that space is ever to become a safe one in which the the insecurely attached child or adolescent can be freed up for learning.

  • Pleasure in seeing the pupil should be exaggerated. Be mindful of proximity, facial expressions, posture, tone and pace of voice. Once a relationship has built up, a brief touch to connect with the pupil can be helpful. Smiles and healthy, appropriate touch are “the most vital stimulus to the growth of the socially, emotionally intelligent brain.” (Gerhardt, 2004)
  • Concentrate on giving the pupil full attention. Sit alongside the pupil, against a wall and where there is full view of the area. Invite the pupil to talk about last night and the journey to school. Give eye contact and summarise back what was shared, both explicitly and also what you inferred.
  • Objects from home have important value. They need to be placed carefully in a special box that has a lid, or in a personal tray.
  • Prepare the pupil for the day, going through a visual planner or diary together. Use sequencing connectives such as before, after, next. Encourage reflection by asking the pupil to ‘scale’ the effort levels they anticipate. Take note of any subject or relationship that might require additional input.
  • If there is any change in the usual routine, map this out carefully. Social stories can be used for this.
  • At the end of the meet and greet, remind the pupil that they will be ‘kept in mind’ and when you will next meet. I’ll be wondering how you’ll be getting on in literacy. I look forward to hearing all about it when I see you straight afterwards. A Post-it note or record in planner can reinforce this.
  • If there is a breakfast club, it is best served in a small, quiet and calm setting with the pupil at a table and key staff actively participating in the meal so that appropriate and healthy interactions are co-modelled.

A meet and greet that will really make a difference isn’t just a quick check-in with form tutor or class teacher then. It’s a much deeper interaction than that. Inclusive schools make the full meet and greet for those who need it a priority because in terms of preparing pupils to settle to learn, the beginning of the school day is the most important part – early intervention in action. A wide range of staff can be deployed as key adults, of course. They don’t need QTS or a counselling qualification. Just the capacity for empathy and a limitless supply of unconditional positive regard.

Differentiated Behaviour Management. An inclusion essential.

If ‘no excuses’ means that inappropriate, disrespectful, risky behaviour must always be squarely addressed, then nobody would take issue with it. If, on the other hand, it means that such behaviour must always be addressed in the same way, according to an inflexible ‘do this-get that’ policy, then the approach is not compatible with inclusion. 

To make such a statement is not to reveal low expectations for pupils with particular SEND, such as ASD. It’s not to say that a pupil with a special need affecting behaviour should have licence to ignore the rules. It’s simply acknowledging that some pupils need much, much more support than others and that sanctioning them for mistakes associated with their difficulties is both profoundly unfair and counterproductive – not least because sanctions can induce shame.

In relation to children with attachment difficulties, of course,  we must do everything possible as educators responsible for their wellbeing to protect them from prolonged feelings of toxic shame. Their experience of relational trauma means that they are already shame-based and this is why we must be so very careful with discipline. We want all pupils to understand the difference between right and wrong and to experience a degree of guilt for misbehaviour. However, for the extremely vulnerable, insecurely attached child, this can easily tip into toxic shame, which is a long way from guilt:

Guilt, “I have made a mistake.”

Shame, “I am the mistake.”

Nathanson’s compass of shame, above, illustrates the ways that humans respond to shame – none of them positive, prosocial or healthy. All teachers will immediately bring to mind individual LAC children who regularly occupy points on that compass. They are very often the hardest children to reach because they have never learned dependency. They have never learned how to trust adults and to follow their lead. That crucial developmental stage was missed.

But in the problem lies the solution; the task for inclusive educators is actually very clear. Vulnerable children must be taught through their experience of school as a surrogate secure base that adults can be trusted. Though adaptation and recovery takes time, perhaps years, the experience of empathic, genuine relationship does facilitate such growth with the role of ‘key adult’ crucial in this work.

Any attachment aware practitioner will understand then that we cannot merely discipline children with relational developmental difficulties as we do the majority. Not unless we want to exacerbate difficulties by inducing feelings of rejection, panic and shame. 

Louise Bomber advocates an approach to challenging behaviour which includes the possibility of reparation. It’s described below, more or less word for word as it appears in ‘What about me?’ The sequence does rely on all school staff understanding the needs of insecurely attached children and it also assumes that children with the most complex needs are supported by a key adult. In inclusive schools, these preconditions will exist. Sadly in many, where exclusion is the response to unmet need, they are absent.

The reparation sequence

1. Pupil’s key adult describes the events neutrally and with empathy.

I noticed that you were trying really hard with your maths work this morning. You started getting frustrated around question 5. It was as if you felt that you couldn’t cope any more. It got too much. You threw your book and then before you knew it you were in a real state.

2. Gently let the pupil know that you realise he is feeling disturbed right now.

You are probably still feeling all shaken up and need a bit of space.

3. Be explicit about the fact that something needs to happen to ‘repair’ what’s gone wrong. Give an idea of how that could be done.

When you are ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Selloptape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir, as it wasn’t his fault that your patient, perservering part disappeared for a few minutes.

4. Let the pupil know that we now know that he is not as strong as we thought, and that we will help him practice in the area that he had difficulty in – so that he can cope.

I’m sorry because I thought the work was the right level. It wasn’t. I will make sure tomorrow the work is more suitable for you. Let’s get your confidence back before moving onto more challenges.

5. Supervision, structure and support are also necessary to varying degrees in order to facilitate the reparative stage.

Let’s go and neaten up that book together.

6. Once the pupil has engaged in reparative activity, we may also be very explicit about the fact that the relationship with the key adult remains intact.

Just to say that you and me are OK. The teacher is also OK. He understands that you were having a wobble and is looking forward to welcoming you back into maths tomorrow.

If we don’t make this kind of comment explicitly, we leave the pupil insecure and once again at risk of the inappropriate behaviour escalating, because of his very real fear of rejection or abandonment. 

Some pupils will feel toxic shame so acutely that it will significantly affect their ability to re-enter classrooms, meet particular staff again or continue with lessons. In these cases, advocacy is needed by the key adult so that the classroom teacher understands that efforts must be made to build a bridge:

I really missed you in Geography today. I was looking forward to seeing you. I know we had some difficult moments yesterday but today is a new day. We have lots of interesting material to investigate together.

This sensitive after-care is very powerful. Many pupils are shocked by it and the experience has been found to strengthen their respect for and relationship with the member of staff who took the time to do this.

That’s just one of the many strategies described in ‘What about me?’ – a book about teaching traumatised children how to relate to others in healthy, appropriate ways; a book about differentiated behaviour management. Of course, we don’t usually do behaviour like this. We have one size fits all policies and that’s because our systems have been set up with the assumption that pupils will have benefited from consistently ‘good enough’ care to understand and make the most of education. 

It’s increasingly apparent that this is not the case. If our schools are going to serve the whole of their communities, then this needs to change. The only alternative is exclusion – because those square pegs, they are never going to fit – not if we believe they can be hammered in through a sanctions regime, however ‘consistent’. For me, there is ‘no excuse’ for a belief that is contradicted by a plethora of evidence from the SEND field.  


Inclusion. Children do get it.

When my eldest daughter was in Year 4, a new boy joined her class who had difficulty managing his behaviour. He’d call out, bounce out of his seat, huff and puff over his work, lose his temper sometimes. Meg saw his frustration just as, I’m quite sure, her classmates and the teacher did. She didn’t judge him for it though, or question his ‘poor choices’. Quite clearly, it was all a bit more complicated than that. There was something behind this, ADHD maybe – trauma and loss perhaps. Whatever the underlying cause, Josh didn’t cope at all well. He stood out.

However, he wasn’t followed by the rest of the class, like some juvenile Pied Piper. His peers didn’t lose their ability to self regulate because he was still working on his. He wasn’t removed from the class to undergo training elsewhere, as advised by the DfE behaviour guru, to prevent his difficulties from ‘normalising.’ If he had been, and the re-entry criteria were total control of impulsivity, enabling the same standard of behaviour as that achieved by others, then he would never have returned to the classroom. 

There’s a place for withdrawal, of course. Inclusion doesn’t mean everyone together all of the time. Counselling can be helpful, as well as a range of small-group interventions. Solutions-focused coaching ought to be an entitlement. But one-to-one and small-group learning must be generalised back in the classroom to be effective; reinforced and practiced within context. 

Meg grew very fond of Josh. He turned out to be really good for her self esteem at a time when she was in and out of the ‘popular group’ with bewildering regularity. She found that she was a calming influence on him and the teacher regularly paired them up. She would come home full of tales about how she’d been able to help, strategies that had worked. This made her proud.

Fairness is a value highly prized by most children and their understanding of it is more subtle than we give them credit for when we assume they’re incapable of understanding disadvantage or difference. Those teachers who have employed Circle of Friends to include autistic pupils will know all about the enormous capacity that children have for compassionate understanding and empathy – and the joyous difference this can make when it’s harnessed within a structured programme. 

Special Challenges is a report from the National College about how four schools effectively included children with SEMH. I’ve summarised it here. The report identifies peer support as one of six key themes and points out that there is social and emotional learning for all children, not just the vulnerable, when this is promoted. Pupils in the study schools understood diversity and consistently demonstrated caring attitudes towards those who were struggling. They were strong communities, happy places – and we have many schools that fit such a description. 

The Coalition government aimed to ‘Reverse the bias towards inclusion’ and we live in the shadow of that rhetoric. (All it ever was, without a massive expansion of special schools). We need to change the rhetoric, because it doesn’t help the most vulnerable children in our schools feel that they belong there. And that is plain wrong.

In defence of the ‘Velcro TA’

The factors affecting the capacity for learning are related to the capacity for relationship. In order to enable such children to improve access to learning, one has to pay particular attention to processes of relationship. (Greenlalgh, 1994)

Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener in 1941 when he returned from a walk in the woods and wondered if the cockleburs that clung to his trousers and his dog’s coat could be turned into something useful. The stiff hooks of the bur that he observed under his microscope became the inspiration for Velcro.

The term ‘Velcro TA’ is disparaging then. It implies that a TA who supports one child, rather than being linked to a subject let’s say, is a bur-like, clingy thing that just can’t be shaken off. It implies that the SENCo has deployed resources in a wasteful, mindless and, worst of all, a counter-productive way. It suggests a lack of ambition for children with SEND – the pesky TA one who actively thwarts a pupil’s progress towards independence.

Now if a SENCo were to simply deploy TAs according to statemented hours, after the ‘Velcro model’, then that would indeed be misguided. Rob Webster’s important Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants promotes a much more robust, strategic and evidence-based approach. It’s based on his seminal research which showed, among other things, that pupils supported by TAs had fewer interactions with both the classroom teacher and with their peers. Their progress was subsequently slower than that of similar pupils who were not supported in this way.

However, it doesn’t follow that one-to-one support is intrinsically wrong and that, at secondary level, all TAs should be deployed within departments such that pupils encounter four or five of them a day. If this were a blanket policy, I would have real concerns for that most vulnerable group of children whose social and emotional needs can only be met through a nurturing relationship with a consistent adult. I think if we were better at measuring wellbeing, we would have a fuller appreciation of the fundamental importance of this role.

Here, Louise Bomber is instructive.

Time and again in her writing, she returns to the fact that the experience of trauma and loss within a close significant relationship can have serious consequences for the emotional wellbeing and social capacities of children. However, neuroscience also tells us that new and more sophisticated neural pathways can be formed in the child’s developing brain, and new patterns of relating and behaving can emerge – when there is a ‘good enough’ other. An adoptive parent, therapist, mentor – or TA. 

The patterns of attachment behaviours are laid down in infancy but are moderated by later experiences of other significant relationships which can meliorate adverse experiences in primary relationships. (Geddes, 2006)

Neural pathways are ‘experience dependent’. In the presence of a ‘good enough’ relationship, new synaptic connections can be made, joining up neurons in the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain can then come on-line. The sooner this occurs, the better, since the child who has experienced trauma and loss early in life will have social and emotional catching up to do. Bomber concludes that “the need to give these children a reparative relationship experience is urgent.”

There’s nothing more rewarding for a SENCo than to observe from a distance the rewiring Bomber describes. I was priveliged to work with a TA who was perfectly suited to the key adult role. (It’s not for all). He assumed it when we discovered that he was the only person who could coax a pupil – I’ll call him James – out of his mum’s car in the mornings. (James had no ECHP, by the way. Ours wasn’t a Velcro TA deployment model.) He was also the only one who could get James into lessons when he refused, which was often during Year 7. And the only one who could get him to talk – try – believe in himself (though this was a slow awakening). 

James could easily have been permanently excluded for persistent defiance – were it not for the patience and persistence of a steady, empathic TA who never gave up in him – and a school that didn’t either. He now has a realistic chance of achieving good GCSEs. Whatever his grades, though, he has already exceeded everyone’s expectations, and most of all his own. This was a boy who was regularly restrained during the primary years and whose stated ambition on transfer to secondary was to be permanently excluded. (He was terrified.) His relationship with a very special TA has been transformative, life-changing. 

It’s been important for the TA too, of course. These strong bonds that we form with our most vulnerable pupils, it’s love that forges them, not Velcro.

Communication for inclusion. Language strategies that help insecurely attached pupils succeed in school.

Developments in neuroscience mean that the impact of loss and trauma on early brain development is widely understood. However, Louise Bomber’s Inside I’m Hurting (2007) contends that education has not kept up with other fields in relation to the development of specific practical strategies to support the inclusion of children with attachment needs. Her book is really a handbook designed to plug this gap and it’s an essential read, not least because attachment difficulties manifest in so many of the behaviours that lead to exclusion.

Bomber advocates a differentiated approach which recognises that children with attachment difficulties did not have the usual opportunities for growth in the early years. Rather than leaving them ‘stuck’ in their development, she argues, we can choose to provide children who have not benefitted from ‘good enough’ parenting with the opportunity of ‘second-chance learning’ (Winnicott, 1965). Clearly, this is entirely consistent with our core purpose as educators.

There is much in the book about a teacher’s use of language and how this can be differentiated to promote social and emotional learning, when there are deficits. Being explicit in our communication is a key idea.

An insecurely attached child will expect adults to behave according to the relationship with ‘significant other’ that is stored in memory as a template, or internal working model. This means that interactions with people must be translated  – very explicit messages clarifying why people might be doing what they are doing are required. Only this way can children with attachment difficulties begin to make sense of a very different set of social rules to the ones they have known. 

Commentary, direction and modelling

Bomber advises that we make the most of everyday interactions by using them as teachable moments, rather than focusing on targeted intervention. Children learn better from real events than from being sent off to undertake emotional literary work elsewhere, especially as generalising from the intervention back into the classroom can be problematic. 

The use of commentary, direction and modelling are key, as in the illustration below. 

Matt grabbed Serena’s pencil case because he needed another pen and his had run out. His key adult intervened by saying, “Oh Matt, I see that your pen has run out of ink. You need another one. Usually most people will want to help you when you need something. Let’s ask Serena if she will help you and see what she says.” The key adult then supported Matt to ask Serena if he could borrow her pen. Serena said yes. The key adult then modelled to Matt how to complete the interaction by saying, “Thanks Serena, that’s very kind.” If Serena hadn’t said yes, the key adult would have supported Matt to ask another peer. (p136)

In this way, social and emotional learning is promoted within moment-by-moment interactions with the following scaffold enabling it:

  • Being clear about what is happening, stating what the need is
  • Reminding the child that most people are happy to help someone else (This is crucial as it is likely to contradict what has been learnt from early experience)
  • Being clear about what they need to do to present their request
  • Supporting the child at having a go at following through the action
  • Challenging the child to have a go at practicing this if it happens again

Most children grasp this new method of communication over time, provided adults are patient and skilled in their interactions with them.

Commenting on appropriate behaviour

Making explicit when a child is behaving appropriately is helpful. Examples of what to notice might usefully include:

  • Good waiting
  • That was so kind of you to thinkof John’s feelings
  • You were really concentrating then
  • You shared Miss Taylor with Harry – that’s great to see
  • I could see that you were really stressed but you walked away. You slowed yourself down

We can’t expect that pupils will understand that such behaviour is pro-social without this feedback. And we are cementing new neural pathways, providing  opportunities for children to firm up their thinking as they relate to others in new ways.

Using directives

Whenever possible, adults should communicate what a child needs to do, rather than what they shouldn’t do, because an insecurely attached child will often hear the action rather than the negative. For example, instead of saying “Stop jumping…” (which might cause jumping) the desired behaviour should be stated, such as “Let’s walk in the classroom”. If there is a safety issue, then “No” or “Stop” is sufficient.

Making no assumptions 

When children have not known calmness, patience or kindness in their lives, “Be kind…calm down….be patient” are clearly not helpful commands. It is essential that pupils know what we mean when we make requests. Sometimes, this means starting from scratch and in this regard the strategies that are known to support children with ASD are beneficial. For example, to explain what we mean by being kind, we might say:

  • Touch the others gently. They feel uncomfortable when you push them
  • Talk quietly to the others. It gives children a shock when you shout in their ears
  • If you see someone on their own, ask if they would like to join in. Children can feel sad bring ignored or moved away from 
  • Smiling at people in the playground can make them feel good. Children and adults can feel upset and confused if you scowl at them

These ideas can be communicated not just verbally, but by modelling from the teacher or peers, through role play or social stories.

Being explicit, differentiating the language we use, will enable children who have experienced loss and trauma to make sense of what is going on around them, such clarification building up their resilience. They are far more likely to be included than excluded when we adapt our communication in these ways.