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.

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