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.