How one school is completing its journey to becoming attachment-friendly

In a recent article for SEN Magazine (SEN84 Sept/Oct 2016), I described the evolution of attachment-friendly practice at Hope School, Liverpool, a Key Stage1, 2 and 3 school for boys with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties. The article explored the rationale for change within school practice and procedures, significant key events and interventions and the challenges faced in developing as an attachment-friendly school. In this follow-up article, the school’s strategic planning for embedding attachment-friendly, trauma-informed practice into school policies and documentation will be discussed. The role of the Governing Body and training for parents and carers will also be explored, and there will be some suggestions as to why the School is succeeding in becoming attachment-friendly, when many others, who started with good intentions, have given up on the challenge.

Strategic vision

Possibly the most important factor to impact on the School’s success in this initiative has been the strategic approach towards implementing change and development. In order to ensure attachment-friendly practice fitted into the bigger picture of the School’s goals and development, the senior leadership team (SLT) identified priorities within their School Development Plan/Self-Evaluation Form (SDP/SEF). This enabled them to assess exactly where the school currently was in terms of attachment-friendly practice, where they aimed to be after one, two and three years, and the resources required, particularly in terms of personnel, training and time. As well as formalising their commitment, this step also ensured that all stakeholders were aware of the high priority given to this initiative, and the long-term implications. The three-year strategy allowed for timed actions, rather than trying to achieve everything within a short time-frame. Setting out the priorities in this way provided a clear direction so that all staff had a vision of what the school was trying to achieve and also the actions that were needed in order to achieve the medium-term goals.

Using the SDP/SEF as a focus also prevented a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” scenario. The plan is simple and concentrates on only a few targets, which ensures that current practice continues, while change is tactically introduced after consideration and reflection. Some actions were relatively easy to operationalise, for example, appointing a Link Governor for Attachment. Others had to be approached with caution and flexible thinking. The action of using an attachment/developmental framework to understand behaviours presented many challenges, as the School tried to incorporate developmentally sensitive criteria into its current behaviour management strategy.

In practice, behaviour management became focused more on developing the boys’ intrinsic motivation rather than relying on external controls, such as rewards and sanctions. Also, staff members became more skilled at interpreting behaviour rather than reacting to it, and helping the boys to communicate their needs in more appropriate ways. However, developing a fit-for-purpose behaviour management policy that met the needs of all the boys, with their range of abilities and complex needs, proved to be challenging. Caveats were incorporated into the original policy as the school worked towards change, but a “baby-bathwater” scenario was resisted. The target action has been carried forward on the SDP/SEF into the current academic year and strategic thinking allows for change, refinement and re-evaluation, rather than assessing targets and actions as “achieved” or “not achieved”, which in the case of the latter can lead to disillusionment and disappointment for all involved, and result in abandoning the initiative, with rationalisations such as “It doesn’t work for our school”.

Learning from others

The SLT is now researching various attachment/developmental frameworks for understanding and developing behaviour to inform, complement or replace the current policy. For example, the Headteacher will shortly visit Beech Lodge School in Berkshire to look at a project which utilises a comprehensive tool that enables schools to provide a framework to monitor emotional and social development and set developmentally appropriate goals for growth.

Year 2 of the plan prioritises achieving attachment-friendly status, so all policies will have attachment-friendly principles embedded as appropriate, for example the Sex and Relationships, SEND, Staff Wellbeing and Safeguarding policies.

Year 3 will focus on outreach and in-reach, supporting other schools which are on the attachment-friendly journey.

So, the overarching influence on the success of this initiative at the School is possibly the strategic approach, where the vision was clarified and formalised, central issues were identified and procedures were decided upon and operationalised. The plan is flexible and open to refinement through reflection and solution-focused thinking, as the SLT and staff listen to one another, synthesising information and feedback, including information about the boys’ own reactions to changes and interventions. The length of the planning cycle (three years) also protects against rapid change, which in itself can result in strategic planning fatigue.

The involvement of the Governing Body has also been key to success. Early in the process, the Chair and Vice Chair of Governors attended whole-school training on the initiative. This meant that from the outset, the Headteacher had the support of the Governing Body in what is a major initiative, with implications for significant areas such as finances and staffing. During the course of the first year, training was delivered to further members of the Governing Body, with the opportunity for questions and exploration of some of the issues that arose. Thus, the governors were given a clear vision of what the school was trying to achieve, and also, as insight into why it was so important for the School to prioritise attachment-friendliness, given the complex trauma histories of many of the pupils.

Educating parents and carers

Parents and carers of children in the school have also been given the opportunity to access training on attachment and trauma. It is really important to recognise that schools cannot repair or replace an insecure attachment to a primary caregiver, but what they can do is provide a safe base where children and young people can develop a sense of trust in adults and confidence in themselves. This does not mean that schools can “write off” what happens at home, because they are trying to provide stability and safety at school, but that they strive to educate parents and carers too, in developing rewarding attachment relationships with the children in their care. Recently, I met a children’s home carer, who had been in the role for many years. The training she attended (organised by the school of one of the children in her setting), was her first and she admitted that until that day, she had not even heard the term “attachment” in the context of child-adult relationships. So, schools should not assume that professionals, any more than birth parents, are familiar with the implications of trauma, loss, neglect, abuse, separation or lack of “good enough” early experiences.

In conclusion

This school has approached the journey from attachment-awareness to attachment-friendliness by taking a strategic approach, wherein practice is embedded in policy. Stakeholders, including governors, parents, staff and pupils, have been included and informed in the decision making process. This process has been flexible when necessary, and the SLT has assumed a reflective, solution-focused approach, exploring the experiences and strategies of other schools which have embarked on a similar journey. Combined with the vision and commitment of the SLT, these overriding principles for change are at the heart of the success of the project.

Further information

Dr Jennifer Nock is a chartered psychologist and educator who has worked for over three decades, and in a wide range of education and SEN settings, with educators, children and young people, families, foster and adoption agencies, and those in the caring professions:

The image used on this page is a library shot and does not depict staff or students at Hope School.

Jennifer Nock
Author: Jennifer Nock

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