Schools need to help looked-after children develop social interaction skills if they are to prepare them for learning
It is well known that there is a significant gap in the educational attainment of looked-after children (LAC) and their peers. A related concern is that LAC are twice as likely as their peers to be permanently excluded from school and five times more likely to have a fixed-term exclusion. The institution of virtual schools, established by local authorities to support and improve the educational achievements of LAC, has begun to address the challenges that the inclusion of LAC present, but many schools, and the overarching education system, have a long way to go in order to be truly inclusive and responsive to the needs of LAC.
Although LAC have similar issues to other children who have difficulties around attachment and trauma, they have particular issues related mainly to permanently being in a state of flux. Even if their placement is long-term, it nevertheless is not permanent, and achieving “security” is extremely difficult. Educators are well placed to build skills and resilience with LAC, but are often at a loss to know how to do this because their needs go beyond the strategies educators have learned through training and experience. Thus, LAC are most at risk of exclusion from the very places that are in a position to provide safe environments where the lengthy work of repair and trust-building can begin.
This article aims to consider how the needs of LAC differ from their peers who are not in the care system and to suggest steps that schools can take to ensure that all children, including the most vulnerable, experience school as a positive, safe, supportive environment.
Understanding the issues
LAC have often had similar experiences to other children who have difficulties related to attachment and relational trauma, such as those who are adopted, on the threshold of care or in households where their needs are not met, for whatever reason. However, adopted children are usually placed in loving and secure households, where the parents are committed to the child’s wellbeing. While many adoptive parents report that they frequently feel under-supported, nonetheless, they are persistent in the struggle to find ways to build a sense of permanence, security and trust, over the long-term, with the intention of this loving care being delivered over the child’s lifetime; in short, they have deep desire to build an authentic, attachment relationship with their adopted child. Unlike the adopted child, many LAC experience frequent placement changes, which prevent the development of a secure attachment bond.
The child who lives in a home where his or her attachment needs are not met, sometimes within a family that is known to and monitored by social services, and sometimes below the radar of the services, has not experienced the trauma of separation from birth parents and all that is familiar. Research indicates that removing children from their birth homes, thus causing disruption to the parent-child (mal-)attachment, is so disturbing, even to those who are ill-treated by their parents, that it results in adverse social and emotional outcomes ranging from mild to severe. Thus, LAC face particular difficulties specific to their own experiences.
There are over 90,000 children currently in care in the UK, mostly, because they have been abused and/or neglected. Childhood adversity is not something that children just “get over” once they are removed from an abusive or neglectful parent, because to be taken into care, life has to be inconceivably harrowing and traumatic.
Because babies’ and children’s brains are still developing, trauma has a much more pervasive and long-range influence than on adults. Interactions with caregivers communicate to the infant and young child what is safe or unsafe, how ready they need to be for fight or flight, and who they can rely on to help them when they experience fear or discomfort. Those early relationships shape beliefs about self, others and the world in general. The nurtured child has a positive self-concept embedded from the start; they know, through positive interactions with caregivers, that they bring joy and delight to others. The LAC has usually not experienced the safe base that a secure attachment relationship provides, has not experienced a loving voice, loving hands and eyes, and has not experienced caregivers who soothe them by understanding them and meeting their needs. This child’s experiences are of neglect, chaos, violence, unpredictable or abusive caregivers, criticism, rejection, abandonment and a lack of positive engagement and feedback. Thus, the core beliefs reflect those destructive messages and the child believes that they are a bad, worthless person; that other people are dangerous, untrustworthy, unreliable and deceptive; and that the world is a dangerous, hostile place. These core beliefs will persist through the life-span unless someone or something changes them, making them more congruent with the reality that the child is a good and loveable person who can bring pleasure and delight; other people are generally kind, reliable and approachable; and the world is an interesting, exciting and mostly safe place.
Sometimes, the LAC has experienced a lack of positive regard and affirmation not only in their birth family, from which they have been removed, but from multiple foster placements, which have broken down because the child’s behaviour has been too “challenging”. Consequently, the child ends up in a children’s home, where there may be frequent changes in carers, and shift patterns prevent the development of a secure relationship.
Developmental trauma, because of its impact upon the brain, affects the child’s ability to self-regulate, and LAC are often reactive, impulsive and in a highly aroused state, alert for danger and any possible vulnerability. This can manifest in a number of ways, such as withdrawn, avoidant behaviours, clingy and demanding behaviours or aggressive, destructive and controlling behaviours. Parts of the brain that are responsive to threat are overactive, so the child over-reacts to what might be described as minor situations. Such children have “safety blindness”; that is, they do not detect signs of safety in the environment, but perceive almost everything as a threat. Traumatised children often attempt to defend themselves through mobilised fight, flight or active freeze responses, or even use immobilisation through dissociative behaviour, sometimes referred to as “flop” mode. These states are incompatible with learning and school; learning, peers and adults can all elicit reactive fear and anger responses in children with complex trauma histories, through inadvertently raising stress and arousal.
Because the child views the world through the mesh of insecurity and chronic fear, they make, and usually react upon, an initial assumption that the adult or child is “out to get them” in the most non-threatening, commonplace exchanges, such as another child asking to use a shared resource or an adult asking the child to tidy up. Because their behaviour is frequently impulsive, rather than planned and considered, they do not consider what the outcome of a desirable or undesirable action may be; therefore, the threat of a lost privilege or harsh consequence, or even a reward, will not motivate this child, and ultimately, will damage, rather than build trust.
Parts of the brain that are associated with thinking, self-control, planning and reasoning are also affected, and traumatised children experience various developmental delays, including cognitive, language, motor, and socialisation skills and they tend to display complex difficulties and behaviours with a range of different and often inconsistent, presentations.
Considering this brief and simplified overview of the complex nature and behaviour of many LAC, it is unsurprising that some schools fail to meet their needs. Yet, schools are best placed to build relationships with children who are not experiencing permanence anywhere else, and there are a number of steps that schools can take to ensure that the needs of these, the most vulnerable pupils, are met.
How should schools approach supporting LAC?
Most important is to suspend the need to know what to do, and to reflect upon understanding what is happening for the child. When educators take this position, there is a movement away from doing things to the child towards knowing and understanding the child. Relational experiences, providing enriched, nurturing care, scaffold the child’s progress from mistrust learnt in previous relationships to trust, which allows them to drop destructive, hyper-vigilant defensive strategies and engage the learning system.
While all staff should receive at least basic training about the effects of early adverse experiences on the developing brain, the appointment and training of a key adult, who takes responsibility to meet and greet the child and to check-in with them during the school day, is essential. The key adult can challenge and change the child’s distorted beliefs, by providing warmth, consistency and empathy, whilst maintaining high firm-and-fair boundaries. In such a relationship, messages about self and others from previous relationships are contradicted, and the child can start to experience affirmation, and build a different self- and other-belief.
Schools also must scrutinise their behaviour management systems and ask if they are meeting the needs of all pupils. If we have the same behavioural expectations of these vulnerable pupils as we have of typically developing children, we are being grossly negligent in terms of meeting their specific needs. We are, in short, setting the child up to fail from the outset. Traditional reward and punishment methods work for children who are securely attached in their relationships, because they have a deep, implicit trust that the motives of the first adults, the parents, are in the best interest of the child, and later, they generalise this belief to other adults, even when it is difficult. Most LAC have not had the benefit of safety and security and are so mistrustful that they cannot let adults be in charge.
A positive approach
In order to meet the needs of LAC, schools need to develop positive approaches to behaviour that do not include shame, humiliation, rejection or harsh outcomes. It is not rational to give consequences unless we understand the underlying causes of or purposes for behaviour. Educators need to make sense of the behaviour from the child’s perspective. Then “consequences” can be sharply focused and instructional in nature. For example, a child who hurts a younger child can be told kindly that as they are having difficulty with younger children, they can’t play unsupervised with them. They will then be given time to play and work with younger children as an important social and developmental intervention, closely supported by an adult. This will help facilitate better understanding of other children, because they will experience them with, and through the proximity of, a trusted adult. Careful planning and support keeps the child away from potentially explosive situations.
Uninformed adults can frequently misinterpret behaviour and judge it harshly, considering it volitional, rather than accepting that in this moment, this is the only way that the child can express themself. Accepting the child’s intentions and motives with empathy rather than invoking the “no excuses” mantra, or similar, reduces the child’s defensiveness and leaves them more open to learning new and more appropriate ways of communicating needs.
Closely related to this is the need to teach the child to articulate needs instead of using destructive behaviours. This can be difficult as many LAC are “feelers” not “wordsmiths” (Baylin, 2016). Secure children learn to interpret their feelings through caring interactions with caregivers. They are taught a vocabulary to describe how they are feeling – for example, hungry, cold, frightened – which allows them to communicate how they feel and to carry out appropriate problem solving strategies such as getting a snack, putting on a coat or seeking protection from an adult. Maltreated children can generate feelings and are reactive to them, but cannot communicate them in words, make sense of them or take steps to reduce discomfort. Formal emotional literacy interventions are of no use unless the child is experiencing authentic, nurturing, emotional interactions with a trusted and reliable adult.
In conclusion, schools need to build the social interaction and learning skills of LAC by developing reflective, therapeutic educational environments that are sensitive to the needs of traumatised pupils. Children who have experienced relational trauma need to feel safe and secure before they can get ready to learn, so for LAC, the development of trust, through the experience of a nurturing, compassionate relationship, can often mean that academic progress is placed on the back burner while relationship-building is prioritised.
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:
Baylin, J. (2016). Brain Based Parenting: From mistrust to trust. “Helping mistrusting children to learn trust”. Leeds, 23 April 2016.