Building positive relationships


Elizabeth Shields explains why a focus on individual trauma can assist teachers in supporting looked-after children with SEMH needs

Children come into the care of the local authority (LA) as a result of a number of complex, inter-related factors. The majority will have been subject to neglect and abuse and all will have experienced trauma and loss in some form.

According to Department for Education figures (2018), 56.3 per cent of looked-after children also have SEN, the most common type of need being social, emotional and mental health (SEMH). As a result of their early life experiences and the impact on their social and emotional development, many looked-after children demonstrate behaviours and issues that require additional attention or special adjustments in the classroom.

So how can teachers and schools best support the needs of these children in the classroom?

Be trauma informed

In the last ten years, our understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on brain development has advanced dramatically. Having an understanding of the key concepts and principles of a “trauma informed” approach could help schools to better meet the educational needs of looked-after children. Being trauma-informed starts with being mindful of the child’s individual lived experience, and having a good understanding of their past, in order to best evaluate their present behaviour. A child who has not had adequate stimulation and nurturing – for example, in the form of talk and touch in their formative early years – may have age appropriate cognitive abilities but struggle with social interactions and emotional regulation. 

Be mindful of the child’s lived experience 

Being mindful that understanding a child’s history, as well as helping to explain certain behaviours, can also help in avoiding triggers for behaviour and situations that may inadvertently “re-traumatise” a child. This could mean considering sanctions that do not isolate the child or are in any way punitive or humiliating. Knowing a child’s history could also help to avoid certain stressors that might lead to hyperarousal. 

For children who have experienced regular abuse and neglect, this means having some control over their situations by putting into place predictable routines, as well as having as much information as possible about changes to these routines, or new situations. For instance, a child who has experienced severe neglect may need to know when food will next be provided in order to help them focus in the classroom. Alternatively, a child who has experienced sexual abuse may need to know in advance if a stranger is visiting the classroom setting. Mother’s and Father’s Day are also often highly emotive subjects and should be approached sensitively and led by the child’s cues. 

Be part of the team around the child

Providing a looked-after child with stability means working closely with all of the professionals involved to ensure a consistent approach is adopted at home and at school in meeting their emotional and behavioural needs. This should involve close working between foster carers, social workers, schools and other agencies – such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) – to adopt a joined-up approach. The approach should be congruent with any ongoing therapy the child may be accessing. 

Schools are encouraged to work closely with foster carers and social workers to create a set of individualised planned consequences to encourage positive behaviour and promote assimilation into the classroom environment. Equally, social workers should think about timings of meetings such as looked-after child reviews and personal educational plan (PEP) meetings, where removing a child from a lesson may draw attention to their personal circumstances. The LA should make sure that schools have a copy of the child’s up-to-date PEP and the school should ensure they have clearly fed back the child’s needs (through someone who knows them well) to ensure that the allocation of the pupil premium funding will be of benefit to the individual child.  

Foster carers and teachers can also work together to provide the child with a narrative they can share with their peers to explain their home situation, whilst protecting them from further social isolation. A joined-up approach that involves the whole class can equally help to create a nurturing community around a child to help them heal and recover. Positive relationships with both adults and peers are key to change and, with the right approach, children can start to thrive both socially and academically. 

Seek further training and support

Having an informed approach to working with children who have experienced trauma can lead to improved life chances for our looked-after children. Your local virtual school (who oversee and promote the education of looked-after children in their area) will be able to provide further advice, support and training around how to meet the needs of looked-after children in your school. Other agencies, such as CAMHS and your local adoption and fostering agencies may also be able to provide you with additional training and support.

The need for foster carers

Becoming a foster carer for a child with SEN can be incredibly rewarding and many carers are former education professionals, whose experience has placed them in a strong position to care for a child with SEMH needs. At the moment, there are a great many children who need short-term and long term support from families.

You do not need to have specific experience of working with vulnerable children, but if you can provide a welcoming home where a child can feel secure and safe, you could make an excellent foster carer. 

About the author

Elizabeth Shields is Fostering Team Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council. 



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