Andrew Wright and Tony Clifford look at how schools can develop attachment aware practices to meet the needs of all pupils
A child with identified SEN can, in theory at least, benefit from a range of planned support and input from specialist staff. Most schools also have a differentiated learning offer in place to support the range of academic ability within a particular cohort. There will still be some children or young people, though, who exhibit different learning needs and who may present in an uncooperative and challenging manner. This can adversely affect not just their own progress, but also that of others. Some will have social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs that have been identified, but many – due to a range of factors including changes in educational and/or residential placements and the loss of parents – will not. Unmet attachment needs will be a common feature of many of these pupils.
It can be a real challenge for the school to ensure these young people have an established learning pathway within, or under the close supervision of, the school, whilst ensuring there is a calm and purposeful approach to learning. What’s more, this pathway needs to support the individual learner to regulate their behaviour, develop positive relationships with peers and adults, and prepare them for a purposeful and independent adult life.
Mental health and behaviour
It’s important to be clear about the connection between mental health and behaviour, rather than seeing them as separate issues. Our behaviour is connected to our mental state, which in turn is a manifestation of our mental health. Our mental health will always give rise to behaviour, even if the link may not be immediately apparent. With certain types of behaviour, such as self-harm, it is easy to understand that there is a link to underlying mental health issues. With the angry or non-complaint child it may be harder to make the link but it is there. In both cases, we have to be aware of, and address, issues in a holistic way. If something is seen as just a behaviour issue, this may lead schools to pursue a behaviour management strategy that has little connection to its approach to mental health and wellbeing. This may waste energy and time and may prove ineffective. An example is the child who regularly sits in isolation without understanding or being able to articulate the reasons why they are there. This child’s behaviour may be precipitated by fears or anxieties that they have not yet been able to understand or articulate. Sadly, this is often true of children where abuse or neglect has been normalised to the extent that they do not understand the emotions these experiences engender, and struggle to manage their stress in ways that are accepted in their schools.
The Department for Education (DfE) guidance for schools (Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper, July 2018) on how to support young people with mental health issues and how this may link to behaviour, creates an opportunity to join up approaches which too often do not align, and may even clash. A possible response from education settings would be to use the guidance as an opportunity to create a coordinated mental health, wellbeing and behaviour policy, with less risk of gaps or confusion in provision, and inappropriate or even illegal approaches being implemented. An integrated approach, through a whole-school training programme, will generate awareness and understanding across the workforce, providing consistency and equality. It will also ensure teachers and support staff do not feel it is their role to assess any unmet attachment needs, as they do not have the tools to do this and such assessments should be done by clinicians. However, an integrated approach will allow staff to gain an understanding of, and insight into, attachment needs. It will enable settings to develop a common language and understanding about how unmet attachment needs and trauma affect the young person and the systems around them.
Strategies for improvement
Settings should aim to produce attachment-based strategies that generate evidence-based practice and which demonstrate how they can support children with unmet attachment needs more effectively than the prevailing behaviour policies and practices. Indeed, research suggests that attachment aware schools show improved academic outcomes as well as improvements in wellbeing for pupils and staff (see What works to improve the educational outcomes of Children in Need of help and protection: A literature review, December 2018).
Attachment aware schools can support all children by providing a learning offer that takes account of unmet attachment needs and the trauma that often lies behind breakdowns in care, education and the family. By bringing together social workers, families, carers and education professionals, schools can develop a shared language with which they can address trauma with young people and the adults who work and live with them.
Undoubtedly, there are many pressures, expectations and influences on our school leaders. The current media focus on behaviour and exclusions provides an ideal opportunity for schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities to review their approach to managing behaviour and promoting wellbeing. Being attachment aware should be a vital part of all schools’ policies and practices. Schools need to plan for regular and ongoing whole-school training to make this a reality, using expert trainers and facilitators to help develop the school team. This will help all settings and educators to gain and maintain an understanding of the entire school cohort and ensure all pupils are fully included.
About the authors
Andrew Wright is Chair of The Attachment Research Community (ARC) and Headteacher of Dudley Virtual School for Children In Care and Social Emotional Health Partnerships.
Tony Clifford is a trustee of ARC and a former Ofsted Inspector. He has 35 years of experience of working in education, including as a virtual headteacher.