Peter Nelmes on how his school became more effective at identifying and meeting children’s needs.

We never set out with the intention of becoming a therapeutic school. We had nothing grander in mind than just chipping away at the daily number of incidents of challenging behaviour, to reduce the need to restrain pupils, and to eradicate the need for student exclusions. Challenging behaviour can be so mentally, physically and emotionally wearing, it can slow or prevent learning, and it can divide staff along ideological lines, so we wanted to address it as thoroughly as we could.

Pursuing these aims has brought us to a somewhat unexpected place. We have achieved a great reduction in the incidence of challenging behaviour, and those that do occur are generally much more containable. Restraints have all but disappeared, and we do not exclude. However, this is not all. We have also changed our approach to teaching and learning, to the point where we felt we could label our approach therapeutic.

The approach involves prioritising relationships not just as a foundation for learning, but as our most effective teaching tool, because pupils are made to feel safe, contained and valued. There is no use of sanction or punishment, no telling off or raised voices. There is no sense of shame or being in deficit. This means….

Pupils learn through challenge rather than through threat, because this is a much more productive way to learn.

In order for this to happen, teachers need to accurately assess the pupil in terms of all aspects of their development—academic, cognitive, social, emotional, mental health, physical, sensory and communication—and ensure that they can pitch the lesson at exactly the right level so that they are in effect standing alongside the pupil, encouraging the next steps in their development, not standing ahead of the child waiting for them to catch up.

We initially tried to effect change simply through our behaviour training and support. We prioritised the development of empathy, and the idea that challenging behaviour was a form of communication, and what was being communicated was unmet need.

But it was when we turned our focus to the curriculum that things really started to change. In our behaviour training we had always stated that if you made the curriculum appropriate to each child, there would be no challenging behaviour, and therefore no need to learn about restraints or even de-escalation techniques. We decided to stop saying that merely as a way to provoke staff reflection and discussion, and we decided to put our money where our mouth was. So we embarked on a project, which we knew would take at least two years, to develop our assessment procedures and to change the way we set targets in pupils’ Educational, Health and Care Plans. Our aim was that our teaching would address precisely the needs of each pupil, whether these needs were to do with the academic, cognitive, social, emotional, mental health, physical, sensory and communicative aspects of the pupil’s development. Teachers then had a two-fold task. To deliver a curriculum that was appropriate to the whole class, but which also a vehicle for meeting these individualised targets. And because we were considering all aspects of a child’s development, every minute of every day became a teaching opportunity. Teaching turn-taking, to take one small example, could happen just as much in the lunch hall or playground as it could in the classroom.

Then Covid came along, but this gave us an opportunity for change. We were forced to run the secondary and sixth form departments along primary lines of one teacher to one class. This helped teachers to develop a detailed knowledge of their pupils’ abilities and needs, and helped to embed the new procedures in.

And that’s it, really. Our changes, in essence, boil down to the fact that we became more effective at identifying and meeting children’s needs. And what’s so therapeutic about that? Shouldn’t we have been doing this all along? The answer to this is that the approach is therapeutic because it is aligned more closely to the principles of therapeutic practices than it is to what goes on in many of our schools, which often have elements of practice no therapist would countenance; the use of sanctions or disapproval, with the corrosion of relationships that these entail, and the lack of connectedness between some pupils and the people in the building who are supposed to be helping them.

Ideas that are taken for granted in the therapeutic field also informed the work that we continued to do around behaviour. We promoted these proactively in meetings, briefings and in training, so that if we needed to have a meeting around a child in crisis, who was perhaps exhibiting aggression or other damaging behaviours, we had these ideas already embedded in our discourse. This meant these meetings did not become battlegrounds for the heart and soul of the school, but could focus on the pupil in question’s needs. The relationship between teacher and learner is of paramount importance, so that the learner can feel contained and valued, and their potential for learning is fully realised. Boundaries have been misrepresented in many discussions about behaviour. Being child-centred does not equate to allowing pupils to do what they want. Boundaries are not there to control pupils, but to make them feel safe. If they are too restrictive, they will provoke rebellion or disaffection. If they are too lax, they will cause anxiety because the pupil does not know where they stand in relation to others. None of us should get to be the centre of the universe. That is an unhealthy and lonely place to be.

Our connections with each other are never solely rational. They always have an emotional component. In an interaction with a child, whatever emotions you are feeling about the child are going to be the same emotions they are feeling about you. This concept gives us a useful tool for understanding children. In meetings around children in crisis, it can be useful to start with the staff venting their feelings, and then considering these feelings as a way of understanding the pupil and exploring how best to meet their needs.

Challenging behaviour (ie any behaviour that impedes learning) comes from the interaction between the staff, the pupil, the activity we are asking the pupil to engage in, and the context of that interaction. This is a transactional relationship, so you cannot ask a pupil to change their behaviour unless you change other elements of the interaction too. As the adults, we are the ones best equipped to devise and implement changes. If a child is dysregulated, they need help first on a sensory level, then on an emotional level, and when they have regained a degree of self-regulation, they can be supported on a rational level. There is no point asking them to reflect or make wise choices when they are not in a fit state to do so. For many children, self-regulation is only going to happen after they have learned how to accept help from us as we identify their feelings for them, and get them to accept our help through joint or mutual regulation. As one member of staff more neatly put it, we should aim for connection before correction.

As these ideas and practices embedded into our school, the ethos changed. The school became calmer and more purposeful. We rarely hear words like naughty, or phrases like he knows exactly what he’s doing, or even exhortations like make good choices. Instead, talk is of self-regulation, of sensory integration, and of the benefits of a flexible and an ever more creative curriculum. In retrospect, I think we spent a bit too much time thinking about how to change the minds of the few staff who wanted to bring back the old style behaviour management techniques. What we should have done was what we eventually did by default, which was to give licence to those staff who wanted all along to use their empathy, innovation and energy to really change things. It was their picking up ideas and running with them that really brought about change.

And now it feels like the school has a momentum all of its own. New staff no longer want or need the training we used to deliver on behaviour management. They imbibe most of that as they walk through the door. Now they want more advanced knowledge such as the complexities of self-regulation and how to support its development. We now have a staff who are energised by the opportunity to be the type of educators they came into the profession wanting to be. It seems that the more we understand about the therapeutic approach, the more we can develop our ideas. For example, we have recently been thinking about mental health in the school, as many schools are rightly being asked to do. We realise that we still have work to do in further developing our understanding around mental health, but at least we have a model of curriculum design and delivery that integrates mental health support into everything we do. Also, we have begun to rethink the role of trauma in our pupils’ learning. We know that trauma can do great damage to an individual’s ability to learn, and we also know that trauma can come in many forms, not least in the interrupted attachments and the atypical development journey that can be caused by the experience of having special needs. We realise that for our pupils having learning difficulties can mean a two-fold disadvantage. Their learning, already impaired by the nature of their learning difficulties, can be further impaired by the trauma of having learning difficulties.

The best chance of recovering from trauma is gained by giving the person involved two things; a meaningful connection with another person, and meaningful activity that can help them regulate and heal, and above all, learn. By adopting a therapeutic approach we feel we are giving our pupils the best chance not just of pushing back any limitations placed on them by their learning difficulties, but also of removing any additional impediments to learning caused by any associated trauma.

It is only recently that my own understanding of what we are doing brought me to a simple question: what is therapy, anyway? What is this thing that has come to underpin so much of our approach? And what does it actually look like in practice? The simplest answer to the first question is that therapy is about healing and personal growth, and it is about empowerment through positive and productive relationships. And while not every child needs to be healed (though perhaps more do than is generally assumed, and almost certainly all of those out there whose behaviour may be deemed challenging), they all need to be helped as effectively as possible in their personal growth. When you treat personal growth and learning as virtually synonymous, then the rationale for the therapeutic school becomes crystal clear. 

And what does therapy look like in practice? It can be top down or bottom up. Top down therapy is guided reflection, the teaching of the metacognitive strategies that we give our pupils as they go through their day so they can reflect on what they are doing, thinking or feeling. It may be something as simple and as momentary as a piece of advice at exactly the right level of intervention (eg “remember, kind hands”) or it could be more formal, such as a Personal, Social and Health Education lesson. Of course, such an approach is of limited usefulness for many of our pupils, so bottom up therapy is more appropriate, by which we mean direct experience of an activity which can lead to new understandings about themselves or the world around them. So learning how to recognise when you are getting angry, or learning to write a new word, or simply to receive a smile and give eye contact as you come into school, all these can be therapeutic experiences. And the more we expose children to these experiences in a connection-rich environment, in a way that guides them from next step to the step after that, the better they will learn.

Peter Nelmes
Author: Peter Nelmes

Peter Nelmes
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Peter Nelmes, Senior Leader at Castle Special School, Cambridge.



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