Teachers aren’t therapists, but our impact is huge.

‘Teachers aren’t therapists’ is a statement of the obvious that concerns me. Its subtext is that we are teachers of subjects and nothing more. It’s an expression of the new era ushered in by Michael Gove, in which pupils are expected to “attend to an expert” (The Importance of Teaching, 2013) all ears and eagerness to learn. It reflects a belief that social and emotional learning is what parents provide leaving the teacher unencumbered to focus on the delivery of core knowledge and cultural capital.

I think it stifles a crucially important debate about how to engage our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in learning.

If I am a neglected child whose attachment schemas are all battle plans; if I can’t attend to an expert because I’m too busy surviving; if my response to adults, however knowledgeable and enthralling they may be, is to defend rather than co-operate, then I am going to fail in the classroom. I don’t need a teacher who just knows their subject, I need one who understands something about me and why I’m misfiring so hopelessly. My brain’s plastic so I’m not a lost cause yet, but my life chances depend on attachment aware teachers being there for me.

It’s right to acknowledge that Gove’s reforms have resulted in important developments in pedagogy and practice, particularly around memory and recall. Interleaving, rehearsal, retrieval practice – such strategies, now our stock in trade, would not have featured in teacher planning ten years ago. There’s a new insistence on evidence-based practice with  learning styles and brain gym among the victims of this. It’s remarkable, though, how this relentless focus on what is proven to work stalls when it arrives at behaviour management. Here, same old is uncritically accepted.

Patently, for a significant minority of children, behaviourism – same old – simply doesn’t work. Sanctions become self perpetuating. We know this. Yet, despite the evidence before our very eyes, the multiple detentions, the repeated fixed term exclusions, the inevitability of the big gun if we don’t change course, the fact that we are the highest excluders in Europe, we persist. Positively encouraged by exponents of evidence-based practice.

Why is this?

A serious look at what the research is telling us about how we teach children without the social and emotional skills to succeed in the classroom is long overdue. But it could be that we have finally reached a tipping point. As a profession, that is. In the real world of teachers in classrooms trying to help disadvantaged children.

I tweeted this excellent resource from Bath and North East Somerset LA on how to become an attachment aware school recently. Never has anything I have shared been more retweeted. John Gottman’s emotion coaching from the US is generating a lot of interest in schools over here now. Essentially a script for the teacher, it aims to promote a sense of security within children by validating the strong feelings behind their behaviours before guiding them through more effective responses.

Solution focused coaching also strengthens self regulation, but through a process of inquiry learning rather than instruction. Here, the coach’s empathic use of questions, compliments and scaling enables the child to identify hopes, to harness strengths and resources and to find solutions. The focus is on the hopeful future rather than the failed past. Pictured below is Dr Geoff James, modelling the approach in Lincolnshire, where our goal is for every child at risk of exclusion to have access to a solution focused coach.

Geoff’s training truly inspires a paradigm shift in thinking. Whilst participants  leave with a completely new approach, they are often dazed that they haven’t come across it before – because it’s so obvious really, so straightforward, it makes such perfect sense. The intervention works quickly with five to six sessions optimum, according to research. Our first cohort of coaches was trained in July but we’re already starting to hear success stories through their online forum.

Those of us engaged in this project in Lincolnshire, we’re not worried about whether we’re therapists – that’s not the mindset here. What we can do, not what we can’t, that’s our focus. And we believe the difference we can make, as empathic teachers armed with a powerful evidence-based approach, is huge.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

3 thoughts on “Teachers aren’t therapists, but our impact is huge.

  1. Mary – thanks for taking the time to write such a thought-provoking and well-constructed blog.
    Whether we like it or not, teaching and learning is a relational endeavour – and this couldn’t be more the case than with those of our young people who are ‘misfiring’, to coin your phrase. It is heartening to see how there is indeed a growing shift away from ‘behaviour strategies’ towards understanding more about what makes youngsters ‘tick’ – and how we can best respond to their needs. I’m minded of the mantra of Irvin Yalom – ‘It’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship …’. We might not be therapists – but we are humans who are capable of the most amazing compassion and understanding – which is what youngsters with attachment related needs are crying out for. Blend this with healthy structuring that limit-sets and encourages and we find we can indeed make a difference to the lives of our more vulnerable young people.


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