Practical strategies for adults working 1:1 with insecurely attached pupils.

These strategies are taken in large part from Louise Bomber’s ‘What About Me?’ Whilst the book is specifically about attachment difficulties and how to help pupils overcome these within caring schools, it is important to note that the strategies can be applied more widely. In particular, many of the approaches will benefit pupils on the autistic spectrum.

All pupils experiencing social and emotional difficulties require a nurturing rather than a narrowly behaviourist approach as this can significantly increase stress and lower self-esteem, rendering it counter-productive. The evidence-based strategies outlined below are designed to promote social and emotional learning in the context of an empathic, unconditional relationship between key adult and vulnerable child.

Secure Base

Children with attachment difficulties need boundaried (uninterrupted) time together with a key adult. These should take the form of mini-rituals in a secure base. Over time, this space becomes very significant to both primary and secondary pupils – the place to which they can return. Where possible, support staff  should be ‘on duty’ in this area so that a constant ‘presence’ is communicated.

Pupils may need additional time to simply ‘download’ or process everything that’s happened, following an incident of some kind. Without this opportunity, they can be left in a dysregulated state, their senses overloaded.

The space can be used in three ways:

  • Regular slots timetabled as part of the daily routine
  • Used when safe adult feels it’s appropriate
  • Accessed when pupil needs to go there

The latter is a good option for pupils who run away as it avoids the need for a search.

Practicing Dependency

To negotiate the school system, pupils need to know how to take the lead from an adult. However, pupils who have experienced relational loss and trauma are accustomed to taking the lead themselves, they have learned that control is a means of survival – it has helped them stay somewhat safer psychologically. Following the lead from adults is probably one of the hardest lessons these pupils will ever have to learn.

The key task is to introduce pupils to a relatively secure system where they can assume safety, security and stability. These pupils have become ‘pseudo adults’ before their time. For healthy development, they need to experience healthy dependency. When pupils are forming meaningful, genuine relationships with the support staff caring for them, that is progress.

Pupils must learn that some adults can be trusted – there is no need always to be in charge. Over time, through genuine relationships with a key adult, this introduces the world of secure attachment at school. Relationships that last over time are the most effective ways to bring about adaptation and recovery.

Strategies that promote dependency include:

Random acts of kindness: the key adult going the extra mile and engineering opportunities to express kindness. This could be some additional quality time, bringing in a game, sharing a hot chocolate.

Following the leader: key adult introduces the idea of taking the pencil for a walk around a piece of paper, creating intricate designs.  The pupil does this with the key adult following with their own pencil on the page at a parallel distance, in tune with the pupil, commenting throughout. Roles are then reversed with pupil following.

Paired Reading (Keith Topping) The clear advantage of this strategy is that pupils are practising dependency whilst at the same time developing essential reading skills through an evidence-based approach. Key adult and pupil read simultaneously, with pupil indicating through agreed signals when it is time to try independently. The adult joins in again as soon as there is a slip, minimising stress and promoting comprehension and fluency.

It is good practice to ask a pupil occasionally how they are getting on with learning to trust. Self-awareness is a major stepping stone towards self-control.

Meet and Greet

Pleasure in seeing the pupil should be emphasised. Be mindful of proximity, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, tone and pace of voice. Once a relationship has built up, a brief touch to connect with the pupil can be helpful. Smiles and healthy, appropriate touch are “the most vital stimulus to the growth of the social, emotionally intelligent brain.” (Gerhardt, 2004)

Concentrate on giving the pupil full attention. Sit alongside the pupil, against a wall and where there is full view of the area. Invite the pupil to talk about last night and the journey to school. Give eye contact and summarise back what is shared, including what is inferred.

Objects from home have important value. They need to be placed carefully in a special box that has a lid, or in a personal tray.

Prepare the pupil for the day by going through a visual planner or diary together. Use sequencing connectives such as before, after, next. Encourage self-reflection by asking the pupil to ‘scale’ the effort levels they anticipate. Take note of any subject or relationship that might require additional input.

If there is any change to the usual routine, map this out carefully. Social stories can be used for this.

At the end of the meet and greet, remind the pupil that they will continue to be ‘kept in mind’ and when you will next meet. I’ll be wondering how you are getting along in Literacy. I look forward to hearing all about it when I see you in period 3. A post-it note or note in planner can reinforce this.

If there is a breakfast club, it is best served in a small, quiet and calm setting with pupils at a table and key staff actively participating in the meal so that appropriate and healthy interactions are co-modelled.

Safety around the school

Hyper-vigilance and hyper-sensitivity are common responses to relational trauma. Pupils are wired to expect danger and are constantly on the alert. They need time to scan the environment of each new context they arrive in.

The fewer staff the pupil has contact with, the better. In a secondary, there should be a small, tight team of staff who deal with successes and difficulties, rather than any number of teachers.

Notice out loud instances of protection or safety. Did you notice that Ben? Did you see Ms Evans looking after Kelly when she had her nose bleed? We take safety very seriously in our school.

Take the pupil on a safety tour, noting down anything which is designed to maintain safety for all pupils, e.g.


  • CCTV
  • Visitors signing in book
  • Identity badges
  • Fire extinguishers
  • First aid box
  • Enough food in the dining room
  • Access to water


  • Rules and expectations
  • Predictable routines
  • Professional staff
  • Supervision of pupils
  • Anti-bullying policy
  • School counselling or mentoring
  • Information sharing
  • Safe base

If a pupil is running off, their behaviour may be communicating the need for a safe base.

Parts Language

Many pupils will have low self esteem and will be struggling with toxic shame. Many feel they are the reason that trauma and loss happened in their lives.

We must communicate that we are all a combination of parts. Parts that we’re proud of – parts that we would rather no-one saw.

Parts pictures: this work could be completed during 1:1 time over a number of weeks.

Primary – Roll out paper and draw around the shape of the pupil, painting on skin tone, hair, clothes etc. Use Post-it notes to describe the parts, spreading these all over the body.

Secondary – draw a jigsaw design on a large sheet of paper and describe the parts in each piece.

For all age groups, to identify parts always start with the positives, strengths and ‘likes’. Do this together, giving specific examples. Try two or three parts at a time.

When moving onto parts the pupil would rather hide, start with your own – school related. E.g. I am forgetful and missed duty this week, again. Try and use real life examples when moving onto pupil’s harder to name parts.

Use arrows to indicate which parts the pupil wants to increase and which to reduce. After this exercise, the language of parts can be used in interactions. “I can see your using your snatching part now – where’s your patient part?”

If we persist in doing this, we will support the pupil to reflect in stressful situations, rather than allowing them to tip into toxic shame which might trigger a flight/fight/freeze response from the brain stem.

Class teachers can reinforce this. “Ben, I can see you are using your having a go part now. This is a difficult task and you’ve started.”

Positive parts Negative parts

Patient part

Smiley part

Funny part

Playful part

Having a go part

Friendly part



Snatching part

Unkind part

Selfish part

Raging part

Stealing part

Sad part                                                       

Solutions-Focussed Coaching

Solution-focussed coaching is a key strategy because it guides pupils, who may feel worthless, in discovering their most successful parts. The coach helps the pupil to build on strengths rather than weaknesses with a positive impact on self-esteem resulting from this focus. It is also a safe therapeutic intervention in that it is future focused – a child cannot be retraumatised by having to revisit or recall painful experiences from the past. In adolescence, it prevents unhealthy rumination. Through the work, an empathic relationship develops between pupil and key adult. Solution focussed coaching is a key element within Lincolnshire’s preventing exclusions strategy with two day courses scheduled throughout the year.

Settling to Learn

If someone who is trying to learn doesn’t feel safe, stable and secure, their attachment system will always override the exploratory system; safety is the primary and most primitive need.

Proximity with an attuned and responsive adult, bringing their mind, body and feelings to co-regulating the pupil, creates the necessary safety.

Many pupils will have difficulties initiating tasks and the key adult must get alongside them to support in making a start. Organisational difficulties are also common – trouble organising both self and the tasks in hand. To begin, key adult must check they have the appropriate equipment and carrying a spare set is useful. The key adult can model arranging equipment on the desk.

A whiteboard template

·         What equipment do you need?
·         List what you have to do.
·         How will you know you have finished?
·         What will you do when the task is complete?

 Checklists: break down complex tasks into simpler chunks that are clear and straightforward to follow.

Find yourself a seat and sit down X
Put your pencil case on the desk  
Find the books you need from your bag. Put these on the desk  
Write the date in your book  
Sit up ready to listen to the teacher  

 Pupils will also need scaffolding for the task itself. Helpful strategies include:

  • Sequencing activities
  • Check-lists that can be marked as each stage is completed
  • Simple numbered instructions
  • Flow charts
  • Colour coding
  • Writing frame
  • Cloze procedures

Catch any moments of success and record these for the pupil in a book for the purpose. The key adult needs to look after the book and decide how and when to refer to it. The book may contain:

  • A specific compliment signed and dated by a member of staff
  • A photo of the pupil ‘in action’
  • A piece of completed work
  • A comment by the pupil I feel proud when I …
  • Certificates
  • Stickers
  • Awards
  • Newspaper cuttings

Praise can be overwhelming – it’s best provided in ‘droplets’, little and often and linked to a specific activity.

Reflective time, built into the end of lessons, days, weeks, half terms, academic years is helpful:

History Break French
What do you know now?

What can you do now?

How did you feel at the beginning of the lesson?

How do you feel now?

How settled are you right now – between 1 and 10?

Where are you going next?

What are you going to do next?

How do you feel about this?

Curriculum topics to be especially mindful about:

  • Death/loss
  • Mother’s day
  • Christmas
  • Sex education
  • Baby pictures
  • Autobiography

Prior warning and rehearsal time will be necessary, otherwise pupils may have to engage with raw feelings in public. This might manifest in disruptive, anxious or withdrawn behaviours.

Reducing Stress

With a lack of empathic connection early in life, the capacity for appropriate and healthy self-soothing and self control are rarely evident. Pupils need to be taught how to become self-aware and provided with a range of tools to self-soothe.

The starting point must be self awareness. It is essential that we provide opportunities in school for pupils to get to know themselves better. Pupils can then be given tools to self-soothe.

Reflective dialoguing: that is, making observations, commentating and wondering aloud.

Making observations: observe pupils in a non-intrusive way.

Commentating: I notice you are rocking on your chair.

Wondering aloud: Attempt to make connection by articulating why the behaviour is happening – what it is revealing. This is only what would have happened in a ‘good enough’ care environment in the early years and is therefore not intrusive. It’s matters not if the pupil disagrees:

“OK ok, I was just having a go at understanding what was happening then. I guess I got it wrong this time. I’ll carry on thinking so I can help you understand why you do what you do.”

Firm Touch Touch can be very powerful, bringing a state of calm. It can help pupils who are dysregulated feel grounded. An open palm and medium pressure on the pupil’s top mid-back, top shoulder or forearm can provide a soothing experience. For younger pupils, try ‘jungle fun’ where the pupil has to guess what animal is being drawn on the back. ‘Weather report’ is similar – the pupil having to guess the weather represented through touch.

Tangles  Especially helpful for fiddling with. We need to be mindful that it is not physiologically possible for pupils who have experienced developmental trauma to sit completely still if they are experiencing high levels of stress. Fiddling usually happens when they are starting to become dysregulated. Perhaps the work is difficult. Providing the pupil something to fiddle with brings both the need and a support tool into their awareness, meaning that the pupil will be empowered to practice self-control consciously – making healthier choices.

Thinking doodles  The pupil is permitted to draw/scribble/graffiti whilst listening, and the key adult can do the same. Allowing a pupil to engage in a task frees up another part of the brain to listen well.

Weighted blankets  These provide sensory feedback to pupils with sensory issues, helping them to feel safe, relaxed and calm. A weighted blanket is a way to provide weight and deep pressure, both of which are calming and comforting. They are especially useful to have available in the school’s safe space area.

Choices  Can help pupils settle in school since, if they experience feeling ‘cornered’ by a rigid approach, their stress can be exacerbated. Flexibility is imperative. If we engage in offering positive choices, then we meet the pupil’s legitimate need to retain a degree of control whilst at the same time reinforcing the teacher’s authority.

Stressometers: Pupils often have extreme reactions to low-level stressors and need to be reassured, explicitly, that their alarm system may have been necessary at home but isn’t in school. “You are probably feeling really stressed right now because you think something terrible is going to happen. I can assure you that you are safe and secure here.”

We need to engage pupils in dialogue about how they might have interpreted an event. More often than not they will have made wrong assumptions about a person’s intentions towards them:

Scenario: In the corridor, someone looked at Jenny and smiled. She yelled, “What are you looking at?” She said she was livid and gave a stress response of 8. Really this one required a stress response of 1 or 2. An 8 suggests panic – that serious danger is imminent.

Ask Jenny what she thinks the motives of the other pupil might have been, or suggest some. A little humour can diffuse anxiety. (“Oh, I see. You thought she was planning to attach you!”) A 1-2 suggests other possibilities – that maybe she was looking at someone else, daydreaming, wanted to make friends, has only social difficulties etc. About 5 options should be considered .T

If a pupil is too dysregulated to engage in this in the moment, then spend 15-20 minutes together in the safe space.

Safe outlets for stress: Notice which part of the body is expressing the dysregulated state and think up something else the pupil can do with that same part of the body:

Kicking – instead go for short sprints

Spitting / talking lots – instead, blow some bubbles

Fidgety – instead pound some clay

Role-play: key adult taking the role of pupil and offering different suggested scripts for use, for example in response to teasing. The pupil can be encouraged to try the script out in the next stressful  conflict situation.

Breaks and lunchtimes

Breaks and lunchtimes demand a high level of skill in both organisation and relating because they are usually unstructured. Pupils who are dysregulated can present with exaggerated responses to low level stresses, or input, becoming too excited, too rough, too angry or stressed.

A pupil with developmental vulnerability needs to have the support of an adult to develop sociability and staff need to be more than onlookers during this time – dialogue, activities, games and clubs need to be initiated. Supervising staff need to be fully engaged and fully present in break times, just as at any other part of the day.

The inclusion department should be open during this time, as a safe base offering unconditional access. Pupils need to practice relationship and learn what to do in their ‘free time’ so solitary activities such as watching a video or going on the computer aren’t the most helpful.

Structured activities must first be engaged with in the context of a relationship between key adult and pupil and then extended out to include other pupils, mirroring the natural order of early development.

Good practice also includes identifying sensible peers or older pupils, often known as playground buddies or their ‘circle of friends’.

Peers can provide ideas, guidance and support through talking and facilitating different activities. They can also signpost pupils to key adults and structured clubs. Some schools provide trained school counsellors and therapists at break time, for drop-in sessions, for example Place2Be – ‘Place to Talk’.

Reparation over Respect

Care must be taken with discipline – pupils need to understand right and wrong and feel a degree of guilt when they misbehave. But this can easily tip into toxic shame. This is the difference between I made a mistake and I am the mistake.

Pupils will often experience a deep sense of shame in association with sanctions and an escalation of inappropriate behaviours can result from this. They require considerable support and we cannot merely discipline them as we do the majority. An alternative approach which includes the possibility of reparation is required.

The reparation sequence

  1. Describe the events neutrally and with empathy.

I noticed that you were trying really hard with your maths work this morning. You started getting frustrated around question 5. It was as if you felt that you couldn’t cope any more. It got too much. You threw your book and then before you knew it you were in a real state.

  1. Gently let the pupil know that you realise he is feeling disturbed right now.

You are probably still feeling all shaken up and need a bit of space.

  1. Be explicit about the fact that something needs to happen to ‘repair’ what’s gone wrong. Give an idea of how that could be done.

When you are ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Selloptape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir, as it wasn’t his fault that your patient, persevering part disappeared for a few minutes.

  1. Let the pupil know that we now know that he is not as strong as we thought, and that we will help him practice in the area that he had difficulty in – so that he can cope.

I’m sorry because I thought the work was the right level. It wasn’t. I will make sure tomorrow the work is more suitable for you. Let’s get your confidence back before moving onto more challenges.

  1. Supervision, structure and support are also necessary to varying degrees in order to facilitate the reparative stage.

Let’s go and neaten up that book together.

  1. Once pupil has engaged in reparative activity, we may also be very explicit about the fact that the relationship with the key adult remains intact.

Just to say that you and me are OK. The teacher is also OK. He understands that you were having a wobble and is looking forward to welcoming you back into maths tomorrow.

If we don’t make this kind of comment explicitly, we leave the pupil insecure and once again at risk of the inappropriate behaviour escalating, because of his very real fear of rejection or abandonment.

We cannot expect the pupil to give an answer as to why they do what they do. Use a commentary, not a question. The process of attempting to understand and make connections in front of the pupil will be educative – building self awareness and supporting them to know what triggers their anxiety and alarm systems.

Time out is likely to precipitate deteriorated behaviour because of the shame, rejection, fear and panic is engenders.

In every case, pupils need to know that reparative action is required to put things right; things shouldn’t be left undone and disturbed.

Respect plan – primary

At the first sign of disrespect

  • State “No” / “Stop” / “Enough”, in a neutral, matter of fact tone.
  • The key adult leaves the room.
  • The back-up adult or TA from the next classroom swaps in temporarily. There is no need to go over what has happened. The back up adult will know that there has been an incident of disrespect, and states that this needs to be repaired.
  • The pupil is directed in a matter-of-fact way to complete a card and apologise for disrespect.
  • If the pupil obliges appropriately, then the key adult can be reinstated.
  • If the pupil refuses or continues to be disrespectful, then the back-up adult takes the pupil to SLT.
  • The senior manager then states how disrespect is taken very seriously in the school, and that all staff need to be communicated with respectfully, as do the pupils.
  • The senior manager then decides on a more serious sanction, for example detention at the end of the day. It is important that all sanctions are implemented as close to incidents as possible.

Respect plan – secondary

  • The key adult states, “No, enough is enough. I’m initiating the respect plan.”
  • The key adult leaves the room and heads for the Inclusion Department.
  • The subject teacher knows that if she sees this happen she needs to approach the pupil.
  • The subject teacher tells the pupil that she must leave the room and go immediately to the Inclusion Dept.
  • Once the pupil is in the Inclusion Dept, another member of staff takes the pupil to complete a card to apologise for their lack of respect.
  • The key adult only re-engages once the reparative task is complete.
  • If any of this is not followed through, then the senior managed within the pupil’s support team is contacted for outlining a more serious sanction – as in the primary example. The incident would be talked through when there is calm again. The key adult would quickly reassure the pupil that their relationship is still intact.

Starting again

Some pupils will feel toxic shame so acutely that it will significantly affect their ability to re-enter classrooms, meet particular staff again or continue with lessons. In these cases, advocacy is needed by the key adult. Get in touch with the staff members that the pupil is feeling shame around. De-brief them as to why this pupil might be finding it very difficult to re-engage. Encourage these kind of comments:

I really missed you in Geography today. I was looking forward to seeing you. I know we had some difficult moments yesterday but today is a new day. We have lots of interesting material to investigate together.

This sensitive after-care is very powerful. Many pupils are shocked by it and the experience has been found to strengthen their respect for and relationship with the member of staff who took the time to do this.

Image result for the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways



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.

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