Chapter 1 of ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’ & key messages for educators

Our book-study group

I read ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’ (TBWWRAAD) on a family holiday this year and I found that I really wanted to talk about it. Strangely though, apart from one animated discussion about the fact that people will always speak English with a foriegn accent if they learn it after puberty, I was unable to generate much enthusiasm for Dr Perry’s insights.

I can understand a reluctance to talk about childhood adversity and trauma whilst unwinding on holiday, of course, but this isn’t a depressing read. (I also refute the charge that it was ‘a work book’.) It is actually about the extraordinary courage, the survivorship and ultimately the recovery of traumatised children, when they are held by attuned adults.

TBWWRAAD urges readers to reach out to vulnerable children in the sure knowledge that small acts of kindness make a difference. It’s about relationships over referrals, love over diagnostic labels.  The key message is a galvanizing, a democratizing one because it is essentially that we can all help children recover from trauma, through simple human connection and kindness. The implications of this are massive – for schools, for service design and delivery, for families. It’s something all of those who come into contact with children need to be talking about.

Undeterred by the family fail, I therefore tweeted that it would be great to start a conversation with interested readers and from that our book-study group was born.   We met for the first time last week at the HQ of Think2Speak in Gainsborough. A social enterprise that aims to enable helpful conversations, this provided the perfect context and it’s where the group will continue to meet monthly.

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Mostly, we wanted to get to know each other a bit and talk about ‘Tina’ (Chapter One) but we also needed to agree how best to share any implications for practice: Dr. Perry is clear that school has the potential not only to heal but also to further harm traumatised children. There is a strong moral imperative, therefore, to share the knowledge. Especially as we are in the realm of biological fact here.

We agreed that we would blog about each of Perry’s patients (this is the first attempt), produce an info-graphic of the key messages (good luck with that one Mel) and design a model PSP for each school-aged child. The PSP will be co-constructed each time we meet; a way of sharing best inclusive practice between us and also of translating some of Dr Perry’s insight into a practical resource for educators.  Future posts will follow the format below and there will be ten of these, one for each of Dr. Perry’s subjects. The aim of the posts is not to cover each chapter comprehensively but to pull out those elements that have clear implications for school policy and practice.

Introducing Tina – Chapter One

Just seven years old when he started working with her, ‘Tina’ was Dr. Perry’s first child patient and he describes the panic of feeling inexperienced and out of his depth on their first encounter.  Tina had been sexually abused by a babysitter over a two year period. A year later, she was presenting in school as disruptive, aggressive and inappropriately sexualised and had been referred to the clinic by her mother, Sara.

Dr. Perry worked with Tina for a period of three years, beginning by simply lying next to her on the floor and colouring with her. Through the child-directed games that they played in the weekly sessions that followed, Tina learned new concepts, like waiting, taking turns and thinking before deciding what to do next.

Dr.Perry was delighted by her apparent progress: over time, reports of inappropriate behaviour at school stopped, she was no longer fighting with other children, her speech and language improved, she developed impulse control and was able to pay attention for sustained periods. However, after the therapy ended, Dr. Perry received the devastating news that Tina, now ten, had been discovered performing fellatio on an older boy at school.

He concluded from this that whilst he had helped Tina learn appropriate behaviours to avoid getting into trouble, he had not succeeded in addressing the trauma that was at the root of her difficulties. His examination of the neuroscience of developmental trauma, through which he developed better tools than he had at his disposal for Tina, is in essence the subject of TBWWRAAG.

Take-aways for Educators

  • School punishments can be harmful

It is fitting that one of our group is Callum Wetherill because he leads the Lose the Booths  campaign. Tina’s story and tens of thousands like it raise grave concerns about the undifferentiated use of punishment, or ‘consequences,’ in our schools. It doesn’t need a child psychologist to work out that punishment – the use of power to do something unpleasant to another human being – can re-traumatise survivors of abuse.  Tina avoided this as a primary aged pupil but we will never know how many older victims, acting out their distress and their profound mistrust of adults in secondary schools, spend hours in isolation booths. We do know that sexual abuse is very common and mostly never reported. We must hold in mind then that behavioural difficulties (I prefer ‘distress’) are a reason to be curious and compassionate, not judgemental and punitive.

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  • Children need to be taught self-regulation, not ‘managed’

The book is in many ways a celebration of neural plasticity. The brain fires and wires throughout the lifespan but the rate of change during childhood is little short of miraculous. That’s why, with the right stimulus from Dr. Perry, Tina very quickly developed skills that were lagging as a result of her developmental trauma. (The impact of trauma on executive functioning will be covered later, as one of the book’s key themes.)

However, too often, when the response to distressed behaviour is rigidly behaviourist, children are not given the necessary stimulus for new neural connections to be made. Rather, pressure is applied in the form of rewards and sanctions aimed at encouraging ‘better choices’. This futile, stress-inducing manipulation only results in school discipline becoming a traumatic experience for children who need help to grow skills, not sanctions for lacking them.

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  • Diagnostic labels can get in the way of recovery

Dr. Perry describes two very different experiences of supervision in this chapter. ‘Dr. Stine was a complacent traditionalist and his advice about Tina went as follows: “She is inattentive, a discipline problem, impulsive, non-compliant, defiant, oppositional, and has problems with her peers. She meets diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.” Dr. Perry wondered how a Ritalin prescription could possibly solve Tina’s problems and left feeling confused and disappointed. In his other supervisor of that time, however, he found a liberating mentor; one who encouraged him to challenge traditional disorder-thinking and to ask what had happened inside Tina’s rapidly developing toddler brain during the period of horrific sexual abuse. Dr. Dyrud’s focus was never on medicalising ‘symptoms’ but on identifying their roots.

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SENCOs and families might be inclined to believe that referrals to paediatricians for diagnostic assessment are in the best interests of children, but this is clearly not always the case. As one of our book-study members has witnessed on many occasions,  accompanying families for assessment, diagnosis never takes into account environmental factors, it is undertaken by a stranger to child and family, and it is very quick. Substantial evidence about the widespread misdiagnosis of trauma as psychiatric disorder is now available. It represents a therapeutic catastrophe for children because it locates the problems ‘within child’ and the solution in drugs. No amount of medication is going to heal trauma. Only relationships can do that.

  • Relationships are the best therapy

As already suggested, the great theme of this book is relationships. Every chapter can be viewed as a take on this biologically incontrovertible conclusion:

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Schools are huge sources of what Dr. Perry refers to as ‘relational wealth’ – and therefore huge sources of healing, when that potential is harnessed. Clearly, in his early work with Tina, he hadn’t made this  breakthrough in understanding and invested too much hope in one-to-one clinical intervention. Whilst Tina gained much from the sessions, there was certainly growth, they were not up to the task of freeing her from the powerful grip of early trauma.

Only in retrospect did Dr. Perry understand the essential role of ‘therapeutic dosing’ in recovery. Here is how he explains that phenomenon:

Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter. Unfortunately, in order for positive ‘doses’ of interaction to lead to long term change, much more repetition is needed. Consequently, the pattern and spacing required to ensure long term maintenance of any therapeutic change is going to require a density of therapeutic interactions that our current mental health model of fifty minutes once a week cannot provide. For children like Tina to truly benefit from therapy, it needs to be embedded in a context of safe and positive interactions.

The good news is that anyone can help with this part of “therapy” – it merely requires being present in social setting and being, well, basically, kind….For people who have been sexually abused, like Tina, just being acknowledged in a supportive, respectful and non-threatening way aids healing. The more we can provide each other these moments of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or moment of eye-contact – the more we’ll be able to help heal those who have suffered traumatic experience.

The implications of this for school policy and practice are enormous. A population study found that half of children in England have experienced one childhood trauma and one in ten have suffered four or more. These are our ‘high risk’ children – high risk of permanent exclusion, of poor mental and physical health in later life, of addiction, of suicide, of stunted lives. (For an excellent public health animation about the impact of trauma on outcomes, see here.) Sometimes as educators we are aware of children’s adverse experiences out of school but often we are not.  So we need to ensure that our schools develop as caring communities in which all children can flourish. We should be prepared to target support when we can – for me, reminders that Pupil X is in need of compassion are entirely appropriate – as a classroom teacher, I know that I would have gone out of my way to offer my own form of ‘therapeutic dosing’. Some pupils may need additional time with a key-adult, a daily meet and greet, more relational opportunity than is generally available during a busy school day, without adjustments. But kindness needs to be standard, so that no child slips through the compassion net simply because their struggle is hidden. This needs modelling by SLT and pupils themselves also need to be taught about the transformative impact they can have on one another. (For ideas about how to create social capital, there is no better source than Paul Dix’ When the Adults Change. )

Consequences may be necessary because of course boundaries must be enforced to keep everyone safe. But when these consequences are arbitrary and puntive rather than logical – when they take away the very stuff that children need to bounce back  from adversity – then they become unethical. We need to move in closer to distressed children  – not marginalise them through exclusion or through the withdrawal of relational experiences, such as playing for the school team, going on the trip, attending the prom. We must at all costs avoid the Matthew Effect of sharing more of ourselves with children who are already relationally rich and shunning the relationally poor because they seem hostile, having not yet learned to trust adults. Tenacity is required, perseverance, deliberate effort – and love, never forgetting that ‘the children who need the most love ask for it in the most unloving ways’.

Next book-study meeting

November 13th 2019, Think2Speak, Marshall’s Yard, Gainsborough. 6.30pm to 8.00pm.

All welcome – either virtually, via a Zoom link, or in person. We will be discussing Chapter Two.

Those attending the inaugural gathering (and thank you so much for doing that) please do use Comments below to note anything that I may have missed from our discussion. I know I haven’t covered it all!





A behaviour problem is just a new skill to learn.

Dr Ben Furman recently led Kids’ Skills training in Lincolnshire, as part of the Local Authority’s strategy to promote inclusion through relational, strengths-based and solutions-focused support for pupils. This redacted child’s plan, from Brant Broughton Primary, was written soon after the training. With guidance notes beneath it, also produced by the school, it needs no explaining. Shared with the school’s permission, we love it!

Kids Skills Plan for ‘Ben’

Skills to be developed
Ben struggles with sharing during a game at playtime or lunchtime – it could be choosing who will do the throw-in during football or sharing a set of scales to weigh things in maths.
Name the skill
Taking it in turns
Benefits of the skill
Being able to play with others and others being more willing to play with him. Avoiding conflicts that end the game or activity. Developing friendships.
Supporters (adults’ real names)
‘Ben’ named Mrs. Jackson (TA), Mrs. Bedford ((HT), Mrs. Botham (classteacher). Ronan (Life mentor) Also ‘Jake, Bailey, Kyle, Brad’.
How confident are we that the skill will be achieved?
We discussed Ben’s successes to date. His improved attitude to school in general; his willingness to persevere when he finds some aspects of learning hard; his ability to walk away when he has lost his temper; his quicker periods of calming down and being willing to apologise.
Ben chose a chocolate cake with chocolate sponge and icing!
Demonstrate the skill
Ben went outside to join his class playing rounders and was able to take turns doing this.
Go public
We went and found the children who are his supporters & Ben told them what his skill is & how they can support him & be part of his celebration.
Practice the skill
See notes below
What to do if you forget the skill
Ben asked his supporters to whisper his skill in his ear to remind him of what it is.
Teach it
Next skill to learn:

Guidance Notes
1. If the child has problems, convert them into skills the child can learn. Remember that a skill is not the ability to NOT DO the wrong thing but the ability to do the right thing instead.

2. Let the child participate in the discussion about the skill to learn and agree this together. Children are often well aware of what skill they should improve.

3. Let the child give the skill a cool name. If necessary, help the child in finding a name for his skill or have him ask his peers to come up with a suitable name.

4. Let the child come up with a power animal or another creature that will help him to learn that skill. Ask him to draw or get hold of a picture of it and let him tell you how it will help him in learning the skill.

5. Explain to the child, and ask others to explain too, what benefits there are for the child and to other people of him mastering the skill. When he has heard what other people have to say about the benefits of the skill, let him add what he himself considers to be the main benefits of the skill.

6. Help the child recruit a number of supporters, adults as well as other children. When pupils accept to become supporters, they can show this by writing their names onto the child’s poster or into his skills book. Supporting the child means that the supporter observes the child’s progress, showing admiration for success and writing notes about the child’s proficiency onto his poster or into his skills book.

7. Tell the child what makes you confident that he will learn the skills and ask others to do this too. When the child has heard what others have said, let him tell you why he himself is confident he will learn the skill.

8. Plan in advance with the child how you will celebrate when he has learned the skill.

9. In order for the child to practice the skill, you will need to find a way in which he can demonstrate how skillful he already is. Talk with the child about how a person who masters that skill well behaves in various situations and let him show you in a role-play what that means in practice. This way you and the child will develop ideas of how he will be able to rehearse his skill in practice.

10. Help the child go public about his skill. You can ask him to tell everyone about the skill he is learning but the best way to go public is to let the child put a poster on the wall which, in addition to his name, says who his supporters are and what skill he is learning. The poster can also have a picture of his power animal as well as a list of the central benefits of the skill. In addition to the poster, the child should also have a skills book, a notebook about his project that he can show to his supporters and into which his supporters can write notes about their observations of his skillfulness.

11. Have the child practice his skills, preferably on a daily basis, by giving him opportunities to show other people how good he already is at doing his skill while others respond by showing him their appreciation. For this you may need to create a role-play of some kind through which the child can demonstrate his skillfulness. Another alternative is that you agree with the child that his supporters will pay attention to his behaviour and take notes of the times he spontaneously shows mastery of his skill.

12. It is easier to learn new skills than try to get rid of problems, but it is still not all that easy. Therefore talk to the child about what should happen if he sometimes forgets the skills he is learning and behaves in the very way he is learning not to behave. The best way to prepare for these situations is to let the child tell his supporters how he wants them to remind him or help him in such a case.

13. When it is time to celebrate, the child is publicly awarded for having learned the skill or for having made substantial progress in learning it. At this stage you ask the child how other people have helped him to learn the skill and let the child tell you in what way each of his supporters has been helpful. Help the child to find a way to deliver his thanks also to those supporters who are not present at the celebration.

14. Encourage the child to teach the skill to another child who also needs to learn the skill.

15. Discuss with the child what skill he will learn next.

A primary school assembly on behaviour and fairness. Towards #traumainformed

As promised, a primary version of the secondary school assembly I posted last week. The content has been modified for a younger audience but the messages are broadly the same…designed to help pupils understand distressed behaviour and to have compassion for their struggling classmates, and to help those classmates begin to understand themselves. Also, to contribute towards an emotionally literate school climate in which it is recognised that Ross Greene was right; ‘kids do well if they can’ – meaning that the response to maladaptive behaviour must be educative, not punitive. This is something both pupils and teachers are capable of understanding, when the message is clearly articulated and modelled by staff.

As before, much of the trauma-informed material has been borrowed  from the brilliant Beacon House. This assembly draws heavily on Survival-in-School-PTSD

The assembly (or PSHE lesson)

Let’s start with a question. Is treating everyone exactly the same way fair, or unfair? Before you answer, have a think about this picture:


(Take feedback, pulling out the obvious point that one size doesn’t fit all and is therefore unfair)

It’s important to think about the stools in this picture in relation to behaviour – because behaviour always seems to raise questions about fairness. (Anecdote useful here – ideally one when as a child you wanted to see a punishment or some kind of retribution but were frustrated….)

I remember once having to take a walking-stick into secondary school for a drama lesson. Some older kids started messing about with it on the bus, so it was confiscated – by my own brother! (I always thought his bus-prefect role went to his head). Worse still, he refused to give it back to me, even when we were off the bus!  So I went on to get a drama detention for ‘forgetting’ my homework (the teacher didn’t accept what she called excuses). And THEN, when I got home and told my mum about all of this, she didn’t even punish my brother for his completely UNbrotherly and bullying behaviour! So, clearly, unfair brother, unfair teacher, unfair mother! I was beside myself.

Fairness still matters greatly to me – like it matters to all of us. But what I know now that I didn’t understand so well back then is that it’s rarely simple or straightforward. It can be a difficult call for the adults, to do the fairest thing. My mum might well have spoken to my brother in a way that made him feel sorry about what he did, so sorry he would never repeat it. She was kind and wise and would have known that in lots of ways, feeling bad is worse than being punished. Think about it, a punishment allows us to feel sorry for ourselves when really we should be feeling sorry for someone else. If he had been punished, my brother might even have thought that he was the unfairly treated one – after all, he was only doing his job as prefect by confiscating for the day an object that could have caused further trouble.

I don’t know. What I do know is that fairness isn’t a simple idea – it’s a complex one. Which is why we’re talking about it today.

Another thing that makes it complicated is this: when calm and considerate behaviour is something we don’t personally find difficult, it can be hard to understand why others struggle to be consistently calm and considerate. There is a good reason for that, though, which we’ll look at now.

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The brainstem in this diagram is the part of the brain that develops first. When babies are born, the rest of the brain – the higher parts – they aren’t wired up yet, there’s just the brainstem that’s fully developed. Its job is to keep us alive, to protect us from threats. The brainstem is a bit like an alarm bell inside our heads, warning us of danger and making us act very fast.

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Think about the last time you surprised someone. How did they react? Some people may turn away or back off – that’s flight. Others might might move towards you, even look angry – that’s a fight reaction. Others might just stand there speechless and shocked – that’s freeze.

These reactions are the brainstem doing its job of keeping us safe, even when we are not really facing a life-threatening danger. If the brainstem paused to think about whether a situation is really a risk to life, it might be too late! So the brainstem doesn’t think. In fact it literally stops us thinking. It’s job is only to push us into instant action…fight, flight or freeze.

The problem is, when we grow up in a world that feels unsafe or scary or really stressful  for lots of the time, then the brainstem is much too active. And the fact that it gets so much exercise means that it grows fast and becomes dominant, like a bully. The thinking part of the brain is then restricted. It doesn’t get wired up so well and that’s a big reason why we see people sometimes acting without thinking. They are in survival mode.

It’s not pleasant, to be triggered into flight or fight by your brainstem like this. In the next few slides, we hear the voice of a pupil who tries to explain how it feels to her teacher:

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These are overwhelming feelings that we would all rather avoid. When the survival brain switches on, it affects our bodies as well:

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The good news is that you all have incredible brains that are growing at amazing speed. Our brains continue firing and wiring all the way through life, as it happens, but never as fast as they do when we’re growing up. This means that we can and do strengthen different parts of our brains. For example, the more the thinking brain is used, the stronger it gets. The less often the survival brains is activated, the smaller the brainstem becomes and those horrible experiences described earlier don’t happen so much. This is because we literally sculpt and shape our brains – like plasticine.

So the survival brain that can make being cool, calm and collected difficult for some doesn’t have to stay a survival brain. Not when we start to feel really, really safe, so that the brainstem isn’t on guard, looking for threats….triggering us into flight or fight.  Our job as teachers is of course to grow your thinking brains, so the first thing we need to do is make sure school is a calm and safe place. That’s why we have our rules, for example.

Thinking about the pictures, can you suggest what else we have done to  make sure school is a safe place, especially for those children who are still having to grow their thinking brains because home-life has been stressful and they have bossy brainstems? (Include pictures of your school, discussing how each contributes to safety and security)

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As you can see then, your safety is our top priority, not just because we care so much about you – but also because that’s what helps your thinking brains to grow!

Of course, we all move into survival mode when  something shakes us up or we’re stressed out. Adults as well as children. Being late makes me feel stressed out and I then have to focus on breathing to keep my thinking brain online. We all need to learn how to calm ourselves down when necessary. There are lots of ideas on this slide about how to do that.  (Suggest pupils are taken through a breathing or stretching exercise as this point). Which one works for you? One-size doesn’t fit all, remember. Which one might you suggest for a friend? I expect you will have seen adults in school using some of these techniques alongside pupils, and now you know why. It’s all part of keeping the brainstem in its place – or putting it back after it’s been in control.

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So to sum our assembly up, being fair doesn’t mean treating everyone the same way, because we all have different needs, different brains. Being fair doesn’t have to mean punishing somebody either. It might mean helping them to calm down instead. And, finally, when life gets stressful, we all need to know how to do that.

If you recognise the difficult feelings and sensations that we’ve looked at today within yourself then make sure you tell us so that we can help you. If you’re someone who freezes, if may be that we haven’t noticed how much you’re really struggling inside.

Fairness means having an extra stool ready for whoever needs it – so that every member of our school community gets to see over the top of the fence.


An assembly about behaviour and fairness #trauma-informed

Why an assembly on behaviour, fairness and trauma?

Lincolnshire is one of a growing number of LAs promoting trauma-informed practice in schools, and leaders – some already well well ahead on this agenda – are extremely receptive to the conversation. However, a concern that is often articulated relates to ‘consistency’. How can we be both trauma-informed and consistent? If there is not a consistent application of consequences, as per the behaviour policy, then pupils will surely be confused by mixed messages, resentful of the perceived unfairness, parents may complain and a view that the school has gone soft on behaviour could cause reputational damage.

My personal view is that we tend to underestimate the emotional intelligence of our young people, their acceptance of diversity and their capacity for compassionate understanding when we make these assumptions. We must also model acceptance of diversity, emotional intelligence and compassion, as adults, and the crudest application of consistency doesn’t allow us to do that. In relation to children with a disability recognised by the DDA, such as ADHD, reasonable adjustment is of course a legal requirement anyway – so we are merely extending that established practice to include  those who may not have a diagnostic label but who are equally if not more disadvantaged. However, setting those observations to one side, I do see the need for including pupils as well as staff in awareness-raising work around trauma and the assembly (or PSHE lesson) that I’ve scripted below is a stab at that. It’s aimed at secondary-aged pupils because the consistency question is most often raised by secondary colleagues; there’s a modified primary version here.

The assembly is also an attempt to help those impacted by trauma (in every school, a significant proportion) to feel less shame, less confusion and to move towards a place of hope, self-understanding and acceptance. (Not that a single assembly or lesson will ever do that, but it’s at least a start if pupils have never had the opportunity to learn about these things.) I am grateful to Beacon House for much of the content. Survival-In-Secondary-School

The assembly  – what fairness means to us


Today’s assembly is about fairness, or equity, as it’s called in this image. You will know how it feels to be treated unfairly because it happens to us all sometimes. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world and I personally hate it. That’s why at this school we do try very hard to treat you all fairly, even though it might not always seem that way.

Fairness is rarely a straightforward thing, that’s the problem. It sounds simple but it’s not. Look at the picture. The girl on the left only has one low stool whereas the girl on the right has three piled on top of each other. Unfair, surely! Why should she have more stool than her friend? Well of course you can see as well as I that it’s not actually unfair at all because all of the children need to see over the fence and the one on the right couldn’t do that without the extra help. It’s not her fault she’s short and the fair thing to do is clearly to give her some additional uplift.

Now we need to think about this in relation to behaviour because the way we deal with incidents here does sometimes raise the fairness question. It’s only fair that we talk about that.

It’s perfectly obvious that most of you need very little help with your behaviour at all. You can stay calm and focused on learning without the need for an extra stool. For others, it’s equally clear that staying calm and focused is harder. We all feel stressed out sometimes of course, and we might say and do things we regret – put someone down, lash out, storm off, argue, shout. But when it’s a lot of the time that we feel overwhelmed and out of control like this, then something is not right. After all, nobody wants to be upsetting people and in trouble all of the time – there’s nothing to gain from it and lots to lose. Nobody would choose to spend hours and hours in detention – there are so many more things you could be doing with that time. So we must take excessive acting out as a sign that an extra stool or two is needed.

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You may have noticed that the extra school comes in lots of shapes and sizes at this school, because fairness and safety are big values for us here. Sometimes it is one-to-one time outside the lesson with a mentor, sometimes it’s a reduced timetable, sometimes it’s a morning meet and greet, sometimes it’s leaving class a bit early to avoid the busy corridor, sometimes it’s permission for a brain-break, or a homework holiday, sometimes it’s just being able to have a walk around outside and breathe deeply. These things and more are needed to help some individuals to see the view over the fence, to stay calm and regulated.

You may be wondering why it is that some people need so much more support to stay emotionally regulated than others. It’s hard to understand when you have no such difficulty yourself. There are actually many reasons for this – thousands of books written on the subject – but I want to share one key reason with you.

It starts with understanding the brainstem. This is the part of the brain that grows first. When babies are born, the rest of the brain – the higher parts – they aren’t wired up yet.

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The job of the brainstem is to protect us from danger  – keep us alive. So we never lose it, even when we’re older and the higher parts of the brain have fully matured. The brainstem is a bit like an alarm inside our heads. It tells us when to run away from danger, to fight or to freeze when we think we may be under attack. Think about the last time you surprised someone. How did they react? Some people may turn away or back off – that’s flight. Others might might move towards you, even look angry – that’s a fight response. Others might just stand there speechless and shocked – that’s freeze. These reactions are the brainstem doing its job of keeping us safe, even when we are not really facing a life-threatening danger.

The problem is, when we grow up in a situation that feels unsafe or scary or really stressful  for a lot of the time, then the brainstem is constantly activated. This is our brain making sure we survive threats – but is also means that the lower part becomes dominant and the wiring up with the higher parts of the brain is delayed. That does change with the right help – the brain has an amazing capacity to rewire, throughout our whole lives. It’s never too late to recover from what we call relational and developmental trauma. But until that recovery process is complete, young people will be much more prone to survival flight, fight or freeze responses.

You will all be able to think of occasions when someone has kicked off over what seems to you a really small thing, like an accidental push or a look. That’s the brainstem at work. Young people with survival brains can’t just leave them at home and plug in the thinking one at school. It’s not biologically possible. So we must expect to see survival behaviours, until the person has learned that school is actually a really, really safe place full of people who can be trusted and who pose no threat.

That takes time  – brains don’t reshape overnight. So while the process is underway, we have all of those stools that I talked about – and we have you, as kind and understanding people. You can be part of someone’s recovery, just by being there, even after a setback. (There will be setbacks)

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We should all try to help if we have the personal skills to do that because a life lived in survival mode is much more distressing to experience than it is to observe from the outside. The next few slides explain what it feels like from the point of view of a student:

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A painful place to live then.

If you recognise any of those feelings in yourself or if anything that you’ve heard today has made you feel like you want to talk to somebody then you must do that – and you know that we will listen. We can talk to parents and carers about this stuff too – because it’s really important.

Lets finish on fairness though. It really isn’t fair that some children have to grow up feeling frightened or deeply insecure or unloved.  It’s not fair that their survival brains make it hard for them to regulate their emotions. We have to have rules here to keep you all safe. We have to tell you when behaviour is not ok. And when behaviour is not ok, when it’s unsafe or hurtful, then we have to intervene. But that intervention will take many different forms because you are all different, your needs are all different. So don’t worry about comparing, trust us with our decisions and we will trust you to really think about today’s assembly, to avoid judging others and to be curious and compassionate instead.

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Why exclusion worsens behaviour

Exclusion is our sanction of choice in England. When a pupil’s behaviour is deemed unacceptable, he or she is separated from the community;  internally or externally, for a fixed period or permanently. It’s standard practice, normalised here, accepted uncritically by most as the way to discipline pupils when they cross those ‘lines in the sand’ that our behaviour policies define so sharply.

But there is very good evidence that exclusion is counter-productive – we see this day in and day out, every time a pupil ‘just doesn’t learn’ or persists in making ‘all the wrong choices,’ despite having experienced sometimes multiple exclusions.  It’s clear that we don’t help pupils change their behaviour simply by excluding them. In fact, we are more likely to make it worse.

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Research in the field of ostracism offers some clues as to why. Some twenty years ago now, researchers at the University of Toledo conducted an experiment in which for five days, a scarlet “O” was randomly hung over someone’s office door. This indicated to others in the group that they must ignore the branded colleague for the day—no talking, no eye contact, no recognition of any kind.

Interestingly, the experiment made all participants miserable, not just the ostracised, as well as powerfully demonstrating how sensitive people are to being socially rejected. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. We evolved in social groups and, like other social animals, from apes to bees, our survival depends upon our being included and accepted.

It seems the term “hurt feelings” is more accurate term than we knew. Research by leader in the ostracism field Kip Williams demonstrates that exclusion triggers the same area of the brain that activates when we feel physical pain.  When humans feel excluded the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex lights up, just as it does when we are physically hurt.  We are hard wired to experience exclusion from the group as excruciatingly painful, as life-threatening as physical attack, because our distant ancestors used ostracism to weed out unproductive or disruptive members.

Quite how we react to the pain of ostracism and social rejection varies. We might become servile and compliant. We might withdraw. Or we might become angry and aggressive, as is the case when students return to school following an exclusion with an attitude of heightened hostility. Williams explains why this is so often the case: “When a person feels ostracized they feel out of control, and aggressive behaviour is one way to restore that control.”

In a school context, such aggression is likely to trigger a repeat ‘consequence’ or exclusion – and another after that. This is deeply problematic with the individual now at risk of reaching what Williams calls the ‘resignation stage’ of ostracism. Having given up on belonging,  such a pupil pupil will experience “increases in anger and sadness … alienation, depression, helplessness and feelings of unworthiness.”

In light of this, of all the cautionary words in the DfE’s statutory exclusions guidance (2017), perhaps these are the most inadequate:

20. Where a pupil has received multiple exclusions or is approaching the legal limit of 45 school days of fixed-period exclusion in an academic year, the head teacher should consider whether exclusion is providing an effective sanction.

The need to belong

In a seminal 1995 article published in Psychological Bulletin, social psychologist Roy Baumeister made the case that humans are motivated by a basic need to belong.  When this need is thwarted, people pay a psychological price…. “There seems to be a failure of self-regulation in people who feel rejected,” says Baumeister. “And this allows a shift toward anti-social and aggressive behaviour.” Even when there’s a time-limit on the rejection—as with “time-outs” for pupil discipline — unintended consequences must be expected, specifically a decreased capacity for self regulation afterwards.


As established already, ostracism was used by our distant ancestors to cull out those perceived to be misfits and it shaped others’ behaviour to suit society’s needs. In this regard, as the sanction of choice in UK schools, exclusion is a highly effective instrument. It does indeed cull out those who don’t fit because it undermines their socio-emotional development, ignoring the fact that ‘kids do well if they can’, to quote Dr. Ross Greene. It offers no help – unless we are to accept the ‘reflection’ sheet or even the ‘restorative conversation’ that can occur after an exclusion as that. These don’t teach skills. When children are misfiring, we need to act, as early as possible, not merely react. Especially if the nature of that reaction is only going to exacerbate the difficulties.

But what about ‘the good pupils’?

Exclusion is frequently cited as a necessary measure to protect potential ‘victims’. (The language of crime and punishment dominates this discourse, tending to make it much less rational than it needs to become.)  However, it actually makes our schools less safe, less harmonious, less happy (remembering the ‘O’ study) because exclusion creates not only angry, alienated individuals but also disaffected sub-groups. Williams’ demonstrated how marginalised individuals tend to seek each other out, with negative consequences for community when this happens.

“These groups provide members with a sense of belonging, self-worth and control, but they can fuel narrowness, radicalism and intolerance, and perhaps a propensity toward hostility and violence toward others.”

We could exclude all members of such groups, as now, or we could try something different – like preventing them from forming in the first place. We could act on the overwhelming evidence about how to support children who are unable to respond adaptively to the social and emotional challenges of schooling. (Note to excluders – this does not mean simply allowing them to run amok. It does mean teaching lagging socio-emotional skills – as happens in more advanced systems than the English). With pupils increasingly in need of such support, according to all of the evidence, then truly it is time to rethink a primitive approach that has its roots in survival of the fittest.

We need to move in closer to children who challenge, not push them away. That’s if we really want to address the difficulties rather than just move them on.


Consequences not working? Try this.

Dr Greene maintains throughout Lost in School that “kids do well if they can; if a kid could do well, he would do well.” (p54) Challenging behaviour occurs when the demands placed on a pupil outstrip her skills to respond adaptively. To enable the precise identification of lagging skills, Greene recommends his ALSUP (Assessment of Learning Skills and Unsolved Problems). Once analysed in this way, challenging behaviour becomes highly predictable, which means that problems can be solved proactively.

If we adopt a traditional approach to challenging behaviour, we pursue what Greene dubs Plan A – as adults, we attempt to solve the problem unilaterally, by imposing our will. Plan B is Collaborative & Proactive Solutions – CPS – which allows pupil and teacher to work as partners towards mutually satisfactory solutions so that both parties’ concerns can be addressed, the problem gets solved, and lagging skills are taught.

CPS has three steps:

  1. Empathy
  2. Define adult concerns
  3. Invitation

The goal of the empathy step is to gain the best possible understanding of a pupil’s concern or perspective related to a given problem. These might be hunger, fear, fatigue,  a desire for approval, a tendency to avoid things they’re not good at, a need not to be embarrassed or humiliated, and so on. “You don’t lose any authority by gathering information and understanding a kids’ concern. You gain a problem-solving team-mate.” (Greene, p79)

You get the empathy step rolling by introducing the unsolved problem, beginning with the words, “I’ve noticed that…” and ending with the words, “What’s up?”  In between, you’re inserting the problem you want to solve. There are five possible responses to this, as follows:

  1. The pupils says something:

That’s positive! However, the initial response is unlikely to provide you with the clearest possible understanding of the concern or perspective on the unsolved problem you’re discussing, so you’ll need to probe. Greene’s eight drilling strategies are illustrated in this helpful Drilling Cheat Sheet.

2. The pupil says nothing or I don’t know:

There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps the pupil doesn’t yet trust you enough, or you have not been specific in your description of the problem, there is a communication difficulty, perhaps the pupil genuinely doesn’t know. If such possibilities have been considered and the pupil still isn’t talking, then some educated guessing can follow. However, this must be a last resort – you really want to hear about the concerns straight from the horse’s mouth.

3. The pupil says, I don’t have a problem with that:

Actually, the pupil doesn’t have to care about the problem to provide information. Drilling and reflective listening should be deployed to move beyond this.

4. The pupils says, I don’t want to talk about it right now:

In a helping relationship, the person being helped needs to feel comfortable about talking and this often doesn’t happen on demand. There’s always tomorrow. Often the best thing to say is, “You don’t have to talk about it right now.” Many pupils will start talking straight after this. Or they may explain why they don’t want to talk right now, and that can be enough to make them feel comfortable enough to start talking about what they didn’t want to talk about.

5. The pupil becomes defensive and says something like, I don’t have to talk to you (or worse):

The honest answer here would be, I can’t make you talk. Some pupils are so disarmed by adult honesty that they then start talking. But you may also want to reassure the pupil that you’re not using Plan A. “I’m not telling you what to do…I’m not angry with you…I just want to understand.” Greene reminds that helpers aren’t defensive – they have thick skin – and any subjective response that might be felt is kept in check so that it doesn’t interfere with the business of helping.

The Define Adult Concern step usually begins with the words, The thing is … or My concern is … These concerns will fall into one of two categories: How the unsolved problem is affecting the pupil and how the unsolved problem is affecting other people.

Once you reach the Invitation Step, you are ready to brainstorm potential solutions that will address these concerns. The invitation lets the pupil know that solving the problem is something you’re doing with them, rather than to them. The step begins with a restatement of the concerns that were identified in the first two steps, usually starting with the words, ‘I wonder if there’s a way for us to do something about your… and ends – Do you have any ideas?

Giving the pupil the first opportunity to think of solutions is a good strategy, especially for those who are used to having an adult’s will imposed on them, because it is a clear sign that you are interested in his ideas. Since many adults are absolutely certain they know exactly how a problem should be solved, this may take some getting used to, but using Plan B must mean understanding that the solution isn’t predetermined. Solving a difficult problem durably requires a willingness to let the process of exploring solutions unfold without the adult’s solution being prematurely invoked.

Good solutions meet two criteria; they must be realistic (meaning both parties can deliver their part of the solution) and mutually satisfactory (meaning the concerns of both parties are truly and logically addressed.) So avoid signing off a solution before giving it proper consideration against these criteria.

Over time, using this approach consistently, the pupil will learn that her concerns will be heard and addressed and skills, crucial for handling life’s social and emotional challenges, will be developed. The research evidence  supporting the efficacy of CPS across a range of settings is compelling. Here it is again, illustrated on a single cheat sheet.













The consequence of consequences

is unfairness. It’s as simple as that. But I will elaborate for the benefit of those who stuggle with an idea that for inclusive educators has always been blindingly obvious.

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Consequences are great when they work, but less great when they don’t work. And they often don’t work for the very children to whom they are most frequently applied. Adopted children, for example. Excluded at a rate twenty times greater than their peers, this cohort is clearly failing to thrive on a trad diet of rewards and sanctions, courtesy of Skinner (1950s, folks – we’ve had brain scanning technology since then. It should have been a game-changer).

All consequences do is remind children of the rules. Which I think they already know. Pupils understand that they should follow instructions, listen, not hit out or run away when embarrased etc etc. It’s not hard. When they fall short, it’s not because there is any degree of confusion about the rules ….. something different is going on.

Inclusive educators understand that children with chronic behavioural challenges lack some important thinking skills. Not in the traditional academic domains, necesssarily, but rather in domains such as regulating the emotions, responding to changes in plan, seeing from another’s point of view, having the language to communciate something is wrong, and so on. In the same way that some children are delayed in reading, challenging children experience difficulties mastering the skills required for proficiency in handing social and emotional challenges.

When a child has a reading delay, we teach them the lacking skills in increments they can handle. Inclusive educators meet behavioural challenges with the same compassion and specialised, steadfast support, such that struggling children develop over time those socioemotional skills that are lacking.

Rethink how to support children who are developmentally delayed, enshrine the notion of differentiation (‘inconsistency’, in its crudest, no excuses form) in behaviour policy, and we may just begin to address our enduring exclusions problem – a peculiarly English inequality that shames our system because it targets the most disadvantaged.

Chaos will not ensue. The truth is, well behaved children comply because they already have the skills to handle life’s challenges in an adaptive fashion. Their co-operation has precious little to do with consequences and an inordinate amount of time is wasted agonising over these. As Ross Greene puts it in ‘Lost at School’,  the trad behaviour policy “isn’t working for the kids who aren’t doing well and isn’t needed by the kids who are.” Flex it, and the pupils who don’t need it will not seize upon the opportunity to run amok. Their understanding of fairness, a value they hold dear, is much more subtle than our crudest, no excuses policies acknowledge.

So the next time your behaviour policy is reviewed, consider it as you would, say a literacy policy – in terms of support for catch-up rather than consequence for being behind. Don’t let it compound disadvantage.



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.

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England’s exclusion epidemic

In July 2017, the Children’s Commissioner published  Vulnerability in Children  – a report that brought together a range of information from government departments, agencies and others to reveal “shocking statistics” about how many children currently  live in vulnerable situations; an estimated half a million, or a number equivalent to the entire population of  Manchester.

Falling through the Gaps, published in November, builds on the July report to focus exclusively on children excluded from school. The report covers not only those formally excluded from mainstream education but also a much larger number of  ‘invisible’ children; those that can’t be found or even seen in official statistics. Home-schooling and ‘off-rolling’ are prioritised as subjects for further, more detailed work.

There are six key findings:

  1. Tens of thousands of children are educated outside mainstream or special school, many effectively ‘hidden away’ in settings where little is known about how well their needs are met. 10,000 children are dual registered in Alternative Provision (AP) and a further 38,000 single registered. Only 16,000 of these pupils are enrolled in state-funded, DfE registered provision. To date, Ofsted has identified 300 establishments operating illegally as unregistered schools, but the true number of them is unknown. It is impossible to assess the quality of a child’s education, wellbeing or safety in such provision.                                                                                                                                         Over 50,000 children could be home educated but again the true number is unknown and likely to be higher with some figures suggesting the total figure has doubled since 2011-12.  The reasons for home education vary. Whilst philosophical reasons remain a major factor, anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number could reflect pressure being asserted by the child’s former school or cases where the child has additional needs that the parents believe are not being met. Since parents who home educate are not obliged to allow the LA to carry out an inspection, again, little if anything is known about the quality of the education, safeguarding arrangements and the values that are instilled.
  2. Many of these children are vulnerable and in need of extra help. Children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14% of the school population. Over ¾ of children in PRUs have SEND. 1 in 10 has a SEND statement or EHC (Education, Care and Health) plan. A high proportion of these pupils may be in AP because it is easier to place them there, rather than because that is the setting which provides the best support for their needs.
  3. Official exclusions are rising, but many children are also being excluded by the back door through ‘hidden’ or unofficial exclusions. The number of children who leave mainstream schools for other types of provision is significantly higher than the number permanently excluded (which has risen by 44% since 2012/13). Only 1 in 5 children in AP has previously been permanently excluded. Pupils commonly undergo a managed move to an AP and then complete their education there. These pupils are effectively permanently excluded without having gone through the legal process that is designed to protect their rights.
  4. In some cases, children could be moved out of mainstream schools for reasons that are more in the school’s interests than the child’s. Most of the children who move into AP do so in Year 10 or 11, and only 1% go on to achieve 5+ A*-C including English and Maths (2015-16). Over a third of pupils who were in AP at the end of KS4 in 2016/17 were recorded NEET, compared with 1 in 20 mainstream pupils. Nine out of ten mainstream schools are benefitting from these pupils leaving, in the sense that their performance data is improved. Analysis by school type has shown that this effect is strongest for sponsor academies.
  5. Some children, including highly vulnerable ones, are not in education at all. Between 10,000 and 15,000 children are estimated to miss education at one point in time.
  6. In many cases, existing statistics ae unable to tell the full story. There are no official figures on the extent of unofficial and illegal exclusions, for example, being sent home to ‘cool off’. Only surveys, which could severely underestimate the scale of the issue.

The report concludes with a reminder that missing out on a good education is bad for a child’s development and life chances. We know that for many children, exclusion is one step along a journey that ends with adult social exclusion and troubled lives. The long term financial costs of allowing children to get to the point of exclusion as well as the social costs are huge. England’s exclusion epidemic needs to find a cure, and quickly.

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How & why we must meet the attachment needs of adolescents in school.


Many studies confirm that secure attachment, the foundation of socioemotional wellbeing, is associated with higher grades and standardised scores compared to insecure attachment. Secure attachment is also associated with greater emotional regulation, social skills and willingness to accept challenges. (e.g. Bergin & Bergin, 2009) Because these effects tend to be greater for high-risk pupils, any closing the gaps strategy must include enhanced teacher-pupil relationships – or school bonding (See How, below) – as a critical component. When this focus is missing, it is high risk pupils who have the most to lose.

This applies across all phases of compulsory education. Whilst attachment needs are easy to observe and understand in young children, for example toddlers visibly distressed by the departure of an attachment figure (AF), adolescent insecurity of this kind is much more likely to be dismissed as simple non-compliance, or attibuted to raging hormones. (How many issues might that one mask?) For this reason, the underlying need – very evident in the toddler and understood by practitioners who endeavour to create security – is missed. Subsequently, none of the appropriate support is provided, but rather punishment.

Blurring the issue further is the widely known fact that the work of adolescence is to achieve autonomy  – so surely teenagers need AFs less. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – self-reliance and independence stem from feelings of security; the availablity of an AF, physically present, open to communication, responsive to needs. Indeed, confidence in the availability of AFs has been described as the bedrock of healthy adolescent personality. (Bretherton, 1999)

It is estimated that between a third and half of children lack such a bedrock, to a greater or lesser extent, so attachment difficulties are common in the classroom. This is of course where relationships with warm, sensitive, respectful teachers become a potential game-changer. In one study, adolescents who reported attachment-like relationships with their teachers were less likely to use drugs and alcohol, engage in violence, attempt suicide, or become sexually active at an early age. (Resnick et al, 1997) Teachers can and do function as surrogate AFs.

The problem is that most of the time they don’t attach to those pupils most in need of this support – because unfortunately the behaviour of insecure teenagers elicits responses in teachers that make it difficult to attach to them. Research suggests that teachers tend to interact with insecure pupils in a contolling manner, using many directives, in contrast with interactions with the securely attached, which are characterised by greater warmth, respect, an expectation of compliance and higher expectations.

Clearly, therefore, an evidence-based strategic effort is required if we are within our schools to deliberately disconfirm the internal working model of insecure pupils – that adults are hostile, rejecting or unresponsive. It is vital work that can’t be left to chance, because the chances are, it won’t happen, and insecurely attached pupils will continue to populate our isolation rooms, or make up the ranks in our PRUs, firmly entrenching their disadvantage.

To be sure, meeting attachment needs presents greater challenges in the secondary setting. There’s a sense in which “secondary schools are not designed for belongingness.” Bergin & Bergin et al (1993) found that teacher-pupil relationships were less personal and positive in Y7 compared with Y6. Secondary teachers saw pupils as less trustworthy, compared with their primary counterparts just a year earlier, and pupils rated their teachers as less friendly. Of course, relationships take longer to etablish in secondary school, because pupils encounter many more teachers and this itself creates a degree of insecurity. Another problem is the notion, again confirmed by reasearch, that with age, school connectedness erodes.

This is not inevitable, however – international comparisons demonstrate that negativity about school and adolescence need not go hand in hand. Whether pupils bond to their secondary school  – and experience enhanced wellbeing as a direct result of that – depends to a large extent on the success of leaders in creating opportunities for meeting attachment needs; in putting relationship-building front and centre.


School bonding refers to a sense of belonging in school and having a network of relationships with peers and teachers. It can make pupils feel secure and valued, like attachment, which can in turn liberate them to take on academic and social challenges. A pupil bonded to school has a sense that ‘people like me’ whereas one who is not will feel lonely, outcast and alienated.

In secondary schools, we know that how pupils feel about their school is largely determined by the quality of the relationship they have with their teachers in specific classes. (Osterman, 2000) If pupils perceive their teachers are supportive and caring, they have greater engagement in school, which is related of course to achievement.

Teachers need to learn how to engage constructively with insecurely attached, floundering adolescents. It’s a huge challenge not to act in ways that confirm internal working models, but there can be fewer greater rewards than making a difference of such life-changing potential. In this, the work of the educator involves:

  • understanding child development and through this responding sensitively and non-judgementally to behaviours
  • providing choice whereever possible
  • avoiding coercive discipline: adolescents are more likely to feel school bonding if their school does not have harsh a discipline policy, such as classroom removal for relatively minor infractions (McNeeley, 2002) Effective discipline is best achieved by keeping the tone positive and respectful and by using the least possible power
  • helping pupils become more pro-social by providing them with opportunities to help each other. Noticing and praising their kindness
  • intervening to repair specific, difficult relationships – e.g. for 5-15 minutes a day, a teacher or TA giving a pupil undivided attention, following the lead in whatever activity the has been chosen, conveying acceptance, interest and safety

Participation in extra-curricular activities is another important feature of school bonding. Secondary school pupils feel more connected when there is a high rate of participation in such activities, in addition to a positive classroom climate. Mahoney and Carins found that the least competent pupils benefitted the most, even though their involvement was often just in a single activity.

Pupils are more likely to feel bonded to small schools. In one study, the optimal size was about 300. Larger secondaries should endeavour to mimic the positive effects of smaller schools by creating ‘school within a school’ structures, such as House systems, teams etc.

Attachment takes time to develop and requires that pupils and teachers stay together long enough to form relationships. This might not happen until the end of an academic year, when relationships are typically disrupted. Relationship continuity should be planned for vulnerable pupils, as much as possible. They need to feel safe in their relationships with teachers they know and trust – able to admit confusion, errors, even a dislike of the subject matter. (Of course, teachers are more attracted to pupils who share their passion for a topic, but all pupils, even those with interests different from the teacher’s, must be valued and cared for.) Key-worker and mentoring schemes are also helpful, with one atuned, available adult offering unconditional positive regard enough to provide that all-important safe base.

These few recommendations are low cost because they simply require improved relationships with children, rather than new curriculum or infrastructure. Furthermore, wellbeing is linked to achievement and wellbeing is enhanced through secure pupil-teacher relationships. So this is about standards too, soft and fluffy as it may sound. With the benefits most marked within high-risk groups, currently falling further behind their more advantaged peers, it is beyond time we focussed properly on this crucial work, beginning by reviewing our traditional behaviour policies.

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