Inclusion. Children do get it.

When my eldest daughter was in Year 4, a new boy joined her class who had difficulty managing his behaviour. He’d call out, bounce out of his seat, huff and puff over his work, lose his temper sometimes. Meg saw his frustration just as, I’m quite sure, her classmates and the teacher did. She didn’t judge him for it though, or question his ‘poor choices’. Quite clearly, it was all a bit more complicated than that. There was something behind this, ADHD maybe – trauma and loss perhaps. Whatever the underlying cause, Josh didn’t cope at all well. He stood out.

However, he wasn’t followed by the rest of the class, like some juvenile Pied Piper. His peers didn’t lose their ability to self regulate because he was still working on his. He wasn’t removed from the class to undergo training elsewhere, as advised by the DfE behaviour guru, to prevent his difficulties from ‘normalising.’ If he had been, and the re-entry criteria were total control of impulsivity, enabling the same standard of behaviour as that achieved by others, then he would never have returned to the classroom.

There’s a place for withdrawal, of course. Inclusion doesn’t mean everyone together all of the time. Counselling can be helpful, as well as a range of small-group interventions. Solutions-focused coaching ought to be an entitlement. But one-to-one and small-group learning must be generalised back in the classroom to be effective; reinforced and practiced within context.

Meg grew very fond of Josh. He turned out to be really good for her self esteem at a time when she was in and out of the ‘popular group’ with bewildering regularity. She found that she was a calming influence on him and the teacher regularly paired them up. She would come home full of tales about how she’d been able to help, strategies that had worked. This made her proud.

Fairness is a value highly prized by most children and their understanding of it is more subtle than we give them credit for when we assume they’re incapable of understanding disadvantage or difference. Those teachers who have employed Circle of Friends to include autistic pupils will know all about the enormous capacity that children have for compassionate understanding and empathy – and the joyous difference this can make when it’s harnessed within a structured programme.

Special Challenges is a report from the National College about how four schools effectively included children with SEMH. I’ve summarised it here. The report identifies peer support as one of six key themes and points out that there is social and emotional learning for all children, not just the vulnerable, when this is promoted. Pupils in the study schools understood diversity and consistently demonstrated caring attitudes towards those who were struggling. They were strong communities, happy places – and we have many schools that fit such a description.

The Coalition government aimed to ‘Reverse the bias towards inclusion’ and we live in the shadow of that rhetoric. (All it ever was, without a massive expansion of special schools). We need to change the rhetoric, because it doesn’t help the most vulnerable children in our schools feel that they belong there. And that is plain wrong.


In defence of the ‘Velcro TA’

The factors affecting the capacity for learning are related to the capacity for relationship. In order to enable such children to improve access to learning, one has to pay particular attention to processes of relationship. (Greenlalgh, 1994)

Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener in 1941 when he returned from a walk in the woods and wondered if the cockleburs that clung to his trousers and his dog’s coat could be turned into something useful. The stiff hooks of the bur that he observed under his microscope became the inspiration for Velcro.

The term ‘Velcro TA’ is disparaging then. It implies that a TA who supports one child, rather than being linked to a subject let’s say, is a bur-like, clingy thing that just can’t be shaken off. It implies that the SENCo has deployed resources in a wasteful, mindless and, worst of all, a counter-productive way. It suggests a lack of ambition for children with SEND – the pesky TA one who actively thwarts a pupil’s progress towards independence.

Now if a SENCo were to simply deploy TAs according to statemented hours, after the ‘Velcro model’, then that would indeed be misguided. Rob Webster’s important Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants promotes a much more robust, strategic and evidence-based approach. It’s based on his seminal research which showed, among other things, that pupils supported by TAs had fewer interactions with both the classroom teacher and with their peers. Their progress was subsequently slower than that of similar pupils who were not supported in this way.

However, it doesn’t follow that one-to-one support is intrinsically wrong and that, at secondary level, all TAs should be deployed within departments such that pupils encounter four or five of them a day. If this were a blanket policy, I would have real concerns for that most vulnerable group of children whose social and emotional needs can only be met through a nurturing relationship with a consistent adult. I think if we were better at measuring wellbeing, we would have a fuller appreciation of the fundamental importance of this role.

Here, Louise Bomber is instructive.

Time and again in her writing, she returns to the fact that the experience of trauma and loss within a close significant relationship can have serious consequences for the emotional wellbeing and social capacities of children. However, neuroscience also tells us that new and more sophisticated neural pathways can be formed in the child’s developing brain, and new patterns of relating and behaving can emerge – when there is a ‘good enough’ other. An adoptive parent, therapist, mentor – or TA.

The patterns of attachment behaviours are laid down in infancy but are moderated by later experiences of other significant relationships which can meliorate adverse experiences in primary relationships. (Geddes, 2006)

Neural pathways are ‘experience dependent’. In the presence of a ‘good enough’ relationship, new synaptic connections can be made, joining up neurons in the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain can then come on-line. The sooner this occurs, the better, since the child who has experienced trauma and loss early in life will have social and emotional catching up to do. Bomber concludes that “the need to give these children a reparative relationship experience is urgent.”

There’s nothing more rewarding for a SENCo than to observe from a distance the rewiring Bomber describes. I was priveliged to work with a TA who was perfectly suited to the key adult role. (It’s not for all). He assumed it when we discovered that he was the only person who could coax a pupil – I’ll call him James – out of his mum’s car in the mornings. (James had no ECHP, by the way. Ours wasn’t a Velcro TA deployment model.) He was also the only one who could get James into lessons when he refused, which was often during Year 7. And the only one who could get him to talk – try – believe in himself (though this was a slow awakening).

James could easily have been permanently excluded for persistent defiance – were it not for the patience and persistence of a steady, empathic TA who never gave up in him – and a school that didn’t either. He now has a realistic chance of achieving good GCSEs. Whatever his grades, though, he has already exceeded everyone’s expectations, and most of all his own. This was a boy who was regularly restrained during the primary years and whose stated ambition on transfer to secondary was to be permanently excluded. (He was terrified.) His relationship with a very special TA has been transformative, life-changing.

It’s been important for the TA too, of course. These strong bonds that we form with our most vulnerable pupils, it’s love that forges them, not Velcro.

Communication for inclusion. Language strategies that help insecurely attached pupils succeed in school

Developments in neuroscience mean that the impact of loss and trauma on early brain development is widely understood. However, Louise Bomber’s Inside I’m Hurting (2007) contends that education has not kept up with other fields in relation to the development of specific practical strategies to support the inclusion of children with attachment needs. Her book is really a handbook designed to plug this gap and it’s an essential read, not least because attachment difficulties manifest in so many of the behaviours that lead to exclusion.

Bomber advocates a differentiated approach which recognises that children with attachment difficulties did not have the usual opportunities for growth in the early years. Rather than leaving them ‘stuck’ in their development, she argues, we can choose to provide children who have not benefitted from ‘good enough’ parenting with the opportunity of ‘second-chance learning’ (Winnicott, 1965). Clearly, this is entirely consistent with our core purpose as educators.

There is much in the book about a teacher’s use of language and how this can be differentiated to promote social and emotional learning, when there are deficits. Being explicit in our communication is a key idea.

An insecurely attached child will expect adults to behave according to the relationship with ‘significant other’ that is stored in memory as a template, or internal working model. This means that interactions with people must be translated  – very explicit messages clarifying why people might be doing what they are doing are required. Only this way can children with attachment difficulties begin to make sense of a very different set of social rules to the ones they have known.

Commentary, direction and modelling

Bomber advises that we make the most of everyday interactions by using them as teachable moments, rather than focusing on targeted intervention. Children learn better from real events than from being sent off to undertake emotional literary work elsewhere, especially as generalising from the intervention back into the classroom can be problematic.

The use of commentary, direction and modelling are key, as in the illustration below.

Matt grabbed Serena’s pencil case because he needed another pen and his had run out. His key adult intervened by saying, “Oh Matt, I see that your pen has run out of ink. You need another one. Usually most people will want to help you when you need something. Let’s ask Serena if she will help you and see what she says.” The key adult then supported Matt to ask Serena if he could borrow her pen. Serena said yes. The key adult then modelled to Matt how to complete the interaction by saying, “Thanks Serena, that’s very kind.” If Serena hadn’t said yes, the key adult would have supported Matt to ask another peer. (p136)

In this way, social and emotional learning is promoted within moment-by-moment interactions with the following scaffold enabling it:

  • Being clear about what is happening, stating what the need is
  • Reminding the child that most people are happy to help someone else (This is crucial as it is likely to contradict what has been learnt from early experience)
  • Being clear about what they need to do to present their request
  • Supporting the child at having a go at following through the action
  • Challenging the child to have a go at practicing this if it happens again

Most children grasp this new method of communication over time, provided adults are patient and skilled in their interactions with them.

Commenting on appropriate behaviour

Making explicit when a child is behaving appropriately is helpful. Examples of what to notice might usefully include:

  • Good waiting
  • That was so kind of you to thinkof John’s feelings
  • You were really concentrating then
  • You shared Miss Taylor with Harry – that’s great to see
  • I could see that you were really stressed but you walked away. You slowed yourself down

We can’t expect that pupils will understand that such behaviour is pro-social without this feedback. And we are cementing new neural pathways, providing  opportunities for children to firm up their thinking as they relate to others in new ways.

Using directives

Whenever possible, adults should communicate what a child needs to do, rather than what they shouldn’t do, because an insecurely attached child will often hear the action rather than the negative. For example, instead of saying “Stop jumping…” (which might cause jumping) the desired behaviour should be stated, such as “Let’s walk in the classroom”. If there is a safety issue, then “No” or “Stop” is sufficient.

Making no assumptions 

When children have not known calmness, patience or kindness in their lives, “Be kind…calm down….be patient” are clearly not helpful commands. It is essential that pupils know what we mean when we make requests. Sometimes, this means starting from scratch and in this regard the strategies that are known to support children with ASD are beneficial. For example, to explain what we mean by being kind, we might say:

  • Touch the others gently. They feel uncomfortable when you push them
  • Talk quietly to the others. It gives children a shock when you shout in their ears
  • If you see someone on their own, ask if they would like to join in. Children can feel sad bring ignored or moved away from
  • Smiling at people in the playground can make them feel good. Children and adults can feel upset and confused if you scowl at them

These ideas can be communicated not just verbally, but by modelling from the teacher or peers, through role play or social stories.

Being explicit, differentiating the language we use, will enable children who have experienced loss and trauma to make sense of what is going on around them, such clarification building up their resilience. They are far more likely to be included than excluded when we adapt our communication in these ways.

The facts suggest that institionalised discrimination is entrenching disadvantage.

We are firmly committed in our English schools to equality and inclusion, on paper. Current DfE Guidance on Behaviour & Discipline (January, 2016) makes several clear references to a legal requirement under the 2010 Equality Act for behaviour policies to make reasonable adjustments in relation to disabled children and those with SEN.

For example, we are reminded that, to be lawful, a punishment:

must not breach any other legislation (for example in respect of disability, special educational needs, race and other equalities and human rights) and it must be reasonable in all the circumstances. (p7)

The Equality Act 2010 orders that schools must make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled children are not placed at a substantial disadvantage. This includes ensuring that discipline procedures do not discriminate against pupils who may have a condition that impacts upon their behaviour, such as autism. It also means ensuring staff working with disabled children have appropriate training to adjust their practice.

However, the legal framework and DfE guidance is evidently having little impact on the ground, which is as uneven today as it ever has been for disadvantaged children.

Just read and absorb the opening sentence of the extract from the DfE’s most recent statistical release on exclusions, below. Surely, when year on year, pupils with SEN are 7 times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers, we must consider whether they benefit from any protection at all – or whether they are in fact the victims of institutionalised discrimination.

This type of discrimination operates at a structural level – it’s to be found within the structures, processes and procedures of organizations. So the permanent exclusion of a child with ADHD might be experienced by a school as a one off – and a painful one; no headteacher likes to exclude. However, the DfE release reveals a bigger picture – that this one-off event is part of a clear pattern and might therefore be regarded an expression of unintentional but nonetheless systemic discrimination.

Setting aside the small matter of the law, if closing the gaps means anything, it has surely got to mean that policy makers address as a first priority this deep and enduring inequity. A permanent exclusion doesn’t open up a gap but a chasm; it’s the closing of a door and the entrenching of a disadvantage. How serious can the DfE’s commitment to social justice really be when Schools that work for everyone – its consultation on ‘more good places’ – makes no reference whatsoever to children with special needs, many of whom have no place, good or otherwise, within their community schools?

“If this lot were seals or whales, there’d be a bloody outcry.”

What an extraordinary privilege, to be a teacher who can do this for another human being. #attachmentaware

Attachment theory in a nutshell

John Bowlby describes attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’ (1988). He explains how a child’s initial dependence on a caregiver for protection creates, when needs are sensitively and reliably met, the ability to regulate emotions, reduce fear, attune to others, develop empathy, self awareness and moral understanding.

If an infant cannot rely on an adult to respond to their needs in times of stress, however, then the ability to self-soothe, manage emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships is undermined, throughout childhood, into adolescence and beyond. This is because without deep emotional connection early in life, neorolgical systems don’t develop as they should. The infant brain literally needs programming by an adult’s interactions.

Why all teachers must be attachment aware

Current research suggests that 98% of children in care have some kind of attachment disorder. As many as 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD have attachment issues (Clarke et al, 2002) and according to recent Sutton Trust research ‘40% of children miss out on the parenting needed to succeed in life.’ In every classroom, therefore, a number of children will have attachment issues which will manifest as non-compliant, disruptive or withdrawn behaviour.

The conventional response to such behaviour, rewards and sanctions aimed at promoting compliance, is futile and perhaps even harmful. Harold and Corcoran’s (2013) study is one of several that demonstrate why control will not be relinquished by an insecurely attached child who holds onto precisely this for survival. One of the major problems with the doggedly behaviourist approach is that, when sanctions fail to improve behaviour, they are ratcheted up rather than abandoned. Exclusion, the very thing that a child who struggles to experience a sense of connection needs least, becomes almost inevitable.

In the news only this week was the headline that exclusions in some parts of England have increased by over 300% . As in previous years, pupils with SEND were seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers.

A fresh, science-informed focus on social and emotional learning over behaviour management is long overdue. This doesn’t require the jettisoning of all rules, boundaries and consequences. It does require a break from the past, evidence-based practice, compassionate understanding and differentiation.

Relatinships over rules

Positive relationships with adults in schools enable all children to function effectively (Martin & Dowson, 2009). Interestingly, teacher-pupil relationships become more influential for pupils as they get older, and are particularly important for children deemed academically at risk (Commodari, 2013). Pupils themselves know this to be true. In this study of pupils at risk of exclusion, the holistic support of a caring adult is a recurrent theme.

‘Give them a routine thing…like on a morning…don’t go to form but like have a chat with them and see what…how it’s going at home and stuff’ Nick, Year 10

I would just get them a learning mentor or something…someone that pushes you forward a bit and get them to have like a one‐on‐one confession thing where you say what you’ve done wrong and what you’ve done good and help you go forward’ Kieran, Year 9

We might feel we provide this care for pupils on the margins, but that is not what they report. Rees et al. (2013) identified that 11 to 18 year olds, particularly male pupils, felt a decline in a sense of ‘being listened to’ at school. They were reluctant to approach teachers for emotional support because they lacked trust in them, were unsure how teachers would respond or felt they would be too busy to give them attention (Harden et al., 2001; The Young Foundation, 2012).

For the insecurely attached child, nothing is more important than a nurturing relationship. Kennedy (2008) highlights the role that teachers can play in helping to ‘rehabilitate’ a pupil’s internal working model through more positive relational experiences. The evidence suggests that a secure secondary attachment between pupil and teacher can reshape insecure attachment behaviours and support the development of more secure ones, with a subsequent impact on academic progress. (Verschueren & Koonan, 2012).

What an extraordinary privilege, to be a teacher with the capacity to do this for another human being.

Unconditional positive regard 

Of course, not all teachers do have this capacity. It might be controversial to suggest this, but some trigger flight or fight responses because they make insecurely attached children feel profoundly unsafe. The teacher who functions as both safe haven and secure base from which a vulnerable child is able to explore and learn is not necessarily to be found in every classroom.

Success with vulnerable children hinges on one key quality, which is just as likely to be intuitive as the outcome of  CPD. It’s unconditional positive regard – the conviction we have as parents, that we’ll always be there, no matter. That we’re gong nowhere. That we will forgive mistakes, move on, rebuild. That we do all of this because we love our children, even as they challenge us. Attachment friendly teachers communicate this – and that’s what makes them safe.

Some also employ an emotions coaching approach. This is a pedagogy that can be shared and honed – one all teachers should practice because of course insecurely attached children are in every classroom. Attachment-aware schools have made it a CPD priority. It must be stressed, however, that the success of any strategy aimed at supporting children with attachment difficulties depends absolutely on that bedrock of unconditional positive regard.

Emotions coaching

Emotion Coaching helps children to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them (Gottman, 1996, 1997). In the school setting, it emphasises the importance of considering the emotions which underlie particular behaviours, ‘in the moment’, before dealing with limit setting and problem-solving.

It’s based on the principle that nurturing and emotionally supportive relationships promote the development of empathetic responses and thought construction,  promoting better self-management and regulation. Further information and some case studies can be found here but, in short, emotions coaching comprises three main stages, best exemplified through scripts (in italics).

1. Recognising, empathising, validating feelings and labelling them.

The teacher (or TA) needs to watch for physical evidence of a child’s emotions and use their imagination to see the situation from the child’s perspective. Words need to reflect back, in a soothing, non-critical manner, what they are seeing and hearing.

I can see that you get angry when that happens. I would feel angry if it happened to me. It’s normal to feel like that.

I can see that you’re frowning and kicking the wall and expressing a lot of energy. I would be feeling like that too if I didn’t want to do something.

I noticed you looking round at other people’s work. I think you might be feeling a bit nervous about whether yours will be okay. Am I right about that?

2. Setting limits (if needed)

State the boundary limits and make it clear that certain behaviours can’t be accepted, whilst preserving the child’s dignity (crucial for wellbeing and responsive behabiour)

These are the rules we have to follow. Doing that is not okay.

We can’t behave like that even if you’re feeling annoyed because it’s not safe.

3. Problem solving

When the child is calm and rational, explore the feelings that gave rise to the behabiour and scaffold alternative ideas and actions that might have produced more productive outcomes. Empower the child to believe difficulties can be overcome and feelings managed.

This is not a safe place to be angry. Let’s go to a safe place where we can talk.

Next time you’re feeling like this, what could you do? How do you think you will react next time if it happens again?

You need to sit next to Ryan or sit next to Miss Walker in front of me. Which do you want to choose?

(From a Bath-spa university slideshare on emotions coaching)

In summary

There is good evidence that sensitive, attachment-aware teaching such as this can greatly enhance executive functioning in children affected by trauma. If we could just lift them out of the stultifying confines of Skinner’s box, place them somewhere gentler and more child-shaped, if we coach rather than punish, then we would do so much more to transform outcomes for our most vulnerable children.

Hearing the voices of young people at risk of exclusion. 

I happened upon a fascinating, densely referenced research study by Bethany Hawkins (University of York, 2011) recently. Its aim was to hear the voices of pupils at risk of exclusion and to identify what they perceived to be the barriers to engagement at school as well as the potential enablers. Through a series of semi-structured interviews, the author was able to ecstrapolate six key recommendations for inclusion, summarised at the end of this post. First though, an overview of the pupils’ views.

Pupil-teacher relationship and discipline

Teachers were identified as one of the worst things about school because pupils felt they were unfairly treated – that teachers scapegoated them and sanctioned them more harshly than their peers. They felt they were expected to show respect but not treated with respect in return, for example when being told to ‘shut up’ or shouted at. Pupils complained that teachers were too busy or reluctant to listen to their point of view, that they had no voice.

Conversely, teachers who were positive, smiley and willing to share interests and a joke with pupils were identified as having a major effect on their willingness to engage in lessons. When asked to identify a favourite teacher, most chose one who showed a pastoral interest, who asked questions and cared. The important thing for pupils – and especially the most socially disadvantaged – was having a wider, more complex relationship with the teacher than just one of teaching.

If teachers are perceived to be the worst thing about school, then, this confirms that they  have the potential to be the best thing about school too. Riley et al. (2006) notes, ‘The importance of interplay between pupils and school staff cannot be underestimated, particularly for pupils on the margins’ (Riley et al. 2006: 28).

Hart, Dixon, Drummond and McIntyre (2004) discuss the need for “emotional dimensions to learning” (Hart et al. 2004: 132). If teachers recognise and attend to the pupils’ emotional dimensions, they argue that it helps “learners overcome psychological barriers that might otherwise limit their ability and willingness to engage” (Hart et al. 2004: 144). The key theory surrounding this is transformability which enables the teachers to engage learners in a “genuine meeting of minds” (Hart et al. 2004: 182‐3) giving them feelings of “security, competence and control” (Hart et al. 2004: 195). This type of approach could be a powerful enabler for pupils at risk of exclusion to be able to engage with learning and overcoming some of the psychological barriers they are presented with.

The curriculum, environment and organisation of the day

There was a clear gender difference in responses with boys identifying ‘book work’ – reading the passage and then answering the questions – as a significant barrier and expressing a strong preference for interactive and practical lessons. Curriculum content was also a barrier. The academic curriculum was something that pupils felt they would not engage with long term and was therefore pointless. KS4 pupils identified vocational courses such as mechanics and brick-laying as enablers with feeling more like an adult part of the reason why.

The physical environment was important to pupils; they wanted it to to be less ‘tatty’ and more ‘modern’. The organisation of the day was also identified as a barrier by most. Lessons were too long with no activities between to ‘break them up’. Perhaps surprisingly, too much unstructured time was also a problem for this sample. They wanted something directed and concrete to do over lunchtime, like ‘footy’ or basketball. This would prevent them from getting bored or, worse, into fights.

Social relationships and interaction

For various reasons such as socio‐economic backgrounds, language, culture, self‐ esteem, academic ability, and medical reasons, fitting in socially appeared to be a difficult barrier for the majority of pupils at risk of exclusion in the sample. This appeared to create fear of being humiliated or ridiculed in front of peers. The pupils suggested that working in small groups to avoid the classroom situation would be an enabler.

Osterman (2000) explains the link between not fitting in and disruptive behaviour: “Rejection or the sense of exclusion or estrangement from the group is consistently associated with behavioural problems in the classroom (either aggression or withdrawal), lower interest in school, lower achievement and dropout” (Osterman 2000: 343).

Those pupils in the sample who had stronger social networks identified friends as the best reason for attending school but also felt that friends were a barrier to participation in learning. Gender identities played a significant role. Fear of femininity associated with working hard and academic prowess, and the need to assert their masculinity, meant many boys admitted to playing up for the lads. In addition, girls at risk of exclusion found other pupils encouraging them to misbehave was a significant barrier.

Hawkins’ Recommendations

1. Hands-on Leaning – kinaesthetic learning opportunities within academic lessons as well as a curriculum comprising some work-related learning.

2. Classroom banter – A key factor in increasing engagement with pupils at risk of exclusion is for the teaching staff to create an environment where they can join in some of the banter and use humour to build relationships with the young people (Lumby & Morrison 2009).

3. Enhanced pastoral care – For pupils at risk of exclusion and those with SEN in particular, a relationship with staff is paramount. Pupils gave ideas of mentoring, teachers taking an active interest in their lives and increased pastoral care as being significant in increasing their belonging at school and thus reducing their exclusion. A social pedagogical approach for pupils at risk of exclusion could therefore have important implications.

4. Small groups – Social interaction was identified as a challenging aspect of school. Suggestions of smaller classes and even avoiding a classroom environment altogether were given as potential enablers to increase engagement at school. Exploring the use of smaller classes or nurture groups with pupils at risk of exclusion would therefore be beneficial.

5. Redecoration – Small enablers, such as asking pupils to help decide what colour to paint doors, or getting them to help design the layout of certain classrooms, could have enormous benefits for young people at risk of exclusion. Including the pupils not only in making decisions but also in implementing them would give them a sense of ownership, connectedness and voice.

6. Child centred approach – Particular attention could be given to treating pupils as individuals and structuring their school day in a way that can meet their needs and help increase their engagement (Reid 2005). This child‐centred approach could mean fairly small changes to timetables, lunchbreaks, and lessons which could change the pupils’ ability to engage dramatically.

Hawkins’ conclusion is important.

The one thing which stands out to me from the findings is that despite all of the challenges the pupils face they all wanted the teaching staff to think that they were good, that they tried and that they were clever. This displays an emotional engagement to school and the educational system despite their apparent disaffection or risk of exclusion and highlights to me that by implementing some simple changes, the risk of exclusion for these young people could be significantly reduced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this?

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

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

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

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

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

If homework’s a battle, let’s call a truce. #inclusion

The single most important thing you can do as a SENCO is invite parents in for progress reviews and really listen to what they tell you. The first time I did this, the message I heard about homework was so resounding, so emphatic and heartfelt, that I took a proposal for a change of policy to SLT immediately afterwards, which was agreed. From then on, private reading was all the homework we required from some of our KS3 pupils.

This was not a lowering of aspirations – something we work relentlessly to avoid in the SEND arena. Here, again, parents can be our guides. Most are passionately committed to securing the best possible outcomes for their children. They would never argue that homework should be jettisoned if they could see any real benefits. That’s why the reading continued, for all. Fluency comes only with practice – parents accept their vital role in that.

But sorting through sheets in the bottom of a bag, trying to make sense of hastily scribbled notes in a planner, stressing over the forgotten VLE log-in, running out of printer ink, upending the mattress to find the right exercise book under the bed. Frankly, any household experiencing Homeworkgate is fraught. Add a special need like autism into that mix and the whole endeavour can become as distressing and exhausting as it is futile.

Dr. Tony Attwood gives two reasons here why homework can provoke such huge emotional reactions in autistic children. The first is based on the fact that they have two curriculums to learn at school, the academic and the social. So they are having to work twice as hard as their neurotypical peers and can be intellectually and emotionally exhausted by the time they get home.

The second explanation lies in their profile of cognitive skills, which must be accommodated. One aspect of this is impaired executive function, similar to that of children with ADHD. This can manifest in difficulty planning, organising and prioritising, in impulsivity, in poor working memory and inflexibility when problem solving. Factor in the autistic child’s difficulty in coping with frustration and managing anxiety, and it’s easy to understand why homework can be such a huge hurdle to overcome. A battle.

We must listen to our parents when they wave the white flag. They aren’t seeking to undermine our high standards or to make excuses for lazy, wilful children – they just want us to be empathetic and responsive; to put individual needs above blanket policy; to take those words ‘reasonable’ and ‘adjustment’ more seriously than we do now. This might mean adapting homework tasks to reflect the cognitive profile of the learner, Dr. Attwood has some suggestions, it might mean reducing it, or it might mean acknowledging that the child will cope better with school, and therefore make optimum progress, with no homework at all for now. And if this is the case, I can reassure that it doesn’t result in the immediate collapse of standards, or in a rampaging epidemic of homework refusal. As in, ‘He doesn’t do it – why should I?’

Children understand the principle of fairness – in fact, most of them hold it very dear. And if they don’t, well then we could always – you know – educate them.

Enough crisis talk – it’s time to act.

A couple of weeks ago, the DfE published the outcomes of a longitudinal study of health and wellbeing. It reports that one in every three adolescent girls in the UK is suffering psychological distress. Just a week later, The Good Childhood Report from the Children Society and The University of York warned of a sharp increase in unhappiness amongst girls over the last five years. Body image worries were identified as a key underlying cause. The past decade has seen a 172% increase in the number of teenagers hospitalised for treatment of anorexia.

  From The Good Childhood Report, 2016

As it happens, I’m the mother of three girls and the grim 1 in 3 statistic is reflected in my own experience, so I need no convincing. But it seems others do. In this Daily Mail take on the data, Sarah Vine excuses herself from any “self-flagellating” concern on the grounds that “asking a fourteen year old girl if she’s unhappy is a bit like asking a dog if it would like to go for a walk.” Similarly, Ella Whelan’s research free piece tosses aside the University of York evidence, breezily concluding, “So girls. Ignore the panic: There is really nothing wrong with you.”

Elsewhere on EduTwitter, a return to the debate about the appropriateness of the term ‘crisis’ to describe the current state of teenagers’ mental health is triggered.

Many of us are pretty clear about our position within this debate, incidentally. If, like me, you have spent desperate days searching the Internet because your child was referred to CAMHS six months ago and you’re still waiting to hear; if your 8 year old runs away from the tea table, sobbing (you’re trying the Maudsley approach now); if you’ve spent just one night lying next to your wasted first-born to hear her breathing, because that’s the state you’re in, then you will have no problem whatsoever with the use of the word ‘crisis’.

The horrible reality is that mental illnesses tend to entrench without timely intervention; the adolescent’s fantastically plastic brain is now no longer a promise but a curse as insidious schemas extend and strengthen. So when young people are denied the help they need when they need it because supply cannot meet demand, then that is a crisis.

Lightning Review of CAMHS provision was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner and published in May 2016. It highlights the scale of the waiting time problem:

How to respond to this crisis – not whether or not we should call it one. That should be our focus. What we can do right now, as parents and as educators, to make things better for our young people.

There is so much more that we could be doing in our schools – to promote resilience and wellbeing and through this to reduce the need for CAMHS, which isn’t a silver bullet anyway. I’m not referring here to the Duke of Edinburgh style character building favoured by Nicky Morgan either. It’s explicit teaching about mental as well as physical health, focused on prevention, that we should be providing.

One of the things that kept me going through the hellish period alluded to above was a body confidence strategy I introduced at school. When an eating disorder moves into your home, you become acutely aware of how pervasive the pressure to be perfect is because of course you are trying to keep all of those pressures out. But you can’t – because they’re everywhere. And that’s when you fully understand the scale of the problem and the importance of teaching resilience.

I plundered the Dove Self Esteem Project for resources, wrote a PSHE unit on body image using contemporary news stories as stimulus for discussion. Simply teaching students that there are three genetically determined body types was important. That less than 10% of us are ectomorphs and we can’t attain a frame that isn’t the one we we’re born with without Photoshop – or malnutrition.

In subsequent Head Boy and Girl interviews, what we heard time and again was, ‘We need more of this; it made me think completely differently about appearance; the body confidence stuff has really helped me’. If you listen to the poetry our students wrote as part of this campaign, you will note the strength of their engagement:

But we need to begin such work years before children begin their secondary school careers. A 2012 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) reveals that girls as young as five are worrying about their size and looks, and one in four seven year old girls has tried to lose weight. Facts that were reflected in a Twitter discussion recently:

It is clear that we must empower girls to challenge that thin ideal which is the cause of so much Western misery, which stops them from participating in activities like swimming and even putting their hand up in class, according to researchers. At the same time, we must teach them to embrace what makes them unique and to cherish individuality in each other.

My sister, teacher @jopipbenson, runs a lunchtime ‘squash club’ for KS2 girls. It aims to raise awareness and boost self esteem. Her girls have learned about how their bodies will change in puberty when it’s natural to store fat for an adolescent growth spurt; they’ve  laughed at the absurdity of that infamous ‘beach ready body’ campaign; they’ve dicussed the vast range of businesses that make money by ensuring that women hate their bodies; Photoshop – they know that perfection is a lie.

Parents are grateful, some have written in to say so, and why wouldn’t you be? I wish my girls had been to a squash club, back in those blissfully ignorant before anorexia days. I wish I had been more aware. Which is exactly why we can’t leave this education for mental health (with body image just one example of a full wellbeing curriculum) to parents. It’s too important for hit and miss.

‘He Picks and Chooses’

Of all teacher-speak, this is the phrase that perplexes me most. I heard it often as a SENCo, spoken as a kind of judgement against children whose SEMH or neurodevelopmental needs made for irratic and sometimes challenging behaviour.

The phrase may comprise just four words, but it manages to pack an awful lot of discounting punch. First, the success of a pupil who is able to succeed so well in certain contexts that a debilitating underlying difficulty, such as ADHD, is barely apparent. Second, the success of a skilful and empathetic teacher who is able to create such a context.

Surely, these are two achievements that we should be building on, attempting to replicate, sharing and celebrating in our schools, if we’re seriously interested in making a success of inclusion. Wouldn’t it be worth properly analysing how some teachers consistently create the conditions in which all pupils are able to learn, even the most vulnerable? Whilst others have a habit of triggering them, and then demanding punishment?

The second question might be provocative, but it is reflected in my experience. And if we are going to make our schools finally work for all, not just for Alison Peacock’s ‘convenient majority’, then we do need to be humble about learning from our best practitioners in relation to inclusive practice.  The reductive and intellectually lazy ‘picking and choosing’ explanation for variable behaviour stifles inquiry of this kind and thwarts what ought to be a focus for rich collaboration.

The mindset behind the p&c phrase also prevents us from harnessing the potential for growth and change that exists within every misfiring child. Back in the 1930s, Kurt Goldstein introduced the idea that people are self-actualizers, children no less than adults. We don’t set out to fail in life, or in school – to be disliked by teachers, punished and excluded. All children would prefer to succeed because that’s the driving-force. It’s just that some need to be taught how; they need coaching in how to self-regulate just as they need lessons in how to read and write.

We’re working on this in Lincolnshire. Pupils at risk of exclusion are now supported through a solution-focused pastoral support programme. Dr Geoff James has trained over 50 solution focused coaches to date with further courses scheduled and momentum building because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback. To learn more about the approach, it’s worth visiting The Solution Focused Coach, Geoff’s website.

All I will say about it here is that, in a solution-focused setting, examples of good behaviour are not framed negatively, as evidence of ‘picking and choosing’, to be added to the mounting case against. Rather, the judge’s wig is cast aside.

The solution-focused coach is then able to take charge, with the agency of the child, identifying what is going well and building on such positives as the foundation for future success. It’s a simple, profound behavioural pedagogy – and it works.