Addressing attachment needs

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How can schools support children with attachment difficulties to get high-quality outcomes in mainstream schools? Assistant headteacher Aimee Cave explains her approach.

Summary

  • Supporting children with attachment needs can lead to a reduction in other risk factors.
  • A senior manager should be appointed to facilitate an attachment-aware school.
  • The senior manager should monitor school policies and practices to ensure that they are attachment-friendly.
  • Supporting growth in the child’s holistic development will impact on their learning potential and educational attainment.

Government figures from 2018 suggest that 59% of looked-after children (LAC) have SEND at the end of Key Stage 2.

This is an incredibly high percentage and figures in my school, a 280-pupil junior school in East Yorkshire, would back this up. I believe that, by supporting children with attachment needs, we can eventually lower other SEND risk factors.

Attachment styles

Child development expert John Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’. There are four styles of attachment: the first, a secure attachment style, is the result of ‘good enough’ parenting and means a child’s internal working model will be strong.

Relational trauma or loss can result in insecure attachment styles, such as:

  • avoidant (a tendency to avoid contact, rather than seek contact when anxiety is aroused)
  • ambivalent (the ambivalence expressed as clinging and controlling behaviour)
  • disorganised (demonstrating an inconsistent pattern of attachment behaviour, with no consistent strategy of dealing with stress).

It is clear that children with attachment needs should be able to learn in an environment that is attachment-aware and trauma-informed if we are to help them to create secure attachments and help them be emotionally ready to learn.

Training

This is something that we have worked hard at in school since I was appointed SENCO. It has involved changing the mindset of staff through key training, adapting policies and ensuring that being attachment-aware is part of our school development plan and is high on our agenda. The strategies we have developed are based on the practices and procedures of attachment expert Louise Bombèr.

Senior leadership team involvement

It is important to make sure that a senior manager is carefully chosen to facilitate an attachment-aware school as this manager will need to have both a personal and strategic function. They will need to be part of the child’s team, developing close relationships with them, but will also need to create an interest in the school around attachment awareness. This would mean appointing an attachment-aware, trauma-informed senior manager who has been trained in understanding the needs of a child with attachment difficulties.

Attachment lead

Completing accredited attachment lead training is a good starting point. Once appointed, the senior manager should ‘fly the flag’ in every situation for those children and keep trauma on the agenda, monitoring school policies and practices to ensure that they are attachment-friendly.

Staff training

One of the fundamental jobs for the senior manager, after shifting the culture of the school, is to ensure that staff are trained appropriately.

As a school that has moved from a ‘Requires improvement’ to a ‘Good’ Ofsted judgement recently, we are constantly trying to improve practice. It is important that staff know why something is happening, in order for them to get on board. Initially, senior leaders and teachers were trained by our educational psychologists over two sessions, followed by two sessions for every other member of staff in school.

Staff now have a knowledge base that allows them to meet needs better in the classroom, resulting in fewer cases of children feeling overwhelmed. There has been a clear reduction in incidents where senior leaders have had to intervene to support children over the past year. This has been a huge step for us as a school.

Key adults

A second key point is to foster the relationships Bombèr describes by appointing key adults: trustworthy attachment figures who can provide dependency and embody the characteristics outlined in an attachment-aware approach. I have made sure that all children who need a key adult have one. I’ve then created a team around the child of the child’s choice, ensuring that the key adult is part of this.

Building relationships

The third layer has been the wider team around the child. This includes, but is not limited to, social workers, CAMHS teams, SEND officers and parents/carers. I class these as a wider team and the child will always know all of these adults. However, we have found that children in school have difficulties in cases where, for example, they can have several social workers in one year. I felt that this was not beneficial for the children involved, hence the closer, more informal team that the child chooses. It has resulted in children having more secure attachments and a reduction in incidences of them feeling overwhelmed, or a reduction in the time it has taken children to come out of feeling overwhelmed.

One new child at our school provides an excellent example of the success of this approach. She had found it difficult to come into her previous school, had panic attacks on entering the building and had no secure attachments with a school-based adult. As a result of her key adult at our school working incredibly hard on forming a relationship with her, she now rarely comes into school feeling overwhelmed, feels safe and, for the most part, is able to learn successfully.

Using other interventions

Once there is a culture shift, with training and key adults and teams in place, other interventions can take place. These differ according to the child and may include sensory interventions such as sensory circuits, theraplay, emotional interventions such as emotional literacy support assistants (ELSAs), and academic interventions such as Catch Up Literacy.

At my school, trauma-informed interventions are based on a wide variety of diagnostic tools. Once assessed, interventions are allocated as appropriate and measured for impact.

Long-term effects

By supporting growth in the child’s holistic development, we will, in turn, impact upon their learning potential and educational attainment. This will help these children create the secure attachments that they so deserve, enabling them to become the next generation of talented and emotionally-secure young adults.

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Aimee Cave is assistant headteacher and SENCO at Pocklington Community Junior School in East Yorkshire. Aimee is a recent graduate of the NASENCO programme, run by Best Practice Network. For further information about this programme, see: www.bestpracticenet.co.uk/nasenco

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