Monday 9 May 2016

Guest blog - If only: A perspective on the Behaviour Review

By Scarlett Levy

In writing this I feel I should be clear that these views are entirely my own. I have enormous respect for my colleagues both within my own school and within the wider profession. Now is a very challenging time to be a teacher and I have no desire to see the Behaviour Review become another stick with which to beat an already demoralised profession. I wear two hats in my life; I am both an adoptive parent to a child with complex needs for whom insecure attachment and trauma are at the core of their experience as well as a Special Needs teacher and SENCO who has taught in a wide range of settings and provisions.

In my role as a teacher I have in recent years taught children who have experienced such trauma that their emotional age was around that of a six month old baby. Throughout the day in my classroom and in the classrooms of others I have witnessed those children return to that emotional state in times of tiredness; excitement; insecurity and stress. I have taught children so hypervigilant that the entire classroom had to be paced at least five times before they could sit down to complete an activity.

I know that as a teacher coming into the profession I was not prepared for this, nor were my colleagues. I have attended excellent attachment training over the last five years but it is only through my journey as an adoptive parent that I have started to really understand what children who have insecure attachments and a history of trauma, be they in care or not, need from their classroom and their teacher.

It pains me to write this but unfortunately in many schools teachers are not in the position to meet these needs effectively, not through want of trying but because institutionally education is built on a behaviourist rather than therapeutic foundation. OFSTED criteria (by which we are all judged) focus upon learning made by the whole class within the lesson. It is very hard for a whole class to make progress when one child, or more in many classes is in such a state of hypervigilance and stress that they are unable to regulate themselves in relation to the task ahead or to the adult supporting them in the endeavour.

Attachment training for schools is often very good if schools seek to access it but the advisory services open to schools from Local Authorities is often minimal. Schools must therefore buy in training using their own budgets, which means such training must be viewed as a priority over other resources. Once the training has been delivered it falls to schools to re-evaluate their behaviour policies; lesson structures and classroom layouts.

For children with insecure attachments behaviour policies which involve sanctions based on encouraging guilt (which we must remember is a positive emotion that encourages us to make reparation) are unsuccessful because they bring out the deep seated shame that these children have within them. We know that for these children ‘time in’ with a key adult is far more effective than ‘time out’, a PACE approach is more effective than a strict one size fits all model. For a classroom to be able to apply this there needs to be a way for key adults to be made available to support children and calm spaces provided for children to access. This requires an entire change of focus and staff deployment.

If staff are working long term with children who require these approaches they require high level supervision and support themselves so that they can remain regulated whilst they support the children in learning to regulate themselves. I have had the privilege to work in a setting where this was provided by an educational psychologist and it was invaluable. Unfortunately such as service would not be considered to form part of the core work educational psychologists provide and would therefore be an additional expenditure for individual schools.

All of these steps are possible if the Behaviour Review finds that what schools need is time; training and money to be able to give children the nurturing environment that they require. All of the teachers I know want desperately to enable children to move forward to adulthood successfully by developing them as whole individuals. If the Behaviour Review listens to the profession and finds that the current climate of data driven, test based, narrow educational focus is disempowering teachers to provide the caring, stable environment that leads to positive behaviour for learning then it will be worth the effort.


  1. Great post!

    "institutionally education is built on a behaviourist rather than therapeutic foundation... It is very hard for a whole class to make progress when one child is in such a state of hypervigilance and stress that they are unable to regulate themselves". Or, in some cases, where the rest of the class is in fear or stress themselves due to the behaviour of said child. (Mine used to throw chairs around and tried to push another child down the stairs. I wonder how much stress the other kids felt going into such a situation day after day?)

    I sometimes wonder if we adoptive parents ask too much of schools and teachers - and other kids. For instance, we ask the teachers to be therapists for our kids. Is that fair on teachers? I'd guess that it's not what they signed up for, and it's clearly not what they're trained for ("as a teacher coming into the profession I was not prepared for this, nor were my colleagues").

    We ask other kids to put up with extreme behaviours and fail to take into account what those behaviours may be doing to them. I've had a birth daughter whose schooling was disrupted by pupils with lesser issues than my adopted son's and it's part of why she's currently on anti-depression medication.

    We ask their parents to put up with their children's education being disrupted and for their children to be abused and sometimes injured and to be compassionate and understanding. Actually, we didn't ask them if was OK. We just assumed and got upset if they complained. Yet if it were our kid who was being attacked, would we not be up there demanding that they be protected? Or if another kid were taking lots of resources, would we not be concerned that our child wasn't getting the attention they needed? I wish I had done that with our birth daughter, but we trusted the school to sort it. Maybe that was a mistake (by us).

    And finally our own kids. Is it fair on them to put them into such a situation where they can't cope? We bombard the schools with leaflets and demand that they read Louise Bomber so that they understand what to do when our kid isn't coping, but do we consider our own role in putting our child into that situation in the first place? If our kid can't cope, why are we sending them?

    It's hard! I've sent my kid to a mainstream school for a long period when he clearly wasn't coping. And (being honest) part of that was simply to get respite for my wife. Eventually when it broke down, we home schooled him for a period. That was very traumatic for my wife but great for my son's attachment. Finally we got him into a special school, but it felt that the process should have been easier and more straightforward. Probably he should have been in such an environment from the start.

    So maybe, when we're next having a rant about how our kids' mainstream school aren't meeting little Johnny's needs, we should be considering whether our ranting is fair and, actually, whether he should be there at all.

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. For us too, despite preparation, it has been a process of understanding what impact developmental trauma has on our children in the classroom. It has also been a shock to see how widespread the behaviourist model is in school. I was not prepared for either. At the point our children entered school we could have benefitted from a plan that both helped educate key staff and provided useful strategies we could use together. We needed someone experienced on board with all of us who really understood developmental trauma and attachment that could provide on going support. When school aged children are placed for adoption, the school needs support and training over time... one half day during INSET is not going to produce the shift in understanding. On meeting the school, the SW instructed staff not to shame our children, a confusing and unhelpful statement to make in isolation. All of us, our family and the school, were unprepared for the level of need our children demonstrated at school. Much of this is due to poor planning and understanding during the adoption process. For school age children, this planning needs to be in partnership with families and the children's new schools.

    And in response to the comments above, we asked the same question, but had no choice. Our (school-aged) children's adoption support plan was to basically 'attend school'. We didn't think our children should attend school within a few weeks of arriving, but we told they had to or we would be breaking the law. We were made to feel like unsuitable parents when we asked for the children to at least have an afternoon off to help them and then placed under heavy scrutiny should our children have any time off school. Pre-adoption order, without parental responsibility, we had little control over decisions about our children's education. The EHCP, the only way we can access alternatives to mainstream, has been slow and painful, led by an Ed Psych with no understanding of developmental trauma, quick to blame and misunderstand us. We have found mainstream to work for one of ours only after changing to a smaller, more nurturing school with a very positive behaviour policy (based on praise rather than sanction). The other child has more complex needs. A specialist MLD school where behaviour is regarded as communication and treated with an array of therapeutic interventions would be ideal, but is over subscribed.

    So what does this mean for a behaviour review? My immediate response is that the behavourist approach needs reviewing alongside other approaches. Specialist training can only go so far to help when a traumatised child is embedded in an approach based on sanction and reward. I would like to see more training in developmental trauma and the implications for behaviour management among key professionals in education e.g school leadership, SENCOs, EdPyschs, S&LT, PRU, OT, Educational Welfare Officers, Child Protection and Early Intervention leads. And for this training to be part of their CPD and accreditation to take on leadership roles. But, even with a shift in mainstream, we need to look at provision for severely traumatised children, and better planning and preparation when they move schools during the adoptive process.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I completely agree that training and a change of mindset along with appropriate provision are required. I hope a place becomes available for your child at the MLD school soon.