Organisation: Tri-Borough Virtual School

Region: London

Sector: Education

Service: Bespoke training

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case study
Our Lady of Dolours and Oxford Gardens Primary Schools Attachment Awareness in Schools Project

Tri-Borough Virtual School, 19 December 2016

the need

Two primary schools took up an offer from the Virtual School in London's Tri-Borough area for a fully funded and comprehensive training programme in Attachment Awareness for all staff. (For a case study with an overview of the whole project from the perspective of the Virtual School click here.)

Oxford Gardens Primary School (OGPS) had identified a population of children that included three children in care, but also a significant group of others on the edge of care, in kinship care or involved with social care as particularly vulnerable and likely to have unmet needs in relation to attachment and recovery from toxic stress.

From her own experience of setting up an attachment-informed Nurture Group in a previous setting, the Inclusion Manager, Amy Moore, knew what impact training in attachment theory could have on practice in working with the most vulnerable children and felt that staff at Oxford Gardens would be receptive to it. She could tell that staff at the school were aware of children's emotional needs and willing to be adaptable in order to meet those needs.

While there had been no looked-after children at Our Lady of Dolours (OLD) at project commencement, senior leaders were occupied with the needs of a large cohort of children experiencing traumatic stress resulting from homelessness, domestic violence, parental substance misuse or poverty. They had identified how the behaviour of these children living with toxic stress was proving difficult for staff to manage using traditional behaviour-management strategies. A rise in quite serious incidents and a general feeling amongst staff that challenging behaviour was detracting from learning led to the school's involvement in the project.

Assistant Head, Katy Doy, says that for them the training offer from the Virtual School to become an attachment-aware school, 'came at exactly the right time.'

the solutions

Senior Leaders in both schools recognised the need for training to be rolled out across the whole school staff team to show that it was valued and for it to have an impact.

OGPS were keen to involve the whole school community from governors to teachers, to admin, grounds staff and children. The Inclusion Manager felt it was important that the training was not just a one-off inset but involved follow-up sessions so that staff had to keep it in mind in their practice, but without it imposing an unrealistic burden on their time.

For OLD, a school proud of its tradition of strict standards of discipline, it was important that any changes in approach to behaviour management were integrated coherently with existing values and policies that prioritised high expectations around behaviour. Long-serving members of staff in particular, it was acknowledged, might find a change of emphasis in how these values and policies are put into practice challenging.

The training package for both schools, funded by the Virtual School and delivered by KCA from January to July 2016, consisted of:

  • Attachment Awareness in Practice – whole-staff inset training day, providing theoretical underpinning of concepts of attachment, trauma and resilience.
  • Emotion Coaching training session for all staff – Emotion Coaching enables children and young people to manage their own behaviour by helping them to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur, and how to handle them.
  • Needs and Interventions practice tool training session – helps practitioners to re-assess needs of children in relation to trauma and recovery from trauma.
  • Consultancy for key staff – two two-hour sessions alongside the face-to-face training on how learning has been taken into practice and the impact of this.
  • Elearning courses (Attachment and Brain Development, Emotion Coaching, Impulsive Behaviour and Understanding Trauma) – supplemented face-to-face training, helping practitioners to embed and apply the theory in their own practice.
  • Joint consultancy session – enabled key staff to work with colleagues from the other school involved in the programme to share experiences and to reflect on what had worked well and what had been challenging. It was also an opportunity to prepare for a summative conference in late June 2016 at which the schools and Virtual School presented their experiences to other prospective partner schools.

the outcomes

At Our Lady of Dolours

For one child at OLD the Assistant Head feels the project can largely be credited with his remaining at the school. From a complex background, the adults, both at home and at school, were finding his behaviour challenging in the extreme and he had received a fixed-term exclusion in the Autumn Term 2015, threatening his prospects of going on the annual 'reward' trip. At that stage he was described by teaching staff as 'pretty much unable to learn'.

By the end of the school year, however, staff had been able to provide an environment for him and respond to him in ways that had helped him to develop self-regulation. He was able to enjoy the summer residential camp that had seemed so unlikely earlier in the school year.

His individual experience has been reflected throughout the OLD school community. The number of serious behaviour issues recorded on SIMS reduced significantly, with low-level situations less likely to escalate. Teachers report that they are having to spend less time dealing with behavioural issues in the classroom, with more children arriving ready to learn. When auditing concerns over children's behaviour before the project began, many teachers had indicated problems with as many as half the pupils in their class. By the end of the summer term, the number of flagged children had reduced to a more manageable two or three per Key Stage. The Assistant Head feels this is reflective of a culture within the whole staff team that now recognises the emotions that lie behind children's behaviours. She says the tone and language used in conversations with children has changed and this has helped to improve relationships, which has resulted in improved behaviour and learning.

Emotion Coaching is now used universally at OLD, having been integrated successfully within the behaviour policy. Staff have relinquished their anxiety that children are 'getting away with bad behaviour' if no sanction is imposed and recognise that children need access to a range of responses and approaches depending on the situation and their own personal circumstances. Following behavioural incidents, the school now builds in time for children to reflect on the emotions which led to the incident and how they can feel safe enough to be able to self-regulate next time they feel these emotions.

In terms of building community resilience, the Assistant Head at OLD felt that the staff had already been quite good at supporting each other, but have become even more aware of each other's emotional needs and triggers and more skilled in allowing for and accommodating them. One teacher reported developing understanding of secondary trauma as particularly helpful in a year when he was teaching a class of children with considerable levels of unmet need and toxic stress that he found very challenging.

Attachment-aware language and practice is becoming embedded in all aspects of life of the OLD school community. Mutual respect and reciprocity between staff, between staff and children, and between children, and self-regulation in both adults and children has developed immensely. One teacher has discovered that as she was standing at the front of her class practising mindful breathing, this not only helped her to stop herself 'flipping her lid' but that the children also became more aware of her emotions so emotions and self-regulation are accepted throughout the school as part of being human. It has been a delight to the staff that as social relationships improve, teaching and learning has also benefited.

At Oxford Gardens

Oxford Gardens have had a lot of success developing an attachment-aware approach across their whole school community with one teacher for each year group taking a lead role in championing attachment awareness.

Children have been quick to understand and adopt the change of approach. The school selected a team of Junior Mentors from among their most emotionally literate children at KS2 to support those who needed more support with self-regulating and expressing their emotions.

'Children are totally enthused by the project', says the Inclusion Manager, 'Year 6 in particular really got it and liked the language of emotions and their own emotions being validated.' She links this to the pending adolescence and transition to secondary school and sees value in helping the Year 6 children to explore this.

'For these children and for others who live with uncertainty in their home life', she adds, 'school has become a crucial safe base where emotions are recognised and children feel understood'. One Year 6 girl who had started the year with a number of timeouts leading to being put on report, showed a marked improvement in her behaviour once attachment-aware practice started to be embedded at the school; her timeouts reduced and she finished her primary career without being put on report again.

Having trained all staff, including the admin and grounds teams, the Inclusion Manager has noticed that support staff in particular are more understanding of those children who may appear to be seeking support for one issue, but who are actually just seeking connection with an adult because they need it. The way they are spoken to has changed, with greater attention being given to what children are feeling as opposed to the resulting behaviour.

Parents at OGPS too have been enthusiastic, with a couple of well-attended and well-received coffee mornings to introduce Attachment Awareness generating a lot of questions. Some parents later volunteered to contribute to a presentation at the project's first year summative conference. Governors have also been supportive and engaged.

At both schools

One benefit of the schools embarking on their attachment awareness journey together through this project has been the support and collaboration that they have been able to offer each other along the way.

Having come on board for different reasons and from different starting points, the leads in each school recognise and appreciate the opportunities there have been for sharing ideas, best practice and mutual support which have strengthened community resilience between them and others across the project.

customer response

Both schools commented on how useful and engaging the training was, combining inspiring content with a down-to-earth realism that made it easy to apply in everyday school situations. They were also pleased with the quality and clarity of the resources.

Of the three face-to-face training sessions, both schools felt that the Emotion Coaching had the biggest impact on practice. At OLD it provoked some lively, frank and yet healthy debate around how it related to the more traditional behaviour and sanctions model, but the Assistant Head feels it has brought about some of the most far-reaching changes in attitudes and practice. At OGPS too, teachers in particular found they could integrate the Emotion Coaching easily into their practice in the classroom.

However, both schools felt that the focus on neuroscience in the initial session was important as it provided a solid theoretical underpinning. At OLD it had been crucial to shifting attitudes and helping staff to recognise their stake in the co-creation. The Assistant Head felt that a stand-alone Emotion Coaching session would have been less effective without it.

For the LSAs in particular at OGPS, it helped them to understand behaviour as an expression of need rather than as a personal attack on the member of staff. It was important for some lunchtime supervisors too to understand that all children some of the time cannot regulate their emotions without support.

At OLD, alongside the other training elements, the Needs and Interventions session provided the 'missing piece of the jigsaw', especially for teachers, who felt better able to work with their teaching assistants to devise more effective strategies for helping certain children, and indeed the whole class, to make progress.

One area of challenge for the project at both schools was engaging staff with the elearning content of the training, which is such an important resource for embedding theory into practice through reflection. While it has been more successful with teachers, there have been difficulties, especially among support staff, due to their levels of ICT competency and time capacity. KCA is now liaising with the Assistant Head at OLD around some new course content pitched at Level 2 which is more accessible than the more academic level 3 courses.

The Assistant Head at OLD said of the project: 'It has been incredibly worthwhile. We started with a clear vision of where we wanted to go. The training not only helped us get there, but to go much further.'

The Headteacher, Sarah Alley, added: 'attachment theory thinking… just unlocked these children and made us able to understand what was going on with far greater clarity. As a result we got to make much more progress with them.'

At both schools staff from leadership level to lunchtime supervisors are now saying they feel the training has helped them to be more responsive to the children. A reception class teacher at OGPS says:

'Our training with KCA has lowered stress levels in our classroom. It has reframed how we think about each child on an individual level and reminded us that each child brings a unique set of circumstances to the classroom with them each and every day.'

OGPS's Assistant Head Lauren Potter says:

'Staff in the school have a better understanding of why children are behaving in a particular way. Understanding this makes the behaviour feel less personal and keeps the staff calm. Calm staff are better equipped to deal with needy children.'

next steps

At OGPS, After School Club staff are now being trained. The Junior Mentors trained in Years 3, 4 and 5 have now progressed to Years 4, 5 and 6, and training for the new Year 3 intake is scheduled for summer 2017, with the intention of making it an annual fixture in the calendar. The PSHE coordinator has developed their role yet further to contribute to an anti-bullying campaign in which their Emotion Coaching skills have proved very useful, and which has earned the school a National Award for Excellence in Bullying Intervention this year.

As they begin a new academic year, school leaders at OLD feel they are embarking on 'phase two' of the project. They are planning further work with support staff to embed Emotion Coaching, and a group of play leaders from Years 4, 5 and 6 will be trained to lead on the project from within the pupil cohort. The school are also discussing how to effectively engage with parents and families in order to spread the approaches used into the wider community.

OLD now has five looked after children on roll and staff feel better equipped to understand and respond to their needs, especially by pairing them with key adults who can help them to become more resilient which will aid progress in their learning. Teaching assistants are keen and feel more able to take on this role, freeing up the time of senior leaders.