To effectively work with any challenging and difficult behaviours, we need to consider possible, underlying causes and try to understand its purpose. The key question is “What are they getting from behaving in this way?” Put very simply, when a young baby cries we know that this is because they are either hungry, in pain or in some way unhappy or tired and so we respond with food, comfort and so on. It is similar with adults. If we come home and our partner is grumpy, we ask them what the problem is and try
and help them with dealing with it. We know there is a reason for their grumpiness. Similarly when children are difficult to manage we need to understand, not just address the behaviour itself. To do this successfully it may help to think about the following:

• If the CLA has an identified attachment pattern does this explain how they might be thinking/ feeling;
• Think about the child’s emotional developmental stage rather than their actual age;
• Think about possible triggers that could be occurring; and
• Look closely at what the child gets from how they have behaved.

What we might see and what we can do



We now know that one of the most important ways that we can support children who are encountering a lot of challenges in their day to day experiences of being at school is to provide them with a key adult. This is an adult with whom they can develop an attachment- like relationship. In this current financial climate, it can be difficult to resource access to this support but can be extremely beneficial if used effectively.

Why do some CLA need this?

The degree of loss, trauma and abuse that some children have experienced has major implications for their general wellbeing, emotional development and social relationships. They may have enormous problems in trusting others, understanding themselves and in simply settling and adjusting to day to day situations in the same way as other children. Research has shown the presence of a ‘good enough’ other, an additional attachment figure at school, can help children to develop the neurological pathways they
need and to begin to settle and learn to trust others.

Who should take on this role?

Firstly we should highlight that this is not a role for a designated teacher for CLA, they have enough to do!


Relationships, relationships, relationships - The KA works hard to build a positive and secure relationship with the CLA so that they become someone who can be trusted and who makes them feel special.
Regular contact - The KA needs to ensure that they have regular contact during the day (meet and greet/ tricky times / when there is a disappointment/ to say goodbye at the end of the day).
Translator - KAs should get to know the CLA so that they understand and when necessary, translate their behaviours or needs to others.
Listener - It is very important that CLA know and trust their KA to actively listen them and to act as their advocate.
Be a solution finder - Sometimes problems that CLA encounter can seem almost insurmountable to them. A KA can be very important as someone who helps them to find solutions.
Provide fun and warmth - Make the most of opportunities for nice times together.
Prevent - Be there during hot spot times, prevent or deescalate when a stressful situation is developing.
Special - Ensure the CLA feels that they are special to you. Get to know what they are doing at home, their likes and dislikes, the people that are important to them and talk to them about these.
Be an anchor point - Get to know the carers, ensure that they know you and be there to link between home and school. Be there for the CLA so that when things are too much they know they have someone they can turn to.

Qualifications needed

This person needs to be chosen carefully as they must be right for the role but they are not going to act as therapist so special training is not necessary. The crucial factor is the ability to build a relationship with the child and so it needs to be someone who can be available in terms of time. They do not need to be with the CLA all of every day but just at times during the day, for example for ‘meet and greet’ and ‘goodbye and see you tomorrow’; ‘hot spots’ and when the stress is building (see section 3 of this chapter). The amount of time will very much depend on the needs of the child. They also need to not just work with the one child; in fact it is better if they don’t. They just need to help the child feel special when they are with them.

It is best to choose a person who:

  • Is motivated and eager to take on this role;
  • Wants to learn and understand the CLA they will be working with;
  • Is prepared to attend training and learn about the needs of children who have suffered loss and trauma;
  • Has the key personality characteristics i.e. stays calm in a crisis, is patient and tolerant, works well as part of a team; and
  • Likes children and enjoys being with them.


We all need and will strive for predictability and certainty in our lives, a world that is consistent and with few shocks or surprises. Unfortunately for our CLA this is not what they either have or expect. They are wired to expect problems and threats and so become constantly on the alert. With some CLA we see this, as they are what we call hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning their environment and checking things out. Others may be not showing how they feel through their behaviour but nonetheless we do need to be very aware of this need.

How we can help

  • Allow time for scanning their environment in each different context as they move during the day;
  • Try and ensure staff stability where possible. For example, if a member of SMT gets called when there are difficult situations, then when possible it shpuld be the same person. Avoid staff changes e.g. of midday supervisor (or dining room assistant) wherever possible;
  • Routines and consistency - Try and build as many rituals and routines into the lives of CLA at your school;
  • Try to avoid timetable changes and fully prepare CLA when they are necessary. Keep the special times for the CLA the same;
  • Be consistent about expectations and responses in terms of rewards and sanctions;
  • Be as explicit as possible – tell children what is happening, why things are being done in a particular way, why a particular response is being made; and
  • Listen to children to find out what worries them.

Create a safe place

Some CLA will use ‘flight’ as a way of dealing with challenges (and sometimes their challenges can be very minor or unimportant to us as secure adults). They will do this in a number of extreme ways, for example walking out of class, hiding under tables, climbing in cupboards etc. What we need to do is to provide ‘safe places’ where CLA can go to when they need a little space to calm down / off load and simply regulate their emotions. These can be just small private areas where children sit/listen to music/play a game or do some simple activities.

Louise Bombèr (2011) suggests that the provision of a ‘calm box’ individual to each child can be very helpful. One example in a secondary school was a small area in the classroom of the ALNCo. It was a busy classroom with lots of children working in groups or 1 to 1, so one additional person coming in to use the sitting area was not noticed. It was also a room that pupils could use at break times as an alternative to going out on the playground. As there were usually lots of adults around, pupils knew they would be safe there and if need be someone would give them some time. In a primary school a cheap ‘pop up’ tent has often served as a useful safe space for children. Very rarely do children abuse safe spaces although this is often a concern expressed by adults.

CALM BOXES                                         

A calm box contains an assortment of ideas for children
that will help them to de-stress and lower their anxiety
levels. Any resources they may need are also included.
Activities are things they may have chosen that they
like to calm themselves down. Examples include:

• Playing with twiddle toys for 5 minutes (such as
rubik’s cubes, worry beads, stress ball and blu tac
• Listening to music
• Tracing/ colouring/ or dot to dot pictures
• Word searches
• Maths activities
• Using play dough
Calm boxes are useful to keep in the classroom as well as the ‘safe area’. Bombèr (2011)



By careful consideration and planning of day to day routines there is a lot that can be done to help CLA to feel settled and secure and so reduce the chances of upsets and problems during the day.

Meet and greet

The start of the school day can be critical for any pupil and so putting in place some mini set routines can be very important to help a child to settle into the day and prepare for what is to come. Louise Bombèr (2007 and 2011) in her books suggests that there are certain elements to this that are very important to follow:

Firstly try and protect the time: it is vital that if we plan to do this that we then do it with absolute consistency and reliability.
Welcome the child- always be pleased to see them and convey this non-verbally as well as verbally.
Time to scan- for those CLA who are hyper-vigilant it is important that we let them assess their environment to get a sense of safety and security.
Engagement – have a chat about yesterday (positives only), last night and journey into school today.
Transitional objects – Many CLA, primary or secondary, may want to bring things in from home. It is good to talk about these and to be interested in their value to the child but then they need to be placed somewhere safely for the day and can be returned during ‘goodbye and see you tomorrow’. It is vital that the ‘safe place’ is completely safe and that the child can trust you about that.
Prepare – Move the CLA into thinking about the day ahead. With older pupils this would include going through the timetable and thinking about what is needed for different sessions, for primary pupils it will be about the types of activities. Try to use time  language where you can such as ‘before, after, then’.
Keeping them in mind – Let the child know that even when you are not with them that you will be there for them. Tell them when you will see them next.

Time for a pause

When possible during the day it can be helpful to plan in brief pause time. This allows children to just take a little time to calm, reflect, have contact with their Key Adult, talk if things are troubling them, check anything they are unsure off and to generally gather themselves and keep going.

‘Goodbye and see you tomorrow’

In the same way as we settle CLA into their day it is also important to ensure that a day ends with a positive and caring goodbye. So again a little time from their Key Adult to talk about the day and the things that have gone well or not so well. Ending with a smile and looking forward to the next school day is the aim; this is not the time for any recriminations or difficult conversations. Ensure that any treasured possessions are returned and that any ‘good news’ for a home – school book is conveyed. 

Ensure that any discussions with foster carers at the beginning and end of the day, that maybe more negative, do not take place in front of the CLA. This type of information may be better shared by Email.


Unfortunately despite all of the many strategies that can be put in place for our CLA there will always be times when situations just completely breakdown and there may be a meltdown. However if we understand a little more about what happens and why meltdowns occur then we may be more able to avoid them. We also need to be clear about how to respond afterwards so that there is ‘damage limitation’ and perhaps some reparation. Bombèr (2011) has some very good advice to offer.

Why do meltdowns occur?

A complete breakdown of behaviour when a child becomes unable to control themselves and becomes completely unregulated, usually because they are experiencing very high levels of stress that simply cannot be coped with any longer. The trigger may be something of a very low level but has come at a time when their underlying stress level is so high that it becomes intolerable. Children who have had long histories of toxic and extreme trauma are left feeling inadequate, anxious and out of control. They are far less self aware of their own feelings and so can’t assess for themselves when they are getting close to an explosion point and so are less able to take steps to manage their emotions appropriately.

How can we reduce them?

Firstly being aware will help us. Getting to know the individual signs of high levels of stress such as being over reactive, hyper-vigilant, sensory seeking, anxious, fidgety and unsettled, then taking steps to help the CLA to regulate themselves, calm and maybe take some time out will help to de-escalate the situation. Try and avoid taking the view that because nothing obvious has happened they cannot be stressed. We all have an invisible stress bucket that at different times and on different days will have varying levels of stress in it and it is the same with children.

How to respond

Sometimes our best efforts will not work, or the child may be on a ‘fast track’ to breakdown, so there will be occasions when de-escalation attempts do not succeed. When this is the case, the following needs to be considered:

  • Try to get the child to a ‘safe space’ away from others and most importantly away from the classroom;
  • Use calmers that you know suit the individual, maybe music, a quiet area, a chance to just sit with an adult in close proximity, doing activities the child finds soothing such as playing with play dough, playing a computer game or simply just talking;
  • Use their calm box if they have one;
  • Be very aware of yourself if you are managing this situation, as during this period your own anxiety levels will increase; and
  • Try and ensure there are others to provide back up if you need it.

What can we do afterwards?

The key to helping the CLA is to find a way to move on, and perhaps ‘repair’ the damage (figuratively as well as literally) that has resulted.
Steps to this could be:

  •  Have a calm and direct conversation about what happened and the outcome, be neutral but show you understand they will now be feeling very upset;
  • Be clear about the need to move forwards and find a way to ‘repair’; 
  • Let them think about how they can do this, help with ideas if necessary;
  • Let them know that you understand it might not be easy and that you can help them where they need it; and
  • Once they have engaged in the reparation, be very clear about how proud and pleased you are with them and how it will have helped others as well who will also be feeing better about things now.


We have stressed the value and importance of the PEP in ensuring the best possible outcomes for CLA. When problematic and challenging behaviours start to emerge it is very important that we make an early and effective response to avoid any escalation. The PEP is an important way to begin this process because it will involve all the key people working together in the most robust and effective way possible. This is best done through a more focused process.

Enhancing the PEP

The PEP is the perfect framework to make a comprehensive response to any significant behavioral challenges. The approach is individualised and when there are difficulties can include gathering comprehensive information about problems, the aim being to try and understand the function of the challenging behaviours for the child i.e. Why do they do what they do? In particular it can include an emphasis on helping the child to learn the skills that they need to find better ways of behaving.
The development of a PEP into a ‘super’ PEP for occasions when there are a lot of concerns about behaviour, can be useful in a number of ways:
✓ As a coordinated multi agency approach to managing difficulties;
✓ It focuses on the voice of the child; and
✓ It addresses the need for a personalised learning approach for our most vulnerable young people.

How does this differ from other plans that we use already?

Firstly, a PEP can avoid the need to have lots of different plans; it is one plan that can fulfill the role of a PEP but also:
• An IEP (Individual Education Plan)
• An IBP (Individual Behaviour Plan)
• A PSP (Pastoral Support Plan)

Secondly, it is absolutely based on the CLA’s perspective through considering the function of the behaviour. As we have emphasised, effective management of challenges depends on using the ‘My Life’ glasses because behaviour tends to have a purpose and it is essential that this is considered when seeking the best way to support and manage difficulties.

Thirdly, it is a positive approach that considers strengths as well as the difficulties.

Who organises the PEP meeting?

Anyone can liaise with colleagues to arrange completion of a “super” PEP, but normally the Social Worker and / or the designated teacher for Children Looked After would arrange it.


PACE is a way of working with children and young people that aims to provide a pathway for building positive and effective relationships. It is based upon research from neuroscience (Bombèr and Hughes 2013) and focuses on helping children to achieve an ‘open and engaged state’ which is central to being able to settle to learn. There are four elements to it which are described below:


Once again here we are only providing a very brief overview of something that could be an entire book. For an easy to read book that explains this and much more in much greater detail please refer to:
Bombèr and Hughes, (2013). Settling To Learn: Why Relationships Matter In School. Worth publishing.


We have highlighted that one of the most significant difficulties in terms of poor outcomes for CLA is the number of those who go on to develop later mental health problems. This is not an exclusive problem for those in the care system. We know that the  numbers of children regarded as having mental health problems generally is increasing. Given the severity of the trauma and abuse many experience it may not be surprising that CLA are at greater risk. All of the information we have presented in this resource is an attempt to reduce the likelihood of this occurring through increasing the knowledge, skills and understanding of those who work in schools. However, unfortunately there will always be some CLA who may go on to have mental health problems and so it is important that we are alert to this, and take action when and where necessary.

Below is a list of common behaviours that a pupil with mental health difficulties may present with, which could be a useful aide when considering the pupils’ needs: 

  • Little pleasure shown at a time when pleasure would be expected
  • Regression to the behaviour expected of a younger child
  • Becoming bossy or over controlling
  • Self-harming behaviour
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Loss of previously acquired skills
  • Substance abuse
  • Sudden changes of behaviour, mood or appearance
  • Niggly, persistent health complaints with no clear cause
  • Problems with losing/gaining weight
  • Problems with toilet training or wetting/soiling inappropriate to age or medical issues
  • Not very responsive to hurt, loss or pleasure
  • Raised or unusual levels of anxiety
  • Fighting frequently, temper outbursts
  • Deterioration in standards of work
  • Unusual patterns of school attendance
  • Initiating sexual play
  • Ritualistic play
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Lack of interest or motivation
  • Being destructive

Taken from a resource provided by Northamptonshire Schools website (2014)

Generally a lot of these behaviours will be just normal reactions to day-to-day events that are more difficult for them such as transitions, life events or anniversaries. However, monitor carefully and signpost CLA for further assessment and support if:
• Problems persist or increase in frequency;
• There are a number of different risk factors already present; and
• These behaviours are increasingly becoming a barrier to their learning or the learning of others

In later sections we have provided information about different services and how they may help you, but in particular you may want to consider consulting with your school Educational Psychologist or the Looked After Children in Education (LACE) team in the first instance.

This resource is based on Children looked after friendly schools, which was commissioned jointly by Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf local authorities utilising PDG LAC funding.  The content was developed by Andrea Higgins, Academic Director and Programme Coordinator in Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, working closely with Hannah Bevan and Jess Jones, LAC Education Coordinators from Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil.