It is important to recognise that a number of children and young people will have had experiences that are well beyond what most of us could even imagine. They will have encountered levels of trauma, abuse and neglect that are exceptional and which will impact on how they perceive the world, possibly all of their lives. We cannot take these away, but the more we can support CLA to cope we will improve their life chances and achieve better outcomes. To help achieve this, it is important to provide an overview about what is currently available from the field of neuroscience and brain development regarding the impact of neglect and trauma. This will be followed by a brief outline of current approaches from the world of therapy and therapeutic thinking. Both will help in understanding children who have been damaged and to find explanations for behaviour that is different, and often difficult, rather than making assumptions that the child is badly behaved. The intention is not that the adults who work in schools should become therapists, but that if they have a greater level of understanding they will be both more able, and more motivated, to deal with the challenges they will encounter with CLA.
It is important to note at this point, that this chapter could be a book of its own as there is an enormous amount in the literature that would be of interest and relevance. Both at the end of this chapter and in chapter five we have listed a number of books and websites that will provide further, far more detailed information for those who are interested to find out more.
Our brains are complex organs. In recent years, as technology has developed, our understanding of the developmental processes and the difficulties that can occur have increased at a tremendous rate. We now know far more about the impact that adverse early life or developmental trauma has on the brain development of many of our children and young people.
Secure, nurturing environments and stimulating, engaging experiences support the development of neural networks – they help to build brains. Empathetic, supportive attachments and relationships are essential to optimise brain development as:
“The attunement of emotional states is essential for the developing brain to acquire the capacity to
organize itself more autonomously as the child matures.” (Siegel 2012)
Stress in children has the greatest impact on brain development. The brain is the primary stress organ because it controls all the stress mechanisms. Children who experience prolonged and extreme periods of stress have smaller, less developed brains and so reduced cognitive functioning. The higher levels of cortisol that are the result of stress can impact on the different parts of the brain, so that the brain develops different responses, such as children being over or under responsive to threats.
Surprisingly even before being born, a baby’s brain development can be adversely effected by their early life experiences. In that if a mother has prolonged exposure to high levels of fear, anxiety or depression then their baby’s brain structure can be very different to that of babies who have not had this level of exposure.
Trauma can then continue to impact on the developing brain during the first two years of life. Even when we have no conscious memory of our emotional experiences, we store them in our brains and they may affect us as we grow and develop. So for example, if a young baby consistently has their needs met by carers who are attuned to them, responding to them and making sure they do not go hungry, cold, unloved or uncared for, then their brains develop, as we would expect. But babies who cry and either do not get help or worse still, have an abusive or threatening response, then they rapidly learn to freeze or separate themselves emotionally. Eventually this becomes ‘hardwired’ and children can automatically freeze when faced with any sort of threat. Sometimes they even respond to potentially harmless situations in this way, so becoming very numb and unresponsive. However, as children get older, then the pattern of response can change and they may become aggressive and hyperactive, actively seeking the excitement of violence or risk.
These problems may continue into the teenage years. As children enter puberty, the brain as well as the body undergoes a lot of change; the brain experiences the second fastest growth phase of its life. For many teenagers this is very apparent in the changes in their behaviour, which can become volatile and challenging. If the young person has had ‘good enough’ emotional experiences up to this point then the brain development is able to cope with these changes. However for those who have already had to cope with very difficult and challenging circumstances, unless provided with very sensitive support from adults, then the more reactive and volatile parts of their brain dominate over the parts that are involved with reasoning and decision-making.
So this tells us that the exceptional levels of trauma experienced by some children impact on their development emotionally, socially and in the way they are able to self regulate from the very earliest stage because of the effect it has had on the brain development.
Many of the children and young people who are in the care system will be experiencing significant difficulties with what is known as ‘attachment’ and ‘attachment relationships’. Understanding what this is and how it affects children, can help those who work directly with our CLA to have some appreciation of the impact on their learning and behaviour at school.
What is attachment?
Attachment is quite simply a system developed through evolution to keep us safe. It is activated at times of threat (separation, rejection or fear) and results in a child seeking comfort from a person they trust. It is proposed that children are predisposed to form attachment relationships that will ensure they feel safe, secure and cared for. Bowlby (1988) is the main proponent of the theory and he defines attachment as:
‘Attachment is a base from which children explore their experiences and form concepts of self others and the world’.
Attachments are determined by the nature of the care a child has received. The aim of attachment behaviour is proximity and contact with what we refer to as the primary carer so that the baby feels safe and has a secure base from which to develop. The child learns through the responses that their carer gives them. If when they are hungry, in pain, upset or anxious, they cry and this results in what they need, then that response becomes a learned response. The adult is attuned to their needs. Eventually feelings become 'contained’ because they do not overwhelm the child. Containment is important for children because it helps them to trust and feel secure in the world (Bion, 1962).
Children who experience repeated changes of a caregiver or neglectful, harmful and/or abusive care are far more likely to have attachment difficulties or attachment disorders.
Why is it important?
Children who have developed secure attachments then go on to become confident in ‘separating’ from their carers and exploring the world. They know that they can be apart from their caregiver for periods without disaster falling upon them. They can be curious and explore the world and so learn and develop. Early attachment relationships are the foundations for a child’s development and ability
to form positive and close relationships with others. They are also fundamental to development of our capacities for emotional regulation, self-control and cognitive development. Children who have good attachments are more likely to be able to achieve success with:
• Friendships and good social relationship skills
• Academic success
• Emotional regulation and self-management of behaviour
(Levy and Orlans 1998)
What happens if attachments are not formed effectively?
We now know that those children (who may or may not be CLA) that have not experienced a robust attachment in their early years will encounter many challenges in their lives and, pertinent here, in their school lives. They have not had an adult who has been ‘attuned’ to their needs and so unable to ‘contain’ their emotions. There has been inconsistent parenting and also inconsistent care; they may have experienced extreme hunger, pain, neglect emotionally or physically, fear and abuse (or seen others being abused). Their attempts for a secure attachment have not been successful for whatever reason. This could be because their caregivers have had their own mental health problems, drug or alcohol difficulties, they may have experienced neglect and abuse as children and not know how to respond or to be a primary carer. These children will encounter far more difficulties as they grow up because they do not have the tools in terms of emotional security that lead to success in different areas that most children will have. The table on the next page helps to understand the extent of the difficulties for our pupils with attachment difficulties that we will see in schools:
|Area of impact||Examples of how this affects children?|
✓ Beginning, managing and finishing tasks
Emotional regulation and
✓ Over reaction to experiences and events
✓ Problems in developing and sustaining relationships with others
Does it have the same effect on every child?
From the work of Bowlby (1969/1988), further developed by Mary Ainsworth (1982), we now know that there are typically four types of attachment that we will see in children. If we understand these then we may be able to do more to meet the different needs of children and develop effective strategies.
The four types of attachment are :
- Secure attachments;
- Ambivalent - resistant attachments;
- Avoidant attachments; and
- Disorganised attachments.
The following table explains more about the 3 forms of insecure attachments.
What can we do as adults?
We now understand that as educators we need to establish an attachment – like relationship with CLA in order to enhance learning and development. Secure relationships correlate with better academic attainment, self-regulation and social competence. Therefore for some of our most challenging and vulnerable pupils, one of the most successful strategies schools can implement is to provide children with an identified adult (Key Adult) whose role is to focus on building up this type of relationship with the
children in their care.
For successful intervention with most pupils the work of Heather Geddes (2006) provides a very useful way for linking attachment theory with relationships in the classroom between pupils, teachers and activities.
For learning to occur, the pupil will need to feel secure and trust their relationship with the teacher. But also they need to be able to separate from the teacher and work independently on the task knowing that the teacher will be there for them if needed. The challenge for children with insecure attachments is that this may be difficult for them and so impair the learning triangle process.
The strategies given above are based on the understanding of how the CLA difficulties impacts on their behaviours and this relationship and so how they can be best helped. This is shown in the following diagram:
Where there are secure attachments, children have trust and confidence that they will be helped when necessary, so early in their school life they are able to develop the skills for being an effective learner. For children who have not experienced secure attachments, it is far harder for them to trust the teacher so the Learning Triangle is disrupted in the following ways:
|Attachment pattern||Impact on the learning triangle|
Ambivalent – resistant
The focus for the child is on the teacher – child
In order to avoid risking an attachment the focus
These CLA are not engaged in any part of the
There is sometimes a tendency from professionals who work with children who have been, or are a part of the care system, to accept that the lives of children and young people have been very traumatic and subject to many challenges, but then to feel that once the child moves to a more stable and secure care situation their behaviour patterns will quickly change to being more acceptable. In the diagram below this is depicted by the ‘blue’ and ‘red’ roads. However rather than it being a direct ‘link road’ between the
two pathways, it is much more likely to be the amber road as shown here, with many ups and downs and obstacles along the way. Children cannot just ‘forget’ learning and emotional memories that have been a pattern of their lives for many years, but they will have a difficult journey that could take them many years and for which they will need a lot of support.
As already indicated above within this chapter we have only been able to provide a very brief overview of this complex but interesting topic. There are many resources available for those who want to learn more.
Heather Geddes (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: The links between children’s early experience, well being and performance in school. Worth Publishing.
Kim Golding (2012). Observing children with attachment difficulties in school: a tool for identifying and supporting emotional and social difficulties in children aged 5-11. Jessica Kingsley: London. (There is an Early Years version of this book available as well).
Nicola Marshall (2014). The Teacher’s Introduction to attachment: Practical Essentials for Teachers, Carers and School Support Staff. Jessica Kingsley: London.
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.