In these difficult times, it’s hard to see the light at the end of what feels like a long, hard journey, through the pandemic and the growing pressure placed on schools

In speaking with so many staff in schools over the last few weeks there is a real sense that everything feels hard, people are burnt out and stretched that it’s hard to remain ‘steady’ especially when supporting children with high levels of need.

Sadly there are too many children who live with adversity, poverty, significant losses and uncertainty and the impact is huge on how they struggle to cope in school settings, comply with learning expectations and the pressures of learning environments when their emotional needs are in crisis and not being met.

Looked-after children, in particular, are often in huge emotional distress, sometimes this is apparent and on the surface resulting in what may be considered as challenging behaviours or sometimes internally, impacting their capacity to think, concentrate, to process information and learn.

Tragically, all too often the school’s focus on expecting children to learn gets in the way of ensuring their emotional needs and their sense of safety are prioritised before expecting them to access learning. With this mismatch all too often children are triggered into a fight/flight state and are at high risk of exclusion or behavioural consequences that prevent the child from feeling safe enough to manage in school.

The statistics reflect this in that looked-after children are more than five times more likely to have a fixed period exclusion¹ and 55.7% have SEN.²

Talking with one pastoral member of staff recently in reflective supervision, I hear about a child in crisis, sadly not an unusual story, but a child who has suffered multiple losses, including bereavement resulting in him living in care and struggling to manage in school and to stay in class and to engage in learning.

This child has been on the brink of exclusion until the staff member challenged the approach. I was struck by her bravery in challenging the behaviour system of giving him negative behaviour points and exclusions and how she fought for a different way, she fought to hold him in school, to give him a safe space to be, with not one empathic trusted adult but a team of adults who check in with him and support him at different times of the day, (as well as other children that they support).

Being alongside him and responding to him with compassion and care, having ‘connected conversations’ with him that are relational, non-judgemental and curious about him and his experiences as well as engaging in activities that build the trust and relationships around him has been the priority. Sometimes it is too much for just one adult to hold and here this team is enabling staff to build a cohesive safety net around him. This is creating belonging, safety and trust and is absolutely the exact approach he needs right now to hold him in safety without judgement whilst he is in crisis until he is more regulated again and able to access the executive functioning and thinking in his brain to be able to engage in learning.

The impact is huge, he is coming to school and not absconding, he is connecting to adults, he is beginning to trust. He is feeling heard and held in mind and his stress system is being regulated so that the toxic stress of pain, panic and grief he is in is becoming tolerable. This is because there are key adults alongside him and as another pastoral staff member said, “being brave enough to ‘be the light’ for him.”

Only when he feels emotionally regulated and safe will he begin to think and to access his cognition and engage in learning and it is so needed for schools to feel able to survive through the crisis with a child and to bring emotional safety and containment first. But it needs bravery, confidence, support and adults in schools who are enabled to support children emotionally as well as cognitively. These staff need supervision too to be enabled to reflect and think and to feel supported through the work they do.

Another story in the last week of term was about a child in reception – four years old who has been excluded from his first nursery setting and has already had two exclusions in his new school from his reception class. He is a looked-after child, recently placed in his 3rd foster placement but with an imminent rupture of going to a respite family for a week due to a planned holiday for his current foster carers. The child is in a crisis of panic and emptiness and loss of safety. Another huge fear of loss, abandonment and unsurprisingly, he is struggling in school. Bravely, the pastoral staff are beginning to see the behaviour as distress, of total lack of emotional safety and are able to hear the need for a care plan, not a behaviour plan, but a care and regulation plan to be placed around this child to help him survive through to the end of term, and then beyond.

The plan includes having a small team of key adults who can offer care and safety for him, staff that can give key time that is coordinated so that they can still support other children, staff that engage with him in sensory play and give him sensory breaks and offer something beyond the expectation and provision in the classroom which is too hard for him to manage at the moment. Lowering the toxic mix of cortisol and adrenaline that is feeding fight, flight behaviours and instead meeting him with care, kindness, and emotional containment, helping him to safely have the big feelings and to survive through them without judgement or rejection, bringing him back to a regulated, soothed state so he can begin to play, trust and engage.

This is the work so many adults and pastoral staff are doing in schools. Daniel Sobel, in his book ‘Leading on Pastoral Care: A Guide to Improving Outcomes for Every Student’ (January 2019) cited pastoral staff as ‘absolutely critical’, bringing the light, empowerment and passion about holding children’s emotional and mental wellbeing at the heart of their approach in schools. It is about bravery and challenge to advocate and enable thinking about what is happening in the child’s world that is having an impact on he way they are presenting and developing child centred care plans to help them survive through fear, panic and emotional distress.

There are many staff in school that are the light for children and this is the work that needs to be celebrated, valued and acknowledged.

102,000+ looked-after children in the UK in 2018/19

The total number of looked after children in the UK has increased every year since 2010. In the last five years the population of looked after children in the UK has increased by 10%.³

Hamish & Milo supporting children with high levels of need

80,850+ looked-after children in England

55.7% of looked-after children have SEN

The most common type of need for all looked after children at 31 March 2020 was ‘Social, Emotional and Mental Health’.

Pupils with primary type of need ‘Social, emotional and mental health’ (SEMH) had the highest permanent exclusion rate in 2018/19 at 0.92%

You may also be interested in

Cartoon of Milo sleeping on his chair

Subscribe to our newsletter


Sign up to receive news on current issues that are affecting children and young people as well as resources we are developing to support you in your precious work with children.

Hamish with newspaper cartoon