Organisation: The Grange School, Runcorn

Sectors: Children's social care · Early Years · Education · Health · Justice · Other

Services: Bespoke training · E-learning · Consultancy · ·

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case study
Attachment Awareness in Schools: working quickly to introduce a more relationship-based approach to behaviour management in an all-through academy for 3- to 16-year-olds.

The Grange School, Runcorn, 2 February 2017

the need

The town of Runcorn makes up half of the small unitary authority of Halton, which straddles the River Mersey immediately south-east of Liverpool. The Grange School occupies a striking ultra-modern building on a gentle slope in a well-established residential area of the town where older estates meet the late-twentieth-century New Town developments.

The Grange is a rare breed of school – an all-through school whose 1,100 pupils, 53% of whom attract the Pupil Premium, span an age range of 3 to 16, from nursery through primary to secondary. The school brought together in one learning environment a mix of staff groups with differing educational philosophies, and pupils from diverse backgrounds with differing needs. Weaving these strands together coherently and positively had been a challenge occupying school leaders over the three years of the all-through school's existence.

In 2015, however, a new head and senior management team came together, and their vision included recognition of the huge scope for improving relationships within the school, which they believed could have powerful knock-on effects on pupil behaviour and attitudes to learning.

The school leadership had identified that staff were over-reliant upon a behaviour policy based on rewards and sanctions and were caught in a spiral, particularly in relation to the most vulnerable children, of imposing more sanctions, more often, to little or no effect. Another particular problem was a culture of pupils absenting themselves from lessons – generally dealing with perceived failure, shame, or confrontation by flight.

A team of senior staff led by the Assistant Headteacher, Tony Hutton, was tasked with developing a new behavioural policy, and, most importantly, identifying ways of helping staff throughout the school to recognise children's emotional needs and how those needs might affect behaviour. They felt that the more nurturing ethos typically associated with primary education could be applied in an age-appropriate way across the whole school. They were mindful that in a school faced with increasingly challenging behaviour, some staff, particularly in the secondary school, might be sceptical.

The immediate needs were:

  • To find an overarching theoretical base to underpin a new behavioural policy within which:
    • children and staff can feel safe within every part of the building and aspect of school life
    • an understanding of attachment and trauma issues informs relationships
    • emotions are validated and recognised
    • reflection is encouraged and enabled
    • fractured relationships can be addressed by restorative approaches
    • the whole school becomes an increasingly calm and nurturing environment
    • parents are helped to become part of a nurturing partnership
    • attitudes to learning and learning outcomes improve
  • To convey this understanding to staff in a way that is neither undermining nor critical, but enlightening and empowering.
  • Do it quickly!

the solutions

Early in 2016 the Headteacher, Janette Vincent, contacted KCA on the recommendation of the Head of Halton's Virtual School for Children in Care, which was about to stage a KCA training event for its Designated Teachers. Ms Vincent had come to feel that awareness and understanding of attachment issues was key to understanding the behaviour of children in school and responding to it constructively. She hoped that some relatively brief input from skilled trainers with a good track record in working with whole-school staff groups could build the foundation of staff acceptance of and 'buy-in' to the changes in ways of working around behaviour which the behavioural policy group hoped to introduce.

The required timescale driven by need and budget was ambitious. The input was too important and urgent to wait for a start-of-term INSET day and so it was agreed that twilight sessions at the end of the school day could be made to work.

Although a longer planning process for preparing the training programme might have been preferred by both KCA and the school, enthusiasm and determination from both sides resulted in the first twilight training session taking place less than a month after the original contact.

Over the course of six weeks, KCA would offer:

  • two separate two-hour late afternoon training sessions titled Introduction to Attachment Awareness in Schools; one with nursery and primary staff, the other with secondary staff
  • two further full afternoons, each beginning with a two-hour consultancy with the behavioural team, and ending with a training session with the whole school staff (145 people in all, including ancillary staff), the first on 'Emotion Coaching', and the second on 'Needs and Interventions'.

Prior to the training sessions, the school ensured that staff expectations were raised by making information available about KCA and the KCA Associates who would be delivering the training. Two members of the behaviour team attended a KCA training event on Emotion Coaching.

The KCA training input

Following a short process of co-creation between the school and KCA to determine what would be most effective in this context, the initial training sessions were designed to present a theoretical foundation of how brain development depends on attachment relationships, how this development can be further affected by trauma and toxic stress, and how the conditions for recovery and resilience-building can be enhanced by appropriate human responses in the school setting.

However, the starting point was a very tangible and accessible one for teachers at the end of a school day – inviting them to identify some behaviours observed in children who are not resilient when dealing with life in school. Behaviour was then attributed to brain function – and experienced staff were reassured by being told that much of what is known about how and why our brains work as they do has only been discovered over the past twenty years.

The presentation went on to show how brain connections and neural pathways form in early childhood and throughout life in response to attachment relationships, and considered the effects on the development of the ability to regulate stress. Participants also learned how toxic unregulated stress shuts down brain function, leading to manifestations of emotional insecurity and the behaviours which had been identified earlier. Children need to be with adults who practise mindful awareness, co-regulate with them, co-learn with them, and enable them to feel safe.

Finally, participants were shown the importance of their non-verbal communication and their ability to deal with children and young people in a relaxed way which recognises and acknowledges the emotional experience of the child. They were shown how children can be supported to recover from a state of unregulated stress, and introduced to the concept of Attachment Awareness in Schools.

The next training event introduced the school staff to the concept of Emotion Coaching – an approach for everyday use with children and young people which enables them to manage their own behaviour through helping them to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur, and how to handle them. It drew on the Bath Spa University research, published in 2015, on the positive outcomes of using Emotion Coaching in schools. This and the final event built on the basic neuroscientific theory of the initial events to offer practical approaches to relationship-based behaviour management within the school.

That final event, Needs and Interventions, made further links between the underpinning knowledge of how brains develop and function, and practical approaches in schools which build the resilience of children and young people and staff alike. Participant staff were left with a range of ideas and approaches which they could apply themselves in school, and online access, via the KCA website, to a range of further references and resources. They could also register for three ten-hour e-learning courses to expand their CPD and embed their learning on the topics of Attachment and Brain Development; Understanding Trauma; and Emotion Coaching.

the outcomes

On the back of a generally positive and enthusiastic response to the training events, the behavioural team felt empowered to draw up a new behaviour management policy which relies much more on the principles of attachment awareness.

An OFSTED inspection carried out very shortly after the training input judged the school as 'requiring improvement' in the category 'Personal development, behaviour and welfare', and reflected the concerns which Ms Vincent had brought to KCA as matters of urgency in January 2016. The report commented positively on the learning atmosphere and consistently good behavioural standards in the primary phase, but noted that behaviour in the secondary phase required improvement. The report acknowledged that the school was in process of developing a new behaviour management system, not yet fully in place. It mentioned that fixed-term exclusions were already seeing a decrease, and praised the introduction of a reflection room where pupils are given time and help to reflect on their 'attitudes and conduct'.

Eight months after the final training event, Ms Murphy was able to report on positive progress in the establishment of an attachment-aware ethos in the school, which she attributed in large measure to the KCA training input.

Key staff had visited two schools in Stoke-on-Trent which had recorded notable positive change on a variety of behavioural and attitudinal indicators following training from KCA in 2012 and 2015, and had returned with further ideas about how staff interventions could be changed.

Staff had been largely enthused by the training and new behavioural approaches and could see constant evidence of connections between the training content and their daily experience in school; a minority felt threatened, but members of the management team were able to work with them by referring back to the training and related resources.

Staff were responding to a clear and coherent model of the roots of human behaviour, which was changing the language they used to talk about pupils and their behaviour – and indeed their own behaviour.

The school felt more integrated and more nurturing, with older pupils taking increasing responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of younger children.

The problem of children being absent from the classroom had greatly reduced. Staff were available to pick these pupils up in a non-judgemental way; children and staff felt increasingly safe and relaxed within the school, and restorative approaches to discipline were proving effective in rebuilding and maintaining previously volatile or fractured relationships.

Special needs provision in the secondary stage of the school was being reorganised to follow the primary model in being closely linked to the pastoral provision. This was a recognition of the close link at all stages between pupils' emotional security and their ability to maximise their learning.

Similarly, behaviour was now seen as closely linked with safeguarding, rather than as 'discipline', a separate aspect of school life.

Emotion Coaching has become an increasingly-employed technique by staff in their dialogue with children. More staff are increasingly able to respond to and engage with children who are distressed, and to be consciously relaxed while they are doing so. Children are more able to identify, describe and explore their own emotions, and are therefore learning ways in which they can begin to regulate their behaviour in specific moments of stress.

customer response

The school leadership team is pleased and excited by the progress they see in making profound changes to the culture of the school. They see the KCA input as having been an important necessary catalyst for change. The emphasis on recent scientific research and a robust knowledge base, from which practical applications are derived, was seen as a vital component of staff acceptance of, and support for, change.

KCA received positive online evaluations of the training from participants. Some have felt liberated by an approach which encourages them to relate to children as individual human beings and to adopt a relational approach to behaviour. The messages of Emotion Coaching – a high empathy/high guidance style of intervention which requires connection before correction and encourages co-operative problem-solving and honest restoration – were particularly appreciated.

The leadership team were impressed by the ability of KCA, despite the tight timescale, to engage in discussion which allowed the training input to be tailored to the school's expressed needs. They liked the KCA assumption that learning continues beyond the training event, and is therefore facilitated by the post-event access to further resources and e-learning. Take-up of the e-learning has not been high, but Ms Murphy is pleased that access to it continues to be available, and that now may be a good time for colleagues to utilise it to refresh the knowledge gained on the training days and reflect on it in the light of their experience of the past two school terms.

The consultancy input was helpful to build the confidence of the behavioural team around the changes they wanted to make, and to equip them with the skills to reassure colleagues who were more sceptical about the need for changes and the means of achieving them.

With hindsight, there may have been benefits in a more gradual injection of training and consultancy from KCA, allowing staff more time to reflect, coupled with a more incremental approach to change within the school. This could have brought an even higher proportion of the current staff on board with the new behavioural policy – but at the cost of further disadvantaging some children whose needs were not previously being adequately met.

next steps

The school is now seeking to build on its understanding of what it means to be an attachment-aware school. A current initiative is to involve parents in nurture training and thereby to spread knowledge of the importance of attachment and the usefulness of an Emotion Coaching-led style of parenting within the community served by the school.

Further staff training in the use of restorative approaches and restorative language complements the attachment awareness that was implemented in 2016 and continues to drive the culture change that is necessary at The Grange School.

Parents are being encouraged to reflect with staff and more opportunities are available for them to learn alongside their children.

The school has also invested in training strategies to de-escalate behaviours and build positive relationships in the classrooms of children across all phases of learning.

The Leadership Team within the school recognise that the journey is in its infancy and are confident that this coupled with continued reference to research regarding attachment awareness, will over time lead to a more positive and nurturing environment for all.

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