Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties

Reducing the Impact of Trauma for Looked After Children

The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is having at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult. Tony Clifford explains how teachers can use attachment theory to help Looked After Children cope with the stress of their experience.

What is it like to be a child in care in school? Imagine you are this child starting a new school, perhaps your school. The fact that you have survived abuse and neglect will not be uppermost in your mind. The key thing will be the immediate: these new people, this new space, how to read the situation and work out the rules. So, to that extent you are not much different from a new teacher with a new class. You may actually be much quicker to read the patterns than this new teacher, because you’ve had to work hard to survive this far, had to learn how to avoid sudden violence, get your needs met amidst the chaos and build walls to protect you from the silence, from the times no one came and from all the times no one was there.

The problem is that these skills are not on the curriculum, and so when it comes to learning, the part of your brain that is needed to focus on maths, is too busy dealing with potential threat and managing the reverberations of yesterday, when you were taken from your home and your siblings to somewhere a social worker you met for the first time said would be better and safer. When your new teacher tries to make the connections, you may not be there, may not yet feel safe enough to learn.

It is essential that we support children in care and those who work with them by giving them access to key information about how the brain works, how enough stress can drive its learning but how toxic stress created by abuse and neglect can damage it. In healthy child development, the baby learns to manage the stress of entering a strange new world by attuning to a key care giver. Through this ‘attachment’ relationship the child learns. Children in care and many others miss out on this strong, safe baby-parent attachment bond.

For schools and settings, understanding attachment and trauma cannot be seen as an optional extra:

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