Interventions to help support children to develop social & emotional skills
Children that have experienced difficult life events, without protective factors, are vulnerable to developing cognitive, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Adverse Childhood Experiences trigger what is known as 'toxic stress' which negatively impacts on the developing brain, the immune system and the endocrine system.
For children that have experienced ACEs interventions should decrease toxic stress, but there is no quick-fix solution. A handful of strategies implemented over a term by a few staff will not work; nothing short of a whole-school approach will create an environment that enables children to feel safe, supported, valued and ready to learn. To help pupils with unmet social and emotional needs there is no perfect implementation - it's a journey rather than a checklist. Most schools start off with a basic focus around professional learning built on the foundation of brain science and then move to a cultural change, building structures and systems to support children in a multi-tiered way on an academic and social and emotional level. Using consistent language across the whole team and gentle reminders of options and boundaries when they are overwhelmed can really help.
The Educational Endowment Foundation have produced a guidance report entitled improving social and emotional learning (primary schools). It is aimed primarily at senior leaders who are thinking about their school’s approach to social and emotional learning. It offers offers six practical and evidence-based recommendations to support children’s social and emotional development. It provides a starting point for schools to review their current approaches, and suggests practical ideas they can implement. Importantly, it argues that such approaches can be woven into everyday class teaching without creating burdensome new programmes of work. Click here to review the report.
One of the key components to helping children that have experienced these life circumstances is to implement a 'relationship policy' for staff. This is discussed more below. But all staff should be trained on the physiology and neuro-chemistry of angry, threatened behaviour in children and the physiology of calm, engaged behaviour. When teachers are open and engaged with children in a respectful and warm manner, anti-aggression and anti-anxiety chemicals are activated. Having daily and easy access to one specific emotionally-available adult is an effective way to bring down pupils' toxic stress levels and staff should be trained in reflective conversations to move children from 'behaving' their trauma to understanding a different narrative about what lies underneath this behaviour, ie it may be fear, loneliness and disappointment rather than anger.
So when a school doesn't have the expertise to implement the interventions to support the development of child's social & emotional skill sets, where do they start? The range of approaches for promoting social and emotional skills in schools' can be divided into three main groupings:
(All images below are from the content presented at Beech Lodge School's Childhood Trauma and Social and Emotional Developmental Workshops)
1. Ethos and values - Whole-school interventions
Whole-school interventions define the entire school community as the unit of change. A whole-school intervention/approach involves coordinated action between three core components: (i) curriculum teaching and learning, (ii) school ethos and environment, and (iii) family and community partnerships. It involves all pupils, staff, parents, the community and outside agencies and fosters the importance of the nurturing approaches for child development with a focus on well-being and relationships and being able to demonstrate social, emotional and academic progress for the children that are struggling and delivers a holistic framework of support, such as empowering all staff to build confidence and capacity to improve teaching, modelling good practice at all school levels and behavioural engagement - having a toolkit for all staff to recognise their impact on pupil's behaviour. At the school ethos and environment level, skills are reinforced in non-curriculum-based ways through policies, whole-staff training, and daily activities designed to promote a positive school climate. These interventions must provide the context for universal classroom and targeted interventions. They also might include:
- Understand the huge impact that ACEs have have on children’s social, emotional, neurological, sensory, physiological, moral and cognitive development. Training needs to be topped up regularly.
- Explore interventions, policies, approaches and procedures that support and accommodate children and are suitable for the school.
- Wider school policies should be reviewed too. Zero tolerance and punitive behaviour policies, for example, are ineffective for children who have had difficult childhoods.
- Front line staff are equipped to support pupils whilst the SLT can embed the knowledge they have acquired into school policies and procedures.
- Commitment in reducing stress and strengthening communication and relationships as well as fostering a sense of safety and belonging.
- Schools should consider restorative practices to improve and repair relationships between people and communities. For example, creating a space where conflicts can be discussed and resolved; providing appropriate resources (scripts) to support discussions; and introducing whole-class negotiations as to appropriate next steps for adverse behaviours.
- These children benefit from the most qualified and experienced staff who truly understand what has happened to them and the impact it has had on their bodies and minds; staff who will be there consistently and compassionately, no matter what is thrown at them. These staff need to be effectively supported too
- Understanding that the emotions behind the behaviours. We need to validate and explore why children are distressed instead of reacting to the unwanted behaviours. New narrative around behaviour by taking up a developmental approach. No longer labelling behaviour but reframe so the educators know what the child needs to regulate themselves. Not manipulative but afraid of not being in control. Exhausted not lazy. Attachment needing not attention seeking. Not violent but lonely and fearful.
2. Approach - Universal classroom-based interventions
Universal classroom-based interventions teach a range of skills through a developmentally appropriate curriculum and using an enriched environment with plenty opportunities to explore the world, opportunities to learn to play, and social skill groups to explicitly teach them skills such as turn taking and waiting. Teachers are generally trained to deliver lessons that teach skills including modelling social and emotional skills; providing opportunities for pupils to practice these skills and giving them the opportunity to apply these skills in various situations; emotional identification and regulation, effective communication, problem solving, conflict resolution and coping skills. Such effective interventions include:
- Building affective bonds – Forming positive, trusting relationships with pupils and being responsive to their individual needs
- Cognitive Restructuring – Perspective taking; recognising anger triggers; distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful thoughts
- Modelling - Role-modelling appropriate behaviour/social skills and giving pupils the opportunity to apply these skills in different situations
- Emotional literacy – Understanding, identifying and labelling emotions; recognising physical and environmental cues of emotions; providing opportunities for pupils to verbalise their emotional experiences
- Relaxation techniques
- Scaffolding - Children may also need scaffolding to develop their executive functioning skills. When we scaffold a child’s development, we provide frameworks and support so the child can use their skills; for example, we might scaffold a writing task by providing sentence starters, suggested vocabulary, or boxes showing how much to write. Adults in school mayneed to act as the child’s ‘external brain’, modelling questioning, thinking and problem solving, and providing a narrative to daily life e.g. ‘Oh look, it’s raining outside. Let’s check we’ve got the right clothes so we don’t get wet. What do we need?’
Dan Hughes' PACE framework:
The relationship-based approach - positive relationships with insecurely attached children and help them feel safe at school. Through interaction with attuned, empathic and reliable adults, new neural pathways form allowing access to high regions of the brain and recovery.
The role of a key adult will accelerate progress - this needs to be a consistent, caring adult who is accessible to the child on a daily basis, long term.
The strategies Beech Lodge use create a culture where adults are curious about the causes of behaviour and acknowledge that not all pupils 'choose' the way they behave. Here are some ideas to get this way of thinking embedded:
Look at the way you communicate with parents and pupils:
Our Attachment Guide also offers measures that have proven helpful at Beech Lodge School for children that are feeling 'unsafe'. Such specific methods are broken down into these different sections (a few examples have been given below).
Interactions - See above slides - PACE, Mind mindedness, Unconditional Positive Regard, written communication (see above email example).
Behaviour Management - eg. Distinguish between misbehaviour and the child's response to the situation which reflects their past experience, give reasons for rules.
Emotional Support - Recognise the fear and anxiety underlying the pupils' behaviour and find ways to enable the student to manage this, have a designated quiet area for the child.
Routine and the school day - Explain changes to the school day in advance, support children during times of transition, keep staffing as consistent as possible.
Environment - Think about where a child sits, consider factors which may be overwhelming for the child.
Curriculum and learning support - Know the child may be mindful of topics that may trigger difficult memories, group work and performance may make a child feel threatened; give the child a role that they believe they will fulfil.
We have taken extracts from Louise Bomber, Inside I'm Hurting - Strategies for key adults supporting traumatised children - you can read about them here.
3. Interventions - Targeted interventions
Targeted interventions are designed for pupils that may need extra input due to their life circumstances or exposure to stress. Often conducted through small-group work, these programmes reinforce and supplement classroom-based instruction for pupils who need early intervention and more intensive support. Targeted programmes, which usually involve teacher training and parental involvement, address the enhancement of coping skills and cognitive skills training which aim to help pupils' reshape their thinking. For example, in a nurturing classroom children are encouraged to create strong bonds that allow them to feel safe and explore their wider environment much as they would in a secure attachment relationship.
Sensory processing difficulties often exacerbate the problems identified and often present in children that have had insufficient or inconsistent care because the senses have formed a large part of an infant's early attachment experience for example they have never been rocked. When a child experiences high levels of pleasure their processes are integrated, between and within the sensory systems. The child can increasingly interpret, understand and respond to information received via the senses. Children who have been through trauma frequently present as dysregulated, sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant. The result of this over/under sensitivity to sensory stimulation does not fit well into the classroom.
Closely linked to this sensory difficulties are problems with the sense of interoception (a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what's going on inside your body). This sense in often underdeveloped or impaired in children that have experienced ACEs and means that the are lacking in physiological literacy and may need an adult to interpret the body signals of a child - and suggest a solution.
Such sensory adjustments could include:
Pressure/wobble cushions, weighted lap blankets and shoulder weights, fiddle objects, frequent sensory snacks, flexibility around posture, frequent yoga and breathing exercises, massage, self-regulating sensory boxes, quiet spaces, time with animals and accompanied drumming.
Resources from Family Futures
Resources from Family Futures
Resources from Family Futures
For more information:
This is a useful document (link below) entitled ‘Emotional and Mental Health - A Resource for Schools - Reducing Barriers to Learning' helps you:
- Understand about social and emotional health in schools and gives you hints and tips about how you can identify children who may need support around social and emotional health.
- Address pupils’ specific needs in order to provide the most appropriate interventions and offers suggestions for evidence-based quality interventions.
- Review how the provision is meeting the pupils' needs and identify next steps.
- Celebrate effort and success!