How can teachers support vulnerable children at school?
In almost every class, there will also be those who find learning a challenge – the children who perhaps cause teachers to wake in the night, or to feel that they are having to manage certain behaviours beyond their usual areas of expertise.
In my role working to improve the educational outcomes of vulnerable children and young people – specifically those in care and looked-after by the local authority – I have become aware that many will not be in a good place, emotionally, socially or developmentally, to learn. Although the children I work with represent the tip of the “vulnerable” iceberg, there are numerous other children who are on protection plans or identified as children in need. There will be those, too, who are not known to any service but come to school every day having faced significant hardships.
Teachers I work with often report that schools’ more general behaviour policies don’t seem to work for these particular students – so what can we do to best support these children? Here are some pointers.
Focus on why
Behaviour is always a communication, even though we may not always realise it. Imagine a really bad day – you go home and within minutes you find yourself arguing with someone in your family. You probably didn’t plan to take out your frustration on those closest to you, but that’s effectively what happened.
Many vulnerable students are likely to have had times when they haven’t felt safe – and end up reacting to all sorts of triggers in order to keep themselves safe or feel safe (which of course may be very different things). Similarly, they’ve often experienced multiple rejections.
Many will have accompanying attachment issues and sometimes will “reject” before they can be rejected. They may push you away because this may be less painful than allowing you to reject them. Or it may be that certain behaviours give them access to a person they are developing an attachment to, so their message is “I need that person”. By acknowledging this, and recognising that what a student needs more than anything is to build relationships that help them feel safe, we may be able to adjust our reactions appropriately.
Consider their age and stage
Social and emotional levels of development and maturity in vulnerable children often won’t match their chronological age. In schools, we’re usually good at supporting children when they have gaps in their academic learning – and many of the vulnerable students will have these – but they will almost all have some gaps in their social and emotional development.
They may not have developed the skills their peers have, and also by virtue of their experiences have developed certain “street-wise” skills that can lead a teacher to think they are much more mature than they are.