The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Adele Bates

Looked-after children: seeing beyond the behaviour

A looked-after child is twice as likely to be excluded from school due to their behaviour. Adele Bates suggests that a little understanding can go a long way.

Being a looked-after child (LAC) does not resolutely mean that you will have behavioural or SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) needs.

However, certain experiences that a child goes through when in care may affect how they can build relationships, trust adults and have a sense of safety versus survival – which could all affect their behaviour in your classroom.

Building relationships and trust

We know that the first few years of a child’s life create patterns emotionally, mentally, physically and socially that – without intervention such as therapy – are likely to stay with them throughout their life.

In Britain, nowadays children are not taken away from biological parents lightly; the state sees that staying with biological family, if at all possible, is the most conducive for a young person’s future.

Therefore, when the difficult decision is taken to put a young person into care, it will be for severe reasons – the child is experiencing abuse, neglect or trauma. In short, they are not safe.

A young child rarely has the capacity to understand why this has happened

This may or may not be the fault of the biological parents themselves. Each situation is different, and we know that generational illnesses or mental afflictions can play a part here too.

The impact of fractured attachments

A basic knowledge of attachment theory teaches us that the first relationships we make as a child become integral as to how we experience relationships going forwards, and so the relationship with a child’s primary care giver will be a vital part of that pattern.

If that relationship has been fractured, or completely severed as with children who are in care, it will affect their ability to re-form relationships.

It is not safe for them to assume you will not cause them hurt

If you learn that you love someone, they are your everything (as is the primary caregiver) and then they go away, you are left, at a very young age, having to deal with abandonment, rejection, isolation, mistrust and shame.

A young child rarely has the capacity to understand why this has happened, or in fact that their parents may not want to be separated from them, despite the issues.

Why would you trust someone again? Those emotions hurt.

On top of that, the child may also be dealing with the after-effects of abuse (sexual, emotional and/or violent) or neglect – all before the age of five, as many of my pupils have.

The impact of temporary home

After leaving their initial home, unfortunately our system means that very few children move to one placement for the rest of their childhood. Often, it’s many.

A colleague of mine who was a child in care went through 13 children’s homes and care placements in her childhood. In each place, she had to re-form relationships, wondering if this was to become her ‘forever home,’ before being swiftly moved on.

Now in your classroom, is it a wonder that these children struggle to build a relationship with you in the ‘normal’ way that their peers do? Why should you be trustworthy?

Equality is about providing and equal chance, and to do that it will need to be differentiated for different pupils.

It is possible that that first primary care giver has hurt the child. If the primary carer can do this it stands to reason that other adult might too – and that’s you, their teacher. It is not safe for them to assume you will not cause them hurt.

In addition, forming relationships with peers can be challenging. Our initial relationships within a family (or chosen equivalent) teach us the pattern of how to form relationships. Without this blueprint,  how do we know what to do when we meet other children?

Safety vs survival

Looked-after children are much more likely to have seen and experienced adverse childhood conditions (ACEs) – traumatic events – which will affect their behaviour.

A child who has not had regular access to food will learn that when it is available they have to grab as much of it as possible – they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

This is a useful, human survival behaviour that has kept this child alive; and yes, this happens in modern day Britain, unfortunately more often that you might think.

Case study: In the lunch queue

One pupil I worked with was not only in this situation at four years old, but was also the primary caregiver for their younger sibling. They had already learned that food is not always available, adults are unable to provide it, and that they are the one who has to fight for it for themselves and others. This behaviour is well adapted in such an environment.

However, in the lunchtime queue at school this young person pushes to the front, steals other children’s food and breaks all the rules. From the outside we might label this ‘bad’ or ‘maladaptive’ behaviour. We might punish that child.

But this does not solve the issues because we do not teach the pupil, who needs to learn that, in this context, food is available and there will always be enough for them. They need to be given time to trust this new environment.

Holding on to the little they have

Yes, it will take longer for pupils who have experienced adversity to trust – they cannot take it for granted that you are telling the truth. How could they?

This was a food example but it could be anything. Some patterns I’ve seen over the years with looked-after children is when they hold on defiantly to coats, phones, balls – possessions. Often a root of this is that they have very few possessions – they were forced to leave them behind in a move.

If they don’t hold on to them, they will have nothing.

Case study: In the classroom

Now it’s period 4 maths in the mobile classroom, and Sam won’t take his coat off and leave it on the peg outside. He knows it’s the school rules.

You give him the reasonable 1, 2, 3 warnings. He tells you to f*ck off.

You now need to escalate the situation due to the bad language and defiance on top of the original misdemeanour. You tell him this. He gives you the evils.

You try and persuade him to get on with the work. But he can’t. He can’t trust you anymore. You are trying to take away from him one of the only things that’s really his.

He doesn’t understand you. You don’t understand him. Without understanding, we get stuck, all we see is the behaviour – that doesn’t help us find a long term solution to help the pupil access the learning.

Differentiation is key

While we do need to be consistent and follow behaviour policies, if we truly want an education for all, then we have to be aware that not all young people start in the same place.

Equality doesn’t mean the same. It is about providing and equal chance, and to do that it will need to be differentiated for different pupils.

The Timpson Review in 2019 highlighted that a LAC is twice as likely to be excluded from a mainstream school due to behaviour.

That teaches me that we are getting something wrong.

These children then carry the added burden of the education system rejecting them

And it breaks my heart that, on top of the challenging home and start they will have had in life, these children then carry the added burden of the education system rejecting them.

On top of that, looked-after children are currently supported financially, with a home and so on by our social system only until the age of 16 years.

Once again, unlike their peers, they are required to finish childhood and ‘grow up’ much sooner than their counterparts.

Give them a chance to break the cycle

If schools and staff are aware of the disadvantages that looked-after children are likely to face, we can then make the differentiation needed to give these young people the best chance with their education – and one of the most important tools they may come across that will help break the cycle.

For more information of how to differentiate for children who have experienced trauma and SEMH, visit my blog.



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