The deputy head of a school with a disproportionately high number of pupils who are either adopted, or in care, has taken the lead in educating her colleagues’ about attachment.  

Lisa Rutter-Brown, an adoptive parent herself, is also the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) and the designated teacher at Kingsmead Primary School in Northwich, Cheshire.

As Kingsmead’s designated teacher, Lisa is the link between the mainstream school and the Virtual School. There is now a requirement for Virtual Schools to look after previously looked-after children (including adopted children), as set out in the Children and Social Work Bill.

Lisa said: “I’ve adopted two children, who both attend Kingsmead, so attachment issues are very close to my heart.  I first became attachment aware when I did my training to become an adoptive parent. I was surprised by certain aspects of it – especially the lifetime impact.

Lots of children with attachment can be wrongly perceived as disengaged, or displaying attention-seeking behaviours

There are a lot of children who attend Kingsmead who are either in care, or adopted, so we’ve got an unusually high proportion of pupils who are affected by attachment. Adopted children and children from families that break-up have emotional needs that need to be met and in order for this to happen they need additional support.”

I run a Saturday morning adoption support group where I’ve met other adoptive parents, who as a result, have brought their children to Kingsmead as they know we’re attachment aware. Our school recently won an ‘adoption friendly’ award.”

Lots of children with attachment can be wrongly perceived as disengaged, or displaying attention-seeking behaviours - so it’s also about staff understanding where this behaviour is coming from.

it’s crucial to have a good understanding of a child’s background

These behaviours aren’t a choice. Children learn how to behave through their parents and teachers so if the only way to get attention is through negative behaviour they’ll continue so do this. This is why it’s crucial to have a good understanding of a child’s background. We’ve trained our staff to look at the positive aspects of the child’s behaviour and to give all attention to those aspects – it’s about trying to create positive pathways in the child’s brain.

It’s quite easy to become attachment-aware and once you’ve got an understanding of it you become more empathetic – it’s all about understanding why they’re making those behavioural choices like attention-seeking - making noises, interrupting, difficulty in sharing or taking turns, or withdrawing.

The first thing any teacher needs to read in order to understand attachment is Inside I’m Hurting by Louise Bomber. It’s a really good overview about brain development in an adopted child, or a child in care, and why they present certain developments.

The recommended response to attachment is to acknowledge that the child is upset as often they can’t verbalise so they need time to calm down. Then, when they’ve calmed down you can talk through why they’re cross and what we can do next time to prevent it happening again.

 Left to cry when hungry 

Some of the pupils at our school have traffic-light coloured cards which they can hold up in class. Amber means ‘something is making me feel cross so intervene before go to red’. Other children have feely bags, pictures of family members or something with a familiar smell on it to help reduce levels of anxiety and to enable them to understand that they will be going home afterwards.

The training we provide to our staff involves either a one-day course or a half-day course - depending upon how many children with attachment issues are in their year group. Some teachers did two days of Louise Bomber training as they had three or more pupils in their year group.

I’ve learnt about attachment mainly through my own children. We were the fifth family our eldest girl had lived with when she was placed with us at the age of three. The adults in her life changed every six months so she learnt that she had to quickly gain the trust of adults. As a result she doesn’t have the natural ‘stranger-danger’ response that most children have – instead she’s over-familiar with people she doesn’t know. If a teacher wasn’t aware of my daughter’s background she’d come across as in-your-face but she has a background of neglect so she gets attention by shouting out because she was left to cry when she was hungry so she’s used to having to shout out ‘I’m here!’. This behaviour can be difficult to manage in class as a teacher, so I react by saying ‘I’m here and I know you’re there’.

'All behaviour is communication'

Routine and food are both also very important to children with attachment issues. I have to inform my children of any changes prior to them happening. A lot of children who are adopted have been neglected by their birth parents so won’t have been regularly fed - so in their minds they’re still not sure if they’re going to get fed which is why food is so important to them. Children in care and adopted children often steal food. Instead of disciplining them for this we take a different approach - we reassure them that they’ll have a snack at this time and lunch at this time... so they know.

It’s also worth schools acknowledging that parts of curriculum can have an impact on some children such as a family tree, or crime and punishment, drugs and alcohol – as they may have witnessed domestic violence or substance misuse with their birth parents. 

There’s a perception that once a child is adopted then everything’s fine as they’re in a nice family - but this is not the case. The development of the brain in its first year has such a massive impact on the rest of the life pathways created in the brain because those messages stay there for a long time.

All behaviour is communication really - so when a child is behaving in a certain way they may be trying to tell you something that they can’t verbalise. We can’t see the trigger but with understanding of attachment we can emphasise and have a better understanding of why that behaviour is manifesting.

All schools should become attachment aware because if a teacher is managing a child’s behaviour then it’s beneficial to everyone, as the rest of the class can work without being disrupted.

I’d encourage head-teachers and school leaders to use a fraction of their Pupil Premium funding to educate their staff on attachment."

To read more about Adoption UK’s Schools Campaign,  to make every school attachment aware, please click here.

If you would like to share your story please contact our Comms Team at [email protected] or on 01295 752240.

Back to the Your Stories Homepage