Relationships and Co-Regulation – How to Keep Vulnerable Children in School

Sheila Mulvenney

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Sheila Mulvenney, (2020, March 3). Relationships and Co-Regulation – How to Keep Vulnerable Children in School. Psychreg on Educational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/vulnerable-children-school/
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Much has been written in the press about behaviour in schools over recent weeks, silent corridors, zero tolerance, and a commitment from the government to crack down on behaviour in schools. But the danger is that if we focus on behaviour, we miss the cause and lose the chance to support some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

Behaviour is a form of communication and usually occurs as a result of a ‘stimuli’ that gives rise to an emotional response. Imagine that you have had an awful day at work, that your car doesn’t start when you try to go home (or that the train is late), that it is raining and you have forgotten you umbrella and that when you get home someone has left mud on the carpet, not emptied the dishwasher, not bought milk or wine, or whatever would push your buttons. Would you as the emotionally mature, well-regulated adult respond by explaining calmly how you feel? Or might you slam a door, and make it apparent by your behaviour that you are not happy?

Imagine then that someone told you to go out and enter the room again because that was not an appropriate way to behave. I will leave you to hypothesise about the outcome.

What we want on such occasions is probably for someone to notice that something is wrong and at least ask how we are, or offer help of some sort. Even as mature well-functioning adults there are times when it helps to have someone to help us ‘regulate’ or at least show an understanding that our behaviour is communicating something and, if they are people we know well, we’d probably expect some support, particularly from those we have an attachment with. In fact, we would go out of our way to seek out the people who help us calm if something very upsetting happens. 

But somehow, we don’t always afford the same opportunities for some of our neediest children. We know that children who experience trauma and adversity may have brains that do not develop in the same way as their peers. Specifically, if the developing brain is faced with toxic stress, which is overwhelming and where there are no calm adults to support, then the alarm system in the brain, the amygdala, can become used to being activated thrusting a child into survival response repeatedly. That is when we see behaviours that stem from a fight, flight or freeze (survival) response.

Remember a time when you felt under threat. Perhaps you were afraid or thought you were in danger. The body and brain’s way of protecting us is to put us into survival mode so we are better able to deal with the danger. Do we choose the response, for example running away from something we fear – being passed a spider for example? There may be elements of conscious choice, many of us will have learned to face some of the things that we fear, but much of the response will be beyond our conscious control.

Children who have experienced adversity and trauma may perceive a number of ordinary events as threatening and respond accordingly. When we are afraid, we probably all want someone to be close, to reassure us and recognise the emotion that may lead to our tense or erratic behaviour.

Very often the children who experience trauma and adversity are those who may not have had adults to help them learn to regulate. Babies are not born able to regulate stress they learn this over a long period of co-regulation with calm adults. It’s what we do with babies – they feel stressed – no doubt about that when you see a baby cry, they are usually red in the face, tense and their heart may be racing. The attached caring adult(s) who may also be stressed will pick them up and soothe them and gradually the baby learns that the world is an OK place that an adult will meet their need and help them calm.

Sadly, it is the babies and children who may experience the worst kind of stress who may not have adults who can help them learn to regulate and buffer their stress. For children who do not have secure attachments they will come to school looking for attachment with adults. They will want to be sure that adults have noticed them and will meet their needs. They may do this in a huge number of ways, calling out, standing close, asking for help when you know they don’t need it, desperate to please or in a variety of other ways. Beacon House has some great resources on attachment in schools. 

Rather than wait for the children to communicate their needs via their behaviour schools can ensure that children feel noticed and have a person they can go to who can help them feel safe and secure. In most schools the adults know the children who have these needs and often simple changes like addressing them by name, smiling, making frequent eye contact, offering close physical proximity can help and can be managed by most schools. The principle is to offer attachment rather than have the child demand ‘attention’.

For children who have experienced trauma and may feel threatened by many ordinary situations these relationships are crucial. When they experience stress, for example when they feel under threat and their brain tips them into a survival response the thinking part of their brain goes off line and they will not be able to manage the feelings alone.

They need a calm adult who can help them calm. In essence its much like a baby needing to be soothed. If an adult they trust can work closely with them then they can learn strategies that may help them regulate, sensory activities, deep breathing, moving, having a drink or something to eat or engaging in rhythmic repetitive activities like walking.

Often children that are vulnerable are removed from class, they may be sent to an inclusion room or even an isolation booth. But the point is they are out of class – not ideal but it does mean there is a chance for an adult o build a relationship with them and help them learn the skills they have not had the opportunity to master, dealing with big emotions or being in situations they find uncomfortable in some way.

That seems a much more humane and compassionate response than excluding from class and then school which often sets the already vulnerable and disadvantaged child on a road to further isolation, potential involvement in drugs, criminality or some sort other exploitation.

Let’s forget zero tolerance and silent corridors and focus on meeting the needs of some of  our most vulnerable children and young people.

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Image credit: Freepik


Sheila Mulvenney is the director of Attuned Education. She has recently publish a book: Overcoming Barriers to Learning

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