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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

Blocked Care in Education

Dan Hughes and Dr Jonathan Baylin describe Blocked Care as the suppression of open, engaged, and reflective caregiving as a result of continually offering a relationship without it being reciprocated. It can be something which foster carers and staff in residential care settings can experience, as children in their care have learned to mistrust and disengage from adults as a result of traumatic experiences of fear, loss, neglect, and abuse. This is what Dan and Dr Baylin call Blocked Trust – putting up defences learned from past relationships in order to avoid feeling vulnerable, rejected, or helpless in new relationships.

While they talk about Blocked Care in terms of relationships between children and parents or carers, I’m interested in how people in education can also have this experience. Narratives about children on social media and in government policy would certainly indicate that some people are struggling to maintain positive attributions about their students. Others have lost sight of the importance of compassionate relationships and are sceptical or mistrustful of much-needed changes to traditional beliefs and practice.

Five Caregiving Systems susceptible to Blocked Care

Dan and Dr Baylin propose five domains of caregiving. The neuroscience and research which inform these domains can be read in greater detail in the references and further reading section. I’m going to provide a brief overview, as I think this model is useful in considering how relationships are cultivated and maintained when things are going well and how they can be knocked off course when situations become stressful or overwhelming.

The Approach System: When this system is online, it helps us to stay open and engaged when seeking connections and to remain close to someone who is in distress.

The Reward System: Caregiving involves the capacity to enjoy being in a relationship with someone. The mutual interaction is experienced as pleasurable and satisfying.

The Child Reading System: This is the ability to read and make sense of behaviour. It enables us to look below the surface and recognise the child’s underlying thoughts, feelings, motivations, and needs.

The Meaning Making System: We construct narratives about ourselves and others. When we feel safe and calm, we are more likely to create narratives which are accurate, realistic, positive, and hopeful.

The Executive System: This system integrates the functioning of the other four systems. It utilises the higher brain functions which allow us to regulate our emotions, reflect upon and learn from experiences, adapt what we say and do, and plan for future scenarios.

Relationships are experienced as safe when these systems are working well. But their development can be affected by chronic levels of stress at an earlier stage of our lives and their functioning is impaired by periods of significant stress in the here-and-now.

- The flow of oxytocin and dopamine, two neurochemicals which support the approach and reward systems, is greatly suppressed by stress. In an education context, we may be more likely to avoid the child, send them away, or dread interactions.

- The reading system becomes more narrow and less empathetic. We might perceive that a child is being disrespectful or threatening, and not recognise their underlying needs or consider how we may have contributed to their stress.

- Our narratives become polarised. We might see ourselves as unwanted and useless. We may fear that situations will never improve. Thoughts such as “He should be in a different school” or “She can’t be treated differently to the other pupils” can become entrenched.

- The executive system can sometimes continue to function during Blocked Care and ensure that we carry out basic caregiving duties, even if we derive no joy or meaning from them. The child might be offered involvement in a task or routine, but in a passive or distant manner. When the executive system is compromised, we are resistant to new ways of thinking and acting, and prone to reactive rather than proactive responses.

What might Blocked Care look like?

Below are some examples of how Blocked Care can manifest in the feelings, words, and actions of school staff. These might be apparent in their direct interactions with children and their families, their contributions at professional meetings or what they write in reports and referral forms.

- Confused

- Nervous

- Frustrated

- Overwhelmed

- Exhausted

- Hopeless

- Critical

- Sarcastic

- Minimising

- Blaming

- Punitive

It’s important that we look beyond a child’s behaviour and be curious about their perceptions of a situation, the impact of stressful demands and environments, and what they need from us. So what if we applied the same curiosity with the adults in school. The above examples might suggest that they are…

- Afraid of failure

- Lacking confidence and feeling deskilled

- Wary of being vulnerable or rejected

- Seeking more control and certainty

- Assuming that the child has negative and deliberate intentions

- Lacking an understanding of the child’s individual needs

- Unable to reflect on the positives and negatives of their own strategies and expectations

- Feeling unsupported by colleagues or senior leaders

- Burnt out by unrealistic demands presented by class size, staffing, the curriculum, etc

- Being reminded of difficult experiences from their own past

When the five caregiving systems are functioning well, we are better able to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work and reframe our beliefs and expectations about a person or situation. When Blocked Care creeps in, this reflective capacity shrinks. We become more defensive, simplistic, and inflexible. Our attributions of others – children, parents/carers, colleagues, professionals and services – become more negative. It also becomes much more difficult to change our own behaviour, despite having plenty of evidence that it’s not achieving positive or sustainable results.

The danger is when narratives fuelled by Blocked Care become familiar, easier and more comfortable. When our first instinct is that a child is lazy, spoilt, rude, disobedient, or manipulative. When they are privately described as “feral”, or government ministers recommend that headteachers go knocking on their parents’ doors when they can’t come to school. When responsibility is shifted to special education or mental health services to “fix” the child.

This is when we overlook neurodivergence and disability, and minimise the impact of poverty, relational trauma, behaviour walls, restraint, seclusion, and exclusion. When children and families learn to mistrust an education system that doesn’t accept or accommodate their needs, and educators lack the capacity to recognise, accept and attune to these needs, a vicious circle of shame and defensiveness is quickly created.

How do we support and guard against Blocked Care?

Make pausing a habit. Don’t assume that you’ve quickly figured out the meaning of a child’s behaviour or reaction. If behaviour was so simple to understand and address, as some personalities on social media would have us believe, then why do they also claim that it’s worse that ever? Don’t rush to talk about or administer consequences when the child is distressed and unable to process beyond a few seconds or minutes. Focus on connection first – helping the child to return to a safe and regulated state. And don’t rule yourself out as being a contributing factor to the child’s stress. We should be humble enough to accept that we get things wrong and need to repair ruptures in our relationships.

Schedule time for reflection. Protected time for supervision and collaborative conversation with people who can listen without judgement is essential. How do you feel in these difficult situations? What thoughts do you have about yourself? What buttons are being pushed? What are you remembering from the past that might be colouring your reaction in the present? What were your hopes and when did things start to turn out differently? What are the exceptions to these situations? What do you like and value about the child? How might the child’s past or current circumstances inform their thoughts, feelings, and reactions?

Practise PACE: In previous blogs, I’ve talked about Dan Hughes’ caregiving formula of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy. If we expect educators to apply PACE in their relationships with children, then they need to receive PACE from other adults. “That sounds really difficult”. “You probably think that you’ve tried everything and nothing works”. “It must feel very personal towards you”. “I understand how you were really anxious about what would happen”. “I wonder if she struggles to feel safe with you because she remembers feeling afraid or forgotten by other people?”. “It’s important for you to be in control, but he has been through times when he’s had no choice, control, or certainty”.

Take care of yourself. The compassion tank is a concept used by Louise Bomber. She emphasises the need to look after ourselves through down time, exercise, sleep, diet, and support from family, friends, and colleagues. In difficult situations, we might need to step back and let someone else take over while we regroup. When we’re in a calm state, we can refill our compassion tank by reminding ourselves of what the child has experienced and why it isn’t easy for them to feel safe or to trust that you won’t reject or hurt them.

Stay open to learning. Don’t be fooled by people who dismiss, mock, or misrepresent debates about trauma, nurture, wellbeing, and restorative conversations. Continuing to think about and do things the way we always have is a weak position from the outset. It’s even less defensible as we see the consequences of a global pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis and chronic underinvestment in schools and services. We have a responsibility to understand how stress changes our brains and bodies. To accept that sensory and emotional regulation require personalisation and collaboration. To recognise that problems with communication are a two-way street. To learn from the lived experiences of families. To replace ableist and harmful approaches with neurodivergent-affirming practices.

References and Further Reading

Ayre, K., Krishnamoorthy, G. & Golding, K.S. (2021). Educating Students with Blocked Trust. Trauma Informed Education with Dr Kay Ayre.

Bomber, L.M. (2020). Know Me To Teach Me. Differentiated discipline for those recovering from adverse childhood experiences. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

Cherry, L. and Treisman, K. (16/12/2022). Changing the Culture; Trauma Informed Services. Trauma, Resonance and Resilience. Season 4: Episode 2.

Golding, K.S., Phillips, S. & Bomber, L.M. (2021). Working with Relational Trauma in Schools. An Educator’s Guide to using Dyadic Developmental Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hughes, D. & Gurney-Smith, B. (2020). The Little Book of Attachment. Theory To Practice In Child Mental Health With Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Hughes, D.A. & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-Based Parenting. The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Treisman, K. & Metcalfe, M. (2018). Organisational Defences. Safe Hands Thinking Minds.

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