Continuing the series on the Six Principles of Nurture, this blog will examine the second principle: “The classroom offers a safe base”. It will consider approaches and strategies that are not just relevant for a Nurture Group, but in classes and contexts across the whole-school environment.
Signals of Safety
Stephen Porges conceptualised the process of neuroception. This is the continuous risk assessment carried out by our nervous system, helping us to shift into a physiological state which adapts to our surrounding circumstances. When a child has lived through or experienced unsafe and inconsistent environments, it’s understandable how their nervous system becomes over-sensitive to perceived threats; even in places where they are safe. Mona Delahooke emphasises how we need to convey cues of safety in our interactions.
- First, consider how the child communicates that they feel unsafe. They may speak at a faster pace or louder tone. Their movements may be more rapid or impulsive. movements. We may see raised eyebrows, a clenched jaw or trembling lips in their facial expression. It’s important to notice and respect each individual child’s cues.
- Think about your own posture. Standing with one foot forward, with more weight on one leg, and having your hands open and by your side can help you appear more relaxed.
- Respect personal space. If a child is very distressed, getting too close and towering over them can make you more threatening. Stay back, position yourself slightly to the side and sit down if necessary, so that you are less emphasised and intimidating.
- Eye contact can be very difficult for some children and may heighten their emotions further. Avoid staring and accept occasions when the child can’t or doesn’t wish to look at you.
- Speak softly and more slowly. A melodic and playful tone can be more engaging than a firm, monotone voice. There may be times when it’s better to say nothing at all.
- Be mindful of what you are communicating with your face. Even a neutral expression can be misconstrued as anger or disappointment. Try to be as expressive as possible.
- Help the child to get a sense that you are actively listening. It might be as simple as nodding or waiting for a natural pause before reflecting back what you have heard.
The Relational Bridge
In their seminal publication “Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines”, Sylvia Lucas, Kim Insley and Gill Buckland describe the importance of a trusting relationship which offers reassurance, constancy, interest, and commitment. Louise Bomber likens this to a human bridge, allowing the child to travel back to safety, security, and stability. For children who are easily prone to stress and emotional dysregulation, how we relate to them is crucial for establishing and maintaining trust.
- Greeting a familiar key adult at the beginning of the school day can enable the child to feel welcome. This can be an opportunity to convey how you are happy to see them, check in with how they are feeling and talk through the daily schedule.
- Similarly, having an adult that the child can approach at other times of the day can be important. This might be someone they can go to at break or lunch time or when they are waiting to be collected from school – emotions can quickly change during these less structured periods. If there is anxiety about being separated from a parent/carer or member of staff, a small transitional object can reassure the child about the relationship.
- Dr Karen Treisman recommends a safety tour, where the child can visit various places to see that they are secure. We also need to keep in mind that some children may arrive to school in a hypervigilant state. Louise Bomber suggests giving some children time to initially scan the environment and watch what is happening from a safe distance. Starting the day with a predictable and calming activity may allow for anxiety to naturally subside.
- Look for opportunities to be playful, humorous and encouraging. We need to show with our eyes and mouth that we are really interested in what the child is saying and doing. If it is comfortable for them, we can talk about their strengths and positive qualities and commentate on how they are persisting with a difficult task. Frustration about a task or routine can be tempered through a safe and supportive relationship.
- A curious approach, where adults wonder aloud (“I think you’re a little worried about…”) and empathise with the child’s emotions (“I know this is really tough for you”), shows that we are trying to connect with and understand their inner experience. It’s also important to be honest about when we make the wrong assumption and apologise for times when we have inadvertently forgotten what they need in a particular situation.
- The ingredients of playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy (PACE) are also important for supporting relationships with peers. We can acknowledge how a child’s ideas weren’t followed or how they may feel that others aren’t listening to them during a game. Social narratives about what everyone may be thinking and feeling can be useful for helping to develop perspective-taking and ensuring that all voices are heard.
- Our own relationships with children can communicate reassuring messages. We can say out loud “You’re safe here”, “I’m here to help”, “I haven’t forgotten about you. I’ll be back in two minutes”, and “I can’t wait to hear about it. I’ll be thinking about you”. We need to be explicit that we see and hear the child. They will feel safer when they know they are being kept in mind.
Structure and Routine
Florence Ruby feels that, with the right organisational dynamics, every classroom can be a nurturing classroom. Appropriate structure and routine can help to actively reduce potential stressors. If a child reaches the point of feeling anxious and unsafe, we need to consider what we can change about the environment to prevent this.
- A visual timetable is a standard component of any classroom. It should be clearly visible at eye level, rather than obscured or crowded by other items on the wall. The timetable should also be referred to throughout the day, not just at registration time, as it may act as a regulating anchor for when a child’s emotional state changes.
- Some children may benefit from an individual visual schedule which shows activities in a First/Next framework, if a whole-day schedule is too difficult to anticipate or remember at first. It will also be important to have short sensory or brain breaks scheduled over the course of the day. These can include rhythmic and regulating activities, such as breathing, grounding and movement exercises.
- Executive functioning skills, such as planning and organisation, are easily disrupted when children experience powerful emotions. Drawers, shelves and cupboards should be clearly labelled so that resources and equipment are easily located. Modelling clear expectations for tasks and routines is also crucial for reducing anxiety about the unknown.
- Visual checklists can be helpful for creating and reinforcing consistent routines for what to do at the beginning or end of a task. Small and sequential steps to follow can feel much safer for a child who finds these organisational transitions daunting. This should be balanced with opportunities for responsibility and independence, which some children find easier than prolonged working with an adult or other students.
- Some children may prefer to sit in close proximity to a key adult, while others prefer more distance and discreet gestures for indicating whether they are doing okay or need some help. The seating plan should also take account of sensory needs. Consider how to minimise visual and auditory distractions, provide sufficient elbow space for writing and allow for regulating movement through cushions, fidget objects and resistance bands.
- Calm kits or sensory boxes are one of the non-negotiables for a nurturing classroom suggested in the “Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies” resource. These kits can include stress balls, glitter jars, Lego pieces, play dough, favourite books, transitional objects and positive affirmation cards.
- Establishing a calm space or nurturing nook can enable children to go to a quiet and comfortable area when their stress levels begin to rise. Within the classroom, this might be an area where the child can stay in proximity to a key adult while safely observing others. If the classroom is too overwhelming, it could be a space in a nearby corridor. You will need to introduce and role-play the use of this space when the child is in a calm and positive frame of mind. There should also be a clear routine for accessing it through a word/phrase, visual cue or discreet gesture.
- Cultivate a sense of togetherness by celebrating birthdays, displaying photographs of the children having fun and talking about experiences and achievements outside of school. Keep in mind that there are many reasons why some children will struggle to win generic attendance or behaviour awards. We need to think outside the box in terms of recognising their personal qualities and special interests and ultimately helping to instil a safe and motivating atmosphere.
References and Further Reading
BOMBER, L.M., 2011. What about me? Inclusive strategies to support pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
DELAHOOKE, M., 2019. Beyond Behaviours: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioural Challenges. Eau Claire: PESI Publishing & Media.
LUCAS, S., INSLEY, K. and BUCKLAND, G., 2006. Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines: Helping Children to Achieve. London: The Nurture Group Network.
MCDONNELL, A., 2019. The Reflective Journey: A practitioner’s guide to the Low Arousal approach. Peterborough: Studio III.
PERRY, B.D. and SZALAVITZ, S, 2017. The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And other stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. New York: Basic Books.
PORGES, S.W., 2017. The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
RUBY, F., 2017. Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies. Helping children succeed emotionally, socially and academically within the mainstream classroom and other small settings. London: Nurture Group Network Ltd.
TREISMAN, K., 2017. A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma: Creative Techniques and Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
VAN DER KOLK, B., 2014. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.