Teachers who are lucky enough to have found the time to become “attachment/trauma aware” will know the incredible power of relationships on children with attachment and trauma issues.

(If you do want to read up on this area please see Betsy De Thierry, Margot Sutherland, Dr Tina Rae or the fantastic book on attachment I am going to discuss here in this article!)

Having read Louise M Bomber’s “Inside I’m hurting” book on attachment I found myself strongly drawn to the chapter on the key adult and attachment, feeling it held a mirror up to much of the work I had been doing in the last 18 months. The role of the key adult is hugely underestimated in terms of the emotional capital that needs to be invested and therefore not every teacher within a setting may be suitable for this type of role. But for those who are the role has immeasurable rewards. The difference that can be made to a child’s life through time and attunement to a child’s needs is unlimited and goes far beyond their time in school. It is a damning indictment of education that so much difference can be made to a child by lending a non-judgmental ear, yet so little of this is built into the timetables, training and prioritisation for teachers to be able to effectively do. The children I have made the most difference with have been the ones I have listened to. To be heard is incredibly powerful for a child.

Children who seek attachments (not attention!) with adults do so in a number of ways and through a number of behaviours. Where this relationship is nourished and reciprocated, it can have a fantastic effect on the child’s wellbeing, happiness and consequently behaviour. Children who seek attachments will take it to get their needs met if it is not given freely. They will demand the time of staff through behaviours that challenge and cause harm to all involved. Giving your time ahead of this can create an environment where a child does not need to act in a way that causes challenges for staff and eventual shame and guilt for the child.

A key adult is someone who as Rita Pierson (see here) said is a “champion” for a child. They provide them with a “secure base” within school, someone who can help to regulate their emotions and build a trusting relationship with. Someone who can model the role of a trusting adult to a child to enable them to understand how to form and maintain trusting relationships with others. This person will work closely with the child and be available to the child on a day to day basis. They will need to be reliable, consistent and warm. They will need to able to assert boundaries but forgive, to challenge but nurture. They will be an advocate for the child and encourage staff to take a view through the eyes of the young person. Children with attachment problems benefit from seeing someone showing protection – the key adult will need to be willing to take steps to negotiate with other members of staff how to better support the child when necessary. An adult who listens and respects a child, empathises with their situation and believes in their abilities has the chance to incredibly alter the future of that child for the better. Furthermore scientific evidence shows that another significant adult to that of the parent is “good enough” to help a child develop new and more helpful ways of thinking, behaving and building relationships. The role of the key adult therefore has proven implications for the bettering of outcomes for students.

“No man is an island” and this belief should be considered when working with all children. Supportive relationships often get dismissed or eyed with suspicion but we know that humans rely on each other for support and need to feel belonging and value to be able to feel ready to learn (Maslow). The key adult may be the only person within a child’s life they truly connect with. A student once said to me that it is possible when working with children that a teacher may be “the only positive conversation they have all day”. As adults we have significant power to cut negativity from our lives. Children do not have this same ability. They have to attend school, they have to go home. We can’t always remove negativity but we can do a lot to introduce positivity. The relationship with the key adult can serve to do this.

The challenge

A child working with a key adult can show behaviours that are incredible challenging, illogical and hurtful at times. They will push the adult away one day and demand copious amounts of time another. A successful key adult will know that this is not personal. They will maintain the same calm and consistent approach, whilst maintaining respectful boundaries. They will encourage a child to reflect on what has happened but not do so in a way that induces shame. They will help a child to learn to apologise when it is appropriate. They will help a child to learn to how to ask for help, an amazingly difficult and scary prospect for a traumatised child. A key adult will model what a child should expect from other human beings, and show how to respond productively when this expectation is not met. It should be noted that because the key adult needs to model responsible behaviours, they should be prepared to apologise when necessary. Sometimes things can go wrong, bad judgements can be made and we need to be human enough to hold our hands up and admit when something hasn’t gone right.

A key adult should plan ahead, knowing that absence or time out of school will have a negative effect on their key child. The mind of the child can race and wonder what has happened to that member of staff and possibly blame themselves. There can also be resentment to the adult when they return if the leave has not been handled correctly. I have personally had first-hand experience of the challenges of returning to school without giving the appropriate notice to a key child – it led to at least a fortnight of lost time as the child sought to show independence and rejected support despite challenges. This was understandable as I had shown myself to be unreliable despite best intentions. An apology went a long way to resolving this (despite the child insisting it wasn’t a problem). From that point onwards I gave notice of planned absence and if there was any unplanned absence I made sure the student knew the circumstances (e.g. illness) so that the child did not let their mind run wild with possible reasons for my not being there. Where I was out of school on training for a few days at a time I would call in to school at a set time to check in with key students, reinforcing the idea that I could be trusted and relied upon.

Skills and attributes of a key adult

In terms of skills and key qualities a key adult should have a sense of humour it is vital. The key adult should also be well aware (and take good care) of their wellbeing as it is a strenuous (but highly rewarding) role to hold. The ability to listen non-judgementally and actively is also key. It goes without saying other key skills important to the role are empathy and calmness. When forming these relationships the adult must be aware of his or her term within the school – a short term placement in a school will not be helpful to the child, so forming this type of supportive relationship is discouraged.

Not every teacher will want to open themselves to this experience, for some the passion comes for teaching of their subject. But if you really want to make a difference to the whole life of a vulnerable child, I don’t believe there is any more effective way than becoming a key adult in their life.

For more information about the role of the key adult please read “Inside I’m hurting” by Louise M Bomber, available online.