Relationships are everything

Kathy Allan from Adoption UK explains how an attachment awareness programme in East Lothian is helping looked-after and adopted children have a better experience of school.

I’ve been involved with Adoption UK, as both a member and volunteer, for a few years now. So when Fiona Aitken, our Director of Development in Scotland, asked if I’d be interested in working on a project to help children with attachment issues in school, I jumped at the chance as I know how care-experienced children can struggle to get through the school day. As an adoptive parent, freelance researcher and trainer, I had recently conducted some research into post-adoption support needs in East Lothian, and what really struck me was the sheer number of families with major concerns about their children’s experiences in school. In some ways, this came as no surprise, given the difficult start our children have had in life. But we also know that this shouldn’t have to be the case: if we can improve understanding of attachment and the reasons behind challenging behaviours, we can help staff to respond in constructive and supportive ways.

A Pilot Project
Our initial research led to a pilot ‘Attachment Ambassadors’ project in 6 East Lothian schools, with the focus on giving all care-experienced children a happier, less stressful and more rewarding experience, so they feel safe, supported and ready to learn.  We were funded by an initial grant from the Scottish Attainment Challenge Innovation Fund, and more recently by the North Berwick Coastal Area Partnership.

Why Attachment Ambassadors?
Relationships are everything – especially for children whose relationships have broken down during their early months and years. To quote David Howe, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of East Anglia, “If relationships are where things developmental can go wrong, then relationships are where they are most likely to be put right”. It’s therefore crucial for a child’s wellbeing that they have safe and secure relationships with adults.

All children who have been separated from their birth parents have experienced an attachment disruption, which can impact hugely on their emotional development. Adoptive parents consistently tell us that what their children need most at school is a ‘go-to’ person or substitute attachment figure who will support and advocate for them throughout their time at school. And so, the concept of the Attachment Ambassador was born.

The key role of the Attachment Ambassador – who can be a teacher or a member of support staff – is to facilitate a close ‘attachment-style’ relationship between the child and an appropriate member of staff. This key adult should check in with the child regularly and must also be ready to listen to parents and build positive home-school relationships. In this way, a culture of ‘attachment-awareness’ is created throughout the school.

Termly meetings between Attachment Ambassador, parent(s) and class teacher (with the pupil present when appropriate) are diarised as a matter of course to review progress and plan ongoing support for the pupil. A key focus is the creation of a digital ‘All About Me’ folder, which should be ‘owned’ by the child and their family, so creativity in its design is encouraged.

So how has it worked in practice?
As well as inducting the Attachment Ambassadors, we invited all school staff and adoptive/foster parents to Adoption UK’s ‘Life in the Classroom’ attachment training. These sessions covered attachment theory and developmental trauma, as well as approaches to supporting children, including Dan Hughes’ PACE model (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy). We also held two evening workshops, hosted by invited experts on child development, including Professor Colwyn Trevarthen. Feedback has been tremendous, with one participant describing our training as the “most relevant and succinct I have ever attended”.

In the weeks and months following the training, staff were asked to report back on their attachment work with children, following a ‘practitioner enquiry’ model of continuous professional development. Their commitment has been impressive, as some of their comments reveal:

“I feel completely engaged about this subject and am hopeful that we can see it being discussed more in our schools. It is vital we see the value it has for the children and families involved. The benefits to the schools of being better informed are also important.”

“What was particularly helpful was understanding that children may exhibit toddler-like behaviour and that this is to be dealt with as such, on an emotional level, rather than trying to reason with them. In my role, being caring, constant and non-judgemental of children’s behaviour, although firm to acceptable levels of conduct, is important.”

“I have found the training useful. I have tweaked some of the ways in which I work with certain children and am happy with the results. Time is a huge issue and this is possibly the most important factor for me, time to listen, explain etc. These children need you to be patient, to support them and be the confidante that at certain times they need.”

What next?
We are only at the start of our journey and there is much work to be done. For example, we need to work more closely with secondary schools to adapt the model for older children; so far we have focussed largely on primary children – though actually the core message, that relationships are the key, is the same whatever the age group. As one secondary teacher put it:

“Despite being teenagers (I had thought perhaps this approach might be better suited to the younger years), having a playful approach to low-level classroom disruption has had a positive impact and has strengthened my relationship greatly with one particular child – he responds much better to my light- hearted joking than to threats of detention/referrals etc..!” 

Parental engagement is more difficult in secondary schools though – and we also need to educate the wider parent forum about attachment. Sheer lack of time is another issue – teachers are under so much pressure that they barely have time to go to the bathroom, never mind arrange meetings with parents and each other to discuss cases and offer peer support!

“We need human resources; these children need time with a trusted adult out-with the classroom”.

However, it’s clear to me that the Attachment Ambassadors themselves are the key to the long-term success of this project. We need to ensure that they are properly supported after initial funding runs out for, as one parent put it, “the issues around attachment – the awareness has definitely been raised and I think it would be a shame for it to get lost. There’s a danger of that, if it goes off the boil.”

Sustainability is clearly dependent on the Attachment Ambassadors’ continuing ability to build relationships, cascade their learning and promote attachment awareness throughout their school communities, so we now need to engage with education officials from the top down, in order to get that ‘buy-in’ which will allow staff to prioritise attachment work in core school time.

Kathy Allan
Adoption UK

If you’d like further information about the project – or how Adoption UK can help your school with attachment awareness training – please contact Kathy at or call Adoption UK’s Scotland office on 0131 201 2488.

An earlier version of this article was published in REACH, the online magazine of CELCIS (the Centre of Excellence for Looked after Children in Scotland). You can follow the link below to the original blog: