Relationships are everything

08 May 2017

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.

A teacher and pupil

What piqued my interest in education and care-experienced children was a conversation at the Adoption UK Christmas party in 2014. As an adoptive parent, freelance researcher/trainer and volunteer for Adoption UK, I began looking into post-adoption support needs in East Lothian, and what really struck me was that virtually all of the adoptive and foster parents I spoke to had significant concerns about their children’s experiences in school.

It should actually come as no surprise that children with a history of disrupted attachments often struggle at school, given the difficult start they have had in life. But if we can improve staff’s understanding of attachment and the reasons behind troubled pupils’ behaviours, we can help them to respond in constructive and supportive ways.

A Pilot Project

Over the past nine months, Adoption UK, in partnership with Aberlady Primary School, have been running a pilot ‘Attachment Ambassadors’ project in six East Lothian schools, aimed at reducing the attainment gap by helping children with attachment difficulties to cope better at school. The focus is on giving care-experienced children a happier, less stressful and more rewarding experience, so they feel safe, supported and ready to learn. 

We've been 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?

I've met with many parents of adopted children. Often they feel dismissed as ‘difficult parents’ by school staff who, through no fault of their own, don’t understand the complexities surrounding adoption, and particularly the period when children are adjusting to their new placement.

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 build a close and trusting relationship with the child – or to facilitate such a relationship with another member of staff. They should check in with the child regularly and show that they are there for them – perhaps with just a hand on the shoulder or a smile in the corridor. The Attachment Ambassador must also be ready to listen to parents and to foster home-school relationships based on mutual respect, shared learning and ongoing reflection. In this way they can begin to create a culture of ‘attachment-awareness’ in school.

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

As well as inducting the Attachment Ambassadors, we invited all school staff and adoptive/foster parents to ‘Life in the Classroom’ attachment awareness training. These sessions covered attachment theory, brain development 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”.

What next?

We are only at the start of our journey. 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 our initial funding runs out, as sustainability is dependent on their continuing ability to build relationships, cascade their learning and promote attachment awareness throughout their school communities.

We are planning to host an ‘Attachment-Aware Schools’ mini-conference in the autumn, to celebrate our successes, share our learning and plan the attachment agenda for the coming academic year.

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.

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The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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