A child who is being cared for by their local council is known as a ‘looked-after’ child. They might be living in a children’s home or with foster parents or in some other family arrangement.
They will have been taken into care for a variety of reasons – the most common is to protect them from abuse or neglect. Some children may be in care because their parents cannot cope, perhaps because of illness or disability or because of family breakdown.
We know that maltreatment is highly damaging to a child’s social and emotional development and that it can have a number of adverse, lifelong effects on learning, behaviour and on a child’s ability to manage and calm their emotions.
Moving into care is a further traumatic experience which will, for many, bring a huge sense of loss and insecurity – often compounded by changes in placements which affect not only relationships with family and friends but also wider relationships, such as the child’s school.
Because of their experiences both before and during care, looked-after children are at much greater risk of poor mental health than their peers. Almost half of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder (compared with 10% of their peers) and two-thirds have special educational needs.
Many will have difficulties with developing and maintaining relationships, trauma and self-esteem. They are also more likely to leave school with fewer qualifications, are at higher risk of offending, becoming a teenage parent, or not being in education, employment or training.
Find out more about looked-after children
MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. These sessions aim to help staff better understand how being in care affects children:
Protective factors: what schools can do
Some areas of the UK will have virtual school heads (VSHs), who are in charge of promoting the educational achievement of all the children looked after by their local council. It’s their responsibility to work with other professionals to make sure that school staff are aware of information about children in care, including their physical, emotional or mental health needs.
The majority of looked-after children will have additional learning needs (also known as SEN/ASN) and a significant number may be statemented or have a development plan.
All looked after children will also have a personal education plan, or PEP, (known as a Care Plan in Scotland) which will keep a record of a child’s developmental and educational needs, including any special needs identified in their statement or development plan. The PEP or Care Plan brings together relevant professionals to monitor a child’s educational needs and progress throughout their education, setting short-term targets and longer-term plans.
It’s important that schools understand the powerful role they can play in improving the quality of life, educational experiences and attainment of looked-after children by:
- Creating a safe, caring, respectful, nurturing school and classroom environment to help children develop healthy, safe, reliable adult attachments and build resilience. It is important that a child has at least one key person in school with whom they can form a good relationship.
- Being kind, consistent and gently persevering in attempts to build relationships. Positive school/classroom relationships built on trust and security can promote a child’s sense of safety and wellbeing and encourage them to open up and talk.
- Helping to build children’s understanding of their own thoughts, emotions and feelings; developing their self-esteem; and promoting healthy relationships and other social and emotional skills though whole-school programmes and targeted, small group work.
- Being alert, watchful and questioning – particularly to what children might be trying to communicate via their play or behaviour. Look beyond negative behaviour, don’t personalise it and focus on children’s strengths.
- Bearing in mind that not all children in need ‘act out’ and that some may present as quiet, shy, withdrawn or over pleasing.
- Being sensitive around curriculum topics such as ‘family trees’ or mother’s/father’s days etc. Meet with carers to find out some of the child’s history and to discuss upcoming events/celebrations at school which may trigger difficult feelings.
- Teaching children that mental health is a spectrum and normalise conversations about wellbeing and seeking help. Try creating an individual wellbeing plan with children – what do they need to thrive and cope well?
- Having high aspirations for all children and providing encouragement that they can all achieve.
- Developing strong partnerships with carers, local councils and specialist agencies. Carers in particular can feel unsupported in their efforts to help children thrive and may welcome working together to promote a child’s wellbeing.
- Providing support at times of change and transition. A looked-after child may have had multiple losses and changes; relatively small things such as having a supply teacher can have an impact. Prepare them for upcoming changes and offer extra support at the beginning and end of the day, term and year.
- Supporting looked-after children who need extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, nurture groups, school clubs, summer schemes or through referral to community-based support.
- Ensuring all looked-after children have a Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire completed. Keep up-to-date with fluctuations in their SDQ and take early action with partners to help mobilise and strengthen protective factors and resilience.
Finally, it is important that school staff take the time to care for themselves. Building 'healing' relationships with children who have experienced maltreatment can be challenging. It is important that staff have access to opportunities to reflect through regular debriefs and supervision from school leaders.