We all understand the widely researched impacts of nurture – happier, more successful children, reduced exclusion, improved attendance, better attainment. Lately, I’ve been interested in one of the finer, more subtle impacts for children and young people – the impact of a sense of belonging. The language of belonging is everywhere – we talk about a sense of place; putting down roots, even CBBC asks our children to find their tribe!
How many of us belong to a choir, gym, sports team, am-dram group, organisation of some sort? How many of you enjoy the pleasures of sharing an interest with others? How many of you get the buzz of discussing ideas with those of like mind?… All belonging – all that biological drive to belong, to share, to be part of something. Humans, like many other species, are geared up to live in social groups. Bruce Perry, a well-known child psychiatrist and neuroscientist talks about the advantages of there being roughly four developmentally more mature potential caregivers for each child under the age of 6 in multi-generational groups seen throughout the history of human evolution. This enriched relational ratio helped the group protect, nurture, educate, and enrich the lives of each developing child. The African proverb says “it takes a village to raise a child” referring to the belief that all adults in the group are responsible for the child’s growth and development. Current neuroscientists refer to the “social brain” and we know that much early learning occurs through mirror neurons. At the other end of the spectrum of belonging, isolation through solitary confinement in prison is one of the most devastating sanctions we apply in our penal codes.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that “belonging” is a significant strand in the resilience framework developed by Angie Hart, Derek Blincow and Helen Thomas (2007). This strand looks at relationships – the number and quality; it looks at supporting children and young people to make sense of their place in the world – who am I; where do I fit – what do I believe in? And it looks at fun and enjoyment. An inspiring mission statement for schools? And certainly seen in nurture groups across all phases. Think about Harry Potter – bereavement, trauma and neglect in his early life but when he found a place to belong, he could do marvellous things.
John Bowlby, the pioneer of our current understanding of attachment, opened up our awareness of the importance of attuned, consistent caregiving and the consequences when children don’t experience this. Among his key ideas is the concept of a secure base – a place of safety and confidence from which the child can explore, take risks, learn and become resilient. Those of you who have been the adults with the buggy, or seen this in the park, will know how the toddler wanders away from the buggy, finds a treasure, takes it back to the buggy, or secure base, and is then able to go and explore again confidently.
Our schools are the secure bases for many of our children and young people with insecure attachment or other SEMH need. Often their world outside school is not safe – school is their haven. And, we know that we can sometimes challenge and punish who we love the most – those of you who, like me, may not have been kind to your family at home on your return after a tough day. And so it is for children and young people – they project their negative thoughts and feelings to us, give us what my colleague once called “emotional vomit”. But they lack resilience, they doubt our regard and question our response.
To hold on to our children and young people when they challenge us; to understand that their behaviour communicates distress and fear; to be resilient enough ourselves to contain their distress – this is what building resilience through belonging truly is. Through confidently understanding this and maintaining an ethos of inclusion, resilience throughout the school system will develop. The more we see the successes, the more we are motivated to remain committed to the children and young people we serve. Each success creates positivity.
Alongside this, investing in support for ourselves and our colleagues is crucial. We can’t pour from an empty jug. Exploring the resilience framework as it relates to staff wellbeing is an essential part of the work that we do. It is a core part of our duty to ourselves but also improves our efficacy as a practitioner. Making time to rest and recharge makes us better at responding to our children and young people – it will improve the capacity of the school system to respond effectively and with resilience.
So building resilience through creating a sense of belonging – for everyone in schools – is it hard? – “You betcha” as Rita Pierson says in her TED talk “Every child needs a champion” but it can be done. We know it can; we see it all the time in our nurture groups.
Hart A, Blincow D & Thomas H (2007) Resilient Therapy: Working with children and families. Hove: Routledge