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Why Holistic Assessment is Important in Schools

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

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Contextual Safeguarding

It’s well understood that children learn what they live with. That’s why we’re busy developing and exploring the idea of Contextual Safeguarding. We’re starting to accept that a child’s ability to thrive will potentially be affected by all sorts of external factors, not just the ‘usual’ Safeguarding risks.

Contextual Safeguarding is about exploring the child / family’s whole context – EVERYTHING that could have an impact on their ability to function; it’s about appreciating that in the 21st century, the risks to a child / family are far greater and increasingly less obvious – Cyber-Bullying, Radicalisation, Grooming, Indecent Images, County Lines Exploitation, Gang recruitment and activity are all things we’ve had to get to grips with as technology has got more and more sophisticated and prevalent in our everyday lives. The ability of nefariously intentioned groups to organise and recruit efficiently and globally is an incredibly scary side-effect of the information-superhighway that we couldn’t have anticipated – certainly not on the scale and with the level of duplicity that we see and hear about daily.

It’s an accepted truth that children who live in homes that are calm, safe and loving are more likely to be successful – in school, in exams, in relationships, in adulthood.

Those children who live in chaotic homes are less likely to be successful, and those living in homes where there is Domestic Abuse or risk of any of the things mentioned above, are the most likely to be lost in, forgotten about or overlooked by the system.

Those children will grow into the adults who are most likely to enter into the Criminal Justice System, access mental health services, experience drug and/or alcohol issues, unemployment and homelessness. Not to mention the probability of that adult becoming a victim or perpetrator of (further) abuse themselves.

None of this is news if you are a professional working in any youth-centred setting but it remains the case that very rarely – if ever – are these children identified early as living with abuse.

We understand that early intervention and prevention is key to supporting those children who “stand out” and we strive (I hope!) to find appropriate services to do exactly that. So often though, I get asked to meet with a child or family for whom the available interventions have not been appropriate, and the child or family is beginning to attract labels such as “unwilling to engage” or “Resistant to support”.

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These requests come most often from schools. Schools who have tried incredibly hard to meet the academic needs of the child; who have usually spent huge sums of money and invested massive amounts of time and resources having the child assessed by various internal services, and / or have had referrals to external services refused because the child doesn’t meet their criteria.

It’s usually the case that the school hasn’t considered holistic assessment and instead, have been left to conclude – albeit reluctantly - that the child / family is the issue because they haven’t fitted the intervention offered to them by the system.

I’d like to take a minute to say clearly that teachers ARE NOT therapists. They are not psychiatrists, counsellors, Social Workers, IDVAs or psychologists. It is not their job to manage external factors affecting education, it is their job to educate and most of the teachers I’ve ever met are very good at it!

We hear time and again from the teaching profession about the very real pressure on them to produce results for all the children they teach and the increasing expectation that they will resolve all ills for a child whilst that child is in their school.

Because of the conveyer-belt nature of education, it’s often the case that even if one school manages to identify an issue for a child, it’s not unlikely that another school will dismiss these findings at transitional points because the new school will want to make its own assessments and offer their own interventions and support.

This means that children suffer from breaks in services (if they’re lucky enough to have had one in the first place); inevitably they’ll suffer more losses, transitional chaos and their productivity and ability to engage and learn is further eroded.

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The Impact of Domestic Abuse

In the vast majority of cases I deal with, there is some Domestic Abuse somewhere in the family history. Domestic Abuse is rarely discussed as a potential factor for challenging or disengaged children, yet I firmly believe it is the most common cause for those in the mainstream education system.

UK Domestic Abuse statistics are gathered mainly in respect of male on female heterosexual violence and these figures tell us that 1 in 4 women will experience Domestic Abuse and as many as 4 women a week will be killed by abusive partners. We know also that 1 in 6 men will report being victims of Domestic Abuse in their adult lifetime too.

These statistics don’t take into account the group who we know to be the most vulnerable to abuse both in their own relationships and at home; 14-16-year-olds.

It is not necessarily the direct effects of Domestic Abuse - there’s no doubt that a child who is sent to school with a broken arm will not be able to write very well – but the trauma and deep-rooted impact on the child’s attachments are what cause the biggest issues.

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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

All teachers, I’m told, study Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need and there can be no question that the Basic Needs of a child cannot possibly be consistently and kindly met whilst a parent is living with abuse or being abusive.

The erosion of, or failure to meet those basic needs is what affects a child’s ability to form strong and meaningful attachments. Bowlby theorised many years ago about the importance of secure attachments for children and Ainsworth’s very visual “Strange situation” experiments show starkly how children learn to predict the consistency (or lack thereof) of response from their caregivers and adapt their internal safeguarding processes to reflect this.

Primary attachments are usually formed to a biological mother because the bond is developed in-vitro. If the biological mother is unavailable – either physically, mentally, or emotionally to the child, the quality of that attachment will be affected negatively.

It is an inevitable consequence of living with Domestic Abuse that amygdala brain activity – fight, flight, freeze – is not only increased, but is on persistent high alert for safeguarding purposes and that this will be true for both the abused parent and child. We recognise this state therapeutically as Hyper-Arousal; it’s a trauma response and it’s exhausting, chaotic and depressing. It also makes people vulnerable to further abuse – particularly young people who seek their comfort mainly online.

When we see these presentations in a parent and child, we don’t usually probe, we usually judge. We decide that we are seeing a lazy, ineffectual parent who has produced a challenging, naughty, defiant child. We subconsciously adopt a morally superior position and unwittingly reinforce all of the inappropriate power and control balances present in an abusive household.

Parents often say they feel as though they are treated the same as the children by schools – when they are expected to address staff the same way as the children do rather than as equal adults, for example.

Staff often feel it is their job to offer ‘advice’ on managing the child’s behaviour so it’s not unusual that the already traumatised and demonised parent comes away from that interaction feeling further berated and knowing that another opportunity to have their child’s needs correctly identified has been missed.

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They’re left feeling even more criticised and got-at, patronised and unworthy, and then the whole thing is compounded when the parent is summoned back to the school a week later to be criticised for not taking the advice offered. This cycle of misunderstanding, not probing, judging, assuming, eroding of confidence, self-esteem and spirit ultimately ends with the parent disengaging and the family being branded resistant and becoming even more vulnerable.

Even worse is the current trend for diagnosis of children. Schools are expected to make tick-box assessments of children’s needs, and referrals to paediatricians who have cursory meetings with children, agree with their fellow professionals regardless, and label the child.

Currently ASD is the trendy acronym and the criteria for diagnosis is so similar to the presentation of a disorganised attachment pattern that it is not hard for the child to be made to fit the intervention or diagnosis instead of the intervention or diagnosis being made to fit the child.

The system leaves no room for lateral thinking or broad assessment, a child is viewed inflexibly through whichever lens the referrer has chosen to use. In the case of ASD diagnosis, for example, the child is being sent to a medical professional for a diagnosis of a condition which is medically assessable. The system is linear and follows the requests of the referrer, making the assumption that a teacher – remember what I said about them being teachers not therapists? – has correctly identified the hoof beats that they’ve heard as zebras not horses.

The most frustrating thing for me is that when the intervention doesn’t work, or the diagnosis doesn’t magically change the presentation of the child (go figure!), the system blames the child! It is the child who has failed to utilise the intervention rather than the system failing to correctly identify the issue in the first place.

This is why I advocate for holistic assessment. It is cheaper than (for example) an Ed Psych assessment, more effective than a tick-box paediatric referral and, most importantly, if done well, is 100% more likely to correctly identify the root cause of the issue quickly and ensure that any intervention offered is appropriate and actually affects positive change for the child and family.

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What does a Holistic Assessment do?

A holistic assessment can follow the child and be updated when significant changes occur. If the system correctly recognises that the root cause is attachment related rather than diagnosable, for example, the correct intervention will never be rigid and pharmaceutical, it will always be flexible and therapeutic.

Holistic assessment looks at the whole family IN CONTEXT. It does not just concern itself with the academic achievement or behavioural presentation of the child and then only intervene to improve data. Data is important to schools; it is not important to families. Receiving helpful support is important to families!

A headteacher once asked me, “How do you describe the work you do with schools?” And I told her, “It’s my job to literally get these children into education – through the classroom door and ‘in the room’ - so that you can do your job of getting education into these children.”

If the environment the child lives in is chaotic and abusive, and their brains are set to safeguarding mode, how can they possibly be engaged with education? They can’t. And this presents as defiance, disruption or even aggression in the classroom.

The system’s failure to even consider Domestic Abuse or recognise the catastrophic impact of it on a family means that a parent who is already living with a dominant partner – and Domestic Abuse is ALWAYS about power and control – finds themselves in another powerless situation as an authoritarian system such as a school demands they put themselves in the subservient, non-expert position once more.

If schools were more willing to view the parent as the expert in their own child, more flexible in their approach to challenging behaviour and less determined to label every difficulty with a diagnosis, they would foster far more robust relationships with their so-called ‘hard to reach’ families.

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Families who are chaotic and abused will find the linear, inflexible approach of the education system to be just as oppressive and abusive as their home environment and then school just becomes a legal requirement for their child instead of the welcoming safe space and haven from abuse that it ought to be.

The family will view the school with distrust and decide that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution and as the school becomes more frustrated with the family’s lack of engagement, the family withdraws more, the school becomes more punitive in its treatment of both child and parent, and the family is left with the belief that school is just another place where they are expected to just fall into line and fit the mould.

Domestic Abuse doesn’t have a mould to fit. We are so reluctant to acknowledge its presence that we don’t consider it. We may hold the view that if the victim chooses not to leave, then it’s their own decision-making that creates the situation. We might even report the family to Social Services or other statutory agencies because we feel that the abused parent is actually the abuser because they’ve failed to engage with the services offered.

Training pastoral staff to recognise the signs of Domestic Abuse and the subsequent attachment issues that are bound to present in the child should, in my opinion, be as much part of required CPD as Safeguarding training is. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men, remember? In a class of 20 children then, at least 5 children are living with Domestic Abuse and NOBODY at school will ask them about it.

They will brand those children as difficult management problems which won’t be far removed from whatever the abusive script at home is. If every trusted adult is saying the same thing – that the child is difficult, naughty, disruptive, challenging, bad etc, the child is going to learn pretty quickly that this is their truth. Why then, would they bother to try and change if none of the adults have bothered to try and find out the truth?

Domestic Abuse is incredibly isolating for the whole family for obvious reasons. Abusive people don’t want their victims to have outside influences that might challenge their power and control of them, and schools are fantastically good at vicariously reinforcing this message when they blame the child. The child learns that bad stuff only happens because of them and naturally, their esteem, confidence and attachment ability is further eroded and cemented in a negative way. It’s the classic cycle of giving a dog a bad name.

Domestic Abuse training is often offered for free by DA services because most DA services are charitable and have usually secured funding to deliver the training. It’s rare for schools to take the offer up though because, I think, they view it as creating yet more work.

Beyond that, schools feel that this is not their remit which I find incredibly short-sighted. If a single intervention with the abused parent can offer a long-term solution for the child’s outcomes, why wouldn’t schools see it as their first port of call and not their last?

If schools used a holistic assessment framework, they could find the most helpful intervention quickly and without any significant cost or input from themselves right from the start.

I often hear schools tell me that they’ve tried everything and the outcomes still haven’t improved, but when I ask about family history and DA, they look at me blankly or offer an opinion on the parent’s parenting skills but have little information about history or current home circumstances.

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It’s usually the case that I can meet with the parent for less than an hour, discover underlying DA, trauma or loss, (DA causes direct or vicarious trauma – without exception – and in the case of historical abuse, there is an inevitable loss) make the right referrals to the right services to support the parent and within weeks, the outcomes for the children show significant improvement, simply because both child and parent feel heard, supported, helped and most importantly, often for the first time, SAFE.

Our evidence tells us that attachments begin to repair as soon as the parent and child are both less concerned with safeguarding and subsequently the safe parent’s emotional availability is improved.

Children attach to adults, not the other way around, so it’s imperative that the parent is the one supported to improve their availability for the child to secure their attachment.

The natural consequence of securing primary attachments is that children are less chaotic, more settled, more engaged, and more able to learn. Being hyper-alert affects everything from cognitive ability to memory, so explains beautifully the phenomenon of the child who could write their name perfectly yesterday but cannot even form a letter today.

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If you are a headteacher reading this, please consider putting a holistic assessment framework into your pastoral service. If done well, it will cost you very little money, no more time than would otherwise be invested in the child and you stand a very real chance of identifying the correct intervention for the family first time and becoming one of the very few professionals who has made the effort to actually listen to them and fit the intervention to the family not the other way around. The child’s outcomes, and consequently their data, will improve too.

All behaviour is communication, it’s up to us, the adults - particularly the professional adults - to learn to accurately interpret the language the child is speaking rather than expecting the child to communicate only in our language.

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Top Tips!

  1. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In other words, the child is more than just their behaviour.

  2. Holistic Assessment is a great tool for Contextual Safeguarding

  3. Seek to connect not to correct – understanding the child’s WHY will be more beneficial that simply dealing with the WHAT

  4. Remember that interventions that fit the family are more successful than interventions the family is expected to fit.

  5. The right intervention may not be with the child, it may be elsewhere – with the parent, for example. We’re seeking to find the difference that makes a difference, not deal with behaviour.

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JLTS provides a range of high-quality (and low cost) training and workshops for schools, including Holistic Assessment for Contextual Safeguarding, Therapeutic Thinking, and Understanding Domestic Abuse and its Effects, in addition to providing school improvement services and free consultations. For further information on any of our services or for a bespoke plan to suit your school please get in touch!

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