The Nurturing Classroom-Universal Approaches

This blog looks at the Nurturing Classroom, in the context of Education and Youth Employment’s Nurturing North Ayrshire Approach. It will focus on the case for a nurturing approach, makes links to accepted evidence about what works to support the best outcomes for children and young people, highlights some of the main features of nurturing practice, dispels some myths about nurture and highlights some pathways for further exploration.

The Case for Nurture
We know that we have significant challenges on our hands in terms of the wellbeing of our young people, and a poverty related attainment gap.
Overall, we know that wellbeing and attainment are inextricably linked, and we know that teacher student relationships and school and teacher “connectedness” are hugely important for good outcomes. We also know that young people experiencing poverty are at risk of low social capital, which can mean lower sense of connectedness, sense of wellbeing and academic initiative (Maeroff).
We know that the increasingly influential John Hattie has pinpointed non-directivity, empathy and warmth as the top 3 teacher characteristics (with the highest effect sizes) that support achievement.
Furthermore, when you consider the wide literature about resilience, there is further support as the evidence that resilience in schools is developed by supportive relationships, including bonding with pro-social individuals, high expectations with clear and consistent boundaries, opportunities to participate and contribute, and explicitly teaching social and emotional skills. (Roffey)
Nurture is founded on sound psychological principles and helps us take a holistic approach to the child, which is a key part of the GIRFEC philosophy. The Curriculum for Excellence, as well as GIRFEC, and the promotion of health and wellbeing as the responsibility for all ensures promoting good “affective” outcomes for children is a high priority and we cannot lose sight of that as we search to close the poverty related attainment gap.

We also know what does not work; zero tolerance approaches and approaches that overly rely on punitive/ behavioural approaches contribute to disengagement, and children being pushed out or pulled out of our system. So nurture has much to offer if thoroughly understood and implemented.
Approach to Pedagogy That Meets Wellbeing Needs
In the Sutton Trust review of what makes great teaching, classroom climate, classroom management, professional behaviours and teacher beliefs feature strongly, as well as more traditional pedagogical skills. Other authors have looked at “relational pedagogy” (Boyd et al) or “connective instruction”, (Martin and Dowson), highlighting that teachers who “frame practice in relational terms are more likely to foster motivated, engaged and achieving students”.

Nind and Weare concluded that there were clear “pedagogical principles” for effective mental health promotion including ensuring that “affective learning is integrated across the curriculum and not isolated in specific curriculum areas or lessons”- in short, it’s much more than a programme. So nurturing approaches build on the “known knowns” of wellbeing practice but they do much more than that. I was asked once at a conference whether nurture was health improving schools rehashed. I had obviously missed the mark on that particular day- it is much more nuanced than that!

The Specificity of Nurture
As mentioned, Nurture builds on all the evidence about the effectiveness of relationships, wellbeing approaches, health improving schools, but is it distinct and the biggest danger is we give it a cursory look and say “we are doing that already”, because unless we have looked specifically at it, we almost definitely are not. For example, nurture is an attachment based intervention, and thorough understanding of attachment principles is an essential feature. We need to take a whole child perspective.
Nurture is not, as some would think, about providing just the care and empathy, without any structure of boundaries. There is no evidence base for this and nurture is placed firmly in the authoritative quadrant of the “social discipline window”, which offers strong emotional support but also challenge and high expectations.
An understanding of nurture would mean that we are able to differentiate when to vary more mainstream pedagogical practice like praise and feedback, to avoid shame. Attachment ideas such as attunement, claiming and promoting belonging and connectedness are so relevant.
Nurturing approaches are not overly permissive and are not the road to anarchy and chaos, if we remember the two pillars of a) care/ warmth and b) structure, boundaries and expectations. Many of the nurturing strategies and practices can be implemented for no cost in seconds, for instance daily greetings, checks in, whilst others will need planning and resources, e.g. effective calm spaces. Nor do you absolutely have to have a distinct nurture group to evolve to be a nurturing school. In many schools the whole school approach should be the first starting place and will have the most sustained impact.
Ten Take Homes- The Nurturing Classroom
There is a rich emerging evidence base and number of resources to support our classrooms and schools to be nurturing, and it is great to see HGIOS 4 mention nurture – although it’s arguably in passing rather than in detail. The new Education Scotland “Applying Nurture As A Whole School Approach” is a the best resource yet to aid this. Psychological Services and school partners from North Ayrshire contributed to this and it’s really helpful and builds on Glasgow’s How Nurturing is Our School. Also really useful are the Extended Nurturing Principles. Before I finish we would like however, to highlight ten essential components of a nurturing approach in the classroom and wider school:
• Focus on relationships and use attachment based ideas like “connectedness”, “attunement” and “claiming” specifically to do this- I spoke to a secondary school recently, and it was lovely to hear belonging in there as a school value, if children and young people are claimed, then you are absolutely half way there, and they will have a great sense of belonging. Feelings of belonging have an immediate impact on children’s emotional health (Marzano research)- when we do nurture training, we ask “what does each person need to do best?” and invariably people talk about aspects of affiliation, belonging and being connected

• Don’t be afraid to provide firm (fair) boundaries and consequences, or “authoritative limit setting” but go for a restorative approach and avoid shaming and punishment- it is really counter-productive to your overall goals• Really understand “attuned de-escalation” and the impact of trauma, and attachment and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)
• Use this and your knowledge of child development and GIRFEC to develop deep understanding of the children and young people in your care- how many ACEs have they experienced?
• Aim for consistency across all staff, and remember the need to tackle the interschool variability (class to class) which as we know is a bigger factor than between school variability- staff may need a nurturing approach shaped, modelled and supported, as new practices develop
• Be clear about what (adult)behaviours, practices and policies that do not fit into your nurturing school culture, for example where do punishment exercises fit in and what impact do they have in terms of motivation, and engagement, and what about long “rows” from authority figures with a heavy emphasis on monologue, there is evidence that the language processing part of the brain is not engaged significantly through monologue but the emotional bit of the brain is more likely to be engaged (negatively) especially for teenagers- there is a time for talk and remonstration absolutely, but restorative approaches and philosophy again can guide this
• Provide for self-care- we know this is tough and Louise Bomber calls working with the most vulnerable children with pronounced attachment difficulties “the Big Ask” –it’s no wonder but it can be done
• Proactively teach, shape and model social and emotional learning, and go beyond hitting “Es” and “Os” if you want deep learning and sustained impact, and if you have to focus on any one skill, self-regulation is so important for life chances and also a big challenge- but there are things you can do- ask one of our team, and remember that Co-Regulation is vital to this- the role of a trusted adult to help guide this
• Really focus on the communication side of things, inevitably I had to quote the extended nurturing principles at some point, and the bit in “language as a vital means of communication” is so important, including language to support the young person to feel,
• You belong here
• You are welcome here
• I like you
• You are safe here
• You can explore and learn
• Your feelings are okay with me
• You can work with me on this problem that is getting in the way right now
• I will be thinking about you, and keeping you in mind

We also need to use that claiming language with parents in our meetings, and avoid the opposite; “We can’t meet your child’s needs here” which sets a cycle of anxiety in motion that will only ends one way whether it is true or not. Suzanne Zeedyk reports that changing the language we use can be a real vehicle for systemic change- noting the powerful impact of changing a way of description across a school of behaviour from “challenging behaviour” to “distressed behaviour”- and yes this reflects better understanding and can generate empathy, but needs to sit within a systems change perspective along with other things
• Ensure that even for our most vulnerable children, we work towards at least having one “good adult” who has an attachment informed relationship with the child, (Louise Bomber’s stuff is fab to guide this interaction)
• Ensure that even for our most vulnerable children, we work towards at least having one

Next Steps:
Psychological Services is looking to support the next stage of “Nurturing North Ayrshire”, which will involve, at the universal level, ensuring that all staff have understanding of attachment, trauma and ACE’s and further developing our restorative approaches practice.
We will also to trying to develop further approaches to nurturing de-escalation and encouraging creative use of the “Applying Nurture as a Whole School Approach” resource.