Here is the second of my posts on my thoughts around the Solihull Approach. As with my previous blog I am indebted to Jo and Louise of Break in Norwich for introducing me to the concepts and ideas.
The Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry on containment that links it to a foreign policy adopted by the United States during the Cold War. It includes a quotation from George F Kennan a diplomat and state department adviser who wrote about a, “long term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” It’s suggested that the hope was that the Russians would either mellow or collapse.
It may seem strange to compare the actions of a child to that of a powerful state but the suggestion of a, “patient but firm and vigilant containment,” while looking for things to mellow isn’t an unfitting way to consider the first feature of the triumvirate structure of the Solihull Approach.
Beginning with a very obvious and physical containment in the womb where the unborn baby is warm, secure, and physically held, the approach suggests we move from the physical precursor of holding a child to emotional containment. This is, “like feeling full of a problem, telling someone who listens and understands and then feeling that the problem is in perspective rather than going round and round in your head.” In an approach similar to some coaching models and things like the listening wheel used by Samaritans, the role of the other person (parent, teacher, therapist etc) is not to provide answers or necessarily say anything at all. Rather, by listening and containing the emotions we can allow the person to see that the problem is not insurmountable and restore their ability to think about the situation rather than be overwhelmed by it.
The young children or adolescents exemplified in my previous post are going through rapid developmental changes in their brain and are regularly having their ability to think things through rationally hijacked by the amygdala and its instinctive emotional response.
In ‘The Whole Brain Child,’ Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson use the example of an “upstairs and downstairs brain” where the ‘downstairs’ brain of the amygdala has placed a baby gate across the stairs to prevent access to the ‘upstairs’ brain of the prefrontal cortex. In this situation, motivated by fear, anger or other emotion the child is literally out of control and unable to act differently and needs help to slow things down and gain access to more rational thought. An angry or punitive response from an adult at this point will merely heighten the emotion and lead to more of the same or worse, as well as reinforcing the notion that these emotions – and by implication the child – cannot be controlled.
An approach based around containment enables these feelings and emotions to be shared with the parent or professional who can hold them and make sense of them. This then conveys to the child that these emotions don’t need to take over and that the powerful emotions and both manageable and tolerable – as is the child itself. Repeated occasions of this, coupled with some redirection and conversation used at the right moment, enable the child to be able to tolerate the feelings themselves. Taken further they can recognise the feelings, organise them and develop the ability to self regulate.
What’s crucial in terms of this in a school context is that at no point does the approach suggest that just because we understand where the behaviours are coming from we shouldn’t be dealing with them. This is not a case of a child saying, “I’ve got anger issues,” and then being allowed to do what they like without challenge. In fact a child who is able to lucidly encapsulate what is going on by linking back to conversations that they have been part of or overheard and throw them back as justification for behaviour is very much having an “upstairs’ outburst and should be dealt with accordingly!
Siegel and Payne Bryson suggest that when it is evident that the behaviours stem from an amygdala driven response what they term as, “command and demand,” should be replaced with, “connect and redirect.” By this they mean talking about the origin of the behaviour and responding to this in order to diffuse it. We might let the child know that we can see something is making them angry or upset (“I can see you find it hard in that class. Lots going on must make things tough for you?”), then use some reassurance, (“We want to get the best for you though and for you to feel safe and happy.”), before starting to engage with the more logical (“Maybe when things are a bit calmer we can have a chat about how to help you cope?”).
It may of course be the case that the behaviours being displayed are so outrageous and dangerous that they need to be worked through and no amount of “connect and redirect” is going to work – at least not at that point. In these situations children may well need to be removed or items taken away etc until the time is right for someone to intervene but the need to contain will still be there.
Solihull encourages us to appreciate that until we have responded to the emotional needs we are unlikely to be able to engage the logical, and that the process of attunement whereby we connect and allow the child to “feel felt” provides us with a stronger platform to do so later. It also means choosing a time to reinforce expectations and boundaries when you have a greater chance of success rather than adding more emotion and stress to an already taut situation.
The image of a baby being physically held is a useful one when we move from physical to emotional and the work of containment can be summarised as enabling another person to ‘hold it together’. A parent – or teacher – that responds in an emotional way can be interpreted as anxious or panicky and unable to manage which in turn reinforces a child’s own perception that they cannot manage and that, as nobody else can, the world is a dangerous and frightening place.
Winnicott’s three tasks of mothering are useful when considering where interventions might be needed and I think it’s clear how these ideas can be transposed from the physical to the emotional, and from the familial to the educational;
- Holding – How is the infant held?
- Handling – How is the infant handled?
- Object presentation – How is the world presented to the infant and how is the infant presented to the world?
The third task relating to presentation is one that might cast new light on the effect of parental comments about, and to children. Consider parents that use negative language about their children in meetings at school or tell you in front of the child that, “He’ll be a trouble maker. I was and he’s just like me. You’ll have no end of problems with him I can tell you. It’s just the way it is.”
In response to these three tasks someone adopting a Solihull Approach might first look to listen and be receptive to feelings. Then they could take the feelings and the person in and experience what is referred to as the ‘quality’ of them. This equates to the holding task suggested by Winnicott. In trying to name the emotions and give theme meaning and validation we are in a way handling them, and then by responding in a way that makes the feelings tolerable and meaningful we engage in the process of object presentation.
Linking to my first post on this subject, containment is a key part in supporting brain development as it can help to move the control from the limbic brain to the cortex which promotes neural connections. If the process doesn’t happen then impaired development will lead to an impaired ability to self regulate. It is about helping someone with difficult muddled feelings to think about and understand them rather than be ruled by them. High levels of emotional arousal disrupt thinking and by lowering these levels we enable someone to take a problem that is buzzing around their head (even if the puzzle is as seemingly simple as, “Why can’t I have that toy right now?” or “I bloody hate my History teacher today.”) and help them to think about rather than be overwhelmed by it.
Once the basis of the relationship is established through containment then a relationship can be developed further through reciprocity.
Dr. Thomas Berry Brazelton was president of the Society for Research in Child Development and the National Centre for Clinical Infant Programs and wrote over two hundred research papers and twenty four books with a primary focus on child development. He described Reciprocity as a, “sophisticated interaction between a baby and an adult where both are involved in the initiation, regulation and termination of the interaction.”
Reciprocity is described using the metaphor of a dance and is seen to go through seven stages (Initiation, Orientation, State of Attention, Acceleration, Peak of Excitement, Deceleration and Withdrawal). When the dance is being performed at its most effective it produces a feeling of attunement with the other person and has a smooth rhythm of giving and receiving, signaling and receiving, and control and dependency.
All senses are involved in the dance and the outcome of a repeated dance conducted in an appropriate way enables regulation stemming from the to and fro of the interaction, as well as developing a working model of a predictable and manageable world. This enables healthy attachments based on reciprocal contributions and receipt and an understanding of how others are similar and different to ourselves, leading to skills in social interaction and relationship building.
For reciprocity to be truly effective it requires the caregiver to be truly present and available throughout the interaction and to be sure not to give too much stimulus as this can lead to early withdrawal. There are numerous reasons why an infant may fail to get appropriate and effective reciprocity including parental depression, drug or alcohol abuse, traumatic events or a parent with their own unresolved emotional issues from childhood. Sadly these are prominent issues in a number of the towns and cities we may find our schools in and also will have a huge impact on the developing child. The clip below shows the impact on a child when a parent stops engaging reciprocally for a matter of minutes so consider the implications for a child where this is the repeated pattern.
Even in this short clip we can see the potential for a child without effective reciprocity during development to become either hyper aroused to try and gain attention or withdrawn. The clip below looks at how a child will modify behaviour in order to avoid anger from an adult. Once again the child learns this incredibly quickly, so consider a child in a home where there is domestic violence and the impact that repeated experiences like this would have. By the time they enter into school this would be how the child understands the world and anything different would be difficult to reconcile. No matter how supportive and caring the intention it just isn’t how they see things to be.
Reciprocity is a key part of developing communication and early years specialists will often comment on the numbers of children who show an inability or impairment in communication and then have behaviour issues as they move through their primary years. If we consider behaviour as communication (what else was the child in the first video without language doing apart from trying to communicate?) then these are children who have not developed an understanding of appropriate and acceptable methods of communication so are doing their best with what they’ve got. If this is met with further negative responses or, having had years of being repeatedly unable to access reciprocity from a caregiver, they are again dismissed as difficult by their teacher and potentially removed from their class, then we will serve only to reinforce their confused world view and negative self view. Ultimately for a child in this position this doesn’t even serve our own ends as we only continue to perpetuate the situation as they try and try again to communicate in the only way they know how and receive repeated and greater sanctions.
If this continues, as is likely, without being addressed through containment and reciprocity into secondary school we will find ourselves with an adolescent who is going through rewiring and just getting the same experiences that they had first time around.
If the child is fortunate, and rather than moving them through a punitive behaviour management system some attempts are made to address what is really going on, then some schools may use strategies such as social stories to try and explore what is going on. Even this though can have limited success unless we go backwards in order to go forwards. Crucial to the Solihull Approach is the need to start from where the child is. If there has not been sufficient containment then a movement to reciprocity is going to be limited in what it can achieve. Similarly further work such as social stories will be unlikely to deliver significant results if a child doesn’t have the emotional language needed to be part of the dialogue.
Instead of rewiring for renovation and improvement all we get is an identical rebuild of a house that nobody would choose to live in.
As highlighted before the aim of Solihull is to enable children to self regulate. There is no suggestion that routines or boundaries aren’t important or that a child should be allowed to do what they like because of previous experiences or trauma. Far from it – the approach is designed to help students who have not had appropriate development to be able to function within the same boundaries that those who have are comfortably living and working.
Behaviour management in Solihull comes after the two previous strands because it is believed that they are the key to achieving it. In well functioning families children go through containing and reciprocal processes without anyone necessarily being conscious of it or needing to study or name it. This is normal development and enables a child who has internalised restraints and satisfactions of attention and other rewards to participate in society. These students work within the parameters of a school behaviour system designed to create a safe, positive environment for learning because they understand this and recognise it from their own experience.
When a child has developmental experiences that contradict with what is regarded as normal it will be unable to engage in the community of the school. For s child in this position Solihull practitioners would suggest that there is little to be gained from behaviour management without the foundations provided by containment and regulation. Equally when there has been sufficient Containment and regulation then the systems and routines that most schools seek to put in place will be perfectly sufficient to ensure good behaviour and high levels of learning.
My focus over these two posts has predominantly been on those students with the greatest level of need – those with the most difficulties not the most difficult – and obviously these are the students most likely to have missed out on the developmental processes that the Solihull Approach seeks to address. Everyone though goes through these processes at different rates and levels of intensity throughout their lives; everyone has stressful and emotionally charged times. So perhaps the scope suggested by practitioners for the approach to be used for a whole range of relationships is worthy of greater consideration.