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The metaphorical tether - why a safe space in school is so important

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

I was on the beach in Devon last weekend, having a discussion with a friend about beach huts. We had wandered past families set up outside their huts, towels hanging up, flasks of tea and picnics laid out on blankets and inside their bags, coats, stoves - accoutrements of a day out on a British beach. We noticed the ‘for rent’ sign, £10-15 per day. Was this worth it? we pondered. What is it about the beach hut - or its less expensive version - the beach tent - that we love so much? It made me think about how it feels to have a base in an open space - the beach open to the skies and the hut representing shelter and safety. We love to sit in the doorway of our tents or huts and look out. We feel grounded knowing our belongings are safe and that we know exactly where to find them. Our little hut or den anchors us in the great outdoors, in much the same way as our homes shelter us from the outside world. From this safe space we can explore confidently, even venturing into the cold waters of the sea, because we know we can return to the warm towel and privacy of our haven.

John Bowlby - the father of attachment theory described the bond between an infant and its caregiver as providing a safe base from which to explore the world. When children and adults are out in the world, this emotional security can be replicated through anchoring ourselves to safe spaces. Think of any experiences you have had when you have visited an unknown place such as a conference hall, a wedding party, or a new holiday destination. The first thing we do after scanning the space is to identify some sort of base such as a table, a familiar face, a corner of the room, even a friendly bar ; we can anchor ourselves to this space and venture out knowing we can return to a familiar place or person. We are then metaphorically tethered, and this enables us to take steps outwards, venturing further and taking new risks. For those of us who are particularly anxious about being in unfamiliar surroundings, this anchoring helps us self-regulate and manage uncomfortable feelings that might be arising. We manage our fight, flight, freeze by identifying a safe escape much like our early ancestors would have used caves to shelter from the elements and predators.

Children in school really need this idea of a safe haven - especially those children who struggle with transitions or self- regulation. Observe the children who stand still in the playground, rooted to the spot, or those who walk round and round on their own, who repeatedly pop up in your classroom or want to leave their bag in your room. If some children don’t have that safe space identified in school, they may struggle to attend at all. If school makes them feel like they are bobbing about in a sea of uncertainty and anxious feelings are overwhelming them without any moments of respite, they may return to their own safe space - home. Betsy de Thierry explains that in school, especially in times of transition, children who may not have a nurturing home experience, are require an identified safe space and need to know that they can check in anytime to experience their emotional safety and security. How can we notice how are pupils are feeling and how can we help them feel more grounded and settled in school?

These are some ideas that you could try

- Identify a key member of staff who the child can find at break time or at times of crisis.

- Set up scheduled 1-1 slots for key children so they know that in the day or week they have a secure nurture time.

- Set up a nurture space for breaktimes and lunchtimes and invite and show targeted pupils where they can go. Don’t just tell them-take them and show them where and when they can use it.

- Set up a special box, corner, chair with familiar objects for a child to go to.

- Prime school admin staff to notice these untethered pupils: office staff generally stay in offices so can be found! (librarians are also great for ‘collecting’ these pupils and books are great for a child to hide in)

- Set up a corner of the playground which could be a secure base-could be a platform, a bench, a tree-make sure a duty staff member is nearby.

- Transitional objects help children feel an adult is bearing them in mind-e.g. lend a child a school pen of yours, let them look after a small toy from the classroom or you look after their exercise book or folder.

Covid restrictions could work both ways for children who need safe bases in school. Being in bubbles with the same TAs and in set rooms could be helpful but stressful for some children who need to return to the learning support base or who usually need time with familiar adults who are not in their bubble. How are schools finding the restrictions working for these vulnerable pupils? What sort of creative solutions can we find? Can we use key adults to create an anchor for children? Can we create that metaphorical beach hut in school?

On a final note - bear a thought for staff working in bubbles who may not be able to use the staff room or learning support base as their own anchor in school. Teachers who work in multiple classrooms can feel discombobulated in school as they literally don’t have a tether. How can we create spaces for staff to call home in school?

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