Carnegie Education

Attuned Teaching a framework built on relationships for learning

Positive, supportive relationships in schools do matter. To most people, both in and beyond the teaching profession, this seems like a really straightforward and obvious statement.  

Published on 16 Dec 2022
Image of children and teacher in classroom

Our schools are inhabited by people, and people are supported through positive relationships. 

We would hope that teachers join the profession because they enjoy the company of children and young people, not merely because they might be able to tolerate them under perfect conditions. We expect children to attend school. Why would we want them to be in the daily presence of adults who they do not believe like them? 

Having to write the two paragraphs above feels provocative.  Times are difficult in many schools. There is a lack of adequate funding, a depletion in staff numbers and an increasing challenge of caring for and educating a growing number of children and young people for whom life beyond the school gates presents a genuine challenge (and not the good sort).  Finding the energy to build positive relationships with all children can seem overwhelming.

There are schools who brand themselves on unflexing disciplinary approaches which can increase the number of children moved on (or never admitted) from the school to home education, alternative provision, new schools or even exclusion. Without doubt we are increasingly seeing the effects of an education system in which a growing number of children and indeed adults who do not seem to fit what is on offer.  
Of course, there are other schools in which cultures and systems exist which are more inclusive. Recently we read a very welcome TES article based on an interview between reporter Helen Amass interviewed psychologist Peter Fonagy.  The piece was called ‘Why it matters whether your students like you’.  Some of these school communities are proud to be trauma-informed and/or attachment aware organisations. As such they recognise why it is important that teachers develop relationships with children and young people based on the core human need for attachment which might lead them to be ‘liked’, as described by Peter Fonagy. 

Recently we wrote a book chapter in which we articulated our theorisation of the ABCD of ‘Attuned Teaching’. This chapter is written as a manifesto. As such it is a statement of a position held by both of us, drawing on our knowledge and experiences as teachers, leaders, adoptive parents and teacher development facilitators.  

Attuned Teaching. 

A - Adopt an anti-bias stance

  • Every child is unique. Every child is important and has the right to full time education.  We challenge performative policies that lead to some children being considered inconvenient in some schools. Our policies, language and practices need to nurture all learners rather than discriminate against or punish some. By adopting an anti-bias stance we commit to keeping inclusion and social justice at the heart of education.

B - Build relationships which make a difference

  • Every child needs to feel welcome and be known in their school community. We build trust with children through our actions. Relationships are not neutral. The classroom is not a battleground so let’s stop talking about enforcing behaviour and discipline. By putting relationships first we value each child in their own right and we create opportunities for learners to be both vulnerable and bold.

C - Create safe enabling environments

  • Every child can flourish when they feel safe, and every child can learn. We share the responsibility to create affirming, appreciative and enabling school environments. Practices which isolate or shame children or families have no place in education.  By focusing on equity, being empathetic and practising co-regulation we create successful learning environments for all. 

D - Deepen our understanding over time

  • Every child deserves teachers who keep learning. Understanding of trauma, vulnerability and attachment continues to evolve, and it is not legitimate to assume our practices should be static.  We respect, learn from and contribute to the expertise of fellow teachers and other professionals. By working collaboratively and with curiosity we co-create knowledge for practice to become highly effective inclusive teachers. 

Attuned teaching and attachment awareness and means that from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) onwards, our practice is centred around the 'unique child'. It means that we acknowledge that parents “are children’s first and most enduring educators” where a child is safe and at home with parent(s). However, for more vulnerable children, including those foster care or children waiting for adoption and special guardianship this may look different. Where does their attachment and advocate come from? Being able to build relationships fostered on trust, appreciation and safety matter to all children and adults in schools we must play their part.

To those in education wedded to ‘zero-tolerance’ or so-called ‘warm-strict’ type approaches, the ABCD of Attuned Teaching might be seen as an act of resistance. The manifesto asks that members of the adult community in some schools re-think of the ways that they collectively work with learners through their acts of teaching and ‘managing’ behaviour.  The fact that we believe some of our assertions might be resisted is the very reason that we believe that they need saying!  
As we continue to develop our practice and pedagogy, conversations and thinking, our attuned teaching approach becomes more and more solidified and substantiated. We become more convicted, and we see children needing relationship, love and understanding more and more. Context (as they say) is everything - children’s stories, lived experiences and needs are paramount in education today. Indeed, we are making space for reclaiming the right for every child to be known, be understood, play and be heard. 

The book chapter is published as
Gunning, C. and Lofthouse, R. A Manifesto for Attuned Teaching in McGovern, W., Gillespie, A. and Woodhouse, H. (eds) (2022) “Understanding Safeguarding for Children and their Educational Experiences: a guide for Students, ECTs and School Support Staff”. Croydon: Emerald Publishing. Emerald Points Short Series.


Professor Rachel Lofthouse

Professor / Carnegie School Of Education

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.

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