Sue Nicholls, a member of nasen's Birth to Eleven Advisory Group, presents a short guide to the practicalities of setting up a nurture group in her blog.
‘Could we have one of those Nurture Groups, please?’
I first encountered Nurture Groups in Leyton, London in September 1979. Starting a new job as a Support Teacher in a Special School for children with behaviour difficulties, the last thing I had expected to see was a classroom with ‘Mr Men’ curtains and cushions, carpets, rugs and a table laid for breakfast - with a table cloth and serviettes!
I had stumbled on the Infant Nurture Groups which supported selected children from local schools on a part time attendance basis.
Although my career was to generally continue its original course of working in Mainstream education, the seven years which I spent working in those groups was to shape my approach to teaching children for the rest of my working life.
For the final ten years of this career, I was employed as an Advisory Teacher for Behaviour Support – with a responsibility for Nurture Groups, here in Bournemouth. What follows, is the practical advice which I gave my schools for setting up their own groups and time has shown that it all does work.
So, to start at the beginning…
Find a room
This sounds an obvious first step, but its importance is often overlooked. Without a suitable room, there is no group!
Ideally, a Nurture Group room is situated in the heart of the school which speaks to everybody of the importance the school places on its most vulnerable children. The best Nurture Groups are part of a ‘whole school approach’ to nurturing, where the ethos of the Group becomes that of the entire school - meaning that the outstanding Nurture Group is usually found within an outstanding nurturing school.
The room should be of small classroom size with an outside space available, where possible.
Easy access to toilets will also make life easier for all when the group is running so you don’t lose an adult to supervise visits to them.
A sink is useful, but not essential – a bucket of warm soapy water and a washing up bowl will suffice for dirty plates, hand washing etc.
Bear in mind that this room will need to accommodate –
- 10 to 12 children plus 2 adults
- Sofa(s) to form a listening area
- A dining room set up (table and enough chairs to seat everybody around it).
- Floor space for playing – and storage for lots of toys!
You will need two staff in the Group – ideally a Teacher and a Teaching Assistant, but more commonly two Teaching Assistants. Either way, Senior Management will also need to be involved to oversee the planning for the Group, selection of children, decisions for returning children back to class etc.
In addition, many schools find it useful to include a third adult who is known to the children and able to step in if an unexpected absence occurs within the staff. The Group should always run with two adults. This third person may be a visitor to the Group occasionally and certainly needs to understand the way it works, the children in it etc.
Two adults for such a small group of children may sound extravagant, but there are several good reasons for this arrangement –
- The two adults can represent the parents of a family, giving the children the opportunity to see how humour can be shared, difficulties overcome and problems solved without the fear of losing one of them to a ‘walk out’(which may be their experience at home).
- Not only are the children chosen for the Group vulnerable, but the adults also can put themselves at risk if there is no reliable second adult witness to incidents or events which the child may describe inaccurately.
- These are generally not ‘easy’ children and the need for another adult to deal with a situation which has genuinely upset a member of the team is sometimes important. The children will often ‘test’ to see what happens if an adult is provoked as their experience of adult reactions is a negative one. It is for us to help the children deal with these situations and feelings more appropriately as well as making it possible for the adults to hold their own emotions in check.
So, the choice of which adults to lead the Group is crucial. They should be good communicators, understand child development, show empathy and patience etc. In addition, a sound understanding of Attachment Theory is useful as is a knowledge of emotional literacy.
But most importantly, they should be nurturing by nature – and keen to do the job!
If at all possible, arrange for the potential staff for the Group to visit an existing Nurture Group in the area. They may have to attend the Group separately and on different days, but the result of such visits is that a vision of your own Group begins to develop.
Ideally, the Group(s) experienced should be in similar catchment areas to your own and deal with children in the same Key Stage. Also, it is useful if the Nurture Group has the Marjorie Boxall Quality Mark Award as this is only given to Nurture Groups of a very high standard.
The Nurture Group Network (www.nurturegroups.org ) will have details of such Groups in your area.
A 3 day course in ‘The Theory and Practice of Nurture Groups’ is delivered by the Nurture Group Network and this provides practitioners with a deeper understanding of the way in which Nurture Groups impact on children and their roots in Psychology. It is a great support in helping Staff problem solve, make decisions etc. as well as offering guidance in setting up your own Group. It is not essential to have completed this training before starting your Group however, but is an enormous help and resource once the Group has started.
Attendance on the course by a member of Senior Management is also highly recommended!
A deep understanding of the school’s Nurture Group, its purpose and practice, enables a Head Teacher etc. to purposefully support the work of the Group as well as appreciate the place of the Nurture Group in the whole school approach to helping children with Attachment difficulties.
Again, details of planned courses are available on the Nurture Group Network site.
Preparing your room
The main idea is to provide the children with a ‘home within school’. They have already failed to make progress in a classroom, so this is a different environment and approach for them.
Some of the things you will probably need are:
- Soft furnishings – rugs, curtains, cushions. Sofas are popular in Nurture Groups as they can provide a lovely space for sharing stories, group times etc. as well as emphasising the ‘home’ feel of the room. Most large items of furniture can be resourced second hand but should be safety checked (fire retardant etc.) and cleaned professionally
- A dining room table to double as a work and eating space. Its use as a dining table will be designated by the use of a table cloth (but steer clear of vinyl – seems practical from the cleaning point of view, but will inevitably lead to more spills as the children struggle with the thickness of the fabric).
- A toaster, kettle – maybe a microwave or a hob, whatever you can get for your kitchen area.
- The use of a sink for hand washing and washing up (disguised water play for older children!) – or just access to water and a couple of washing up bowls.
- Toys. There needs to be a range of toys available, of which many might be for much younger children (stacking cups, stickle bricks etc.) This is to allow children to fill some of the gaps in their early play experiences. Additionally, some thought should be given to providing toys to suit both individual and shared play as there will probably be a need for both kinds of experience during your Nurture Group sessions. So think easy puzzles as well as board games and a parachute.
- If possible, provide a full length mirror – this is invaluable in work on ‘self-image’, emotions and ‘self- esteem’. Children are often fascinated by the sight of themselves in one!
- Enough blankets and pillows for every child to have one of each will enable you to train the children more effectively to enjoy a relaxation session by demarcating their own space (no heads together or possibility of eye contact between the children!). This activity is a lovely way to end your Nurture Group sessions as the children return to their class at the end of the day in a calm state. It can also support any work you are doing on Anger Management etc. ‘Relax Kids’ do a great selection of CDs which take the session for you with their gentle guided stories and meditations.
- A ‘time out’ chair/cushion/spot is useful for children who are at risk of being removed from the group – it should form part of a staged approach and all the children should be aware of your rules for its use. I generally look for the child to sit on the chair with their hands on their knees and feet on the floor while I count to 5 for them with my fingers (it can have taken hours to get to this, be warned!) I would then tell them to leave the chair, explain to me what happened and talk with them about how they are going to put it right. Always have a plan in place for what happens next, if the child is still not able to cope with the Group and has become dangerous within it. Returning to their class should not be an option.
- A ‘withdrawal area’, in contrast, is child rather than adult led as they can decide when and how long to use it for. A suspended, round mosquito net with cushions inside seems to work well here as the child feels that they are in a private space and able to see the rest of the Group, but are clearly visible to staff. It should not be near the ‘time out ‘chair. Often children choose to use this space after a disturbed night at home, if their session in the class has not gone well – but generally when they are not feeling too happy. It’s good to just watch sometimes…. The only stipulation I would have over children using this area is if they always decide to go into the net when it is tidy up time (or some other ‘non-preferred’ activity!) In this instance, I might leave some tidying for them to complete on their return to the group as a consequence of their choice.
- And finally, provide a selection of books for individual reading, to be shared with an adult or in a group situation. Reading a story to a child whilst sitting on the sofa together is a very nurturing experience for both people!
Small purchases for the Group are often a popular project for Parent or School Governor fund raising initiatives, and this can be a great help.
A staff meeting
All staff in school need to be made aware of the purpose of the Nurture Group, and understand what happens in it. So, the meeting will need to address:
- Attachment Theory - in some detail. (see John Bowlby, Psychologist 1907 - 1990)
- How you plan to select children for your Nurture Group (see section 7) - the importance of a balance of personalities within the Group as well as choosing children who are likely to benefit.
- Boxall Profiles (available from the Nurture Group Network. See section 7) – used to identify areas of need for the child and to measure the impact of the Group on them.
- Patterns of attendance to the group - these should have been agreed with Senior Management before the meeting. Generally, the child would be expected to attend for four out of five sessions in a week. A session is usually described as half a day and the more usual attendance would be for each afternoon, allowing the child to access more academic learning with their class in the mornings. However, this is negotiable and will depend on how the school is organised. What tends not to be so effective is for a child to attend for less than four sessions and for each session to be shorter than two hours.
- The main task of the Nurture Group is to enable the child to access the learning being provided in class, so that they can make academic progress. This is not often the case for children selected to attend the Group – so the fact that they are missing out on time in class does not affect their rate of progress academically. (See ‘From attachment to attainment: The impact of nurture groups on academic achievement’ Tommy MacKay, Sue Reynolds & Maura Kearney. Published in Educational and Child Psychology Vol 27 no3 2010. Pages 100 to 110) In addition, a child would only be expected to attend the Nurture Group for a minimum of two terms – maximum of four – with their progress within the Group reviewed on a termly basis via the Boxall Profile and meetings between classroom and Nurture Group staff.
- The essential ‘partnership’ element of a Nurture Group. The importance of strong and regular communication with both the children’s teachers and parents should be emphasised, especially regarding target setting and progress reports. Teachers, parents and children need to understand that the Nurture Group is NOT a reward, so that attendance is not withdrawn because of bad behaviour – in fact this is probably the situation which most merits the child attending the Group, to sort out what is upsetting them. Some people struggle with this idea. The therapeutic nature of the Group should be explained in the context of the Boxall Profile and Attachment Theory. A phased return to their class can be planned between the staff involved when the child shows that they are ready to leave the Group.
- A really useful tool is to be able to show a DVD of a Nurture Group in action, to show the sorts of activities which take place and the Group’s response to poor behaviour etc. Again, the Nurture Group Network should be able to help you find such a resource – though a follow up staff meeting to show the progress of your Group is made all the more powerful by using a short film of your own children working in the Nurture room. Google ‘The Nurture Room –Channel 4’ to find a programme on Nurture Groups, from which you might select parts to show your staff.
Never a popular aspect of any project – but essential never the less! So, in no particular order, you will need to consider:
A Nurture Group Policy.
The Nurture Group Network website offers advice on this, examples and guidance for writing one.
It is best if you can keep your Policy to within two sides of A4 paper.
Planning your routine within the group.
A suggestion might be –
- Quiet individual activities for the children on entry to the group (gives them a chance to ‘check out’ the room, adults and other children to make sure that everything is familiar!)
- A welcome plus discussion of the session to come etc. I would avoid sharing news at first, as the children may not be ready to take an interest in anyone other than themselves.
- The activity for the day (see below)
Snack time – key element of a Nurture Group session and a whole chapter in itself!
(See section 6A)
- Returning to class.
- Planning for your sessions.
Devise a planning sheet which suits you and your Group’s needs. It may be that in order to build up a reliable routine to help the children to feel safe, the only variable in the session might be the activity offered – and even that can be structured to allow the children to predict what topic they will be involved in.
Eg Monday – emotional literacy (see if you can find the ‘Silver SEAL’ resources for suggested group activities)
Tuesday - a group activity with shared resources (A big bag of Lego? Board games – small groups!)
Wednesday – creative (cooking, making etc.)
Thursday – choosing time (using a Plan, Do Review model?)
Friday – in their own class (planning opportunity for adults)
- Boxall Profiles for each child, completed by their class teacher, provide evidence of impact of the Nurture Group and should be completed termly.
- Diaries kept by staff or children or both, to record significant events in the group (successes, response to adults, tantrums, kindness to others etc.)
- Records of meetings with the Senior Management Team and teachers in school, detailing the identification of new targets for individuals as well as planned reintegration back into class and new children for the Group. Also, records of meetings with parents and other professionals from outside of school will evidence the organic nature of the Nurture Group.
- In addition, you may wish to download a copy of the Marjorie Boxall Quality Mark Award for Nurture Groups. This is a document which is used by assessors to judge the suitability of a Group to receive the award and also as guidance to Nurture Group staff for the sort of evidence they should submit. A further use of the document is to evaluate yourselves against the criteria described in it with a view to setting small targets for your Group’s development.
This is a crucial Nurture Group activity – and whatever else in your session has to be left out because you inevitably run out of time, it must not be this!!
Snack time is built on routine, ritual and is the anchor for the children. It is what really makes the room and their time in it ‘NOT school’. It is also an ideal time for relaxed chat – so make sure the staff in the Group are up to date with their Child Protection training as this is often the time when children take the opportunity to share information with you.
It is also very symbolic for the child as the giving of food is often seen as the giving of love. Some of the children will not eat with you at first as they need to learn to trust before they can accept your food/care. Others will eat quickly and without seeming to feel satiated, as they need to desperately grab food/affection whenever it is offered and can never get enough.
So, some ideas for your snack time might be –
- Have named place mats. The children who are chosen to lay the table can decide who sits where (powerful!) – and every child knows they are expected at the table.
- Use china plates and mugs. They use them at home probably – and if not, need to learn how to deal with stuff that can accidently break.
- Ideally, offer the children something to eat which is going to be offered twice (a slice of toast cut in half?) If a child has not been invited to the table because they have not followed a rule –not helped tidy up, not queueing properly to wash their hands etc.- then their success at dealing with a sanction can be celebrated by asking them to join the Group before the second piece of toast is offered.
- Use real knives. They don’t have to be that sharp, but it shows that you trust the children to use them properly (though they may need to be shown!) Give them a chance to use their knife by insisting they cut their piece of toast into two before putting spread on it.
- Offer a choice of spreads for the buttered toast. Only two, but it is surprising how many children will either try to choose both or change their minds! These children need practice in making decisions and then sticking to their choices. Encourage them to help themselves to enough jam or marmite etc. to use for both pieces of toast. This makes them responsible for not being too greedy or too mean with themselves, which is a hard lesson.
- The children should choose their drink before sitting down – another job for someone with a clipboard! Although juice and water might be easier to serve, a cup of tea will make them feel grown up and adds to the pressure of getting to the table before it goes cold! Milk might be offered as another option. No changing your mind, once the drink is on the list – it will be placed by your place mat before the meal begins.
- Passing food around the table is also part of this snack time ritual. The children should be encouraged to take the plate holding the food (or bowl of sugar or jar of jam etc.) in both hands. They should then offer it to the person next to them and hold it while that person takes what they need. After saying ‘Thank you’, that person then takes the plate from them with both hands and CAREFULLY turns to offer it to the person next to them. It’s a simple sequenced task, but can really test some children – for others, it’s a chance to experience success and praise!
- Another rule at the table is to wait until everyone is ready before starting their snack – usually on the adult’s instruction. Apart from being good manners, it is an interesting opportunity for some children to try and break off corners of toast surreptitiously or get angry with ‘slow’ people round the table. Again, another useful learning experience for the whole Group!
- Listening, conversations and topics round the table can be challenging! There is a fine line between the need to put up your hand in order to join in a conversation and shouting over another child while they speak! If the adults are strategically placed around the table, then there is nothing wrong with two conversations taking place at the same time with one of the adults involved in each to manage interrupting etc. This is probably a much better time for the children to share news.
- Washing up is a popular activity in the Nurture Group – drying up less so!
It is a good idea to have a rota of snack time jobs on display, with the children’s names moved round it. Fairness is of great importance to the children and they will watch to make sure that their name is moved for each session.
Jobs for the rota might include –
Laying the table
Clearing the table
The adults will need to organise themselves quite carefully at snack time, as these children do not generally self-occupy very successfully!
One plan is to take turns to be in charge of making the food and supervising the drinks monitor and table layer, while the other adult gathers the remainder of the children for a story before they wash their hands and come to the table. After the snack, the other adult can supervise the clearing, washing and drying up while another activity takes place with the other children and adult.
You really do need a staff of two in a Nurture Group!!!!
These are produced and sold by the Nurture Group Network and are invaluable both as a tool to demonstrate the impact of the Nurture Group as well as confirming the suitability of a child selected to attend the Group.
When starting your Nurture Group, it is often useful to ask staff for a list of children for inclusion in the Group - ideally, after you have delivered your staff meeting. If the lists you receive are in excess of the 10-12 children you are hoping to invite to your Group, then asking the teachers to complete a ‘Goodman’s Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’ (SDQ) for each child will help you to identify those children for whom a completed Boxall Profile would be useful. Ranking the children by score on the SDQ shows the most needy individuals, but other aspects (like personality, behaviour difficulties) will also need to be taken into account when building your group.
These forms can be found on line – just google ‘Goodman’s SDQ’.
Bear in mind that the most common reason for a Nurture Group’s lack of success is the mix of children selected to be in it. As a rule of thumb, no more than two ‘acting out’ children gives your Group a fair chance of containing their outbursts and allowing the other children to feel safe.
The initial Boxall might be completed by the Class Teacher with the Nurture Group leader for support, but when they are redone on a termly basis these should be based on the judgement of the classroom staff alone. It is important to measure the success of the child in the classroom to gauge how well their improved behaviour in the Nurture Group has generalised. Usually, the child makes great improvements in the first term and these are reinforced by the Nurture Group over the next two or three terms.
However, if this expected progress is not demonstrated via the Boxall Profile, then other plans may need to be made for the child. At this point it should be acknowledged that a difficulty for the individual has been rightly recognised, but attendance at the Nurture Group may not be the solution.
Completing the room
And now for the detailed finishing touches in the Nurture Group!
- A birthday chart – we will never forget your special day.
- A photo board to remember happy and successful events, when things aren’t going so well for the child.
- A ‘home-links’ board for all those special pictures and items which the children bring to you. They need to be respected.
- No computers for children’s use. This is what many of the children spend so much of their time on at home, and is likely to be the cause of endless fights within the Group.
- Privacy. If the child is to relax and be themselves in the Nurture Group room then they must be able to do so without comment from their peers. Often a glass window in a door or the wall can be made opaque by using ‘peel off plastic’ from Hardware stores – this supplies the privacy without depriving the room of light or making the Group vulnerable. The plastic should be placed low enough to allow for adults to see into the room.
- Work at making your room as different to a classroom as possible!
Letter to parents
This letter should take the form of an invitation for their child to join the Nurture Group plus an invitation to meet the staff of the Group – either individually or at an open afternoon in your Nurture room.
Try to adopt a celebratory tone when you write, to express the school’s delight at this new and wonderful resource which is being made available to chosen children.
- Invite them in to see the room
- Describe the time elements (number of sessions plus expected length of attendance)
- Include a permission slip for them to sign
- Also include a ‘questionnaire’ asking them to rate on a number scale (1 -10) various factors about their child e.g. How safe they think their child feels in school, how happy they are to come to school, how well behaved their child is at home, how satisfied the parents are with their child’s rate of academic progress etc. This can be reviewed with the parents as the child’s time in the Nurture Group progresses.
- Invite questions
- Leaflets are produced by the Nurture Group Network, which can be useful to offer parents as an information support. (See website)
If enough parents are happy to come to the Nurture room for a group meeting, it is a nice idea to offer them tea and toast (like a Nurture Group snack time!) to help them to feel more relaxed.
I would generally not discuss their child’s Boxall Profile at this early stage as it may be upsetting for them – best to wait until your first review of the Boxall by the class teacher to show progress which has been made.
And now open your group!
Just a final reminder about the timing of this - September is not often the best month to do it as the children need to get used to their new Class Teacher, classroom and class. By October half term, this relationship is generally started and the child has demonstrated whether or not they are going to display the behaviours which caused concern before the summer.
Involving children not included in the Group can also cause concern, but many schools have overcome this by allowing the Nurture Group member to invite a friend to their birthday celebration snack in the Nurture Room.
Parents are also welcome visitors to your group but this can be stressful for their child, so follow the same model and only invite them to attend snack time.
You might also receive visits from class teachers, Senior Management and other Professionals from outside of school. In order not to upset the routine of your Group too much, a designated ‘Visitors session’ could be built into your weekly programme. The children need to be made aware of planned visits and prepared for them – don’t let your Nurture Group be overwhelmed by ‘outsiders’.
However, you will have noticed that I have not answered the ‘million dollar question’ of how all this is to be paid for!
This may be a good point to consider funding implications for the Group.
Where possible, it would seem to work best if the Nurture Group is completely self-sufficient as those who rely on outside funding and grants are those who suffer when such funding is withdrawn.
Where possible, independent funding by the school is by far the preferred option – is it at all possible to reorganise resources within the school?
At the time of writing, providing a Nurture Group is currently one of the OFSTED approved uses of the ‘Pupil Premium’, which is another option but not a time guaranteed source of finance.
See www.gov.uk (publications) ‘The Pupil Premium: how schools are spending the funding successfully’ p.19
So, it only remains for me to wish you good luck and to encourage you to enjoy your Nurture Group!
Sue Nicholls is a member of nasen's Birth to Eleven Advisory Group