To what extent does a nurturing environment support the academic engagement of traumatised children? By Laura Dennis


Within the following paper I will explore the effect that nurturing environments can have on traumatised children’s academic learning. I have included extracts from my own reflective journal to offer an insight into my own day-to-day experience of working alongside traumatised children. The focus of the paper will be on nurturing environments. The word nurturing is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary (2020) as ‘to take care, feed and protect someone, especially young children and help him or her to develop’. This definition illustrates how I will consider the word throughout this assignment. The word environment will refer to the classroom; a safe and secure space that promotes the wellbeing of each individual who enters through the door.

When thinking about nurture, many who work in education will have heard of Nurture Groups, which were founded by Marjorie Boxall in 1969 (Nurture UK, 2020). Boxall noticed the large number of young children entering the education system with severe emotional, behavioural and social difficulties in the 1960’s and implemented Nurture Groups in mainstream settings. These are classes of six to twelve children with a teacher and an assistant, whose brief is to engage with the children at their developmental stage and to support them in meeting learning goals. As relationships and trust develop, the children feel accepted and valued, which enables their confidence to grow and they began to learn, with 80% returning to their base class full-time. Although my own project was not based explicitly on a Nurture Group, many of the concepts of Nurture Groups have been considered and implemented in the classroom in which the research has taken place.

The main area of impact for this project is children’s engagement in academic learning; by this I mean formal and traditional learning (sat at a table engaging with the learning presented). Due to the focus on nurture, the hope is that the children would develop their social and emotional abilities as well as relationships and curiosity within the classroom. Therefore, my hypothesis for the project is that the more nurturing the classroom environment, the more comfortable the children feel engaging with their academic work.


I have been teaching for five years now; two of which were in a mainstream setting and three in special needs. Throughout my teaching career I have seen a striking difference within children’s academic engagement depending on their backgrounds and the nurture they have received in life thus far. Unfortunately, a lot of the children I have taught have not received sufficient care in a nurturing environment in their early years. My passion for teaching is still as strong as it was when I first qualified, however, my view on what I am teaching has differed. Last year I wrote in my reflective journal ‘am I even a teacher anymore? I feel like everything I was taught at university is the opposite of what I am doing now’. I find myself teaching children key life skills such as communication, relationship building and kindness before I reach the traditional teaching of core subjects such as maths and literacy. I believe that before we can expect a child to be able to learn they need to feel safe, secure and loved. Without these three elements in place, you are facing a brick wall that is very difficult to break down in the classroom. Therefore, within my own classroom I began to recognise the importance of adopting nurturing approaches before any formalised learning can be put into place.

This particular project was based on a class of up to eight children with one teacher and three supporting teaching assistants. Within the class group, children were aged from seven years old to twelve years old and had varying academic, social and emotional abilities. The children attended school Monday to Friday with three and a half of those days being in the classroom, whilst the other sessions were outdoor learning or sports.  All of the children have suffered early life trauma with many of them now looked after by the care system. The children are from all over the UK so their local authorities differ. The school is residential, with most of the children residing thirty-eight weeks per year, with a few staying all year round.

My hope for the project was to deepen my understanding of a nurturing classroom and children’s academic engagement, enabling me to speak confidentially about my findings to fellow colleagues and educational professionals and to share my thoughts and knowledge of nurture in classrooms.

Current research

Considerable research has been carried out on the topic of nurture in schools. Lucas (1999) described how implementing nurturing principles across a whole school, rather than just in a Nurture Group, has a ‘positive cycle of growth and development’. Likewise, Cooper and Tiknaz (2007) stated that nurture has to be seen as a whole school initiative to enable it to be effective. Another example, Binnie and Allen (2008), carried out a study in six schools where children attended Nurture Groups a maximum four times per week. They found a significant positive effect on the children’s behaviour in and out of school, whilst also recognising the improved ethos across the school when supporting children with social and emotional difficulties. All of these examples support the work I am trying to embed into the everyday classroom; nurture in every classroom, not just in Nurture Groups. Since I began teaching, nurture has certainly become more spoken about in education both mainstream and special needs. I have been lucky enough to attend Nurture Group training which has enabled me to share some of the learnt skills and concepts with classroom colleagues.

A recent study carried out by Reynolds et al. (2009) showed a significant positive impact on children’s academic attainment following time spent in a Nurture Group upon returning to the classroom. In contrast, Gillies (2011) shares that there is little in the way of actual evidence available to support the list of benefits credited to ‘emotional skills’, including improvements in attainment, behaviour, attendance, well‐being and confidence. From first-hand experience within my own classroom, I recognise a difference in the children’s learning once they have been offered nurture and emotional support. One of my reflective journal entries says ‘today one of the children was crying, when I asked her why she replied “I don’t know”, at that moment in time I was able to offer her a hug and comfort her by just being there as an adult she trusts, this made me realise I am not just this child’s teacher, I am her protector and person who she knows will keep her safe before I find myself in the stereo-typical teacher role’.

Nurture has also been explored at a government policy level, in Glasgow, policies have been based around nurture being a whole school approach (Glasgow City Council, 2019; Smarter Scotland, 2017 and Smarter Scotland 2013). This framework has been widely adopted across Scotland and schools have seen a positive impact on health and well-being of their pupils (McNicol and Laurence, 2018). In England, there has been little research specifically exploring the role that nurture plays within the classroom. A nationwide framework designed to support the social and emotional aspects of learning was released for schools in 2005 (Department for Education), known as SEAL, this framework has been adopted in schools across the UK. However, a research paper commissioned by the UK government (Humphrey, Lendrum and Wigelsworth, 2010), shares that the impact of the framework was ‘patchy’ because a whole school approach was not taken within several of the schools. This meant that the submitted data failed to show a significant impact on pupils. My own school has a curriculum policy that does not explicitly refer to the word ‘nurture’. However, it does imply that nurture is used through our 24-hour curriculum when children are learning to ‘build healthy and mutually trusting relationships’ and ‘ask for help and make use of it’ (The Mulberry Bush School, 2019). This left me questioning why the word nurture is not mentioned in our own school policy but also more widely, why it is not acknowledged by the government in Britain.

An important concept related to nurture is the classroom environment, and considerable research has been carried out examining the impact of the classroom environment on learning. Cheng (1994) carried out research looking at the impact of the classroom environment on children’s performance. The study found a positive correlation between the physical and psychological environment, including lighting, pollution, space, neatness and organisation, on the performance of their students. Although this piece is dated and not from the UK, recent literature supports similar findings. Duncan (2018) discusses the importance of making the classroom environment well thought out and appealing to allow children to be inspired and grow. Duncan goes onto talk about how our environments impact how we feel, act and respond to the world. She shares that when a classroom is organised and inviting, it allows children to more readily engage and increases their focus. From my own experiences in classroom, I have recognised how the environment can be a fundamental factor for the engagement of the children. I have noticed the impact of tidy, clear homes for everything that belongs in the classroom which are labelled with words and photos. I have also taken into account the importance of not having bright display boards which are over stimulating for children with additional needs (Martin, 2016).

Further research was carried out around the impact of the classroom environment on children’s behaviour and academic engagement by Hood-Smith and Leffingwell (1983) and Visser (2001), both of whom stated the importance of the environment in supporting learners:

“The most important ‘tool’ is the building of positive relationships between teacher and learner (Visser, 2000). This involves teachers’ skills in adapting the curriculum and teaching styles used to engage pupils in positive learning experiences. However, the physical environment can help or hinder this process”. (Viser, 2001, p.64).

Although this research is dated, it made me think about my own classroom and the first few weeks the children are in the classroom. We make a real effort to build those relationships before introducing any formal learning. The current environment allows the children to explore and wonder and learn through the environment with the resources accessible to them. Although this sounds ideal, I have a quote from my reflective journal which may imply something different; ‘today whilst the children were exploring the classroom and I was getting to know the new child, another child came over and hit me over the back of the head with a brick, this hurt and another adult saw what had happened and caught my eye, from eye contact she knew I needed to take five minutes. On reflection now I believe this attack was down to jealousy of me spending time with a new child’.

Guardino and Fullerton (2010) carried out a similar project to the one I am doing. They looked at how modifying the classroom environment can impact on children’s behaviour and academic engagement. They considered environmental changes such as children’s seating, creating group spaces around the classroom, adding plants and providing fun and simple lesson related tasks to keep the students busy. From their study they found that the children’s academic engagement increased dramatically and so did their classroom behaviour. However, they reflected that it was difficult to sustain and fully embed this intervention into the environment because it was put into place part way through the year. Although this research is not from the United Kingdom, it is still relevant to my own classroom. The research made me wonder whether I was in a more positive position having implemented the changes at the beginning of an academic year. However, my own school is slightly different to other schools as the beginning of the academic year does not necessarily entail a new cohort of children.


This study is a piece of action research. I identified a problem and created an intervention to support the issue, I then collected data from the intervention to analyse and discuss before evaluating the entire project. McNiff (2013) explains that action research can be an opportunity to look at your own practice and take action where improvements can be made, leading to producing evidence to show how the practice has been impacted. It is a form of self-critical thinking and allows you time to reflect on your day-to-day work.

Around a year ago I began to question my own practice when teaching the children in my class. I felt like the children were not making the academic progress that they were capable of and that the routine and environment did not suit them. Therefore, I decided to change the environment and think carefully about the routine. I was aware that the children all had different ages and abilities, but there was one thing they all had in common. They had all experienced early life trauma which had impacted on their early experiences of education. Therefore, I spoke to the head teacher and we began to plan how to recreate the early years environment that children had missed out on.

I began by looking at the Early Years Framework (Department for Education, 2017) which outlines that for children to be a unique child and build positive relationships, they must have access to an enabling environment that permits them to learn and develop. Within my class I always receive the newest children to the setting, therefore our mission is to help them to learn that learning is safe and that they can trust the environment of the classroom. This approach mirrors that of the Early Years Framework.

I began by changing the way in which I taught. I went from whole class teaching to teaching in small groups and, at times, on a one-to-one basis. However, I still brought the children back together in a group throughout the day for sessions such as circle time and snack times. Basford and Hodson (2010) share how children in the early years should experience a mixture of adult-planned activities and child-initiated activities. The small group or one-to-one teaching allowed me to make the teaching more child specific and helped me to know exactly where each child was with their learning each day. Short ten to fifteen-minute bursts of learning allowed the children to engage and retain the learning more often.

If the children were not working with myself on a specific learning task, they had the opportunity to ‘explore’ the classroom through play. Bruce (2011) states that children need play to enhance their learning experiences and opportunities. It allows them to make connections with what they already know whilst deepening their learning and knowledge. The daily timetable consisted of at least three ‘exploring time’ opportunities. The adults used careful open-ended questions to help progress the children’s learning.

Snack and circle times are both good examples of when social and emotional needs can be developed through conversations and short whole group activities. Bliss and Tetley (2012) discuss how circle times are an opportunity for children to increase their self-awareness, awareness of others, self-esteem, cooperation, trust, speaking and listening skills. Within my own classroom, we often talk about how we are feeling at that moment and use a ‘feelings dial’ to point the arrow to an emotion that best suits our current feeling.

When looking around the classroom at the environment I realised that many of the resources the children use to play were not accessible for them and the classroom looked cluttered with lots of unappealing plastic boxes. The children had to ask an adult to get games from a high shelf or play dough from a locked cupboard. Therefore, I started by changing the way the classroom looked (see Appendix 1 for examples). I moved all of the games to child height shelving and made sure that none of the resources was locked away in the cupboards to ensure an accessible, enabling environment was created. Hutchin (2012) talks about how enabling environments are ones which are reachable and organised for children to manipulate and discover. I believe that this is the type of environment we now have in my own classroom.

I also moved the tables and chairs in the classrooms to make areas instead of having one large learning table for all the children (this was the more traditional way of teaching and learning at my setting prior to the changes). The classroom had a writing area, maths and construction area, role play area, creativity area, focused learning area and a reading area. I made sure that the environment looked inviting for all who stepped through the classroom door and that the reading area was a homely, comfy environment where books could be shared and explored (see appendices for photos). Duncan (2018) states that a comfy area can support children’s relaxation by having a space to retreat to amongst the playing and learning. Many of the children in my own class use the reading area as a space to take some time away from the group and get ‘lost’ in a book for a while (Appendix 2 is a photo of the reading corner).

Method of data collection

I collected data over a period of a year to measure how the changes made in the classroom environment impacted on the children’s learning and engagement. I had four children who were in my class for the full twelve months and therefore their data is what I have used. It is important to note that ethical issues which may arise within this project were considered; all of the children’s carers, parents or foster carers who attend the school complete a form upon the child’s arrival, which adheres to the school’s general data protection regulation (GDPR) policy (The Mulberry Bush School, 2018). The form allows for the children’s data to be used in research as long as pseudonyms are used to prevent their identity being shared. Below is a table to represent some information based on the children when the research first began in spring 2019.

Name Age Sex How long they have been at the school at the time of starting the research?
Amy 9 Female 3 months
Ben 9 Male 2 months
Tom 8 Male 11 months
Lisa 10 Female 4 months

I used two systems of data collection which were already embedded into the school. The first one is ‘On-task data’; this is a tool used on a daily basis to record how on-task the children have been throughout the day. To be on-task, the children have to be in the classroom and participating in the presented activities. Each day is split into six sessions and each session receives a number, either a one or a zero; this document is completed by a class adult, teachers or teaching assistants. If the child has been mostly on-task for a session, they receive a one. If they have been mostly off-task, they receive a zero. Each week the computer calculates how on-task each child has been on average, expressed as a percentage. The hope is that the children in my class are on-task at least 70% of the week.

The second method of data collection is the engagement stamps that are used to mark the children’s work in class. We use them to show how engaged and forthcoming the children are about completing the activity. There are four different stamps. The lowest engagement stamp is ‘encountered’, which the children would be given if the work had been presented to them and they had refused to engage. The next stamp is ‘engaged’, which the children receive when the work has been presented but they have done it with a lot of adult support and completed it half-heartedly. The next stamp is ‘gaining skills’, which is used when the children have engaged with their work well but needed a little adult support and encouragement to complete. The final stamp is the ‘mastered’ stamp, which children receive if they have been fully engaged and completed the task independently. All work and planning for all activities have a recording of the stamp the child received for each session; this is marked by the teacher or adult working with the child.

These two data collecting techniques provided me with quantitative data to analyse and discuss. Quantitative research is data collected in numerical form, which can be used to make helpful decisions and aims to assist researchers to establish general laws of behaviour (McLeod, 2019). Creswell (2013) discusses how using quantitative data is a good way to collect data as it is often more reliable and easy to collect than qualitative data. However, Denscombe (2014) would argue that quantitative data does not help to explain the clear ambiguities and contradictions found in qualitative data that reflect social realities.

A limitation of this study is the reliance on quantitative data rather than qualitative data. Carr (1994) shares that a possible restriction to quantitative data is that it does not allow participants to discuss the data collected, whereas McLeod (2019) would argue that qualitative data collection allows for more of a conversation to take place. Denscombe (2014) shares that for quantitative data to be reliable and accurate, larger sample sizes are needed; this is something which needs to be considered with my own research as the sample size is only small which may make the research less generalized and informative for others.

Data results and discussion

On-task average was the first method of data collection used in this study. Table 1 illustrates the children’s average on-task scores for each term over the past year.

From the table we can see that the children’s on-task levels varied over the period of the year. Amy and Ben’s on-task levels stayed around eighty percent or higher, Tom’s on-task levels increased each term, and Lisa’s on-task levels rose and then dipped in Autumn 2019 onwards, although they did not return to her Spring 2019 mark. The change to the physical environment and timetable took place from Autumn 2019, at which point all four children had an average on-task of eighty percent or higher. This is higher than the average expectation of seventy percent for the children in my class.

Change can have a significant impact on children, in particular those with autism, which two of the children in the group have. Kaweski (2012) states that children with autistic spectrum disorder find change very challenging, including changes to their routine or setting. In my own experience of working with children on the autistic spectrum, they have often found clear, simple instructions helpful whilst also being kept informed about possible changes. Before the children returned to the classroom in autumn 2019, I visited them to explain that things looked a little different and I used photos to help prepare them. This may have helped to mitigate some of the potential issues, as demonstrated through the overall good average that each student recorded in autumn 2019.

Throughout this project I have found myself questioning whether changing the classroom to a more nurturing approach would work for all of the children. Levine (2002) states that all children learn differently; he explains how teachers look for the children’s strengths and seek to find the strategies they prefer in order to be able to learn. I was aware it was a risk changing the classroom, especially for the children with autistic spectrum disorder as it is well known that children with autism prefer structure and routine (Moor, 2008). Moreover, choice, freedom and discovery when playing can be challenging for those with autism. As my class timetable built ‘exploring time’ into the day, I was curious as to how this would work for all the children. A closer look at the data helps us to draw some conclusions about the impact of these changes on children’s learning.

Throughout the data collection, Amy showed high levels of on-task averages but there was an obvious dip in the autumn term of 2019. However, Amy’s dip is not necessarily just due to changes in the classroom. Around this time, she began to display self-harming behaviours and her turbulent inner world impacted on her engagement in the classroom. McDougall et al (2010) comment on how self-harm can be down to one trying to regulate emotions, survival and dealing with stress. At this point in time, Amy was often re-living a traumatic experience from her past, which caused her engagement in the classroom to dip.

Ben’s data shows that he dipped with his on-task score once the nurturing changes had been implemented, however, his percentage increased again in the final term. Interestingly Ben’s summer 2019 and spring 2020 data was the same. Ben’s experience of the classroom since it has changed has been fairly positive. He is engaging more with other children in their play; however, he has said to me ‘I want our individual desks back’. Ben is one of the children who prefers routine and therefore I think that could explain the dip in progress in autumn 2019. However, he has since become more settled and used to the structure of the classroom environment.

In the case of Tom, who continually increased his on-task percentage each term, data seems to demonstrate that the change of classroom environment and routine had an overall positive impact. From my own experience of being in the classroom with Tom, he found the classroom more accessible and he became more creative in his play. Tom was also in the classroom a lot more than previously when he would seek any opportunity to leave the room.

Finally, Lisa’s data shows a positive increase in terms of her on-task percentage from summer 2019 but this then begins to lower through the autumn 2019 and spring 2020 terms. Lisa took a while to adjust to the changes in the classroom but was more forthcoming with her academic work when working with myself. Lisa often found mornings difficult which meant she would be absent from class for the first session. This would then affect her on-task level and reduce her average percentage. This was not because Lisa found getting out of bed difficult but was down to her seeking control over her routine. Tomlinson (2004) explains that traumatised children will often seek to take control of situations, because they are likely to have lost all control and had experiences of feeling unsafe in their early years. Seeking control consequently helps the children to feel safer and more regulated.

The graph also shows that all of the children did not have lower than eighty percent in the spring term 2020. This positive similarity showed the progress the children had made over the space of the year. However, one would need to question whether this was solely down to the nurturing environment and timetable created, or whether it could be down to the fact the children had attended the school for a longer period of time and become more settled.

The second method of data collection was the allocation of engagement stamps. Table 2 records the children’s engagement stamps that they received each term. Each child had an opportunity to receive nine stamps per week and the hope was that children would receive ‘gaining skills’ or ‘mastered’ stamps. The data is recorded as a termly average of how many ‘mastered’ or ‘gaining skills’ stamps they received.

From the table we can see that the number of ‘gaining skills’ and ‘mastered’ stamps the children achieved varies throughout the four terms recorded. Three of the children received a higher number of stamps in the spring term 2020, compared to the spring term of 2019. Tom and Lisa’s charts look similar to the shape seen in table one. This would make sense because one would predict that the more on-task a child is, the more likely they are to receive a gaining skills or mastered stamp. Tom’s positive growth in stamps received means that one could make the assumption that the nurturing environment and change of timetable had a positive effect on him.  However, there is not enough raw evidence that his growth was solely down to these two interventions.

Amy’s number of positive stamps increased in Summer 2019 but then started to decrease over the next two terms. Ben’s also increased in Summer 2019 and then stayed the same for Autumn 2019 and decreased in Spring 2020. This raises questions about why their stamps decreased after the first term of the new set-up. It could be argued that implementing interventions into long-term planning takes time to settle and the first term, which is a settling-in term, could cause false data. The children needed time to get used to this new way of learning through exploring the environment and making connections. Hewitt & Tarrant (2015) state that it takes time for learners to take previously learnt skills and cross them over with new contexts.

A potential flaw in all of the data is that it was not always the same adult completing the children’s on-task data or marking their work with the engagement stamps. Therefore, there could be discrepancies and conflicting thoughts around whether a child was on-task or off-task and how engaged a child has been in their academic work. Mathieson and Price (2003) recognise that adults working with children have varying amounts of tolerance with behaviour, which contributes to how we deal with situations in the classroom.


The aim of this research was to examine whether a nurturing environment supported traumatised children with their academic engagement. Although it felt like there had been a positive increase in the children’s engagement with learning, the data does not necessarily demonstrate this.

The children I work with have varying needs and ever-changing circumstances with their outside worlds, including changing social workers, changing contact with birth families, changing foster care, the reliving of past experiences- the list goes on. Therefore, the implementation of a nurturing environment and new routine cannot be definitely linked to the children’s increase in academic engagement in the classroom. Willis and Nagel (2015) created a study that looked at the role of the teacher when working alongside traumatised children. They found that a lot of the children’s learning and engagement was fragmented due to the severity of their traumas, however, they found strong evidence that education was a positive asset of the children’s lives. In my own class I recognise that many of the children I teach have a vacant look. It is at times like this when I know that the academic learning is not what is important to them, but it is the nurture that I can offer to support them through those difficult times.

The results of this project warrant further research. Future research needs to take into consideration where the child is in their placement when in a residential school and how this timeframe impacts on the study of a nurturing environment and their academic engagement.

Word count: 5154


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Appendix 1- photo of construction and maths area with labelled, accessible construction resources for the children to enjoy (left). A photo of the small world, fine motor and sensory drawers all accessible for the children (right).

Appendix 2- reading area












Appendix 3- carpet area with beanbags

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