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Safe & Secure

At The Wherry School it is the overarching aim of the school staff and trustees to ensure that pupils at our school feel Safe and Secure; when this is achieved then pupils are able to learn and thrive – for the  purpose of clarity, the definition of “safe/secure” at The Wherry School has been defined by the school Clinical Lead, Dr Sue Ackerley, Commissioned Educational Psychologist; referencing the approaches to the physical design of the school, class groupings and the manipulation of Group Dynamics within cohorts and classes, curriculum design (Formal National curriculum as well as the school devised informal curriculum offer relating to Autism Specific Skills and Knowledge, referred to as ASSK).  Maslow’s Humanistic Theory of Personality, underpins the compassionate psychology approaches that determine the school Behaviour approaches and expectations, as well as ongoing behaviour management through the use of Positive Behaviour Support (PBS)


Embedding Maslow’s Humanistic Theory of Personality to develop a safe/secure setting at The Wherry School

It is recognised that family life can be complicated, with each family having its own challenges. Having a child with a neurodevelopmental need, such as, Autism Spectrum Disorder/Conditions (ASD/ASC) can impact significantly on family life. For many parents, the experience of raising their child has been very different to what they anticipated: 

  • they may not have experienced the typical bonding experiences (eye contact, smiles and cuddles); 
  • they may have noticed that their child wasn’t ‘doing’ what other children of a similar age were; 
  • they may have felt ‘judged’ that they were not good enough parents when their child showed signs of dysregulation; 
  • they may have experienced barriers from professionals and not felt listened to; 
  • typically, there is a journey with a lot of ‘bumps’ on the way all of which contribute to the presentation of the child/young person. 

For the child/young person with an ASC/ASD they may also have found the world a confusing place, where the social rules and expectations were very confusing and challenging, they may have been perceived as a ‘naughty child’ due to their responses and/or missed out on opportunities that were offered to others in their cohort. Many different approaches may have been tried, sometimes increasing the levels of anxiety for the child, when the environment was not able to offer emotional containment for the child to feel safe. 

The Wherry School strives to offer an environment where each student has the opportunity to be aspirational and fulfil their potential. For this to take place the student needs to feel ‘safe and secure’ emotionally to access the learning activities being offered. 

In adopting Maslow’s Humanistic Theory of Personality, illustrated in his hierarchy of needs (fig.1), the emphasis is placed on understanding the person as a whole and attempting to view the world through their lens. 



Fig.1  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


The holistic approach also acknowledges the interaction between the biological, psychological and environmental factors, recognising the importance of ensuring the basic needs are met before considering the psychological aspects and ultimately the self-fulfilment needs.

For many students with an Autism Spectrum Condition/Disorder (ASC/ASD) they may need support to meet their physiological needs. This could be addressing sensory issues, for example; enabling particular preferences or dietary needs, and offering calm areas if the environment proves overwhelming.

The school offers a safe and secure environment, this relates to both the physical aspects covered by Health and Safety measures and the psychological needs, with the aim that all students can develop a sense of belonging where positive, healthy relationships are promoted and valued. This is essential in promoting the emotional well-being and mental health of the students, to improve the possibilities for successful engagement with their learning, alongside the environmental pressures of working within a group and effective Group Dynamics.

It is important to consider the psychological needs of each student and it is recognised that when schools can offer a ‘secure base’ pupils are more equipped to stay emotionally regulated and respond to effectively to cognitive demands. 

Therefore, the aim is for the school to provide an offer where “… the match between the educational goals and pupil developmental and emotional needs can coincide.” (Geddes, 2006). Through the careful assessment of the presenting needs, which should form an overview of all the interactive factors, including previous experiences (home and school), it should be possible to develop a plan of intervention that supports the child in experiencing the different stages of the hierarchy of needs. There is the understanding that this is not a static process, where a person reaches the optimum level of self-fulfilment and remains there. This needs attuned responses to be able to recognise the responses or communication that a situation is impacting and potentially increasing the level of need for a person. Such attunement means that adjustment to the demands can be made to support individuals in being able to remain regulated in order to resolve a situation so that they are able to achieve what they set out to do.

Every child at the Wherry accesses a high level of adult support to enable them to develop the skills they need to become resilient learners, adapting the curriculum to the individual’s needs. The staff are usually attached to specific classes to increase the consistency of approaches to establish positive relationships within the class. This also facilitates individual opportunities for the teaching of social skills, which can then be developed through structured nurture-based activities, before being supported in ‘real time’ less structured activities. In order for this to be successful a great emphasis is placed on maintaining a low sensory environment to support students in being able to stay regulated and successfully manage the social interactions and expectations. This gradual exposure to the various social situations will also aim to increase the child or young person’s confidence in being able to manage these events with decreasing levels of support from adults.  

For many children on the autism spectrum their interactions with the social world can present as threatening and trigger the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses associated with primal survival responses. These may relate to or be indicative of previous traumatic experiences for the child. In a school where all the students are identified as being on the autism spectrum, there are measures to provide a predictable environment to reduce the levels of anxiety and the potential for heightened responses, which are usually distressing for the students and those around them, including a review of the inter-relationships with peers and staff (Group Dynamics)

It is only when the students have a sense of safety that they can be supported to develop an understanding around how situations that they find do not progress as they perceived they would, can be managed. Typically, the student is supported by preparing them for a change, through the use of approaches such as, social stories; scripts or role play. This gives a student the opportunity to consider safe options at a time when they are not experiencing heightened emotions.

There is a risk that if there is a high level or frequency of heightened situations, it will perpetuate the expectation that a child needs to be on their guard to protect themselves from perceived potential threats, which is likely to lead to heightened levels of vigilance and limited capacity to remain regulated. The levels of anxiety and stress are likely to be detrimental to their mental well-being due to the high levels of cortisol being released into the body. It is recognised that previous events, which could be reflective of home, school or community experiences, are also contributory factors and increase the propensity for this response. The research evidence suggests that there is often an anticipatory release of cortisol in play and social situations, particularly in older children who have not developed effective social interaction skills (Schupp, Simon & Corbett, 2014). It highlights the importance of early intervention to promote self-awareness, initiation, and coping strategies so that children with ASC may benefit from positive social exchanges which could lower the level of cortisol being released into the body. 

It is with these factors in mind that careful consideration is given to the profile of students in the different cohorts so that interventions can be delivered proactively in an environment where they experience feeling safe and secure. Given the difficulties associated with an ASC/ASD profile- social communication and interaction, rigidity of thought and sensory processing- these add to challenge for such a child to feel emotionally safe and secure. If there are unpredictable responses and heightened behaviours triggering  a survival response, it is likely to have a long-term impact on the emotional well-being with potential for re-triggering trauma responses in themselves.  

Dr Susan Ackerley

Professional qualifications:

B.Ed (hons) Special Education; PG Dip. Psychology; DECP (Doctorate in Education and Child Psychology)