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Belonging in a special school: EPs promoting belonging at multiple levels

When a pupil starts at a special school they and their family have often experienced challenges in the previous school and with education and services more generally.

Often pupils have had little choice in choosing the most appropriate school for them and this decision tends to be made between parents/carers and the SEN service. It is often not a simple or quick process and can be difficult for all involved.

In the course of our work one pupil expressed that they don’t think they are special, even though they attend a special school.

They questioned the assumptions and expectations others have of them because they attend a special school. They pointed out that it is important that adults recognise their strengths whilst also preparing them for adulthood in a meaningful way. They spoke about the importance of connection, trust and feeling heard and understood by key adults and suggested that there can be negative outcomes when this is not in place. Relationships, collaboration, working with pupils, listening to them, the way pupils are communicated with and the importance of being kind and empathetic were all raised.

In this blog we discuss and reflect on our use of the ‘Three 3Cs Framework’ in two contexts:

  • a whole school appreciative research project focusing on belonging at the systemic level
  • pupil voice work to promote belonging at an individual level.

The framework proposes that connectivity, compassion and communication are key to promote belonging at a whole school level.

Promoting belonging at a systemic level

We were interested in exploring how the ‘Three 3Cs Framework’ can be applied with children who have complex communication needs and do not use verbal language as their primary means of communication. We had two guiding questions:

  1. How do staff communicate with these pupils and hear their voices?
  2. What do their relationships look like and what approaches do adults use to support them?

A consultation took place between the EPs and a teacher with a teaching and learning responsibility for complex needs and we developed an observation framework based on the ‘Three 3Cs Framework’ which was developed by Riley (2022) and reflects research on belonging.

Regarding communication, a total communication approach was discussed, which is important for those with complex communication needs. The consultation raised the importance of choices, autonomy, non-verbal communication and staff interpretations and responses to different types of communication. The maintenance and development of relationships and interactions was discussed in relation to connectivity. Consultation topics also included school values, staff responsiveness, developmentally appropriate and strength-based practice, in relation to compassion.

Appreciative approaches to observing practice

Once the framework was developed, we provided information to staff and gained their consent for the framework to be used in an appreciative way to observe good practice and provide positive feedback. Some teachers requested copies of the observation framework so they could reflect on their practice beforehand.

We carried out observations in five classes for a whole day. An appreciative approach allowed us to observe ‘the best of what already is’ and we have collated a summary of our findings:


  • Staff noticed and responded to all pupil attempts to communicate, through language, non-verbal means, or through behaviour
  • Staff communicated with pupils in a calm and developmentally appropriate way using invitations to engage rather than direct demands
  • Pupils used signing, pointing, verbal language and symbols to communicate and engaged in intensive interaction. This was facilitated by staff
  • Staff interpreted behaviour as communication in a non-judgemental way, this included a staff member gently asking a pupil what they wanted to tell them when they started spitting
  • Staff communication between each other was purposeful and positive, they sought clarity, checked understanding, shared information and their formulation about events i.e. ‘she may just want to finish now’, they also recognised pupils’ efforts i.e. ‘she’s really concentrating isn’t she?’

Compassion and Connectivity

  • Staff and pupils connected through the use of fun, empathy, positivity, and humour
  • Positive physical contact was used for co-regulation, to provide reassurance and promote fun
  • Staff provided space for pupils to engage in interactions with peers without interference at times. They stepped in when there was a teaching opportunity and then stepped away to promote a more natural interaction
  • Staff tuned into pupils and their arousal levels and were flexible and responsive to the needs of pupils, adusting their pace and expectations accordingly

Using the ‘Three Cs framework’ as an observation framework allowed us to discover and name practice which reflected belonging in many different ways. The aim of this work was to appreciate and empower staff and provide positive feedback as a way of supporting them to do more of what works.

Though this piece of work did not include the solution focussed element of the ‘Working on What Works’ approach (Brown, Powell and Clark, 2012) , it was aligned with positive psychology and the WOWW ethos. The staff commented that they were pleased to receive feedback from a psychological perspective and found the process positive and validating. The next phase of this research will include a WOWW intervention.

This project demonstrated the school’s values and the behaviour (wellbeing and engagement) policy in practice. There has long been a commitment to develop and maintain a school culture which embodies relational approaches and promotes wellbeing, for staff and pupils. Existing staff have received training over time and new staff receive training from the EPs and head-teacher as part of their induction. The training reinforces the school’s anti-punitive stance with a focus on whole-school wellbeing and is in line with the values identified by the school staff; love, kindness, fairness, forgiveness and humour.

Promoting belonging at an individual level

We also want to reflect on how the Three 3Cs Framework has been applied at an individual level to support a pupil’s transition from a mainstream primary school. Consent has been gained from the pupil and parent to share this experience.

During initial consultation, the EP suggested that the pupil might be best supported using a belonging framework and the teacher proposed a Circle of Friends intervention to develop friendships and a sense of belonging for the pupil within the class. The class team facilitated the intervention, with advice and feedback from the EP.

As part of the intervention pupils volunteered to form ‘the cactus club’, the name the group chose for themselves based on the recognition that friendships can sometimes be ‘prickly’. The cactus club have worked on topics such as kindness, friendships, greetings and managing conflict. The pupils are supported to reflect on successes and to come up with a plan as a group when they have encountered challenges with their interactions and friendships with others.

A restorative meeting was also set up to attempt to repair the relationship between the pupil and a peer in their class.

The pupils and their teacher have been asked to rate the quality of their relationship several times; before and after the meeting and after recent reviews:

Before restorative meetingAfter restorative meetingMost recent review





Their teacher has reported improvements such as ‘they are giving each other space and listening to each other’ and ‘they are saying things in a nice way’. The teacher and pupils have reflected that the cactus club has helped with this too.

The EP has also worked closely with the pupil to gain their views and to evaluate the impact of the support they have received. In the most recent session we discussed belonging. The pupil was asked to rate their sense of belonging when they first started the school and now. The orange circle represents their rating when they first started at the school. The green circle represents their sense of belonging now. They said ‘Now I’m realising that this school is my school’, they clarified ‘I am still missing my old school as well’. When asked what was working well they said ‘things are improving lots with me and my teacher, and me and [pupil] with our relationships’.

10 point scale showing how the pupil rated their belonging as 1/10 when they started at the school, and 10/10 now.

With consent from the pupil, their thoughts about progress and their wider sense of belonging has been shared with the teacher, parents and school headteacher. This is important as it reinforces the efforts of everyone involved and promotes joined up working.

EP reflections

We are in a unique position as we are employed directly by a special school which supports pupils with moderate learning needs and additional needs. The school accesses 9 days per week of EP time and we feel hugely privileged to have the time and autonomy to work in a way that is truly psychological and needs led. We work across multiple levels and the role is diverse and meaningful.

Much of our role is about promoting the school ethos, an ethos that is underpinned by school values. To promote belonging, The Riley ‘Three 3Cs Framework’ is the perfect fit for the school and the pupils we work with and aligns with existing EP priorities and values.

Though other EPs may not have the time or resources to use the framework in the way we did, the ‘Three 3Cs Framework’ could be used by other EPs to promote belonging; by supporting pupils, staff and schools to gain authentic pupil voice and develop and maintain approaches which focus on relationships and compassion.

There is no better school than one where the pupils feel they belong, and we feel that EPs have a role to play in promoting this.


Brown, E.L., Powell, E., & Clark, A. (2012). Working On What Works: Working with teachers to improve classroom behaviour and relationships. Educational Psychology in Practice28 (1), 19-30

Riley, K. (2022). Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging.  UCL Press 

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