How nurture groups help children in schools

By Marion Bennathan

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

Marion Bennathan was Principal Educational Psychologist of the County of Avon, (UK) Chair of the Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children for many years and a founder and first Director of Young Minds. She was Honorary Director of The Nurture Group Network until 2000 and, in 2007, was elected the Honorary Life President.



How nurture groups help children in schools


By Marion Bennathan


Success in life is usually preceded by success in school. Children who attend school regularly, who do well in their lessons, and who learn to make friends are significantly more likely to find employment and are less likely to engage with criminality or anti-social behaviour. They are children who in all probability experience healthy emotional and intellectual development.

Most children start school with confidence and enthusiasm but others do not and they may not respond to the teaching offered but rather they will withdraw or behave aggressively to teachers and fellow pupils. They are children who will make little or no progress and may even reach the stage of being excluded from school. This a damaging experience for both the child and for the family. Such children can also have a profound and negative effect on other pupils. They can interfere with their work, take too much of a teacher’s attention and lower class morale. These developments may well lead to a child being sent to a special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In the United Kingdom it has been shown such unhappy outcomes can be prevented. For almost 40 years, nurture groups have been demonstrating that, with the right help and support at an early age, children who may have struggled in school can be successfully included in mainstream schools. There are currently over 1500 such groups throughout the United Kingdom. There are also nurture groups in New Zealand, Canada and Malta, Worldwide the number of nurture groups is increasing rapidly.


Marjorie Boxall and the emergence of nurture groups

In inner London during the late 1960s there was concern about the large number of children in primary schools who were excluded from school or referred for placement at special schools soon after their entry to school. These children were being adjudged as unmanageable. At the same time teachers at many schools in inner London were experiencing high levels of stress. There was rapid turnover of staff as well as high rates of staff absenteeism. Support services to the schools were struggling to respond to these difficulties.

By 1969, Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist in Hackney, an inner London borough, saw the urgent need for a new approach to deal with these problems. She brought into education insights from clinical work about children’s early years, and about what children need if they are to be ready to meet the demands of school life.

From birth children seek to attach themselves to their carers. They are ready to relate but if they are to develop healthily they need reliable and affectionate care so that as they grow they increasingly experience the world as an interesting place which is safe for them to explore. If they lack adequate care they will not experience the world as safe, will not learn that adults can be trusted, and that other children can be friends. They will have taken in a view of a hostile and uncaring world and when entering school for the first time will be bewildered, frightened and may use aggression to protect themselves from hurt. It is likely too that they will be behind in their language skills and lack the necessary knowledge of their surroundings that a ‘good enough’ parent provides. Taking all these factors together Boxall suggested that if these children were to make progress they needed to be exposed to the learning experiences they had missed. She argued that if this was achieved the children would begin to feel that the world is safe and friendly.

This way of understanding children’s problems made immediate sense to teachers who knew of the stresses in the lives of many local families. Some may for instance have been struck by disaster, suffered serious health problems, experienced a crucial bereavement, or have untreated postnatal depression. These teachers were also aware that a number of the children they were teaching were living with violence in the family home, or with criminality and perhaps had a parent who was in prison. They may have been born to unsupported mothers some of whom had their own problems, or they may have been placed in public care because of a family breakdown. With Boxall’s guidance to help them understand the effects on early lives lived in home environments like these schools teachers began creating settings where the experiences necessary for good development could be offered, nurture groups.


What is a nurture group ?

A nurture group is a small supportive class of up to 12 children, usually in a mainstream primary school. The children in a nurture group spend a substantial part of each week in the group but remain members of their mainstream class, joining the other children daily for planned activities. It is essential that all the adults in a school understand what the group is about so that each child who is a member of the school’s nurture group child is given consistent support. The nurture group room provides a warm and welcoming environment which contains aspects of home and school, with sofas, plenty of space and equipment for play, as well as books, work tables and computers. It is a safe, predictable environment where the unique developmental needs of each child is met.

A nurture group is usually staffed by two adults, one a teacher and the other alearning support assistant. The nature of the relationships which the staff of the nurture group have with the children is explicitly supportive and courteous. The staff provide role models for the children to observe and begin to copy. The task of the staff is to make the children feel accepted and valued, to engage them in learning and in the life of the class, and to help them relate to each other by using the group dynamics to foster good relationships. As confidence grows, each child begins to respond to teaching that is aimed at the level they have reached at the same time as being linked to the curriculum in of the whole school.


The principles that underpin nurture groups.

A nurture group is founded upon six basic principles which are here listed. Underlying these principles is the development of trusting relationships between staff and children and also between children and children.

1. Children’s learning is understood developmentally

In nurture groups, staff respond to children not in terms of arbitrary expectations about ‘attainment levels’ but in terms of the children’s developmental progress assessed through the Boxall Profile Handbook which offers a structured framework for the observation of a child’s behavioural, social and cognitive engagement in classrooms.The response to the individual child is ‘as they are,’ underpinned by a non-judgmental and accepting attitude.

2. The classroom offers a safe base

The organization of the environment and the way the group is managed is done in a way that diminishes anxiety. The nurture group room offers a balance of educational and domestic experiences aimed at supporting the development of the children’s relationship with each other and with the staff. The nurture group is organized around a structured day with predictable routines.

3. Nurture is important for the development of self-esteem

Nurture involves listening and responding. In a nurture group ‘everything is verbalized’ with an emphasis on the adults engaging with the children in reciprocal shared activities, for example, in play, during meals and when reading or talking about events and feelings. Children respond to being valued and thought of as individuals; thus, in practice, this involves noticing and praising small achievements. Nothing is hurried in nurture groups.

4. Language is understood as a vital means of communication

Language is seen as more than a skill to be learned. It is the way of putting feelings into words. Nurture group children often ‘act out’ their feelings as they lack the vocabulary to ‘name’ how they feel. In nurture groups, the informal opportunities for talking and sharing, for example, welcoming the children into the group or having breakfast together are as important as the more formal lessons for teaching language skills. Words are used instead of actions to express feelings and opportunities are created for extended conversations or encouragement.

5. All behaviour is communication

This principle underlies the adult response to the children’s often challenging or difficult behaviour. ‘Given what I know about this child and his development, what is this child trying to tell me? ’ Understanding what a child is communicating through behaviour helps staff to respond in a firm but non-punitive way by not being provoked or discouraged.

6. Transitions are significant in the lives of children

The nurture group helps children make the difficult transition from home to school. Moreover every day children have to make numerous transitions, for example, between sessions and classes and between different adults. Changes in routine are invariably difficult for vulnerable children and need to be managed with careful preparation and support.


How in practice are children in a nurture group supported ?

Great attention is paid to detail; the adults are reliable and consistent in their approach to the children. Staff are sensitive to the important link between emotional containment and cognitive learning, and to the role imaginative play has in understanding the feelings of others. The staff of the nurture group use many different strategies, such as story telling, verbal games, songs and so forth to engage the child’s attention, to make him or her want to listen and eventually to talk. Even children whose anxiety is severe enough to cause them to choose to be mute recover in such a group. Food is shared at ‘breakfast’ with a formal routine that gives opportunity for social learning, helping children to wait their turn, attending to others, and learning acceptable ways of expressing their needs, likes and dislikes. As children learn, academically and socially, they develop confidence, become responsive to others and take pride in behaving well and in their accomplishments. . Studies in the United Kingdom have found that more than 80% of the children who have been in a nurture group are ready, after less than three school terms, to return full-time to their mainstream class with which they have kept daily contact.



Hannah had been removed from her mother’s and her stepfather’s care because of the abuse she was suffering at home. She was placed in foster care with relatives.

She was not quite 5 years old when a week into the spring term she joined the primary school near her foster carers’ home. When she first arrived in the school she seemed anxious and frightened. She sat on the floor and was silent. She refused to join in the activities with the other children.

After a prolonged period of sensitive attention from the staff, she was persuaded to venture into the home corner but there she would not allow any of the other children to be near her. Hannah was tearful and unhappy. Her speech was not clear and her vocabulary seemed limited for a child of her age. After a few weeks during which the staff absorbed her anxious and terrified feelings, Hannah tentatively began to allow other children into her space and a short time after this she started to make relationships with them but in these she became omnipotent and possessive and each child she attempted befriend was soon frightened of her, to the extent that Hannah became a negative influence upon their progress. Towards the end of term it became apparent that Hannah needed more support than was available to her in a mainstream class.

After the Easter holiday Hannah joined the nurture group. She was a small five years old girl who held negative views of herself and who was vehemently resistant to the approaches of others. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with Hannah’s foster mother, staff provided steady and consistent reassurance to Hannah to the extent that she became sufficiently encouraged to share in the group’s activities and to share objects and friends.

By the end of the summer term it was evident that Hannah felt safe in the school. She had begun to feel secure in nurture group environment. She became affectionate towards the staff, related better to the other children and her educational achievement had progressed to be much closer to what might be expected of a child of her age. This pleased Hannah and her self-esteem, so low in January had reached a much healthier level. It was clear that school had become a haven for her. As well as making progress educational progress, the staff felt that Hannah had begun to feel that she could trust adults. Hannah still had problems in her foster home but her social worker felt more confident about Hannah overcoming these given her progress at school.


Nurture groups in secondary schools

Evidence of the widespread success of nurture groups in primary schools, together with the increasing number of students who struggle to engage with learning has persuaded many secondary schools to set up nurture groups. The arrangement varies to fit in with the more complicated secondary curriculum and with each school’s needs. For instance some have meetings twice a week at lunch time, while others have brief daily meetings. Two critical stages have been identified for secondary pupils who may need nurturing support. Firstly there is the impact of entering the bigger and more complex environment of the secondary school and secondly the development of emotional insecurities linked to the pressures of adolescence.

The arrangements for nurture groups in secondary schools may vary, but the principles and aims are the same. The staff are accepting, reliable and supportive. They engage the pupils in interesting activities; build up supportive relationships, so that students begin to think of better solutions to the problems they face. As they start to feel valued they learn to value themselves and their attitudes to each other and to the whole school improve.

Talking about her experience of a nurture group in a secondary school Emma who was 13 years old said,

‘I came to the nurture group because I was miserable and not proud of myself. For a very long time I was also hiding that I couldn’t see and it was slowing down my writing and I never got it finished. I’ve got better since then as the teachers always find a way to make me laugh or happy. I’m not miserable any more and I am proud of myself . I can now see because I went off and got my glasses.’

Charlie, aged 14 said,

“Before I came into nurture, I was always in trouble. The teachers have taught me to control my anger. We have done lots of fun things, food tasting, breakfast club, lunch club and learned lots of new games. If it were not for Mr.D and Mrs.G, I would still be in trouble. They say nurture groups taught them how to be kind to children so, thank you !.”


What do parents feel about nurture groups ?

When nurture groups were first set up there was a fear that parents would resist the offer to provide their child a place in a nurture group. There was an anxiety that parents would feel criticised and labelled as failures. In practice this has not happened. It has been found that parents’ responses to their child being supported in nurture groups have been overwhelmingly positive. They express a sense of relief that something is being done for their children. Those parents who have experienced family difficulties and school problems in their own childhood and had found it stressful when their own children became reluctant to attend school are almost unanimously positive about the way nurture groups have made their children more enthusiastic about attending school and engaging in learning. It is clear that this development has boosted their confidence as parents.


Nurture Groups in the Future

An increasing number of local authorities are becoming interested in developing nurture groups in their schools. It is an approach that in a very real sense is an inclusive one. It is aimed at helping all children to flourish in mainstream schools within their own home communities. It is an approach which responds to our individual and societal need in these difficult times for social cohesion. In the United Kingdom training to develop and operate nurture groups is provided by the Nurture Group Network which is a registered charity.


References and recommended further reading

Bennathan, M., & Boxall, M. (1996) Effective Intervention in Primary School,Nurture Groups London: David Fulton Publishers. 2000.

Bennathan, M.,& Boxall, M. (1998) The Boxall Profile Handbook London : The Nurture Group Network

Bennathan, M. (ed)(2005) Supporting Parents, Supporting Education: What Nurture Groups Achieve London : The Nurture Group Network

Bennathan,M & Huskayne, M.(2007) ‘What is the Boxall Profile and how effective is it ?’ in Special Needs 25 accessed at on 9.12.12.

Boxall, M. (2002) Nurture Groups in School: Principles and Practice London : Paul Chapman Education Publishing.

Lucas,M. ,Insley,K., and Buckland, G.(2006) Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines – Helping Children to Achieve London : The Nurture Group Network

Rose,J. (2010) How Nurture Protects Children : Nurture and narrative in work with children, young people and families London Responsive Solutions


Internet link

The Nurture Group Network