Mulberry Bush Oxfordshire (MBOX) Teaching School

Works with education settings to adopt a "psychodynamic" approach to understand children's behaviour as a communication of unmet needs.

  • Supports teachers and other professionals to improve outcomes for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties
  • Began in 2012 as the outreach arm for Mulberry Bush School, a therapeutic non-maintained special school, which started in 1948 as a residential treatment programme for children with disrupted early attachments
  • MBOX helps staff in mainstream schools, nurseries, children's homes and colleges apply "psychodynamic" approach used to understand children's behaviour as a communication of unmet needs


MBOX Teaching School head Dave Roberts says the organisation was born out of the school's aim to reach more children and the realisation that the need for its approach extended way beyond the capacity of the 30-pupil residential setting. "Rather than opening one or two more schools serving 20 or 30 children, we decided the best way was to go out into mainstream schools, where we know thousands of children with challenging behaviour from troubled backgrounds are placed."

MBOX started with a £99,000 three-year grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. It has a team of seven, including four teachers, supported by associates, one of which is an educational psychologist. They do not usually work directly with children, aiming instead to equip teachers and others with the skills to respond to troubled children's needs through building consistent relationships with them.

The organisation works mainly with primary schools across Oxfordshire and surrounding counties, who call MBOX for help in managing a child with challenging behaviour. Many will be exhibiting difficulties in managing relationships with peers or teachers. "Our ethos is that these children are telling us something through their behaviour, normally that they're anxious," says Roberts. "Our job is to work out what they're communicating and how best to respond."

Team members attend schools individually or in pairs providing a free consultation, gathering details about the pupil's behaviour history and background, before observing the child's interactions with the teacher in the classroom. "We'll watch what's happening in the relationship, trying to help staff pick up on small details," explains Roberts. "If staff say: ‘the student got really cross for no reason', we might say: ‘actually, there were three stages before that, when he was banging on the desk and kicking the table, for example'. There were warning signs, but with a class of 30, teachers are not always able to be tuned in."

The MBOX professional produces a written report based on these observations and holds workshops enabling staff members to discuss their experiences with the child. "Our key question is: what does it feel like working with that child?" says Roberts. "When a teacher says: ‘I dread it, and it makes me feel anxious', we'll suggest that maybe the child is feeling anxious, too."

Roberts says this shared reflection helps teachers tune into pupils' feelings to make sense of their behaviour, which he describes as "fairly new" in many schools. "If we know the child is anxious in maths, are we surprised they tear their maths sheet up? So we ask what we can do to recognise they're anxious and reduce that anxiety."

MBOX staff then work with teachers on strategies to meet the needs being communicated through these children's behaviour. Roberts insists that weaving this into a mainstream school day "doesn't have to be an insurmountable hurdle". Strategies could include a teacher "checking in" with a child every fifth minute during lessons, so he or she knows the teacher is still thinking about him or her, looking out for the child's "cue cards" leading to challenging behaviour, giving the child opportunities to share feelings, such as circle time or morning one-to-ones, or awarding him or her a special classroom role to boost self-esteem.

The team visits some schools regularly for more than two years, helping them revise strategies when required and review their impact. This long-term support helps schools develop a reflective culture, which involves routinely meeting to discuss their feelings about being with particular children and working together to develop effective responses.

Roberts says attachment disorders can be caused by a wide spectrum of circumstances including neglect, parental mental health problems, postnatal depression, or simply the demands of working life, which can reduce parents' emotional availability. He is now keen to develop support and training to help parents of pupils in mainstream schools to respond to their children's behaviour and rebuild relationships with them. Such support is already provided to Mulberry Bush School parents, who are helped by family support workers and residential weekends on parenting skills.

MBOX has visited nearly 300 settings and provides separate training on attachment, "behaviour as communication" and reflective practice to school staff, other professionals and foster carers. It has also been working with the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University to incorporate "attachment-informed practice" into teacher training programmes.


Out of 1,000 clients surveyed by the organisation in 2014, 90.8 per cent said they were more confident in knowing how to respond to difficult behaviour following MBOX's intervention.

Out of 58 children observed by the team during 2013 and 2014, 88 per cent demonstrated sustained improvements, such as improved behaviour, school attendance and learning, and no longer being at risk of exclusion.

Roberts says there is dwindling specialist provision for the "huge number of children in mainstream school who don't meet high thresholds of need but still have a wide range of emotional needs" and predicts a growing need for interventions such as MBOX to improve children's outcomes.

This practice example is part of CYP Now's special report on attachment and neglect. Click here for more

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