WHAT DOES ATTACHMENT LOOK LIKE IN A SCHOOL SETTING?
Have you ever wondered why some children or young people leave you feeling exhausted or incapable after you have spent time with them?
Do you find that some children’s behaviour is so erratic that you just don’t know what they are going to do next?
Or have you found in discussions with your colleagues, that some of you have a good relationship with a child, while others absolutely do not?
Whilst it is easy to look at ourselves and think that there must be something wrong with us or our way of working, it is possible that, in fact, it is not down to you but is down to the child’s attachment style.
The behaviour of some children can be extremely challenging but it is important to remember that behaviour is a means of communication. Consequently, it is essential to try and understand what the child is attempting to tell us through their behaviour. One way to help with this is to look at patterns of behaviour using attachment theory. It is widely known that the attachment styles a child forms in infancy has wide implications in all areas of their life. But what do we mean by attachment styles and how does it affect behaviour in school?
Simply put, an attachment style describes our pattern of relating to the important people in our lives (Bomber 2007). Attachment styles are formed through the child’s relationship with their main caregiver(s). If the main caregiver can make the baby feel safe, protected and nurtured, the young child can start to make sense of the world around them (National Children’s Bureau) and they develop trust and confidence in their caregivers (Howe and Fearnley 1999). They grow up to believe that they are loveable and that others will want to be connected to them. From this, the child grows in confidence and can tolerate separation from their parent (Bomber 2007). This is the foundations of a secure attachment style.
In contrast, those children who grow up with caregivers that cannot meet their needs, or are not emotionally available, or are inconsistent with their caregiving, grow up feeling that they are not worthy of attention, love, comfort, understanding or protection (Ainsworth cited in Howe and Fearnley 1999). This can lead to difficulties socially, behaviourally or emotionally and these difficulties can impact on the child’s learning and development (National Children’s Bureau). This can lead to the child forming an insecure attachment style.
There are four attachment styles: secure, insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent and insecure disorganised.
Secure Attachment Style
A child with a secure attachment style will have the curiosity necessary to make the most of the learning opportunities at school, are able to take the risks required by the learning process (we mustn’t forget that learning involves a lot of risk taking and being able to cope with not knowing), and will usually reach their full potential (Bomber 2007).
A child with this attachment style has learnt that they are ok, adults are ok and that the world is ok. Their behaviours in class could be:
• Interdependent and can also work independently
• Able to concentrate on the task and feel confident in trying new things
• Socially competent and have high levels of self-esteem
• Able to cope with difficulties that they might encounter at school
Insecure Avoidant Attachment Style
Children with this attachment style have learnt that if you seek attachment, you will be rejected. Their way of coping with this is to avoid seeking attachment and become self-sufficient. Their behaviours in class could be:
• Do not like the teacher to stand in close proximity
• Want to do tasks autonomously, even when they don’t know what to do
• Seem unprepared to engage and discuss a problem
• Rip up their work, saying it’s rubbish, before a teacher can comment on it.
In the Learning Triangle formed between pupil, teacher and task, the focus for these young people is pupil-task and they reject the need for the pupil-teacher relationship. For these pupils, achievement is more important than intimacy with another person.
This means that, even if they need help with a task, they will not admit it. Also, children with this attachment style are often covering up the fact that they feel very anxious. One way that children can deal with this anxiety is to control their environment which can lead to perfectionism and/or compulsive behaviours.
Insecure Ambivalent Attachment Style
Children with this attachment style have learnt that when you need something, you cannot trust adults to meet that need. Adults’ moods are unpredictable and that you must always monitor the relationship you have with them. Their behaviours in class could include:
• The need of constant reassurance and unable to take individual action
• Overly dependent on the teacher
• Unable to focus on a task in case they lose the attention of the teacher
• Quick to blame others for making them upset or to turn against the teacher if they feel that they are not getting enough attention (even if they have had an enormous amount of it)
In the Learning Triangle formed between pupil, teacher and task, the focus for these young people is pupil-teacher relationship. They become so preoccupied with the relationship that they have no energy left for the task.
These children can leave you feeling mentally and emotionally drained; no matter how much attention you give them, it is never enough. The child can be described as manipulative or attention seeking. However, for them, losing the relationship with the teacher, even momentarily, or taking the focus off the teacher and onto the task at hand, feels dangerous as it involves separation from the teacher.
Insecure Disorganised Attachment
Children with this attachment style can be the most challenging to respond to but, fortunately, the make up the smallest percentage of attachment styles. They have often come from unstable and abusive homes and have learnt to expect the worst and cannot imagine that anyone out there could genuinely care about them. As the thought of being vulnerable or dependent in any way scares them so much, they do whatever they can to avoid this from happening. They also lack the ability to calm themselves down, often presenting a defiant and aggressive front to mask their absolute fear and sense of helplessness. Sadly, these children often under-achieve at school. The behaviour can include:
• Becoming very abusive towards the teacher and/or other children in the class
• Get very frustrated and show this by banging their head on the wall
• Controlling of relationships with others
• Explode into temper for no apparent reason
• Switching between demanding your attention and telling you to go away
In the Learning Triangle formed between pupil, teacher and task, the pupil cannot engage with either the pupil-teacher relationship or the task at hand.
As working with children with this attachment style can take their toll on us, we need to ensure that we have a good support network around us, both professionally and personally. Feelings of depression, anger and frustration are common (Geddes and Hanko 2006). Consequently, it is important that we acknowledge these feelings and remember that any abuse or assaults are not personal, but is a child trying to cope with their distress.
A concluding thought comes from Geddes and Hanko (2006): For many children, school/care staff can become their first experience of long-term persistent, reliable adults who can ‘hold them in mind’… and be able to make sense of their behaviour…. It is important that those working with pupils of adverse early experiences do not collude with such experiences of the child. It is easy to repeat the experience of the ‘rejecting parent’ when faced daily with the rejection and disregard of challenging pupils. As the adult, we must be mindful that these defensive behaviours are the way that the child deals with extreme fear and uncertainty. However, by providing these children with a secure and reliable relationship, it is possible for these children to bring about lasting positive change in the way that they deal with these difficult feelings. As professionals/caregivers, we can play a key role in supporting these children in their journey towards a more full-filling life. At One-Eighty we do this by providing a positive role-model for the young people while we are working with them. We show them that an adult can ‘hold them in mind’ even when we are not with them, and that adults can listen to what a child needs and feels and respond appropriately. As we work alongside the young person, we help them to realise that they are not alone in the world and that an adult can genuinely care about them. We understand that a young person’s challenging behaviour is a way of communicating distress and so we work with the young people so that they can find ways of better understanding and managing their distress. Even though One-Eighty’s interventions usually only last a matter of weeks, we aim to help the young person make changes that will last a lifetime.
Descriptions of attachment styles and behaviours were mostly taken from How Teachers can use a Knowledge of Attachment Theory by Marie Delany, and Inside I’m Hurting by Louis Michelle Bomber