Many children enjoy life and are successful in school and relationships. That’s mostly the case in adult life. But a significant minority is fighting for acceptance and success during early stage in life, especially in adolescence. We’re talking about children facing problems such as disruption, inability to control self, withdrawal, destructiveness, impulsiveness and the lack of focus.
We all want for children to have the best possible start in life. Children, such as those who are in care or adopted from care, who have been neglected, or failed to form secure attachments with adults in their early years, exhibit a variety of behaviours at school and as teenagers. If not recognised, it can lead to exclusion, educational underachievement and wasted lives. This module demonstrates a commitment to increasing teachers’ awareness of attachment issues and to developing strategies to break this cycle of deprivation.
Why attachment matter?
Most children enjoy life and are successful in school and in relationships. This extends into adult life. But a significant minority struggle from an early stage and especially in adolescence. These children can be: unfocussed, disruptive, controlling, withdrawn, destructive.
These children tend to underachieve in school and are often punished and even excluded. Little that schools do seems to work. As a result, these children may not fulfil their potential as adults, either in employment or relationships. Those adults who enjoyed success in school can find these children hard to engage and motivate. Research shows that a child’s ability to form relationships and to learn is shaped by the child’s early experiences. So, if we can better understand WHY and HOW some children behave the way they do, we can then find ways to help them enjoy and succeed in their education and life. It is a fascinating area of research with major implications for how schools support all children to succeed. The nature of a child’s primary attachments to caregivers lay the foundations for socio- emotional well-being and therefore children’s capacity to learn. Secure attachment relationships correlate strongly with higher academic attainment, better self-regulation and social competence. Educators themselves need to establish an attachment-like relationship with their students, particularly with challenging and vulnerable students, in order to enhance learning opportunities for all.
Attachment theory in a nutshell
The theory of attachment was first proposed by John Bowlby who described it as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’ (1988). He considered that children needed to develop a secure attachment with their main caregiver in their early years. This theory has been revised to acknowledge that multiple attachments can occur with other adults throughout the lifespan, although early experiences may continue to have an impact.
Secure attachments support mental processes that enable the child to regulate emotions, reduce fear, attune to others, have self-understanding and insight, empathy for others and appropriate moral reasoning (Bowlby called these mental representations the internal working model). Insecure attachments, on the other hand, can have unfortunate consequences. If a child cannot rely on an adult to respond to their needs in times of stress, they are unable to learn how to soothe themselves, manage their emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships.
A child’s initial dependence on others for protection provides the experiences and skills to help a child cope with frustrations, develop self-confidence and pro-social relationships – all qualities necessary to promote positive engagement with learning. Research has inextricably linked attachment to school readiness and school success (Commodari 2013, Geddes 2006).
Attachment theory – the key messages
¨ Nurturing adult attachments provide children with protective, safe havens and secure bases from which to explore and engage with others and their environment (Bowlby 1988)
¨ Early care-giving has a long-lasting impact on development, the ability to learn, capacity to regulate emotions and form satisfying relationships (Siegel 2012)
¨ Attachment is crucial to children’s psychological welfare and forms the basis of personality development and socialisation (Bowlby 1988)
¨ Teachers, youth workers and significant adults in a child’s life can provide important attachments for children (Bergin and Bergin 2009, Riley 2010)
¨ “The biological function of attachment is survival; the psychological function is to gain security” (Schaffer 2004)
The following factors may present a risk to the quality of attachment between child and parent: poverty, parental mental health difficulties, exposure to neglect, domestic violence or other forms of abuse, alcohol/drug taking during pregnancy, multiple home and school placements, premature birth, abandonment, family bereavement.
¨ Vulnerable groups may include:
¨ Children in areas of social and economic deprivation
¨ Children in care
¨ Adopted children whose early experiences of trauma continue to affect their lives
¨ Disabled children
¨ Children with medical conditions or illness
¨ Children who have moved home frequently during the early years e.g. forces families
¨ Refugees and children who have been traumatised by conflict or loss
insecure attachments may occur within non-vulnerable children as well!
Attachment types can be seen as self – protective behavioural strategies. There are 4 identified attachment types:
• Secure – ‘I’m ok, you’re there for me’
• Insecure avoidant – ‘It’s not ok to be emotional’
• Insecure ambivalent – ‘I want comfort but it doesn’t help me’
• Insecure disorganized – ‘I’m frightened’
The nature of attachment type is a predictor of emotional responses and later social behaviour and resilience. Note: Some research uses just two categories of attachment styles — secure vs. insecure—whilst other research uses a continuum of security in attachment (Bergin and Bergin 2009).
What does neuroscience tell us about emotions and learning?
“Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning, and decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. In particular, the neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.” (Immordino-Yang and Damasio 2007).
Our minds are continually shaped by emotions, experiences, relationships, opportunities, attitudes, values and beliefs, knowledge and genes. However, there is an instinctive priority of attachment over the brain’s exploratory system – feeling Safe and Secure is more important than learning.
Neuronal Networks in the brain:
– ‘Our minds are complex systems constrained in their activity by neuronal connections, which are determined by both constitution and experience’ (Siegel 2012);
– Secure, nurturing environments and stimulating, engaging experiences support the development of neuronal networks – they help to build brains;
– Empathetic, supportive attachments and relationships are essential to optimize brain development as ‘the attunement of emotional states is essential for the developing brain to acquire the capacity to organize itself more autonomously as the child matures’ (Siegel 2012).
These neurons are thought to enable humans to emulate others and thereby empathise and understand others’ intent. This ability is essential for the socialization of children and has significant implications for the adult role.
– The extent to which stressful events have lasting adverse effects is determined in part by the individual’s biological response (mediated by genetic predispositions and the availability of supportive relationships that help moderate the stress response) and by the duration, intensity, timing, and context of the stressful experience;
– Constant activation of the body’s stress response systems due to chronic or traumatic experiences in the absence of caring, stable relationships with adults, especially during sensitive periods of early development, can be toxic to brain architecture and other developing organ systems;
– Connections in the brain are reduced and lost through toxic stress;
– Fewer connections means it is more difficult to utilize the brain capacity and learn effectively.
(Cozolino 2013; Siegel 2012)
Recent neuroscientific evidence demonstrates that warm, responsive relationships and interactions (attunement) build children’s brains, and help them to learn to self-regulate their behaviour.
Why do educators need to know about attachment? – the implications for learning and behaviour
“Attachment influences students’ school success. This is true of students’ attachment to their parents, as well as to their teachers. Secure attachment is associated with higher grades and standardized test scores compared to insecure attachment. Secure attachment is also associated with greater emotional regulation, social competence, and willingness to take on challenges, and with lower levels of ADHD and delinquency, each of which in turn is associated with higher achievement” (Bergin and Bergin 2009).
In most classrooms, in most schools, there are children for whom this vital secure attachment did not develop, and the attachment pattern which developed was insecure or even a ‘disorganised’ one: the parent’s response to the child has been inconsistent, neglectful, unskilled, manipulative, cruel or simply absent. Some of those children will now be living in care, but not all of them are, and we should not blindly equate the two states of being… If you understand the theory behind this phenomenon; if you learn that the nature of their attachment pattern is an important factor at the core of the problems you are dealing with in some children; if you can focus your practice on assuring them you are not going to let them down no matter what, and that you will support them without blaming yourself or the child; if your school has structures and practices in place to help and support you and the child alike, given that some days will be hard for both of you; and if together you work with the family or the carers and professionals who are also trying to help and support the child – then you and your school may well succeed where others fail.’
“Research demonstrates that emotions fundamentally drive cognitive learning and, in order to generate successful learning, educators need to engage the affective dimensions of pupils’ minds.” (Immordino-Yang and Damasio 2007).
Research draws attention to the significance of the student-teacher relationship in order to develop a positive emotional climate and an effective learning environment.
Children who can regulate their own emotions and responses are more popular, have fewer behavioural problems, are more emotionally stable, have fewer infectious illnesses and achieve more academically in schools (Gottman et al 2007). To be able to engage in learning a student needs to be able to take risks, to learn new things and face new challenges. A good learner needs to be able to manage frustration and anxiety, have good self- esteem, be willing to take risks and be able to ask for help when needed. Attachment relationships therefore have a direct bearing on children’s capacity to succeed in school. The interaction between the teacher, the student and the learning task is a fluid dynamic whereby the task is a reflection of the teacher’s awareness and understanding of the student and the student is able to seek reliable support when challenged by the task. Each relates to the other in a way that fosters curiosity and supports the uncertainty that can be created by the challenges of ‘not knowing’ which is at the heart of all learning. (Geddes 2006)
Securely attached children are more likely to be:
¨ co-operative and self-regulative
¨ less likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems
¨ more socially empathetic and less biased in interpreting behaviour of others
¨ more self-aware (self- knowledge)
The student with Insecure Avoidant attachment experience can find trusting the teacher a challenge and may focus on ‘what to do’ – the task – rather than who to ask for help. The behaviour and learning tends to be led by self- reliance which can inhibit creativity and exploration of the unknown – hence underachievement (Geddes 2006).
The nature of the task is important as the student needs to feel sure that the task is ‘do-able’ without triggering the need for help. A shared focus on the task can protect the student from exposure to the relationship. Over time this enables the pupil experience the sensitivity of the teacher to their anxiety and to begin to feel understood and hence the beginnings of a more secure experience. Greater trust in the teacher makes it more possible to ask for help and so over time learning can be greatly enhanced.
The behaviour and learning responses of a student who has experienced an Insecure Ambivalent attachment is likely to be led by separation anxiety. The attention of the teacher is the primary need and pre-occupation and the task can seem an intrusion and a threat. The teacher can experience this as relentless attention seeking and often they are given one to one support. This can be a form of collusion with their anxiety rather than achieving greater independence and autonomy.
To enable greater engagement in the task, the task needs to be differentiated into small and do- able steps with repeated reminders that they are ‘held in mind’ by the teacher. Gradually, the pupil experiences a sense of their own independent thoughts, ideas and actions – an identity of their own, enhancing their experience of autonomy and independence and so the possibilities of learning. To students of such uncertain early experiences, the task is an unbearable challenge to their vulnerability, low esteem and limited resilience. Their engagement in the task is impaired by mistrust of the adults, an inability to tolerate the humiliation of not knowing and fear of what they do not know. Their behaviour is led by Omnipotence – their defence against their helplessness can be to accuse others of being stupid and useless – the teacher and the task and others who can achieve, can be the target of their anger and frustrations. Interventions need to start with whole school practices of safety, reliability and predictability. Only when they are safe enough and calm enough can we begin to affect their insecurities by consistent caring relationships which understand their profound uncertainties. The tasks in the classroom need to be do-able and calming actions can create a useful beginning to arrival in the classroom. Such students may also have experienced prolonged absences and their sense of time and distance can be confused. The use of diaries and calendars in the classroom can begin to establish a sense of dates and times and forthcoming events – especially endings and beginnings of the week and terms. Over time the reliability of the classroom and the whole school become the secure base and enhance emotional development and so engagement in learning.
Teachers and other significant adults in a child’s life can provide important attachments for children!
Positive associations are found between quality of practitioner- child relationships and achievement!
High quality practitioner-child relationships help buffer children from the negative effects of insecure attachment on achievement!
Emotional resilience and the ability to learn are inextricably linked!
Secure attachment relationships correlate strongly with higher academic attainment, better self-regulation and social!
So schools and teachers need to…
¨ Be child-centred and acknowledge children’s different attachment styles
¨ Create nurturing relationships to promote children’s learning and behaviour and satisfy children’s innate need to have a secure ‘sense of belonging’
¨ Acknowledge adults’ roles as a potential secondary attachment figure who can help to reshape insecure attachment behaviours and support the development of more secure ones.
¨ Create additional infrastructures for children with emotional and behavioural impairments (as we do for physical and learning impairments)
“Close and supportive relationships with teachers have demonstrated the potential to mitigate the risk of negative outcomes for children who may otherwise have difficulty succeeding in school” (Driscoll and Pianta 2010).