Notes from training session run at Wellington Academy on 14th June
Attachment develops in infants over the course of the first year of life and stabilises in subsequent years as an ‘inner working model’ of how to relate to others and the environment.
Attachment theory was developed in England in the 1950′s by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst. Recent work in this country, some of which arises from an interest in the needs of children and young people within fostering and adoption, extends the thinking into the implications for primary and secondary schools, illustrated by the pioneering work of Louise Bomber (2007, 2011), Marie Delaney (2009), Andrea Perry (ed.) (2009) and Heather Geddes (2006) – see book covers below.
Attachment disorder arises from adverse experience, usually early in life, associated with trauma, loss, neglect, violence or abuse. It manifests itself in the manner in which an individual may think about themselves, their environment or other people. It has implications for communication, behaviour, learning, self esteem and the way in which students will respond to every day events and interactions, adversity and the expectations of adults.
For young people with attachment disorders, secondary school and adolescence can be make issues more complex by the re-stimulation of earlier trauma and insecurity, especially in large schools with many different adults to cope with and constant change during the day. Students’ minds may be so preoccupied with distress that they cannot settle to learn, undermining their relationship with the teacher and the task.
Attachment disorder is a hidden disability, in that there is often little physical to see that would give away the underlying issue. It can only be understood by thinking intelligently about what a young person’s behaviour may be telling us, within the context of a that individual’s life story. It is a relatively new area of study, but has huge implications for the way we relate to students, especially in secondary schools.
There are different types of attachment disorder, with differing ways of ameliorating the condition explained in the books below. At it’s most extreme, a student may have a statement of special educational need which specifies the condition and so staff are forewarned. More likely, are the students who have never had their behaviour and attitudes looked at through the lens of attachment, and who simply present as puzzling, challenging or unusual. These types of students are often recognised as the 5% who don’t generally respond to the usual behaviour management techniques, such as ‘the language of choice’. Looked at through the lens of attachment disorder, much may suddenly become understandable.
Viewing students - and I would argue the school as a whole – through the lens of attachment disorder provides a superb frame of reference for inclusivity and for truly understanding how students’ behaviour is trying to tell us something, rather than simply reacting to what’s in front of us.
For teachers struggling with seemingly inexplicable and unpredictable behaviours, it is important to build professional resilience through genuine understanding. This goes hand in hand with an attitude which assumes that the professionals have not yet found the right way to teach the young person. However long it takes, a route and point of contact will be found.
A student with attachment disorder invariably demonstrates:
- a heightened state of anxiety – and especially fear of changes in routine
- a constant state of vigilance of their environment or their needs
- a strong sense of shame or rejection
- mistrust of adults and authority
- not able to ask for help
- can’t accept not knowing something or belligerent that they know everything already
- a brain wired for flight and fight
- reacting or acting out rather than thinking
- little self awareness or reflective capacity
- sensitivity to failure
- gaps and missing knowledge - sometimes of seemingly obvious things like being able to tell the time
- operating at an emotional level well behind their chronological age
- strange feelings over seemingly everyday events – such as getting changed for PE, using the toilet or eating lunch
- adults need to be ‘all-powerful’, ‘all-understanding’ and ‘all-caring’ in the eyes of the young person
- the concept of ‘holding the child in mind’ is useful
- the young person may need to learn to ‘attach’ to a significant adult before they can learn to operate more independently
- in a classroom situation, the task itself
- early identification
- continuous relationships
- reliably held boundaries
- predictability and change
- secure base for students and staff