Attachment disorder

“So what am I supposed to do with no Teaching Assistant?”

Notes for an afternoon workshop at Southampton University, secondary conference 19th March 2014 – SEN in mainstream classrooms


The usual range of persuasion, rewards, sanctions and common sense classroom techniques work for the vast majority of students, most of the time – but not all.  In most schools there are around 5% whose emotional make-up means they operate within different parameters.  Their brains seem to be wired differently.      They don’t always walk in with a teaching assistant and certainly don’t come with an instruction label attached.  You may have watched Tough Young Teachers – you may remember Caleb.

How do you plan to succeed with the student who has a reputation for being ‘off-the-wall’,  who just says “no” or who storms out when you speak to them reasonably?

Today we will explore how understanding more about attachment issues can make you a better – and more inclusive – teacher.


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 disorder, secondary school and adolescence can 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 an 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 responding to the condition – explained in the books below.  At its 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 rewards and sanctions or ‘the language of choice’.  Looked at through the lens of attachment disorder, such students may suddenly become more 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 – especially fear of changes in routine
  • a constant state of vigilance of their environment or their needs
  • a strong sense of shame or rejection
  • sudden overwhelming feelings of grief
  • mistrust of adults and authority
  • not able to ask for help
  • can’t accept not knowing something  – or
  • belligerent that they know everything already
  • taking statements literally
  • not being able to retrieve situations
  • 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
Responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • adults need to be  ‘all-understanding’ and ‘all-caring’ in the eyes of the young person
  • the concept of  ‘holding the young person in mind’ is useful (see Louise Bomber’s work below)
  • the young person may need to learn to ‘attach’ to a significant adult before they can learn to operate more independently
Emotional responses in responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • demonstrate non-judgemental authority
  • demonstrate interest and an unconditional consistency
Areas for intervention in a classroom situation:
  • the task itself – give a choice (although note that not doing the work at all is not an option)
  • a warm welcome at the start
  • familiar objects or a place to work (part of ‘keeping the young person in mind’)
  • keep remembering the emotional age of the student
  • allowing time to settle
  • tactical ignoring of initial statements from student
  • thinking in advance about changes in routine
  • reliably held boundaries
  • allowing recovery time or a short time out if the pressure builds up
  • handling emotions and behaviour with the class in general in a disarming and consistent manner

Areas for intervention in the school as a whole:

  • continuous relationships
  • plan for teacher absence
  • plan for the build up to weekends, holidays and returns
  • predictability over events, explain changes (e.g. trips) in advance
  • provide a secure base for students and staff
  • professional and emotional support for TAs
  • early diagnosis, professional discussion and sharing of information

Question: So what I am supposed to do with no teaching assistant?  

Answer: Think intelligently.  Don’t beat yourself up over one of the 5% – but don’t be too quick to judge either.  Read up.  Find out more about the student.  Talk to someone (and there is always someone) who seems to ‘get’ that student.  Once you understand, you may have a better chance.  You certainly won’t blame yourself – or allow others to blame you – when things go wrong.  Sometimes a student with serious attachment issues simply isn’t ready to learn and your classroom is not the right place for them at that moment in time.  There’s a big difference between knowing this and why – and simply exiting the student from the class for ‘inappropriate behaviour, yet again’.

The golden rule – aspire to handle emotions and behaviour with the class as a whole in a disarming, disengaging and consistent manner – benefits all students, not just those with attachment issues.

Inclusive classrooms are places where judgements about young people as people as well as unintelligent or emotional reactions to behaviour are eliminated (or at least completely minimised.  You are human after-all, not an automaton).

About teaching assistants: Let’s be clear – you are a class teacher of all children, including those with SEN or hidden disabilities.  You have a professional responsibility to think intelligently about how you try to get all the students in the class to learn.  However, a teaching assistant can often provide the emotional support that a damaged student needs, so that learning can take place.

Further reading

 Inside I'm Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools
Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and LearningTeaching the Unteachable: Practical ideas to give teachers hope and help when behaviour management strategies fail: What Teachers Can Do When All Else FailsWhat About Me?: Inclusive Strategies to Support Pupils with Attachment Difficulties Make it Through the School Day
Attachment in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Schools

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