The implications of Attachment Theory for schools

Published:

A new programme to raise awareness of the practical implications of attachment issues in schools has published a set of training materials for teachers, school leaders and governors. Dr Janet Rose and Richard Parker explain.

The theory of attachment was first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1960s, and has since become an established feature of work with children in areas such as health and social care.

The theory emphasises the importance of children making secure attachments with their main care-giver within their first three years. 

It suggests that, if these attachments fail to be made, this can have a lasting impact on the child, with the effects often re-emerging during adolescence. 

Within education, children and young people may tend to underachieve, are often punished for poor behaviour or are excluded. 

It can appear that nothing the school does seems to work; often the sanctions which they receive further reinforce their feelings of negativity and low self-worth.

Attachment awareness in schools is aimed at helping schools to recognise the issues involved, to support pupils with attachment difficulties, and thereby to improve attainment, behaviour and overall wellbeing for both pupils and staff. 

It is not an instant solution, nor does it replace existing school policies and approaches. It certainly does not seek to turn teachers into therapists, but rather to emphasise the importance of understanding the emotional and learning needs of their pupils, which is what we suggest good teaching is about.

Spotting the signs

To fully understand and proactively help children with attachment issues, you have to recognise the signs. 

There are a number of risk factors, such as poverty, poor parental mental health, neglect, family bereavement, and frequent moves of home or school, but children from apparently non-vulnerable backgrounds may also suffer in this way. 

Similarly, attachment-related behaviours can vary widely; typically pupils can be seen as unfocused, disruptive, controlling, withdrawn or destructive. 

However, whether these behaviours are driven by a suspicion of emotions, an inability to find comfort in relationships or a general fear of the world around them, children and young people need to feel safe and secure before they can begin to learn. 

Overcoming challenges 

One of the most important factors when recognising and responding to a child with attachment issues is to understand how that child is feeling. 

Recent advances in neuroscience have confirmed Bowlby’s theory, demonstrating the connections between emotion, social functioning and the priority of attachment. 

While the school itself cannot itself replace an insecure attachment with the primary care-giver it can offer a secure base, a place of safety and attachment – like relationships with trusted adults who can help the young person through the day. 

Moreover, recent research suggests that approximately one third of children have an insecure attachment with at least one care -giver, and one in four have experienced a trauma event which has resulted in behavioural/emotional disturbance.

This means, in effect, that an attachment-aware approach to teaching which recognises the importance of emotions will benefit all members of the class. 

Indeed, there is growing evidence that such approaches also reduce stress among teaching staff, in turn reducing absenteeism, improving continuity of learning experience, and ultimately overall school attainment.

Putting it into practice 

Since September 2012 we have been working with colleagues in Bath and North East Somerset to develop attachment-aware approaches in schools. We work on a pyramid model.

At the apex, in any school, there is a small number of pupils who need specialist support. At the base, all pupils benefit from attachment-aware practice. 

However, in the middle there is a fluctuating group of pupils who will be able to cope and achieve, if the school is geared to supporting them. To achieve this, schools need to:

  • Promote consistent thinking and practice across all school staff, parents and partner agencies.

  • Recognise the significant role played by key adults.

  • Train all staff in attachment-aware approaches.

  • Promote the emotional wellbeing, development and learning of all pupils and staff.

  • Manage behaviour and build children’s capacity for self-regulation, resilience and confidence.

  • Respond to the needs of those children and young people who have unmet attachment needs and have experienced trauma and loss.

  • Work where appropriate with other agencies, families and the local community to meet those needs.

  • Continually monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of its work.

Part of the problem has been that teachers often feel they are alone in tackling these issues, so by conducting this research and producing this programme we hope it will provide them with support from a wider network.

In order to help schools further we have produced a training programme which we are piloting this year, including interviews with some eminent psychologists, neuroscientists and national experts, as well as headteachers, classroom teachers, carers and care-leavers. 

This we hope will be available in the autumn. As part of this programme we have introduced emotion coaching, an approach which we have been developing for several years with a range of schools and settings. 

This helps children to become more aware of their emotions and to manage their own feelings, particularly during instances of “misbehaviour”. 

Many teachers already use such techniques, but emotion coaching provides a language to articulate this, and encourage consistent whole-school approaches.

Some schools have created “scripts” which are distributed to every member of the teaching and support staff, to ensure that everyone feels confident to deal with situations as they arise.

More immediately, we were commissioned by the National College for Teaching and Leadership to produce training materials for headteachers and chairs of governors which are available at via National College or via the Bath Spa website (see further information).

We are working with a number of national organisations and virtual schools up and down the country to develop a national quality standard for attachment awareness in schools, and with organisations concerned with initial teacher education – including the Teaching Schools Alliance – to ensure that attachment awareness becomes part of the training for all aspiring teachers

As Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has said: ‘‘Every teacher, and every school, should be so aware and so practising, because it is the duty of the public body to adapt to the child, not the other way round.’’

  1. Dr Janet Rose is programme leader in education studies, and Richard Parker director of education policy in practice in the School of Education at Bath Spa University.

Further information
You can download the recently published training materials at www.bathspa.ac.uk/Media/Education/attachment-and-the-implications-for-learning-and-behaviour.pdf


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