Attachment disorders: Practical advice for the classroom

Written by: Garry Freedman | Published:
Image: iStock

SEN expert Garry Freeman offer us some practical guidance on strategies to help teachers work with and support young people who have attachment disorders

We all have many things in common as human beings. Among the most instinctive, primordial, of these is our need for secure attachments – when we reach out as a child to form secure relationships with our parents and those around us.

Those secure attachments allow children to feel worthwhile, enabling them to develop the confidence to learn and experience new things. As they move through school, this means that they have the potential to experience academic success.

Insecure attachments develop when a child’s physical or emotional needs go unmet, giving a child a very different experience of the world and people around them: a place full of anxiety producing feelings of being unsafe.

A child whose needs go unmet can begin life feeling rejected, afraid and worthless. Being in this state can cause distress in the brain, releasing high amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. This is what can cause a child to be hyper-vigilant, in a constant state of distress.

Equally, a constant release of cortisol can have a negative impact on a child’s overall brain development – meaning that insecure attachments (attachment disorders) can hold back academic achievement as their negative emotions limit their abilities. So, what can the signs of insecure attachments be?

  • Avoiding regular eye contact.
  • Presenting as self-sufficient and charming to hide their feelings of vulnerability and self-hate.
  • A lack of remorse.
  • Being overly affectionate – often with strangers – or completely lacking the ability to receive affection.
  • Being obsessive about having their teacher’s complete attention, and then being demanding and clingy.
  • Feeling the need to be in control whenever possible and becoming hyper-anxious if that control appears to them to be lost.
  • Acting impulsively to fulfil a need, and failing to connect consequences with actions.
  • Acting destructively, apparently without a conscience.
  • Struggling to relate positively to their peers – who often treat them warily because of the unpredictability of their behaviour.
  • Struggling to trust anyone and often overly critical of the adults on whom they know they can rely.
  • Having a short attention span and struggling with concentration.
  • Finding it difficult to share or take turns.
  • Presenting regressed, often immature behaviour.
  • Regularly showing signs of depression and low self-esteem.
  • Struggling to recognise or manage their own feelings, as well as having difficulty recognising the feelings of others – particularly towards them.
  • Seeking the attention of significant others around them in negative ways, including self-harm, false allegations and reacting overly strongly to changes around them.
  • Seeming to never be truly happy or relaxed.
  • Appearing to sabotage placements at school or in foster care.

It is a truism that the vast majority, but by no means all, of children presenting with signs of attachment disorder are looked after or fostered in some way.

Of course, recognising signs such as these depends so much on our knowing our students. Simply because a child displays one or several of these signs does not in any way mean that they do have an attachment disorder.

We should, as the adults seeking to build and develop safe, secure environments for our students, consult each other regularly so that we build a picture of need.

Knowing and being able to identify need means that we can put possible strategies in place. As with any intervention to meet a need, we can have no guarantee that anything will work. We should plan, try something, evaluate it, amend as necessary and try again. This is “assess, plan, do, review” in action. What are the possible strategies we can try?

We need to remain the adult in charge

A child with attachment disorder, especially as they get older, will often try to develop a pseudo-adult helper role. We should avoid colluding with this, while at the same time giving them opportunities to be independent and take responsibility.

We can present them with choices to give them a sense of control – remembering always that the choices available are decided by adults. We need to be consistent and reliable, maintaining clear boundaries and a professional relationship. We can teach and illustrate consequences, offering the positive options first. Let the child be aware that you are aware of them and thinking about them in the classroom; notice them doing something right and comment on it.

No matter what the child says or does, stay in control and don’t lose your temper. If you are not in control of yourself, the child has control of you.

Thinking tactically in the classroom

Make your lesson objective and plan clear from the outset, breaking down structured activities into small steps that can be completed without too much, if any, help from adults in the room. By doing this, we are fostering independence in a way that is safe for the child.

Activities which require little or no imagination will be good for the child with attachment difficulties, engaging them far more than tasks which are built on imagination and empathy. Equally, providing support materials can allow a child to complete a task independently without the “threat” of not knowing something and failing.

Small group or paired activities – which are of course a kind of resource – can enable a child to experience proximity with a teacher or assistant, moderated by the presence of other children. Group or paired work further promotes turn-taking, modelling two or more children working successfully together.

Allocating a specific role to each person, rather than simply expecting the group or pair to merge their views or findings, can develop this further.

When we praise a child we should be specific: tell the child directly what it is you are praising them for, rather than commenting generically on how good, attentive, or helpful they have been. Praising a “neatly presented piece of work” or “a precise and accurate drawing or diagram” are examples of how this can be done.

Remember too that reward systems are less likely to work with a child who has an attachment disorder. Use the teaching of logical consequences instead and always start with the positive.

We need to think of the bigger picture

Writing, particularly free writing and self-expression based on an empathy-based task, could be very difficult for a child who has an attachment disorder. This doesn’t just apply to their academic learning in the classroom. They might want to enter competitions or contribute to whole-school activities but feel that they lack the ability to do so. This is their sense of failure and lack of self-esteem showing through again.

We can illustrate how to write creatively by using boxes to tick, which can then go together to build sentences and then paragraphs. We can provide sentences on a cloze basis to enable a child to understand the contextual meaning and value of pieces of written work.

These can be highly structured at first, becoming less so as the child becomes more confident and able to express themselves more freely and more (self-) empathetically in writing. Let’s remember too that as a child progresses through high school, they will need their writing skills to develop their own curriculum vitae or profile, selling themselves and their abilities in the most positive light for a future employer or further/higher education provider.

Emotional literacy as a whole-life skill is often a real challenge for a child with an attachment disorder and is something we so obviously need to support them to develop. There are of course different ways we can do this:

  • We can encourage a child to describe the feelings of characters in stories, whether in books or in films.
  • We can use small group or paired work to ask children to describe each other’s reactions to and apparent feelings about something.
  • We as adults can describe our own feelings to children we work with to help them connect words with visible signs of different emotions or feelings.
  • We can say to a child “you look happy today” or “you look a bit sad” as a way into a conversation about feelings and emotions. In response to this, the child we are working with will often ask, “how can you tell?”

Above all, if a child with an attachment difficulty is being looked after or is in foster care, keep in constant contact with the care-giver.

Recognise that it is better to do this directly by email or phone calls rather than a home-school diary or planner, which is open to being filtered and manipulated.

Try wherever possible to use this open and transparent communication to offer positive comments and praise to the child: catch them doing something right and comment on it.

In conclusion, if we are getting it right for children who have an attachment disorder then we are almost certainly getting it right for all the children or young people we work with.

  • Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and SENCO at Guiseley School in Leeds. Find him @GS_gfreeman. You can read Garry’s previous best practice articles for SecEd via


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