What an extraordinary privilege, to be a teacher who can do this for another human being. #attachmentaware

Attachment theory in a nutshell

John Bowlby describes attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’ (1988). He explains how a child’s initial dependence on a caregiver for protection creates, when needs are sensitively and reliably met, the ability to regulate emotions, reduce fear, attune to others, develop empathy, self awareness and moral understanding.

If an infant cannot rely on an adult to respond to their needs in times of stress, however, then the ability to self-soothe, manage emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships is undermined, throughout childhood, into adolescence and beyond. This is because without deep emotional connection early in life, neorolgical systems don’t develop as they should. The infant brain literally needs programming by an adult’s interactions.

Why all teachers must be attachment aware

Current research suggests that 98% of children in care have some kind of attachment disorder. As many as 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD have attachment issues (Clarke et al, 2002) and according to recent Sutton Trust research ‘40% of children miss out on the parenting needed to succeed in life.’ In every classroom, therefore, a number of children will have attachment issues which will manifest as non-compliant, disruptive or withdrawn behaviour.

The conventional response to such behaviour, rewards and sanctions aimed at promoting compliance, is futile and perhaps even harmful. Harold and Corcoran’s (2013) study is one of several that demonstrate why control will not be relinquished by an insecurely attached child who holds onto precisely this for survival. One of the major problems with the doggedly behaviourist approach is that, when sanctions fail to improve behaviour, they are ratcheted up rather than abandoned. Exclusion, the very thing that a child who struggles to experience a sense of connection needs least, becomes almost inevitable.

In the news only this week was the headline that exclusions in some parts of England have increased by over 300% . As in previous years, pupils with SEND were seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers.

A fresh, science-informed focus on social and emotional learning over behaviour management is long overdue. This doesn’t require the jettisoning of all rules, boundaries and consequences. It does require a break from the past, evidence-based practice, compassionate understanding and differentiation.

Relatinships over rules

Positive relationships with adults in schools enable all children to function effectively (Martin & Dowson, 2009). Interestingly, teacher-pupil relationships become more influential for pupils as they get older, and are particularly important for children deemed academically at risk (Commodari, 2013). Pupils themselves know this to be true. In this study of pupils at risk of exclusion, the holistic support of a caring adult is a recurrent theme.

‘Give them a routine thing…like on a morning…don’t go to form but like have a chat with them and see what…how it’s going at home and stuff’ Nick, Year 10

I would just get them a learning mentor or something…someone that pushes you forward a bit and get them to have like a one‐on‐one confession thing where you say what you’ve done wrong and what you’ve done good and help you go forward’ Kieran, Year 9

We might feel we provide this care for pupils on the margins, but that is not what they report. Rees et al. (2013) identified that 11 to 18 year olds, particularly male pupils, felt a decline in a sense of ‘being listened to’ at school. They were reluctant to approach teachers for emotional support because they lacked trust in them, were unsure how teachers would respond or felt they would be too busy to give them attention (Harden et al., 2001; The Young Foundation, 2012).

For the insecurely attached child, nothing is more important than a nurturing relationship. Kennedy (2008) highlights the role that teachers can play in helping to ‘rehabilitate’ a pupil’s internal working model through more positive relational experiences. The evidence suggests that a secure secondary attachment between pupil and teacher can reshape insecure attachment behaviours and support the development of more secure ones, with a subsequent impact on academic progress. (Verschueren & Koonan, 2012).

What an extraordinary privilege, to be a teacher with the capacity to do this for another human being.

Unconditional positive regard 

Of course, not all teachers do have this capacity. It might be controversial to suggest this, but some trigger flight or fight responses because they make insecurely attached children feel profoundly unsafe. The teacher who functions as both safe haven and secure base from which a vulnerable child is able to explore and learn is not necessarily to be found in every classroom.

Success with vulnerable children hinges on one key quality, which is just as likely to be intuitive as the outcome of  CPD. It’s unconditional positive regard – the conviction we have as parents, that we’ll always be there, no matter. That we’re gong nowhere. That we will forgive mistakes, move on, rebuild. That we do all of this because we love our children, even as they challenge us. Attachment friendly teachers communicate this – and that’s what makes them safe.

Some also employ an emotions coaching approach. This is a pedagogy that can be shared and honed – one all teachers should practice because of course insecurely attached children are in every classroom. Attachment-aware schools have made it a CPD priority. It must be stressed, however, that the success of any strategy aimed at supporting children with attachment difficulties depends absolutely on that bedrock of unconditional positive regard.

Emotions coaching

Emotion Coaching helps children to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them (Gottman, 1996, 1997). In the school setting, it emphasises the importance of considering the emotions which underlie particular behaviours, ‘in the moment’, before dealing with limit setting and problem-solving.

It’s based on the principle that nurturing and emotionally supportive relationships promote the development of empathetic responses and thought construction,  promoting better self-management and regulation. Further information and some case studies can be found here but, in short, emotions coaching comprises three main stages, best exemplified through scripts (in italics).

1. Recognising, empathising, validating feelings and labelling them.

The teacher (or TA) needs to watch for physical evidence of a child’s emotions and use their imagination to see the situation from the child’s perspective. Words need to reflect back, in a soothing, non-critical manner, what they are seeing and hearing.

I can see that you get angry when that happens. I would feel angry if it happened to me. It’s normal to feel like that.

I can see that you’re frowning and kicking the wall and expressing a lot of energy. I would be feeling like that too if I didn’t want to do something.

I noticed you looking round at other people’s work. I think you might be feeling a bit nervous about whether yours will be okay. Am I right about that?

2. Setting limits (if needed)

State the boundary limits and make it clear that certain behaviours can’t be accepted, whilst preserving the child’s dignity (crucial for wellbeing and responsive behabiour)

These are the rules we have to follow. Doing that is not okay.

We can’t behave like that even if you’re feeling annoyed because it’s not safe.

3. Problem solving

When the child is calm and rational, explore the feelings that gave rise to the behabiour and scaffold alternative ideas and actions that might have produced more productive outcomes. Empower the child to believe difficulties can be overcome and feelings managed.

This is not a safe place to be angry. Let’s go to a safe place where we can talk.

Next time you’re feeling like this, what could you do? How do you think you will react next time if it happens again?

You need to sit next to Ryan or sit next to Miss Walker in front of me. Which do you want to choose?

(From a Bath-spa university slideshare on emotions coaching)

In summary

There is good evidence that sensitive, attachment-aware teaching such as this can greatly enhance executive functioning in children affected by trauma. If we could just lift them out of the stultifying confines of Skinner’s box, place them somewhere gentler and more child-shaped, if we coach rather than punish, then we would do so much more to transform outcomes for our most vulnerable children.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

4 thoughts on “What an extraordinary privilege, to be a teacher who can do this for another human being. #attachmentaware

  1. Something like this flashed on in me like a light bulb 💡 the other week. My son is finding school extremely hard because of bullies and being left out of things. He has one friend….Though he seems to be ‘ moving on’ through no fault of his own (my son has quite a bit of time off due to ill health and various hospital appointments) and obviously his friend needs a buddy in school. The school is being fabulous with my son. He has counselling inside and outside of school to try and build his confidence.
    But it dawned on me that my shy beautiful child full of empathy and love is the only one whose getting help…needing to change/grow/conform… What about the disruptive children..the bullies and the time wasters? They need to be taught love, compassion and empathy to better their own lives as well as others. I was even thinking yoga/mindfulness twice a day for whole school or just those that need it most.
    I love reading your blogs…it’s just makes sooo much sense but then it infuriates me as to why this isn’t happening NOW.


    1. You’re right about the need for a whole school focus on emotional and social learning. Even those leaders driven by accountability measures ought to be persuaded by the research linking wellbeing and attainment. It’s great your son is benefitting from support in a caring school and I love your generous strategies for those who don’t have his capacity for empathy. Thanks for your feedback!


  2. What a fantastic post! I teach and it s the challenging kids that tug at your heart for you know they need you more. With class sizes exploding and budgets being tightened, I worry that more children will fall through the cracks only to become troubled adults.


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