Why attachment matters

Young people’s ability to form relationships is shaped by their early childhood experiences.  I have found that some of the puzzling behaviour we face as teachers can be understood by using attachment theory to explore potential meanings.  I do not feel our early experiences are necessarily our destiny, so much happens between infancy and adulthood that can shape our adult selves.  Nonetheless, these are a set of ideas I keep returning too that offer me some meaningful insight into what might be going on.

Why attachment matters

As we edge closer to the high-risk exam season, I have been wondering why I still find some young people such a mystery.  Why have I struggled to develop a relationship?  Why can I not seem to make an impact?  Why does their fear of failure over-ride all the positive work we have done together?  Why can I not get them to commit pen to paper?  Why are they still acting out and taking up so much of my class time?

Attachment theory was developed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby who describes it as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.  The process of secure attachment helps establish the mental processes for future relationships and learning.  Those who have experienced secure attachment are more able to regulate emotions, reduce fear, have empathy for others and have better insight into themselves.  Bowlby called this template the internal working model, the mind’s internalised pictures of physical and mental experiences.  On the other hand, children who have experienced insecure attachments can find it difficult to manage their emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships.

Now I do not pretend to be an ‘expert’ on my more puzzling pupils.  For most, I have a scant overview of their lives outside my classroom.  However, what I do have are my close observations and the transference and counter-transference of our everyday existence.  What is left behind in our interactions provides me with useful material to reflect on possible meanings and potential solutions.

I guess I am wondering more broadly whether school always a ‘safe haven’ for young people?  How might their earlier experiences and baggage shape how they interpret the experiences and expectations of life in school?  How might securely and insecurely attached young people experience school differently?  What can be done to help?  For some young people, we are the port in the storm.  By trying to understand we may be able to offer meaningful emotions that may feel confusing and frightening.

There are 4 identified attachment types (although, different writers do use slightly different typologies).

  • Secure attachment. – ‘I’m ok, you’re there for me’

These students have experienced consistent, secure relationships with early care-givers.  They feel they can trust their teachers, they form meaningful relationships, they are resilient and able to adopt a growth mindset when faced with feedback.

  • Insecure avoidant attachment – ‘I think I am ok but It’s not ok to be emotional’

These children may have experienced rejection in early infantile relationships.  They come across as independent learners and are keen to maintain their self-reliance.  However, they may find it difficult to ask for help.  I am often fooled by their appearance of being self-starters that I forget to make the help available in different ways.  In the past, I have found the ‘write me a question’ – technique kind of useful.  I guess being sensitive to their anxieties will help them develop trust over time and feeling more secure will help them more directly for help.

  • Insecure ambivalent – ‘I want comfort but it doesn’t help me’

These students have experienced inconsistent caregiving.  They may be easily frustrated and be both craving and rejecting of adult support.  The may present as immature, fussy, helpless, passive, whiny, petulant or angry.  They may be attention-seeking and find it difficult to overcome barriers.

They may demonstrate separation anxiety when not the centre of your attention.  In the end, you give in and give them some one-to-one time.  At times, this calms the anxiety but it can also be collusion in preventing greater autonomy. They need the constant reassurance of being ‘held-in-mind’ which they hopefully internalise to help them experience independent thoughts and strategies to self-manage the emotional minefield of learning.

  • Insecure disorganized – ‘I’m frightened’

These students have experienced neglect or chaotic early homelife.  This young person perceives teachers to be frightening.  They may have a strong sense of panic, fear or helplessness.  They may present bizarre or unpredictable behaviour.  The often present as sensitive to criticism, defiant and or controlling.

The uncertainty in their lives, may lead to the use of defence mechanisms to guard against feelings of helplessness.  The task, the teacher, the other students all risk being the ones who are stupid and useless.

I guess I find this ‘type’ of student the most difficult to think of strategies.  I guess one hopes that the consistent relationship with overwhelm the existing emotional traumas.  This student may also struggle with the beginnings and endings that punctuate school life, so may need more reassurance around these periods of time.

It was hopeful to stumble across Attachment Aware Schools who seem to be providing more training and thinking around these theories.

Re-reading some of Bowlby’s work has been an unsettling task, I cannot help but wonder what sort of behaviours I display and what that might tell me about my own inner life.  I am hopeful that this is the task of this blog, to link my personal and professional journeys, to be my very own safe space.

Attachment Aware Schools

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge

Geddes, H. (2006) Attachment in the Classroom: the links between children’s early experience, emotional wellbeing and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing