Attachment Theory

 I’ll not kid on here – I first heard about attachment theory just a few months ago and then followed this up with a concrete example of it being put into practice at Lothian Villa.  What follows is my layman’s understanding of what it means and how we might benefit from it in East Lothian.

Ask a teacher or a school which learning theory governs their practice and they will be hard put to give a coherent reply.  Yet reflect upon the observable practice and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones, where we believe that we can influence a child’s behaviour through the consistent aplication of rewards and sanctions. Through this process we can make children reflect upon their behaviour with a view to them developing an understanding of what constitutes good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised we can see such a model permeating our practice.

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

It is suggested that up to 40% of the adult population have a level of insecure attachment and the associuated diifculties which go with that.

So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as a secure attachment environment, e.g. emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy – all the things that parents are naturally teaching their children aged 0 – 4. The most important thing for insecure children are relationships – therefore schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).

Yet what do we often do with such children? – we apply our sanctions with no reference to the kind of parenting they have had and apply our sanctions – fairly – often resulting in exclusion (exactly the opposite treatment that the child requires).

For me this is not “fair” it is discrimatory  – yet the logic of treating everyone the same and application of sanctions in schools is so dominant in our schools it is almost beyond critique. So what do we do? For me the answer lies in training and education of all in our schools.  Recent evidence from those schools who have undertaken such training is very exciting and the change apparent in children who were previously deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques have been spellbinding.

The premise here is that it’s too late by the time we get to secondary school – we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit.  We need to CLAIM these children as ours and treat them with unconditonal positive regard.  Asssociated with this strategy we need to proactively and unashamedly teach and support parenting skills which will transform the lives of their children.

14 thoughts on “Attachment Theory

  1. If 40% of the adult population suffer an insecure level of attachment and associated difficulties, then some percentage of that figure must be teachers.

  2. Are there any nurture groups operating in East Lothian? I’m sure Times Ed have covered some success stories with these (Glasgow?), but their web content isn’t good enough for me to find a detailed example. They were developed 30 years ago to address this problem, so the approach must now be quite well understood.

    Original book: Effective Intervention in Primary Schools: Nurture Groups


    For over thirty years nurture groups have been demonstrating that with the right help children who present emotional and behavioural difficulties can be successfully included in mainstream school. Nurture groups provide a safe and nurturing learning environment where each child is valued, understood and has their emotional needs met appropriately. They offer an experience of adults through which trust and confidence are built and learning begins to take place.

  3. City of Edinburgh has such nurture groups in some of the areas of greatest deprivation. They also have been building “Community Primary schools ” with Social work /Community Ed /Counselling services next to HT rooms. It would be interesting to learn from them.
    How can we put these theories into practice in East Lothian schools when numbers of support staff are being reduced and moved?
    I witness children benefitting from close associations with consistent, hard-working staff in Infant Schools .
    East Lothian children blossom with the security and positive regard in the Early Years.
    More investment in what we have working would be great!

  4. Don
    I think many primary colleagues would agree with your thoughts on these children needing
    ‘ one substitute person (not the teacher)’. I think it would be an excellent idea for East Lothian to provide these chidren with a life coach/buddy.

  5. Fascinated to open today’s blog and see Maslow’s hierarchy of human need and hear you ask what school has a rationale that guides their practice. At Forthview, (West Pilton, Edinburgh) 5 years ago, we had the privilege of creating a new school from 2 schools. Maslow’s hierarchy has been the guide and rationale for our practice. It has been the hub of how we nurture our children to overcome the immense physiological, emotional and social barriers they face when they come to learning. I’ve sent Don a powerpoint which shows the many strategies we have put into place at each level to support each child for learning. These range from water freely available to listening to warmth, respect and touch to creating opportunities for children to use their different intelligences (see Howard Gardiner) to employing a teacher to work with parents learning and with families learning to creating nurture classes, as mentioned by an earlier blogger. For growing children’s self esteem and teaching emotional resilience and health, we have developed (with teachers from St Francis, Craigmillar) a whole school, N – P7 programme called Creating Confident Kids, which has resources for engaging parents in the process. This holistic approach does nurture children and fosters strong attachments which helps children (and parents/carers and staff!) grow and learn at school but also at home. However, it is intensive work, requiring above average energies from all in the school community pulling together and it does also require resourcing. Currently we have high Positive Action funding because we have 70% Free School Meals. Without that this intensive level of provision, which is so effective, could not continue. Edinburgh, like all councils, is making many reductions in services as another blogger said about East Lothian. That is already impacting on the service we provide and is so frustrating for all of us. Our children need resources that nurture. Those resources are people but that has a cost that authorities must prioritise.

  6. Could this stream of thought lead us to the idea of a Scottish pedagogy? In the Danish model, pedagogues aid attachment and provide a caring and nurturing ralationship for a child from the early years onwards. They are not teachers and have a specific training(3-4 years) which focusses on child development and developing practical relationship skills. It is not a cheap solution but the benefits to our children and society as a whole could be immense.

  7. Hi Don,

    Came across this post when it was shared via Google Reader. I haven’t read such an eye-opening and thought-provoking blog post for a while – thanks very much! It’s certainly going to change the way I approach some of the ‘troublemakers’ in my classes, and I’ll be printing out your post and putting it on my Head’s desk as soon as we get back to school after the holidays. 😀

  8. Completely agree and only stumbled upon this myself recently as well.
    I have seen Forteviot in Edinburgh bring about wonderful changes in such children using ideas such as these.

  9. Bit confused here Don !

    I always thought that Malow’s hierarchy and Bowlby’s ‘Attachment Theory’ were not one of the same theories, whilst they obviously link to each other.


    confused !!!!!

  10. That teachers must take stock of a student’s emotional disposition coming into the class is becoming more and more evident. One of the best ‘packages’ for teachers dealing with kids who are seemingly indisposed to learning in the classroom setting can be found in the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Drawing chiefly on Attachment Theory(ref. J.Bowlby), cultural anthropology, and his own extensive experience as a therapist, he has put into words what a lot of teachers and parents are sensing. Worth checking out.

  11. The Place2Be is a primary school based service, currently working in ten schools in Edinburgh (including Forthview) and looking to move out more widely into Scotland. We offer counselling, via play and arts therapy, to children who are often suffering severe attachment problems – originating often from neglect or lack of constancy, by parents who generally have similar problems themselves, not to mention the huge agendas that can build up for families who are poor and unemployed, may have alcohol or drug problems, and family histories that take immense resilience to survive. in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of these families are barely off first base. To expect children from such backgrounds to become confident individuals and successful learners without considerable additional support is extremely over-hopeful. What the Place2Be offers is an opportunity for children to experience and develop secure attachments within a therapeutic one-to-one setting. Our evidence shows that one such successful intervention can become the template for other good attachments. In effect, the world appears to the child a less hostile, frightening place and they gain confidence in their own curiosity and willingness to engage.

    With considerable past experience of working with adults and young people – I was a psychotherapist for 20 years – I know that many of the problems those people faced would have been much more easily resolved at primary school age. The older one gets, the more compounded and intractable the issues – particularly around attachment – become.

    Attachment Theory, so long a part of psychological thinking, should surely become a staple of teacher education when it accounts for so much which is otherwise often approached as a child’s bad behaviour.

    For more information on The Place2Be please visit our website

  12. Pingback: Valuing Attachment in the Early Years at MotherSoup

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