Fixating on attachment will improve behaviour

A child’s attachment needs can draw out negative behaviours from teachers, which can in turn lead to disruptive behaviour and a detrimental impact on learning, argues Maria Williamson. So, how can teachers become more attachment aware?
23rd October 2020, 12:01am
Fixating On Attachment Will Improve Behaviour
Maria Williamson


Fixating on attachment will improve behaviour

You have 25 minutes of maths left before break. The pitch of yesterday's lesson was a little off and you're working with your focus group so that you can get them up to speed by the end of the week. Suddenly, you realise that you've forgotten Zain - you had made a note to work with him after marking his book yesterday.

You call him to the carpet, but as you start to talk to him, your attention is drawn towards Theo. He managed well in the previous lesson because you praised him so much that it was bordering on fanatical. Now he is on the other side of the room, tilted back on his chair, trying to balance a pencil on his face and humming loudly.

Sighing inwardly, you ignore him and praise Lucy next to him for sitting properly, hoping that this will work.

You turn back to Zain, who has quietly solved every problem incorrectly and has taken himself away to complete the extension task. However, Lucy immediately shoots her hand up with a serious urgency: Theo is rubbing out every answer she tries to write.

Every lesson, it seems, Theo is the focus of your attention. Zain, whom you never quite have the measure of, completely slips out of mind. Others, desperate for praise, follow every rule and overcompensate, while a few dip in and out of focus where necessary. Why does every lesson seem to follow this pattern?

An observing member of the senior leadership team might see the above and respond with a list of strategies: has Theo got a timer? Are you following the behaviour policy? How will you improve Zain's self-assessment strategies? But in reality, these behaviours are more complex. And one area we need more focus on is the unconscious relational dynamics that teachers must constantly navigate to ensure that learning is taking place. These dynamics are rooted in our attachment to others.

Born vulnerable and defenceless, humans form connections to a caregiver to survive and grow. The nature of this connection, and how this interacts with our temperament, genetics and cultural context, typifies the relationships we have with others.

When a parent is emotionally available, their infant will feel safe to explore and learn, knowing that they can seek comfort when necessary. When a parent cannot respond sensitively to their baby, their infant may find it harder to self-regulate and use maladaptive methods to do so.

For instance, if, as an infant, you are not sure if you will be heard or if your needs will be met, your strategy for staying close might be to amplify your emotional experience to elicit more feedback. Equally, if your parents become distressed or ignore you when you show you are upset, you might be less likely to cry because it doesn't have an adaptive gain for you. These children are less likely to cause a fuss or to ask for help, but internally they show physiological signs of stress, which impacts on learning.

If we transfer this to the classroom, it may be the reason why pupils like Zain may receive less input than most and why others like Theo dominate our attention and may be on the receiving end of some confusing boundaries. We conform to the internalised attachment patterns students are used to in an unconscious way: children pull out these behaviours in us because it makes them feel safe.

The first step towards managing this process so that we can better support children is to acknowledge it is happening. You can spot the signs in the way I have laid out above.

The next step is to understand that this is not your fault. As teachers, we are often told that we are fundamentally responsible for the behaviour in our classroom. However, even the most sensitive, consistent and proactive teacher can be met with resistance and "acting out" because their thoughtfulness feels dysregulating to the child.

This also explains why some children do not respond well to behaviour reward systems like traffic lights or dojos: to be praised feels scary and to be placed on a star may feel like an unsustainable position if you are used to being in trouble.

Beyond these two initial stages, we also need to modify our approach to how we manage behaviour.

In schools, our focus is often on strategies that will stop or modify unhelpful behaviour. Normally, our strategies will successfully meet the communicated need. For example, a child who's tirelessly seeking their teacher's approval will be awarded merits and praise.

But sometimes our strategies are less helpful, and they can reinforce maladaptive patterns of relating. Giving staff space to reflect on the way certain children make us feel and act can help us understand what is being communicated. This means we can begin to recognise when we are being drawn into an unhelpful dynamic.

For example, a child who needs to stay very close might show their distress at being on the other side of the room by being continuously disruptive.

This "reflection space" for teachers could be achieved through supervision or allocating time in staff meetings to consider difficult dynamics. Once we gain greater insight, it can then be easier to work collaboratively with children to discover what they might be unable to express, being careful to reinforce boundaries. A process of observing, listening and understanding may be more helpful for the child than punitive measures and more effective than appeasing children so they superficially adhere to classroom rules, which often causes resentment among others.

By understanding that attachment patterns unconsciously dictate our classroom behaviours and interactions, we can begin to address those dynamics and build a more supportive classroom for all.

Maria Williamson is a therapy assistant studying for a master's in psychoanalytic observational studies and a former primary school teacher

This article originally appeared in the 23 October 2020 issue under the headline "Why sticking to attachment will boost behaviour"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, check if your school has a Tes subscription. If not, for just £5 per month you can subscribe personally for:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

Check if your school has a Tes subscription. If not, for just £5 per month you can subscribe personally for:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Read more