How to use attachment theory in schools

Schools are increasingly turning to attachment theory to support vulnerable pupils – but too often, the academic research gets lost in translation, warns leading psychologist Howard Steele. He tells Chris Parr that teachers should focus on studies specifically relating to the school environment
20th December 2019, 12:04am
How To Use Attachment Theory
Chris Parr


How to use attachment theory in schools

Due to a mix of necessity - with funding issues restricting access to external services - and an increasing interest in what drives certain behaviours, schools are now more trauma-aware than they have ever been before. As a result, teachers have become accustomed to delving into research to help their most vulnerable pupils, putting into action interventions from multiple disciplines, often with positive effects.

However, not everything is translating from the theory to the classroom as smoothly as it perhaps could. And one of the areas that often causes confusion is attachment theory.

The British psychologist John Bowlby, widely acknowledged as the first attachment theorist, conducted his research in the mid 20th century and defined attachment as "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings".

His work has been built upon over the subsequent years to the point at which we now have a very robust - and diverse - body of evidence around attachment. But what do teachers specifically need to know from all this information?

One of the leading figures in the research field currently is Howard Steele, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Centre for Attachment Research at the New School for Social Research in New York. He says a basic grounding in the theory is key. For example, he argues, it is important to recognise that children can develop four styles of attachment in their family unit:

  • Secure attachment is defined by distress when separated from a parent, and joy when reunited. These children feel secure with their family, and while distress may be apparent at separation, they are confident that the carer will return.
  • Ambivalent attachment also manifests as distress on separation, but with this style the child does not feel they can depend on their family to support them.
  • Avoidant attachment can be observed in children who show no real preference for a carer over a complete stranger. It can be indicative of neglectful or abusive family relationships.
  • Disorganised attachment refers to children who have what might seem an unpredictable "love-hate" relationship with their carers. In this group, parents or carers may be a source of both fear and comfort for a child.

Beyond this, though, the lessons for teachers are more specific.

For example, the first important consideration is that, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the prevalence of attachment disorders is likely to be very low. While recognising genuine issues is important, not jumping to conclusions around attachment is also crucial - it has perhaps become too easy to stick a range of issues under the heading of "attachment problems", and that tends to help no one.

The next thing that teachers need to recognise, says Steele, is the "typical" attachment of a child.

"In the life of a typical, healthy, developing child, they will have at least three very close attachment figures," Steele says. "That means people they can talk to, they can share their emotions with. [As a result] they feel that their fears and worries are manageable."

Too often, attachment is seen as something only between a child and a primary carer - usually the mother. Initially, that can be the case, but it is by no means the whole story. Attachment develops as children get older.

Steele adds: "It's important, too, to just be aware that a child may have a secure attachment to one parent, and yet be insecure with the other."

He also cautions against reading too much into early morning drop-off behaviour when it comes to younger children.

"Teachers are very aware of drop-off in the morning, and separation, when the children are very young," he says. "But what I would emphasise is that separation responses in the morning are much less meaningful than reunion behaviour at the end of the day.

"I want to encourage teachers to pay attention … to reunion behaviour. It will be hugely revealing because … whoever picks them up ought to be representative of that home life. And the child should be at least welcoming, if not excited and happy, to connect with the person who picks them up at the end of the day."

Where Steele feels the right message is getting through to the classroom is the role of the teacher in creating secure, safe environments for all students, but particularly those with attachment challenges.

Part of this is about gaining trust - he says this enables a child to feel safe enough to learn. "Whether it's number work in mathematics or geography, science or literature, [it's about providing] a secure base from which to explore," Steele explains.

To acquire this trust, he says that teachers need to not just provide support to the class as a whole but address the individual needs of each child: to know them well enough to recognise what makes them invest in a task and what makes them progress.

Some of that "involves valuing the effort that the child puts in and not worrying or making them worry about the outcome," he continues. "Very often we focus on the outcome and [not enough] on how we can achieve it."

Another area where teachers are getting it right is adhering to the "safe haven principle", says Steele. However, he fears that competing (often valid) concerns around safeguarding may be curtailing this vital role.

"When a child is in distress, the teacher should be an available source of support and reassurance," he explains. "[But] we live in an age where there's a heightened sensitivity about the needs of children, and particularly child abuse, and so teachers are very cautious about the fact that they should probably never touch a child … but that's a whole other discussion about boundaries and bodies and the rest of it. But even with words, teachers can provide a lot of comfort and reassurance, and a sense of safety."

Steele does feel that more could be done around attachment in schools, but he believes that, for that to happen, teachers need to be more selective in the research they engage with. He says that a particular focus should be research carried out in schools, rather than in other environments.

He points to the work of Robert Pianta, at the University of Virginia, as some of the most insightful on training teachers to be aware of attachment theory, and highlights the lasting effect it can have on children's emotional intelligence.

Pianta films teachers at work, and then provides feedback and suggestions on how they might modify their approach based on attachment principles. "It's important that attachment theory [is translated into] the educational context, and there's a long tradition of doing just that," Steele says.

It's a lesson worth bearing in mind for most of the research finding its way into schools: it's never going to be a direct translation to the classroom. If we want to help children with attachment, the stuff we need to read about is not generalised research from multiple settings but research in which children have been successfully helped in school by teachers.

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 20/27 December 2019 issue under the headline "Tes focus on… Attachment"

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