How attachment theory helps behaviour

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When children exhibit extreme behaviour, sanctions – and, eventually, exclusion – are usually the response from schools. But when this primary teacher implemented an attachment-informed approach in a bid to help one of her pupils, she found huge success

Could attachment to trauma theory help you?

Go away! I hate you!” Matthew screamed, as he hurled the stapler at my head.

Trying to remain calm, I ushered the other children from the classroom. Matthew carried on, tearing displays from the walls, turning tables over and kicking chairs across the floor.

Half an hour later, he wasn’t shouting any more, but crying hysterically in the corner of the room. I crouched down and stretched out my hand.

“It’s OK, Matthew,” I told him, in a soothing voice. “It’s alright.”

He sniffed, but didn’t say anything.

“Can I come and sit next to you on the carpet?”

He sniffed again, but nodded.

That was the beginning of a long and emotional journey for Matthew and me, in which he would learn how to trust adults and form positive relationships, and I would learn how to put the teachings of attachment theory into practice.

The theory says that if a child experiences trauma or has difficulty bonding with their main caregiver in early childhood, this can lead to significant emotional problems. This could be as a result of postnatal depression, for example, or because of financial or marital problems that cause emotional difficulties for the caregiver. Or it could be down to very severe trauma.

As I was reading about this through the work of John Bowlby and others, I could instantly see how it should influence my practice. Matthew was the test for much that I learned.

How I reacted to Matthew’s behaviour was the first change I made. Whenever Matthew was unable to regulate his emotions and he began to manipulate situations to be in control, or when he would swear and shout or threaten to do something awful to me, I no longer reacted with sanctions. My response was: “I can see that you are feeling angry with me but whatever you do or say, I care about you and I’m not going away.”

Even when, at the end of term, everyone, including me, was at their wits’ end, it was important to remain calm and consistent.

This is because, whereas “normal” children will be corrected by a firm voice from a key adult, for a child who has experienced trauma or who has not formed secure attachments, their “hyperviligance” means that the very same social signal could be enough to trigger an episode. So instead of reading a raised eyebrow as a reminder to be quiet, they may interpret it as rejection.

As a result of this difficulty, children like Matthew rarely respond to sanctions successfully, because a sanction simply reinforces what they “know” already, which is that they are “naughty” or “bad” or “not good enough”.

Another really important development in my practice was the tracking of patterns of Matthew’s behaviour. I would note down when he was most emotionally dysregulated. This is an approach that is often used for children with autism, but it was just as effective in this situation.

When we could establish what it was that was causing the problems, then we could begin to put in proactive measures. So, if we consistently had an issue at 11.30am before lunch, then we could try an early lunch to see if hunger was factor. If it was every break time that we had an issue, we could isolate variables in the playground and see what was causing the problems.

Working like this with Matthew led to a dramatic decrease in the number of incidents that we had with him.

A third approach we adopted was to use techniques prominent in early years: reacting to the child’s interests and using bags of empathy. As Linda O’Neill has found, the child will show contentment when they are allowed to engage in the activity they are drawn to and, from this place of safety, the child and key adult are able to build a relationship that the child so desperately needs (O’Neill et al, 2010). As many children with attachment needs have missed crucial parts of their development, role play or sensory experiences are important for their progress.

In a mainstream primary school, it takes a leap of faith from school leaders to use this kind of strategy. Recovery happens at the child’s pace, not the adult’s. Meanwhile, data targets have to be met, budgets are squeezed and parents want “justice”.

Not to mention the battle for funding, which is what will make or break the success of these interventions.

It is understandable that during the times when the child spits in a teacher’s face or scales the wall of the playground, exclusion seems to some to be the only option.

Indeed, by far the most significant and immediate challenge I had was the mindset of other staff. I was told that Matthew was choosing his behaviour, that a lack of negative consequences would make it worse, and that, frankly, he didn’t deserve to take part in nice activities like baking after trashing the classroom.

This disciplinary culture, which we inherited from a bygone age, is hard to overcome. But, in my experience, it is by modelling strategies, one child at a time, that people begin to come around to a more nurturing way of thinking.

For the handful of children whose journeys I have been privileged to be a part of, the impact has been clear. The “unteachable” children who used to exhibit several rage episodes a day have become calm and caring and are slowly more able to access the curriculum.

Sometimes, it takes years; for others, weeks. But in all cases, the child has not been excluded or rejected, but instead has learned that they belong to the school community and that adults care about them.

The writer is a teacher in a primary school and wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identities of Matthew (a pseudonym) and staff at the school

This article originally appeared in the 7 June 2019 issue under the headline “How attachment to trauma theory helps behaviour”