3 steps to support children with attachment needs

How can we best support young people with attachment needs in the classroom? Gemma Corby offers some tips

Gemma Corby

attachment aware teaching

A young person with attachment needs can find school a struggle, both academically and socially. Their cognitive performance, as well as their ability to relate to others, can be significantly impacted by the trauma they have experienced.

There are a variety of behaviours associated with attachment needs, and responses can vary from child to child, but they may include: demanding adult attention (positive or negative), poor concentration, a constant need to move, extremely low self-esteem, withdrawn behaviour, physical or verbal abusive, living in a fantasy world or lying, and being disorganised. 

In some cases, cognitive development is impaired, particularly regarding working memory and retrieval skills. Other young people with attachment needs may appear "hypervigilant" – seemingly aware of every sound, smell or motion, this can mean that they find it hard to focus, restricting their ability to learn. 

Quick read: Professor Barbara Oakley on why working memory is the Rosetta Stone of teaching

Quick listen: What every teacher needs to know about trauma

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The positive news is that these impacts can be lessened through positive, healing relationships with others. During the teenage years the brain is more "elastic", so it is possible to reduce the negative impacts of early childhood trauma at this stage of the young person’s development.

School support is crucial and here are three steps we have put in place in our school that have been effective. 

1. Regulate

It can be challenging teaching someone who is always calling out and distracting the lesson. However, it is imperative that staff stay in control of their own emotions, taking a calm and considered approach.

Try using non-verbal signs that you have acknowledged the young person, and that you are there for them. This could be a smile or a hand on shoulder (depending on the young person, and whether they are comfortable with touch). 

Once the young person has regulated themselves, then the behaviour can be addressed. 

It is important to acknowledge that attachment needs do not excuse poor behaviour, however it is essential that reasonable adjustments are made.

2. Relate

When a young person is disturbing learning within a lesson, it may feel natural to send them out of the classroom. However, this should be avoided (unless it is a strategy that knowingly works for them), as it is likely to exacerbate the situation. 

More often than not, they are looking for attention, which they are not receiving while standing outside.

It may be worth appointing a regular person they can speak to (eg a mentor), who will take a consistent approach with them. 

Sometimes young people with attachment needs find it hard to identify the emotion they are feeling. It is helpful if this is talked through with the young person; they could be given a range of emoticons to choose from (this resource can be easily produced, laminated and given to relevant staff, or the young person themselves). 

3. Reason

Avoid a power struggle, as some young people with attachment needs will argue unrelentingly, as they try to take control of the situation. 

Depending on the individual, you can offer them limited choices, eg where they sit in the classroom. However, for some students, choice can be confusing, and it may be beneficial to say: “I think you want to come and sit here.”  

And a few more tips...

Finally, here are some quick dos and don’ts:


  • Carefully consider your seating plan, speak to individuals about where they learn best in the room. Some may opt for the back if they are hypervigilant and concerned about what is going on behind them. Others may prefer to be closer to the teacher, at the front of the room.

  • Forewarn them regarding any changes.

  • Provide them with clear rules and boundaries and adhere to them.

  • Provide a calm environment.

  • Use non-judgemental language. 

  • Speak quietly but firmly.

  • Use empathetic language: “I can see you’re upset and angry…” Verbalise the emotion the young person is feeling.

  • Develop clear routines.

  • Give clear instructions, with as few sub-parts as possible.

  • Tactically "ignore" certain behaviours (while considering the impact this will have on the rest of the group).

  • Give clear instructions and then walk away, giving some take up time.

  • Allow them to move around the space, by either giving them a "job", eg handing out books, or issue them with a "movement card", whereby they can take a minute to walk around, perhaps outside the classroom, if you are teaching in a small space. 

  • Smile and show that you value them.

  • Specifically welcome them and show a genuine interest in them.

  • Remind them of the school’s rewards associated with positive behaviour – and use language of expectation (‘I knew that you would/could…’)

  • Reassure them that you will come back and check on their progress within the lesson. 


  • Use threatening body language (ie squaring up to a young person), although I am sure most staff would not do this!

  • Use angry facial expressions.

  • Talk too loudly – keep your voice measured and calm.

  • Say too much – keep your message direct and succinct.

  • Use sarcasm or belittle them.

  • Isolate the young person.

  • Show your frustration with them.

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Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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