Why attachment theory should inform schools’ behaviour strategies

4th March 2016 at 00:00
Use relationships to build discipline for later life

Choices and consequences tend to be the foundation stone of most school disciplinary policies. There are robust reasons why this is so: behavioural psychology supports the idea that an individual’s behaviour can be changed by imposing consequences. We add to this, by telling children that they are making choices, and we believe this, in itself, empowers them to make better ones.

I have used this strategy. I know that it can change behaviour and that it is time-effective. However, I also know that imposing negative consequences can also trigger the human stress response. This activates the lower, more primitive brain regions; those associated with “fight, flight, freeze” reactions. This type of learning often creates fixed, inflexible associations (eg, dog equals bite, or not knowing my times tables equals shame).

Such an approach does little to place the experience in the context of more complex scenarios. This simplicity sets limitations on how useful these experiences are. Sometimes, they can even be harmful to development.

Recently, I found this thought-provoking quote in an online article: “Teachers who aim to control students’ behaviour – rather than helping them control it themselves – undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others” (K Lewis, 2015, bit.ly/NegativeDiscipline). This ties in with a broader view of discipline.

I have come to the view that relationships, not just consequences, help to build more engaged, flexible and useful learning.

It is relationships that are the primary focus of attachment theories, which began with John Bowlby in the mid-1940s and continue to be popular today.

Simply put, our key relationships become our reference points for our understanding of how good or bad we are and how good or bad others are. They also develop our expectations of how sensitive (or not) others will be at understanding our needs. These beliefs then inform our behaviours.

Although originating in early infancy, our behaviour is continually moulded by experiences over our life span, meaning that school staff are continually (consciously or otherwise) contributing to each child’s “model of attachment”. Which is why the “choices and consequences” model is problematic and why I use attachment-based discipline.

This alternative approach is about helping a child to develop self-control from within a positive relationship. This is more complex than simply managing behaviour and includes teaching empathy, impulse control, delayed gratification, mental flexibility and problem solving. In order to effectively build intricate understanding such as this, a child must be calm and trusting.

This is supported by neuroscience research, which suggests that the higher brain regions (where more intricate thinking is built and stored) are physiologically shut down during times of stress.

A calm and trusting child is receptive; a stressed child is only able to be reactive. The teacher-student relationship has the potential to guide the child between these two states and facilitate the learning of self-discipline skills in the process.

How does this approach work in practice? Here are three strategies that currently underpin much of my work with both the troubled and troublesome children that I meet:

1 Be self-aware

Especially when you find yourself in a challenging situation, it is essential to stop and check three things: how do you feel? What are your thoughts? What are your behaviours? Then take the time to consider why you are feeling this way and ask yourself: will this help this child in this moment?

I am learning how to manage myself by breathing (deep, slow and out for longer than in) and by consciously relaxing my muscles. I am also making an effort to think differently: “This child is reacting due to stress, they can’t access their ability to behave differently right now and they need my help”; “I need to see them positively, so that they can trust me”; “We’ll deal with getting calm first and the problem after that”; “I wonder what this behaviour is really about?”

Be calm and thoughtful yourself if you want to get a calm and thoughtful child.

2 Connect to that child in that moment

Avoid unhelpful thoughts such as, “He did this fine yesterday, there is no need for this.” Instead ask yourself questions about the situation like, “Why is it trickier today?”, “What is this behaviour really communicating?”

Interpret the stress level and understand that this affects what the child is capable of: a stressed child can only react and only a calm and trusting child can be truly receptive (see Dr Daniel Siegel in further reading, above).

Relating to a child who is highly stressed requires you to communicate primarily through body language. Use empathy to understand and match the child as well as you can, while also remaining fully calm and in charge. Make yourself lower and smaller to appear less threatening, broadly mirror body language and, subtly, be more relaxed.

Use a caring tone and simple, repetitive language (if any at all); things like, “I’m going to wait until you are calm.” This is the basis of emotional “holding”, which is not physical and starts with the adult being calm, caring, focused, empathic and responsive.

Where possible, do not leave a stressed child alone. Abandoning a stressed child is likely to increase their fear (anger and withdrawal can also be consequences of fear). Safeguarding concerns have impacted drastically on the option of physically holding a child; despite this, attachment-based holds (if possible) can provide the boundaries and the reassurance of relational support that are needed.

This is very different to restraining a pupil and it requires the adult to be both fully informed about the process and self-aware (see Margot Sunderland in further reading).

3 Teach discipline collaboratively

Once the child has become calm, trusting and receptive, you can use the opportunity to build truly useful models of understanding in their developing brain.

American psychologist Ross Greene works on the principle that “kids with a challenging behaviour have a skills deficit, a learning delay, rooted in the physiology of their developing brain”.

If a child had a reading deficit, we would invest more time in teaching them to read; addressing behaviour should be no different.

Think about what you want to teach this child and how you think this can be done. Making neutral, noticing statements is helpful: “I’ve noticed you haven’t completed your homework for weeks. What’s up?”

This stimulates thinking in the higher brain where complex learning is being built. Silences can be very productive for this. Work on the problem together.

Relationships are powerful mediums for teaching discipline in ways that develop a child’s lifelong ability to choose flexibly and appropriately in a variety of contexts.

If discipline means teaching a child to make better choices, attachment-based discipline offers more positive and long-term impacts than the “consequences” approach.

Heather Lucas works across primary schools in West Sussex as a learning mentor and home-school link worker She tweets as @HLucas8

Further viewing and reading

Kids Do Well if They Can – Ross Greene #1, YouTube video, bit.ly/RossGreene

“What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?”, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, Mother Jones, bit.ly/NegativeDiscipline

No-Drama Discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind, Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, Scribe Publications (2015)

Helping Children Locked in Rage or Hate: a guidebook, Margot Sunderland and Nicky Armstrong, Speechmark Publishing (2003), p54

What Every Parent Needs to Know: the remarkable effects of love, nurture and play on your child’s development, Margot Sunderland, Dorling Kindersley (2007), p178

Original headline:

Use relationships to build discipline for later life

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