Tracy Godfroy is a child psychotherapist and clinical supervisor with 20 years' experience working with young people who have experienced complex trauma, abuse and neglect. Hannah Snowsill is an occupational therapist with over 20 years’ experience working in the NHS, education and independently; her special interest is in sensory processing and the long-term effects of trauma. Here, they share their advice for identifying and responding to students who display unhealthy patterns of attachment.

by Tracy Godfroy and Hannah Snowsill
9th October 2019



What is attachment behaviour?

The ideal learning environment probably consists of an inspirational and hardworking teaching team and a mixed collection of students that each has a good capacity to emotionally regulate and stay focused on their learning and creativity at all times throughout the school day. The capacity to effectively emotionally regulate is often dictated by the health of our attachment systems and associated behaviours.

Attachment Theory is a psychological theory that attempts to explain how we develop a sense of security in the presence of another, or not, and the subsequent associated behaviours (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). Simply put, attachment behaviour is activated whenever we begin to feel stressed or distressed by a situation. At this point, if we have experienced good enough care in our formative years, we are likely to be able to move towards another person in order to help us better emotionally regulate. In a classroom setting, for example, a child with healthy attachments may be able to ask for help or at the very least accept support when they begin to experience difficulties such as barriers to their learning or tension in their peer relationships.

What happens if a child does not have healthy attachments?

If any of us has experienced extreme difficulties in our earlier childhood then we may not be well equipped to seek out or to receive the help of others at times of our own distress. This leaves us then with uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, rage or fear and little ability to cope with these powerful emotions. We typically then demonstrate some very wonky or challenging behaviours, which is actually our attempt to deal with our feelings (maybe by trying to escape from them or distracting attention away from them), but very often these behaviours are unacceptable to others. In a classroom setting, students may become agitated, fidgety, loud, disruptive, distracted, withdrawn, sullen etc., usually as a response to an unmet, underlying emotional need. From the field of neuroscience, we know that once we begin to engage in disruptive or difficult behaviour, our frontal lobes have begun to shut down and our capacity for learning is dramatically reduced.

Our emotional need may need to be attended to in order for our learning brain to come back on line. If we could attend to our own emotional need at this point, we probably would. Most of us who are able to function in everyday society do so. We soothe ourselves, or we move towards another person who will help us to be soothed, we will phone a friend or run a hot bath or hit the gym. And we can also tolerate waiting until this can happen. However, those children who are unable to attend to their own emotional needs may need help from another adult brain in order to be emotionally soothed (better regulated) and to bring their thinking/learning brain back on line.

So the child who has just felt injustice in a peer interaction may quickly begin to act out and become agitated. On the surface this may present in your classroom as challenging and disruptive behaviour and loss of focus. It is challenging to manage the behaviour in the moment whilst also helping the child to better emotionally regulate, and recognising the behaviour as a communication of underlying emotional unrest. Once the child is more regulated, we can be curious with them about the reasoning behind the behaviour and we can support them to seek alternative, more desirable coping strategies that they may be able to put into practice in the future.

In the accompanying resource, we explore how you can support young people who display unhealthy patterns of attachment, in your classroom.

References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991) An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, p. 331-341.






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