Understanding Attachment Helps Teachers Build Resilience in Young People
Resilience can be one of those buzz words in education. It is easy to talk about but trying to help vulnerable young people become more resilient can be more difficult than we imagine.
You present a young person with a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, for example, an outward-bound course. However, when the day comes and the bus is ready to leave, he is nowhere to be found.
You worked all year to prepare your class for the transition to high school. One of your pupils, from a difficult home situation, refuses to attend the new school after the first week.
Is it possible that we underestimate the vulnerability of some children because we don’t get how profoundly trauma* impacts young people? In addition, our view of resilience is so culturally conditioned that we think of resilience too much in terms of an individual’s strengths, rather than recognizing the importance of the relationships that surround a young person. A ‘stand on your own two feet,’ individualistic notion of resilience may be very unhelpful.
A recent phone call to a foster parent reminded me that in many cases building resilience in young people does not go to plan. Several years ago, I began a piece of work with a high schooler, David (not his real name). I carefully planned the activities based on what I understood about resilience, but I missed the importance of long term relationships.
David’s teachers in high school were pulling their hair out. He was restless in class, found it difficult to focus, and often acted like a clown. During my first meeting with him, I quickly realized here was a young man who wasn’t going to sit and listen to me. We needed to do something active together. After playing badminton with him several times, I could see another side to him. Behind his constant fidgeting and impish grin, he was kind, gentle, and eager to please. I began to think about how I could use my relationship with him to help him reintegrate in to his school. He needed an opportunity to experience real success in something that he saw as being worthwhile. He needed a challenge; I needed to stop losing at badminton.
Risk, resilience, and attachment
Education can have a positive impact on resiliency. For example, schools provide opportunities for children to achieve a sense of mastery, the feeling that comes from doing something well. Young people also have the opportunity to explore different social roles that can help them build a more pro-social identity (7). However, for young people like David school often reminds them of failure, and they too easily become cast in the role of a trouble-maker.
David was at risk long before he started school. He was probably exposed to alcohol while in his mother’s womb. When we add up all of the risk factors in a young person’s life things may look pretty bleak, but even then we can underestimate a young person’s vulnerability. We don’t realize that risk factors interact in a way that is not just a simple one plus one. A risk factor, such as an insecure attachment, can have a disproportionate influence on how a child is impacted by other traumatic experiences (1, 2).
To some degree, all children are vulnerable; they all need adults that can help restore a sense of safety and control in a sometimes chaotic world. In this way, a secure attachment between child and caregiver mitigates the effects of trauma. However, the opposite is also true. A child who is insecurely attached may be more easily overwhelmed and unable to develop some of the core competencies, such as the capacity to self-regulate emotional states, that will help protect him against future adversity (3).
The cascading effects of a child’s early attachment experiences may explain why some young people are knocked back so hard by the stress, for example, of moving to a new school. They are like the house built on sand.
Resilience can be defined as “reduced vulnerability to environmental risk experiences, the overcoming of stress or adversity, or a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences” (4). However, it is a relative not absolute quality, for some children, like David, even partial recovery of wellbeing and resilience is important (5).
Finally, in planning my work with David I was aware that building resilience is accomplished not by the removal of all risk and stress, but in the careful managing of these within a supportive relationship (6). In addition, the path to resiliency can begin in one small part of a person’s life, even from a single opportunity or turning point.
Building resiliency: David’s story
David looked nervous as we waited outside the office. The door opened and I introduced him to the head teacher of a local primary school. “David is good at sports and he likes children. Could he volunteer once a week in one of your PE classes?”
Over the next couple of months, I watched a slow transformation take place. David was more focused and ready to listen to correction when things were not going so well. I think it was something about how the younger children showed their delight in having David volunteer in class that helped him change. He was doing something that he could see other people appreciated and valued. He wanted it to work. At the end of his 15 weeks, David planned a dance competition for the children.
The turning point
As the day approached, I sensed David’s increasing anxiety. I noticed small changes in his mood and behaviour; he became increasingly restless when meeting with me. On the day of the competition, David disappeared. Finally, I found him sitting at the back of a room in his high school, slouched all the way under the desk, in a class that he wasn’t even enrolled in.
“David, listen to me. I won’t let you fail. If you get up in front of the kids today and you forget what to say. I will be right there and help you.”
This was the “turning point” and success at this moment depended on my ability to reassure him and whether he could trust me. Most children learn when they are very young that adults can be trusted to help them when they are anxious and fearful. They grow up experiencing, not perfect, but good enough, sensitive, attuned caregiving. Many vulnerable young people haven’t developed this basic kind of confidence. As teachers, it is where we can provide what Louise Bomber calls second chance learning (8). If we have done the work of building a relationship, a young person has the opportunity to learn something they missed earlier in their development.
The dance competition was a great success, and the pupils gave David a thank-you card. As he took the card, I watched the expression on his face. He laughed at the drawing the children had made of him, and read each of their names printed on the back of the card.
Later as we talked about his volunteer work, David could see how his decisions had contributed to its success. He found a sense of his own agency; he was able to bring about something positive in his life. His foster carer remarked, “He is taking more responsibility for himself. He was getting excluded and was depressed. He’s happier and is in school full-time.” David went on to apply to a local college to study sport’s coaching.
I wish I could end the story there. A few weeks ago, I spoke to David’s foster mum. She told me that after leaving school, he had gone back to his birth family, and he was now living as a drug addict.
It breaks my heart to think of David, now in his early twenties, alone and struggling with addiction. I prefer to remember him as the energetic 15-year old that wouldn’t sit still and beat me almost every time at badminton.
We must stop thinking about resilience as something we do to fix young people; it is not an event or an activity alone that makes the difference. In addition, the onus should not be on the young person to change but on the school, family, and community. Perhaps we should stop thinking about resilience in terms of the individual. We should be asking how resilient-building is our school? How do the relationships in a family that is fostering or adopting contribute to the child’s resilience?
We are only ever as resilient as we are connected to those who love and nurture us and that is as true for adults as it is for children.
* Relational trauma describes the experience of chronic and prolonged traumatic events, usually of an interpersonal nature, beginning in early childhood. These experiences usually occur within the child’s caregiving system and have profound developmental effects on a child (3). Typically, children feel overwhelmed and powerless, and often remain confused as to the role of adults more generally.
1. Luthar SS, Sawyer JA, Brown PJ. Conceptual issues in studies of resilience: past, present, and future research. Annals of New your Academy of Sciences. 2006;1094: 105-115.
2. Masten AS, Cicchetti D. Developmental cascades. Development and Psychopathology. 2010; 22: 491-495.
3. Van der Kolk BA. Developmental trauma disorder: towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Available from: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/preprint_dev_trauma_disorder.pdf [Accessed December 2016].
4. Rutter M. (2006). Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 2006; 1094: 1-12.
5. Shofield G, Beek M. Risk and resilience in long term foster care. British Journal of Social Work. 2005; 35: 1-19.
6. Woodier D. Building resilience in looked after young people: a moral values approach. British Journal of Guidance and Counseling. 2011; 39; 259-282.
7. Gilligan R. Promoting Resilience: Supporting Children and Young People who are in Care, Adopted or in Need. London: BAAF; 2009.
8. Bomber L. Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children With Attachment Difficulties in Schools. London: Worth Publishing; 2007.
First published within ‘Understanding attachment helps teachers build resilience in young people’ www.saia.org.uk/blog January 2017
© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
“Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation of attachment relationships. The formation of a bond is described as falling in love … ”
John Bowlby in The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds.
I had been standing in the kitchen nervously wiping down already clean counters, when my son shouted from the living room to tell me they had arrived. For me It was a huge occasion, I was about to meet the child I hoped would become my new daughter, but for her it was just a visit to another foster family who would be looking after her for a few days. Even as I anticipated her arrival, the roots of the love a mother has for a daughter were forming, but it wasn’t straightforward.
Social workers had been telling Katie since she was six that they were looking to find her a family. Five years later, after living with temporary foster carers, they were still looking. This visit would give us an opportunity to meet Katie and begin the process of becoming her permanent foster family.
As I reached the front door a small figure jumped out of the car looked up at me over the top of her glasses and with an expression I would come to know so well, shouted, ‘Hiya, I’m here!’ My heart melted and I just wanted to scoop her up and give her a huge hug but I restrained myself. With an overly formal handshake, I introduced myself.
‘I’m Katie,’ she said cheerfully, ‘and I saw a house with lions just before we got here.’ I couldn’t think where there was a house with lions nearby, but I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions as Katie’s foster family was just behind her and there was a flurry of introductions.
The rest of the visit passed with our children, their children, and Katie running in and out the garden playing and the adults drinking coffee. I managed to prize Katie away from the fun to take her upstairs and show her the room she would be using. I was planning to give it a fresh coat of paint, and I wanted to find out her favourite colour. I couldn’t tell her but I wanted this room to be hers.
❝While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.❞
Anyone who has ever given birth will tell you that one of the many worries that comes along with pregnancy is the fear, ‘Will I love my baby when I see him or her?’ Fortunately, most new parents fall in love instantly when they meet the wee one or at the very least over the first few hectic sleep deprived days and weeks of life. What is much less understood is the process of starting to love a child who is not part of your family by birth. Very little is written about falling in love with an adopted child and even less about loving a fostered child. It sometimes feels like that word is taboo and does not usually figure in the children’s reports given to the potential adopter or carer. Perhaps every report should have a section asking ‘Who loves this child and whom does the child love?’ While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.
Looking back on my initial dealings with Katie, I am sure that the process of starting to love her began with that first ‘Hiya’ and grew stronger even while I was decorating her room. My husband could see what was happening and reminded me several times that this was early days and many things might still prevent her joining our family. Despite all his warnings, I couldn’t help myself. I was falling in love with her.
She has now lived with us for several months, she is very much part of the family and I love her wholeheartedly. I do not begin to understand all the biological and psychological processes that have made this happen but I am grateful for them. Over the last few months, this determined, stoical, and immensely practical child has taught me many things. Most importantly, she has taught me the value of allowing myself to love, and how to be aware of my surroundings. I now know that the house at the top of our road has large stone lions in the garden and I had never noticed them. She saw them on her first visit. I saw a little girl that needed the love of a family.
Our thanks to foster carer Jane for her guest blog this month - 'Keeping it real' with the ending of an attachment.
I was sitting at the edge of the hall watching the toddlers playing when it happened. A small child ran up to my boy, grabbed the car he was playing with and gave him a hefty shove that left him sprawled on the floor. As he let out a long wail and his eyes searched for me among the ranks of adults at the edge of the room I had an overwhelming urge to retaliate and make the other child suffer and feel as badly as my wee one did at that point. However being a rational woman in my early forties with all my inhibitions intact I contented myself with giving the offending child a filthy look as I scooped up my wee one and sat him on my knee to comfort him and his wounded pride. Less than a minute passed before he wriggled off my knee and headed back into the fray while I was aware that my heart was still racing and I needed to calm the mother tiger that was raging inside. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with groups of toddlers will know they are a tough unforgiving bunch where survival of the fittest is the name of the game and the adults are merely there to act as referees and mop the tears but even so I was surprised by the strength of my reaction and the level of distress I had just experienced.
❝...by then the damage had been done and our family was completely smitten with him.❞
All of this is a very normal reaction for a securely attached mother and child but I was not Andrew’s mum and he was never going to be my son. Although I had first brought him home from the hospital as a tiny, scrawny week old baby, I had always known he was not my own and I was going to be sharing the parenting with his biological parents until they reached a point where they could have him home for good. However by the day of the toddler group incident he had lived with our family for nearly 18 months and despite having contact with his parents at least 3 times every week we weren’t anywhere closer to him going home. On the other hand, he had spent a busy 18 months making himself very much at home in our family, our lives and our hearts.
It would be a full year later before his future would be decided and he would move to live with his new adoptive family but by then the damage had been done and our family was, to the last gran, completely smitten with him.
I have four birth children and the youngest was just 4 years old and still at nursery when we were approved as foster carers and Andrew made his noisy appearance in our lives. My older children were used to having younger ones around and Robbie, my youngest was more than happy not to be the baby of the family any longer as he was now a big boy who would be going to school after the summer. The kids were happy that I was now working from home and could pick them and whatever friends were available to play after school. I loved looking after him and my own brood without the pressures of work and deadlines and the morning commute. It was a win win for all of us.
But two and a half years in I really wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing. By then Andrew had not seen his birth parents for nearly a year and it had been our family who had been there for the birthdays, the Christmases, and the holidays. We had been the ones who had cheered the first steps and it was us who had sat at his cot side through long, scary nights in hospital with a respiratory infection. He called me 'mum' and my husband 'dad', not because we used those terms with him, but because the others in the house did and he was one of the group. Given all this, you won't be surprised to know that we were all dreading the day when we would say goodbye and he would start his new life with his new family. The week of introduction went really well and everyone hit it off from the beginning. Andrew seemed to accept what was happening and all the preparatory talk about meeting mummy and daddy and the cat all seemed to be paying off and he coped really well with all the changes of that week. It is fair to say that he coped better than I did but I hid my tears until after the kids were in bed and tried to keep the tone positive. The adoptive couple were great and could see how much we loved him and how much we would miss him and there was plenty of talk about meeting up after the summer holidays and continuing to play a peripheral but significant part in his life. It was exactly what we needed to hear and we clung to those words in the days and weeks after he left.
❝we all experienced grief, but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss.❞
Sadly, as often happens we did not meet up after the summer and when I met his new mum for a prearranged coffee she told me that he never talked about us and that she was sure that he had forgotten us. This was hard to hear and would have been more devastating if I had not spoken to a social worker who had visited Andrew in his new house the week before and been told that he had been using our names when playing with some of his new toys. That was a difficult summer for us as a family, we all experienced grief but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss. For my children it was the first time they had experienced a loss on this scale and they all grieved in their own ways but suffice to say it took a huge toll on us. I've often wondered how both Andrew and his adoptive parents were feeling over this time, and how he was making sense of what had happened to him.
The most frustrating part of the business however was the lack of understanding from the new supervising social worker who had been assigned to us that summer. She couldn’t understand why we were still talking about Andrew weeks after he had left, she told us to move on it, was our role as foster carers to hand children on. This might be true but I have talked to many foster carers who have prepared children for adoption and all have struggled to say goodbye. I know one foster carer who has seen over 30 wee ones leave her care and she describes it as as painful now as it always has been. Foster carers are taught about the importance of attachment, they work hard to help children and young people form positive warmly attached relationships but sadly no one tells us how to turn off those feelings at the end of a placement.
The system spends a lot of time and effort keeping children in touch with family who have let them down. My question is why do we put so little energy into keeping them in touch with those who have picked them up and helped them back onto their feet? Children who been brought up in a loving and caring families are then told that they are no longer allowed contact with everyone they know as it is will upset them or destabilise the new placement. We no longer keep children in hospital with very limited visits from their parents and I cannot imagine that the government would arrange to evacuate children to the country to live with strangers in these more enlightened times as was done during World War II. Wouldn't it be more helpful if we acknowledged the grief and loss experienced by everyone when it comes to moving children to their new families?
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