When we talk about putting theory into practice, there is a risk that we think of support as something we do to children. Using our knowledge of how children develop secure attachments can help us learn how to attune to them. Expressing curiosity and empathy can be more effective when we learn how to match their affect. In addition to helping children co-regulate, this way of relating can build a special trust between adult and child that may open a door to learning.
The link between trust and learning is often more visible in children and young people who have experienced maltreatment and disrupted attachments. The child who seems to assume the worst about our intentions towards them may also struggle to accept our help or advice. We often experience the young person who seems difficult to motivate or engage in learning as controlling or manipulative. The impression that these children are hard to reach and teach is probably linked to their difficulty feeling secure in relationships.
In the first year of an infant’s life, the parent’s or carer’s capacity to think about what is going on in the mind of the child allows curiosity and empathy about the child’s affect*. The carer provides the child with a kind of mirror image reflected in their parent’s or carer’s face and expression. The child manifests a mood or an emotion to a caregiver, who mirrors it in a display of understood affect. The infant who is crying and distressed sees sadness and distress in his caregiver’s face.
However, what adults usually do without even being aware of it, is mark or differentiate their display. For example, they may alternate a brief period of making a sad looking face with a soft smile, gentle voice, and rocking. This enables the child to recognise that the affect displayed by the caregiver is a representation of the child’s. This secondary representation allows a child to learn to calibrate and regulate his or her response rather than acting it out. 1,2
Many children who have been maltreated or who suffered disrupted attachments have not had enough experience with someone who can attune and connect with their affect. Yet, being able to experience a consistent, sensitive response from a parent or carer plays a vital role in helping children learn to regulate their emotions. How do we help children learn to regulate their emotions when they haven’t had these experiences early in life? How do we help them learn what it is like to have an adult who is trying to understand them and give meaning to their inner life and behaviour?
In order to reach out to these children, teachers, parents, and carers have sometimes been encouraged to try matching the affect of the child or young person. This isn’t always straightforward, and I have seen mixed results. One teacher said to me, “I try to match his affect when he is upset, but his voice goes up too high.”
Another asked, “How do I match his affect when his expression looks frozen or when he curls up in a ball?”
I have also seen teachers amazed at the results when they figure out how to do this. “When I said to him, ‘I understand you must be really upset,’ he got even more angry. But when I said in a more animated voice, ‘I get it! No wonder you are upset if you think you were going to get the wrong answer,’ he calmed right down.”
Success seems to depend on the child or young person being able to experience what it is like when an adult tries to understand him or her in a curious and empathetic way. It relies on an adult being able to notice the subtleties of a child’s expression and relate it to some underlying intention or meaning. This reflective capacity, often referred to as mentalizing, allows us to imagine the fears, desires, goals, hopes, and beliefs that underlies our own and others’ behaviours.
Someone who is mentalizing is curious, accepts that their assumptions about a child’s behaviour may be wrong but wants to try anyway, is aware of the impact of emotion, and is able to see a humorous side of things. However, mentalizing is also a fragile process. It develops naturally, for example, from the interactions between members of a family, but it can be easily switched off when a child or adult feels threatened or shamed. Similarly, when an adult becomes too rigid in interpreting a child’s intentions, when an adult lacks empathy for a child, or even when an adult has lost joy in relating to a child, it may be very difficult to recover that mentalizing stance.
What can we learn from the developmental processes, like mirroring, that can help us learn to match affect? The goal is not to present the child with a facsimile of their expression, but with a copy that is distinctive or marked. By matching the intensity and timing of a child’s affect -- for example, by matching the patterns of stress and intonation in the voice -- the adult demonstrates that understanding of the content of that emotion or mood. At the same time, the adult marks their display; for example, rather than shouting back at an angry child, the adult uses animated gestures. Sadness or disappointment can be matched by the tilt of the head or by an exaggerated sigh. Congruence but with a degree of differentiation allows the child to recognize the displayed affect as their own and not the adult’s.
One experienced practitioner explained some of these features in these examples: “So, if a child says to me, angrily, 'I am so stupid!' my verbal response to match affect would be to say in an animated tone: That's so hard for you when you think you are stupid!” I would also match the intensity and pattern in the child’s expression with my body language and facial expression. Likewise, if a child was sad and said: ‘I am so stupid,’ I would say the same words, but my non-verbals would be less animated in intensity in order to match the energy of the child's statement.”
The following steps may allow the child to get a sense of “you get me” and “you have understood me.” Although our goal is accurate mentalizing (giving the child the picture in my mind of what it is like to be them), we do not have to do this perfectly. It is important that the child experiences the process we use to correct our understanding.
I was in a meeting at a school and one of the teachers, in a light bulb moment, asked this question: “So you mean our job is to help him learn to relate to others rather than give him an education?”
If I could go back and answer that question now, I would say something like, “Actually our job is to learn to relate to him first before we can expect him to relate to us.” Yes, relationships are vital to learning. They go hand in hand. It is just that we are used to teaching kids who have learned before they get to school that the knowledge adults have about the world is valuable. For other children, we need to be intentional about helping them learn to trust by giving them opportunities to experience what it is like to have an adult who mentalizes them. That experience of being understood is a key that unlocks learning. 3,4
This is a true story. Harry (not his real name), ten years old, sits at his desk with his head down. His teacher recognises something is wrong. She knows that the question Harry has been asked may have upset him: “Write about a character in a story who feels rejected.” She gently asks Harry, “Come outside with me.”
The teacher has prepared herself for a moment like this. She says to Harry, “I can see that it is not easy for you to tell me what is wrong. I would like to do something a bit different. I am going to talk for you.”
The teacher continues as if talking for Harry: “‘If I don’t answer my teacher when she asks me what is wrong, I’ll get in trouble. But I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know how to tell you.’” As the teacher speaks her voice become more animated and she moves her hands in front of her like the two sides of a closed gate. She is trying to communicate the sense of frustration, of not knowing, that she imagines Harry is struggling with.
Harry looks up and makes eye contact. Silent tears begin to spill down over his cheeks.
The teacher pauses and then begins to talk about a time when she kept getting something wrong and didn’t know how to fix it. She begins to lighten the tone of her voice and Harry smiles.
Later the teacher reflects on what happened. Was she able to match Harry’s affect? She can’t be sure, but she feels like there was a moment of recognition when Harry made eye contact with her. She thinks that Harry’s tears may have come from a sense of relief that someone could talk about him without making him feel ashamed. What is Harry learning? He is at the beginning; this is the first of many moments when his teacher can talk for him. Gradually, he will understand more about himself, he will see that the emotions that overwhelm him can be understood by his teacher and don’t overwhelm her. He can learn that it feels okay when another person helps you regulate your emotional response. The barriers and fears that cause him to back away from learning will seem less because he is learning to trust.
Relating to young people using skills like matching affect allows us to communicate a deeper kind of understanding that can signal to a child that what I have to share with you is relevant and helpful. “If you can get what is in my mind, then I might be interested in what else is in your mind. Now I am interested in what else you have to say about what might work for people in my world”. 4
Just in case you think that the reference to dogs in the title was simply to get you to read this, some experts say that mentalizing is perhaps the most human of traits, and that the animals closest to being able to mentalize humans are dogs. Dog lovers probably already knew this, but It shows what a powerful advantage dogs gain by being able to notice the subtleties in expression of their human owners. How can dogs do this? Try hanging out with humans for several millennia: mentalizing is a great way to build companionship and have someone throw a stick for you.
*Affect is often used as an umbrella term to include inner states that are relatively stable, such as an attitude toward a person and something shorter lived like a mood or an emotional response to a specific situation. It can also refer to something that child is not fully aware of and yet manifests in their expression or body language. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, try reading James Gross’ explanation in, “The future is so bright I gotta to wear shades” Emotion Review 2010: 2(3); 212-216
1. Fonagy, P. What is mentalization? Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ
2. Fonagy P. Gergely G. Jurist E. Target M. Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. 2002.
3. Fonagy P. Alison E. The role of mentalizing and epistemic trust in the therapeutic relationships. Psychotherapy. 2014: 51 (3): 372-380.
4. Bevington D. Epistemic trust for AMBIT. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBeEOkwLToM
First published in www.saia.org.uk/blog 2019 © 2019 David Woodier, Inclusion Support Teacher.
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
Illustrations by Tom Donaldson www.etsy.com/shop/tomdonaldsonart
Handout for teachers
I am teaching a young person with attachment difficulties.
What do I do?
These suggestions are not intended to be a substitute for a more thorough process of assessing a young person’s needs and level of additional support.
© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire.
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
David Woodier is Chief Blogger for Scottish Attachment In Action. www.saia.org.uk/blog
The Gentle Challenge
For the first two years of primary school, one little girl I know would not talk to her teachers. Even when close friends of the family greeted her, she looked down and said nothing. Although she couldn’t explain what was wrong, her dad sensed her overwhelming anxiety. He needed a way to help her change her behaviour, but more importantly, he needed a way to help her realize that being noticed by people doesn’t have to be scary. One day he had a small brain wave.
“Here’s the deal. People like to see you smile, but you don’t like doing the talking. How about when someone greets you, you do the smiling, and I’ll do the talking?”
“Hi Sarah*. How are you?”
“Hello Mr. Duncan,” Her dad said. He looked down at the little girl and gently squeezed her hand. She flashed just the briefest of smiles.
Mr. Duncan smiled back.
I didn’t know at the time, but this was an example of what Mary Dozier from the University of Delaware calls the gentle challenge. Since then, I have come to realize this is one of the most important goals in building a relationship with a child who has been maltreated. As Dozier says, it is about gently challenging their worldview (1). In terms of attachment, it is a way of helping children revise their internal working model.
Children who have been maltreated often have distorted expectations and beliefs about self and others. Bowlby observed that these models are established in the first few years of life. As children get older, they become increasingly resistant to change. “The necessary revisions of model are not always easy to achieve. Usually they are completed but only slowly, often they are done imperfectly, and sometimes not done at all” (2). In addition, adults are too easily pulled towards responding in a way that confirms their existing worldview.
The gentle challenge can only take place in the context of a trusting relationship. This, in and of itself, is a complicated task and one that challenges the young person’s worldview. It is important that the adult can empathize with the young person and has some ideas of what kinds of beliefs and expectations a young person is communicating through their behaviour. The gentle challenge is often used in response to a young person who is showing some kind of resistance to relating to others.
Harry had been moved to a new high school, but the honeymoon hadn’t lasted long. He was suspended, and as I drove him home, my mind went back over the years to the little, angry boy I first met in primary school. Harry had fixed ideas about himself and others. When his head teacher retired, Harry told me with all sincerity that he had ruined his head teacher’s life. I tried not to smile, but in my imagination I pictured his head teacher sitting in the sun on a cruise ship sipping a glass of something fizzy. Harry was convinced that teachers disliked him, because he believed he was a bad kid.
“Harry how long have we known each other?”
“For years, Mr. Woodier.”
“Harry, do you trust me?”
“I need to ask you do something. Can you give some of the trust you have in me to your new teacher? Maybe she doesn’t hate you.”
Harry said nothing, he just looked at me. I wondered if he could accept that there might be more than one teacher in the world that didn’t dislike him.
The gentle challenge is often counterintuitive. Sometimes it means joining with the young person in their resistance. We accept that the behaviour allowed the child to survive and cope in an adverse situation, but once a child is safe, we want them to experience relationships in a different way.
“I know its important for you that I know you are a smart kid. You can keep shouting out the right answers until we work out some other way for you to be sure that I know you are smart.”
“I can see you want to be in control of this. I think you are right. I don’t think you know me well enough yet. When you get to know me better, perhaps you can trust me.”
Children who have been maltreated sometimes give up signalling their needs. Dozier says it is really important that the parent or caregiver find a way to indicate their availability even when the child acts as if he or she does not need it. In a recent email, Dozier stated, “For example, if a child banged his head and sat alone rubbing his head, the parent might say, ‘Oh honey, I’ll bet that hurts’ while she strokes him on the back.”
The gentle challenge is not a clever script; it is a way of building trust and a new way of relating. It often works better when the adult finds a way to do some of the heavy lifting.
“It isn’t easy to say sorry to someone you think is angry with you. What about if I do the talking and you just come along with me?”
“You told me when you are in your class, you need to use that kind of language because you feel threatened. But you are not in class today; you are on holiday, so why not give that kind of language a holiday?”
The gentle challenge often comes as the culmination of months or even years of building a relationship with a child or young person. It is based on an assumption that young people, despite being maltreated, have an underlying need for connectedness and coherence (1). I see it as a gift, a way of affirming a child as a human being. It asks children to re-imagine a world in which they can be loved and bring joy to others.
* The names of children used in this article have been changed.
1. Dozier M, Bates BC. Attachment state of mind and the treatment relationship. In Atkinson L, Goldberg S. (eds.) Attachment issues in psychopatholgy and intervention. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2004. P. 167-180.
2. Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. London: PIMLICO; 1997.
First published as ‘The Gentle Challenge’ www.saia.org.uk/blog 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.
Support teacher, North Lanarkshire
Helping children build secure attachments in the classroom can be lot harder than it looks. Attachment theory draws from many disciplines, and it is not easy to know where to start. In addition, teachers may wonder if all of this relationship stuff is part of their job description. Attunement is probably the best place to begin, but it takes know-how, time, and effort.
One of the key bits of work that allowed the theory of attachment to take off was the research of Mary Ainsworth. From her detailed observations of mothers and infants, she showed that infants become securely attached when their caregivers are in sync with them both physically and emotionally. This gives the child the experience of being met and understood. 
❝As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.❞
I learned the importance of attunement almost by chance in my first teaching job in Scotland. I wasn’t that anxious about meeting my new pupils, but maybe I should have been. I quickly found out that one ten-year-old boy in my class, David*, was in the midst of an emotional crisis. He had been placed recently with a foster carer, having suffered years of neglect and abuse from his mum.
I remember walking David back to class one day when he suddenly collapsed to the ground. It was as if his legs had been taken out from under him; he lay there sobbing. He had been looking forward to seeing his mum, but she hadn’t shown up again.
David’s difficulties in class were extremely challenging, and the only strategy I was given to help him was a point system in which he could earn or lose Golden Time (the Scottish equivalent of free time) each Friday. By Monday afternoon, David had already lost all of his Golden Time. When presented with work, he would tear it up and swear at me. When challenged, he would sometimes bite deeply into his arm or tear everything off the walls of the classroom. As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.
I remembered something from one of my lectures at university. Over the next two weeks, I wrote down descriptions of all of David’s challenging behaviours. I described his behaviours as if I was giving it to someone who had never met him. I focused on the detail of what each behaviour looked liked. For example, rather than saying, “He was disrespectful to adults,” I wrote, “He pointed his bum at me and smacked it!”
Little by little, David’s behaviour in school began to change. The meltdowns still came, but they didn’t last as long. I noticed when he was really upset, he didn’t want me to leave. After a couple of months, the head teacher came to me, “I am changing David’s risk assessment so he can go out of the school and play football with the team, as long as you go with him.”
What caused the improvement? Upon reflection, I realized that the only thing that had changed was something in me. I noticed that I could tell what kind of day David would have just by watching him walk into school in the morning. This awareness allowed me to fine-tune the work I was giving him. I made sure there was no mental maths on a day when he was anticipating a visit with his mum. I could tell when he was anxious or frightened.
❝Simply making observations was not enough.
I also had to learn to 'read' the behaviours
as cues in order to respond appropriately.❞
One day he came to me and said that the sink was broken in the toilets. Previously I would have ignored this and got on with the lesson, but I could see that it was causing him distress. He was pacing restlessly. He was worried that someone might get hurt. After that, each morning, before we began class, I would take him to look out the window, and reassure him that the plumbers that worked for Glasgow City Council were very good and would come soon. I also found myself feeling empathy towards him instead of being afraid of his anger and violent behaviour.
What made the difference in my classroom? David experienced what it was like to have an adult attuned to him. Mary Ainsworth defined this kind of sensitivity in the mothers she observed as, “the ability to perceive and to interpret accurately the signals and communications implicit in her infant’s behaviour, and given this understanding, to respond to them appropriately.” 
Simply making observations was not enough. I also had to learn to “read” the behaviours as cues in order to respond appropriately. I developed an awareness of David’s inner state, his thoughts and feelings, a mind-mindedness.
Attunement builds secure attachments when the supporting adult:
• Builds an extensive knowledge of a child through observation
• Is capable of perceiving things from the child’s point of view
• Responds in way that shows the adult is reading the behaviour as a “cue”
• Monitors the child’s response to ensure that the adult is reading the cue correctly
• Voices out loud what is going on in the child’s mind 
This isn’t something that only primary school teachers can learn to do. I remember when I was training to be a teacher, observing a teenager who looked like she was about to explode with anger. As the class approached the art room, the teacher was standing at the doorway. She was an older lady and small in stature. I remember thinking this could go badly. I held my breath.
As the rest of the class settled to work, the teacher, as if able to read some tell-tale signs, honed in on the one, angry teenager. She sat next to her and said in a quiet, chatty tone, “I was thinking about you and what you would need to finish your work. I have been saving these pens for you.” It was like watching a parent of a much younger child, arranging the materials on the desk and all the while chatting away. There was an almost palpable drop in the tension. I breathed again.
Becoming attuned is foundational in supporting a child with attachment difficulties. Many other kinds of support depend on at least one adult being able to “read” the young person. Attunement allows us to act quickly to help a child who is not coping, and to offer just the right kind of reassurance. Once we can read his or her cues, we can begin the work of helping a child become more self-aware and emotionally regulated. (This will be covered in more depth in a future blog.)
It is inevitable that there will be times when we get it wrong. We may miss a cue and leave the child feeling disconnected. However, having the sensitivity to repair the relationship is important; it is a vital part of the process of building secure attachments.
Over the years, I lost touch with David. However, seven years later, I was in a meeting with senior social workers and politicians from across Scotland. A group of young people presented a drama about the lives of looked after children. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there was David. Much taller and more confident, he performed flawlessly. Seeing David brought back some of my favourite memories of teaching: the look of surprise on his face and the sound of his laughter when I came into the classroom dressed up as a character from a story we were reading. I am grateful for David and all that he taught me.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Better Practice by Building Attunement
1. Observe the young person and write detailed descriptions of their behaviours. Descriptions like, “He was disrespectful,” don't help us notice what the young person looks like. Our goal is to train ourselves to be able to recognize subtle differences in things like facial expression and tone of voice.
2. Don’t just observe behaviours that are challenging or distressed. Try to identify behaviours that show when he is settled, concentrating, happy, and relaxed. These are harder to notice because they may occur only infrequently.
3. Observe your own and others’ reactions to the young person. These can also be clues to how the child is feeling. As we become attuned to the young person, we will probably pick up on their feelings of rejection, shame, and hopelessness.
4. Prioritize those behaviours. Rather than which ones cause you most difficulty as a teacher, think about which behaviours make the young person more vulnerable. When I do this it helps me to have more empathy. I am not trying to change the young person because his behaviours make my life more difficult; rather, I need to think about how his behaviours are causing him to become isolated and cutting him off from the kinds of things that kids ought to be able to enjoy.
5. Use the questions in Louise Bomber’s book, Inside I’m Hurting. 
What makes his eyes sparkle?
What makes him fidget?
What makes him feel uncomfortable?
Which feelings does he try and avoid?
How does he cope with failure?
How does he respond to help?
What happens when there is tension of conflict in the room?
Edward Tronick’s ‘Still Face Experiment’ shows how sensitive children are to the loss of attunement: http://scienceblogs.com/thoughtfulanimal/2010/10/18/ed-tronick-and-the-still-face/
B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 107-124. In chapter seven, he explains the importance of emotional attunement and the benefits of secure attachments.
 B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 113.
 M. D. S. Ainsworth, S. M. Bell, and D. J. Stayton, “Infant–mother attachment and social development: Socialization as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals,” in The Introduction of the Child Into a Social World, ed. M. P. M. Richards. (London: Cambridge University Press,1974), 99-135.
 E. Meins, “Sensitive Attunement to Infants’ Internal States: Operationalizing the Construct of Mind-Mindedness,” Attachment & Human Development, 15:5-6, (2013): 524-544.
 L. M. Bomber, Inside I’m Hurting, Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools. (London: Worth Publishing, 2007), p. 87.
(C) 2016, David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
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