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.
Back to the Floor
The three visitors looked friendly, but what I thought would be an opportunity to showcase our work left us feeling we had been caught short.
Someone in headquarters decided it would be good for morale if the heads of education, social work, and health met with some of us who work directly with young people. The initiative was called ‘Back to the Floor.’
One of the three, dressed in a grey suit, asked me, “Why should my child’s education suffer because the teacher has to deal with the behaviour of a young person who is in foster care?”
I have heard the same kind of argument in many schools, sometimes expressed in different ways: “We can’t meet Johnny’s needs here.” In other words, Johnny ruins everyone else’s chance at a good education.
I tried to answer the man in the grey suit, “If I could take you to some of my schools, you would see that schools that are the most inclusive are best for all young people.” My words sounded unconvincing. I wasn’t prepared for his question, and I couldn’t back up my view with any evidence.
The inclusion of children who are looked after in mainstream education is often a contentious issue. Sometimes it is characterized by simplistic thinking1. “We can’t meet Johnny’s needs here” may be true, but is there really some magical other place where Johnny can be ‘fixed’?
Inclusion can also define and strengthen important values. When faced with the challenging behaviour of a looked after child in her school, one head teacher said, “I don’t want him to go to a special school. He needs the relationships he has with children here who don’t have attachment difficulties. He won’t have those role models in a special school. I am not going to exclude him.”
Inclusion can also create ambiguity. It can force teachers into an uncomfortable position, one in which we feel we have to chose between contradictory imperatives2:
Is my job to teach my subject or is teaching about helping children develop as individuals?
I am here to make sure the young person who wouldn’t say boo to a goose can learn, but what do I do when that young person is threatened by the child who acts out the effects of the neglect they have suffered at home?
Inclusion requires substantive change3; it challenges us to look at ourselves and to question the commitment to our values.
Can You Give Me One More Chance?
Successfully including young people who are looked after and who may have attachment difficulties in any kind of mainstream setting can be difficult. Paul was fourteen years old and had been signed up by his foster carer to go to summer camp. It soon became apparent that his carer was under a lot of stress. She said, “I told Paul if he gets sent home, the moment he comes through the door, I will put him in respite care. He has been excluded from school, and people have come to the house to say he is causing trouble in the community. His mum doesn’t even want to see him.” Paul probably felt being sent to camp was just another rejection. This looked far from promising.
I met Paul as he stepped off the bus and introduced him to his group. He seemed to take an almost instant liking to his group leader, an easygoing and energetic young man. I noticed after a couple of days they were rarely apart. However, Paul also mercilessly bullied another boy.
The head of the camp wanted to send Paul back home. “It's not fair on others in the group. He is ruining their week,” she said to me.
I pleaded for one more chance.
I took Paul aside. “We are going to do everything we can not to send you home, but you have to stop bullying. You are going to spend the rest of the day with me and help me clean the kitchens.”
After that Paul’s behaviour wasn’t perfect, but he stopped bullying. A couple of days before the end of the camp, I asked him about his birthday. “I see you have a birthday when you get home. Will you do anything special?”
“No one has ever done anything for my birthday,” he replied.
The next day, I was sitting at lunch on the table next to Paul. Without warning, the other young people came into the dinning room and sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
Paul looked like a deer caught in the brightness of a spotlight. I think he wanted to run away, but he couldn’t. About fifty young people surrounded him.
A year later, we had a call from his foster carer. She told us Paul had looked through the camp brochure until he found the same group of leaders and asked her to sign him up. She told us it had been a much better year at home.
Why did it work? It wasn’t just one thing that made a difference. His group leader had worked hard to build a relationship with Paul, and the head of the camp was willing to take a risk and give me one more chance to reach out to him. I believe Paul got the message that he was wanted there.
Paul contacted us again this year. He apologized and said he plans to spend the summer with the Army and cannot come to camp. Two years ago, when I first met Paul, he was an outcast, unclaimed and unwanted. Being included in that camp had transformed his life.
Excellent and Inclusive
Camp and school are very different, but some of the issues around inclusion are similar. Will other children suffer because of the behaviour of a child who is looked after? It is relationships that make the difference. Teachers who include children prioritize the importance of relationships in learning, and this benefits all the children in their class. In order to test my hypothesis, I interviewed a group of young people, a teacher, and a teaching assistant.
It had been a steep leading curve for Lewis’ teacher. The impulsive and often angry twelve year old, who had also struggled in his foster care placement was in trouble almost every week.
At the end of the year, I interviewed a group of Lewis’ peers. They all acknowledged their learning had been held back to some extent by their classmate’s challenging behaviours. However, they all had something positive to say about their school: “The work we produce is good and the staff are really friendly.” They also had no difficulty identifying the things they had accomplished. They all rated the relationships in their class as a 4 or 5 out of 5. One of the group commented on how her teacher had handled pupils’ behaviour problems: “She is good at it because she will sit down and have a calm chat with them and calm them down.”
The kinds of skills teachers and teaching assistants learn in order to support a young person with attachment difficulties seem to transfer readily to other children. Another teacher at the end of school year commented:
“I have been teaching for fourteen years. Callum has helped me more than any other child to think about my teaching.
“I have learned to make fewer assumptions about the behaviour of other children in my class. I used to think some behaviours were because a child was spoiled at home. I have learned they may have real issues and need my help.”
“One of my pupils was playing up for another teacher. I used Wondering Aloud, and I gave him some different options for what might be upsetting him. If I hadn’t used this approach, he would never have told me what was wrong.”
“We are rolling out some of these things across the school. Callum has raised the profile of how we handle emotions.”
A teaching assistant from another school wrote:
“I have been able to transfer the skills I have learned to help other children. For example, I noticed a change in another child's behaviour. He was getting upset and walking out of class. I asked the teacher if I could have some time with him. I used Wondering Aloud. I said I had noticed that he was spending a lot of time on his own and that he was distracted easily. I tentatively asked him if the class was too loud or maybe he had a lot on his mind. He said there was too much noise and that it was hard to concentrate. I tried to empathize with him. Later, this child told me he was worried about something happening at home.”
In these classrooms, the behaviour of the children who are looked after had some negative impact on the other children. However, the teachers and teaching assistant were able to use the skills they had learned to identify and respond with sensitivity to children who were struggling. It also seems that the other children in their classes recognize that despite some difficulties, the relationships in their class were very good. They were generally positive about their school and what they had learned.
Inclusion matters because young people who are looked after find the acceptance they need in order to overcome their sense of rejection and shame. And to answer the question from the man in the grey suit, I would be happy to see my own children in a classroom with the kind of teacher who values relationships, who understands young people’s needs, and who finds a way to support the learning of all young people.
* Under the provisions of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, 'Looked After Children' are defined as those in the care of their local authority.
Features of Inclusive Schools 4
Keeping it Real: Where are you on the inclusion spectrum?
1. Learning Teaching Scotland. Focusing on Inclusion and the Education (Additional Support for Learning Act) (Scotland) Act 2004. Dundee: Learning Teaching Scotland; 2006. Available from: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/FocusingOnInclusion_tcm4-342924.pdf [Accessed 16 August 2016].
2. Clark C, Dyson A, Millward A, Robson S. Theories of inclusion, theories of schools: deconstructing and reconstructing the 'inclusive school'. British Educational Research Journal. 1999; 25 (2): 157-177.
3. McLeskey J, Waldron N. Inclusive Schools in Action: Making Differences Ordinary. Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; 2000.
4. Martyn R. The journey to excellence. Available from: http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/videos/martynrouseinclusiveexcellentschools.asp [Accessed 16 August 2016].
First published within ‘Inclusion Makes Better Teachers’ www.saia.org.uk/blog September 2016
© 2016 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.
David Woodier, support teacher & SAIA blogger
David's interest in teaching began in a gym in the inner city of Chicago in 1988. New to America, with no idea how to coach basketball let alone manage the behaviour of some forty boys from one of Chicago's toughest neighbourhoods, he had to learn fast.
He continued as a youth worker in Chicago for 15 years, before becoming a minister for children and young people in an inner city church.
His passion to find a way to include even the most challenging young people took him to the University of Illinois in 1994 to study Special Education. After graduating, he taught in two Chicago schools, and apart from being shot in the head once with a paintball, he really loved his work.
Ten years ago David came to Glasgow and taught in a primary school in an area of deprivation in Glasgow and then in a residential school for boys with behaviour problems. He has been supporting looked after young people in mainstream schools in North Lanarkshire for eight years.
David and his wife have four children; they were foster carers and adopted their daughter. David sits on the advisory board of Adoption UK in Scotland. His research into building resilience in vulnerable children was published in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. He is also a chartered teacher.
The latest posts from David Woodier our chief blogger, and the SAIA Team.