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.
Support teacher, North Lanarkshire
How not to begin a lesson: understanding the behaviours of children with attachment difficulties
Sean* had been excluded from school and was sitting around in the children’s house. Although a bright kid, I was his only link to any formal education. Each week when we met, he had shown himself to be resourceful at finding something to control. Once when I read to him, I missed a word. Sean insisted that I re-read it from the beginning.
Sean showed signs of being traumatized by the chaotic experiences of growing up in a family in which there was domestic violence and drug abuse. I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like.
From an early age, Sean’s only survival strategy was probably his ability to predict what others were about to do and to manipulate the adults around him.
This time I had come prepared with what I thought would be an engaging activity. We would build a model eyeball and conduct some simple experiments.
Sean was hyper-vigilant. As I walked into the room, I felt his gaze scanning me from head to toe.
Right away he saw I was carrying something in my bag. As I took out the pieces of the model eyeball, he brought out his phone. “Here listen to this. There aren’t that many swear words.”
I tried to reengage him in the activity. “Haven’t you ever wondered how your eye works? I’ll help you build a model eyeball.”
❝Recognising what we don’t understand allows us to
take a different stance, one in which curiosity about
what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.❞
Sean, who was already squirming on his chair, without warning threw up his arms and roared.
Sean was telling me that he could not tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing and not being in control.
My approach to introducing this activity was to assume that Sean, like most kids, would be motivated by curiosity, the thrill of discovering what makes something work. What I forgot was that Sean had never experienced the presence of a parent, a secure base who could moderate his anxiety when he was learning to explore his world as an infant. Sean’s roar was an expression of a primal defensive mechanism in the face of what felt like an overwhelming threat.
This example underlines several important principles for those of us who teach young people with attachment difficulties. First, we can’t always trust our own intuition about how children view learning.
Being able to recognize that some children’s beliefs, attitudes, and feelings are hard to discern sounds too obvious, but it is often overlooked. Recognizing what we don’t understand allows us to take a different stance, one in which curiosity about what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.
Deep down, I believe Sean could discover that kind of inquisitiveness that propels most children to learn, but I needed to approach him differently. If I had realized that the underlying issues were more about trust and the need for control, then I could have allowed him some measure of control in the activity. “Sean, you have a choice today. You decide which to do the first, the maths quiz or a science project.”
In addition, we need to become intentional about 'learning' the child. For example, we should learn what the tell-tale signs are that he or she is not coping. We need to learn what works for each child, what helps them connect to or tolerate the presence of another human being. Sean enjoyed completing mental maths quizzes. The fact that the questions had straightforward answers and the quiz was timed probably gave him a sense of something predictable and controlled, and therefore safe.
Is part of our problem as teachers that we make too many assumptions about young people?
We make assumptions about their behaviour based on our own experience of life. Children with attachment difficulties need teachers who are more open-minded, who accept that there may be unexpected explanations for their behaviour. It is not a quick fix, but the curiosity and acceptance we give may be a starting point for some young people.
❝When I maintain that kind of curious stance,
I am better able to think about alternative
explanations for a young person’s behaviour.❞
Why it works:
Researchers know relatively little about the characteristics of teachers who are able to maintain supportive relationships with young people who have very challenging behaviours . However, we can learn some things from the research on parenting and attachment.
Parents who are able to raise kids who are securely attached tend to be better at mentalization.
This is the imaginative capacity to understand the kinds of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that underlie one’s own and another person’s behaviour . Such parents are deeply interested in the thoughts and feelings of their children; they also recognize that their ability to truly know what is in their child’s mind is limited. They are good at perspective taking, understanding that their child may perceive shared experiences differently. As a result of this such parents, and maybe some teachers, are able to maintain what is called a curious stance. They resist the temptation of making assumptions about a young person’s behaviours.
Why this works for young people who have attachment difficulties is still, I think, a mystery.
Do young people feel less anxious? Do they sense a deeper commitment from such teachers?
Are teachers able to ‘learn’ the child and offer support before a young person becomes more agitated?
I know that when I maintain that kind of curious stance, I am better able to think about alternative explanations for a young person’s behaviour. That allows me to maintain empathy towards a child and reassure them when they feel overwhelmed and vulnerable.
* names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Building Better Practice by Understanding Attachment
1. What kinds of behaviours in the classroom might be due to attachment difficulties and/or a history of abuse and neglect?
2. If you are teaching a young person with challenging behaviours, what assumptions are you making about what motivates their behaviour?
3. If you think about behaviour as a form of communication, what is he or she actually telling you?
4. How would an understanding of attachment and trauma change your practice? How would it change your priorities in the classroom?
1. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 06c: Understanding attachment, Helen Minnis: Mental health.” wecanandmustdobetter.org
This short video gives a succinct explanation of attachment
2. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 07a: Understanding trauma and loss, Helen Minnis: Trauma and neglect.” wecanandmustdobetter.org
This short video gives a succinct explanation of the trauma of neglect and abuse.
3. Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: the links between children’s early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing.
Chapter 3 gives an outline of attachment theory and pages 76, 96, 114 include a summary of the impact insecure attachments can have on learning.
4. Geddes, H. & Hanko G. (2006) Behaviour and the Learning of Looked-After and Other Vulnerable Children. www.familieslink.co.uk/download/july07/Behaviour,%20attachment%20and%20communication.pdf
This paper looks at behaviour as a communication, attachment history and implications for behaviour and learning.
5. Golding, K. (2013). Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in School: a Tool for Identifying and Supporting Emotional and Social Difficulities in Children Aged 5-11. London: Jessica Kingsley
Appendix 2 describes attachment theory and how children with insecure attachments may present in school.
6. Hertfordshire County Council. (2007). Working with Looked after or Adopted Children in School. CSF Publication 0046, Issue 1. www.hertsdirect.org/infobase/docs/pdfstore/csf0046.pdf
Check out the two-page poster that can help staff think about what might underly behaviours.
 Stacks, M. A., Wong, K., Dykehouse T. (2013). Teacher reflective functioning: a preliminary study of measurement and self-reported teaching behaviour. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 14: 1-19.
 Ordway, M. R., Sadler, L. S., Dixon J., & Slade A. (2014). Parental reflective functioning: analysis and promotion of the concept for paediatric nursing. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 23: 3490-3500.
In my next article, I plan to share more about how understanding attachment helped me change my approach as a teacher...
(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.
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