Attaching the Detached

Recently I spoke at an early years child care conference in Surrey and the issue of attachment was raised in terms of behaviour and self-esteem in children.

There is no doubt that the experiences of early childhood are crucially important in terms of providing the building blocks of resilience in children.

Attachment theory and the work of John Bowlby have certainly shed a great deal of light on this and in this article we will explore some of the issues and the implication, for all those working in schools.

Bowlby suggested that for good attachment parents and carers provide the infant with a secure base. This is a place of safety in which the infant learns they can return to when needing reassurance, care and protection. The infant and carer negotiate a relationship, at the heart of which is the infant’s need to experience protective care and a reassuring presence.

Within the context of this intimate and, face-to-face relationship, the infant begins to experience who they are. Their bodily feelings and emotions are understood and given names that turn into a vocabulary of sensations and emotions. These will be the origins of self-awareness and enrich the possibility of understanding and communication i.e. the basis of social interaction.

During this secure relationship, any anxiety that the infant may express is contained by being understood by the carer. Brain development in the child will respond to the experience and pathways to the response when fear and panic are aroused will develop. This will be the origins of a coping mechanism and in later life will become the basis of resilience in the child.

Bowlby summarised the outcome of secure attachment as an internal working model of the self where the infant feels valued and thus values themselves as well as learning to trust that the outside world is safe to explore.

Insecure attachment experience on the other hand develops mainly when the carer has experienced a less than secure enough attachment in their own attachment relationships. The presence of the new infant may trigger old patterns of feelings and behaviour, which become acted out in the relationship with the new infant. These patterns of behaviour thus become passed on through generations leading to behaviours being dominated by:

  • Need to be self-reliant
  • Difficulty trusting the teacher and asking for help
  • Inhibited use of words and language
  • Reluctance to engage in creative tasks affecting writing and drawing
  • The task is preferred to the relationship.

The interventions for addressing Insecure Avoidant Attachment (IAA) behaviour are enhanced by the differentiation of tasks which are both doable but permit shared interest in the content of the task. Face to face relating is often avoided and interest from the teacher is experienced by mutual interest in the task. The pupil thus experiences interest and responsiveness but avoids the conflict of feelings about relating. Change in perceptions about self and expectations of others can now begin.

Insecure Resistant Ambivalent Attachment (IRAA) behaviour is associated with a relationship in which the child experiences the carer as not holding them in mind. As a result trying to control the carer’s presence and attention becomes the key issue and behaviour is thus dominated by:

  • Separation anxiety often associated with high absence rates, repeated ‘illness’ and at the extreme end of the continuum, school phobia
  • Attention seeking and a need to hold onto the teacher’s attention
  • Disinterest in the learning task – a distraction from the relationship
  • Controlling and bossy behaviour
  • Often skilled at talking and distracting with words.

Action for addressing IRAA behaviour must focus on the development of a sense of independence and autonomy.

To do this the need for constant dependence on the teacher can be replaced by regular comments from the teacher, which re-assure the pupil that they are not forgotten. Transitions need to be planned and at times, a transfer arrangement at the start of the day can be helpful, whereby the separation from parent is supported and the parent can re-assure the child that they will be waiting for them at the end of the day.

Disorganised Attachment behaviour is one of areas of attachment where the most challenging behaviours are likely to take place. This occurs when the child has experienced insufficient support and safety and sometimes actual abuse.

The histories of these carers are often associated with abandonment, drug and alcohol misuse, violence and mental illness. The child’s experience is thus dominated by unreliability and the mistrust of adults and the chronic uncertainty of being kept safe.

In the absence of a secure enough base and with little experience of being understood, the capacity to cope with challenge and fear is minimal. Brain development is therefore affected and reactivity is triggered in response to the slightest provocation.

With little sense of self-worth, the pupil can be prone to feelings of helplessness, humiliation and shame. Their defensive response is to try to take control in order to cope with helplessness in the face of overwhelming and uncontained anxiety often accompanied by aggression. Some suggestions to help support individuals affected could be as follows:

  • Early identification of the situation
  • Reliable and consistent boundaries which reflect the adults and the whole schools capacity to keep everyone safe are essential
  • Continuity of relationships over time which make it possible to experience being held in mind and understood and a sense of continuity and persistence help
  • Predictability – all transitions and changes in the day, week and year should be anticipated and planned for, especially endings and goodbyes
  • Inclusion in the curriculum of a sense of place and time
  • Emphasis on the development of words which describe feelings – the use of stories with an emotional content and the use of metaphors.

In summary it is vital that schools teachers and all support staff have a greater awareness of Attachment theory and how it can affect learning, behaviour and socialisation outcomes.

Training of staff and adapted polices, processes and procedures of the school can create a safer and more nurturing environment in which more positive relationships can be experienced while making the school a more secure base.


Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss. Vol 1. Attachment London Penguin

Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and Loss. Vol 2. Separation: Anxiety and Anger London: Hogarth Press

Geddes, H. (2006) Attachment in the Classroom. The links between children’s early experience, emotional wellbeing and performance in school.