Attachment Disorder & School

Claire Walley
January 16, 2024

Attachment disorder is much more common in children than once thought. The impact of early attachment between baby and caregiver has been found to have an impact not only on a child’s formative years, but also adulthood. As their attachment style becomes a blueprint for friendships, romantic relationships, and social interaction into adulthood.

I first came across attachment styles as an A level psychology student and then later, a psychology teacher. John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist. Bowlby was interested in understanding the anxiety and distress that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers. He found that attachment was characterized by clear behavioural and motivation patterns. When children are frightened, they seek proximity from their primary caregiver to receive both comfort and care. Bowlby’s work was built upon by another psychologist, Mary Ainsworth– who devised the Strange Situation. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers. Based on the responses the researchers observed, Ainsworth described three major styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. Later, researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style called disorganized-insecure attachment based on their own research. Several studies since that time have supported Ainsworth’s attachment styles and have indicated that attachment styles also have an impact on behaviours later in life.

Ainsworth suggested that there were four attachment styles

  • Ambivalent attachment: These children become very distressed when a parent leaves. As a result of poor parental availability, these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver to be there when they need them.
  • Avoidant attachment: Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers, showing no preference between a caregiver and a stranger. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.
  • Disorganized attachment: These children display a confusing mix of behaviour, seeming confused. They may avoid or resist the parent. Lack of a clear attachment pattern is likely linked to inconsistent caregiver behaviour. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and fear, leading to disorganized behaviour.
  • Secure attachment: Children who can depend on their caregivers show distress when separated and joy when reunited. Although the child may be upset, they feel assured that the caregiver will return. When frightened, securely attached children are comfortable seeking reassurance from caregivers. This is the most common attachment style.

We must remember that with all psychological studies there are caveats. They are testing human behaviour in a laboratory setting. Their findings therefore are not going to be a 100% true reflection of our children’s behaviour. More of a guide.

“Children who have attachment issues tend to fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to one of two distinct attachment disorders recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5): reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED).” (Melissa Smith, 2021)

Attachment disorder tends to be seen in children who have suffered trauma, been abused, separation from their parents, been taken into care. So how do we help these children thrive in school? A place where there are many relationships needed for a child to be able to function.

  1. Make sure your classroom is a safe place by ensuring consistent routines that are predictable.
  2. Avoid ambiguous interactions as these can feel unsafe. Make sure your instructions are clear.
  3. Use eye contact – children with attachment disorder may struggle to give you eye contact but be sure you are consistent with yours.
  4. Children with attachment disorder may struggle to understand cause and effect. You will need to explicitly teach them about consequences – both positive and negative ones.
  5. They may not understand social norms, do not presume they will just understand these unwritten social rules. Instead teach them explicitly.
  6. Name positive behaviour and give them a reason why it is good, similarly when they display negative behaviour, name it, and explain why it is not appropriate.
  7. Make children with attachment disorder feel safe when in your care. Do not use threats, sarcasm or humour if talking about behaviour.
  8. Children with attachment disorder may turn in their seat, checking if their environment is safe. Do not tell them off for this, instead position them so they are always in your gaze and can feel safe and cared for.

The SEN Expert offers a range of services for young people, families and schools. We offer support for parents to help navigate the complex world of Special Educational Needs. We will work with you closely to ensure the best for your child.

The SEN Expert was set up by Claire in 2021 following a successful career spanning 12 years in school improvement, special educational needs, safeguarding and the arts.

Claire has worked as a Deputy Headteacher, Assistant Headteacher, Consultant and SENCO in both state and private schools in inner city London, the Southwest, the Midlands and the USA.

Throughout her career, Claire has ensured solid outcomes for the young people she has worked with. Be that a set of good exam grades, a placement in specialist setting or getting a part time job.

Claire is a working mother, and understands the challenges parents face trying to ensure their children are happy and successful. We aim to provide young people with a creative route to the personal and professional adult life they deserve.

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