A recent discussion on Twitter from a Deputy Headteacher and Director of Inclusion about how it is not a teachers job to ‘fix’ attachment in children led me to want to offer a response in a way that far superseded the 140 character limit afford by twitter. I want to explore whether or not attachment affects learning and what, if anything, can be done to help children in a school setting to learn and develop alongside their peers. (Grab a coffee if you’re staying; this is a long one.)
Now if if you’re a teacher, you’ll know that you need to show progress, get results and actually, hopefully feel as though you have a duty to support the building of children’s educational resilience in a world that shows no mercy.
When it comes to vulnerable children, building that resilience is vital. So how can a school environment and a teacher do this? The other aspect of this exploration that I wanted to further understand is how some children and young people with poor attachment beginnings can continue to learn and develop through this?
I think we can gain some insights about the role of teachers and schools in building resilience for vulnerable children, emotionally and educationally.
A Quick Venture Around Attachment Theory
Developed by English Psychiatrist John Bowlby, attachment theory set about formulating the idea that a child should have a “warm, intimate and continuous relationship with its mother” (Bowlby (1953) cited in Geddes (2006: 37) and this provided the basis for the best possible development of the child. His work came from observing children with emotional and behavioural challenges and was against the back drop of Freud’s view that children were motivated by internal driving forces rather than by their environment.
The term ‘maternal deprivation’, the failure to develop an attachment, came out of his work during the post war period, a time when women had been working out of the home while their men had been fighting in the war.
A feminist critique may undoubtedly argue that his focus on the attachment of the baby to the mother may well have had economic benefits to the climate of the time, a point worthy of noting. However, he did say that babies have a small hierarchy of attachments so while he saw the mother as the primary care giver which is in line with the social beliefs of the time, he was able to understand that the other close relationships around the baby mattered.
Hugely important, Bowlby’s theory opened up an understanding of the importance of relationships in childhood development. His theory of ‘maternal deprivation’ opened up the view that babies need the adult and the community into which they arrive and that disrupted attachments in early life have an impact upon how we develop. He created the shift in thinking that allowed us to start to understand how relational our behaviour is and how much we need that early relationship to survive and grow.
However, Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, went on to build upon Bowlby’s work with the exploration that a baby is born helpless, with particular survival and attachment behaviours, so that they are able to survive, and this theory has been added to and developed upon ever since.
It was Bowlby and Ainsworth who worked together to identify different attachment styles (1965.) Ainsworth (1969) identified from her research that there were four attachment styles.
She identified ‘secure attachment’ which is used to describe when a child is very attached to the mother. This has come through the ability of the mother to be attuned to the needs of the baby and child.
Then she observed ‘anxious-resistant insecure’ attachment, where the level of response from the primary care giver has been inconsistent. This child becomes irritated when the stranger appears in the room, while mother is still nearby. And when mother leaves, the child cannot explore and continue play. He is very distressed. But when the mother returns, the child appears resentful and upset towards the mother and rejects her.
Where the primary care giver has been rejecting and insensitive of the child’s needs, we see ‘anxious-avoidant insecure’ attachment. This child doesn’t show much in the way of emotions whether the mother is in the room or not. He doesn’t want to be played with or held. He acts the same with the stranger as well.
Disorganised Attachment was identified later (Main & Solomon, 1990) and describes a child who has suffered some kind of neglect or abuse from the primary caregiver. Sroufe later identified in his 30 year study that disorganised attachment (trauma), in infancy, is by itself a strong predictor of later disturbance (2005) unlike for those children who had experienced other poor attachment beginnings.
Attachment theory offers us a means of understanding early childhood development through a relational lens. “Attachment is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver” (Sroufe & Siegal, 2011.)
Attachment Theory with the emergent knowledge from neuroscience, has enabled a deeper understanding of how we develop. Researchers at Harvard within The Center of The Developing Child tell us that brain architecture grows from the bottom up, through relationships, on a serve and return basis, literally wiring up the developing brain. Where this works well due to a secure attachment with an emotionally available adult within a resilient community, the brain can build the connections it needs to work and develop at optimum capability. Everything works together, supporting all the parts of the brain to work well together, supporting the growing baby and child to manage the experience of growing.
Divecha (2017) states that secure attachment has at least three functions:
• Provides a sense of safety and security
• Regulates emotions, by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm
• Offers a secure base from which to explore
Attachment then is about the child’s ability to learn how to regulate their emotions through the safety of an adult that is able to co-regulate with them and the safety that this provides. The ability to regulate behaviour and emotions means that a child is better able to relate to others and be more able to manage pre and early school settings (Tayler, 2015.) On the other hand, children who are highly dysregulated tend to show behavioural extremes, Berlin 2001, Howe 2006, cited in O’Neill et al (2010.)
It is now understood that we grow and develop through the interplay between DNA, the world into which we arrive and the capabilities of the caregivers to respond to attachment behaviours. In other words, prior to arriving at pre-school into a more formal and socially demanding environment, children have encountered a whole range of experiences that set the tone for the beginning of this learning journey. Around 80% of the brain develops in the first three years of life so the quality of those relationships in the role of that brain building opportunity and moment in time becomes paramount (Urban Child Institute, 2017)
A Little About Adverse Childhood Experiences
Much research has focused on the impact of toxic stress, that is where the emotional brain centre is overloaded and there is not an available adult to co-regulate with the baby or child. There are numerous studies within a neuroscientific analysis that show damage to the amygdala, the hippocampus and the corpus callosum where there has been neglect or abuse (Porges 2011, Siegal 2011, Schore 2000, Gerdhart 2004, Schonkoff 2000.) Our early experiences affect our development and “research indicates that the trajectory for learning across the developmental lifespan is radically affected by early trauma experiences” (O’Neill, Guenette and Kitchenham 2010.)
Adverse Childhood Experiences are not especially rare or unusual. Children living in adversarial and harmful situations are everywhere. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, living with domestic violence and living with addiction are just a few of the experiences that a significant number of children are dealing with in their daily lives.
The original ACE Study from The Kaiser Institute in the USA was conducted from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. Over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organisation members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviours.
In the UK the ACE study has been released in Wales (2016) and also in Northants, Luton and Hertfordshire (2016) and have repeated the findings from the Kaiser Institute in the US. The higher someone’s ACE score the more likely they are to feature as having a number of health challenges as an adult. For the purposes of understanding the impact upon children while they are still in learning and are developing, the ACE study has shown early initiation of smoking, early initiation of sexual activity, adolescent pregnancy and poor academic achievement. “Childhood abuse and neglect profoundly distort and impair self-regulation” (Van der Kolk, 2005, cited O’Neill et al 2010:192.)
With the continuing upward rise in mental health difficulties among children and young people (Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2015), it has become a desire from many to try and find out why this is happening and how it is affecting the classroom. This has become of huge concern and while studying the impact of ACE’s upon their population started in the United States back in 1995 with a focus on the health of the adult, with the UK now starting to release its’ own studies we are able to take a more localised view of how children and young people are affected by their environments and if the will to do so follows, we are more informed to develop a preventive strategy.
By understanding this, we can begin to grasp the impact upon the development of the child and also the impact upon their learning in modern British State Education. This can lead us into a deeper understanding about how we recover from the things that happen to us and ultimately, how we can break the cycle of children living with ACE’s through prevention and therapeutic interventions with parents and communities.
A Few Theories of Learning
Bringing together theories of learning alongside theories of attachment may offer a way of starting to understand why some children who have poor attachments and even early traumatic childhood experiences, go on to learn in the classroom and develop well across the course of their childhood.
Piaget’s theory on learning and development focused on cognition which came out of maturity and the interaction with the environment (1936.) His interest in children’s cognitive abilities came through observing that the child and the adult thought about things in a different way. Piaget believed that children are born with a very basic mental structure upon which learning and knowledge are based. Readiness to learn, the child’s ability to learn something new, is important to Piaget. Being at the right cognitive stage in order to learn is important in his model as the learner must be active and not passive. If a child can’t learn something, it is because they are not ready to do so.
Piaget does not appear to incorporate the impact of the environment and the people within it, into his work. Vgotsky argues that social interaction with the people around the child are hugely important in the ability to learn.
Kagan takes an even more pre-determined view of how we develop in his exploration on ‘vulnerability and triggers,’ stating that focusing on experiences without looking at interpretation of those events is problematic. He asserts that it is temperament that is an initial predisposition. Origin is in the inherited neurobiology.
For Vigotsky, learning is a co-construct between learners and the teacher and the child is influenced by the environment that they grow up in. The child’s learning for Piaget is self-initiated. This suggests that the child is limited by their own innate ability to makes sense of the world. Vgotsky understands that our interconnectedness and ‘the more knowledgeable other’ is a central element to how we learn. Learning is what takes place in the zone between what is known by the child and what is known by the more knowledgeable other. “Over the last quarter of the 20th century, attention to the work of Vygotsky has brought learning into prominence as necessary to activate the developmental process” (Tayler 2015:161.)
If we use psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) as a framework for understanding learning and development, then we would argue that the basic needs of the learner have to be met in order for them to progress into a ‘growth’ state. Maslow says that we need to meet our physiological needs, then our safety needs in order to develop a sense of belonging and self-esteem with the potential to reach self-actualisation. The challenge in a school setting is that meeting basic needs are not really possible (although many schools and teachers formally and informally provide breakfast and free meals are available for certain children who meet the criteria and apply for them) but inevitably there is an expectation that those needs are met at home.
Where there are more complex family situations, these basic physiological needs can be unmet and poverty adds a whole new dimension to this which I am unable to explore here. But as Shonkoff states, “one of the most consistent associations in developmental science is between economic hardship and compromised child development (2000:275.) However, a school setting and an emotionally available teacher can provide the sense of safety and from that, a sense of belonging (Geddes, 2005.) Using Maslow’s model to build an ‘attachment aware’ setting, the role of school and the teacher in a community setting for the impact on the child learner, cannot be underestimated.
Roche demonstrates this beautifully in her work with learning through dialogue and although we don’t know the attachment history of all the children she is working with in her videos, she shows how powerful books can be when accompanied by connection, being emotionally available and utilising the space between what is known (by the child and some of the other children) and the ‘more knowledgeable other’ (Roche). She teaches about the book she is reading with them through talking with the children about the cover, front and back, the pictures, the ‘blurb’ on the back and the fact that the author is the illustrator as well as the writer.
This is a huge amount of information about what makes up a book and seeks to develop language skills before the book has even been opened. Tayler (2015:168) cites the work of Oades-Sese & Li, 2011 on how the child who develops more advanced language skills is more likely to have positive outcomes including better reading and writing skills and increased social and emotional development and Roche’s Developing Critical Thinking model of learning seems to really incorporate this.
Roche shows how the children can develop their critical thinking and increase their language skills, delivered through connection, empathy and availability; attachment. O’Neill et all (2910:194) cite Neufeld & Mate, 2004 argue that attachment to the teacher is paramount for a child to acquire reading skills. However, would a child with a disorganised attachment or one living with trauma, be able to gain from that work in the same way and how much work can be completed in the classroom when the child is unable to form an attachment with the teacher to enable the process of learning to take place? Would that work have to be done therapeutically outside of the classroom first?
Geddes (2005) model of The Learning Triangle is helpful to think about where a child might be in the attachment behaviour. The triangle consists of the child, the teacher and the task. The relationship with the child needs to be a supportive one to enable the task to be focused upon and completed. She goes through the attachment styles observing that an over anxious child is going to need a lot of reassurance from the teacher, so much so that the child may not be able to focus on the task at all. With Roche’s approach to learning critical thinking, we can look at the learning triangle and apply it to her work especially as she working in a small group enabling her to build the kind of relationships that can support some poor attachment behaviours while remaining very focused on the task.
The complexity of our humanness was explored by Sroufe in his 30 year longitudinal study which set out to look at the developing person based on the hypothesis that “specific patterns of attachment had implications for both normal development and pathology” (2005:349)
Tayler (2015) argues that the type of early attachment we experience affects who we become and that secure attachments create learning, socially competent human beings and it seems to me that all the research I have seen points towards attachment as being the most important thing that happens to us in our development. But it is not the whole of the story and does not support a deterministic view of outcomes either of the securely attached child or the poorly attached one. As Shonkoff (2000) states, human development is shaped by a dynamic and continuous interaction between biology and experience. Early experiences might shape our start in life but relationships, experiences and environment can alter how that manifests in an individual.
This exploration leads me to assert that while poor attachments are not the start we want for any child, the potential for a child to learn and develop despite what has happened to them is utterly possible. The role of the teacher as an emotionally available and safe adult and the school environment as a safe place, are crucial in this process. This sits comfortably in the science of inter personal neurobiology and neuroscience that has found that the brain has plasticity and the wiring we acquire along the way is malleable; what we don’t use, we lose and new pathways are created on the principle of what fires together wires together (Hebb, 1949.)
This is what the potential of a relational approach has and can create great change for children who may have had challenging beginnings. “Given the brain’s potential for regeneration and growth throughout life, frequent positive feedback can also help to develop and reinforce more positive responses” (Geddes, 2006, p120.) Although it must be observed that children with a disorganised attachment may need a lot more intervention to make the classroom a safe space. O’Neill et al (2010:194) talk about a six year old boy who is integrated into the classroom after a year outside of the classroom working with one teacher and one counsellor.
Using our knowledge from psychology, psychiatry, educators, social work, the neurosciences and sociology, we can build a layered understanding that not only enables us to understand and inform practice but also allows us to be kinder to ourselves as practitioners and parents. This will better serve our own regulatory systems and mental health when trying to do the work of connection and therefore open up the possibility to alter the trajectory of the child in front of us.
Lisa Cherry is a leading trainer and consultant, specialising in assisting education professionals and those in social care, to understand trauma, recovery and resilience for vulnerable children, young people and their families. You can link with Lisa via her website or get in touch via Twitter
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