Attachment theory in schools

Written by: Professor Elizabeth Harlow | Published:
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The implications of attachment theory are becoming more and more relevant to the work of schools. Professor Elizabeth Harlow looks at the research and signposts a range of resources, training and support

Attachment is the strong, affectionate tie we have with special people in our lives that leads us to experience pleasure and joy when we interact with them and to be comforted by their nearness in times of stress.
By the second half of the first year, infants have become attached to familiar people who have responded to their needs (Berk 2013: 428).

Within the UK, attachment theory has had significance for the policies and practice that relate to social work and childcare: in particular, for the safeguarding of children, the provision of foster care, and the planning of a permanent home for those who are unable to live with their family of origin (see for example, NICE 2015; Schofield & Beek 2006).

Children who have suffered abuse and neglect are less likely to have benefited from sustained secure attachments. Although resilience may mediate against any inevitable consequences, these children are more likely to be insecure and anxious: in consequence, continuity, an understanding environment, and one or more relationships that provide a secure base become essential for future growth and development.

While a secure and trusting relationship has been seen as imperative in the child’s home, its relevance in the school environment has also become the subject of attention.

Training and support

A Good Practice Guide for Schools is provided by Clements (2013) and an accessible introduction to attachment theory and the needs of looked after children in school has been produced by Timpson (2016) (free from Timpson shops and from books@timpson.com).

In 2014, as a means of helping schools to meet the needs of looked after and previously looked after children, the government extended the Pupil Premium. Schools can apply to the Virtual School Head for a grant of up to £1,900 per-child. The use of the money is decided by the school and it is intended to further the achievement of that particular pupil’s Personal Education Plan (DfE 2014).

Thomas (2015) and Webber (2017) provide case studies of the ways in which these budgets might be used. In most instances, the budgets are likely to be used for one-to-one support. However, there may be occasions when training the whole school on attachment and the needs of adopted and looked after children would be appropriate.

In a number of schools, third sector organisations have trained staff members on the ways in which schools can become “attachment aware”. While recommendations are not being made, a list of organisations providing these services is available at the end of this article. In addition, Bath Spa University, in conjunction with Bath and North-east Somerset Council and the National College for Teaching and Leadership et al., has developed training materials on attachment and the implications for learning and behaviour (see further information).

Based on similar theoretical foundations, the Nurture Groups Network offers consultancy and support for schools aiming to improve the learning environment for children who may have experienced a traumatic start in life.

Furthermore, as a result of funding from the Alex Timpson Trust, the impact of attachment awareness in schools is being evaluated by the Rees Centre, Oxford University.

The impact

The overarching aim of introducing attachment theory to the school environment, is to encourage a greater appreciation of the emotional needs of children and young people, which are understood in terms of relationship. The aim is for school staff members, and the school itself, to become a secure base, in order that the potential for children’s learning and development is maximised.

Although this may be particularly important for children who are, or have been, looked after by the local authority, it has been recognised that many children who remain at home may also have experienced trauma, and may not enjoy secure attachments within their family.

In consequence, attachment theory has been seen as relevant for schools in general (see Bomber & Hughes 2013; Geddes 2006; and Marshall 2014). It has been argued that the implementation of attachment theory in school can improve the wellbeing of pupils and therefore their academic performance (see Bergin & Bergin 2009), and by helping school staff understand and respond to disruptive behaviour as evidence of emotional insecurity, the rate of exclusions can be reduced. Furthermore, attachment disorder is acknowledged in the Department for Education’s advice on mental health and behaviour in school (DfE 2015).

The application of attachment theory in schools

By drawing on published research and literature, Bergin and Bergin (2009) conclude that there are two ways main ways in which the principles of attachment theory can be applied in schools. First, to the teacher-pupil relationship and, second, to the functioning of the school as a whole. At risk of oversimplification, what follows is a summary drawn from the research.

Teacher-student relationship

A secure teacher-student relationship is characterised by trust and being attuned. The student would feel safe and able to seek help while the teacher would be able to console the student when required. Teachers should be educated in child development and have time to cultivate supportive relationships, but they also need to be authentic in their dealings, have high expectations of pupils, be well prepared for class, and facilitate pupil autonomy (in terms of being sensitive to the child’s agenda and allowing some choice). If a child’s biography has led to an insecure style of attachment, teachers may find them “hard to reach” and face challenges in building a trusting relationship. Nevertheless, efforts to build such a relationship can succeed.

A whole-school approach

Positive results may be gained when school leaders encourage a warm socio-emotional climate and a culture of respect. In order to stimulate a sense of security, continuity of people and place is important, and benefit may be gained when essential transitions (across years and schools) are facilitated. Small schools that are embedded within their communities are more likely to encourage pupil bonding, and inclusive extra-curricular activities are beneficial. A description of an attachment-informed, whole-school approach to improving the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils in Australia is provided by Patton et al (2000).

While Bergin and Bergin (2009) claim that the attachment of a pupil to parents and teachers influences school success, they also acknowledge that caring for children in school is a worthy goal in its own right (Noddings 1992).

However, it is recognised that educational environments are complex, and all school staff members in the UK are challenged by the current regime of economic austerity. Furthermore, many schools are already implementing practices based on attachment theory. Nevertheless, for those not in this category, the application of the principles attachment theory in school may be worthy of exploration, as they may lead to beneficial outcomes for all concerned.

  • Professor Elizabeth Harlow is a professor of social work at the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the University of Chester. The preparation of this paper has been made possible by funding from the Looked After Children in Schools initiative of the Alex Timpson Trust.

Further information

Training providers

References

  • Bergin C & Bergin D (2009) Attachment in the Classroom, Educational Psychology Review, 21: 141-170.
  • Berk LE (2013) Child Development London: Pearson (9th ed).
  • Bomber LM & Hughes DA (2013) Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School London: Worth Publishing.
  • Clements J (2013) A Good Practice Guide for Schools. Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Children who are Looked After, Fostered, Adopted or otherwise Permanently Placed London: PAC-UK.
  • DfE (Department for Education) (2014 – last updated March 2015) Pupil Premium: Virtual School Heads’ Responsibilities: http://bit.ly/2CvQNuy
  • DfE (Department for Education) (2015 – last updated March 2016) Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools. Department Advice for School Staff: http://bit.ly/2qcslcF
  • Geddes H (2006) Attachment in the Classroom. The Links Between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-being and Performance in the Classroom London: Worth Publishing.
  • Marshall N (2014) The Teachers Introduction to Attachment. Practical Essentials for Teachers, Carers and School Support Staff London: Jessica Kingsley.
  • NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) (November 2015) Children’s Attachment: Attachment in Children and Young People Who Are Adopted from Care, In Care or At High Risk of Going into Care: www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng26
  • Noddings N (1992) The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Patton GC, Glover S, Bond L, Butler H, Godfrey C, Pietro GD, & Bowes G (2000) The Gatehouse Project: A Systemic Approach to Mental Health Promotion in Secondary Schools, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 34: 586-593.
  • Schofield G & Beek M (2006) Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption London: BAAF.
  • Timpson J (2016) Looking After Looked After Children Manchester: Timpson Ltd.
  • Thomas C (2015) Pupil Premium for Adopted Children. Case Studies. British Association of Adoption and Fostering/Department for Education: http://bit.ly/2CEwFUN
  • Webber L (2017) A School’s Journey in Creating a Relational Environment Which Supports Attachment and Emotional Security, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 22(4), 317-331.


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