Why is this section important?

The experience of attachment difficulties, trauma and loss can have long lasting effects on how children and young people relate to others, even if these new relationships are with people who are safe and positive. 

These experiences can lead to behavioural, emotional and mental health difficulties. Schools who are aware of these issues can make a positive difference to the mental health and wellbeing of all children and in turn, the wellbeing of the whole school community. 

The theories introduced here are complex and support for every child will be different.  This section introduces you to some of the basics, for specialist support, please see our Resources, Agencies and Partners page.

 

Introduction to attachment styles and their impact on learning and behaviour

Attachment is the term used to describe the relationship an infant develops with their primary care giver(s).  The attachment relationship is an affectionate bond that endures through time and it connects the infant with their care giver(s) physically and emotionally (Bowlby 1969).   The attachment relationship develops by care givers responding appropriately to a baby or child’s needs.  For example, when a baby cries, care givers comfort the baby, feed them or change their nappy, and hold them.  The care giver is fulfilling the baby’s physical and emotional needs.  As the baby gets older and is crawling or walking, they need to see their care giver as a ‘secure base’ from which they can explore their environment.  If the baby gets distressed, they return to their care giver to have their emotional needs met.  They are then able to leave their secure base again and learn more about their environment.

Bowlby suggested that these early experiences between an infant and a care giver created the child’s ‘internal working models’.  These models influence what the child thinks about themselves (“am I loveable?”); what they feel about others (“are other people reliable and do they meet my needs?”); and how they experience the world (“is the world out there a safe place to be explored and learn from?”). 

Ainsworth and others have identified 4 main attachment styles with characteristic behaviours of both the child and the care giver.  It is important to note that insecure ambivalent and insecure avoidant children do have an attachment to their care giver: as many as 40% of young people in school may have these types of insecure attachments:

A child with Secure attachment style will confidently explore their environment, concentrating on activities for extended periods of time and seeking help from the caregiver when needed.  The care giver responds appropriately, warmly and consistently to the child's needs and provides comfort and enjoyment.

A child with Insecure Ambivalent attachment style is more tentative in their exploration of their environment and seeks lots of support from the care giver as they are uncertain about what response will be given.  Care giver response varies between being sensitive and insensitive to the child’s needs.

A child with Insecure Avoidant attachment style is very vigilant when exploring the environment and appears to be self-sufficient but actually self-regulation is poor.  Care giver response is dismissive and consistently insensitive to the emotional needs of the child. They usually responds appropriately to physical needs.

A child with a Disorganised  attachment style does not explore the environment and feels that their distress increases when they appeal to the care giver.  The child's behaviour is erratic, they can appear detached and angry and may self-comfort. The care giver responds to the child's needs by being frightening or frightened, they are frequently neglectful and/or abusive and may abandon the infant and/or leave them with unfamiliar carers.

How can we help? Promoting positive behaviour according to attachment type

Attachment type: Insecure ambivalent 

Internal Working Model

  • Some ability to trust, relate to others and self-regulate, but also
  • clingy, rejecting, irritable moods and episodes of poor self-regulation

Typical behaviours

  • Talks all the time
  • Constantly asks seemingly irrelevant questions
  • Demands constant attention from the teacher
  • Hostile when frustrated
  • Poor concentration
  • Fidgeting, turning round all the time

What the child thinks or feels

  • I feel safer if I do all the talking
  • I want to communicate but I am not sure how to do so appropriately
  • If I don’t keep reminding you I am here you might forget about me and abandon me
  • I am afraid of getting things wrong
  • Negative attention is better than no attention
  • I cannot relax. I must check the room all the time for danger

What the school can do

  • Have a set routine
  • All first tasks should be achievable
  • Sit the child close to you
  • Allow the child to wait quietly
  • Acknowledge the child through both verbal and non- verbal gestures
  • Give the child something to look after
  • Give the child responsibility for things (not people)
  • Give the child something tactile to fiddle with
  • Use a timer for tasks
  • Break tasks down into small steps
  • Arrange seating so there is no one behind the child, but you are still close
  • Laugh with the child, even at silly things

Attachment type: Insecure avoidant

Internal Working Model

  • Some trust in relation to physical needs being met
  • guarded and self-sufficient.

 Typical behaviours

  • Withdrawn
  • Unable to make or keep friends
  • Bullies other vulnerable children
  • Refuses help with work
  • Destroys property

 What the child thinks or feels

  • I have to rely on myself and no one else
  • I run away from frightening situations
  • I need to make other children do what I want
  • I don’t value anything
  • I am not interested in anything that isn’t mine
  • I am angry and take it out on things

What the school can do

  • Use a buddy system or ‘Circle of Friends’
  • Encourage the child to help around school
  • Offer paired or small group work
  • Ask the child to help another who is less able
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings “I can see you are angry…..”
  • Help the child repair or restore where possible
  • Consider restorative approaches

Attachment type: Disorganised

Internal Working Model

  • Distrustful, fearful,
  • confused,
  • angry and despairing.

 Typical behaviours

  • Refuses to engage with work
  • Tries to create chaos
  • Oppositional and defiant
  • Sexually aggressive

 What the child thinks or feels

  • Making mistakes is very frightening
  • Being wrong will lead to terrible rejection
  • I am chaotic inside and I feel safer if it is chaotic outside too
  • I must be in control so that I will not get hurt
  • I must not be exposed as stupid
  • You are horrible like all adults
  • I know from experience that sex=power and I must be in control

What the school can do

  • Offer choices, making sure all the choices are appealing
  • Make tasks very structured: multiple choice/ cloze/ sentence completion
  • Make sure all the materials that the child will need are readily accessible to them
  • Aim to modify the most serious behaviour only
  • Acknowledge and recognise the child’s feelings “I can see you are upset……..”
  • Be assertive
  • Avoid showing anger, irritation or fear
  • Start each day with a clean slate
  • Record all incidents very clearly and seek help from other agencies where necessary

Other indicators of attachment difficulties

Typical behaviours

  • Unable to accept praise
  • Cannot have fun
  • Physically or verbally abusive
  • Ignores instructions
  • Sulks
  • Avoids eye contact
  • In trouble at break and lunchtimes
  • Lying
  • Stealing

What the child thinks or feels

  • I don’t deserve praise
  • You must be stupid if you can’t see how bad I am
  • When I am frightened I run away, fight or freeze
  • I have too much anxiety to listen or concentrate
  • I have no words to describe my feelings
  • I am afraid of being rejected by my peers
  • I panic in crowds
  • I am not sure who I am or what the truth is
  • I prefer to make things up how I wish that they could be
  • I don’t expect to get what I want or need
  • I don’t know that you can feel hurt or angry
  • I feel powerful when you are upset

 What the school can do

  • Be very specific when giving praise
  • Consider giving praise in private
  • Do not threaten removal or rejection: be inclusive “come and sit next to me while I help the rest of the class”
  • ‘Think out loud’ about why the behaviour may have happened, but don’t ask the child to explain “I wonder if you felt hurt when JJ didn’t choose you to be their partner’
  • Keep a set routine
  • Explicitly say the plan of activities for the session at the beginning
  • Let the child make lists
  • Reassure verbally and non-verbally: smiling, thumbs up
  • Sit with the child side by side
  • Increase structure and supervision at break and lunchtime
  • Have an inside retreat for break and lunchtimes
  • Don’t accuse a child of lying: just state the truth or reality simply and briefly
  • Do not insist that a child says sorry: use restorative approaches and allow the child to repair the situation where possible

When behaviour suddenly deteriorates

This can happen around special occasions like Mother’s Day, birthdays, religious celebrations and weekends or at other times

What the child is thinking or feeling

  • There is a painful anniversary coming up
  • A new sibling has been born
  • I have contact with my birth family coming up
  • I have just had contact with my birth family (expected or unexpected)
  • Before or after weekends

What the school can do

  • Be sensitive in the delivery of the curriculum
  • Allow the child the time and space to deal with feelings away from the classroom

 

Introduction to trauma and its impact on learning and behaviour

Many children looked after have experienced trauma.  Common causes include:

  • Violence in the home.
  • Drug and/or alcohol dependence of the care giver. (It is estimated that this is an issue in two thirds of care proceedings).
  • Loss of a carer giver (death, abandonment or imprisonment).
  • Stressful environment due to housing or financial problems.
  • Experiences of war or disaster.
  • Carer ill health (physical or mental health issues).
  • Child ill health which may have meant long separations from their care giver due to hospitalisation.
  • Parental neglect or abuse. Especially damaging as the person who should be providing safety and care to the child is dangerous and frightening.

Children can overcome trauma with support from loving care givers.  However, children looked after have often experienced multiple traumas over a long period of time (chronic).  Trauma is linked to a number of behaviours which can be challenging in school including lack of emotional control, poor organisational and planning skills, problems with working memory and difficulty beginning new activities or transitioning between activities. 

Supporting children who have experienced trauma

The Australian Childhood Foundation (2006) developed a framework for supporting young people who have experienced trauma in school.  This framework uses the acronym PRACTICE.  The school should aim to

  • Give children very predictable routines
  • support children to develop relationships with peers and adults who are supportive and consistent
  • keep children calm
  • build children’s memory and cognitive functions
  • improve children’s behaviour
  • support children to shape their internal emotional reactions

Predictable

Traumatised children experience change to routines and their environment as a potential threat.

Strategies:

  • Create an environment that is predictable and familiar.
  • Build a reliable routine of activity that traumatised children will experience as familiar over time.
  • Always prepare traumatised child for what is coming up next.
  • Establish a supportive pattern of one to one communication with traumatised children that explains the immediate and short term future.
  • Be particularly sensitive to times of transition.
  • Use daily and weekly timetables that traumatised children can understand. For younger children, build a visual timetable that they can carry with them or keep on their desk.

Responsive

Traumatised children often find it difficult to remember and apply rules and consequences. The challenging behaviour demonstrated by traumatised children can provoke reactions in others which further escalate stress and disengagement. Being responsive to traumatised children relies on understanding the meaning and purpose of the behaviour.

Strategies:

  • Understand the purpose of the behaviour in the context of the way that children deal with and manage stress or change at school
  • Use low stress opportunities to constantly reinforce rules
  • Sanction misbehaviour without being rejecting of the child
  • Track, record and acknowledge when children abide by the rules
  • Use neutral body language and tone of voice when delivering feedback or implementing consequences
  • After an issue has been resolved, go back to the traumatised child and talk it through with him/her again positively to reinforce the rules

 Attuned

Traumatised children are not attuned (in touch with) to the way they feel because

  • they experience feelings as separate to themselves
  • they have a limited vocabulary of feelings that they can describe and express
  • their responses tend to be reflexive (from the primitive limbic area of the brain) rather than thoughtful and planned (controlled by their brain cortex)
  • they transfer the emotional reaction from a previous traumatic experience into a current situation without any awareness that they are doing this

Strategies:

  • Help traumatised children to develop a vocabulary about feelings
  • Identify ways to support traumatised children to name and know the way they are feeling
  • Find ways for key school staff to be aware of and track children’s feelings on a regular basis
  • Play feelings bingo with children. This game encourages children to identify feelings and name them. Each student is given a bingo sheet and they circle feelings they have experienced that day

 Connecting

Traumatised children often feel disconnected from their feelings, their memories and their own sense of identity because

  • they are used to having their feelings ignored
  • they spend a lot of time feeling stressed or overwhelmed which reduces their brain’s capacity to understand experiences
  • their memory of experiences are unstable
  • their experience of relationships has been poor.

Strategies:

  • Provide opportunities for key school staff to regularly reflect back to children the way they seem to be feeling.
  • Support traumatised children to experience validation of their feelings, memories and thoughts.
  • Identify ways to help children experience relationships as consistent over time

 Translating

Children’s memory capacity is disrupted by trauma. They feel separate from their past and present and therefore find it very hard to think about the future.

Strategies:

  • Create regular opportunities to review with children what they have done during the day or week;
  • Help children write/tell real life stories which include them in it;
  • Use a range of techniques to record children’s memories and experiences;
  • Build stories with children that project them into the future with qualities that they know about themselves in the present.

 Involving

Traumatised children have poor internal working models for forming, maintaining, understanding and being in relationships with their peers because

  • they have often not experienced positive relationships with peers
  • they can find it difficult to tolerate the feelings of others and therefore do not know how to respond
  • they often use unhelpful behaviour to engage with peers because they do not know how to engage appropriately

Strategies:

  • Create opportunities for children to become part of a group that shares interest, not necessarily social ability
  • Engage children in practicing co-operative rather than competitive games
  • Role model positive social exchanges with children
  • Support and value relationships as part of normal school activities.

 Calming

Traumatised children live in a constant state of elevated stress. They experience the unfamiliar as threatening. They have little understanding and experience of what calm is, and they do not know how to calm themselves down.

Strategies:

  • Plan regular opportunities for relaxation into every day
  • Use music and other similar activities that help children to experience how these can change their feeling
  • Focus on physical activities that helps children to relax their body as well as their mind
  • Be aware of your own stress levels and apply strategies to keep yourself relaxed and resourced, this will avoid you inadvertently escalating situations with traumatised young people
  • Develop and use a checklist to support children to identify and remember strategies that they know will help to calm them down.

Engaging

Traumatised children have poor internal working models for relating to adults because

  • they have had experiences of adults not knowing or meeting their needs
  • past relationships with adults have felt unpredictable
  • adults have hurt them in the past
  • they are unsure about how to have any control or influence over adult behaviour or communication.

Strategies:

  • Engage in daily and repetitive exchanges that communicate continuity no matter what
  • Give messages to children that explain how trust, care and support are related to each other
  • Build and maintain consistent, engaging strategies over time and across different settings at school.

 For more information on Trauma, join the Achievement for All community to access coach led and online training modules.

 

 Introduction to loss and its impact on learning and behaviour

CLA have often experienced loss before they are looked after, as a result of the difficult relationships that they have with their care givers and the challenging circumstances that they live in.  For example, they may have frequently felt abandoned and feared that they had lost their care giver forever.  Alternatively, the child may have experienced inconsistent care, and felt loss and sadness during those times that their needs were not being met.

Being taken into care represents a further loss for the child, even if the attachment that they had to their birth parent was insecure or disorganised.  The child loses all that is familiar to them, even if their experiences are far from ideal.  Instability in foster placements leads to further experiences of loss.  Thus, CLA often have multiple losses.

Kubler-Ross (1969) suggested that there are stages that people experiencing loss or grief go through. The stages are

  • Shock and denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Despair and depression
  • Acceptance/understanding.

Each individual will go through the stages at their own pace, and in different orders. 

 Supporting young people with loss and grief

  • Talk about loss. This gives children permission to talk about it, too
  • Ask questions to determine how children understand loss, and gauge their physical and emotional reactions
  • Maintain consistent routines in school as these provide stability and reassurance
  • Listen patiently. Remember that each person is unique and will grieve in his or her own way, and in their own time
  • Be prepared to discuss the loss repeatedly. Children should be encouraged to talk about, act out, or express through writing or art, the details of the loss as well as their feelings about it, and about other changes that have occurred in their lives as a result of the loss.
  • Give children important facts about the loss at an appropriate developmental level. Do not tell lies or half-truths
  • Help children understand the loss and intervene to correct false perceptions about the cause of the event, ensuring that they do not blame themselves for the situation
  • Help the child to create memories such as using scrap books to recognise the people who have been important to them
  • Provide a model of healthy mourning by being open about times when you have experienced sadness and grief
  • Take care of yourself so you can assist the children and adolescents in your care
  • Acknowledge that it will take time to mourn and that recovery from loss is a process that occurs over months and years
  • Overcoming grief and loss is hard work and the child may become tired very easily. Allow opportunities to take a break
  • Children who have suffered multiple losses will need long lasting support. Try to establish multiple support mechanisms

Read more:

Attachment Aware Schools

Attachment Resource Community

A good practice guide for schools: Understanding and meeting the needs of children who are looked after, fostered, adopted or otherwise permanently placed

SMART: Strategies for managing abuse related trauma

Calmer classrooms: A guide to working with traumatised children