How Not to Start a Lesson

How not to begin a lesson: understanding the behaviours of children with attachment difficulties

Sean* had been excluded from school and was sitting around in the children’s house. Although a bright kid, I was his only link to any formal education. Each week when we met, he had shown himself to be resourceful at finding something to control. Once when I read to him, I missed a word. Sean insisted that I re-read it from the beginning.

Sean showed signs of being traumatized by the chaotic experiences of growing up in a family in which there was domestic violence and drug abuse. I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like.
From an early age, Sean’s only survival strategy was probably his ability to predict what others were about to do and to manipulate the adults around him.

This time I had come prepared with what I thought would be an engaging activity. We would build a model eyeball and conduct some simple experiments.

Sean was hyper-vigilant. As I walked into the room, I felt his gaze scanning me from head to toe.
Right away he saw I was carrying something in my bag. As I took out the pieces of the model eyeball, he brought out his phone. “Here listen to this. There aren’t that many swear words.”

I tried to reengage him in the activity. “Haven’t you ever wondered how your eye works? I’ll help you build a model eyeball.”

Recognising what we don’t understand allows us to
take a different stance, one in which curiosity about
what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.

Sean, who was already squirming on his chair, without warning threw up his arms and roared.

Sean was telling me that he could not tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing and not being in control.
My approach to introducing this activity was to assume that Sean, like most kids, would be motivated by curiosity, the thrill of discovering what makes something work. What I forgot was that Sean had never experienced the presence of a parent, a secure base who could moderate his anxiety when he was learning to explore his world as an infant. Sean’s roar was an expression of a primal defensive mechanism in the face of what felt like an overwhelming threat.

This example underlines several important principles for those of us who teach young people with attachment difficulties. First, we can’t always trust our own intuition about how children view learning.
Being able to recognize that some children’s beliefs, attitudes, and feelings are hard to discern sounds too obvious, but it is often overlooked. Recognizing what we don’t understand allows us to take a different stance, one in which curiosity about what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.

Deep down, I believe Sean could discover that kind of inquisitiveness that propels most children to learn, but I needed to approach him differently. If I had realized that the underlying issues were more about trust and the need for control, then I could have allowed him some measure of control in the activity. “Sean, you have a choice today. You decide which to do the first, the maths quiz or a science project.”

In addition, we need to become intentional about ‘learning’ the child. For example, we should learn what the tell-tale signs are that he or she is not coping. We need to learn what works for each child, what helps them connect to or tolerate the presence of another human being. Sean enjoyed completing mental maths quizzes. The fact that the questions had straightforward answers and the quiz was timed probably gave him a sense of something predictable and controlled, and therefore safe.

Is part of our problem as teachers that we make too many assumptions about young people?
We make assumptions about their behaviour based on our own experience of life. Children with attachment difficulties need teachers who are more open-minded, who accept that there may be unexpected explanations for their behaviour. It is not a quick fix, but the curiosity and acceptance we give may be a starting point for some young people.

When I maintain that kind of curious stance,
I am better able to think about alternative
explanations for a young person’s behaviour.

Why it works:
Researchers know relatively little about the characteristics of teachers who are able to maintain supportive relationships with young people who have very challenging behaviours [1]. However, we can learn some things from the research on parenting and attachment.

Parents who are able to raise kids who are securely attached tend to be better at mentalization.
This is the imaginative capacity to understand the kinds of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that underlie one’s own and another person’s behaviour [2]. Such parents are deeply interested in the thoughts and feelings of their children; they also recognize that their ability to truly know what is in their child’s mind is limited. They are good at perspective taking, understanding that their child may perceive shared experiences differently. As a result of this such parents, and maybe some teachers, are able to maintain what is called a curious stance. They resist the temptation of making assumptions about a young person’s behaviours.

Why this works for young people who have attachment difficulties is still, I think, a mystery.
Do young people feel less anxious? Do they sense a deeper commitment from such teachers?
Are teachers able to ‘learn’ the child and offer support before a young person becomes more agitated?
I know that when I maintain that kind of curious stance, I am better able to think about alternative explanations for a young person’s behaviour. That allows me to maintain empathy towards a child and reassure them when they feel overwhelmed and vulnerable.

* names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Building Better Practice by Understanding Attachment

1. What kinds of behaviours in the classroom might be due to attachment difficulties and/or a history of abuse and neglect?

2. If you are teaching a young person with challenging behaviours, what assumptions are you making about what motivates their behaviour?

3. If you think about behaviour as a form of communication, what is he or she actually telling you?

4. How would an understanding of attachment and trauma change your practice? How would it change your priorities in the classroom?


1. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 06c: Understanding attachment, Helen Minnis: Mental health.”
This short video gives a succinct explanation of attachment

2. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 07a: Understanding trauma and loss, Helen Minnis: Trauma and neglect.”
This short video gives a succinct explanation of the trauma of neglect and abuse.

3. Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: the links between children’s early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing.
Chapter 3 gives an outline of attachment theory and pages 76, 96, 114 include a summary of the impact insecure attachments can have on learning.

4. Geddes, H. & Hanko G. (2006) Behaviour and the Learning of Looked-After and Other Vulnerable Children.,%20attachment%20and%20communication.pdf
This paper looks at behaviour as a communication, attachment history and implications for behaviour and learning.

5. Golding, K. (2013). Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in School: a Tool for Identifying and Supporting Emotional and Social Difficulities in Children Aged 5-11. London: Jessica Kingsley
Appendix 2 describes attachment theory and how children with insecure attachments may present in school.

6. Hertfordshire County Council. (2007). Working with Looked after or Adopted Children in School. CSF Publication 0046, Issue 1.
Check out the two-page poster that can help staff think about what might underly behaviours.


[1] Stacks, M. A., Wong, K., Dykehouse T. (2013). Teacher reflective functioning: a preliminary study of measurement and self-reported teaching behaviour. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 14: 1-19.

[2] Ordway, M. R., Sadler, L. S., Dixon J., & Slade A. (2014). Parental reflective functioning: analysis and promotion of the concept for paediatric nursing. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 23: 3490-3500.

In my next article, I plan to share more about how understanding attachment helped me change my approach as a teacher…

(C) 2016, David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.

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