The Broken Toilet and the Importance of Attunement

The Broken Toilet and the Importance of Attunement

Helping children build secure attachments in the classroom can be lot harder than it looks. Attachment theory draws from many disciplines, and it is not easy to know where to start. In addition, teachers may wonder if all of this relationship stuff is part of their job description. Attunement is probably the best place to begin, but it takes know-how, time, and effort.

One of the key bits of work that allowed the theory of attachment to take off was the research of Mary Ainsworth. From her detailed observations of mothers and infants, she showed that infants become securely attached when their caregivers are in sync with them both physically and emotionally. This gives the child the experience of being met and understood. [1]

As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.

I learned the importance of attunement almost by chance in my first teaching job in Scotland. I wasn’t that anxious about meeting my new pupils, but maybe I should have been. I quickly found out that one ten-year-old boy in my class, David*, was in the midst of an emotional crisis. He had been placed recently with a foster carer, having suffered years of neglect and abuse from his mum.

I remember walking David back to class one day when he suddenly collapsed to the ground. It was as if his legs had been taken out from under him; he lay there sobbing. He had been looking forward to seeing his mum, but she hadn’t shown up again.

David’s difficulties in class were extremely challenging, and the only strategy I was given to help him was a point system in which he could earn or lose Golden Time (the Scottish equivalent of free time) each Friday. By Monday afternoon, David had already lost all of his Golden Time. When presented with work, he would tear it up and swear at me. When challenged, he would sometimes bite deeply into his arm or tear everything off the walls of the classroom. As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.

I remembered something from one of my lectures at university. Over the next two weeks, I wrote down descriptions of all of David’s challenging behaviours. I described his behaviours as if I was giving it to someone who had never met him. I focused on the detail of what each behaviour looked liked. For example, rather than saying, “He was disrespectful to adults,” I wrote, “He pointed his bum at me and smacked it!”

Little by little, David’s behaviour in school began to change. The meltdowns still came, but they didn’t last as long. I noticed when he was really upset, he didn’t want me to leave. After a couple of months, the head teacher came to me, “I am changing David’s risk assessment so he can go out of the school and play football with the team, as long as you go with him.”

What caused the improvement? Upon reflection, I realized that the only thing that had changed was something in me. I noticed that I could tell what kind of day David would have just by watching him walk into school in the morning. This awareness allowed me to fine-tune the work I was giving him. I made sure there was no mental maths on a day when he was anticipating a visit with his mum. I could tell when he was anxious or frightened.

❝Simply making observations was not enough.
I also had to learn to ‘read’ the behaviours
as cues in order to respond appropriately.❞

One day he came to me and said that the sink was broken in the toilets. Previously I would have ignored this and got on with the lesson, but I could see that it was causing him distress. He was pacing restlessly. He was worried that someone might get hurt. After that, each morning, before we began class, I would take him to look out the window, and reassure him that the plumbers that worked for Glasgow City Council were very good and would come soon. I also found myself feeling empathy towards him instead of being afraid of his anger and violent behaviour.

What made the difference in my classroom? David experienced what it was like to have an adult attuned to him. Mary Ainsworth defined this kind of sensitivity in the mothers she observed as, “the ability to perceive and to interpret accurately the signals and communications implicit in her infant’s behaviour, and given this understanding, to respond to them appropriately.” [2]

Simply making observations was not enough. I also had to learn to “read” the behaviours as cues in order to respond appropriately. I developed an awareness of David’s inner state, his thoughts and feelings, a mind-mindedness.

Attunement builds secure attachments when the supporting adult:

• Builds an extensive knowledge of a child through observation
• Is capable of perceiving things from the child’s point of view
• Responds in way that shows the adult is reading the behaviour as a “cue”
• Monitors the child’s response to ensure that the adult is reading the cue correctly
• Voices out loud what is going on in the child’s mind [3]

This isn’t something that only primary school teachers can learn to do. I remember when I was training to be a teacher, observing a teenager who looked like she was about to explode with anger. As the class approached the art room, the teacher was standing at the doorway. She was an older lady and small in stature. I remember thinking this could go badly. I held my breath.

As the rest of the class settled to work, the teacher, as if able to read some tell-tale signs, honed in on the one, angry teenager. She sat next to her and said in a quiet, chatty tone, “I was thinking about you and what you would need to finish your work. I have been saving these pens for you.” It was like watching a parent of a much younger child, arranging the materials on the desk and all the while chatting away. There was an almost palpable drop in the tension. I breathed again.

Becoming attuned is foundational in supporting a child with attachment difficulties. Many other kinds of support depend on at least one adult being able to “read” the young person. Attunement allows us to act quickly to help a child who is not coping, and to offer just the right kind of reassurance. Once we can read his or her cues, we can begin the work of helping a child become more self-aware and emotionally regulated. (This will be covered in more depth in a future blog.)

It is inevitable that there will be times when we get it wrong. We may miss a cue and leave the child feeling disconnected. However, having the sensitivity to repair the relationship is important; it is a vital part of the process of building secure attachments.

Over the years, I lost touch with David. However, seven years later, I was in a meeting with senior social workers and politicians from across Scotland. A group of young people presented a drama about the lives of looked after children. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there was David. Much taller and more confident, he performed flawlessly. Seeing David brought back some of my favourite memories of teaching: the look of surprise on his face and the sound of his laughter when I came into the classroom dressed up as a character from a story we were reading. I am grateful for David and all that he taught me.

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

Better Practice by Building Attunement

1. Observe the young person and write detailed descriptions of their behaviours. Descriptions like, “He was disrespectful,” don’t help us notice what the young person looks like. Our goal is to train ourselves to be able to recognize subtle differences in things like facial expression and tone of voice.

2. Don’t just observe behaviours that are challenging or distressed. Try to identify behaviours that show when he is settled, concentrating, happy, and relaxed. These are harder to notice because they may occur only infrequently.

3. Observe your own and others’ reactions to the young person. These can also be clues to how the child is feeling. As we become attuned to the young person, we will probably pick up on their feelings of rejection, shame, and hopelessness.

4. Prioritize those behaviours. Rather than which ones cause you most difficulty as a teacher, think about which behaviours make the young person more vulnerable. When I do this it helps me to have more empathy. I am not trying to change the young person because his behaviours make my life more difficult; rather, I need to think about how his behaviours are causing him to become isolated and cutting him off from the kinds of things that kids ought to be able to enjoy.

5. Use the questions in Louise Bomber’s book, Inside I’m Hurting. [4]
What makes his eyes sparkle?
What makes him fidget?
What makes him feel uncomfortable?
Which feelings does he try and avoid?
How does he cope with failure?
How does he respond to help?
What happens when there is tension of conflict in the room?

Other Resources

Edward Tronick’s ‘Still Face Experiment’ shows how sensitive children are to the loss of attunement:

B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 107-124. In chapter seven, he explains the importance of emotional attunement and the benefits of secure attachments.


[1] B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 113.

[2] M. D. S. Ainsworth, S. M. Bell, and D. J. Stayton, “Infant–mother attachment and social development: Socialization as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals,” in The Introduction of the Child Into a Social World, ed. M. P. M. Richards. (London: Cambridge University Press,1974), 99-135.

[3] E. Meins, “Sensitive Attunement to Infants’ Internal States: Operationalizing the Construct of Mind-Mindedness,” Attachment & Human Development, 15:5-6, (2013): 524-544.

[4] L. M. Bomber, Inside I’m Hurting, Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools. (London: Worth Publishing, 2007), p. 87.

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

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