Understanding Attachment Helps Teachers Build Resilience in Young People

Understanding Attachment Helps Teachers Build Resilience in Young People

Resilience can be one of those buzz words in education. It is easy to talk about but trying to help vulnerable young people become more resilient can be more difficult than we imagine.

You present a young person with a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, for example, an outward-bound course. However, when the day comes and the bus is ready to leave, he is nowhere to be found.

You worked all year to prepare your class for the transition to high school. One of your pupils, from a difficult home situation, refuses to attend the new school after the first week.

Is it possible that we underestimate the vulnerability of some children because we don’t get how profoundly trauma* impacts young people? In addition, our view of resilience is so culturally conditioned that we think of resilience too much in terms of an individual’s strengths, rather than recognizing the importance of the relationships that surround a young person. A ‘stand on your own two feet,’ individualistic notion of resilience may be very unhelpful.

A recent phone call to a foster parent reminded me that in many cases building resilience in young people does not go to plan. Several years ago, I began a piece of work with a high schooler, David (not his real name). I carefully planned the activities based on what I understood about resilience, but I missed the importance of long term relationships.

David’s teachers in high school were pulling their hair out. He was restless in class, found it difficult to focus, and often acted like a clown. During my first meeting with him, I quickly realized here was a young man who wasn’t going to sit and listen to me. We needed to do something active together. After playing badminton with him several times, I could see another side to him. Behind his constant fidgeting and impish grin, he was kind, gentle, and eager to please. I began to think about how I could use my relationship with him to help him reintegrate in to his school. He needed an opportunity to experience real success in something that he saw as being worthwhile. He needed a challenge; I needed to stop losing at badminton.

Risk, resilience, and attachment

Education can have a positive impact on resiliency. For example, schools provide opportunities for children to achieve a sense of mastery, the feeling that comes from doing something well. Young people also have the opportunity to explore different social roles that can help them build a more pro-social identity (7). However, for young people like David school often reminds them of failure, and they too easily become cast in the role of a trouble-maker.

David was at risk long before he started school. He was probably exposed to alcohol while in his mother’s womb. When we add up all of the risk factors in a young person’s life things may look pretty bleak, but even then we can underestimate a young person’s vulnerability. We don’t realize that risk factors interact in a way that is not just a simple one plus one. A risk factor, such as an insecure attachment, can have a disproportionate influence on how a child is impacted by other traumatic experiences (1, 2).

To some degree, all children are vulnerable; they all need adults that can help restore a sense of safety and control in a sometimes chaotic world. In this way, a secure attachment between child and caregiver mitigates the effects of trauma. However, the opposite is also true. A child who is insecurely attached may be more easily overwhelmed and unable to develop some of the core competencies, such as the capacity to self-regulate emotional states, that will help protect him against future adversity (3).

The cascading effects of a child’s early attachment experiences may explain why some young people are knocked back so hard by the stress, for example, of moving to a new school. They are like the house built on sand.

Resilience can be defined as “reduced vulnerability to environmental risk experiences, the overcoming of stress or adversity, or a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences” (4). However, it is a relative not absolute quality, for some children, like David, even partial recovery of wellbeing and resilience is important (5).

Finally, in planning my work with David I was aware that building resilience is accomplished not by the removal of all risk and stress, but in the careful managing of these within a supportive relationship (6). In addition, the path to resiliency can begin in one small part of a person’s life, even from a single opportunity or turning point.

Building resiliency: David’s story

David looked nervous as we waited outside the office. The door opened and I introduced him to the head teacher of a local primary school. “David is good at sports and he likes children. Could he volunteer once a week in one of your PE classes?”

Over the next couple of months, I watched a slow transformation take place. David was more focused and ready to listen to correction when things were not going so well. I think it was something about how the younger children showed their delight in having David volunteer in class that helped him change. He was doing something that he could see other people appreciated and valued. He wanted it to work. At the end of his 15 weeks, David planned a dance competition for the children.

The turning point

As the day approached, I sensed David’s increasing anxiety. I noticed small changes in his mood and behaviour; he became increasingly restless when meeting with me. On the day of the competition, David disappeared. Finally, I found him sitting at the back of a room in his high school, slouched all the way under the desk, in a class that he wasn’t even enrolled in.

“David, listen to me. I won’t let you fail. If you get up in front of the kids today and you forget what to say. I will be right there and help you.”

This was the “turning point” and success at this moment depended on my ability to reassure him and whether he could trust me. Most children learn when they are very young that adults can be trusted to help them when they are anxious and fearful. They grow up experiencing, not perfect, but good enough, sensitive, attuned caregiving. Many vulnerable young people haven’t developed this basic kind of confidence. As teachers, it is where we can provide what Louise Bomber calls second chance learning (8). If we have done the work of building a relationship, a young person has the opportunity to learn something they missed earlier in their development.

The impact

The dance competition was a great success, and the pupils gave David a thank-you card. As he took the card, I watched the expression on his face. He laughed at the drawing the children had made of him, and read each of their names printed on the back of the card.

Later as we talked about his volunteer work, David could see how his decisions had contributed to its success. He found a sense of his own agency; he was able to bring about something positive in his life. His foster carer remarked, “He is taking more responsibility for himself. He was getting excluded and was depressed. He’s happier and is in school full-time.” David went on to apply to a local college to study sport’s coaching.

I wish I could end the story there. A few weeks ago, I spoke to David’s foster mum. She told me that after leaving school, he had gone back to his birth family, and he was now living as a drug addict.

It breaks my heart to think of David, now in his early twenties, alone and struggling with addiction. I prefer to remember him as the energetic 15-year old that wouldn’t sit still and beat me almost every time at badminton.

We must stop thinking about resilience as something we do to fix young people; it is not an event or an activity alone that makes the difference. In addition, the onus should not be on the young person to change but on the school, family, and community. Perhaps we should stop thinking about resilience in terms of the individual. We should be asking how resilient-building is our school? How do the relationships in a family that is fostering or adopting contribute to the child’s resilience?

We are only ever as resilient as we are connected to those who love and nurture us and that is as true for adults as it is for children.

* Relational trauma describes the experience of chronic and prolonged traumatic events, usually of an interpersonal nature, beginning in early childhood. These experiences usually occur within the child’s caregiving system and have profound developmental effects on a child (3). Typically, children feel overwhelmed and powerless, and often remain confused as to the role of adults more generally.

1. Luthar SS, Sawyer JA, Brown PJ. Conceptual issues in studies of resilience: past, present, and future research. Annals of New your Academy of Sciences. 2006;1094: 105-115.
2. Masten AS, Cicchetti D. Developmental cascades. Development and Psychopathology. 2010; 22: 491-­495.
3. Van der Kolk BA. Developmental trauma disorder: towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Available from: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/preprint_dev_trauma_disorder.pdf [Accessed December 2016].
4. Rutter M. (2006). Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 2006; 1094: 1-12.
5. Shofield G, Beek M. Risk and resilience in long term foster care. British Journal of Social Work. 2005; 35: 1-19.
6. Woodier D. Building resilience in looked after young people: a moral values approach. British Journal of Guidance and Counseling. 2011; 39; 259-282.
7. Gilligan R. Promoting Resilience: Supporting Children and Young People who are in Care, Adopted or in Need. London: BAAF; 2009.
8. Bomber L. Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children With Attachment Difficulties in SchoolsLondon: Worth Publishing; 2007.

First published within ‘Understanding attachment helps teachers build resilience in young people’ www.saia.org.uk/blog January 2017

© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.

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