Attachment Disorders – Supporting Children in Schools

Sam Preston 19 January 2023 4 min read
Attachment Disorders – Supporting Children in Schools feature image

Attachment disorders is a broad term that is used to describe a series of emotional and behavioural problems that can develop in young children who struggle to form expected bonds to primary caregivers, usually their parents. In this article, Sam Preston explores the behaviours associated with such disorders and how children may be supported in school settings.


The theory of attachment was originally developed by John Bowlby, who was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents.

John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, believed that mental health and behavioural problems could be attributed to early childhood. His theory of attachment suggested that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others in order to help them to survive. He suggested that a child would initially form only one attachment and that this attachment figure would act as a secure base for exploring the world. He also theorised that this relationship would act as a prototype for all future social relationships. When broken, individuals may experience distress and emotional disturbance including anger, anxiety and despair.

A colleague of Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth furthered his theory by systematically studying infant-parent separations, so that individual differences in the way children appraise the accessibility of an attachment figure could be understood.

According to her research, at least three types of children exist:

  • Those who are secure in their relationship with their parents;
  • Those who are anxious-resistant;
  • Those who are anxious-avoidant.

Her work theorised that children who appear secure in strange / unusual situations, tend to have parents who are responsive to their needs. Children who appear insecure in such situations (i.e. anxious-resistant or avoidant) often have parents who are insensitive to their needs or are inconsistent and / or rejecting in the care that they provide.

Behaviour in school

Secure attachment to a care giver regulates a child's negative emotions in times of stress and distress and helps the development of resilience. Research suggests that at least one third of children have an insecure attachment with at least one care giver.

In order to support children with attachment difficulties it is important to understand what they are trying to cope with. This might include:

  • A fear of rejection and abandonment;
  • A strong survival instinct to be in control and unwillingness to let others control situations;
  • Feeling a sense of helplessness;
  • Having experienced repeated losses, often sudden and unexpected;
  • Feeling an intense need to please whilst pretending they don't care;
  • Having different levels for each aspect of their development;
  • Experiencing frequent overwhelming emotions e.g. panic, rage, grief, excitement;
  • Constantly checking their environment for danger and focussing on trying to feel safe.

A child with attachment difficulties may present as being over-anxious to please, act out their chaotic feelings or becoming very withdrawn. They may act in one way with some staff and very differently with others, which can lead to confusion when responding to behaviour. Behaviours may include:

  • Poor concentration;
  • Disruptive behaviour;
  • Constantly asking of 'trivial' questions;
  • The need for perfectionism and being frightened of getting something wrong;
  • Fear of rejection;
  • Difficulties coping with change;
  • Ignoring instructions;
  • A limited ability to process and remember your words or instructions;
  • Anxiety during unstructured times e.g. playtimes, especially in large crowds;
  • Creating chaos and mayhem;
  • Refusing to be helped;
  • Lying, stealing, fighting or hurting other children;
  • Fear of failure or heightened anxiety when they find learning difficult which may have caused the child to lose control;
  • Sudden tantrum like rages;
  • Being disrespectful, oppositional and / or defiant in meetings with their teachers, head teachers and those they see as authority figures;
  • Coping with overwhelming feelings or fears by running away or hiding, the fight, flight or freeze response.

Practical support

Whilst some children with attachment disorders may need professional support e.g. family therapy, psychological counselling, play therapy; there are some core principals which other key figures in the child's life, such as teachers and support staff, should consider:

  1. Having realistic expectations – focus on small progress steps and celebrating when they are achieved;
  2. Being patient – essential to create an atmosphere of safety for the child;
  3. Staying positive and helpful – children readily pick up on how the adults around them are feeling. If they sense you are discouraged, they in turn will also feel this way. This mirroring effect can also be used positively e.g. if a child witnesses you seeking reassurance from another person they will learn to do the same when they need support;
  4. Responding to the child's emotional age – children with attachment disorders often emotionally act younger than their age. As such it is important not to expect them to 'act their age' and instead connect with them using strategies that work for younger children. Non-verbal communication methods are particularly effective;
  5. Enabling the child to identify and express their emotions or needs – often children with attachment disorders do not understand what they are feeling or know how to ask for what they need. Whilst it is important to reinforce the idea that all feelings are okay, it is essential to explain and demonstrate how to appropriately express them e.g. that it is okay to feel angry but telling someone is a healthier and acceptable way to express the emotion than hitting or acting out;
  6. Setting clear limits and boundaries – consistent boundaries make life more predictable and less frightening, particularly to children with reactive attachment disorders. Be clear about your expectations of them, what behaviour is unacceptable and what the consequences of disregarding rules will be. This consistency also teaches the child that they are able to have more control over what happens in situations;
  7. To reconnect immediately after conflict – conflict is especially disturbing for children with insecure attachments and / or attachment disorders. After an incident be ready to reconnect as soon as you think the child is ready to accept your support. By reinforcing this consistency, a child will develop trust and be trusting of your support mechanisms;
  8. Maintaining routines – children with insecure attachments and / or attachment disorders can feel insecure and threatened by changes to routine. Careful planning of support is particularly needed for these children during any time of transitional change e.g. changes to the daily schedule of events, educational visits, as school holidays approach and transitions such as changing class, teachers or school;
  9. Protecting time to listen and talk – although there are many demands on our time, timetabling some protected opportunities for structured one to one supervision is hugely beneficial to children with insecure attachments. Giving a child your uninterrupted focussed attention not only provides a safe space for the child to communicate, it teaches them that adults can be supportive and trusted.

Want to know more about supporting mental health? Check out our Supporting Mental Health and Wellbeing training.

Sam Preston

SSS Learning Safeguarding Director

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