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Attachment, Behaviour Learning

Attachment theory is concerned with the relationships between humans. One of the theory’s most significant strands is the importance of the relationship between infants and their primary caregivers.

This section covers the links between attachment, behaviour and learning and offers strategies to be implemented in schools to support attachment.


There is a population of pupils in schools who seem unable to access learning, to engage and achieve, and to move on into adulthood with confidence; children whose diminished self-esteem and resilience are limitations on engagement in relationships and emotional and cognitive development. The reasons for this are varied and complex and their difficulties can be compounded by the responses they elicit in others. How they bother others matters and in general it is the conduct-disordered boy who bothers us most. Prisons are full of offending young men. The quiet and vulnerable children are often overlooked.

 Attachment and the Classroom

In school it is the teacher who is at the front line of pupil behaviour. Whilst government departments judge their skills by looking at tables of achievement to measure pupil and school performance, it is the teacher who encounters the factors behind the disappointing outcomes daily.  Behind every child who misbehaves and underperforms in school there is a story, and the story is acted out in the classroom. For some it is a temporary glitch in their lives from which they quickly recover; others need support and intervention. But in the most complex and challenging situations, it can be a long history of intergenerational adversity which the child trails into school and presents to the staff in alarming ways. Teachers are exposed to this stressful experience daily – adding to classroom tensions and challenges.

So why are some children more vulnerable than others? The capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity is thought to be rooted in the experiences of early infancy. Attachment theory helps us understand the implications of early experience in relation to later life outcomes, including learning.

Attachment theory originated with John Bowlby and has been extensively researched since. It traces the experience of early attachment with a significant carer, the negotiation of separation from that relationship and consequent capacity to experience loss and absence of that person. The core characteristics of attachment experience will be briefly described.

The Secure Base

Human infants are very vulnerable for a long time and need the presence and protection of carers who can assist in survival for some time. Being safe is the basis of survival.

Primarily, carers provide what Bowlby called a secure base – the place of safety which the infant learns to summon or return to when needing reassurance, care and protection. The infant and carer negotiate a relationship at the heart of which is the infant’s need to experience protective care and a reassuring presence. The infant and carer negotiate a relationship which reflects the characteristics and needs of both – and so a pattern of behaviour develops known as attachment behaviour which is established by about a year old and is the foundation for later behavioural development and expectations of relationships.

Empathic Attunement 

Within the context of this intimate, face-to-face relationship, the infant begins to experience who they are. Their bodily feelings and emotions are understood, given names and so become available as a vocabulary of sensations and emotions which are origins of self awareness and enrich the possibility of understanding and communication – the basis of social interaction.

And so by becoming known and understood by someone, over time, we come to know ourselves and so have the capacity to understand others – empathy.

Coping with Adversity 

Infant life is beset by new and often fearful experiences. Responses by carers, to the arousal of fear and uncertainty reassure the infant that their fear and alarm will be noticed and that they will respond appropriately. By the sensitive and empathic understanding of carers, fear becomes recognised, understood and transformed into words and thoughts.

Anxiety is contained by being understood. Brain development responds to experience and the pathways of thought and language become available when fear and panic are aroused.  In his book, Ideas in Psychoanalysis, Emanuel describes this as the origins of a coping mechanism which in later life is the basis of resilience in the face of adversity, the capacity to respond to challenge and uncertainty with the capacity to think. The capacity to cope is at the heart of wellbeing.

Contained anxiety can facilitate thinking and learning. Excessive uncertainty can inhibit thinking and learning.

The future pupil has thus developed the capacity to cope with uncertainty and so to experience the unknown and to explore what they do not know – the basis of learning. In order to learn, you have to tolerate not knowing.

 Internal Working Model of Self and the World

Bowlby summarised the outcome of secure enough attachment as an internal working model of the self – the infant feeling valued and so valuing himself, as well as learning to trust that the outside world is safe enough to explore – and to turn to others for support and protection when challenged by uncertainty – the basis of engaging and learning with the teacher.

 Extensive follow-up studies of the samples of cases observed and studied in the early attachment research clearly indicated that secure attachment is the factor linked to children’s more successful engagement in school, in terms of social competence, curiosity, effective play and investigation, sympathy towards others and so a secure enough start prepares the child to become the pupil.

The learning triangle was constructed to summarise this dynamic relationship involved in all learning between a pupil, a teacher and a learning task and helps to recognise variations in patters in pupil response in the classroom and so to identify possibilities for intervention. The interaction between teacher, pupil and task shifts according to the requirements of the task, the needs of the pupil and the support of the teacher.

 Insecure Attachment Experience

This develops mainly when the carer has experienced a less than secure enough attachment and even adversity, in their own attachment relationships. The presence of the new infant triggers old patterns of feelings and behaviour, which become acted out in the relationship with the new infant. Patterns of behaviour thus become passed on through generations. Such infants develop attachment behaviours which reflect this.

Distinct patterns of insecure attachment behaviour have been identified with particular implications for responding to the teacher and to the learning task (Geddes 2006).

 Insecure Avoidant Attachment Behaviour

This pattern of expectations and relating is in response to a carer whom the infant experiences as unavailable and insensitive to their needs and particularly their feelings. Thus, fears and uncertainties are not understood and contained and the secure base is experienced as unreliable. Rejection is feared and so approaching the carer for support and help is avoided.

The resulting behaviour of the child is dominated by:

  • Need to be self-reliant
  • Difficulty trusting the teacher and asking for help
  • Inhibited use of words and language
  • Reluctance to engage in creative tasks affecting writing and drawing
  • The task is preferred to the relationship.

 The learning triangle reflects the reliance on the task which may be perceived as a safer area of engagement than the relationship.

Actions for Addressing Insecure Avoidant Attachment Behaviour 

Interventions for addressing insecure avoidant attachment behaviour are enhanced by the differentiation of tasks so that they are doable but permit shared interest in the content of the task. Face to face relating is avoided and interest from the teacher is experienced by mutual interest in the task. The pupil thus experiences interest and responsiveness but avoids the conflict of feelings about relating. Change in perceptions about self and expectations of others can begin.

 Insecure Resistant Ambivalent Attachment Behaviour

Insecure resistant ambivalent attachment behaviour is associated with a relationship in which the child experiences the carer as not holding them in mind – a sense that they can be present but not thinking about them and easily forgotten. Absence of the carer is experienced as being totally forgotten and so controlling the carer’s presence and attention in a key issue. Keeping physically close matters: separation anxiety is a key feature of behaviour.

Behaviour is thus dominated by:

  • Separation anxiety often associated with high absence rates, repeated ‘illness’ and at the extreme end of the continuum, school phobia
  • Attention seeking and a need to hold onto the teacher's attention
  • Disinterest in the learning task – a distraction from the relationship
  • Controlling and bossy behaviour
  • Often skilled at talking and distracting with words.

 Action for Addressing Insecure Resistant Ambivalent Attachment Behaviour

This is focused on development of a sense of independence and autonomy – a mind of their own. Differentiation of the task into small steps enables brief experiences of independent actions and thoughts. A timer can help with this. The need for constant dependence on the teacher can be replaced by regular comments from the teacher, which re-assure the pupil that they are not forgotten. Transitions need to be planned and at times, a transfer arrangement at the start of the day can be helpful, whereby the separation from parent is supported and the parent can re-assure the child that they will be waiting for them at the end of the day. Absences from school may involve an intervention with the parent to support attendance.

 Disorganised Attachment Behaviour

Disorganised attachment behaviour is the most challenging behaviour we are likely to meet. This arises when the child experiences insufficient support and safety and at times, actual abuse. Histories are often associated with abandonment, drug and alcohol misuse, violence, mental illness and actual abuse. Experience is thus dominated by unreliability and mistrust of adults and the chronic uncertainty of being kept safe.

In the absence of a secure enough base and little experience of being understood, the capacity to cope with challenge and fear is minimal. Brain development is affected and reactivity is triggered in response to the slightest provocation. With little sense of self-worth, the pupil can be prone to feelings of helplessness, humiliation and shame and so tolerating not knowing is a severe challenge. Their defence is to take control in order to cope with helplessness in the face of overwhelming and uncontained anxiety – omnipotence often accompanied by aggression.

 Unconscious Processes

Such powerful experiences are felt by the teacher who can begin to feel the helplessness, powerlessness and rage that the pupil is unable to bear and so projects into others. Teachers need to be supported in such relentless encounters every day in the classroom.

When reflective thinking is shared, consistent responses can be maintained across the school and the impulse to exclude and erase from mind can be avoided, and also avoids colluding with the original experiences that are the drivers of the child’s behaviours.

Actions for Addressing Disorganised Attachment Behaviour 

Actions need to reflect an understanding of the underlying chronic fear and uncertainty that drives the behaviour.

These suggestions may help:

  • Early identification of such vulnerability is crucial as it takes time to make a difference
  • Reliable and consistent boundaries which reflect the adult’s and the whole school’s capacity to keep everyone safe are essential
  • Continuity of relationships over time which make it possible to experience being held in mind and understood and a sense of continuity and persistence help
  • Predictability – all transitions and changes in the day, week and year should be anticipated and planned for, especially endings and goodbyes
  • Inclusion in the curriculum of development of a sense of geography and time
  • Emphasis on the development of words which describe feelings – the use of stories with an emotional content and the use of metaphor – ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ for example helps to process feelings of anger against mother and ‘Badger's Parting Gift’ can help to process loss.


The contribution that an understanding of attachment theory can make to schools and learning outcomes is considerable. The understanding of school staff and the informed processes and procedures of the school can contribute considerably to a safer and more attuned environment in which more hopeful relationships can be experienced; the school as the secure base.

The more vulnerable pupils can begin to re-experience more positive and hopeful relationships, greater emotional wellbeing and begin to engage more successfully in learning.

Successful engagement in school and learning is the access point to later engagement in the social world of work and community. Primary schools in particular make a great contribution to the continuum of intervention available to us with vulnerable children and families whose opportunities are affected by adversity in early life.


Bowlby, J. (1951) Maternal Care and Mental Health. World Health Organisation Monograph Series 2

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss. Vol 1. Attachment. London Penguin

Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and Loss. Vol 2. Separation: Anxiety and Anger. London: Hogarth Press

Bowlby, J. (1980) Attachment and Loss. Vol 3. Loss: Sadness and Depression. London:Hogarth Press

Bretherton, I. and Waters, E. (Eds) Growing Points of Attachment Theory and Research (1985) Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol 50 nos 1-2

Geddes, H. Attachment and Learning: an investigation into links between Maternal Attachment experience, life Events, Behaviour Causing Concern at Referral and Difficulties in Learning. PhD Thesis, University of Surrey 

Geddes, H.(2006) Attachment in the Classroom. Worth Publishing, UK. Explores the links between children’s early experience, emotional wellbeing and performance in school.