I’ll not kid on here – I first heard about attachment theory just a few months ago and then followed this up with a concrete example of it being put into practice at Lothian Villa. What follows is my layman’s understanding of what it means and how we might benefit from it in East Lothian.
Ask a teacher or a school which learning theory governs their practice and they will be hard put to give a coherent reply. Yet reflect upon the observable practice and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones, where we believe that we can influence a child’s behaviour through the consistent aplication of rewards and sanctions. Through this process we can make children reflect upon their behaviour with a view to them developing an understanding of what constitutes good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised we can see such a model permeating our practice.
However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.
By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.
It is suggested that up to 40% of the adult population have a level of insecure attachment and the associuated diifculties which go with that.
So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as a secure attachment environment, e.g. emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy – all the things that parents are naturally teaching their children aged 0 – 4. The most important thing for insecure children are relationships – therefore schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).
Yet what do we often do with such children? – we apply our sanctions with no reference to the kind of parenting they have had and apply our sanctions – fairly – often resulting in exclusion (exactly the opposite treatment that the child requires).
For me this is not “fair” it is discrimatory - yet the logic of treating everyone the same and application of sanctions in schools is so dominant in our schools it is almost beyond critique. So what do we do? For me the answer lies in training and education of all in our schools. Recent evidence from those schools who have undertaken such training is very exciting and the change apparent in children who were previously deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques have been spellbinding.
The premise here is that it’s too late by the time we get to secondary school – we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit. We need to CLAIM these children as ours and treat them with unconditonal positive regard. Asssociated with this strategy we need to proactively and unashamedly teach and support parenting skills which will transform the lives of their children.