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Attachment needs

The need to feel secure is central to a child or young person being able to settle to learn. Staff must meet their attachment needs concerned with safety, stability and security to be ready to learn. We refer to learning both in terms of teaching and managing being in school. Learning involves risk, so children and young people may also need the support of adults to manage the stress of developing and using new skills. This process is known as co-regulation. It is important to understand the importance of proximity with attuned and responsive adults in this process. It is also necessary to create pauses throughout the day to give children and young people time to gather themselves and to experience periods of calm. Initially these will be initiated and facilitated by the key adults. The key adults should name what they are doing and model how to do it. Key adults should process their thinking out loud, for example, “Let’s take 5 minutes to think about what we’ve learned today”.
The child may have poor self image. They may be more likely to remember what they struggled with than when they did well. It is therefore important to set up visual aids for them to record successes, however small they seem.

The child or young person with attachment needs is likely to require a degree of individualised learning. The level of support will depend on the degree to which he or she has received good enough care giving and nurture. Using small steps for targets and opportunities to overlearn will reduce the amount of risk perceived in learning. Other factors will help the child or young person remain emotionally regulated. This includes creating an appropriate learning environment which takes into account what works for them in relation to managing sensory impact. Sensory factors include lighting, air flow, sound, décor, positioning, seating, smell, surroundings etc. This will develop over time and will need to be reviewed regularly.

Teaching using multi-sensory materials usually works better for children and young people who have experienced relational trauma and loss. It is also helpful to take account of the way they respond. Some useful questions to ask include:

  • What are they feeling?
  • What are they seeing?
  • How do they listen best?
  • What opportunities are there for being active and getting rid of excess energy?

Concrete aids should used in addition to real-life experiences.

Children or young people who have experienced trauma may have difficulties with executive functioning. They should be supported to start tasks and organise themselves over time. They will need scaffolding to develop problem solving/learning skills. This works best for tasks which are short and relevant to them. Ways to do this include sequencing activities, checklists that can be marked as they complete each stage and simple numbered instructions. Flow charts, colour coding, writing frames, cloze procedures may also be useful. It is also important to provide opportunities to plan with key adults before each task. This will help them develop organisation skills for themselves.

Children and young people with attachment needs will need preparation in order to manage transitions. Transitions occur throughout the day and can have a big impact on being ready to learn. They include changes from one task to another, from one person to another, from one space to another, from routine to a change of plan, from one teaching style to another and from the familiar to the unknown. They may also find it challenging to move away from activities that they have particularly enjoyed. It is helpful to build in extra time to prepare for coming into class from another activity or intervention and thinking or reflective time. Using transition rituals and visual cues, checklists and memory cards may also reduce uncertainty during changes. Memory cards can also support children and young people to begin to hold on or wait if the teacher or TA cannot deal with them at that precise moment. Objects such as memory cards provide a sense of security and re-assure them that the adult will come back to them. Transition objects are a tactile way of reminding children that they are important and being kept in mind .

How can we support the child in the day to day?

Translate the environment for them and provide commentary about what is happening, e.g. what other’s motive’s and intentions are

  • Give them evidence – saying isn’t enough
  • Be a state detective – take their emotional temperature and be proactive, what is the intention behind the behaviour?
  • Wonder aloud about emotions and how they may be feeling and why
  • Differentiate how we respond and what we expect developmentally
  • Use clear language and key messages – be explicit, repeat and simplify
  • Prioritise safety
  • Have planned breaks as well as sensory breaks as needed with appropriate activities
  • Set up a team of key adults who can reflect and debrief.

Useful Websites and References for Attachment Information

Inside I’m Hurting – practical strategies for supporting children with attachments difficulties in schools Louise Michelle Bomber

What About Me? Inclusive strategies to support pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day

Attachment in the Classroom – the links between children’s early experience, emotional wellbeing and performance in schools by heather Geddes

Know me to Teach me – differentiated discipline for those recovering from adverse childhood experiences by Louise Michelle Bomber

The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom – a practical guide to supporting children who have encountered trauma and adverse childhood experiences

Last updated 9 August 2021

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