Developing practice

Attachment disorder

“So what am I supposed to do with no Teaching Assistant?”

Notes for an afternoon workshop at Southampton University, secondary conference 19th March 2014 – SEN in mainstream classrooms


The usual range of persuasion, rewards, sanctions and common sense classroom techniques work for the vast majority of students, most of the time – but not all.  In most schools there are around 5% whose emotional make-up means they operate within different parameters.  Their brains seem to be wired differently.      They don’t always walk in with a teaching assistant and certainly don’t come with an instruction label attached.  You may have watched Tough Young Teachers – you may remember Caleb.

How do you plan to succeed with the student who has a reputation for being ‘off-the-wall’,  who just says “no” or who storms out when you speak to them reasonably?

Today we will explore how understanding more about attachment issues can make you a better – and more inclusive – teacher.


Attachment develops in infants over the course of the first year of life and stabilises in subsequent years as an ‘inner working model’ of how to relate to others and the environment

Attachment theory was developed in England in the 1950’s by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst.  Recent work in this country, some of which arises from an interest in the needs of children and young people within fostering and adoption, extends the thinking into the implications for  primary and secondary schools, illustrated by the pioneering work of  Louise Bomber  (2007, 2011), Marie Delaney (2009), Andrea Perry (ed.) (2009) and Heather Geddes (2006) – see book covers below.

Attachment disorder arises from adverse experience, usually early in life, associated with trauma, loss, neglect, violence or abuse.   It manifests itself in the manner in which an individual may think about themselves, their environment or other people.  It has implications for communication, behaviour, learning, self-esteem and the way in which students will respond to every day events and interactions, adversity and the expectations of adults.

For young people with attachment disorder, secondary school and adolescence can make issues more complex by the re-stimulation of earlier trauma and insecurity, especially in large schools with many different adults to cope with and constant change during the day.  Students’ minds may be so preoccupied with distress that they cannot settle to learn, undermining their relationship with the teacher and the task.

Attachment disorder is a hidden disability, in that there is often little physical to see that would give away the underlying issue.  It can only be understood by thinking intelligently about what a young person’s behaviour may be telling us, within the context of an individual’s life story. It is a relatively new area of study, but has huge implications for the way we relate to students, especially in secondary schools.

There are different types of attachment disorder, with differing ways of responding to the condition – explained in the books below.  At its most extreme, a student may have a statement of special educational need which specifies the condition and so staff are forewarned.  More likely, are the students who have never had their behaviour and attitudes looked at through the lens of attachment, and who simply present as puzzling, challenging or unusual.  These types of students are often recognised as the  5% who don’t generally respond to the usual behaviour management techniques, such as rewards and sanctions or ‘the language of choice’.  Looked at through the lens of attachment disorder, such students may suddenly become more understandable.

Viewing students  – and I would argue the school as a whole – through the lens of attachment disorder provides a superb frame of reference for inclusivity and for truly understanding how students’ behaviour is trying to tell us something, rather than simply reacting to what’s in front of us.

For teachers struggling with seemingly inexplicable and unpredictable behaviours, it is important to build professional resilience through genuine understanding.  This goes hand in hand with an attitude which assumes that the professionals have not yet found the right way to teach the young person.   However long it takes, a route and point of contact will be found.

A student with attachment disorder invariably demonstrates:

  • a heightened state of anxiety – especially fear of changes in routine
  • a constant state of vigilance of their environment or their needs
  • a strong sense of shame or rejection
  • sudden overwhelming feelings of grief
  • mistrust of adults and authority
  • not able to ask for help
  • can’t accept not knowing something  – or
  • belligerent that they know everything already
  • taking statements literally
  • not being able to retrieve situations
  • a brain wired for flight and fight
  • reacting or acting out rather than thinking
  • little self-awareness or reflective capacity
  • sensitivity to failure
  • gaps and missing knowledge  – sometimes of seemingly obvious things like being able to tell the time
  • operating at an emotional level well behind their chronological age
  • strange feelings over seemingly everyday events – such as getting changed for PE, using the toilet or eating lunch
Responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • adults need to be  ‘all-understanding’ and ‘all-caring’ in the eyes of the young person
  • the concept of  ‘holding the young person in mind’ is useful (see Louise Bomber’s work below)
  • the young person may need to learn to ‘attach’ to a significant adult before they can learn to operate more independently
Emotional responses in responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • demonstrate non-judgemental authority
  • demonstrate interest and an unconditional consistency
Areas for intervention in a classroom situation:
  • the task itself – give a choice (although note that not doing the work at all is not an option)
  • a warm welcome at the start
  • familiar objects or a place to work (part of ‘keeping the young person in mind’)
  • keep remembering the emotional age of the student
  • allowing time to settle
  • tactical ignoring of initial statements from student
  • thinking in advance about changes in routine
  • reliably held boundaries
  • allowing recovery time or a short time out if the pressure builds up
  • handling emotions and behaviour with the class in general in a disarming and consistent manner

Areas for intervention in the school as a whole:

  • continuous relationships
  • plan for teacher absence
  • plan for the build up to weekends, holidays and returns
  • predictability over events, explain changes (e.g. trips) in advance
  • provide a secure base for students and staff
  • professional and emotional support for TAs
  • early diagnosis, professional discussion and sharing of information

Question: So what I am supposed to do with no teaching assistant?  

Answer: Think intelligently.  Don’t beat yourself up over one of the 5% – but don’t be too quick to judge either.  Read up.  Find out more about the student.  Talk to someone (and there is always someone) who seems to ‘get’ that student.  Once you understand, you may have a better chance.  You certainly won’t blame yourself – or allow others to blame you – when things go wrong.  Sometimes a student with serious attachment issues simply isn’t ready to learn and your classroom is not the right place for them at that moment in time.  There’s a big difference between knowing this and why – and simply exiting the student from the class for ‘inappropriate behaviour, yet again’.

The golden rule – aspire to handle emotions and behaviour with the class as a whole in a disarming, disengaging and consistent manner – benefits all students, not just those with attachment issues.

Inclusive classrooms are places where judgements about young people as people as well as unintelligent or emotional reactions to behaviour are eliminated (or at least completely minimised.  You are human after-all, not an automaton).

About teaching assistants: Let’s be clear – you are a class teacher of all children, including those with SEN or hidden disabilities.  You have a professional responsibility to think intelligently about how you try to get all the students in the class to learn.  However, a teaching assistant can often provide the emotional support that a damaged student needs, so that learning can take place.

Further reading

 Inside I'm Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools
Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and LearningTeaching the Unteachable: Practical ideas to give teachers hope and help when behaviour management strategies fail: What Teachers Can Do When All Else FailsWhat About Me?: Inclusive Strategies to Support Pupils with Attachment Difficulties Make it Through the School Day
Attachment in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Schools

Getting to good: Ofsted words of wisdom

Improving Schools: a guide to Ofsted reports to support school improvement, Sept 2012

Getting to good: how headteachers achieve success, September 2012

Schools that stay satisfactory:  an analysis of secondary schools that have stayed satisfactory for more than one inspection and the reasons for this, December 2011

Excellence in English,  May 2011

Moving English forward, March 2012

Removing barriers to literacy, January 2011

Reading by six how the best schools do it,  November 2010

Mathematics made to measure, May 2012

Mathematics – understanding the score, September 2008

Successful science, September 2011

No place for bullying, June 2012   No place for bullying – summary leaflet

No place for bullying – case study booklet

Supporting children with challenging behaviour through a nurture group approach, July 2011

School governance: learning from the best, May 2012

Personal- social- health and economic education in schools, July 2010

And still relevant:

Twelve outstanding secondary schools, February 2009

Twenty outstanding primary schools, October 2009

Twelve outstanding special schools – Excelling through inclusion, November 2009


SSAT Experienced Leaders course at Outwood Grange

I have really enjoyed my dates this year with the SSAT ‘experienced leaders’.  The final day of the year was at the monumental Outwood Grange Academy in Wakefield last week.  Martyn Oliver, who has succeeded Michael Wilkins at Outwood, provided us with some real food for thought and practical examples of how they’ve done it.  Michael has moved on as Chief Executive to exporting the Outwood improvement model to other schools within the ‘chain’ – with predictable success.

Presentations from the day:

Martyn Oliver vision presentation

Andy Schofield leadership focus presentation

Outwood lesson observation rubric

Outwood curriculum led planning template

Outwood vertical curriculum planning in detail

Key links:

Kim Marshal evaluation rubrics for Principals and teachers

Kim Marshall 5 minute lesson observation policy

New York New Leaders Principal Evaluation Framework

Hats off to Martyn for the time he devoted to our visit, for doing an afternoon slot written in the morning, based on what we said interested us most, and for  spending an hour in his office with me at the end of the day talking ideas.  At the core of the success is attention to detail, matched with systems that work and people that are inspired to put the detail into practice.  No better epitomised than by the 6 weekly monitoring and intervention cycle known as ‘praising stars’.

Attachment window

Sorry to keep repeating myself, but looking at young people through the lens of attachment difficulties is a real eye-opener.  Louise Bomber is a national expert on the subject and this is her latest book.  It’s a must-read, especially for anyone trying to really understand SEND and make mainstream schools genuinely inclusive.

Louise Bomber’s earlier book is:

Guy Claxton in private

It was a pleasure to host Guy Claxton yesterday, who came to speak to academy Principals about his latest book and his involvement with the Expansive Education Network.  Guy’s 10 year involvement with Building Learning Power has been evaluated in his new publication The Learning Powered School.

Guy’s new network:


Guy’s latest book:  The Learning Powered School


Culture and habit change: the learning powered school

I was absolutely delighted to get my hands on Guy Claxton’s new book to provide some inspiration before the start of the new term.  Long overdue, may I add, since the original Building Learning Power was published way back in 2002 – and a lot has happened since then.  Fortunately, what hasn’t changed is the underlying philosophy of the BLP approach, now backed up by evidence from implementation at a number of schools nationwide.  This volume updates BLP and provides practical pointers for both classroom and whole school implementation – all in the name of developing a learning powered school.

5 core beliefs underpin BLP 2011-style

1) Education is about preparing young people for life after school – not just for tests, but for the tests of life, with all the uncertainties that this will bring.  This means developing cognitive, social and emotional resilience.

2) The development of resilience and resourcefulness is relevant for all young people.  It involves them in discovering something that they’d really love to be good at and then strengthening the will and skill to pursue it.

3) Becoming confident in a changing world is especially relevant for societies like ours , where young people face change, complexity, risk, opportunity and individual responsibility for making their own way in life.

4) Intelligence is learnable.  This is a key belief, in a society where too much emphasis is place on ‘ability’, which many people are supposed to lack.  Real world intelligence is not fixed at birth.

5) The depth and challenge of the change needed to do 1-4 above properly is massively underestimated.  What’s needed is culture change in schools and habit change by teachers.

For those that need more convincing, try reading Guy’s 2008, What’s The Point of School?, which sets out what’s so amiss with the typical secondary school culture in this country.

SSAT 4th national academies conference

Last week I chaired the 4th SSAT Academies conference in London.  The highlight for me and many of the delegates was Professor Barry Carpenter’s keynote on the new generation of children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities – a major challenge for the mainstream sector.

Barry has led a DfE funded SEN project across a range of schools in the UK, which has researched engagement in learning for the new generation of children with SEND.  This is evidence based practice of the very best kind.  It’s not often headteachers say after a talk that they’ve heard things they didn’t know – and which will have direct impact on their practice schoolwide, immediately.

Barry Carpenter: new generation children – the complex challenge

I was very pleased to see the highlight given by Barry to attachment disorder.  This has  particular resonance for secondary schools, where students often have to interact with large numbers of teachers and other adults.  I believe attachment disorder is a really insightful window to look through when thinking about how to engage with and teach vulnerable students – not least because so many of the new generation of students present with a range of co-existing conditions.

The book I mentioned in my summary that is continually being permanently ‘borrowed’ from my office is Louise Bomber’s Inside I’m Hurting.  Absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand children with what are largely hidden disabilities.

Other presentations from 4th SSAT Academies conference