Attachment, trauma and education


Supporting children with attachment issues in the classroom

Ask any adoptive parent or foster carer to name one of the main difficulties they face and I guarantee that most will say it is getting their child’s school or nursery to understand the difficulties their children face in the educational environment. Working in partnership with any parent or carer is important, but for those whose children have suffered early trauma, it is essential. This article aims to give some understanding of the challenges these children face and provide some helpful advice to supporting them.

So what exactly is trauma and how does it affect children? For trauma to occur, two things need to happen. First, there needs to be an external event in which there has been an actual or perceived threat to the life or personal integrity of self or others. Second, there needs to be a response to the threat which includes fear, helplessness or horror. So, in terms of children, we are talking about those who may have witnessed domestic violence, been physically abused or been neglected. Pre-birth trauma, such as drug or alcohol abuse is also becoming much more widely recognised and the effects of this can have severe and long term consequences for children.

Dealing with attachment issues

In addition to having experienced trauma, many children will also have attachment difficulties. It was in the 1940’s when John Bowlby’s research into infant attachments found that infants would go to anyone for food, but would only go to the mother when upset or frightened. He created the term “internal working model” to describe the way children view the world based on the care they receive and which also influences all later interactions.

The “internal working model” of a child considered to be securely attached would include the following types of beliefs:

  • I am good, worthwhile, wanted and lovable
  • caregivers are responsive and trustworthy
  • the world is safe.

The “internal working model” of a child considered to be insecurely attached would include the following types of beliefs:

  • I am bad, worthless, unwanted and unlovable
  • caregivers are hurtful and untrustworthy
  • the world is dangerous.

Simply removing a child from harm does not "make everything all right".Extensive research and developments in neuroscience have also brought a much greater understanding of the effects of attachment and trauma on the developing brain. However, regardless of advancements such as this, there is still the belief that simply removing a child from harm and placing them with a loving, caring family will make everything all right. Sadly, it is often not that simple; love is not enough.

In certain cases the best option for children is to be removed from their birth parents care and placed with foster carers. While this would provide the child with those things they have missed, it also teaches them another lesson – that you can be taken from everything you have ever known and made to live with strangers. As adults, we know that making decisions such as removing a child from the family home is a painstakingly long and difficult process, but is sometimes the right thing to do. However, placing yourself in the child’s shoes paints a different picture. Obviously no child should remain in an environment of abuse or neglect, but we should never underestimate the feelings of grief and loss that the child may be experiencing when they are taken from the only parents they have ever known.

The journey for many of these children does not end there, with many children experiencing multiple foster placements, probably never feeling safe and always unsure of what might happen next. However, the common belief is still that these children should be grateful now that they have wonderful foster carers, or even better, a new adoptive mummy and daddy. Believing that this is enough to make everything alright is unrealistic and does not validate the child’s feelings.

Trauma and behaviour

Children who have experienced early trauma will have developed a range of strategies to enable them to survive. Many of the behaviours displayed by traumatised children are a direct response to their early experiences. These may include:

  • being superficially charming
  • being indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
  • being overly demanding or clingy
  • asking persistent nonsense questions/incessant chatter
  • lack of cause/effect thinking
  • pseudo maturity
  • abnormal eating patterns
  • poor peer relationships
  • poor impulse control
  • avoiding eye contact
  • telling lies and/or stealing
  • low self esteem
  • showing increased shame levels
  • difficulties with organisation.

Dealing with such behaviours can be both draining and frustrating, but there are a number of strategies that can be put in place to reduce the child’s anxiety and make them feel safe within the education environment.

A first step to helping these children is to recognise the behaviours and understand their causes. It is important also to remember that the children may be functioning at a lower emotional age than their chronological age due to their early experiences. They will often communicate at the emotional age they need to be in that moment, so you may find you have a child who acts very mature one minute and very toddler-like the next.

Following this, we must also teach the child to recognise the feelings they are experiencing. One way to do this is by commenting, or wondering out loud, about the child’s behaviour. For example: “I can see that you are getting quite close to my face when you are talking to me, I wonder if that is because you need to know I can see you. I can see you because as a teacher it is my job to know where you are”. It should be remembered that these are comments, and not questions, so do not expect a response from the child as that can add a lot of pressure to their already anxious state.

Giving a child strategies to use in times of stress is also useful. Let them know that if they need attention from you, they can come right out and ask for it. Allowing a child to feel comfortable with saying things like “I am worried that if I am last in the lunch queue there will be nothing left for me” or “I am scared that if I don’t get the answers right, you won’t like me anymore” are huge steps in their development and they support feelings that people will listen to them. However, encouraging a child to say these things does not mean you have to start moving them to the front of the dinner queue, but it does offer you the opportunity to explain how the system works, for example, why we have lunch registers and how this means every child who orders a lunch will get one.

Many traditional behaviour approaches focus on rewards and sanctions, where love, affection and praise are conditional on good behaviour. For children who already see themselves as “bad” and “unworthy”, strategies like this only prove to reinforce this image of themselves. The popular technique of using “time out” compounds their sense of wrongness and shame. Imagine how being sent away might affect a child who has already been rejected and abandoned numerous times in their life. The use of “time in” (where a child is brought towards the adult) is a better option, and re-affirms that whilst what they have done may be unacceptable, they are not.

As well as the children who act out, it is vitally important to recognise the needs of the children who have learnt to internalise their feelings. These children will have just as much fear, aggression, grief and shame but will keep it all locked deep inside, as their fear of rejection drives them to conform at all costs. These children often learn the right things to say to keep adults at bay, such as “I’m OK” or “yes I understand” when inside they are battling with huge feelings of anxiety and fear. When trying to help these children you will need to use observations to carefully build up a picture of their feelings throughout the day, bearing in mind that any changes will be very subtle. After you have done this you can then aim to add in extra support around these times, but most importantly acknowledge how the child may be feeling, for example, “I have noticed that your hands start to get really fidgety before we go into assembly so I am going to ask Miss Smith to sit next to you to help you feel better”.

Transition periods and even the smallest change can be unsettling for a child who has never experienced security and stability, and who may have traumatic memories of change. Therefore, consider how you organise the day so that routines help build a strong sense of security and familiarity. Think about the most stressful times of day for the child and try to make yourself, or a teaching assistant available to offer additional emotional support. Using visual timetables and preparing children well in advance of any changes can also help.

There are certain curriculum topics that you should be mindful of which may cause difficulties for these children. Projects which focus on family trees, require baby photos, or cover subjects such as evacuation and rationing can all cause distress in some way. A child may not have photos from their early life, or for those who have, they may trigger difficult emotions. There are many ways to cover topics such as this without excluding the child, such as asking children to make up a fictional family tree or do one for a famous celebrity. Could they bring in photos from a recent family day out instead of requesting baby photos? If you specifically want baby photos included, you might try splitting the class into groups and asking each group to bring in photos of a different age group. If you do choose this option, always check with the parent or carer to find out which group the child should be put in based on what photos are available.

We all experience fear and anxiety to varying degrees and about different things, and we all know how hard it is to concentrate when we feel anxious and fearful. Imagine being scared of heights and being asked to write an essay whilst balancing on a tightrope, or being scared of spiders and then being asked to complete a maths quiz sat in a room full of spiders. This is the reality for these children, only their fear is of people, of life, of being forgotten and abandoned. Only by calming their fears and building up trust will we give them the confidence and feelings of safety to be able to learn.

Further information

Jennifer Jones is a trainer and consultant at Inspired Foundations, a company providing a range of services to those living or working with looked-after, adopted or vulnerable children:

Jennifer Jones
Author: Jennifer Jones

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  1. hi i was brought up in the care system, moved from childrens homes to foster carers every 2 years and schools, iam now 46 years old, i have been diagnosed with depression for years, however i know realise i need a proper diagnosis from my recently new phychotherapist and phychiatrist, iam soon to start group phychotherapy, however tis scares the life out of me, i realise i have to change my whole survival techniques as they r destructive to my self and my family, if u have any words of wisdom or suggestions for treatment, as I dont trust easy, I would be greatfull to hear from you, laura


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