Dr Sarah Taylor shares her worries about attachment as children go back to school post-lockdown.
The act of rocking a baby or singing softly to them in order to calm them may seem simple, but these very first interactions with a primary caregiver pave the way for that baby’s ability to form attachments with others as they grow older. Secure attachments in the initial stage of life build the synaptic connections between neurons in the brain, forming pathways and networks over time.
We know enough about the complexities of the brain to understand that growing neurons and forming connections between them does not stop at a certain age. It is a lifelong process, which means that we have the opportunity to support a child’s attachment ability at any stage. It may take time and effort, but even a child who has not had the opportunity to experience secure bonds with their caregivers as a baby can learn to self-regulate their emotions and form meaningful attachments with others later on in life. Of course, building on a solid foundation put in place by parents or carers is ideal, but even for children with traumatic or less stable backgrounds, the school environment presents an opportunity for vital attachment-building work to take place.
Children with positive, safe and secure attachment are able to develop increasing independence and autonomy, exploring their environment with confidence because they know they can return to their caregivers, who will respond to their needs sensitively and consistently. The higher self-esteem, self-worth and self-efficacy associated with securely-attached children within a learning environment ultimately has a positive impact on their learning. With all the pressure placed upon schools, it is important for this work to be simple and effective so that children can form bonds with their key caregivers, which will then enable those adults to support the child. Without that sense of attachment, and without an outlet for their emotional reactions, we often see an increase in behaviour which may disrupt the learning environment, or isolate or even endanger the child.
Helping children self-regulate
The process whereby caregivers can support the development of self-regulation is known as co-regulation, and it begins right back in those rocking movements the parent or carer will use to soothe a newborn. However, it does not stop there. Research has shown that this interactive process of support can happen within a caring relationship at any age, meaning schools are ideally placed to support students with co-regulation, and therefore enable them to start to either start or keep building those neural pathways which are so important to their development.
Ideally, we want to replicate that experience of co-regulation within the classroom environment, so the adults working closely with a child are able to have a similar calming impact to the home environment. Depending on their early experiences, some children may be able to form these attachments and co-regulate more easily, and may eventually have enough of a handle on their own emotional regulation to fully immerse themselves in classroom activities and exhibit what is considered appropriate behaviour.
For others, this process is a little more difficult. A neurological condition can be one of the reasons for this. This is when activities which promote attachment and co-regulation become even more vital. In the absence of being able to physically pick up and rock a child, we can still use those swaying and rocking motions in order to create a sense of attachment.
Rocking regulates the nervous system, promoting the parasympathetic system which elicits a feeling of calm, and it mimics sensations experienced in the womb. This is why lots of children rock and bounce naturally to calm or regulate themselves. By introducing music alongside those sensitive, informed developmental movements, and repeatedly exposing children to them, we can very quickly begin to elicit positive emotions and build a secure relationship between child and adult. This is because we are revisiting and replicating the innate process that drives the development of attachments.
Attachment is the foundation of socioemotional wellbeing, which is critical to the school experience. It is vital for teachers and support staff to have a solid understanding of attachment and the correlation between emotional wellbeing and effective learning. Having secure feelings enables children to socialise and interact in harmony with adults, and allows them to learn freely, without anxiety or uncertainty.
By working on breathing and calming stress through connecting the mind and body, we see an improvement in mood and well-being, but also a reduction in feelings like stress and fear. By controlling anxiety through self-soothing, children learn helpful skills which are transferable to other stressful situations, but also increase the responsiveness of the attachment part of their brain. So, the calmer they feel, the easier attachment becomes, which in turns supports how safe and secure they feel, and helps them further minimise feeling of anxiety.
This ensures that the school is a place where the pupil feels secure, and that the caregivers within their school are able to support the child in regulating their emotions. Having this foundation in turns acts as the building block for further input as designed by teachers, specific to the child’s development and educational needs. This further work could be difficult or even impossible without having gone through that attachment-forming process.
The simple yet impactful work which can be done aid attachment between pupil and teacher has always been important in any classroom, and the growing number of children experiencing anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions has sparked an acute focus in recent years on what can be done within schools to help emotional regulation and brain development. In any classroom, there are approximately three children with a diagnosable mental health condition.
With the Coronavirus pandemic predicted to have devastating and long-lasting consequences on the UK’s mental health, it’s vital that children’s attachments are strong and secure enough to support them with their emotional regulation. For children who are non-verbal, this is even more essential because they are unable to use language to make sense of the world around them, which has become considerably more confusing, stressful and lonely over the course of 2020.
The life of every child has been impacted in numerous ways, both during the initial strict lockdown and now while we are in a limbo between lockdown and whatever the ‘new normal’ will look like. Specific changes within education may include social distancing being practised and protective equipment such as masks or visors being worn by the adults who pupils interact with at school. The structure of the school day may be adapted to allow for each bubble to operate independently of one another, parents and carers may be unable to come into school at drop off and pick up times as normal and physical contact such as hugs may have been minimised or stopped altogether in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.
While necessary for the protection of the physical health of young people and those they come into contact with, all of these changes alter the dynamic between teacher and pupil, break down the links between home and school, and serve to put barriers in the way of forming attachment bonds which are needed for co-regulation and for caregivers to effectively support children when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
Then there is the added complication that, before they returned to their schools and found things were very different to the way they were before Covid, children had six months at home with their primary caregivers. Those with secure attachments with their parents or carers will have spent six months building even stronger neural pathways associated with that bond; they would have been with their primary caregivers round the clock – in many ways replicating the sort of time that parents spend with their newborns when they take maternity, paternity or adoption leave. After all of that time together, children have suddenly been launched back into life at school where they need to separate from that constant source of co-regulation and calm, with the move to the next academic year and the associated change of teachers and support staff deepening that feeling of upheaval. For those who are less able to regulate their emotional state and who may not be able to communicate verbally to be able to share their worries with their loved ones, it’s unsurprising that their behaviour may be severely impacted as a result. Parents and carers have already reported seeing an increase in emotional and behavioural issues. There is a very real need for schools to look at how they are approaching attachment. Because without this vital piece of the jigsaw, we may never be able to combat the emotional repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic among our children and young people.