Can’t learn, not won’t learn


Attachment problems can wreak havoc on a child’s education, but there is much schools can do to help. 

Attachment theory has been around since the late 1970s, when John Bowlby observed the importance of the relationship between a baby and its primary carer. This bond begins from as early as gestation within the womb. When this bond is nurtured and developed, it sustains the baby throughout its childhood and into adulthood. Whether a child has had “good enough” parenting to enable her to function in relationships has a long-term impact on her development.

When a child experiences abuse and/or neglect in her early years, she very often develops a feeling of intense shame – with the conviction that she is bad to the core of her being – instead of learning to trust adults and to feel safe in her environment.

Before we adopted our three children, I didn’t really understand just how powerful and damaging the emotions are for a child who has not experienced the consistency of a loving environment. I knew that children who had been abused would feel unsafe around adults and may feel threatened in new situations. However, I under-estimated the depth of the emotions involved and how they permeate every area of life – emotionally, physically, socially and mentally.

How does it affect education?

We have to look at some of the physical aspects of trauma. Our brains are complex and brilliant in how they are designed to work. The three basic sections of the brain develop from the bottom up. When we’re born, the bottom part of the brain, known as the Reptilian Brain, develops first. This part of the brain is only interested in survival. It is also where the “fight, flight, freeze” mechanism originates.

The second section, known as the emotional brain, then develops through repetitive, patterned interaction with others. Finally, the frontal cortex – known as the thinking brain – develops. Here we do all our higher level functioning: creative thought, logical thinking, problem-solving and recognition of familiar faces.

The critical fact about the brain is that the reptilian brain and the thinking brain cannot work at the same time. The reason for this is that when we are in danger, for example when a car is about to run us over, we don’t want to stop and think about what we could do to address the situation rationally – we don’t have time for that. Instead, our frontal cortex shuts down, the reptilian brain fires up and we go into fight, flight or freeze mode.

For most of us, this experience is rare. For children who’ve experienced a chaotic, unsafe and traumatic environment, though, the reptilian brain is over-developed and over-stimulated because of the constant threat of danger. As a result, these children live in this part of their brain most of the time. This means that, more often than not, the thinking part of the brain is offline and inactive. It’s not the case that they won’t think, but that they can’t think in that moment.

Pupils must trust staff, if they are to learn.Our educational environments are riddled with stress triggers. Just think about the amount of noise, the constant change and the expectations that are put on children. All of this means that a child with a hyper-sensitive stress mechanism in their brain will find it incredibly difficult to relax, to feel safe and to be open to learn.

Children who are looked-after, adopted or still living in vulnerable family environments are prone to the effects of disturbed attachments. However, the symptoms of attachment difficulties can also be seen in other children who may have experienced a break in their early attachment cycle through hospitalisation, bereavement or other significant life events.

How to recognise a child with attachment difficulties?

Some of the main behaviours you may see are:

  • an inability to make and sustain friendships
  • a strong self-reliance
  • anger and shame-based behaviour, such as running away, hiding or lashing out
  • over-familiarity with strangers
  • lying, stealing and self-harm
  • lack of concentration
  • memory and organisational difficulties
  • lack of cause and effect thinking and poor impulse control.

Types of attachment problems

There are three types of insecure attachment styles that theorists talk about. The first style is known as avoidant attachment. The basic drive for these children is to avoid being noticed. They may be quiet and withdrawn, and very compliant and helpful, even when you don’t want or need help. They are fiercely self-reliant, as they have developed a strong defence mechanism that says, “I must meet my own needs”.

An ambivalent attachment style is very different. The main aim for these children is to be noticed. They can’t cope with being ignored and will do anything within their power to get your attention. This is such a strong drive for them that it is like breathing. They can be very charming one moment and then aggressive and controlling the next.

Finally, a disorganised attachment style is probably the most difficult to understand. This child doesn’t really have a strategy to cope, so they are very confused in their approach, being sometimes withdrawn and quiet and at other times in-your-face and controlling. These children can be the hardest to reach and need lots of understanding and communication with parents wherever possible.

Helping children at school

There are some guiding principles to think about that will help you engage better with these children:

  1. Relationships over curriculum. It is in previous relationships that things have broken down and, as a result, these children find new relationships difficult. They need to know that adults can be trusted and that they can feel safe enough in our education systems to learn. Staff need to work on the relationship with the child even if it means that the child misses out on the core curriculum at times. If they do not feel safe, they will not be able to learn.
  2. Emotional age over chronological age. These children are frequently operating at a much lower age emotionally than their chronological age. Approach them as you would a younger child, instead of trying to get them to “act their age”. Introduce structured times in their programme to give them permission to act younger, allowing them to construct those essential development blocks that have been missed – for example, being on playground duty with younger children, reading with early years or playing Lego and jigsaws with younger children.
  3. Time in over time out. Most of the sanctions we have in our educational system revolve around three areas: shame, loss and rejection. When sanctions are used as punishment or behaviour modification with children who are already very familiar with these feelings, it only compounds their sense of shame. Instead of pushing them away from us we need to bring them close. They need to be around trusted adults as much as possible.

Above all, children with attachment difficulties need to know that the experiences they’ve had in their early years with adults do not necessarily have to define their futures. The more positive the relationships they have with adults, the better. Learning is not a priority for them at the moment – getting through each day, managing their anxiety and connecting with others are.

Further information

Nicola Marshall runs BraveHeart Education, a consultancy supporting people working with vulnerable children. BraveHeart’s free e-book, Attachment and Trauma Issues in Educational Settings, is available at:


Nicola Marshall
Author: Nicola Marshall

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  1. You may wish to look up Pathological Demand Avoidance syndrome. Many children that have wrongly been labelled with attachment problems actually have this. It may look similar on the surface but the cause is completely different, PDA children have not had a traumatic start or been neglected, and it is incredibly offensive to parents to be accused of this when their child actually has a form of AUTISM. Please bear that in mind when assuming ‘attachment’ problems in a child who avoids, hides, is anxious, is controlling. Thankyou. You may find more info at


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