Attachment: the elephant in the classroom

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Jay Vaughan on why schools need to be trauma informed.

Attachment is a sensation in the nervous system, flooding our body and brain with feel good hormones when it is working well. It is those little moments of intimacy and connection when we are with someone we trust and feel safe with. It is the touch of a hand and the squeeze of connection. A touch and connection that became almost impossible during the pandemic. We all recognise that a relationship online cannot touch the other person and activate the calming of their nervous system in the same way that is possible face to face.

It is hard to imagine now that at one point attachment theory was not seen as relevant to therapy, as it is such a fundamental way we relate as human beings to each other. Attachment theory and the impact of trauma is now widely recognised, as is the ‘dyadic’ approach of parent and child working together in therapy sessions. Attachment is also accepted now as a key part of any therapy, whether for a child or an adult. It’s now seen as relevant to education too, and schools are moving to be attachment and trauma informed.

This is profoundly important in the context of school. We know that schools need to be attachment and trauma informed, for children who have experienced significant harm, and have specific additional needs. What I believe has been overlooked, is that all children have now experienced the global trauma of the pandemic and need that same awareness and sensitivity previously reserved for a specific group of children. The education system needs to address and embrace a new, healing way of relating and being together. If staff are stressed and the environment is not safe, how can the children and young people feel safe? If children do not feel safe and are unable to trust, they will not be able to learn.

Post pandemic, with the pressure on schools to help children and young people catch up with their learning, the attachment elephant is now in the classroom. We need to recognise the impact that the trauma of the pandemic has had on everyone’s mental health, particularly for children and young people. We need to be thinking of all those nervous systems and how to help them regulate. Attachment is a nervous system to nervous system connection, educator to child. We communicate as human beings largely without words, and it is our eyes, our voice tone, our touch that educates and calms.What can this look like in an education setting? By shifting the focus in education from learning to psychoeducation, play and connection, we can empower children to know their bodies, what helps them calm, what helps them trust, how to get back into relationship with each other and educators, and thereby get back into learning. Learning comes when the foundations are securely in place and children feel safe, calm and able to manage to be in a relationship. Learning is so much more than the SATs and GCSEs. It is about attachment and connection, and that is not in the brain—it’s in the body.

Jay Vaughan
Author: Jay Vaughan

Jay Vaughan
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Jay Vaughan MBE is the CEO of Family Futures, a therapy centre, adoption and fostering agency, based in London.

Website: familyfutures.co.uk
X: @FamilyFuturesUK
Facebook: @FamilyFuturesUK

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