Why do some students seem to love us one minute and hate us the next? Why do students seem to take their frustrations, that often have nothing to do with you or your class, out on you? Attachment theory can provide some insight into the push and pull of our teacher-student relationships!
Attachment Theory is a psychological and evolutionary perspective on relationships and how people function in these relationships. It begins by looking at child-caregiver relationships, and the theory that understanding the impact of these childhood relationships can provide insight into attachment styles and behaviours throughout the lifespan.
Furthermore, Attachment Theory provides a basis through which to understand student behaviours and helps us both respond to behaviour and help show students what a secure attachment can look like!
As with all behaviours, these are adaptive responses to create a sense of physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological safety, based on historical experiences in which these adaptive behaviours effectively functioned to serve the young person. Of course these behaviours will not be effective across all situations, but this is part of child and adolescent development!
I mean, hey, if children can’t make mistakes and practice relationships with their healthy adults at school, where can they?!
There are 4 main types of attachment styles:
A secure attachment is confident and trusting, feels safe, and expresses appropriate boundaries. They are responsive to other secure attachments and emotional connection with others (Attachment Theory, 2021).
Secure attachments present differently across the lifespan. Young children, for instance, will freely explore, will engage with strangers, may demonstrate visible upset if their parent leaves and demonstrates joy upon their return. A caregiver who is responsive to their child’s needs and allows them to explore freely will support a secure attachment style.
As adolescents, a securely attached child will continue to explore, knowing they have the safety of their caregivers to return to. They will feel independent, while returning to the safety and comfortability of their family. They will often hold their primary caregiver (in many cases, mother) to a higher regard than other caregivers, but feel secure in making new, healthy attachments as they get older.
As adults, you see secure attachments in folks willing to take risk with minimal fear of failure, and a person able to form healthy attachments to others, both romantically and in friendships. These folks tend to trust others, feel comfortable with closeness, but not dependent, and demonstrate effective communication and emotional intimacy.
An anxious-ambivalent attachment is characterized by a fear of rejection, dependent on others, romanticizes people and relationships, seeks validation and reassurance, reactive, and may seek out nurturing.
Similar to secure attachments, there are different presentations across the lifespan. You may have heard of this as “resistant attachment,” (though as we know from past blog posts, resistance isn’t actually always a bad thing!) so I would say this is an incorrect representation of this attachment model. Children presenting with anxious-ambivalent attachment typically explore very little, are suspicious of strangers. The child may be anxious or in distress when the parent leaves, but may be ambivalent to their return. This attachment style is often seen in young folks who have experienced a history of abuse.
In adolescents, we often see young folks identify more strongly with their peers than their caregivers. This typically evolves due to a stronger feeling of emotional and/or physical safety with their peers. This is where evolution comes in! If there is a lack of perceived safety at home with caregivers, connecting with peers presents an evolutionary advantage!
For adults, anxious-ambivalent attachment is seen as dependence on romantic partners, and frequently seeking reassurance from friendships and romantic partners. This can also be associated with a low sense of self-worth, and prioritizing their romantic partner, holding them in higher regard.
Anxious-Avoidant or Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment:
In anxious-avoidant attachment, the child will show little emotion upon the caregiver’s departure or arrival. The children will not explore much, and show little distress on separation with caregivers. What’s interesting about this pattern is that anxious-avoidant children are seen as using their ambivalence to caregivers as a mask for their actual emotional distress. This pattern emerges when children’s needs are left unmet and the child sees their caregiver’s closeness as merely a requirement for physical safety, keeping the caregiver close enough to ensure safety, but likely to avoid any emotional closeness.
As an adolescent, parents are seen as less-significant. There is a level of independence and lack of connection or closeness with others, including peers. This remains consistent through adulthood, with the adult avoiding attachment altogether, relying solely on themselves for physical, emotional, and psychological needs. There is a high level of distrust, with these folks tending to invest in themselves only, with little investment in other relationships.
Finally, fearful-avoidant attachment, which is characterized by a fear of connection, difficulty with boundaries, hot-and-cold in relationships, and unpredictable behaviour.
You often see children in this attachment pattern with physical responses to environmental stimuli and a fear of the unknown and fear of strangers. This is especially evident in young people with a pattern of changing or unpredictable caregivers. This is particularly true of children who are in and out of foster care, or who have a parent leave and reemerge in their lives sporadically. This may also include a particularly unsafe caregiver situation, in which the young person seeks some benefit to being close to a caregiver in terms of physical or emotional safety, but no real attachment to this individual. In other words, a protective factor (though aren’t they all?!).
Interestingly, adolescents presenting with disorganized attachment styles often prioritize their caregivers as a primary source of attachment, likely due to the push-pull nature of this relationship and the perceived elements of safety the young person receives from their caregiver, in spite of the possible fear/abuse. A low sense of self-worth and self-importance may be evident here as well.
As an adult, a fearful avoidant attachment pattern may be observed in avoidance of close relationships, distrust of the close relationships that do form, and feelings of low self-worth.
Attachment in Schools:
So what does this have to do with us as teachers?
We won’t ever be the primary caregiver, nor do we often get a lot of insight into what our students’ primary caregiving relationships look like; however, we don’t necessarily need to!
The beauty of understanding attachment theory, even at it’s more foundational level, is that we can gain insight into our students’ experiences of trauma and thereby form a better understanding of where behaviours come from. Understanding attachment theory and being able to identify attachment types can allow teachers to change their approach for certain students. Consistency in availability and caring/affection for students supports creating secure attachments (O’Neill, et.al., 2010) and can model what a secure attachment to a healthy adult looks like so students can more readily form secure attachments in the future.
I’ve already talked before about resistance and its use as a protective factor, however, attachment styles are protective too! We may see many of these presentations with our students to varying degrees.
For example, our students with secure attachments are the ones we often see as the “thriving” learners. Those who pursue education, take risks in their learning, and can think critically about their assignments. This of course doesn’t guarantee success, but you’ll notice these students coming to you for help if needed, and in many cases, caregivers who are engaged in their child’s learning.
These students need relatively little school based responses, over and above being a supportive and involved teacher!
An anxious-avoidant attachment, on the other hand, will reveal itself through students’ anxieties about their success and how you view them as a student. They may often ask if you’re angry with them, apologize a lot, even in situations that don’t require any apologies. These students may feel that the grade you give them reflects how you see them and they may seek to please you as a way to feel connected.
We can support these students by providing reassurance as needed, taking time to explain their grade before giving them report cards, progress reports, or handing back an assignment, and being available for these students to express their worries. It can be helpful to challenge the apologies gently by asking what the student worries they’ve done wrong. It can also help to ask students to observe your behaviours when they fear you’re angry. For example, ask them what they see in your response that has them worry you’re angry. Take this time to reassure them and remind them that it’s not a teacher’s job to get angry with them, it is a teacher’s job to redirect, guide, support, and love them as they are.
For dismissive-avoidant attachment, we may notice our students not engaged with our efforts to build relationship. They may seem disinterested and disconnected. We may also find that these are the students more likely to “act-up” when we have substitute teachers in. This tells us these students do value our closeness, but on their terms.
It’s important to not force yourself onto a student presenting this way. Remember, these attachment styles have emerged as a protective factor, and as much as we want to remain connected to our students forever in many cases, this isn’t always an option. These students fear being too attached to you because they know that within the next 10 months, they’ll move onto another class, so “what’s the point”? In these instances, being as consistent as possible with your availability, continuing to make an effort to engage with them, and allowing them space to come to you, can all help in building trust. Take an active interest in this student’s interests and do your best to tell your class when you’ll be absent so these students can predict your absence. Furthermore, because these young people are often independent, they may always choose to work independently. You can foster healthy peer interaction in strategically chosen groups and encourage them to see the value in working with others.
Finally, fearful-avoidant students will often present with the more intensive anxiety responses, such as physical shut down with varying degrees of panic attacks or dissociation. Although all students benefit from counselling support, these students may benefit even more so from additional counselling support. You may see these students love you one minute, hate you the next. These students may blame you for things beyond your control, and may have big emotional responses to things that are seemingly insignificant.
These students will often need you to demonstrate how to set clear, consistent boundaries. Taking time to listen to their concerns, regardless of how they are presenting these concerns, can help to de-escalate and refocus these students. We can engage in open, honest, and patient conversations with them about boundaries and behaviour can help set the tone for these students. When students are dissociating, giving them recaps of lessons can help them feel less anxious overall. Furthermore, this is an important time to let these students choose where they sit in your class and who they work with.
Although we may not be able to teach new attachment patterns in the one year of working with students, we can demonstrate for students what healthy attachment looks like. We can also model supportive, nurturing attachments and help students at least feel safe with one attachment - you. Having only one, healthy attachment can change the outcome for many of the students we work with (Walsh, 2018). Our consistency in providing unconditional positive regard for our students allows us to model not only attachment, but gives students space to make mistakes, try on new behaviours, and identify new, more helpful responses to external stimuli.
Attachment Theory. 2021, October 7. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory
Bretherton I (1992). "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth". Developmental Psychology. 28 (5): 759–775. doi:10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1999.
O’Neill, Linda; Francis Guenette; Andrew Kitchenham (2010). ‘Am I safe here and do you like me?’ Understanding Complex Trauma and Attachment Disruption in the Classroom. British Journal of Social Education. 37(4) 190-197. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8578.2010.00477.x
Walsh, B. (2015, March 23). The Science of Reslience: Why Some Children Thrive Despite Adversity. Retrieved from: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/15/03/science-resilience