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Dealing with attachment disorder in Primary children

Strategies and resources from UK-based SEND leader Kate Wells…

Kate Wells
by Kate Wells
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

Since John Bowlby first researched attachment in infants, there has been enormous progress in recognition that a significant amount of children in our classrooms do not have a secure attachment with at least one main caregiver.

This impacts on their ability to develop well at home, school and within their wider community.

The reality of this means that in the majority of schools, there are a proportion of children with insecure attachments and teachers and assistants trying to navigate this complex condition, on top of managing the workload and demands of the job.

In my experience working in a special school and supporting primary schools, we are getting better at recognising that children who have experienced early childhood trauma or neglect are likely to have attachment difficulties.

What we need to ensure now is that schools are also identifying children whose attachment needs may not be as immediately obvious, as well as implementing strategies that are going to support these children to be fully included in the classroom.


While I don’t advocate that everyone rushes off to diagnose each child in their class who presents with challenging behaviour, a key question to consider is what their behaviour is telling us.

Children with insecure attachment can present as disruptive, destructive, controlling or attention-seeking. At the other end of the spectrum they may be withdrawn, rejecting or clingy.

If we think of Bowlby’s internal working model of a child, there will be children who walk into our classrooms every day who do not intrinsically trust the adults in that room.

For them, the classroom is not automatically a safe place and the adults in them are not automatically safe adults. When you think of children entering a classroom with this view, their disruptive, controlling and attention-seeking behaviour now has a context. As adults, we can help them learn better ways of expressing themselves.

Classroom strategies

Some schools still operate a ‘rewards and sanctions’ behaviour approach, where gaining praise and positive attention from adults are conditional on ‘good’ behaviour. While this may work for some children, for many it can perpetuate their feelings of low self-worth and shame.

This can lead to further negative behaviour and a cycle of conflict that can be hard to get out of.

Something I try to remember in my own practice is to validate feelings before facts. When a child is upset, frustrated or angry and acts in a negative way, it is easy to go straight to reprimanding the negative behaviour.

If you take time to understand the reason behind it, the child is more likely to feel listened to and you have a greater chance of then addressing and therefore altering the behaviour.

Children with attachment difficulties often have feelings of low self-worth and shame. It is really important that as adults we do not further add to this with the language we use.

A child who already feels shame will expect an adult to be cross with them or rejecting of them. Ensuring that a child knows that it is the behaviour, not them, that is unacceptable is vital.

Reduce anxiety

A busy classroom environment can cause anxiety for children with attachment difficulties. Think about the seating in your classroom. Children with attachment difficulties often like to be able to see the teacher and scan the classroom easily.

They might prefer to be near a door or with their back to a wall. Unstructured time such as lunchtime can also cause anxiety.

It can be helpful to ensure these times are planned for. Visuals with explicit expectations of what they are expected to do, and what they can expect others to do, can help reduce anxiety.

Attention seeking

Children with attachment difficulties may be heavily dependent on having your attention. They may present as clingy, ask seemingly trivial questions or ‘act out’ to get your attention.

Try noticing small things such as a new haircut. Get them to do an important job to help them feel connected to you. Frequently giving small amounts of attention can help alleviate anxiety that you’re going to forget them.

These techniques help build up children’s independence in a way they feel safe and still connected to you.

Quiet time

Build quiet time into your day so children can ‘catch up’ on processing. Having mindfulness activities or providing sensory and movement breaks can be helpful strategies to reduce tension.

Smooth transitions

Transitions can be particularly difficult for those with attachment difficulties. This could range from going down the hall to assembly or having a different teacher for the day, to more significant changes such as trips away or moving schools.

Taking time to go through small changes will really help. Larger changes need longer planning, with opportunities for the child to gradually build up their confidence in a new area or with a new trusted adult.

Some secondary schools start transition work in Y6 with taster lessons and immersion weeks. It’s important your pupils know that change, and feeling anxious about it – is OK.

I’m a big advocate of visuals and social stories for all ages as a way to help children become familiar with transitions and validate their feelings about changes.

Be a champion

Partnership working between home and school and within the school setting is imperative to the success of children with attachment difficulties. Having handovers between adults and involving children in plans will ensure better joined-up working and smoother transitions.

Attachment is not always easy to understand and can be challenging and emotionally draining for the adults working with the child.

However, taking time to invest in building positive relationships with these children means they are more likely to succeed. If you can champion these children, you will be creating a safe, secure and inclusive classroom.

Kate Wells is deputy head at KnowleDGE Learning Centre and a local leader in education for SEND.

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