Time to let go? The difficulties of simple conclusions from attachment theory

In the quest to understand student behaviour, it is natural and understandable to explore every avenue we can to find answers. Dr Niklas Serling counsels caution when it comes to the current interest in attachment theory as an explanatory – and prescriptive – model from which to draw conclusions.

At a time when pupil behaviour is driving teachers out of their vocation and exclusions are under increasing scrutiny by the press, how best to manage challenging behaviour is a subject of heated debate. Some educationalists have pointed to attachment theory as a useful way of understanding and dealing with challenging behaviour.(1,2,3) Teaching on a counselling psychology doctorate, I come across attachment theory a great deal. I also started my career as a psychologist by setting up a counselling service in a pupil referral unit (PRU), where I am now a governor. I know what challenging behaviour looks like, and have some understanding of the struggles of the children and young people exhibiting it.

The children who leave mainstream education for PRUs have often had many significant adverse experiences that contribute to their struggle with the demands of mainstream education. The focus on their individual needs that a good PRU can offer (and many are doing an excellent job with incredible staff) is often a better fit than a busy mainstream classroom with overstretched staff. In the current discourse on behaviour, the sorts of adverse childhood experiences that some children bring to PRUs are often interpreted through attachment theory.(4) This, as part of a broader therapeutic turn in some elements of educational academia, imports theories from psychology to mainstream teaching practice.

Many psychological theories invoked as scientific evidence for a particular approach to counselling and education have turned out to not be as convincing as those propounding them might like.

There are two problems with this. The first is to conflate the experience of very vulnerable children with a history of familial abuse or neglect with a broader population, seeking evidence of trauma on a spectrum where it is often not merited. The second problem is that many psychological theories invoked as scientific evidence for a particular approach to counselling and education have turned out, on further evaluation, to not be as convincing as those propounding them might like.(5) The public discussion has become increasingly ungrounded in its portrayal of attachment theory as a scientific evidence base for both aspects of the query. My objective in this article is to give a more balanced view.

Attachment theory is a body of theories from the 1960s that has accrued much criticism over the years.(6) Originating with Freud’s theories, we form an attachment to our primary caregiver, and then supposedly proceed to assume that our future connections will be like that.(7) If we had a difficult attachment to our mum, we will have a difficult attachment to our teacher. We won’t be able to rely on the teacher since we couldn’t rely on our mum, and may indeed take out our anger at our mum on our teacher.(8) Broadly placed in the psychodynamic tradition where the focus is on early experience in the family, and much emphasis is on how unconscious constructs drive our behaviour, 20th-century research into attachment theories attempted to solidify and ground ideas such as internal working models of our parents in scientific laboratory tests, using experiments like the ‘strange situation’.(9)

The results of these experiments were far less supportive of psychodynamic theories than we may think today. The ‘strange situation’ (where a child is with its mother in a room, left and subsequently re-joined by her, and the child’s behaviour and reaction to the mother’s return) is seen as an indication of how secure their attachment to their mum is – and shows exactly and only that. It does not show how secure the attachment may be to others – strangers still scare the child.(9,10) The way that children relate to their mothers does not serve as a predictable blueprint for how they relate to the world.(11,12) It seems that we don’t have a fixed attachment style that we generalise to all – we relate differently to different people.

In defence of psychodynamic and attachment theories, we must acknowledge that these theories were constructed long before large-scale genetic data was available. We now know from behavioural genetics – a field with far more convincing and replicable data – that the impact of parenting, outside the most extreme cases of neglect and abuse, is very limited.(13,14,15) Extensive research conducted on personality and genetics over the past 50 years in several countries shows that persistent, generalised internal models of caregivers do not form the basis for personality.(16) Genetic twins separated at birth and raised by very different parents are much more similar than genetically unrelated adopted siblings raised by the same parents.(17,18,19)

In order for attachment theory to have any credibility, it would have to show that the way we related to our parents affects how we now relate to other people. Such a study has never been done. It would have to control for genetics since children will relate to others in similar ways that their parents related to others, since children and parents share genes (it is understandable that attachment theorists mistook this correlation for causation). A child could have a calm and caring relationship with their mother, and subsequently such a relationship with others, all due to shared genetics.(20)

It may seem intuitive to us that parental attachment forms future relational strategies but there is no evidence for it in the general population. Indeed, given our vast cognitive capacities, and given that most of these capacities focus on social interaction, it doesn’t make sense for us to have such a fixed take on relationships, trust and connection. Compared to other animals, we are uniquely skilled at social engagement – we try to mind- read and adapt in a useful way to each specific person we meet. We differentiate between people – we can have trouble with our dad, yet still have a good relationship with our friend. We learn how other people are, not only from our parents, but from peers and relations throughout our lifespan. The evidence is clear that humans are experts at adapting differently to different people.(21) Even if some children with actively harmful caregivers may deduce from their adverse experiences that all people are bad, we can concentrate our resources better on those genuinely vulnerable children and make better decisions concerning how best to manage the rest if we do not extrapolate from the extremes to define the vast majority.

The best approach for the vast majority of children is to create an environment that makes it clear what is expected of them, and then to enforce these expectations. Trust the ability of children to adapt.

We are a supremely social, adaptable and resilient species. Human beings have adapted to savannahs and deserts – even the Arctic Circle, where my mother is from. We have adapted to living as hunters, gatherers, farmers and software engineers – the vast majority of us can adapt to the classroom. The question is how best to create an environment to support and reinforce our plasticity and resilience. While not conclusive, some evidence seems to show that the consistent approach to behaviour in schools that some might consider to be ‘strict’ in character might lead not only to better academic outcomes but also to greater wellbeing for pupils and teachers alike.(22) It closes the attainment gap, so that pupils from groups that might otherwise be left behind do better across the board. If you want better outcomes for kids on free school meals, the evidence is that kind consistent behaviour management systems and high expectations work.(23) If we allow children to punch their teacher because we imagine that their difficult attachment to their mum makes them destined to do so, we make it quite likely that they will fail to adapt to a school environment that could otherwise have assisted in socialising and educating them to have far better life chances. It also prevents everyone from learning and teaching in peace without the stress and anxiety of disruption and violence. If it sounds oppressive to walk down a corridor in silence, how oppressive is it to walk down a corridor in fear of being verbally harassed or physically assaulted?

The best approach for the vast majority of children is to create an environment that makes it clear what is expected of them, and then to enforce these expectations.(24) Trust the ability of children to adapt – just like they adapt and are different on the football field, with their grandparents, at weddings, with their cousins or sitting in the car. The most controversially traditionalist state school in England, Michaela Community School, does not apply SEND labels and applies the same behavioural standards to all children while providing additional learning support specific to their needs, and was praised by Ofsted for their ‘exceptional’ SEND progress in a report that described the school’s approach to pupil development and welfare as ‘outstanding’.(25)

As a school governor with two children, I end up in many discussions with parents about their children’s struggles in which the explanatory model parents use to try and understand those issues is often some form of attachment theory. There is a real danger for the child here – questionable attachment theories make parents see their children acting out as evidence of them being in need of special treatment, instead of focusing on teaching the child to adapt. With loose boundaries, the child is confused, acts out more, and is further stigmatised socially. In cases where parents can’t create firm boundaries, a school that does can make the difference for a child who might otherwise run the risk of perpetually struggling socially and suffer the negative impacts of loneliness and conflict that can bring. Paradoxically, if we see all struggles as indications of attachment difficulties and deny the ability of the child to push through these struggles, we will make children adapt to these lesser expectations and adopt this story.

But what to do with the small minority that don’t manage to adapt despite this clarity? The ones who for whatever reason – extreme trauma, neurology – struggle to fit in? My work at the counselling service at the pupil referral unit allowed me to get to know these children well. We need to accept that some children – fewer than we perhaps think but still some – won’t fit mainstream education and that we need to adapt to them. Extraordinary kids demand extraordinary interventions – one of my more memorable days at work included a very useful therapeutic session with a teenage boy who I was physically restraining for his own safety on top of a bus. Overall, however, my experience has shown me that successes at the PRU were more often in finding a useful outlet for the young person’s skills, rather than any therapeutic interventions. Therapy could be useful in examining life choices, teaching awareness and skills, but rarely would focus on supposed childhood trauma or indeed attachment difficulties be useful. These pupils needed a guide and mentor to navigate this difficult world of rules they struggled to adhere to, rather than someone to ‘cure’ their childhood. Childhood was over; now the focus was to get on to the best of their abilities, and with that focus it was possible to succeed.

It is therefore with great concern that I see recent policies forcing schools to designate attachment-trained teachers,(26) and NICE guidelines deploying attachment theory as an accepted truth.(3) These are in no way uncontested facts; they are poorly supported theories that will ultimately draw resources from schools – resources that could be far better used. The troubled child will be well served by having a designated adult that they can rely on, because care works, and space is useful; but training this supportive staff person in attachment theory – or indeed insisting that the entire teaching body adheres to it – is deeply problematic. It denies and stifles the adaptability and resilience that children would be better off developing to thrive in the outside world.

Dr Niklas Serning is the consultant child psychotherapist for Bristol’s award winning OTR where he led a service transformation focused on resilience and empowerment. He is also a senior lecturer and Systemic Module Leader at UWE’s counselling psychology doctorate, a governor in both mainstream and pupil referral schools, and father of two. His MSc research relied heavily on attachment theory – we all make our mistakes.


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