Attachment difficulties: why you shouldn't treat all children the same

All teaching staff need to understand the impact of early childhood trauma in terms of attachment and how it affects learning. Nicola Marshall outlines how to identify and support children and young people with attachment difficulties

Author details

Nicola Marshall founded BraveHeart Education, which trains and supports those working with vulnerable children, whether they are looked after, adopted or in challenging home environments.

There are many children and young people in schools and colleges who struggle to learn. Some have diagnosed special needs and learning difficulties. Others may have undiagnosed emotional impacts resulting from early trauma.

The impact of trauma is not something you can see. Affected children look like their peers, may have subjects they excel in and can be articulate at times.

Meanwhile, a common myth is that children are so resilient that they can bounce back from living in a chaotic environment. For many that is just not true. In fact, they may spend most of their lives dealing with the fallout of early experiences, which can hinder their emotional development and their ability to learn.

One size does not fit all

Teaching professionals need to be aware of the issues, and approach children with attachment difficulties differently from the way they approach their peers. This is because the tried and tested techniques of behaviour management will not work effectively on children who do not have a strong foundation to receive it.

One size does not fit all, especially when they have not had the same start in life. As children’s author Rick Riordan said: ‘Fairness is not giving everyone the same but giving everyone what they need.’

The impact of early trauma

If children have not had a good attachment cycle in their early years where their needs were met in a consistent and reliable fashion, then a sense of shame, not trust, develops. These children feel that they are bad and they internalise this into toxic shame. This manifests itself through their behaviour, which we will look at briefly later.

Meanwhile, their brains do not develop in the same way as a child who has had a healthy attachment cycle. Human brains do much of their developing in the first two years of life. What we experience in those early weeks and months helps to develop the three main sections of the brain.

The first area to develop is the back of the brain, known as the reptilian brain. This is concerned with survival. Our heart rate, respiratory rate and the fight, flight, freeze mechanism live here.

Human brains do much of their developing in the first two years of life

Then through repetitive, patterned activity the rest of the brain develops. The second section, known as the emotional brain, develops, and finally the frontal cortex, which we call the thinking brain.

All three sections are connected, but what is interesting in terms of learning is that the front and back sections cannot work at the same time. This enables us to react quickly to danger. Instead of thinking through the options, our front brain shuts down and we react: fight, flight or freeze.

For most people, the three sections are adequately balanced, enabling us to respond when we need to if there is danger, but we can also think through and process things and reflect on our actions.

However, for children who lived in a chaotic home environment as babies, or who have not had their needs met for whatever reason, the back part of their brain is overdeveloped. In other words, they are very sensitive to perceived danger and, as a survival strategy, the front of their brain (the thinking part) shuts down so that they can react.

Attachment disorders arise when infants fail to establish any emotional connection with their primary caregivers. This means that the child’s emotional needs of love, comfort, care and nurturing are unmet and their brain develops accordingly.

You will see this in the classroom: someone looks at them in a funny way and they swear at them; someone pushes past them in the corridor and they punch them; they can’t find a pencil and it is as if a volcano has erupted.

The only way we can get pupils like this to be able to access the front part of the brain is to help them feel safe and calm. If we do not, they will not be able to learn.

Three manifestations of insecure attachment

There are three styles of insecure attachment. Sometimes these are clear and you can identify children affected through just knowing what the styles are; other children are a little harder to identify.


For this child, their main aim in life is not to be noticed. They tend to be withdrawn, quiet, compliant and helpful. They are highly anxious but if they were to let you know this, then they feel they might be in danger, so they hide it well. They have learned phrases to make it seem as if they are OK. They do not trust, and so have very superficial relationships. They are very vulnerable and you have to get close to them to see what is going on.


For this child, their main aim in life is to be noticed. They are in your face, loud and highly spirited. They will know names and places and what is going on. They are endearing, but can also become aggressive quickly. They are attention-seeking: if they are not highly visible, then they may not get their needs met.


For this child, there is no strategy to cope. They are confused and confusing. Sometimes they are shy and quiet, at other times in your face. They have come from unpredictable backgrounds, and so struggle to know how to act and how to understand what your response means to them.

The front and back sections of the brain cannot work at the same time

What to watch out for


These pupils cannot sit still, fidget, turn around and watch others. Remember that their fight, flight, freeze response is hypersensitive. In the classroom they may watch the door, be jumpy when there is an unexpected loud noise, be distracted by the slightest thing around them, or forever worry about survival.

Lack of empathy

They really do not understand how others might be feeling and show an inability to take responsibility for their actions. Empathy is something that starts to develop early in life through mirroring. If babies have not been able to work together with parents to understand that they have an impact on the world and that there is something outside themselves, then they do not develop empathy.

Lack of self-regulation

They are unable to control impulses, change behaviour if needed, or soothe their own emotions. Children learn self-regulation early in life through being co-regulated by their parents. When a child has not experienced this, the ability to self-regulate is not there. In the classroom, they will act impulsively with others and react quickly. They seem to have no control over their emotions, they can become overwrought very quickly and then it takes a long time to calm them down.

Shame-based behaviour

They believe that they are bad and do not deserve to be treated well. They feel useless, unworthy and unlovable. In the classroom, many of the behaviours you see will be shamed based: lying, blaming others, minimising, rage, running away, hiding and overreacting to criticism. All of these indicate a child riddled with shame.

Emotional age

Children who have experienced a difficult start in life are often emotionally younger than their chronological age. This becomes more apparent as they move up in education where more is expected of them, and they may not be able to meet these expectations. They will often regress when particularly stressed, so a 16-year-old may start to act more like a 10-year-old.

Supporting pupils with attachment difficulties

The starting point is to be aware that these children are different. Although they may look the same as their peers, emotionally and cognitively they may be operating at a much younger age or be impaired in some way.

Relationships are key. Trust is the bedrock of being able to function in life - to hold down a job, to be in a healthy relationship and to raise children well. Showing them that they can trust us and others will help them break the cycle and start to develop.

Behaviour communicates a need. The ambivalent child craves attention and fears not having their needs met. The avoidant child is in a heightened state of anxiety around not getting their needs met. The disorganised child is in a state of complete confusion and does not know how to get their needs met. The common thread is getting their needs met.

If, as educational practitioners, we can move away from behaviour modification to relieving anxiety and fear in children with attachment difficulties and make them feel safe, then we will be able to meet their needs and help them to develop into emotionally resilient, capable people who can contribute to society.

This article is taken from Special Children Magazine, issue 235. PDF versions of the magazines are available to download in the My Account area under My Magazines for subscribers of the Knowledge Centre and Premium CPD.


Last Updated: 
25 Apr 2019