Awareness of Attachment Theory is becoming more prevalent in our educational system and rightly so. There’s still a long way to go, but even in the three years I’ve been training schools in this area I’ve seen more interest and basic awareness, and the realisation that many children are not ‘naughty’ they actually have other reasons why settling to learn is really difficult for them.
Even so – the question I’m asked often is “how do you recognise a child has Attachment difficulties as opposed to anything else they may have, such as ADHD, Autism or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?” The symptoms of an insecure Attachment can look very similar to these other conditions and also of course the typical stages of child development that young people go through. So how can you tell the difference? Well let’s think a little bit about what the top five symptoms might be to start with, and then how you might be able to distinguish between other conditions and Attachment.
1) Hypervigilence (the inability to sit still, the need to fidget, turn around and watch others all the time). This comes as a result of a chaotic background where a child’s brain has developed in such a way that their fight, flight, freeze mechanism is overdeveloped – hypersensitive. It’s like they are on red alert looking out for potential danger. In the classroom they may be constantly watching the door, jumpy when there’s an unexpected loud noise, distracted by the slightest thing around them, or just forever in their heads worrying about survival.
2) A lack of empathy (they really do not understand how it feels for others, show an inability to take responsibility for their actions). Empathy is something that starts to develop early in life through mirroring with our parents. If babies haven’t had that relationship where they work together with parents to understand that they have an impact on the world and that there is something outside of themselves – then they do not develop empathy. In the classroom they may be totally unaware of the impact they have on others. When you say “how would you feel if Billy hit you like that?” – they just look at you blank or more likely they respond with ‘it wouldn’t bother me’.
3) Lack of self-regulation (the inability to control their impulses, change their behaviour if needed and soothe their own emotions). We learn self-regulation very early in life through being co-regulated by our parents. When a child hasn’t experienced this from their parents or carers the ability to self-regulate isn’t there. In the classroom you see them acting impulsively with others, they react quickly, seem to have no control over their emotions, they can dysregulate very quickly and then it takes a long time to bring them down.
4) Shame based behaviour (the belief at the core of their being that THEY are bad). Again due to early life experiences many children believe instinctively that THEY are bad – they don’t deserve to be treated well and they are useless, unworthy and unlovable. What a horrible place to be in? In the classroom many of the behaviours you see will be shame based – lying, blaming others, minimising their actions, rage, running away and hiding, over reaction to criticism. All these behaviours indicate a child who is riddled with shame.
5) Retention and memory issues (the inability to remember what’s already been learnt and to be able to add new learning). Many children find certain aspects of learning difficult. For some it’s Maths, others it might be English or the Sciences. For all my three children retention of information is very difficult. They seem to learn something one day and then by tomorrow it’s gone. You have to be in the right space in your brain in order to learn new things. As with hypervigilence for children who’s brains were developing when they were in a chaotic, frightening environment where their needs were not met, their brains are active in the reptilian part of the brain – where all they are concerned about is survival. In order to learn you need to be in the frontal cortex part of your brain. The reptilian and frontal cortex parts of the brain cannot be active at the same time. This means that a child who’s scared and anxious at school will be in the reptilian part of the brain and therefore not able to access the thinking part of the brain.
As you read that list you may be thinking of other children – those with ADHD, Austism or Foetal Alcohol and they do look very similar. The main two things to consider are the background of the child and the frequency of the issues. For example if a child is in care, adopted or in a chaotic environment then it’s very likely that they are struggling in their Attachments to others. This is not always the case though. Some children develop Attachment difficulties and are in a stable, loving home where their needs are being met. There could be other factors to consider such as medical issues that mean they are separated from parents, or a single episode trauma may have occurred that has had a long term impact on them.
Secondly the frequency of the issues is an indication of Attachment. For the other conditions many times a child will exhibit the same behaviours. With Autism for example a child may always need to organise buttons in a certain way, or never holds eye contact, or can not empathise with others. A child with Attachment difficulties can be confusing as sometimes they can do something and other times they can’t. Where they are in their brain is vitally important. This is why it’s so confusing for educators and parents to understand as one day they can do their 7 times table and the next they really can’t. This makes us adults believe they have control over this and are being lazy or manipulative.
Of course with children it’s never a definite science. Humans are complex beings and even if a child shows signs of a certain condition without full assessment it is hard to know. I do know though from my own experience that sometimes a condition masks itself as something when it is in fact something else. Also children very often have a number of conditions, so they may have Attachment difficulties but also be on the Autistic spectrum in some way.
Above all children need to be understood. The more we can notice the patterns and behaviours that they are trying to communicate to us (whether parents or educators) the better. All behaviour communicates a need. When we can realise that and look beyond the behaviour to the need, then the easier it is to find strategies to help them with whatever condition they may have.