NOTE: Educators are not responsible for, cannot and should not attempt to solve students’ attachment issues. Whilst we might hold a deep desire to see a particular student healthy, content and thriving it is simply not within our power to do so. Nor would it be healthy for either party involved to overreach the boundaries of a relationship between educator and student.

This does not mean we have no role to play when it comes to attachment. After all, primary school students spend the majority of their time in the school environment entangled in all sorts of interpersonal relationships.

So, what can educators do?

Being aware of how attachment and relationships function allows educators to see and listen to their students in a meaningful way. Awareness increases the understanding of just how valuable genuine and thoughtful attention is to students, and how it may influence the way one responds to student behaviour within different settings. This first approach can be realized by any pre- and in-service educator, solely through personal research and commitment.


When thinking of supportive strategies, three key areas emerge.

  1. Consistency:  Regularly occurring over time.
  2. Predictability: Occurring in a way that is expected.
  3. Reliability: Consistently being able to be depended on.

A helpful analogy to remember this model is the abbreviation CPR. CPR is traditionally associated with vital medical support, sometimes performed by doctors and sometimes by bystanders. In a sense, educators are also able to offer vital social-emotional support to their students.

Example: Classroom Management Strategies

  1. Consistency: An educator regularly manages behaviour and not just at random moments.
  2. Predictability: Students will know the tools at the educators disposal to deter them from unfavourable behaviour, and strategies used to motivate and support them. They know that the educator in question may give detention or praise. They know that an educator may have a conversation with them but would not physically harm them
  3. Reliability: Students may depend on the educator to produce an safe, structured and rich learning environment and does so by managing the behaviour of their peers and themself.

Students who have little experiences of secure attachment may have issues with trust and not realize that their caregiver actively keeps their emotional well-being in mind. Through explicitly embodying and verbalizing these concepts (often through explaining why,) you may build up a bank of experiences that allow a student to focus more on learning because they have are able to trust that their educator is consciously attuned to their needs.

In this Webinar DeShanna king leads an audience of educators into the lands of emotional self-regulation, teaching them how to recognize and reduce ‘emotional noise’ in the classroom. This webinar introduces a new and critically vital dimension of getting to know your students that goes beyond ability, likes and dislikes. Emotional noise refers to the different influences (parents, siblings, home life,) students and educators will inevitably bring with them into your classroom.

Reflect and participate in DeShanna’s webinar.

Six recommendations by Bergin & Bergin (2009)

In their educational psychology journal article Christi Bergin and David Bergin (2009) recommend attachment aware attitudes and practices, six of which pertain to practices any individual educator can use. They pertain to:

  • Increasing teacher sensitivity. In this case teacher sensitivity refers to the manner in which educators accurately identify and respond to students’ expressions of distress. As outlined in still face experiments, calm and kind responses of adults to children’s distress is vital for their emotional development. One way to increase this kind of sensitivity and to determine appropriate responses is through continued review and application of the educator’s knowledge of child development.
  • Having high expectations of students. Through displaying high (yet realistic) expectations of students an educator communicates faith in student abilities and shows that they are knowledgeable about the experiences of their students. This is turn makes students feel seen by their educators and strengthen student-educator bonds.
  • Providing choices. Providing choices allows greater student autonomy of their learning. This communicates trust and dispels the notion that education is about educators assigning tasks out of a place of authority. Bergin and Bergin (2009) do note that offering choice may be more or less important depending on cultural context.
  • Using induction rather than coercive discipline. In this instance induction refers to verbalizing the reasons of why rules are in place and which consequences they hold. Coercive discipline refers to educators exercising their control over the external environment / resources such as taking away possessions, assigning detention and taking away recess time. Within the attachment perspective induction provides a clear cause and effect before consequences are exercised. This depersonalizes the consequences as students are not punished for their personality. This falls under expressing predictability
  • Supporting positive peer culture. Students who are able to socialize well with each other practice connecting to others. Setting up a community in which individuals (students and educators) are treated with kindness and respect benefits socialization. It allows students to normalize a range of regulating behaviour such as asking their surroundings for help and verbalizing their thoughts and feelings without conflict. Additionally, supporting students in being kind and understanding feeds into general inclusion and life skills. Supporting positive peer culture can be done through classroom reflection on conflict, behaviour, and feelings. Educators can also involve students in setting up behaviour protocols, roleplaying difficult scenarios and modelling patience and kindness.
  • Reserving interventions / specific time for a particular student. When an educator has strife with a particular student or notices a particular student to be withdrawn for them it may be beneficial to allocate extra time to strengthen the bond between student and educator. One way of doing this is by taking 5 – 15 minutes each day or week (as long as it is consistent) to spend with the student. During this time slot it is important that the educator does not teach, correct, or enforce but rather act as a ‘sportscaster’ in giving a play-by-play recount of student behaviour and activities during the day / week. This helps emphasize that educators are not present solely to express authority over the student and helps normalize pleasant interaction. If it is noted that a particular student and educator are at significant odds this process can be introduced and guided by a school psychologist.
Reflect on your own teaching and put the points into the following categories. For each category, pick one point and think of what you need in order to improve, start or learn more about the practice.
  • I practice this
  • I could practice this soon
  • I need to learn more about this.


Low-effort and general attachment aware practice:

Many interactions and attachment-related situations do not require a specific approach. They just simply are and are responded to in the moment. However, simply being mindful of the earlier mentioned concept of expressing consistency, predictability, and reliability can go a long way. The following suggestions are too minor and dependant on the teaching style of the educator to warrant research-based scrutiny, but helpful nevertheless.

  • Follow up on promises. Do not state things as a promise if you are unsure you can fullfil it.
  • Be consistent in behaviour management. Treat students as equals. Personal bias or their academic achievement should not influence decisions regarding behavioural norms. Do not vary rewards and consequences without a justification.
  • Keep an eye out for situations that may spur feelings of rejection. Reflect on interactions between educator and student as well as students amongst each other. Do not avoid them as they are a regular part of life but try to be mindful responses.
  • Where appropriate make cause and effect / prompt and response explicit. When students are able to know why something happened it removes feelings of character judgement. Additionally it stimulates students to see cause and effect rather than feel helpless in an environment of social chaos.
  • Explicitly highlight personal accountability and reliability using self-talk. Modelling internal thought processes may help students identify their own emotions. It also emphasizes that educators are human and can make mistakes.
  • Make notes of students home lives, likes and dislikes. Try to set up and sustain quality communication with the key adults’ in students’ lives.
  • Where appropriate practice basic emotion regulation with students. Practicing emotion regulation with the whole class normalizes strategies that some students with suspected and established attachment issues may need. (This also includes students with other social emotional needs.)
  • Be aware of responsivity towards students with suspected and established attachment issues.
  • Create safe spaces where student can wind down comfortably.
  • Model effective communication by using ‘I’ statements.

In the linked video, Psychologist Brad Peters talks about ways adults can help students regulate their emotions.

Identify at least one key point that is useful to you and solidify your learning through: making a mind-map, using paper or a digital tool, writing bullet-point, or recording yourself verbally summarizing, making a wordless visual or preparing a conversation starter for your peers / colleagues. You may of course include multiple points if you so wish.

The use of ‘I’ statements
A widely-known and useful communication tool is the use of ‘I’ statements as coined by Dr. Gordon Thomas in the 1960s. They are especially effective in highlighting a personal perspective, diffusing emotionally charged situations and in providing feedback.

‘I’ statements are about rephrasing statements that may be perceived as accusatory when formulated with the pronoun ‘you’. They put blame on the backburner and bring feelings and solutions tot he forefront. The essential components of an ‘I’ statement are as follows: 1) the distressing situation or behaviour 2) the speakers’ feelings, 3) a concrete effect caused by the behaviour or situation. (Empowering Education, 2020)

Two examples are given to highlight the differences between an accusatory sentence and a correct ‘I’ statement. In these examples a student is trying to communicate their frustration when playing a game with a peer.

“You never listen to me and I never get a turn!”
The student uses ‘you’ in an accusatory way, this creates distance between the ‘I’ and ‘me’ in question. It assigns blame and responsibility in a situation where there may be none and does not provide a solution. Their peer might feel attacked and feel that they need to defend their actions instead of looking for a mutually beneficial solution.

“I feel sad when I don’t get any turns because I am missing out on the game.”

The student identifies their feelings, explains the cause and outlines what is supposed to happen or possible solutions. It does not feel accusatory because it does not assume blame with either party, which allows for a peer to respond in a constructive manner.

This does not mean that ‘I’ statements are bound to be effective and productive in every setting. One valid critique of using I statements is that their use can be interpreted as using clear communication out of interest in achieving a personal goal. (Kislik, L., 2018) It should be emphasized that using an ‘I’ statement does not mean that the speaker will achieve their ideal resolution. ‘I’ statements are are not a spaces for people to vent difficult emotions without reprecussions. Consider the following statement: “I feel angry that you chose this topic for your project because you know that I wanted to choose this topic. I feel like stupid for calling you a friend because you chose this topic when a true friend would not do that.”

The speaker in question may feel that… However, their conception on what it means to be a friend might be flawed and the feelings of betrayal stemming from the incongruence of this belief and the actions of their peer are ultimately their responsibility to regulate.

Lastly it bears mentioning that this is a difficult communication tool to normalize and should only be implemented if students can use it correctly and responsibly. Educator discretion regarding age and readiness should be taken into consideration.

Ask for help
When a student shows certain behaviour, reaching out to the professionals in the school environment is key to getting this student the help they need. Using the previous section, it is possible to adapt your classroom and make it more accessible for these students. Remember that a big part of helping the student takes place outside of the classroom with the help of professionals and caregivers. (Kennisgroep Speciaal, 2018) 



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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