Positive Relationships: Attachment, Part 5: Tuning in

Anne O'Connor
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Understanding attachment theory can enhance flexible and responsive strategies to guide your practice with all children, says Anne O'Connor.

Q: How can an understanding of attachment theory help us to manage children's behaviour?

Many of the therapeutic strategies developed to help children with severe attachment issues are equally valuable to all children because of the nurturing approach that lies at the heart of them. Instead of making adaptations for specific children, think about how you could develop flexible, responsive practice that nurtures every child's emotional development and supports positive behaviours.

In the course of an average day, there will be times of possible stress for all children. When a child who is securely attached is feeling ill, or faced with a problem or worry, they know, from experience, that adults can be trusted to identify what is needed and do something about it.

This isn't the case for children whose attachments are less secure. Their response to stress might be to deny or reject any need for help (avoidant) or to be overly dependant and clingy with adults (ambivalent/anxious), because they haven't had this repeated experience of their needs being met consistently and appropriately.

If we think about how this affects a child's neurological as well as emotional development, it is easier to understand how behaviours that might appear defiant and aggressive, or attention-seeking and manipulative, are actually instinctive responses to stress triggers.

Recognising these triggers and understanding the root of the behaviours is the first step in supporting children to find new ways of responding to stress. Practitioners who recognise every child's right to be nurtured, and who are 'tuned in' and reliably available to children in consistent and sensitive ways, can provide the positive experiences that help build new neural pathways in the brain.

Q: Why is it important for adults to 'be available' to children and how can we, as practitioners, achieve this?

A stressed child needs 'time in' with an adult, so that they can learn, by experience, how to soothe and calm their fears and anxieties. 'Time out' only serves to reinforce feelings of rejection, isolation and lack of connection.

A key person approach, where two practitioners have 'shared care' of a group of children, means that parents and children know that one or other of their key people will always be available to them. There are many reasons why this approach is beneficial, but above all, it ensures that babies and young children have repeated, consistent experience of their needs being met by adults who are 'tuned in' to them.

This is just as relevant with older children. Think about how you can reassure them that each one is 'held in mind' in a busy classroom - perhaps through the deployment of teaching assistants, the warmth of your interactions and the use of phrases and little signals that reassure them of your availability for them.

Q: What can we learn by 'tuning in' to children's behaviour and how can this be achieved?

- Tuning into children and understanding the ways in which they respond to stress will challenge us to stop viewing behaviour merely in terms of 'good' and 'bad'. All behaviour is communication. Over-compliance can be just as much of an indicator of need as defiance or aggression.

- Reflect on the underlying causes and triggers for a child's behaviour. For example, misbehaving at tidy-up time can be a signal that a child feels anxious or fearful of change or 'endings'. Underlying that may be the worry that they will never be able to return to the same activity and might not feel again the nice feelings they had while involved in the game.

- A child who has no security that good feelings can be experienced time and again cannot relax and think 'I can play this again tomorrow'. They can only resist and respond in fear. Sometimes the triggers may be much less obvious, but at the root of most behaviours lies fear and feelings of being unsafe.

- This is why transitions of all kinds can be difficult. Think about how the day is organised so that routines support security, but also how you are physically and emotionally available to children to help them build resilience when changes inevitably occur.

- Remember that 'fun' experiences, such as visits, parties, concerts, Christmas and other events that change daily routine, might unsettle some children. It is easy to understand the fear of a child who cries at a strange situation; much less easy to recognise the fear in a child who is behaving in an aggressive or manic way. Both are stressed - and both need to be helped to cope with their emotions, as well as the change in routine.

- Often, children display behaviour that would be responded to differently (and more warmly) if they were younger. They are communicating to us the emotional age at which they need to be, in that moment. When behaviour is looked at in this way it makes good sense to meet them at their emotional age and help them gently back to their chronological age.

Q: Why do we need to think about the effects of traditional behaviour strategies and a child's need for unconditional love?

- A lot of traditional behaviour strategies revolve around rewards and sanctions and where love and affection is conditional on good behaviour. Many of us were parented in this way and find it hard to question its efficiency. However, a nurturing approach to supporting behaviour makes clear that all children are deserving of love and affection, regardless of their abilities to conform. Greater understanding of attachment theory and its impact on neurological development also helps us to see that often it is not that a child 'won't' behave in a certain way, but that they 'can't' - their brains aren't yet wired up in a way that will allow them to.

- Threats, such as 'if you don't behave, you can't come on the trip' or 'only good children get to give out the drinks', often just reinforce a child's poor sense of self-worth and are never motivating for the child who is unable to conform - very often it just adds to their stress.

- Think about 'treats' such as outings, play opportunities, responsibilities and all other experiences that are important to a child's development. Why must we respond to children's need for unconditional love?

- There will be times when children's behaviour will cause adults to react in a cross or disapproving manner. Remember, it is the behaviour that you dislike, not the child. Always find ways of 're-attuning 'with them when you are both feeling calmer.

- Stories such as I Love You, Stinky Face (see Further Reading) are great for reminding children (and practitioners) that no matter how challenging their behaviour, every child is entitled to unconditional love and nurturing care from the adults who are important to them.


This is the last article in the series (find them all in our archive at www.nurseryworld.co.uk). Anne O'Connor's new series on the key person approach starts on 13 March.


- I Love You, Stinky Face written by Lisa McCourt and illustrated by Cyd Moore (Scholastic)

- I Miss You, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore (Scholastic)

- The Science of Parenting - Practical guidance on sleep, crying, play and building emotional well-being for life by Margot Sunderland (Dorling Kindersley)

- Why Love Matters - How affection shapes a baby's brain by Sue Gerhardt (Routledge)

- 'Attachment in Practice' - DVD and user notes by Siren Films (tel: 0191 232 7900, www.sirenfilms.co.uk)

- 'Key Persons in the Early Years Foundation Stage' by Dorothy Selleck (Early Education, Autumn 2006)

- 'Thinking About Paired and Shared Key Caring' by Sally Thomas (Early Education, Spring 2008)

- 'Being Held in Another's Mind' by Jeree Pawl PhD, www.wested.org/online_pubs/ccfs-06-01-chapter1.pdf

- Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment Based Play by Ann M Jernberg and Phyllis B Booth (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco), www.theraplay.org

- UC 1.1 Child Development
- UC 1.3 Keeping Safe
- PR 2.4 Key Person
- L&D 4.2 Active Learning

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