Using attachment theory, educational therapist Heather Geddes elaborates on James Wetz’s idea that behaviour is a form of communication about social and emotional experience that we need to understand before we decide how we are going to intervene.

The capacity to communicate with others is at the heart of human experience. We use language, thought, feelings, creativity and movement to let others know about ourselves. Through that communication, we also develop our capacity to understand others.

The way we come to communicate and understand is shaped by our early experience of relationships – the context in which we begin to learn about, and make sense of the world. Good early attachment experiences facilitate the capacity to communicate effectively, while adverse early experiences can inhibit communication.

Secure base

John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, maintained that all of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.

A secure base provides the infant with a safe place from which to explore the world, but return to when he or she feels threatened. The aim of attachment behaviour is sufficient proximity or contact to ensure that we always feel secure. The infant and mother negotiate a way of relating. This soon becomes a pattern that affects future relationships and the expectations of others.

Securely attached

Secure enough attachment fosters the capacity to resolve distress. The experience of empathy – having one’s feelings and experiences understood by another – allows the development of self awareness. From there we evolve a language to communicate emotional states.

Someone who has experienced a secure attachment is, said Bowlby, ‘likely to possess a representational model of attachment figure(s) as being available, responsive, and helpful.’ This gives rise to a complementary model of himself or herself as ‘a potentially loveable and valuable person’. As a result, he or she is likely to ‘approach the world with confidence.’ This makes it possible to tackle potentially alarming situations, or ‘seek help in doing so’.

An outcome of fears being understood, soothed and put into words and thoughts by another is that the infant becomes able to:

  • experience being understood
  • develop an understanding of self and become self-aware
  • become able to recognise feelings in others
  • develop his or her own coping mechanism in the face of uncertainty. This is based on being able to put words to fears, and to think in the face of adversity.

Insecure attachment

When adverse experiences of early attachment are not relieved by more positive relationships with others, the consequences for communication, behaviour and learning are negative.

Insecurely attached children struggle to find the words to identify experiences buried in infancy, before any capacity to explore or express experience with words and actions had evolved. These experiences are unconsciously known but never understood. Memories of them do not remain in the past, but become actions in the here and now. They are communicated through behaviour.

Withdrawn children

Some pupils communicate their struggle by the way they seek to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Social withdrawal can be a way of letting others know that other preoccupations have ‘taken over’. Such a communication is easy to overlook in a demanding classroom. Most teachers’ capacity to respond is taken up by those, usually boys, who are acting out and behaving in disruptive ways.

Children who have not been given the opportunity to process adverse experiences, within the context of a relationship with a sensitive carer who can understand their fear and transform this into words and thought, are left with insufficient resources to resolve the challenges and traumas that almost inevitably occur. For some children, the adversity leaves them with little capacity to let others know about their vulnerability and fears except by extreme behaviours.

Stan’s behaviour was unpredictable, reactive and aggressive. Stan’s response to being asked to do any task in educational therapy was to draw a football pitch. His choice of activity was to kick a soft ball around the room and often at the therapist. However, over time, the game was interrupted by ‘another player’ who attacked Stan in the penalty area. This happened over and over again until Stan began to issue him with warning cards. Finally he was permanently sent off and was not allowed back into the game because he hurt the other players. At last Stan had found a metaphor for his experience. The therapist could understand his communication, and put into words the associated fear, hurt and anger. Stan could then describe his experience of his face and his legs being hurt. His behaviour around school became calmer. Having found words for his experience, he could think about it. This was the beginning of being able to cope with the feelings it provoked.

Helping young people to change

Attachment theory shows that when children are made anxious, they lose their capacity to think about feelings or attach feelings to their thoughts. They do this so as to avoid exposure to situations that threaten distress.
What, though, enables people to overcome the damaging consequences of poor attachments? Researchers have found that it is the capacity to:

  • reflect upon the difficult experiences they have undergone
  • work through their feelings about this
  • build a model of doing things differently

What differentiates those who have done this from those who have not is their capacity to draw together the facts of what happened to them with the feelings that were aroused, and from this to create a narrative account of their lives that is clear, consistent and coherent.

Those, by contrast, who have not been able to make sense of their experiences cannot change the patterns of behaviour they developed in order to survive them.

Unprocessed history

In some families, history and trauma are acted out over generations because they remain unprocessed and unresolved. The parent whose own experience of deprivation or hurt has gone unresolved may well act these out in the context of the relationships with their own children. In this way, patterns of adversity can be passed on through generations.
Sadly, Nickie demonstrated this all too well. She was in Year 5 and difficult to teach. Whenever she made a mistake or found a task too challenging, she would drop her head on the desk and sulk for hours, totally unresponsive to any approaches from her teachers. It was as if she left the situation. On some occasions, she would react by standing up suddenly. Her chair would crash over and she would walk out of the classroom to wander the corridors. She would also hide and wait to be found. She spoke very little and seemed very socially isolated.

She repeated this behaviour in the treatment room, turning her face to the wall and excluding me. I was made to feel left out and unwanted. I talked of such feelings but to little avail. It was as if words meant little. I turned to the metaphor of stories. After a period when she showed little interest, one story did make a difference. It was the tale of two little black twins washed up on a shore and found by a girl who took them home and looked after them. She taught them what to do and how to read. After some time, though, the little twins rebelled. They were naughty. They played dominoes in bed. They ran away and went to sea, as if to return from whence they came. However, they missed her.

When she read this, Nickie was entranced and asked if she could show it to her mother. The story enabled Nickie’s mother to talk of her experience of her parents moving to Britain and leaving her with her grandmother. Some years later, she left her beloved grandmother to join mother and father. It was hard. She had missed her grandmother and she wanted to make her grandmother happy; so she was sending Nickie to live with her. In fact she was planning to send her within the next few weeks.

At last, Nickie’s way of excluding herself began to make sense. I had a sense of Nickie feeling that she was about to be left out, sent away, excluded. The experience had not been processed or communicated in her mother’s mind: it was just too painful and so being acted out. In the sessions that followed, Nickie began to describe her grandmother’s family whom she would be going to and was able to begin to think about the changes and her feelings about leaving her family behind to join her ‘other’ family.

Making sense

These experiences of children’s stuck communications make it possible to see the value of making sense of behaviour as a communication rather than reacting to it. If experience can be put into words, then it can be thought about. So the need for challenging behaviour and acting out can diminish, leading to an enhancement in learning and achievement.

Schools need to be resourced to do this. In particular, they need to recognise that teachers act as the containers for enormous anxieties. They need training to ensure that their responses, behaviours and stuck communications are informed by understanding, so that they can help words and thought to emerge. Reaction can be replaced by reflection and school can become a secure base, not only for the most vulnerable but also for all pupils and teachers.