Concept of education

The Concept of Attachment and it’s relation to Education.

Developmental psychology has presented sufficient evidence over the years for us to know with certainty that children who grow up with a reasonably stable career are more likely to be able to learn. Securely “attached” children tend to be free from incapacitating physical or mental health and exhibit organised and adaptive behaviour.

Children who are separated, abandoned, neglected or abused (emotionally, physically or sexually) particularly during the sensitive period for developing experience-dependent neurochemical pathways of attachment and affect regulation, show disorganised emotional response and have difficulty in making deep or lasting friendships and relationships. They also have difficulty in maintaining the sustained intellectual effort and discrimination of complex concepts necessary for learning and creativity.

There is an evolutionary basis to this and the same holds for primates (Lorenz, Harlow, Panksepp) Their concepts of imprinting were further developed by Bowlby and related to human babies. Attachment is defined as a class of social behaviour of an importance equivalent to mating behaviour and parental behaviour and therefore setting the socio/emotional blueprint for life. Thus the conception starts with the formation of a pair bond, primarily between mother and child, but is now becoming the study of multiple attachments at different life stages, including both overt behavioural and neurophysiological characteristics that occur when attached individuals are both together and apart. This establishment and maintenance of biological synchrony is related to the proper functioning of the limbic system and related frontal lobe areas. (Schore) The cortex regulates the functioning of the lower parts of the Central Nervous system, inhibits impulses and mediates abstract thought and language. In fact both cortical and sub-cortical areas tend to be underdeveloped in children suffering sensory-motor and cognitive neglect at a critical period (before 2 years old). (Pollard & Berry)

For adults, attachment develops as two behavioural systems become attuned to each other and each produces meaningful stimulation for the other and has a modulating influence on the others arousal level. The relationship facilitates an optimum growth state that is threatened by changes such as separation. This is accompanied by drop in immune competence, disturbed sleep, over-arousal of the nervous system culminating in anxiety, clinging, aggression, and cardiac disequilibrium. For human adults physiological separation can be tolerated but less so, the emotional separation such as being “out of tune” with each other, physiologically speaking. The optimum point between arousal modulation and stimulation is either exceeded or not reached – and the dance of intimacy swings between freedom and closeness seeking for many years. The more securely attached each individual is, the less this swing between approach and withdrawal disturbs their emotional relationship.

The attachment system as conceived by Bowlby is an internal goal seeking system that motivates the individual to seek proximity to the attachment figure, especially when confronted by the unfamiliar or some sort of threat, fatigue and illness. When the situation is free from these constraints the child is free to pursue other goals although it will continue to monitor the environment, the more insecure, the more the monitoring. This was named as the behavioural system.  Separation from mother puts the child in a state of sensory agitation. Normally a mother (or stable caregiver) will channel that arousal into calm and well-being by physical contact. Without this loving contact and attention infants may withdraw into themselves, ignoring the outside world and stimulating themselves by repetitive rocking, self-clasping and other stereotypic movements. Later they develop problems in controlling their feelings and responses to stress. Perhaps as a means of coping with their own anguish, many never learn to empathize with the pain and suffering of others. Unable to read the emotions of others they may stumble into conflicts that an emotionally mature child would avoid. Behind this is the brain’s response to stress. Stress hormones (glucocorticoids) overwhelm the system and remain elevated even after the threat is over.

Early imprinting of sensory systems too, may suffer subtle damage if the attachment bond is disrupted, for example in adopted children, who have already had to change the sensory input already associated with the smell, sight, sound and touch from mother to it’s next carers. When the brain is growing so exponentially the tracking of speech patterns and objects in the visual field and matching them to meaning (comfort) helps to develop sequential processing, important to working memory.

Activation of the attachment system leads to alarm, anxiety and terror. This can range from threatened or actual separation to simply perceiving the attachment figure as unreliable. The second concept of Bowlby’s concerned the representational system.

The representational system.

This refers to how a child develops an identity- or a self-concept. An internal working model, which reflects the child’s view of itself as lovable, worthy of care and protection, and the attachment figure’s desire/ability to provide that. This working model organises thought, memory and feeling, not only in regard to the present attachment figure, but also to later ones. Because these working models function largely outside conscious awareness they are resistant to change, depressing so for the insecurely attached child.  A child who feels unloved and unwanted will absorb this into their working model of self with predictable consequences. Children classified as “securely attached” at one year old, show the beginnings of autobiographical competence, 10 years later. This is the ability to talk coherently about oneself and one’s life, including painful experiences, while children classified as “insecurely attached” tended to be monosyllabically dismissive when asked about their past (“can’t remember” or “OK” or else enmeshed in their pain, often weeping when asked about their childhood) These stories people tell about themselves reflect internal models of attachment which serve as templates for later intimate relationships.


The third concept that completes the theory of attachment is defensive exclusion.

Defensive exclusion.

Bowlby conceived of the attachment system as a homeostatic one – attachment functions to keep the parent-infant dyad together but once that fails these early wounds are like tree trunks, the hurt child grows around them, but they are always waiting to be opened up. When the insecurely attached adult forms a relationship with expectations from the other of love, closeness and commitment, the feelings of engulfment, unpredictability and panic often forces the individual to screen out all feelings and not recognise others willing to provide intimacy. Permament assaults to the attachment system result in segregated emotions, a pathological means of repressing emotional memories, which at extremes can result in multiple personality but mostly result in internal conflicts with the person not knowing themselves, not being able to predict their feelings or behaviour in a given situation.

Nevertheless, some evidence (Rutter) suggests otherwise unhappy, neglected or abused children can achieve a good relationship with someone outside their family, such as a grandparent or teacher. This provides a strong argument for the pastoral as well as narrowly pedagogic role of the educational system. There are then clear links between the private and the public domain so that the politics of attachment are reflected in the politics of citizenship.  A particular social order can support or ignore the felt security of the child’s world. The capacity of parents to provide security for their child will depend in part on the security of their own world, the labour market, housing, health and welfare. When children reach adulthood with an internalised insecure model of the world, they will perceive the public domain as inherently insecure, and respond to political strategies that chime with those feelings of insecurity.  Actually attachment is not something grown, all adults seek to maintain a secure base throughout life. Faced with stress or threat then an insecure one is better than no base at all and adults seek out intimate relationships no less vigorously than the separated child. Research suggests that the insecurely attached individual will tend to either avoid intimacy, be ambivalent about it or else disorganised in their interactions and they tend to attract people in a similar category. (Kraemer).  Other research  (De Zulueta) sees attachment in a systemic relationship, first the primary relationship which is generalised to subsidiary attachment figures in the wider society and this expressed in political affiliation – as individuals in a competitive, capitalistic society or beyond this “no such thing as society” – (Margaret Thatcher) – to a society providing sufficient maturation of it’s citizen’s through education and social support. The consequence of not providing this is the alienation of growing children with the also biologically based feelings of envy, hatred and destructiveness now “wired “ into neurobiological mechanisms.

Many theorists since the Frankfurt school (the authoritarian personality) see the emergence of political disaffection and criminality that can be related to the increasing prevalence of insecure attachment in childhood, at least the disorganised type. This would apply to children who are not necessarily separated from their mother, but who live with caretakers who cannot soothe a child’s rising levels of stress and show it how to regulate it’s own arousal, either because they are not there physically or emotionally, (depressed, unhappy bickering marriage, overwhelming work load, drug / alcoholism). The mother’s capacity to assuage and repair an activated attachment system is critical. If the caretaker heightens or even precipiates the distress the child is helpless to control it’s own emotions.

Philosophically, this is the enlightenment view of human nature as inherently good and co-operative, given the right environment. Violence would then be a response to early trauma. Recent accounts of genocide (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and The Sudan) would seem to qualify this view but the arguments here are beyond the scope of the relation of attachment to learning.  But the basic argument that securely attached children are likely to become well-adjusted citizens has been supported over and over again by research. At least where there is insecure political attachment there is likely to be alienation in all it’s manifestations, anti-social behaviour, crime, mental illness, intolerance, and the creation of an underclass.

However the purpose of this brief survey of the attachment literature concentrates on the difficulty of the insecurely attached child to benefit from even a good education.


Learning can be characterised as the ability to abstract a pattern of occurrences from a background of meaningless events. A learner has to accurately discriminate and generalise that pattern to other situations, false discrimination in emotional learning is maladaptive and underlies much psychopathology. But the insecurely attached child is also unavailable for intellectual learning.

Schore has done much to substantiate the idea that the internal working model of attachment is stored in the limbic areas of the right brain and these experiences affect, self-regulation, motivation and attention. The experience dependent maturation of brain systems are at risk of not developing and interacting with rapidly developing cortical association areas. Using EEG and neuroimaging data Ryan, Kuhl and Deci showed that positive emotional exchange between parent/child involved participation of right hemisphere cortical and subcortical systems that particpate in global, tonic emotional modulation. These events are inscribed in implicit (procedural) memory in the early developing right hemisphere Over the last few decades the body of evidence for lateralization of the human hemispheres has amounted to current acceptance that the right hemisphere is specialized for holistic, analogical processing attending to global parameters while the left is devoted to linear, analytical processing, paying attention to local detail. The amygdala, thalamus and basal ganglia are also lateralised. One of the most important aspects of the relationship the between the asymmetrical subcortical stuctures and affective functions according to Schore is that lateralisation of right brain into the reticular formation systems supports brain arousal mechanisms. Emotion, then is inextricably tied to arousal. These arousal levels are associated with changes in metabolic activity and neurochemistry which have growth-promoting effects on developing neuronal systems. The right cortico-limbic structures are differentially supported by Dopamine and Noradrenaline mediated interconnectivity Schore’s theory has far reaching implications for the nature of personality and control of reality. (“Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: the neurobiology of Emotional Development”, 94, Erlbaum)

Children suffering early attachment disregulation, neglect or abuse have low serotonin levels, due to the up-regulation of the neurotransmitters controlling impulsivity and aggression. As noted above, the stress of early separation or abuse (releasing stress hormones) can overwhelm the serotonin system which allows vasopression to rise. The child becomes uncontrollable, unresponsive to normal conditioning and unable to learn. This can lead to a cycle of delinquency, unemployment and psychiatric problems. According to Deville & Malloni, and substantiated by others, serotonin dampens aggression whereas vasopression fuels it. In animal social hierarchies serotonin rises and falls in response to subtle social cues. (If serotonin is related to a rise in self-esteem it makes sense of the fact that serotonin agonists, such as Prozac make some individuals behave more assertively and aggressively when taking it). The flip side would be that low serotonin/self-esteem is evolutions way of equipping individual’s for low status, should their condition not be conducive to elevation. It would discourage people from conspicuously challenging higher status others who would punish them for such insolence.  Accepting that one function of serotonin is to regulate self-esteem in accordance with social feedback affecting the individual’s ability to climb in social hierarchies, makes sense of another fact. Aggression is concentrated in lower socio-economic groups and it is suggested that the biochemistry of low status engenders a mood that pushes the person into impulsive violence. If the established social order isn’t working for them they might as well respond to low status by breaking the rules if they can get away with it. Anti-social behaviour can be seen as their response, the circumventing of a society’s structure at every opportunity. They have nothing to lose and increase their serotonin levels by the bonding that shared challenging behaviour such as bullying and delinquency engenders.

Maturation and experience both alter the synaptic connections from the hypothalamus to the frontal cortex so even intellectual learning is compromised when levels of arousal are high, the chemistry of stress blocks the chemistry of attention and memory.  (Le Doux) Anxiety and intellectual performance follows the Yerkes-Dodson inverted U. shape curve.

Thus early experiences are of concern to the teacher and neurofeedback practitioner alike. Chronic neuro-developmental trauma is often (mis) diagnosed as AD/HD. These children are hypervigilant, show behavioural impulsivity and cognitive distortions, but these are due to the lengthy period of time spent in low-level fear. They do not, however, show a deficit in their capacity to attend to a given task, which is the core abnormality of AD/HD. Cognitively they tend to have lower verbal I.Q.’s and physiologically a hyperarousal, anxiety, muscle tone, startle response, sleep disurbance, cardio-vascular and affect disregulation. All of these symptoms are the result of over activiting the use dependent organization of the brain stem nuclei involved in the stress axis.

Stress levels may need to be attended to before learning can take place. Cognitive Behavioural therapy for children that can be practised in the classroom is well outlined by Martin Seligman in his book “The Optimistic Child”. This teaches the child more positive thinking habits by not blaming themselves, not seeing the adversity as permanent or generalising it to the rest of their life. Children (and adults) in a downward spiral of demotivation and depression usually feel that they are “worthless, everything is hopeless and nothing will ever change”. (Beck)

Some therapists feel that “talk therapy” is based on the developmental of a therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client which requires mutual trust, emotional honest and the ability to formulate thoughts and feelings into words. Therefore children with attachment disorder cannot respond since they do not trust, usually do not have a conscious memory (or at least one that can be verbalised) of events that occurred in the first two years of life, cannot respect anyone, including themselves, and don’t know why they feel and act as they do. In such “survivial” mode successful therapy depends on the use of unconventional strategies.. ones that can plumb the hidden depths of feeling. Of all the therapies neurotherapy seems to have been the most successful, especially if in conjunction with C.B.T.

Temperament, gender, intelligence and the quality of later experience will make the difference in response between later depression, aggression or more healthy responses but it is the primary caretaking relationships of infancy and childhood which determine the core neurobiological organisation of the human individual.

The pathway from a terrorized child to a terrorizing adolescent/adult

The discussion so far has been about secure and insecurely attached children

who are all assumed to be living with their families, at least initially.  Estimates of normal family life (West) suggest that a third of individuals are lucky enough to reach adulthood with a healthy emotional development. Two thirds are more or less insecurely attached, but of these another third learn to trust in an adult relationship and develop well. Of those left much depends on the situation so this is a large cluster of vulnerable individual’s who fill marital and counselling rooms. But few of these would attract the clinical diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, defined by DSM IV (1994) as “markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts, beginning before the age of 5 years.” The DSM classification goes on to define two typologies; Inhibited and Disinhibited.

The inhibited type shows persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to most social interactions, as manifested by excessively inhibited, hypervigilant, or highly ambialent and contradictory responses (e.g. responds to caregivers with approach, avoidance and resistance to comforting, or frozen watchfulness) .

The disinhibited type has diffuse attachments manifested by indiscriminate sociability with marked inability to exhibit appropriate selective attachments

(e.g. excessive familiarity to relative strangers or lack of selectability of others).

Given that normal healthy attachment is necessary for the attainment of full intellectual potential and the ability to think logically (Randolph) this disorder should be known about in the classroom. Attachment Disordered (AD) children exercise their intellect in manipulating their environment and the people in it, which can lead to learning lags. The key word is CONTROL, AD individuals need total control of a social situation or relationship to feel comfortable. The other notable symtpom of AD is the lack of conscience. It is thought that this is caused by their lack of trust in anyone. They become so dependent on themselves that they ignore the needs of others to the point that they will steal, damage or destroy anything they feel hinders their control.


Causes given by DSM include maternal ambivalence toward pregnancy, traumatic pregnancy, birth trauma, in utero exposure to drugs/alcohol, sudden separation from primary caretaker, frequent moves (failed foster care, adoptions) painful undiagnosed illness, such as colic or ear infections, inconsistent or inadequate day-care, physical, emotional or sexual abuse and also a genetic component.

Other general symptoms include destructiveness, lack of eye contact, cruel to animals or siblings, poor impulse control, poor peer relationships, developmental lags, lacks cause and effect thinking, fights for control over everything, hoards or gorges on food, has a preoccupation with fire, blood or gore and can be superficially engaging and indiscriminately affectionate, usually for a selfish purpose.

Experts in this relatively new diagnosis estimate that this disorder has been mis-Classified as Bi-polar Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder in 40 to 70% of cases.

Of course not all disaffected, insecurely attached children exhibit such damaged behaviour but we can recognise echoes of it in children whom we label as behaviour problems and it is important to see these children as fearful of relationships. They have no reason to trust adults and the more spirited demonstrate this by a fierce independence and unwillingness to do what they are told to – “no one is going to control ME” syndrome.

In America RAD and AD are treated with neurofeedoback aiming to stimulate the right hemisphere and it’s links to the frontal cortex. Much work is done on adopted Eastern European children who generally have had a very poor start in life. Some 100 sessions have been reported to be necessary.


By Beverley Steffert