A Unique Child

Attachment disorder – How to support children in Early Years

  • Attachment disorder – How to support children in Early Years

Teacher Sarah Watkins explores how best to support children with attachment disorder in your Early Years setting…

Jane screamed when her carer left and began to throw toys and push over chairs. She refused to interact with other children but wept when a child she had just met left for a dentist appointment. Jane swore and kicked me when I gave her a simple instruction.

Supporting a pupil with an attachment disorder can be challenging. Jane’s start to life was traumatic and consequently she was unable to bond with her primary caregivers. It took me a long time to build her trust.

Attachment theory was first proposed by psychiatrist John Bowlby who described it as the ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’. Bowlby suggested that our early experience of relationships significantly affects our later emotional and social development.

It’s important to remember that the way attachment disorder presents is different for every child. Anger and defiant, aggressive behaviour may be exhibited, as well as fear and extreme sadness.

Other signs could be the failure to control emotions or show empathy. Jane, aged four, had low self-esteem and would not try activities where she risked failure. She could not take responsibility for her actions and did not respond well to public praise.

Professor Peter Fonagy, of the Anna Freud Centre, which conducts research into attachment disorders:

“Children who have had bad experiences, particularly in care, don’t believe anything anyone tells them because they don’t trust them. They’re shut off. They understand what they’re being told, but won’t bring it into their own world as a truth, and they can’t modify their own belief that they’re not loved or that they’re ‘bad’.”

Relationships are key

So what can be done? According to Philip Riley, author of Attachment Theory, teachers should aim to be a secure base: dependable and consistent.

Riley emphasises that relationships are key. Build a strong partnership with the child’s carers and communicate with them daily.

Ensure that all staff working with the child know the child’s needs and understand the strategies in place. Inconsistency can be disastrous for children with attachment disorder.

Make time to hear the child. A child with insecure attachment can feel helpless, disempowered and disregarded. Counselling is essential but funding is not always available.

Simply spending time playing together is valuable and the talking will often come later. Observe the child and establish what motivates them. Giving the child responsibility will help to increase their self-esteem.


In terms of managing behaviour, it’s important to give immediate positive reinforcement and to take time to celebrate every success, giving specific praise. Help them to recognise their good qualities.

Note down triggers for challenging behaviour to build a picture. Examples could be break time or transitions.

Jane would become enraged when it was tidy-up time. When I noticed this pattern of behaviour, I began giving her a five-minute warning beforehand. If there are regular times of day that are difficult, make a plan for these times.

Don’t assume that the child will understand what you need from them. Clearly model what you are looking for. For example, you might model appropriate physical contact using puppets

Blank slate

Keep your instructions simple, and maintain clear routines and expectations. Challenging outbursts are almost inevitable. Ignore low-level disruption designed to get your attention.

Acknowledge the child’s feelings and work on anger management strategies such as breathing. Talk through how the child experiences anger and help them to represent it. What does it look like? Establish a safe space where the child can go if they need time out.

Remain calm through violent outbursts, stay in control and don’t take it personally.

Always start the next session with a blank slate. Children with an attachment disorder need reassurance that you have unconditional regard for them and that you will not give up on them no matter how many times they push you away.

Supporting a child with attachment disorder is not straightforward and it’s important to work with specialists.

Sarah Watkins is a Reception teacher at Ledbury Primary School.