Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Dealing with Detachment: Why are so many children unsettled and distracted in school - and what can we do to help?
Jonathan Hancock

During the decade I spent in primary schools, I saw a rapid rise in the number of children who struggled with their emotions. Many were so emotionally unsettled that every day in school was difficult – putting their learning at serious risk.

In particular, many showed signs of Attachment Disorder – a condition normally associated with a failure to form healthy attachments as infants. 

However, for most of the children I encountered, there was no obvious reason why this important process might not have worked. Nevertheless, their emotional fragility was taking a significant toll on their behaviour, social skills, and academic success.

Difficult Feelings

As the years went by, I met more and more children who spent much of their time unhappy. Many of them struggled with relationships. They worried about trying new things, appeared to have very low self-esteem, and reacted badly to challenging tasks. 

In an increasing number of cases, they also exhibited extreme reactions to various types of stress. Some became so emotionally unwell that they would hide, throw furniture, and even attack the staff who were trying to keep them safe. 

When I became a teacher in 2006, this sort of behaviour was not unknown, but back then it seemed extreme and rare. In most to the schools where I trained or worked, any child who regularly posed a danger to themselves or those around them would likely be excluded, so that more appropriate provision could be found.
Yes, there were plenty of children with special needs, and most primary schools had their fair share of emotional incidents to deal with. But most teachers and school leaders didn’t come to school every day expecting to meet children who were completely – often violently – out of control.

A Decade of Growing Distress

By the time I left teaching ten years later, the landscape had changed dramatically. Teachers’ time was increasingly being devoted to dealing with distress: serious playtime incidents that spilled over into lessons; children who became upset when they faced situations that felt challenging; others who struggled to collaborate in groups, refused to try, or actively disrupted lessons on a regular basis. 

Deputies and even Heads were often being called to classrooms to help when kids could no longer cope. 

Something else on the increase was the use of the term Attachment Disorder. So many children exhibited behaviours that matched the “reactive” form of this condition, including impatience, control issues and anger problems. 

But surely they weren't all suffering from Attachment Disorder – at least, not in the way that it had been understood in the past? 

Attachment Disorder Definitions

Earlier in my career, Attachment Disorder had been discussed almost exclusively in relation to one specific and relatively small group: Looked-After Children. These were children in the care of the local authority or adoptive families, whose early lives had often been particularly traumatic. The theory was that many of them might not have formed healthy attachments in their first few years – due to bereavement, for example, family breakdown, neglect, or abuse. 

Since John Bowlby’s1  work in the 1960s, we’ve known what could happen if children didn’t form these early attachments to their closest caregivers. They could be left with lasting feelings of insecurity, significant problems forming new relationships, and an ongoing struggle to manage their emotions and handle stress. Bowlby and others had made it clear that, for children with Attachment Disorder, school presented major challenges. It required them to get along with a wide variety of people, step into unknown situations, do work that often felt difficult, and operate in changing environments. 

So ‘Looked-After Children’ were monitored closely. Support was put in place to reduce the risks of Attachment Disorder impacting their wellbeing, and to deal with any difficulties that emerged. And it was possible, because of the relatively low number of children involved. But within the space of just a few years, the group of primary-age pupils showing the classic symptoms of Attachment Disorder was considerably bigger, and growing fast. 

The Impact on Learning

It goes without saying that learning is difficult when you’re in a state of distress, worried, afraid, or hyper-vigilant – all classic symptoms of Attachment Disorder. We already know that those affected are at increased risk of falling behind at school. Their language is poorer than their peers’, they score significantly worse in IQ tests, and they struggle with imaginative and problem-solving tasks. A high percentage of them also have other challenging conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). 

The effects of their behaviour are felt by their classmates, too – and their teachers. Imagine starting every lesson aware that, with little warning, one or more children could refuse to do what they’re asked, disrupt others, or erupt into violence against their classmates, themselves, or you?

Understanding the Problem – and Deciding What to Do

So what should schools do to tackle what for many is a serious and growing problem? 

First, we need to know the extent of it. How many children struggle so much emotionally that it has significant consequences for their learning and wellbeing? And how should we measure that impact – given that it’s likely to involve many different aspects of their development? 

Next, why are so many children quite so unsettled and upset? I think that there are a number of potential areas to explore. 

For example, is our on-demand, personal-choice-driven society making it more likely that children will struggle when they get to school – and suddenly have to do things on other people’s terms? 

Perhaps changes in parenting styles have contributed to so many children feeling unsettled. It might be worth investigating the ways in which parents now play and communicate with their children. 

I’d like to know whether children’s attachments with their caregivers are damaged by our always-on working culture, or by parents’ habits around social media. Are kids’ diets, exercise or sleep patterns having an effect on their emotional stability? Does growing anxiety among adults have anything to do with all these children struggling to cope in school?

And what does neuroscience have to tell us about attachment (or whatever it is that's causing so many children such levels of distress)? What lessons can the scientists give to the teachers, so that they’re better equipped to respond?

I wonder if there are things that will work for everyone displaying these symptoms, or whether we need to take a more specialized approach. Should we even stop putting all these children under the Attachment Disorder umbrella, and instead define some new categories – so that we can design appropriate strategies for each one?

Or would it be most effective to assume that all children struggle with their emotions to some extent – and start redesigning education with that in mind?

We certainly need to do something, as more and more children suffer from being anxious, unsettled, and unable to control their emotions. School staff are working harder than ever to control the flood of new cases. There’s a danger that they’ll be engulfed. 

Only by knowing how to define the problems they’re facing, and by having a clear understanding of the best ways to tackle them, will schools stand a chance of turning the tide. 

Jonathan Hancock was a primary school teacher, SENCO, Deputy Head, and Acting Head. He is now a staff writer at the online learning provider Emerald Works and Director of the Learning Skills Foundation.


 1 (Bowlby's "The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds", published by Routledge Classics (2005), offers an excellent selection of his lectures.)

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