The Learning Triangle: A Model for Attachment & Learning
This blog post explores the Learning Triangle, a model of attachment and learning developed by Heather Geddes. She promotes a three-way relationship between a student, a teacher and a learning task. For many students in the classroom, there is a fluid dynamic between the three components. They can engage in the task and tolerate initial frustration and disappointment, due to the ability to ask for and accept help when they need it. These students are bolstered by previous experiences of nurturing and responsive relationships. That’s not to say that students with a “secure attachment history” never experience difficulties and setbacks, but the triangle remains stable enough to ensure that their relationship with a member of staff and their involvement in the task is not consistently overwhelmed.
For some students, the triangle is less fluid. There are those who will be more comfortable with tasks, while others will be more preoccupied with relationships. Some may find both very difficult. The Learning Triangle considers this behaviour in terms of attachment history and past relationships. There can be lots of derogatory words used to describe the behaviour of these students. “Disengaged”. “Rejecting”. “Attention-seeking”. “Manipulative”. “Volatile”. I think ultimately it comes down to their experience of connection, which can be so easily knocked off course by any number of adverse or unexpected experiences. This blog will outline the three “insecure” triangles (visuals of which are in the infographic at the end of this post) and consider how we can meet the needs of these students in school.
“I don’t expect you to care, so I prefer to do things on my own”
The link between the student and the teacher is disrupted here, possibly due to perceptions of being unwanted or rejected in the past. These students may appear to be very self-reliant and are reluctant to ask for help. Close proximity from the teacher can be uncomfortable and may induce frustration or anger. Some students may present as quiet or withdrawn and they can be more focused on activities rather than on social interaction. Open-ended and creative tasks are particularly difficult for these students, as they require more collaboration or support from others.
· Allow for times in which the student can work independently, without having to ask for further demonstration, materials or resources. Set achievable goals, ensure that they have everything to hand and display additional information elsewhere (e.g. the whiteboard).
· Capitalise on opportunities which enable the student to exercise choice, such as the order of steps to carry out, which materials to use in the task, who to work with, etc. This can help the student to feel that their autonomy is recognised and valued.
· Tasks with a concrete and unambiguous nature – such as matching, sorting, categorising and construction – allow for clear targets to work towards and no need for creative thinking when arriving at the finished product. Such tasks can also be emotionally regulating, particularly after tasks which required more imagination or expression.
· Find indirect ways of interacting with the student. This might involve using factual commentaries about what is happening during a task, showing positive regard for the idea or product of their work and delivering positive feedback to a group of students so that they don’t feel overtly singled out.
· Tasks with more creative or problem-solving elements will require more structure. This may be provided through cloze procedure, planning written work through spider diagrams or mind maps and worked-out examples of a maths procedure.
· Maintain a careful balance between acknowledging the student’s achievements - in order to show that they are noticed and respected - and avoiding more intimate interactions. Consider gestures from afar, stickers or written comments. If the student is happy to receive praise, this may be best delivered in private at first.
· Consider if the student would benefit from a buddy/mentor system which utilises an older student. This may create an avenue for seeking advice and support and a conduit through which the teacher can interact with the student. Paired and small-group games with peers may also be helpful.
“I worry that you’ll forget about me, so I have to keep you involved”
If students have experienced relationships which were inconsistent in nature, they may have developed responses which are primed to maintain a high level of engagement. The desire to be noticed and remembered means that the student finds it difficult to focus on the learning task. They may present as overly dependent and in need of a high level of reassurance. Some students may engage in conversation about the teacher’s interests and experiences or wish to spend time with adults during break and lunch. Interactions with the teacher may escalate to confrontations if the student feels ignored or abandoned. Relationships with peers can be problematic, as the student may adopt an adult-like role in activities and become perceived as bossy or domineering.
· These students need to be noticed throughout the day. Make time to chat about their interests and experiences, praise their effort and provide jobs and responsibilities which help them to feel valued.
· As they may be highly anxious, they will benefit from our curiosity about their behaviour (“I wonder if you’re feeling a little worried about the change in routine today?”) and reassuring commentaries about what is happening, when and with whom. They are likely to need clear and defined roles for group activities, enabling them to interact in predictable ways which minimise the potential for disagreement.
· Independent learning tasks may need to be broken down into small and discrete steps. This might be conveyed through a visual schedule or checklist. The use of a timer or countdown strip can provide feedback on when the teacher or a supporting adult will return to check on the student’s progress.
· The principle of being “kept in mind” is crucial. This applies not only to when the student is working (“I haven’t forgotten about you. I’ll be back in five minutes”) but also outside the classroom (“I saw a show about dinosaurs at the weekend. It made me think of you as you know so much about dinosaurs”).
· For longer periods of separation, there may need to be consideration of a transitional object which represents the enduring relationship. This might be as simple as a post-it note with a reassuring message, a pen or bracelet, a key-ring photograph, a small toy, etc.
· Build the student’s resilience in challenging tasks with “persistence coaching” statements. For example: “I know this is tough, but you’re focusing really hard and trying your best” or “I love how you had another go. It’s frustrating to make a mistake, but you haven’t given up”.
· Younger children may need more practise with the concept of permanency, through games such as hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo or action songs with repetitive sequences that can be anticipated. They may need “When…then…” language to help them understand positive and negative consequences and make good choices.
“It’s hard for me to feel safe, so I have to watch for danger and stay in control”
All areas of the learning triangle are distorted for these students and their past may be characterised by more significant episodes of neglect, abuse, loss and sudden change. As their “downstairs brain” has been working overtime to keep them safe, the teacher and the learning task can trigger alarm due to a hypervigilance for threats. These students often find it extremely difficult to trust adults and this may be presented through defiance, aggression and extremes of emotional response. Inconsistent patterns of connection-seeking and connection-evading are commonplace. There can be difficulties with peer interactions, due to a lack of control over a game or group activity. The student may give the impression that a learning task is easy or familiar, but in reality they may not know what to do and the fear of failure and vulnerability can be overwhelming.
· The first priority is safety. These students need a high level of structure and predictability. “First…then…” language and visual timetables or schedules will support them in anticipating what is happening now and next. Some may need a very warm and welcoming routine in the morning with a trusted adult and opportunities to reflect on learning or check in with their feelings throughout the day.
· Younger children may benefit from a more play-based approach, where skills can be actively modelled and concepts can be safely explored through figures and puppets. Even older students may still need resources such as Social Stories to help them understand different situations. It will be important to convey acceptance and empathy for the student’s feelings – “I know you wanted to have another turn. It’s so unfair that play time is over and you don’t want to tidy up”.
· Schedule time for the student to engage in “flow” activities, such as a specialist interest or preferred type of play. A sensory diet is also beneficial in calming their over-defensive amygdala – this might involve going for a walk or a jog, quick exercises such as chair push-ups or star jumps, dancing or moving to a beat, rhythmic breathing and tasks which incorporate “heavy work” (pushing, pulling, carrying, mopping, etc).
· A “low arousal” approach should be applied when the student’s stress levels are escalated. This can include reducing the amount of words used, speaking with a softer tone of voice, slowing down your movements and keeping a comfortable distance or sitting/crouching when interacting with the student. They need you to appear calm. Ideally, the pro-active use of routine, choices and diversion/humour will prevent them from reaching crisis point.
· Establish clear routines for withdrawing from a situation with a key adult during a period of significant emotional dysregulation. There should be a safe space with relaxing or motivating activities which enable the student to return to a calm and alert state. Older students who can recognise their emotions escalating may use an “I need a break” card to access this space.
· Inform the student of changes to the daily schedule in advance – explain the reason for the change and emphasise the positives of what is happening instead. Help them to count down to larger transitions. There may need to be more structure and calm breaks for the days leading up to school closures, where the normal routine is disrupted with play rehearsals, whole-school sports activities or non-uniform days. A letter or postcard during a school holiday period can show that a key adult is thinking of them during the separation.
· There will undoubtedly be days where the teacher or another significant adult is absent from school. Check-ins with a familiar face – be it a teaching assistant, SENCo, pastoral leader, etc – will provide consistency and support their ability to cope with this change. We shouldn’t under-estimate the need to clearly state that the adult will be returning.
The Learning Triangle is firmly based on the classic conceptualisations of insecure attachment – avoidant (connection-evading), ambivalent (connection-seeking) and disorganised (connection-distorting). While these continue to be applied in many educational resources, the nature and stability of attachment has been hotly debated. Patricia Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model of attachment gives greater weight to the notion of the child using strategies to maximise self-protection. How the child interacts with adults in one environment may be very different to how they relate to adults in another. This model downplays the notion of disorganised behaviour; instead, the child may be highly organised in responding to a fluid context with a combination of approaches.
In a review of the literature on attachment and schools, Christi and David Bergin found evidence for a link between higher quality education and healthy relationships from preschool to high school. They questioned whether some relationships in school can truly be likened to the attachment between a child and caregiver. Nevertheless, they emphasised how children with less secure attachment histories lack the skills to develop positive and trusting relationships and that it is up to teachers to change the child’s view of relationships through a sensitive and responsive approach.
Perhaps this is why the Learning Triangle continues to resonate for me as a tool for understanding the kinds of relational approaches which can be utilised. While the students we support may be connection-seeking on one day and connection-evading on another, the key message is that their behaviour is communicating a need. The onus is on us to attune and relate to them effectively and adapt the learning environment accordingly.
References and Further Reading
Bergin, C. & Bergin, T. (2009). Attachment in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 21 (2), 141 – 170.
Crittenden, P.M. & Dallos, R. (2009). All in the Family: Integrating Attachment and Family System Theories. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 14 (3), 389 – 409.
Delaney, M. (2009). “How teachers can use a knowledge of attachment theory to work with difficult-to-reach teenagers”. In Perry, A (Ed). Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and Learning. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: The Links Between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-Being And Performance In School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Geddes, H. (2017). “Attachment behaviour and learning”. In Colley, D. & Cooper, P. (Eds). Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Golding, K.S., Fain, J., Frost, A., Mills, C., Worrall, H., Roberts, N., Durrant, E. & Templeton, S. (2013). Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in School: A Tool for Identifying and Supporting Emotional and Social Difficulties in Children Aged 5 – 11. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Woodcock, L. & Page, A. (2010). Managing Family Meltdown: The Low Arousal Approach and Autism. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.