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Attachment Myths

October 24, 2020

There seems to be a sudden upsurge in talk about attachment lately, so I thought I’d let you know about a book chapter on this topic I wrote a year ago. It can be found in The REsearchED Guide to Education Myths, edited by Craig Barton and published by John Catt.

My chapter is entitled Attachment Myths and reviews some of the strange ideas about attachment teachers are often led to believe. Details and references can be found in the book, but I thought I’d give you a short preview of the content here.

At the time of writing, the importance of attachment and “attachment disorder” had recently been mentioned in the Timpson Review of School Exclusions as a significant issue relating to behaviour in schools. Yet it has been disputed whether attachment has any predictive power for behaviour at all; there is no single condition called “attachment disorder”, and significant concern has been raised about the popularity of incorrect ideas about attachment.

Attachment is an infant’s deep emotional bond to a primary care giver. The two big names in the study of it are John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, whose work spans several decades. Many of their ideas have since been challenged and revised within mainstream psychology, but their ideas have also been developed in quite disturbing and even dangerous ways by those outside the mainstream, which means teachers need to be careful not to be misled by fringe thinkers.

Most importantly, there are pseudo-scientific “controversial attachment therapies” that have been implicated in the deaths of several children and the abuse of many others. Advocating little more than deliberate cruelty to make a child feel powerless, these ideas are often promoted to the worried parents of adopted children. While I have not heard of these ideas being used in schools, teachers should be aware that they need to be careful to avoid these dangerous cranks if they search online, or ask on social media, for information about attachment.

More common in schools, but still very misguided, is a belief in a single condition called “attachment disorder” that is common in adopted or fostered children that results in challenging behaviour. While there is a condition called “Reactive Attachment Disorder” (and in some diagnostic manuals another condition called “Disinhibited Attachment Disorder”) this is relatively rare and should not be assumed to underlie the difficulties maltreated children may have. Even where children have a history of maltreatment there are many other associated conditions that might underlie behaviour problems. Additionally, there is no real consensus on treatment for RAD, and teachers should be aware that many who claim RAD is an important cause of bad behaviour, and that they have a treatment for it, will be the advocates of “controversial attachment therapies”.

Finally, there are claims that attachment theory itself may be useful to teachers. While this may be true, teachers should be sceptical about unsupported claims. There is not a strong body of evidence for applying the insights of attachment theory to older children. Additionally, anthropologists have come to doubt whether attachment theory describes universal behaviours of human beings, rather than western cultural norms of child rearing. Do not be blinded by claims to scientific authority which go beyond the evidence. Teachers have every reason to ask questions when any claims are made to them about attachment.

As well as my chapter on attachment myths, The researchED Guide to Education Myths, although short, also contains chapters by Clare Sealey, Doug Lemov, Greg Ashman and many others on a wide variety of topics.

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