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Some students are particularly challenging for the adults at school to relate to. Students with attachment difficulties can themselves be very dismissive, and have a number of behavioral challenges. Here you read about how you can understand these children and which school measures are recommended.

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What does it mean that a student has attachment difficulties?

An attachment disorder is characterized by persistent deviations in the child's social relationship and attachment patterns. The disorder occurs in early childhood (during the first 5 years of life) and is closely related to the child's attachment experiences in relation to his or her caregivers. Simply explained, the child is characterized by a strong insecurity in the relationship with other people, with a basic doubt about whether one can have their own needs for comfort and protection taken care of by their caregivers.

There are different degrees of attachment difficulties. Symptoms of the difficulties may be.


  1. High physical activation
    which can be manifested by the child being in constant state of anxiety, being restless, irritable, having problems with attention and concentration, and difficulty sleeping.
  2. Emotional difficulties
    which can be manifested by anxiety and that one is constantly on guard against threats, rejections or violations, by a poor self-image, and a vulnerable, ever-changing self-esteem, sadness and depression.
  3. Social difficulties
    in relationships with peers and other adults, a behavior characterized by aggression directed at oneself or others, an enormous need for control, and a fundamental fear of being rejected. 

    Read more: Reactive attachment disorder (F94.1, ICD-10 diagnostic manual)

Attachment disorders are assumed to be closely related to care experiences that the child carries with them. Children who have been exposed to a change of care, such as adopted children, foster children and refugee / asylum seeker children, will therefore be particularly vulnerable. In addition, children who have previously experienced serious trauma, and especially in connection with the care situation, will be at risk. Not least, children living in an ongoing care failure situation will be in the high-risk zone for developing attachment difficulties.


The internalizing and externalizing children

Children with attachment difficulties are not a uniform group. While some children with attachment difficulties appear quiet, dutiful and enclosed, other children with the same difficulties will appear outgoing, violent and very visible. The "wild children" are easily caught, while the "quiet children" can walk for a long time without the difficulties being discovered and before measures are taken.


The internalizing (quiet) children

When it comes to the quiet children, they have an attachment style that is characterized by a low expectation of being met in relation to their needs. They often have experiences that showing emotions is something dangerous, and their entire contact style is characterized by secrecy, and a form of disguise of their actual thoughts, experiences and feelings. They can show perceived emotions, which are not authentic, but which are a game to appease the adults.


They externalizing (behaviorally challenging) children

When it comes to wild children, they have, on the contrary, acted out as a form of protection strategy. It is these children who most often come to school in the spotlight.

It is about convincing the student over time that: 

  • Yes, I'm valuable!
  • Yes, I can dare to trust you!

The focus is often on the child's behavior, not on the mental state that underlies the behavior: Who the child is. These children are in reality in a form of anxiety preparedness, a constant emergency preparedness, where the anxiety system (i.e., the fight-or-flight response) is in high gear. The student is characterized by a behavior that is perceived as unpredictable and incomprehensible. 

It can often be a matter of trifles that create an outburst of rage, and on closer inspection this can be about small signals / reminders of previous trauma or rejection. Thus, the child may in an instant have been thrown into a state of struggle where it is for the child to survive. This is because the child is controlled by the "emotional brain" - and where the behavior is controlled by trying to protect yourself from being re-traumatized. 

The brain virtually "disintegrates". The "thinking brain" disconnects and the emotional brain controls it all. In such a state, the child does not feel that others can help; it feels left to itself and its own chaos. Concentration problems can result from such a condition, as the child spends all his mental energy on being alert to possible threats in the environment.


The difficult relationship with the teacher and the adults at school

With such a starting point, it is not surprising if the student with attachment difficulties also has problems in the relationship with his teacher and the other adults at school. The teacher often feels powerless over the student, as any attempt to "reach him or her" is rejected by the student himself. It is important to know that the student seems dismissive because he or she is terrified of being rejected, and he or she therefore rejects the teacher (or the other adults) because it seems safest.

Common thoughts, which are often unconscious to the student himself, can be:


  1. "Better that I reject you, than you rejecting me."
  2. "If I open up to you, it's just going to end in horror. I'm just going to feel even worse afterwards."
  3. "I am not worth anything. No one understands me, no one can understand me, and no one wants to understand me."

In the relationship between the student with attachment difficulties and the teacher (or other adults at school), vicious circles of rejection constantly arise, which over time contributes to exacerbating the difficulties. It can explain as follows:


  1. The student's starting point is that he / she is terrified to show confidence and then be rejected by the adult
  2. The student therefore acts dismissively, eg through not opening up (the quiet children), or through anger, attack and flight (the wild children)
  3. The adult is hurt, given up, or feels powerless, and therefore reacts by withdrawing, giving up, or becoming ill (and thus lost to the student)
  4. The result is a new break for the student to a potentially significant adult, and the rejection joins the series of experiences that the student has and which supports the perception that he / she is helplessly alone and left to himself / herself.


A central premise for all measures towards the student with attachment difficulties

A key premise when we talk about measures in relation to the student with attachment difficulties is therefore that the relationship with significant adults at school is of fundamental importance for success in giving the student a good development. 

It is important to take as a starting point the great psychological drama that takes place inside the student's interior. The big questions from the student's point of view are: Am I worth anything? Can I dare to trust you? 

The way to answer these questions is to persevere over time. 

"Perhaps the most important expertise we should promote is: To be able to provide normal care to a child or young person who rejects you," says psychologist Dag Nordanger in RVTS Vest in one of his lectures.


Interventions for students with attachment difficulties in school

The following measures are based on the premise mentioned in the previous section, that it is about convincing the student over time that: 

  • Yes, I'm valuable!
  • Yes, I can dare to trust you!


  1. The teacher as a contact person

    When parents fail, other adults become all the more important! The adults at school are the most important people in the child's life, when the parents are no longer! "Dandelion children": Many children develop normally despite extensive failure in care at home. This is usually due to other adults becoming "complementary attachments". Ie. The adult at school is very important to the child.

     The Circle of Security (COS) methodology sets out some good principles for what the adult caregiver's tasks are in meeting a child: 

    • Always be bigger: Avoid behaving immaturely as an adult even if the child behaves immaturely! Remember that you are a professional
    • Always be stronger: Avoid letting your child take away the authority you should have as an adult! Set natural boundaries above unacceptable behavior
    • Always be wiser: Avoid getting caught up in the child's sense of chaos and feeling hopeless! Be wise and find practical solutions when everything has collapsed for the child
    • Be good: Avoid acting out of affection, be "good" towards the child yourself when you have to use discipline. Show that you like the child and that the child means something special to you
    • Follow the child's initiative whenever you can; take control when you have to!
  2. Shielding

    The student first and foremost needs to achieve security at school. The student needs help to "accommodate" their own mental stress (high levels of activation), which must happen in the relationship / interaction with the adults. When the student is trapped in "survival mode" ("fight-or-flight"), he / she is controlled by immature brain areas associated with avoiding danger. Then there may be a need to shield the student - so that he / she can calm down!

    Shielding can be given by creating smaller groups in the class, and if necessary giving the child breaks from the whole group of students (accompanied by an adult that the child is confident in). Avoid shielding being perceived as punishment. Shielding must be given systematically, regularly and as far as possible before the child has gone into a tantrum

    Make sure to ensure good enough growth coverage that it is possible to offer such constructive protection! The principal must ensure that there is good enough growth coverage in the class in question.

  3. Adults who take the lead, structure and predictability

    A high degree of predictability and structure is important for the vulnerable children:

    • What the day looks like, activity by activity

    • Who the student should be with

    • What boundaries / rules apply in the class / at school

    • How it will react when the student loses control or does something he / she is not allowed to do!

    • What benefits / rewards are available for desired behavior!

    • Border testing behavior is the student's attempt to find out how predictable the world actually is. Do not take this personally!

    • Make sure you have a concrete behavior plan that is realistic to implement in practice!

    • As long as the adults' response is unpredictable, the child has a good reason to keep trying where the boundaries go!

  4. Assess the child's basic needs

    "Every child is unique and it is important that the caregiver responds to the child's actual needs." (Susan Hart). The child's needs are often unconscious for the child himself, ie the adults must be curious and try to find the keys to how the child really feels and what the child really needs.

    Important principles here: 

    • Listen to those who know the child best!

    • Fill the gaps: Are there any adults at school who have not fully understood the child (and where the student more often than elsewhere has problematic behavior)? Have any adults found the "keys" to be working with the student? Share experiences across the teachers and staff at school.

  5. Think integration

    Having severe attachment difficulties creates a need for facilitation at school in the same way as other forms of disability (e.g. mental retardation, Downs syndrome, deafness / blindness). There is need for sufficient personell in the class. The student may to a greater extent be allowed to be part of smaller groups / alone with a special teacher. Good relationship skills in the staff are of fundamental importance: One must learn to relate to these children properly!

  6. Seek support and guidance for the school from outside

    Seek guidance from the support system for how the school can facilitate for the student with attachment difficulties. Guidance to the school can not aim to "fix" the student, but to build up interventions and measures around the student - with the difficulties that the student has today

    Help for the child / family outside of school is also important. Take concerns seriously: remember the duty to report to the child welfare service if there is concern about insufficient care, neglect and abuse. Otherwise: be active in requesting that regular responsibility group meetings be established around the student.

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