Friday, April 18, 2014

Attachment Theory Implications for Leadership

Calmer Classrooms
My wife, Aysem, is working on her last course to finish her M. Ed. in School Counseling before we begin working at Saipan International School in August. This particular course is mostly focused on Attachment Theory (AT), which I recall briefly reading about and discussing in an educational psychology course back when working on my B.A. Of course that was nearly 20 years ago, so this course vicariously provided me an opportunity to become familiar with AT once again. While my wife has been studying, I have been using her courses as a way to foster deeper understanding of counseling practices; I feel as an educational leader these concepts can assist me in understanding colleagues and students. Also, I was inspired to learn more about basic counseling due to a panel discussion for budding international educators at the UNI Job Fair back in 2007. John Chandler was on the panel and when asked what advice he would give new school leaders, he replied, "Take a conflict resolution course or workshop, because the whole job is conflict resolution in one way or another." And although, AT has its limitations, it is best to move forward as a practicer with a base in some specific philosophies or theories in mind to ground your practice. As my mentor Larry Creedon was fond of saying, "Theory not applied is useless and application not based on theory is reckless."

I don't want to rehash an explanation of AT in this post, but rather suggest that the theory could be used by leaders to be more sympathetic towards faculty, staff, parents, and students who may display very confusing behaviors. With that stated, a very brief overview at AT is appropriate. AT is based on the idea that a child's relationship with a nurturing primary caregiver is the basis for the child's future development and relationships throughout his/her entire life. If a secure relationship of mutual love, trust, and understanding is built, a securely attached child can explore his/her world and develop other relationships built on trust. Research has found that roughly 70% of children are classified as having a secure attachment with their caregiver. But what about the other 30%? These children will have insecure attachments, which can manifest in three styles -- avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized. Insure attachments have been correlated with depression, self-harm, aggressive behavior, and psychopathology. Research has also shown that approximately 90% of physically, psychologically, or sexually abused children have disorganized attachments due to the confusion created when the caregiver is a source of love and protection and at the same time fear and a lack of protection.

When a child is displaying very aggressive behavior with other students, it could be a response to early childhood trauma. I'm not suggesting that you call the parents in and beginning questioning them or reporting them to Child Services, but be mindful of the possible implications. Be aware that possibly this child was once traumatized, and when in situations that recall that trauma to the child's mind, he/she may react in seemingly strange or disproportional ways. Colleagues and parents could also be wrestling with demons well beyond our ability to imagine. Before dropping the hammer of punishment or reprimand, consider the situation and the reaction. Does something seem amiss? Out of sorts? Could there be a deeper reason? These questions should be considered and any action on your part should factor these possibilities. Again, I'm not suggesting that wild, out of control behavior be tolerated and allowed and simply dismissed as, "Well that is little Sally's (or Johnny's) pathology. What can we do?" Instead, I am advocating for looking into the matter more carefully, but still executing a firm and appropriate response. The province of Victoria put together an excellent resource for educators called Calmer Classrooms that provides a basic overview of AT, three case studies, and guidelines for working with students who are possibly suffering from insecure attachments. The information is just as useful for educational leaders and can be adapted to elementary, secondary, or even adult interactions.

I still haven't had the opportunity to take a conflict resolution course or workshop, but once Aysem is finished with her current degree, we will probably tackle that one. One step at a time.