A (simple) explanation of the 4 attachment styles

A (simple) explanation of the 4 attachment styles

Pupils with attachment difficulties can be the hardest of all children to teach... and reach.

Their behaviour can seem unpredictable and impossible to understand.

But here's the thing: the right knowledge can shine a spotlight on why a student is behaving in a certain way.

And once we understand the 'why', we can start putting in place support strategies.  Strategies to help the pupil cope better in the classroom.

That's why knowing about the four different attachment styles is so important.

Each attachment style needs its own approach and management.  Once you've worked out the attachment style, you can pick the right support strategies.

Get it wrong and... well, you'll know about it.

Where do attachment styles come from?

Our parents lay down the foundations for our attachment style in our very early years.

As a baby, if our parents:

  • comfort and love us when we're distressed
  • interact with us regularly and predictably

...then we learn that we're loved and cared for.  We learn to feel secure.

We learn that we're not on our own in this big, scary world.

That makes us feel safe enough to go and explore the world.  Because when something causes us to feel worried, or anxious, we trust there's an adult there to back us up.

Assuming this bonding process is successful, you'll develop the simplest attachment style...

Style 1: secure attachment

These are children who know they can rely on adults to care for them.

The result?  This group is a great place to be.  These children got the golden ticket.

They're more likely to:

  • have better self-regulation
  • learn more easily and quickly
  • show more persistence and 'grit'
  • succeed at creative tasks
  • become part of strong social networks.

But here's the thing.

What's surprising is how few people fall into this secure attachment category.

A 2009 study found only 56% of adults could form secure attachments.

Let's put that in perspective: in an average class of 30 children, only 17 would be placed in the 'secure attachment' group.

The 13 children who aren't part of this elite?  They fall into 3 categories.

Style 2: insecure avoidant

These are students who didn't learn that the adults' role is to care for them.  The bond of trust didn't form correctly.

Most likely, this is because their parents were emotionally unresponsive when they were very young.

For instance, their parents may have:

  • ignored their child's emotional needs
  • rejected the child when it was hurt or scared or cried for help
  • encouraged the child to be independent before it was ready.

So the child learned to suppress their normal instincts to seek out their parents at times of stress.

As a result, the child learned at a very early age: the only person I can rely on is me. I have to take care of myself.

So they focus on their own needs and can ignore the feelings of others.

Here are some key insights about children with the insecure avoidant attachment style.


  • are self-reliant to a fault - to the extent that needing an adult's help actually makes them feel insecure
  • tend to suffer from high levels of anxiety (and harbour a strong fear of failure)
  • don't communicate with adults when they're upset or stressed
  • can appear withdrawn or isolated
  • don't outwardly show any desire for affection or closeness
  • have a strong need for choice and control

Insecure avoidant children form about 23% of the population (that's 7 children in a class of 30).

(By the way, sometimes behaviours related to attachment get confused with symptoms of autism or ADHD.  You may also find our article on the difference between autism, ASD, ASC, Aspergers and ADHD useful.)

Style 3: insecure ambivalent

(You might also hear this attachment style referred to as anxious attachment.)

Children with this attachment style are often distrustful of adults.  This is because they never learnt to predict how adults will respond to their needs.

This may be because their parents were inconsistent in how they responded to the child as a baby.

  • Sometimes, when the baby cried, the parent was attentive and nurturing
  • At other times, the parent presented as unavailable, intrusive, dismissive or insensitive

For the child, this unpredictability led to confusion and a lack of trust in adults... so they never learned to form secure relationships.

This can lead to a negative self-view and a fear of rejection.

Here are some key insights about children with the insecure ambivalent attachment style:

  • they often physically cling on to their parents
  • they find it hard to concentrate on academic tasks
  • they engage in persistent attention-seeking behaviour
  • they pay close attention to what the adults are doing
  • they have a poor understanding of cause and effect (so they find it difficult to learn from systems of rewards and consequences)

The insecure ambivalent attachment style includes roughly 20% of the population (that's 6 children in the average class of 30).

Style 4: disorganised-controlling

These children often display controlling and manipulative behaviour.

This form of attachment can develop because of:

  • abuse
  • trauma
  • neglect

...in early childhood.

Here, the parent's behaviour was so unpredictable in the child's early years, they never learned to feel safe.  In fact, they may even view their parent as a source of fear, rather than comfort.

(Note: this style can also occur when the child's primary caregiver suddenly disappears.)

Here are some key insights about children with the disorganised-controlling attachment style.

They may:

  • seek control of relationships with peers and adults
  • present a limited range of emotions
  • have a poor attention span
  • experience high levels of anxiety (that they often seek to mask with 'power' behaviours) or quickly become overwhelmed by their emotions
  • resist attempts at support or encouragement from adults
  • are hyper-vigilant of adults and other children
  • may be very compliant and helpful when meeting a new adult for a short time, before completing changing their behaviour profile
  • experience continually high levels of stress that hold back their learning

Disorganised-controlling children form about 1% of the population and can be some of the most challenging students to teach.

Key takeaways

We develop our attachment style based on our early interactions with our parents as a baby.

When those interactions go well, we learn our caregivers will help us when we feel upset, stressed or have some other need.

This makes us feel safe and secure.

As we grow, those early interactions become our template for how we develop relationships in later life.

There are four attachment styles:

  • secure
  • insecure avoidant
  • insecure ambivalent
  • disorganised controlling


  • children who are able to develop secure attachments represent only 56% of the population
  • once you know a child's attachment style, then you can pick the right strategy to support them

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