Samantha Rodgers' blog

Attachment theory and its implications for teachers

Recently, I have been doing research into attachment theory- and its role in education.

Attachment refers the way in which people relate to other people, and is formed in the first two years of life. Once established, it is a style that stays with people and affects how people relate their relationships with others.

Some of the earliest research comes from John Bowlby 1973, who wrote about attachment, separation and loss and focused on how infants become emotionally attached to their primary care-givers and become distressed when separated from them. He refers to these as contributing towards our “inner working models” of self and social life.

He also posits that this attachment characterises us from the ‘cradle to the grave’- that attachment plays an important roles in not just the partners we choose, but all relationships we develop and how we parent our own children.

There are three major categories, secure, anxious and avoidant.


Connect                 Protect

This attachment is characterised by people who are trusting, comfortable and kind with themselves, feel a sense of belonging. They have a balance of closeness and independence. To use a see saw analogy, they balance their need to protect them- selves from hurt with the need to connect with others.


Connect                  Protect

This attachment pattern manifests as people being clingy, worried about people they have relationships with leaving, as well as having a strong dependence on others. On the see-saw, they need to connect more than protect.


Connect                  Protect

This pattern indicates people very protective against being hurt, people who may suppress outward emotion, appearing distant and distrusting. They have a stronger need to protect than connect.

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, 1987 found that 60 %  of people have secure attachments, 20% have anxious and 20% have avoidant attachments.

So what does that mean in a school context?

Kennedy and Kennedy (2004) have done research in this area and have found the students with secure attachment histories are more likely to:

  • see themselves as supportive, helpful, and positive, competent and worthy of respect
  • relate more positively to both peers and adults, demonstrate greater resilience and engage in more complex play than other children
  • exhibit more flexible and socially appropriate emotional expression and control, more focused attention and participation in class
  • demonstrate better functioning goal-corrected partnerships, characterized by more mature perspective-taking, mutual communication of affect, and joint planning
  • report more satisfying interpersonal relationships and greater trust in others more prone to positive self-disclosure, and cope more adaptively with stressful situations.

Students with insecure attachments, either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’:

  • use less effective strategies in stressful situations to self-regulate
  • may resist seeking help from others and demonstrate less dependence upon their social network, due to natural inclination or fear of being let down by them
  • limit access to their own feelings and view others as undependable or rejecting
  • fail to develop trusting relationships with others, seeing others as unable to provide emotional closeness and comfort, and thus feeling socially and emotionally isolated.
  • may show more externalizing and aggressive, antisocial behaviours

In addition, their research shows that  the quality of the teacher–student relationship may be the single most important factor for a student’s positive experiences of school. Especially for at-risk students, teachers may be their only positive, supportive adult model. Those teachers have a unique opportunity to help students foster positive representations of themselves, others, and relationships in general.


Accordingly, in the classroom, teachers need to recognise, understand and act upon the following:

(1) the impact of a positive teacher–student relationship on students, especially  ‘at risk’ students

(2) that interactions between students and the teacher will impact on their relationship and classroom behaviours

(3) that students’ behavior reflects their relationship history and strategies for coping with stress


Strategies that enhance the family’s and student’s connectedness to the school along with positive teacher–family relationships have been found to be positively related to increased student achievement, positive student attitudes, and self-concept, and positive parental and student attitudes toward the school.


Phew! This adds a whole new layer of the power a teacher has in the classroom, beyond their knowledge and classroom practice.

If you want to read the full article, here it is:

Flourish: Positive Accomplishment

This one is the ‘teacher’s’ favourite- where we get to talk about growth mindset! Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University believes that people can be categorised in two ways: having Fixed or Growth Mindset.

Fixed mindset people are those who believe that talents and abilities are set in stone. They believe that you are either intelligent, or not, and it will never change. They feel that they need to prove themselves over and over and will often take the easier route if it guarantees success, even if it isn’t challenging or engaging. I used to be that person. I can easily identify that when I was at school, that’s how I felt. Right or wrong- that was how it was and I don’t think my school or anyone else encouraged anything different. We just didn’t know any better.

However with time and more life experience, I learned that I could get better at things. Learning became more important than ‘knowing things’. I changed from a fixed mindset – at least in some areas.

The key word that Dweck emphasises, when people fall into a fixed mindset- particularly when something is hard … is ‘yet’. The acknowledgement that I can’t do something at the moment- but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be good at it at all. It is a small difference in language, but a huge difference in mindset.Dr Norman Doidge uses a helpful analogy- the brain as a muscle. The more you use it- the stronger it becomes.

The course then went on to focus on character strengths and to see the accomplishments we have made through our key strengths. As a teacher I see plenty of students who have fixed mindset and those with low self esteem. They see themselves as their failures. Using something like the VIA Character strengths quiz forces students to see themselves in a positive light with a lot of strengths: love, zest, kindness, leadership, honesty, perspective, hope, and so on, that can be a real shift in how students see themselves, and the contribution that they make to the world around them. Of all the strengths that we studied, this one could well be the most powerful, especially in helping people recognise their own worth.

Flourish: Positive Meaning

This attribute has a lot to do with purpose- does your life have meaning, does it have a purpose? One of the first activities we did was to look at Hedonic versus Eudaimonic short-term and long-term activities. Leisure, rest, fun and enjoyment were balanced out with learning skills, life-long learning, and helping others. It was an interesting activity to tune us into how we spent our time and what quadrant we generally focused on. Being a teacher, I am more balanced in the quadrants than I would have first thought (as I definitely take my leisure time seriously)…

Research from Bonebright et al 200 and King et al 2006 found that people who can identify a source of meaning in their lives experience greater happiness and satisfaction, are physically and emotionally happier, are more resilient and feel a greater sense of control over their lives, than others who feel lesser ‘meaning’ in their lives.

Meaningful lives must feel worthwhile, but it must also BE worthwhile. That is why those who  show altruism seem to be more satisfied in their lives. Some people draw the notion of service from a variety of places: religion, charity, working in a service industry. Altruism doesn’t mean that you have to have a ‘big’ life, or giving millions to charity, it is more your outlook on life- are you generous with your time, your skills?

It was a powerful activity to then learning more about ourselves, who we are to others and what we give to others. Unlike Clarence in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, who felt that his life hadn’t really touched anyone else’s,  it was good to ask those questions of myself, and try to answer them! Another activity that seemed useful was to imagine the ‘future you’. Not necessarily your eulogy, but a moment in future time where you reflect on your life- what will you remember, what will you have done? How do you think you might be remembered by those around you?

Such great questions to ask yourself… and ones that definitely inspire me to be a better person.


Flourish: Positive Relationships

This one probably goes without saying- the better your relationships with others are, the better we feel!

The key to positive relationships is building security and the ability to explore, rather than the need to protect against being hurt (avoidant attachments) and feeling worried that the loved one will leave (anxious attachment).

Once very simple theory to consider is the ‘Bucket and Dipper’ theory by Don Clifton and Tom Rath. The idea is that we each have a ‘wellbeing’ bucket on our backs and a dipper that we can use to add to or reduce the amount in another’s bucket. Think aboututhe people in your life- do they add or reduce your level? Obviously, surrounding yourself with people who are likely to fill your bucket are going to produce more secure relationship that are better for your own wellbeing.

Another really important concept we covered in the course is ACR- Active Constructive Responding, Shelly Gable, when responding to good news.

Gable: Ways of responding

Obviously, we want to amplify good news by showing genuine interest, rather than ignoring’ stealing, deflating or understating the news, but while it sounds easy, it isn’t. Think about this the next time someone tells you good news. How often do we choose to do something other than amplify- it happens more often than you would think! How will you respond the next time someone gives you good news… and how much will it ‘fill their bucket’?



Flourish: Positive Engagement

Another element of positive psychology is that of positive engagement.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (yep, what a name!) wrote a book in 1990 called ‘Flow’, that tries to capture and document that feeling of being ‘in flow’, in the ‘zone’, in the moment.

Rather than feeling best when we are relaxed or passive, he believes that the best moments of our lives are when we are in ‘flow’ and everybody has ways to achieve that feeling. For some it is sport, for others music or the arts. As a teacher I find the idea of flow to be fascinating and obviously, want my students to be able to experience flow. Simply put, it is when skill level and challenge level are roughly similar.FLow chart0 at 7.58.07 pm

Theoretically speaking, it doesn’t equate to ‘learning’, in fact it is probably best described as the moment a skill is mastered the the feeling of applying that new learning successfully. The big question is, how to differentiate  learning environments that allow all learners to match skill with challenge at any level. A challenging task but one well worth the effort!

The other fact that I found really interesting is that people tend to feel flow 54% of the time in work activities, and only 18% of the time in leisure. Considering we are planning to retire and ‘all’ of our time could be considered leisure, is to increase that statistic, at least for us!

One thing that  I have done is to write out a list of things that we enjoy doing that aren’t just passive: Learning a new instrument or language, gardening, reading on new topics (such as mindfulness) and learning new skills for renovationg our house should ensure that more than 15% of time is in flow, and it is definitely something that I will keep in my mind as we transition into our retirement!

Watch this clip of the juggler Chris Bliss to see someone truly in flow!

Chris Bliss: Juggling

Flourish: Positive Emotion

Nothing like attending  3-day residential course on Positive Education, staying in accommodation that was, until recently, a mental asylum to remind me of the virtue of gratitude. All on the first 3 days on my Chinese New Year holiday!

Still, the course was incredibly worthwhile and definitely uncovered some research pertinent to our idea of retiring next year.

In his book Flourish, the ‘Father of Positive Psychology’ Martin Seligman explains the purpose of positive psychology and how his findings, when implemented, can help nurture a happier life. Traditionally the study of psychology has been one of curing mental illness, ie fixing us when we are ‘broken’ however Seligman was interested in the notion of positive psychology, that is: being interested in building the best things in life more than just repairing the worst, and making the lives of all people fulfilling. The title ‘Flourish’ reflects the experience of life going well: feeling good and functioning effectively and Seligman created a model with 5 measurable elements:

P ositive Emotion

E ngagement

R elationships

M eaning

A ccomplishment

Positive Emotion is the ability to experience a range of positive emotions, particularly gratitude. Kerry Howe’s (in Gratitude in Education, 2012) states that gratitude needs to be felt and acted upon. Good advice, but what what does that mean in reality? What does it mean to us?

A course by Geelong Grammar School shared their research: that emotions both good and bad are important and that it is hard to appreciate the ‘good’ times if they are all you have! So true. Instead the idea of positive emotions are to accept our full range of emotions, and to try and focus on those that are more positive. They also discussed the ‘negative bias’ that a lot of us have – evolution ensures that we remember failures more than successes and we tend to analyse them more too, with the aim to get better and correct mistakes. All very well and good when survival  was our main aim, but today it pervades our thinking still. How many times have I assumed the worst in someone else, or myself? However, thinking positively and focusing on positive emotions can make the most of both negative and positive events, especially if we can increase the frequency of positive emotions, and broaden our understanding of them. According to Barbara Fredrickson (2009), the 10 most common positive emotions are: Joy, Gratitude, Serenity, Interest, Hope, Pride, Love, Awe, Inspiration and Amusement. One activity on the course that I found really interesting and useful was writing down for each positive emotion, what experiences caused me to feel the emotion recently. Just sitting down and spending 5-10 minutes brought about a sense of wellbeing as I reflected on moments of joy, of gratitude, of serenity, and so on, and how abundant these emotions are in my life.

Another useful activity was to map the ups and downs of the past day/ week so we can physically ‘see’ the emotions felt- and then consider what triggers the ups and downs.

The Values in Action survey ( VIA- is also a  good one to learn more about your strengths and for you to think more about how to use them to your ‘positive’ advantage in life. It is not difficult to see the wonderful things in life when you make the conscious decision to look.

Difficult Conversations

The conversation we dread… made easier!

I gave a couple of workshops on this topic last week and thought it would be worth sharing the key points.

While we all have some inkling of how important it is to develop positive rapport, forming strong teams and establishing a process of frequent feedback, the difficult conversation is always one that can elicit a physiological response when we think about it: sweating palms, increased pulse and butterflies in the stomach.

However, we also know that putting it off is going to make the eventual conversation even more difficult.

So tips for the conversation itself.

(I am assuming that we can skip the practical preparation: where, when, how to organise the meeting… and get straight to the conversation it self.)

Firstly: Know Thyself

What are your default behaviours and management style? Do you tend to avoid, accommodate, compromise, compete or collaborate? Instead of the conversation you need to have- what are you likely to do?

What about Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership: do you differentiate how you treat your team? Who do you direct, delegate, coach and support, and are these strategies appropriate for each member of your team?

Finally, using DISC terminology, how to you manage and communicate to those with high core behaviours styles of Dominance, Interpersonal, Steadiness and Compliance? What is your style and how far will you need to adapt to ensure effective communication?

In a nutshell:

High Ds will want victory and will tend to become demanding when in conflict

High Is will want acknowledgement and will be expressive (often emotional)

High S’s will want harmony and will become compliant

High C’s will want justice and will withdraw in conflict.

Handy things to know when conversations get difficult. What about you? What are your ‘go to’ behaviours when the going gets tough?


The Conversations

In the conversation, up to three different conversations might be present; it is your job to explore which conversations are relevant so both parties understand one another and are able to move forwards.

The ‘What Happened’ conversation

In this conversation, don’t assume you have all of the facts. You probably don’t. Don’t worry about who is right or wrong, instead, seek to explore each others’ stories. Move away from ‘certainty’ to curiosity.

Even if the impact of the behaviour necessitating ‘The Talk’ is catastrophic, don’t assume they meant it. No-one can see into the future and determine what might happen. So separate intent from impact.

And finally for this conversation: don’t blame, instead map the contribution.  Chances are that this person is not only one to contribute. If you work on this person’s team, you may also have contributed through action or inaction. Blame is about looking backward, whereas focusing on contribution enables both of you to acknowledge it and then look to solutions. It can take the heat out of the conversations, just as blame can exacerbate the situation.

The Feelings Conversation

Feeling matter and they will be a part of the conversation. Skill is required to keep yours in check, and to be able to share those feelings and understand them, without showing them. It is important to acknowledge feelings on both sides though, before trying to move on to the ‘problem-solving’. Don’t’ judge or evaluate feelings, acknowledge them.

The Identity Conversation

Difficult conversations can threaten our construct of self and othersà tread carefully when identity is on the line in a conversation.

Everyone thinks of themselves in the following ways: Am I good? Am I competent? Am I worthy of love? These are our areas of vulnerability, so if the conversation is not about identity, then make sure the person knows it. A good idea is to focus on the behavior of a person and not ‘who they are’.

When you judge people you often paint a picture of what you think of them!


Having a Learning conversation

Raise the issue or let it go? 

Is it worth having the conversation? Think of the purpose of your conversation.


Begin from the third story.

You have one chance to frame the conversation you want to have. Think carefully about what you want to say the purpose is, and the language you will use to convey it. Think about the person’s possible responses. You want to use this opportunity to open up the conversation, not shut it down. It shouldn’t be your story or their’s, but what you can elicit from the facts. Be as neutral as possible.


Listen from the inside out

Once the third story has been given: listen. Get yourself into a position of curiosity and let them say what they need to say. Ask open, neutral questions to get more information about the three conversations that may be at play. Acknowledge and paraphrase what you hear and don’t just listen to the wordsà check all of the information you are getting (including nonverbal). Don’t take offense and don’t respond yet- you will soon have your turn. However, it they are getting off topic, reframe with a relevant comment or question. Don’t coach, don’t advise, don’t interrupt. Listen.



Speak for yourself with clarity and power. You are entitled to half of the conversation and now it is your turn to give information. Always start with what matters most. Share your understandings (but not as THE truth) and explain where they come from. Be precise and clear.

One strategy for speaking:

Describing the issue: I see

Use neutral language that communicates your perspective: ‘I notice this is the fourth time you have started talking while I was’ rather than ‘You shouldn’t interrupt me.’


Clarifying the issue: I feel

  • Specify how the situation makes you feel.
  • Always use I statements

‘When I am interrupted I feel that my opinion isn’t valued’


Solving the problem: I want

The feeling statements above are a bridge to a declaration of how you’d like the situation resolved.

‘I would like to find a solution that gives me an opportunity to better understand your views, and also voice my own.’


Problem Solving

Together, once all three conversations and stories have been explored you can work together to create solutions. Take the lead in discussion, allowing for joint construction of next steps forward. If the conversation starts to stray, reframe and keep it on track. Look after yourself and them in the conversation- relationships that only go one way rarely last.


Putting it all together

Remember your conversations and remember how to plan a learning conversation. If either of you need a break at any point, take it. Try to keep to the issues and keep calm. Be persistent when explaining that it will take both of you to play a role in the solution.

And remember, sometimes it will be you in the barrel. If so, take responsibility for the problem and explain your actions. Plan for future success and show your willingness to find a solution.

Now, go have that difficult conversation… before it has you!

Key resources:

Communicating in small groups, by Steven Beebe and John Masterton (2011, Tenth edition)

Difficult Conversations: Discussing What Matters most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (2010)

Could personal branding ‘hurt’ you?

After reading an article by Bruce Kasanoff (,  I have thought a little more about the notion of personal branding. In an earlier post, I advocated the use of personal branding to help educators to capture the essence of who they are and what they do.

Kasanoff warns professionals that people can confuse a ‘brand’ with a job description, and of companies that are out to ‘brand’ you- for big bucks in their own pockets. I would agree with him on these points. It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on branding yourself- there are so many online tools that can help spread your brand to the people you want to see it. I also agree that many great educators are out there that haven’t spent any time on branding, and they do just fine.

However I do think that people have an online presence these days, whether they like it or not, and it is important to be able to control the message about ‘you’ if you want to.  When I delivered a workshop that included some information on ‘personal branding’ only a small number of the 50 people in the room had a brand statement about themselves. However, when asked would they like to have one, most were interested in learning more.

Branding doesn’t have to be a costly venture, nor does it need to be time-consuming. It is a great reflection tool and one that can really empower. Who spends time in their busy professional lives thinking about what they stand for as an educator? Who thinks about the impact they have on learning communities? There was a great buzz in the room when we went through the process of trying to capture what it is we do as educators, to create a unique, memorable and catchy statement.  It is also an effective recruitment tools to tie together CVs, applications and your online presence.

So, while there are definitely pitfalls related to branding, I think the chance to reflect, design and promote yourself, in your own words, to be an activity well worth the time.

Personal Branding

Having just attended the Senior Leadership Conference for ESF on the Gold Coast in Hong Kong, I have been reflecting on the Day One keynote address by Virginia Morris (of Bamboo Difference). She focused on the usually corporate notion of personal branding. As a designer of the conference, we in the planning team felt it time to explore this area, and for me, the idea of our online digital presence as well. Virginia took us through how to craft a personal branding statement that encapsulates our values, our strengths and talents and how we utilise these into one memorable, unique and brief statement.

Her key tips are:

1) Consider ‘Who you are’. Ask 3 colleagues to come up with 3 words that encapsulate you. From these words, choose 3 (only) that you feel best capture you. Add up to another 2 to the list of your own choosing.

2) Now move on to ‘What you do’. Think about your key roles in your position and what it is that you fundamentally do in that role. Again, try to distill into key words.

3) Finally, ‘Why do you do what you do’. What is the impact of what you do, what are your key motivations?

Once you have these key words, you can craft them into one statement that encapsulates your ‘personal brand’. To do this, combine who you are, what you do and why you do what you do.

For example, my personal statement is: ‘I inspire and nurture others, with passion and vision, to impact on what matters most in education’.

Make it authentic and make it unique to you. Good luck!

Growth Mindset and ‘Grit’

Working with a primary school on Monday on Assessment Capable Students, I was reminded of a conversation I recently had with the principal there about the Learning Support programme that my daughter, was a part of, and the importance of ‘growth mindset’.

In previous years at the school, she had been supported in both literacy and numeracy, with varying strategies. Most of the support removed her from the classroom, so for example, when maths was on, she would go and do maths somewhere else.

This model had problems: firstly, the timings were never quite synchronized, so she would do some maths in class, then be taken out, and return when the students had already moved on to something else. While we appreciated the time and strategies used, my daughter was always on the ‘back foot’ coming back into the classroom: she didn’t know what was going on and didn’t want to interrupt to find out.

She had also begun to feel conspicuous in the class, always being removed and the ease with which she accepted the model of support in previous years, was wearing thin.

The beginning of this year, however, was a little different.

Her support in literacy was reduced to a short 10 minute slot before school each morning, as her skills and confidence had grown. The support itself would focus on reinforcement and gradually decreasing each term until she no longer needed that support.

In maths, a small office space between her classroom and the next was cleared for small group work. I was told that she would be supported with a teacher in the office space or at the back of the classroom should she need it, and that pretesting would determine what level of support she needed. No more leaving at arbitrary times and being lost in the lesson when she returned! The new model reflected the pedagogy of ‘just in time’ learning, supporting her when and how she needed it.

When I spoke to the principal, she spoke about Carol Dweck’s work on Growth mindset, saying that she didn’t want students to feel that they could only be successful when working one-on-one with a teacher or EA, and in a separated environment. Dweck’s work encourages students to not fear failure, but see it as a learning moment. The use of the word ‘yet’ is key in the learning journey for a growth mindset student. I can’t solve that problem… yet. It also relates to Duckworth’s work on Grit and developing resilience. Students should be ‘allowed’ to fail at times; to develop the skills of learning how to tackle problems that aren’t readily ‘solvable’, to consider what next, and how to tackle it with a different strategy.  I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy and am glad that the school is able to personalise my daughter’s learning to the extent of providing this support. She is a happy child at school and is growing in confidence by being in the class and having to try hard with her maths, but ‘having a go’ nonetheless. As a parent/ teacher, I know that should she need extra support, she will get it, but just as importantly, she has the opportunity to develop her resilience and grit as a learner. What more could I ask for!