So many interventions with troubled kids focus on behaviour.

And many of them don’t work.

Why is that?…

It’s because the sequencing is wrong.

If a bricky tried building the walls of a house before digging the foundations, it wouldn’t stand up for long.

A builder friend once told me that a significant amount of the cost of building a house goes into the foundations. A lot of the money goes into the ground!

But this has to be done if the structure is to last.

Kids are no different.

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First things first…

Think about it. With new borns, how much of the parenting is about behaviour?

None of it! Right?

It’s about doing the basics – food, warmth, sleep, nappies, etc. But it’s also about attunement, what Dan Hughes calls being “in synch” with the child.

This is that lovely stuff where parent and child look intently at each other and play. The parent mirrors what the child is doing and they work together to match their emotions and their intentions.

It’s through this process that the child learns about who they are and what their body is doing. It’s the process of building attachment.

‘Attachment is a small person, learning to be a person, from a big person.’ – Jonny Matthew

Think about it. With new borns, how much of the parenting is about behaviour?

Later, when the child is a bit older, the behaviour training starts. The order is obvious: attachment first, behaviour second.

Distracting behaviour

Because we work with troubled children, we deal with difficult behaviour. If you work in youth justice, CAMHS, child protection, residential or secure care, the police or in HSB or CSE services, etc. you may also deal with risky behaviour.

We only see children when things are going wrong. And it’s usually got something to do with behaviour.

Here’s the problem: the behaviour distracts us from the underlying causes – weak foundations.

The walls (behaviours) are wobbling because the foundations (attachments) are missing or inadequate in some way.

Notwithstanding the odd case where things are less complex, most of the kids we deal with will have problematic attachments or related developmental issues. Dodgy foundations.

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Programme sequencing

I’d like to suggest that the reason why lots of work programmes and other interventions with troubled kids don’t work very well, is because they are misplaced.

They are trying to prop up the walls, rather than secure the foundations.

Here are some examples:

– Behaviour management parenting programmes

– Offence specific interventions (knife crime, interpersonal violence, car crime, etc.)

– Programmes which target so-called criminogenic factors (anger management, victim empathy, thinking skills, etc.)

All good stuff, of course. But not if the foundations are weak. We must address things in the right order.

Sequencing is everything. For more on this read our paper on sequencing. Or check out the Trauma Recovery Model for a roadmap of how to make intervention decisions.


Kids with developmental issues need help to find a degree of attachment stability before they can move on.

We need to work on consistency, predictability and reliability (CPR) before we start addressing behaviour.

Here are a couple of examples:

– Attachment parenting

– Theraplay

– DDP (Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy)

These approaches target the foundations. They work on the premise that a child’s attachments effect everything else.

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Final word

Is your approach having the desired effect? Are things standing still, or maybe even getting worse?

Then maybe it’s time to ask whether the foundations need some work before you kill yourself trying to hold up the walls…

What do you think?

– Do you agree that attachment comes before behaviour as a focus for interventions? Do you have examples of times when the order of interventions has been wrong for kids? 

– Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below – just click here

Related posts…

– The TRM – A Model for Helping Troubled Kids to Recover…

– Attachment – what is it?

– Attachment – when it goes wrong…

– Putting attachment theory to work – a book review

– Building stability from broken lives…

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Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2017

Disclosure of material connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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