What is Attachment?
Attachment refers to the emotional bond that we share with others. It "may be defined as an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time" (p. 50, Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). It is an area of interest to developmental psychologists as research evidence shows that a child’s early attachment to their caregiver(s) significantly influences their ability to manage their feelings and behaviour, acquire the skills necessary for successful emotional/social functioning, relate to others and maintain social and emotional relationships.
Attachment theory was first proposed by John Bowlby (1907-1990). The theory suggests that our early experiences of relationships significantly affect our emotional and social development, and our ability to form relationships with others throughout our lives.
Bowlby argued that there is a biological and evolutionary basis to attachment. He believed that infants are predisposed to forming a strong emotional bond with a particular person because it aids their survival; the caregiver provides nurture, protection and security.
Bowlby argued that children also have a tendency to explore and play in the environment around them. This desire to explore allows the infant to experience things away from the caregiver, so long as they are still in sight. However, when the child becomes completely separated from the caregiver, is distressed (e.g. due to an injury or illness) or when a stranger enters the situation the child will exhibit proximity-seeking behaviours in an attempt to restore physical closeness with, and seek security and comfort from, the caregiver.
Secure and Insecure Attachment
The quality of a child’s attachment to their caregiver(s) is influenced by their early experiences of being parented; the caregiver’s behaviour directly influences attachment development. Secure attachment develops when the caregiver(s) respond sensitively, consistently and appropriately to the child’s needs. Therefore, the securely attached child sees their caregiver as being trustworthy and dependable. They also view themselves as being worthy of their care, resulting in them feeling secure in themselves. The child learns about the reciprocity of social interactions and develops social skills that can be used in future relationships. When a parent is not sensitive, consistent and appropriate in their caregiving this secure attachment does not develop and the child is said to be ‘insecurely attached’.
Research suggests that children with a secure attachment style demonstrate improved social competence, higher quality relationships, improved coping and self-regulation, higher self-esteem, increased independence and self-reliance, better academic outcomes and fewer behavioural and psychological difficulties (compared to children with an insecure attachment style).
Insecure attachment is generally associated with poorer outcomes than secure attachment. Insecurely attached children are more likely to develop externalising behavioural problems (such as aggression, defiance and hyperactivity) and demonstrate lower resilience. Insecure attachment is also associated with immature emotional and social functioning, poorer language development and weaker cognitive, executive functioning skills (such as working memory, planning and organisation skills, self-control).
Improving Outcomes for the Insecurely Attached Child in School
A large proportion of children are insecurely attached (approximately 40%; Moullin, Waldfogel & Washbrook, 2014) therefore every classroom is likely to have insecurely attached children. Bergin and Bergin (2009) argue that educators can play a significant role in improving the outcomes for insecurely attached children by forming secure relationships with them. Although a child may be insecurely attached, changes to their emotional and social experience will allow them to feel secure. Insecurely attached children are more likely to achieve similar outcomes to a securely attached child if they are helped to feel secure in school. Teachers, in particular teachers’ relationships with children, play a crucial role in achieving this.
Bergin, C., & Bergin, D. (2009). Attachment in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 21(2), 141-170.
Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock.
Moullin, S, Waldfogel, J & Washbrook, E. (2014). Baby bonds: Parenting, attachment and a secure base for children. London: The Sutton Trust.