Attachment refers to the active emotional bond that develops from birth between a child and their primary parent or caregiver(s) and which shapes the pattern for our early social development. According to the original theorists (Bowlby and Ainsworth) – it is one of the basic human behaviours – enabling an infant to learn how to care for itself and others, and how to manage and regulate emotions.
The quality of this attachment bond with a parent or carer serves as a framework for children to learn a personal strategy for how to respond to new situations, how to interpret social cues from others and how to detect and react to danger and threat.
For more information on Attachment theory and why it is important to wellbeing and healthy functioning in children please see to our toolkit on attachment.
Attachment behaviour exists to help the child learn to adapt, socialise and survive and is a foundation for managing emotions and good mental health. Infants first show their attachment to their carers through key safety behaviours such as:
Maintaining closeness – by being within easy reach of their parent/carer and gradually exploring the world when there is no threat. This is how the infant develops a sense of security, independence and Trust in the world when the parent/carer is a Safe Haven
Actively searching for their parent/carer when facing situations of anxiety such as when a stranger appears
Showing signs of anxiety and distress such as crying if they are separated from their parent/caregiver
How primary carers respond to these behaviours from the child is crucial. Good attunement will result in calming anxious situations and reducing the levels of distress of the child – and helps the child to have secure attachment. Poor attunement where a parent/carer is unresponsive, inconsistent, or unavailable, can leave an infant highly anxious and struggling to cope calmly with new situations and feeling insecurely attached.
More information about how attachment is related to wellbeing can be found in the toolkit on attachment.
Here are some key points for teachers to consider regarding the young children they work with:
Research now overwhelmingly indicates that many emotional regulation issues and learning needs are interconnected. If a child is struggling with their school work it is important to consider both aspects. It may help to explore our sections on emotional regulation and emotional intelligence for further information in this area.
Research has found that supportive adult-child relationships outside the immediate family circle can also help strengthen a child’s emotional resilience. Please see our resources section for further information around building positive teacher-child relationships.
It can be extremely powerful for teachers to be attuned in their relationships with their pupils, particularly with challenging and vulnerable pupils. Secure attachment relationships correlate strongly with higher academic attainment, better self-regulation and social competence.
Questions for teachers to think about when working with young children:
How might a child’s attachment experience lead them to experience school life differently?
In what ways do schools provide ‘safe havens’ for children? When might they not be safe havens for some children?
How might the behaviour of children be impacted by a teacher’s emotional attunement in the classroom?
As you may already be aware, for teachers to create a positive learning environment in school it is vital for children to feel a sense of safety and security in the classroom as part of supporting healthy attachments in children.
Please refer to our toolkit on attachment for further takeaways on attachment responses in school settings and behaviours to avoid. It might also be helpful to visit our sections on emotional regulation and anxiety.
As with all matters of wellbeing taking time to focus on areas such asemotional intelligence and social confidence helps to build an outlook that feeds into the interactions a teacher has with the young people they support. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves. It is often through the reflection and understanding of our own mental health and wellbeing that we can be become truly effective in providing support to others. We’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section.
If a teacher is feeling confident and comfortable with some of the foundations that have been discussed here, then they can move on to looking into ways in which we might incorporate this knowledge into practical ways to work with young people and help them learn more about their brains, bodies and capacities to cope. Take a look at our sections on resilience, emotional regulation, self-esteem, emotional intelligenceto look at strength-based models of mental health that can support a young person’s wellbeing.