ToolKit & Resources – Attachment – Full description
What is Attachment?
Attachment refers to the active emotional bond that develops between a child and a primary parent or caregiver(s) which sets the pattern for our early social development (Bowlby and Ainsworth).
The quality of this bond serves as a framework for children to build 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 threats. It is a key foundation of emotional regulation and helping us understand how to care for ourselves and others as well as how to adapt and survive.
Infants initially show attachment to their carers through four main behaviours:
Maintaining closeness: The infant’s need to keep within easy reach of an attachment figure.
Safehaven:The infant’s tendency to actively search for and connect with an attachment figure when facing situations of anxiety or threat. For instance, when an infant returns to the parent/carer when a stranger appears.
Secure Base: The infant’s gradual exploration of the world when there is no threat – still feeling connected to and protected by the parent/caregiver. For instance, when an infant looks back at parent.carer whilst exploring a new environment.
Separation distress: The signs of anxiety and distress that appear if the infant is separated from the parent/caregiver. For instance, when an infant starts crying when parent/carer leaves temporarily.
How primary carers respond to these behaviours and how attuned they are to the child needs is crucial. Good attunement will result in calming anxious situations and reducing the levels of distress in the child. Poor attunement, where a parent/carer is unresponsive, inconsistent, or unavailable, can leave the child highly anxious and struggling to cope with new situations. If a caregivers responses are actively hostile towards the infant, this can leave the child with an on-going sense of the world being unsafe and threatening and their self-image of being unworthy or unlovable.
The behaviours and responses children display in novel situations or those that may generate anxiety contribute to general patterns of behaviour or ‘attachment styles’ that reflect the child’s experience and expectations of the world. Depending on the behaviours displayed, children may then be regarded as more securely or insecurely attached.
Secure Attachment develops when the child’s caregiver(s) have been mainly in attunement with the child’s emotions and responsive to their needs. Children with secure attachment bonds are more likely to internalise a ‘map’ or ‘working model’ of the world as “helpful and responsive”.
This attachment type accounts for around 50-60% of the general population.
Children with secure attachment may: be contented, actively engaged able to seek reassurance, be comforted when worried or frightened, generally calm and empathic, be less disruptive than children with other attachment styles.
Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment can develop when the child’s caregiver(s) are inconsistent, erratic or intrusive in meeting a child’s needs. In new or unfamiliar situations the child may become anxious and clingy, yet not easily calmed or reassured.
This attachment style may be present in around 15-20% of the general population.
Children with ambivalent attachment may: be insecure, have difficulties focusing, ask a lot of questions, be suspicious of strangers or new teachers, be very stressed when separated from a parent/caregiver.
Insecure-Avoidant Attachment develops when the child’s caregiver(s) may have been less responsive to their experiences of emotional distress or when needing help or reassurance or the environment has been indifferent, rejecting or punitive. The child will have learned to stop expecting comfort or help from others and may be less likely to actively seek support instead attempting to manage their own emotional distress.
This attachment type accounts for around 20-25% of the general population.
Children with insecure-avoidant attachment may show the following behaviours:
Withdrawn or ‘quiet’
not engaging with their teachers
less likely to ask for help or support
Disorganized Attachment develops when the child’s home life is frightening or abusive, with often highly stressed parents/caregivers (e.g., environments with domestic violence, substance abuse or severe mental illness). In these situations the caregiver is unable to provide a consistent secure base and the child may experience maltreatment, neglect or trauma. Disorganised attachment is strongly predictive of later social, cognitive and mental health problems and may lead to needing supportive interventions.
This attachment type accounts for around 5-15% of the general population.
Children with disorganised attachment may show the following behaviours:
anger or sudden mood swings
struggle to express their emotions in a healthy way
may show aggression or cause disruptions
difficulties following instructions or content of a session
difficulties establishing peer friendships
Attachment behaviours are most clearly seen and understood in infants and young children. As children become older, attachment becomes less about how they behave and more about what they think about themselves in relation to emotionally important people and the relationships they have with them. In adulthood, attachment refers to a state of mind rather than a pattern of behaviour.
Gradually, what an individual does becomes much less important than how they think, understand and speak about their experiences of care; what they have come to believe about themselves, their relationships and the world around them.
Why is attachment important to wellbeing and healthy functioning?
Early secure attachment with a main caregiver is important as it helps the developing child manage or ‘regulate’ their own emotional responses to situations. A securely attached child will tend to be able to navigate developmental stages in ways that:
Promotes their positive mental and physical health
Helps build resilience in coping with difficult situations and anxiety
Helps build and maintain trusting intimate relationships throughout life through experiencing care and love, including learning to care for self and others
Encourages a growing sense of security and confidence; enabling a child to engage with learning and more quickly reach their potential
While this process may seem straightforward, there are some factors that can influence how attachment develops, including:
Children, who do not have a consistent primary care figure, such as those in care systems, may need additional support to establish a secure base with trusted adults. Schools and teachers can help with this need for stability and support.
Quality caregiving: when parents/caregivers respond appropriately and consistently, children learn that they can depend on the people who are responsible for their care, which is the essential foundation for attachment.
Significant life events resulting in the loss or absences of a primary caregiver or parent (e.g. death, divorce, separation) which can cause disruption to a child or young persons world. Please also see the section on Adverse Childhood Experiences
The good news is that attachment behaviours are not completely ‘fixed’ and can be modified within new relationships; especially those that are warm, consistent and encouraging of reflection and insight. Just one secure attachment with a caring adult can make a really significant difference in a child’s life.
Why is it important for teachers to know about attachment?
A good understanding of attachment theory and research can help teachers, parents and other professionals to understand children and young peoples’ behaviours and offers insight into some children’s experiences of difficult and stressful family relationships. This in turn, can help build engagement with families and inform decision making that has the children’s best interest at heart. It can also help with understanding negative behaviours such as acting out or poor conduct in school situations that can lead to escalation and exclusion.
Some ideas that will be useful to keep in mind are:
The impact of our own caregivers – Those of us who have experienced inconsistent care-giving ourselves can sometimes have difficulty in recognising an infant’s emotional state or needs and how to respond to them appropriately.
Forgetting to link the past and present: In the heat of the moment staff may forget to connect difficult behaviour to the child’s adverse past experiences. This doesn’t mean difficult behaviour should be ignored, just that we shouldn’t take it personally and always take a measured response whilst avoiding being too judgemental (eg ‘strike while the iron’s cold’)
Keeping emotionally calm as a teacher: We all experience moods but if a staff member struggles to control their own negative emotions such as anger, rage or feeling overwhelmed,it can lead to attachment behaviours being triggered and a situation where it can bevery difficult for children in school situations
Attunement: the ability to be in emotional connection (attunement) with a child can help them manage their needs by helping them regulate their own emotions
High levels of anxiety: young people who have experienced unpredictable or adverse early environments (such as many looked after children) will have frequently been in situations where they have felt unsafe, confused, ignored or frightened. This can mean their Flight Fight Freeze (FFF) response is regularly ‘switched to on’ often making it more difficult for them to regulate their emotional state, self-soothe and keep calm. Our video on anxiety can offer some further insights.
Blocked Trust: where a child responds defensively, even to warm and empathic teachers and staff in school. Children who have experienced adversity tend to translate even some ambiguous comments as negative or threatening and cannot easily change these defensive behaviours without support from attuned staff and adults
Shame: is a toxic emotion that can occur as the result of traumatic or negative experiences. Where a child has blamed themselves for what has happened, shame can develop, getting in the way of building trust. This is often seen in victims of child abuse or children who have experienced unresolved loss. ‘Blaming’ or humiliating commentsfrom teachers can emphasise or escalate a child’s feelings of shame
Sarcasm: this is never helpful as can cause confusion for the child and trigger blocked trust’ responses and disengagement from school activities
SecretsChildren who have experienced early trauma or abuse may have been forced to keep ‘secrets’ that will often be associated with betrayal and shame. This can also lead to blocked trust and require support from therapeutic professionals to rebuild trust in new relationships
Unrealistic expectations: Children who have experienced adverse environments can take longer to reach development targets as unstable emotional regulation and ‘FFF’ states can act as barriers to learning and to some elements of cognitive development. Remember a child’s physical age may not always parallel their developmental, cognitive and emotional age & stage.
As with all matters of wellbeing - taking time to focus on developmental processes such asemotional regulation, attachment, emotional intelligence & social confidence can help to build a wider understanding of factors outlook that impact on young peoples learning and wellbeing – and positively feed this into the interactions a teacher has with the young people they support. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others in this way – we must also look after ourselves. It is often through reflection on 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 teachers wellbeing section.
If a teacher is feeling confident and comfortable with some of the foundations that have been discussed here, it may be helpful to lookat further ways in which we might incorporate these insights into practical ways to work with young people and help them learn more about their brains, bodies and emotional states. Take a look at our sections on resilience, emotional regulation, self-esteem, and emotional intelligence to learn more about strength-based models of mental health that can support a young person’s wellbeing.