Attachment and child development

Attachment refers to a relationship bond between a child or young person and their primary caregiver. This bond is formed in the early years and has a long-term impact on a child’s sense of self, development, growth and future relationships with others.

It is a complex psychological concept, which originated with the work of John Bowlby, who highlighted the importance of a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver (usually their mother) in terms of their social, emotional development and their ability to learn.

From the moment a baby is born, the baby communicates emotional and physical needs to their primary carer.

Secure attachments

Good attachments rely on the extent to which parents and carers have the physical and emotional proximity and resources to be dependable, respond reliably and sensitively to a child’s basic needs, making them feel safe and giving infants a stable base for exploring the world. The infant knows that they are safe to venture out and explore and that the caregiver will always be there to welcome them back and provide comfort in times of stress or anxiety. These relationship bonds can form a blueprint which can be transferred to teachers and other members of staff in the school.

When children have a secure attachment with their parent/carer, it is an important protective factor for their mental health, while insecure attachments can be a risk factor for the development of emotional and behaviour problems.

Insecure attachments

Insecure attachments develop if early interactions between a child and their caregiver are negative, inconsistent, inappropriate, neglectful or abusive.

When a child’s care giver and home environment is a source of fear rather than a source of safety, this can be highly toxic to a child’s development. Some children facing these experiences (and with no buffer in the family to protect them) may behave in ways which are designed to promote their survival but which may be difficult for school staff to understand and manage. For example, in the classroom these children and young people may:

  • find it difficult to ask for help, manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviour, form positive relationships with staff and peers, concentrate and take part in learning
  • struggle to calm themselves down
  • be both demanding and rejecting at the same time
  • become quickly or disproportionately angry or upset, at times with no clear triggers
  • be scared of being vulnerable – but may mask this by being highly controlling of others and through unpredictable and explosive outbursts
  • avoid getting close to others and appear withdrawn or disengaged from school activities
  • struggle to ask for help
  • show little emotional response or confused and confusing responses (such as laughing when they or others are hurt)
  • day dream, be hyperactive or constantly fidget or move finding it difficult to focus and concentrate in class

All these behaviours may cause great difficulty in terms of classroom and school management.

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Identifying the signs

Usually, securely attached children and young people are able to trust and rely on school staff to meet their needs, are confident about forming relationships with others, able to make the most of learning opportunities, have the ability to problem solve and are emotionally resilient and self-aware.

Children and young people with attachment difficulties may not display these characteristics and it may be harder for them to:

  • Gain the confidence and the self-motivation that comes from exploring the world from a safe base.
  • Achieve appropriate developmental milestones.
  • Reach their academic and intellectual potential.
  • Develop good relationships with peers and school staff (often displaying a lack of empathy).
  • Cope with stress, frustration and anxiety.
  • Concentrate and be able to plan ahead.

Any child and young person can develop attachment difficulties but they are more common with children and young people who have been looked after, or who have experienced other significant trauma which has affected their parents’ ability to provide safe and secure care.

Find out more about attachment

Top tips

Talk to children and young people about emotions

They may be aware of feelings but may not be able to express them.

Communicate with other adults who are involved in the child’s life

This could be parents/carers/grandparents/social workers or other professionals.

Build a better understanding

Communicating will help build a better understanding of the child or young person, and the challenges they have in relation to thought, emotions and behaviour.

What schools and further education settings can do

Concerned about a child or young person?

If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.

Find out more

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