Attachment and child development

Attachment refers to a relationship bond between a child or young person and their primary caregiver which 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.

Good attachments rely on the extent to which parents 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 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 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.

Spotting the signs

Usually, securely attached children 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 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 can develop attachment difficulties but they are more common with children 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

  • Bath Spa University Institute of Education, the National College of Teaching and Leadership and Bath and North East Somerset council: Extensive training set of modules on the impact of attachment on learning and behaviour

Top Tips

Talk to children 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 and the challenges they have in relation to thought, emotions and behaviour.

What schools can do

A number of universal and targeted school-based programmes are proven to help children to understand and manage thoughts and feelings and learn effective coping skills in the face of adversity and challenging events. These programmes help children connect with, label, express and process emotions in a healthy way which can be an important protective factor in building resilience and preventing poor mental health.

School environment and ethos, especially the extent to which children feel safe and positive about relationships with school staff and friends, are important for all children – but are particularly important to children with attachment difficulties. A school cannot replace a secure attachment with a primary care-giver, but it can offer a secure base; a place of safety, consistency, routine and opportunities for children to develop relationships with trusted adults – encouraging them to open up and speak about difficult experiences, thoughts and feelings, process their emotions and thoughts.

Some children will also need a little extra help.  Nurture groups, delivered with small groups of children, can support children’s unmet attachment needs. Some children may also need help through school pastoral/counselling support, through discussion with your school nurse or through referral to community-based support.

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