Attachment theory: why is it so important?

28 April 2023

Our first relationship with our carers acts as a lifelong template, moulding and shaping our capacity to enter into and maintain successful subsequent relationships.

Advances in neuroscience and the development of early brain scanning have shown that feelings, empathy and emotional understanding are hard-wired into our brains through our relationships in the first years of life. So our early experiences with the people who first look after us are vital in shaping our long-term emotional wellbeing. 

A safe, secure and stable relationship with a significant adult is needed to develop self-esteem and stress regulatory systems in the brain and body. They are also needed to create capacity for empathy, exploring and learning about the world around them, and fulfilling relationships later in life, as well as asking for help when troubled. 

Behaviour and learning can be affected if our attachment with our primary carer(s) has been disrupted or distorted. 

Secure attachment takes place when the adult is readily available, sensitive to the child’s signals, and responsive when the child seeks protection or comfort. They need to be consistent, reliable and predictable, providing a secure base for the child to explore from and return to. This will build confidence in the child that their parent/carer will be available, responsive and helpful should they encounter adverse or frightening situations. 

A securely attached child learns:

  • Internal models of how adults are predictable, responsive and interested in them
  • Internal models of themselves as worthwhile, interesting, loveable and loved
  • Exploration is safe (the child knows the adult will check on their wellbeing and safety so they don’t have to worry)
  • Learning is interesting

Difficulties in the attachment process become apparent when the care-giver is not consistently available to the child or responsive to their needs. The child becomes uncertain that their needs will be met, and so begins to learn defences that give them protection from disappointment or hurt. 

The insecurely attached child learns:

  • Internal models of adults as unpredictable, unreliable and not interested in them
  • Internal models of themselves as worthless, uninteresting and unlovable
  • Exploration is not safe as the child has to look after themselves without knowing the risks
  • Learning is risky as the child has not learnt through appropriate risk taking 

Children who are securely attached are better able to learn and will be able to make new attachments more readily. They will be ready and willing to seek help when experiencing difficulties, both academically and socially, and will be willing to share the attention of significant adults with their peers.

By contrast, children who are insecurely attached may feel lost and unnoticed in a large and complex organisation such as school. If their internal model of themselves is of worthlessness, they may set out to prove this is the ‘right’ model each time they meet new adults, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may provoke unresponsive or hostile reactions in the teacher, thus reinforcing their feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. 

Insecurely attached children generally require reliable adults who have time to respond to their needs, at whatever developmental stage is required. They need predictable interactions and routines, or when change is required, it needs to be explained clearly and well in advance. Clear boundaries and limitations, specific attachment figures, and adults who challenge their negative internal models through sensitive interaction are also crucial. 

Nurture practice is heavily influenced by John Bowlby’s attachment theory research (1951), as well as related research by Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970; Ainsworth et al, 1978) and Main and Solomon, 1985, which helped identify different attachment ‘styles’. The types of behaviour that pupils with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) challenges sometimes display, such as clinging, attention seeking, panic, anger, restlessness and low self-esteem, can be understood in the context of this research. 

Nurture offers a proven way to address these challenges, helping to create calmer classrooms, improve behaviour, attendance and attainment and reduce exclusions – all by supporting children’s wellbeing and ensuring they are ready and able to learn. 

Recommended reading:

The trauma and attachment aware classroom – Rebecca Brooks

Attachment for teachers – Marie Delaney 

What about me? Inclusive Strategies to Support Pupils with Attachment Difficulties Make it Through the School Day – Louise Bomber 

The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment – Nicola Marshall