Early Childhood Education



Attachments are emotional bonds that unite people across time and space. The concept of attachment has its roots in an evolutionary approach to early relationships, and can be seen as a lasting emotional tie between people. Attachments form beginning in infancy, where they contribute to human survival by bringing infants, who are dependent on the care of an adult, and their caregivers together. Behavior on the part of both children (i.e., crying, clinging in infants) and caregivers (protection and comforting) results in physical and emotional closeness. Forming attachments to parents or caregivers is seen as a hallmark of socioemotional development in the first year of life.

Typically an infant develops a primary attachment relationship with an important caregiver, usually the mother, but children also form attachment relationships with other people, notably fathers, extended family members, and other caregivers such as child-care providers. Early childhood educators both support parent-child attachments and form their own attachment relationships with children in their care.

Attachment theory has become one of the major organizing frameworks for understanding social and emotional development. After World War II, the World Health Organization (WHO), concerned with the welfare of European orphans, asked John Bowlby, an eminent British psychiatrist, to review research and clinical work on early relationships. In his comprehensive study of attachment he concluded that a strong relationship with a primary caregiver was essential to healthy development. Mary Ainsworth then developed the research paradigm, “the Strange Situation,” to examine the attachment between a child and caregiver, and began the process of characterizing variation in the human attachment system. According to Ainsworth’s paradigm, some attachment relationships can be described as “secure” and some as “insecure” (avoidant, resistant, or disorganized). Attachments that are positive and secure provide the basis for trust in self and others, and the confidence to explore and learn new things, knowing that the protection and nurturance of a trusted attachment figure is available if needed. Sometimes, however, infants develop attachments that reflect uncertainty or distrust in the responsiveness of the caregiver.

During the last three decades a large and international body of research on attachment has been conducted. Essential to the concept of attachment is the belief that differences in caregiving yield different attachment patterns. That is, responsive caregiving on the part of the caregiver leads to security on the part of the child. Less responsive, or at the extreme, abusive, care leads to insecure attachments.

Characteristics of attachment relationships are most clearly shown when the child is stressed, since this is when the attachment behavioral system is activated. Some children may seek out a trusted adult for comfort and help when stressed; others may have a difficult time settling in the presence of an attachment figure after an emotional upset; others may not seek out the presence or help of a caregiver when they are stressed. These behaviors say something about the child’s Internal Working Model of Attachment, or the expectations the child holds that the caregiver will be available (both physically and emotionally) and sensitively responsive when the child is distressed. According to attachment theory, Internal Working Models develop gradually, through a history of interaction with an attachment figure.

Working models, and attachments, can change over time, but these changes are only likely to result from very significant changes in the caregiving environment. For example, consider a one-year-old who has developed an insecure attachment; her caregiver is severely depressed, thus not either physically or emotionally available to attend promptly, consistently, and sensitively to the infant’s distress. Research shows that if the caregiving environment changes in significant, positive ways, attachments can become more secure. In this example, if the caregiver’s depression was not chronic, and the caregiver became a predictable, sensitive attachment figure, the child might alter the working model toward trust and security.

This example illustrates how attachments are influenced by a caregiver’s behavior and life experience, for example, the caregiver’s current social support and stress, and their own childhood history. In families where the caregiver has experienced insecure attachments in their own childhood, and the current circumstances make it more difficult to care sensitively for an infant (e.g., marital conflict, unstable living conditions, economic stressors, mental health problems), children are more likely to develop insecure attachments.

Attachments are also associated with children’s later development. Longitudinal research has shown that children with secure early attachments are more likely to develop close, positive relationships with other people outside the family, for example with peers and teachers. Attachments are more closely linked with social and emotional development, such as positive social interaction, emotion regulation, and adaptive self understanding, than to intellectual competence. The studies also show that the current life circumstances of the child and the caregivers’ sensitivity also have an impact, not simply early attachments.

Attachments seem to be universal across cultures. What varies across culture and context is the particular ways in which attachments are manifest. Children in different cultures may show different patterns of attachment behaviors, relying more or less on close physical contact, for example. Some may rely more on physical contact versus physical proximity. This may indicate that there is no singular model for forming healthy relationships, since children worldwide form secure relationships with their parents. One criticism of attachment theory is based, in part, on the idea that different cultural goals require different caregiving styles and that indicators of secure attachment represent a Western, middle-class bias. In Western cultures, sensitivity is defined by how accessible and emotionally available the caregiver is to understanding the needs of the child, the promptness and timing of response—especially when the child is stressed, and acceptance of the child. A secure one-year-old is one who uses the attachment figure as a “secure base” for exploration, who is able to use the caregiver to help regulate distress effectively, who shows pleasure in the relationship with the attachment figure. Researchers know less about the formation and expression of attachment in non-Western societies, but it is likely that secure and insecure patterns of attachment are related, in part, to different caregiving styles within a culture.

Another criticism of attachment theory comes from those who view attachment behaviors as reflective of innate temperament as much as a result of the child’s history of caregiving. Research has shown, however, that children with “difficult” temperaments do not necessarily form insecure attachments, since their caregivers can respond appropriately and sensitively to different temperamental characteristics. Similarly, not all children with “easy” temperaments form secure attachments. While a child’s attachments may differ with different attachment figures (e.g., secure with mother, insecure with father), a child’s temperament remains the same. Temperament may be more closely linked with variations within insecure or secure attachments.

Some people used to believe that children “grow out of” attachments; that by the time they are three, children should be independent from their attachment figures. What we now understand is that attachments are lifelong; they change, and the behaviors that are used to express attachments change with age, but attachments do not disappear. Whereas a one-year-old may use physical contact, a three-year-old may be content with proximity and verbal communication when stressed. Older children and adults also maintain attachments, and sometimes just talking with an attachment figure (even by phone) or thinking about them will help to ease distress.

Attachment theory has had a profound effect on early childhood education. Understanding of attachment is seen as essential to supporting children’s social- emotional and overall development. This understanding relates to two specific roles for early childhood educators: supporting the relationships of children with their parents and establishing secure relationships with the children themselves.

When caring for and educating other people’s children, early childhood educators join a system of care that involves strong emotional ties. Often the emphasis is almost exclusively on the well-being of the child. But that well-being is directly related to the quality of those primary relationships. In working with children, early childhood educators both observe and affect those relationships. Although their role is not to intervene directly, as might a psychologist or clinical social worker, how educators interact with a child and how they support the parent or primary caregiver should be informed by an understanding of healthy attachment. Given a caution about large variation in what healthy attachment looks like, indicators of such attachment in the infant and preschool years include both child and family characteristics. On the part of the child we may see the child showing preference for the attachment figure, wanting physical closeness or proximity when confronting new or stressful situations, using the attachment figure as secure base for exploration, and showing/sharing objects and experiences with the caregiver. On the part of the family we might see mutual pleasure at reunion after separation, adapting family life to include the child, and securing a protective environment for the child. On the other hand, educators are also in a position to observe attachments that are less secure, for example when interactions show that the child expects the caregiver to interfere in activities or tends not to go to the caregiver when upset. Again, such observations need to be made with great caution both because there is a large degree of variation in how secure relationships are formed and because cross-cultural interaction patterns must be considered. Negative judgments about parent-child relationships often affect teacher-parent interactions. Of course, if there are concerns about child abuse and neglect, appropriate referrals should be made. However, healthy attachments are not independent of the social support and resources available to families. Early childhood educators can support healthy relationships when they describe the child in a positive manner, point out how the child uses the parent as a secure base, and, in general, see their role as supportive of the primary relationship.

At the same time, educators also form their own attachment relationships with children in their care. Through responsive caregiving, responding to the unique needs of each child, and supporting the child’s exploratory activities through curriculum, educators become attachment figures. As with attachment to family members, there is variation in these attachment patterns with some being secure and others insecure, with responsive caregiving relating to the secure pattern, and with secure relationships yielding positive developmental outcomes for children. Children who experience secure attachment with parents tend to do so with their teachers, but this is not always true, with some children forming secure relationships with teachers when the parent-child relationship is seen to be insecure, and vice versa. Good relationships with child-care providers and teachers can help buffer children from insecure attachments at home, by demonstrating to the child that positive, responsive caregiving relationships are possible.

Children are very capable of, and benefit from, multiple attachment relationships. This is true at home, when there is more than one adult with whom the child forms a strong secure relationship, as well as in alternative care settings. Although feelings of competition among adults who care for the same child are natural, teachers must balance their own healthy and appropriate emotional responses to caring for children with the goal of supporting the primary relationship between the parent and the child. When both parents and child-care providers see their goal as a partnership that helps children to thrive through secure, healthy relationships at home, day care, and school, it is rewarding for everyone and provides the strongest foundation for children’s development. See also Development, Emotional.

Further Readings: Ainsworth, M. D. S., M. C. Blehar, E. Waters, and S. Wall (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1. New York: Basic (second edition published 1982); Cassidy, J. and Shaver, P. eds. (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press; Greenberg, M., D. Ciccetti, and M. Cummings, eds. (1990). Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research and intervention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Grossman, K., K. Grossman, G. Spangler, G. Suess, and L. Unzner (1985). Maternal sensitivity and newborn’s orientation responses as related to quality of attachment in northern Germany. In I. Bretherton and E. Waters, eds. Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the society of Research in Child Development. 50(1-2), 233-256. Hyson, M. (1994). The emotional development of young children: Building an emotion-centered curriculum. New York: Teacher s College Press; Partridge, S., S. Brown, D. Devine, J. Hornstein, J. Marsh, and Weil, J. (1990). AIMS: Developmental indicators of emotional health. Portland: University of Southern Maine.

M. Ann Easterbrooks and John Hornstein