Attachment theory is explored here by Steve Mynard, who summarises some of the research and suggests ways that you could use this in your setting

Attachment theory focuses on how attachments are formed in the very earliest months and years of life. These have a significant influence on emotional development as well as providing a template for the child as he or she grows into adulthood and into parenthood. Researchers have explored these early developments.

Schaffer and Emerson (1964) wanted to find out how old infants were when they first became attached, who they became attached to and how strong these attachments were.

They found that half of all children showed their first specific attachment at the age of 6-8 months. A fear of strangers followed one month later. Attachment to other key figures in their lives followed quickly after the initial strong attachment (usually to the mother).

Psychologists talk about attachment behaviour and define an attachment as, ‘a close emotional relationship between two persons characterized by mutual affection and a desire to maintain proximity’ (Schaffer). Attachments serve the purpose of keeping the child and primary caregiver (usually the mother) physically and emotionally close.

It is easy to see that throughout human history this has been particularly important in terms of survival; the infant needs warmth, protection and nourishment and the mother provides these. There is also a growing emotional attachment which makes it possible for the child to feel secure, loved, happy and confident.

A significant challenge in any child’s life is when the time comes to go out into the world on their own. Going to nursery or school is probably one of the biggest challenges in a young life and different children cope very differently, depending largely on the quality of the attachment they have already formed.

Individual differences in attachment

A key study was conducted by Ainsworth and Bell in 1970, using a test called the strange situation. This involved researchers observing mothers and one-year-old infants in a play room through a two-way mirror.

Strange situation

Each test comprised the following stages:

  1. Mother and child enter the room.
  2. Mother and child are left alone; child can play with the toys.
  3. A stranger enters the room; talks to the mother.
  4. Stranger approaches the child with a toy.
  5. Mother leaves stranger alone in the room; stranger engages the child with toys.
  6. Mother returns; child’s response is noted.
  7. Child is left in the room on its own.
  8. Stranger returns, tries to engage the child.
  9. Mother returns; child’s response is noted.
  10. The stranger leaves.

The observers looked at four particular behaviours:

  • Separation anxiety
  • The infant’s willingness to explore
  • Stranger anxiety
  • Reunion behaviour.

Based on their observations, Ainsworth and Bell found that 66% of infants were securely attached: these infants explored the unfamiliar room, were subdued when the mother left and pleased to see her when she returned. They were a little wary of the stranger but were friendly toward the stranger when the mother was present.

The rest of the children were classified as insecurely attached. These children reacted in two quite distinct ways:

1. Avoidant insecure children, who made up 22% of the sample, were not bothered whether their mother was there or not and were not enthusiastic on her return.

2. Resistant insecure children accounted for 12% of the sample and showed intense distress when their mother was absent. The infant also rejected the mother on her return.

Later research added a further category, insecure disorganised, comprising children who showed no set pattern on separation or reunion. This behaviour was found to be associated with children who were abused or who had severely depressed mothers.

The healthiest form of attachment is securely attached. Children who are securely attached are comfortable with social interaction and actively seek it out. The child is able to function independently because the caregiver acts as a secure base.

To put it another way, the child feels confident in going to nursery or school because they know their caregiver will return for them.

What does this mean in our setting?

We have all come across the child who will not let go of their mother’s leg as she tries to get out the door at the start of a session. The wailing and clinging can be disruptive to the setting and difficult for the mother.
Equally as confounding can be the child who appears not to care who has brought them in or where they are going.

The key area where we can support children is as other key figures. Schaffer and Emerson found that attachments are most likely to form to those who are prepared to play and interact. The consistent and reliable support and encouragement they receive in your setting should be a good attachment experience for all children.

Avoidant insecure children, who could be described as having low self-esteem, and who come into your setting completely indifferent to their caregiver, need help to develop a strong attachment which you can facilitate. See the article on page 9 on developing self esteem in young children.

Those who come in kicking and screaming at the prospect of separation benefit from your reassurance and gradually learn that they can function for a time without their primary caregiver. This can give them the confidence to explore and learn; to develop social interaction skills.

Those who work in the early years fulfil an important role in our shifting society. As working patterns and family relationships change, nursery and school can provide the security that all young children need if they are to thrive.

Ainsworth MDS and Bell SM (1970) ‘Attachment, Exploration and Separation: Illustrated by the Behaviour of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation’. Child Development, 41, pp 49-65.

Schaffer H R and Emerson P E (1964) ‘The Development of Social Attachments in Infancy’. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29 (3), serial number 94.

Former primary headteacher Steve Mynard now runs training and development company Metaphor Learning and regularly works in the Foundation Stage.

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