Published in the Parents League of New York Annual Review 2021
A burning question for parents is how can I support my child in becoming a happy, fulfilled adult? The answer to this question may partly lie at the intersection of anthropology and psychology within a framework for studying relationships called attachment theory. Attachment theory posits that children’s early experiences with attachment relationships form a foundation for how they perceive themselves and others in future relationships.
Decades of research have explored how secure caregiver-child attachments form and how they can support children’s long term social emotional, academic, and behavioral development. But how can a secure attachment endure despite major changes in a child’s life? Depression, divorce, or a death in the family can make it impossible for parents to be completely present psychologically for their child. Positive changes like the birth of a sibling or beginning preschool can be challenging for children’s relationships too. How can parents maintain a secure attachment with their child as they confront these life changes?
For parents, beginning child care or preschool is a transition fraught with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Transitioning into preschool is exciting in that it provides an opportunity for children to form attachments with their teachers. But parents may have doubts about placing their child in a stranger’s care. The attachments that children form with their new teachers can help them cope with the transition and set the foundation for children’s academic success and emotional well-being.
What is an attachment?
An attachment is a tie that is enduring, irreplaceable, and formed gradually as children interact with caregivers. The quality of a child’s attachments with their caregivers underlies their expectations for how they and others will behave in future relationships. When children perceive their caregivers as protective and supportive of their exploration, then they come to see themselves as valued and capable beings. On the other hand, children may see themselves as incompetent or unvalued if their caregivers are dismissive when a child seeks comfort or hyper vigilant when a child tries to explore their environment.
A child’s attachment to a caregiver can be thought of as a system that organizes children’s behaviors. The system balances children’s wishes to explore the environment and stay close to their caregiver. When children are anxious, their attachment system is activated and they engage in attachment behaviors to bring themselves closer to their caregivers like crying or reaching towards them. When children feel at ease, their attachment system is deactivated. They feel comfortable exploring and they don’t feel the need to engage in attachment behaviors. A child who has a secure attachment to their caregiver will be able to balance this system and use their caregiver as a “secure base” from which to explore their environment. They will know that they can rely on their caregiver to consistently comfort them when they are overwhelmed and support them when they are exploring.
In this description of attachment theory, we intentionally use the term “caregiver” to capture the broad nature of children’s social networks. Children can form attachments with parents, extended family members, as well as teachers.
Children’s Attachments with Teachers
For our own research, we find children’s attachments with their early childhood teachers to be particularly fascinating because of the potential for such relationships to set children on a positive trajectory for their future relationships with teachers. Evidence from our research suggests that these early relationships with teachers are even more important than mother-child attachment quality in predicting the quality of children’s relationships with their teachers in elementary school (O’Connor & McCartney, 2006). Their relationship with their preschool teacher acts as the foundation on which their future relationships with teachers are built.
How could a child’s relationship with their preschool teacher outweigh the role of their other attachments in setting the tone for their future teacher-child relationships? This transfer of relationship quality from teacher to teacher likely occurs because the relationships are formed within a similar context. As children progress through school, they tend to base their expectations for relationships with their future teachers on their experiences with their preschool teacher more so than on their experiences with their parents. Their expectations for their relationships, in turn, shape how they will interact with their teachers.
Research also suggests that a strong relationship with a teacher in early childhood can act as a buffer for children who are vulnerable to developing anxiety or behavioral problems. When children who are beginning to show signs of withdrawal, anxiety, or aggression have close relationships with their teachers, they are more likely to have stronger friendships and perform better academically (Sabol & Pianta, 2012).
What does a child’s secure attachment with a teacher look like?
Similar to a parent-child attachment, a secure attachment with a teacher is characterized by warmth, safety, and positivity. A child with a secure attachment with their teacher feels comfortable turning to their teacher for emotional support without fearing rejection. However, securely attached children also are not overly