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 dependent or clingy with their teacher (Neuhaus, McCormick, & O’Connor, in press). Rather, just as a secure attachment with a parent gives a child the confidence to explore their environment, so does an attachment with a teacher. Their relationship serves as a “secure base” from which they can explore. Exploration looks slightly different in a classroom setting. A child with a strong relationship with their teacher is more likely to be motivated, engaged, and participate in activities.
Sharing a teacher with other students and changing teachers every year make the nature of a teacher-child relationship quite different from other caregiver relationships. For instance, teachers are tasked with fostering an emotionally supportive environment for a whole classroom of children. Research suggests that the preschool classroom environment as a whole that the teacher creates is an important factor for the quality of their individual relationships with their students. Warm, supportive classrooms are conducive to positive relationships (Buyse et al., 2008).
What determines the quality of a child’s relationship with their teacher?
The likelihood that a child will form a positive relationship with a teacher depends on the personalities, skills, and quirks they both bring to the classroom. For example, teachers who are skilled in creating a warm, emotionally supportive classroom climate are more likely to have close relationships with their students (Buyse, Verschueren, Doumen, Van Damme, & Maes, 2008). Depending on how well their personalities fit together, it may be easier or more difficult for them to form a positive relationship.
A parent’s role in supporting their child’s relationship with their teachers may be more important in early childhood than in elementary school. Research suggests that there is a moderately strong link between the quality of a child’s attachment with their mother and their attachment with their early childhood teachers. However, the strength of that link diminishes over time when children are in elementary school (Sabol & Pianta, 2012).
The Transition to Preschool
The transition into preschool involves a considerable amount of psychological “work”, both for the child and for their parents. The child assumes a new identity as a student. This identity carries both a sense of belonging and a loss of uniqueness. Spending time in a new environment without their familiar toys, belongings, and family members may lead them to feel that they have lost a sense of control over their surroundings. On top of this psychological work, the child also faces new academic and social demands that will push them to grow.
Parents too undergo logistical and emotional challenges as they adapt to a new schedule, place their child in an environment over which they exercise little control, and adjust to the presence of new adults in their child’s life. The transition to preschool is complex and challenging for parents and children alike, and it begins before children’s first day of school.
The Role of Children’s Attachments with Teachers in the Transition to Preschool
Drawing on attachment theory, parents can support their children as they transition into preschool by encouraging them to form positive relationships with their teachers. When a child has a positive relationship with their teacher, it gives them the sense of security that they need to embrace their new environment. They will be able to explore freely, interact with other children, and challenge themselves knowing that they have someone that they can turn to when they feel overwhelmed. For a child struggling with separation anxiety, a secure attachment with a teacher may be a crucial social support.
Parents can start off by attending visiting days or by organizing a meeting with the teacher in the classroom before the school year begins. This may help alleviate a child’s anxieties around knowing what their new teacher and classroom will be like. At these initial meetings, children will observe their parents to gauge how they should react themselves. It is therefore vital that parents show that they are enthusiastic about the new teacher, classroom, and classmates. If they show or express their doubts, it will increase the likelihood that their anxiety will be transferred to their child.
Some preschools may allow parents to attend school with their child at the beginning of the school year. This may help mitigate the risks of an abrupt transition. If the transition into child care is abrupt, then children will be more disoriented and have trouble adjusting to their environment, even if their preschool is of high quality. In a study in which researchers closely followed infants as they entered child care, there was a greater risk of damaging children’s attachments if a parent suddenly placed their child into child care for long hours (Rauh et al., 2000). Although accompanying a child may help ease a child into their new setting, sometimes the parents are as nervous about the transition as their child and will be tempted to stay for longer than is unnecessary. To be successful, parents need to gradually decrease the amount of time in the classroom each day. Not giving into requests for “one more minute” and establishing a quick and cheerful goodbye routine may help children handle the moment when their parent leaves.
In our research, we have explored how considering a child’s temperament may help parents and teachers identify what type of support that child will need to ease the transition (O’Connor et al., 2014). Depending on a child’s temperament, caregivers can strategize how to best enhance the “goodness of fit” between a child’s capabilities and the demands of their environment. Children with a “slow to warm up” or shy temperament may have a particularly difficult time starting preschool. Although it may be tempting to believe that a shy child is capable of breaking out of their shell if they would only try hard enough, it may be helpful for caregivers to reframe their beliefs about shyness. For example, despite shy children’s difficulties, they are often excellent observers. Recognizing children’s strengths may help foster positive teacher-child relationships.
For a shy child to become comfortable in their new environment, caregivers can offer opportunities and adjustments that bring the demands of the classroom closer to what the child can handle without getting overwhelmed. For example, if social demands of recess are causing a child so much distress that they are reluctant to go to school, then caregivers can create an alternative plan that allows the child to participate in a more hands-off way than their peers. Gradually, caregivers can remove the supports and adjustments so that the child can build their confidence confronting situations that make them uncomfortable.
Positive relationships with teachers in preschool set the foundation on which children build their future relationships with teachers throughout elementary school. These relationships support children’s academic success and social emotional well-being.
A strong relationship with a teacher in early childhood can protect a child who may be vulnerable to developing anxiety or behavioral problems.
If a child is just starting child care or preschool, a gradual transition and positive relationships with teachers may help them feel at ease in their new environment.
By attending school visits or organizing a meeting with a preschool teacher before the school year begins, parents can help alleviate some of their child’s anxieties about their new teacher and class