Teacher-student Relationship: The Role of The Attachment Theory

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2672 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 2672|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. The Context and Features of Bowlby's Theory of Attachment
  2. Four Stages of Child's Attachment Development
  3. Mary Ainsworth's Contribution to the Topic as an Integral Part in the Theory
  4. Place of Attachment Theory in a Teacher-Student Relationship
  5. Hurdles and Opportunities: Some Drawbacks of Attachment Theory in Education
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

The examination of child development is a relatively recent addition to psychological study, with its origins lying in the early part of the twentieth century. Although we may initially think that development is easy to define, it is a complex process that cannot be compartmentalised into any one domain. '... human development is about the totality of changes that a person undergoes over time'. The NSPCC defines child development as the physical, cognitive, emotional and social growth that occurs throughout a child and young person's life, confirming its complexity. In order to try to understand human development, a number of different theories have been created, such as Piaget's cognitive development theory and Vygotsky's sociocultural theory. Theories surrounding child development are crucial to our understanding of not only how children change and grow over the course of childhood, but also provides a framework for understanding human behaviour. In this piece of writing, I will be focusing on attachment theory, specifically referencing its relevance in education today.

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The Context and Features of Bowlby's Theory of Attachment

The theory of attachment was founded in 1969 by John Bowlby, a British developmental psychologist and psychiatrist who was interested in behavioral and psychological consequences of both strong and weak emotional bonds between mothers and their young children.

The theory of attachment explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development. The theory considers the importance of the child's relationship with their mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development. Bowlby proposed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant, providing them with the necessary environment they need to grow and develop. Similarly, Rees agrees that attachment allows children to 'secure bass' necessary to explore, learn and relate, and the wellbeing, motivation, and opportunity to do so. Within an early years context, attachment to a protective caregiver helps infants to regulate negative emotions in times of stress and distress, thus giving them the confidence and resilience they need to undergo new, and sometimes scary, experiences.

Within the context of education, attachment theory can be seen as crucial to the way a child behaves and develops. Heather Geddes explains that secure attachments in children can promote healthy self-awareness, allowing for the capacity to emphasise with others and so is the basis of relating to others and sharing experiences. Another characteristic of secure attachments are the ability to tolerate differences with others, which is a critical social skill to develop as it can allow children to mix with peers who are not part of their 'typical' attachments that they have created so far in their life. This can include children from different cultures, races and genders.

Four Stages of Child's Attachment Development

Bowlby proposed there were four different stages of attachment development that a child will encounter in the first three years of life; three of which occur within the first year of a child's life, with the fourth phase occurring towards the end of the third year and beginning of the fourth year. The first phase of attachment takes place as soon as a child is born and is referred to as 'pre-attachment'. Infants show a preference for looking at human faces and listening to human voices. Vinney explains that during the first two to three months of life, infants respond to people but can't distinguish between them. The infant's signals, such as crying and fussing, naturally attract the attention of the caregiver and the baby's positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.

As time goes on, infants will begin to develop trust with the caregivers who respond to their needs. Whilst still accepting care from others, infants start to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people, responding more positively to primary caregivers. This stage is referred to as the indiscriminate stage.

During the discriminant phase of attachment, which occurs upwards of seven months, infants show attachment and preference to one particular individual (typically the mother). When separated from their primary attachment figure, they may show signs of distress by crying. During this stage, children may also begin to display signs of stranger anxiety. Stranger anxiety is a completely normal feature of development and typically presents itself during the discriminant phase of attachment. Consolini suggests that separation anxiety is due to the lack of a child's understanding of object permanence, meaning that when an object, or in this case a parent, is out of sight, they have disappeared and never to return, therefore upsetting the child. As children enter the next phase of attachment, they begin to develop a sense of object permanence, and have developed a sense of trust. 'Separation anxiety resolves because children have learned that their parents or caregivers still exist even when they cannot be seen. Children have learned to trust their parents or caregivers will eventually return'.

The discriminant phase of bowlby's theory is important to note when discussing the relevance of attachment in education. When a child first starts school or nursery, they will usually respond by crying, being upset, shy, and distant from group activities. It's important for practitioners to understand that this is a normal psychological phase of attachment that children go through and should be trained on the necessary way to respond, therefore suggesting attachment theory is relevant within education.

The last stage of attachment, referred to as multiple attachment, is the least documented by Bowlby, and introduces growing bonds and connections with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, other siblings and grandparents. The attachments that the child will make with other caregivers will depend on their strength and importance to the child. Attachments will often be structured in a hierarchy, whereby the child may have formed multiple attachments, but one may be stronger than the other. For example, a child may spend more time with their father who repeatedly responds to their wants and needs, therefore the child's bond with their father will be greater than the bond with the child's grandparents. This is an important stage in development as children start to become increasingly independent.

Mary Ainsworth's Contribution to the Topic as an Integral Part in the Theory

As well as being well known as a key researcher around attachment, she is also known for her 'Strange Situation Test', which revealed how attachment styles can vary between children. She was also able to distinguish three separate types of attachment that children experience and identify how this may impact them in the future. The first type of attachment Ainsworth identified was secure attachments. According to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families 'good attachments rely on the extent to which parents and carers have the physical and emotional proximity, as well as resources to be dependable, respond reliably and sensitivity to children's basic needs, making them feel safe and giving infants a stable base for exploring the world'.

The second type of attachment identified by Ainsworth is insecure attachments. Insecure attachments develop if early interactions between a child and caregiver are negative, inconsistent, neglective or abusive. 'When a child's caregiver and home environment is a source of fear rather than a source of safety, this can be highly toxic to a child's development'. Insecure attachments can be detrimental to children's development, and are likely to cause future mental health issues, such as anxiety and low self-esteem.

The third and last type of attachment is insecure ambivalentresistant attachment. Here, children adopt an unsure behaviour style towards their attachment figure and will typically show both clingy and independent behaviour, but will reject the attachment figure when they engage in interaction. The child fails to develop any feeling of safety and security from the attachment figure, therefore making it difficult for the attachment figure to calm or soothe the child. Characteristics of this type of attachment can present themselves as avoiding eye contact, being aloof, as well as showing little to no preference between attachment figures.

Place of Attachment Theory in a Teacher-Student Relationship

Although attachment theory is directed to focus on how attachment forms and develops within the household, it can also greatly impact a child from an education perspective. Bergin and Bergin express that 'attachment influences students' school success. This is true of students' attachment to their parents as well as their teachers. Secure attachment is associated with higher grades and standardized test scores compared to insecure attachment. A secure attachments bond that meets a child's need for security and understanding allows for optimal development of the child's nervous system. As the child matures, this can result in benefits such as healthy self-awareness, as well as eagerness to learn. Agreeably, Bergin and Bergin states that 'secure attachment is also associated with greater emotional regulation, social competence, willingness to take on new challenges, and help to lower ADHD and delinquency', thus suggesting making it easier for children to concentrate and learn in school.

In order to be able to discuss attachment theory's relevance in education today, we must first analyse its positives and negatives. Focusing firstly on the advantages, ensuring a child develops a secure attachment type can be beneficial for a teacher-student relationship. Teacher-student relationships are a crucial part of education. Studies have shown that strong relationships between teachers and students can help to increase children's confidence levels in the classroom, therefore increasing interaction, as well as produces mutual respect and obedience in students. Gonzalez defines a healthy teacher-student relationship as '...establishing a positive relationship with their teacher which helps a student feel more comfortable and safe in their classroom environments'. In order for children to be able to gain the characteristics to enable them to build a healthy teacher-student relationship, such as trust, they will need to have a secure attachment style. Although the school setting cannot itself replace an insecure attachment with the primary care-giver, it can offer a secure base, a place of safety and attachment, like relationships with trusted adults who can help young people throughout the day.

Elizabeth Harlow explains that attachment theory has had a significant impact on policies and practice that relate to childcare, and social work in the UK, in particular the safeguarding of children. 'Children who have suffered abuse and neglect are less likely to have benefited from sustained secure attachments... in consequence, continuity, an understanding environment, and one or more relationships that provide a secure base become essential for future growth and development'. When considering whether or not attachment theory is relevant in education today, Harlow believes that by not only improving the wellbeing of pupils and their academic performance, but can also have positive impacts on school staff by helping them to understand and respond to disruptive behaviour (characteristics of emotional insecurity), which can actually reduce the rate of exclusions, thus keeping children in school.

Someone who strongly agrees that attachment theory is, and always has been, relevant within education is J.R Harris, who believes that parents do not shape their child's personality or characteristics, but instead that a child's peers have more influence on them than their parents. Although agreeing with the ideology and method behind the theory, Harris believes that the role of parent attachment is replaced with peer attachment, suggesting children adapt to their peers easier as they want to 'fit in'. An example given by Lee takes into consideration children whose parents were immigrants. 'A child can continue to speak their parent's native language at home, but can also learn their new language and speak it without an accent, while the parent's accent remains'. Although Harris' opinion fails to agree with that of attachment theory, in respect to attachment formed with parent and child, it does agree that the theory is relevant in education between child and peers.

Hurdles and Opportunities: Some Drawbacks of Attachment Theory in Education

Although the research on the advantages of implementing the attachment approach in education is compelling, there are some negative impacts that are important to cover. For example, as the theory was published in 1969, it was created with the intent of the mother being the only and obvious (during that time period) attachment figure. In 1970, it was recorded that only 43 per cent of women were employed. Although during this time period the amount of women becoming employed began to slowly increase, the cultural ideology was still strong that women should stay home to take on the role of the stereotypical mother. With the recent statistic of employed women being 78.2 per cent in 2020, society has adapted to the new ideology of working women and has even become the new norm. As a result, more children are attending childcare facilities, such as nurseries, and spending time away from their attachment figure during the crucial years Bowlby stated that attachment is at its most sensitivecrucial stages, thus suggesting that attachment theory is not as relevant in education as it once was.

Another critique of attachment theories' relevance in education is that schools who are aware of children's attachment types, or what Rose describes as 'attachment-aware schools', may distract teachers from their focus on acquiring knowledge and instead focus on 'coddling' children, thus creating a less productive learning environment. On the other hand, Martindale contradicts Rose, by stating that promoting attachment-aware schools can help to support some of the most vulnerable pupils. The Attachment Aware Schools (AAS) project was a targeted and collaborative intervention between both academics and school-based practitioners created with the intent to promote awareness of attachment in relation to child behaviours and learning. With attachment aware schools becoming more common, as well as frameworks being implemented into early years settings, there is no doubt that this contributes to the relevance of attachment theory in education today.


The debate of whether or not Bowlby's attachment theory is relevant in education today continues to be a debatable topic among researchers, with positives of the theory ranging from allowing children to connect and relate with others who they wouldn't normally interact with in the home environment, to building a sense of self-worth, prosocial coping skills, and trust. Secure attachment builds independence and autonomy in children, allowing them to confidently participate and school activities and be eager to learn. Although the research has presented possible weaknesses which challenge the relevance of attachment theory in education, such as teachers being too cautious of a child's attachment type, as well as the new age of working women, it is evident that Bowlby's attachment theory is far from irrelevant in education today. With the rise of attachment-awareness schools paired with the implementation of attachment-awareness framework, attachment theory is something that is becoming more relevant and will continue to do so.


  1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

  2. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  3. Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an Insecure-Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment Pattern: Procedures, Findings, and Implications for the Classification of Behavior. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective Development in Infancy (pp. 95-124). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

  4. Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press.

  5. Pianta, R. C., & Stuhlman, M. W. (2004). Teacher-Child Relationships and Children's Success in the First Years of School. School Psychology Review, 33(3), 444-458.

  6. Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early Teacher-Child Relationships and the Trajectory of Children's School Outcomes through Eighth Grade. Child Development, 72(2), 625-638.

  7. Rudasill, K. M., Reio, T. G., Stipanovic, N., & Taylor, J. E. (2010). A Longitudinal Study of Student-Teacher Relationship Quality, Difficult Temperament, and Risk for Social Withdrawal. Journal of School Psychology, 48(5), 389-412.

  8. O'Connor, E. E., & McCartney, K. (2007). Examining Teacher-Child Relationships and Achievement as Part of an Ecological Model of Development. American Educational Research Journal, 44(2), 340-369.

  9. Spilt, J. L., Koomen, H. M., & Thijs, J. T. (2011). Teacher Well-being: The Importance of Teacher-Student Relationships. Educational Psychology Review, 23(4), 457-477.

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  10. Hughes, J. N., Cavell, T. A., & Wilson, V. (2001). Further Support for the Developmental Significance of the Quality of the Teacher-Student Relationship. Journal of School Psychology, 39(4), 289-301.

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Teacher-Student Relationship: the Role of the Attachment Theory. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
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