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An Introduction to Attachment

To get some expert insight into attachment, That Nursery Life spoke to Dr Sarah Mundy from Amicus Psychology. Sarah is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with children and families. She is also the author of the Parenting Through Stories books.

What is attachment?

Attachment is the cornerstone of children’s development and, therefore, particularly important in Early Years. It is the relationship between a caregiver and a child. An attachment relationship is where a caregiver meets the child’s needs and supports them to survive.

Attachment is mainly used to describe a relationship between parents or guardians of a child. As practitioners, however, we also need to help children feel more secure in their relationships with us. This is valuable in helping them learn about relationships and whether or not they can trust people. Supporting a child with their attachment sounds simple, although may not always feel easy to put into practice while competing with our own stresses and demands on our time – it’s about noticing and attending to what they need, following a routine, being predictable, structured, consistent and available.

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels

Secure Attachment

A secure attachment is the ideal; it develops when the child gets consistent, nurturing, predictable care. The child learns that, when they have needs, those needs will be met by their caregiver. They learn that the world is safe and that they are noticed and worthy. A secure attachment is key to a child’s development because, when a child feels safe in their attachment relationship, they can then go and explore the world while knowing they have a secure “base” to come back to if things get too stressful, where they will receive reassurance and love from their caregiver.

As well having a secure base to come back to, part of a secure attachment is developing an “internal working model”; how a child develops their sense of self with regards to the world, and how they predict the world around them will be. For example, if a child is shown they are loved and worthy of attention, they will believe they are good and important. This enables them to feel like they can ask for help or make a difference in situations.

Insecure Attachment

Like secure attachment relationships, insecure attachment develops when a child adapts to their environment in order to get their needs met. If the caregiver does not provide nurturing and containing support they are likely to become insecure in their relationship. For example, if a caregiver is regularly dismissive, doesn’t notice the child’s needs or rejects them, the child learns to become avoidant. This means they learn to cope on their own, don’t ask for help or don’t appear to need help because they don’t feel people are available to give that support. They rely on themselves to tend to their own needs. Children like this are often very keen to please and compliant and avoid showing vulnerability such as crying when they’re hurt. Quite often, these are the children who are missed because they seem like they’re coping when, actually, research has shown that they are actually under a massive amount of stress with the effort of trying to hide their own needs. Therefore, as practitioners, it’s important to offer that nurture and support, even when it’s not being asked for.

"Attachment relationships are key to children's development. Early years staff can help children feel more secure in their relationships by noticing what they are communicating and attending to their needs - looking not just at their behaviour but the emotion underlying it". Dr Sarah Mundy

Insecure Ambivalent Attachment

An insecure ambivalent attachment is where caregivers are very inconsistent. This means the child learns that they will only get their needs met if they stay close to the caregiver and make a fuss when they need something. These children are more clingy, less likely to go explore and more likely to stay close to caregivers. As practitioners, it’s important to reassure children that they are safe when we aren’t right next to them and that we will still meet the child’s needs even if they don’t make a fuss.

Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels

When we notice insecurities in children’s relationships that may relate to their experiences with parents or guardians, we then need to think about what the child needs. If the child is more avoidant, they need more nurturing and to learn to express how they feel. If the child is more ambivalent, they need more structure, predictability and the assurance that it’s safe to go off and explore.

Disorganised Attachment

A disorganised attachment is less common than the other categories, but still relevant. This is when children have experienced a lot of trauma and abuse from their parents or guardians and, therefore, don’t have a clear way of getting their needs met. The person who is supposed to be protecting the child is actually the source of fear, so they don’t know how to cope. These children tend to be very anxious and need a lot of control – not letting caregivers influence them. Children with disorganised attachment need practitioners to reassure them that they are a source of trust, help and care.

“Attachment is as central to the developing child as eating and breathing”. Robert Shaw

With a secure attachment, children thrive; learning, socialising and coping with their feelings better. As practitioners we must strive to ensure we are giving the best care to each child – whether they are clinging to us for dear life, acting like they don’t need us at all or just don’t know what to do. Our duty is to show children that we are safe and can be trusted, whilst also reassuring them that they are worthy of our attention and deserve to be cared for.

For further information on attachment and to read more about Dr Sarah’s work, why not check out her blog?