Attachment as Important at School as at Home

By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting,

If your children or grandchildren are anything like mine, they were looking forward to starting school after the long, hot summer, equipped with their new books and school supplies. No doubt, you too are hoping that their enthusiasm about learning will last. All too often, not far into the school year, children complain about too much homework, teachers not being fair, boring classes, bullying on the playground, and the list goes on. What, if anything, can we do to help our children look forward to school and keep their natural bias to learn and grow?

In a nutshell, the answer is to cultivate secure teacher-student attachment. Let me illustrate with a true story. A girl in the third grade, who was getting ready for school one morning, remarked to her mother, “I don’t want to get slapped again by my teacher.” Her mother, startled by this statement, asked her what she meant by being slapped. “I didn’t actually get slapped,” she replied, “but the nasty face my teacher makes is worse, because she uses it all morning.” This student did only the minimum that was required of her. She did not seek to be close to her teacher or to take counsel with her. Nor did she see her teacher as a role model that she would like to emulate. To put it simply, the girl was not attached to her teacher. As a result, she also lost her enthusiasm for learning.

On the other hand, when a student is attached to her teacher, she wants to be close. She loves her teacher and wants to be like her. She is motivated to do her best to learn and succeed.

If you can picture the well-known image of the mother goose followed by a neat, orderly row of  goslings, you get a glimpse of the attachment dynamic in nature. Mother goose is the compass point for her goslings, and she need not worry that they will go astray. This unseen force is what needs to be harnessed between parents and children as well as teachers and students, so that children will maintain their orientation toward the adults responsible for them. The child might not know where you are leading him, but he will follow with trust. This is the true source of a teacher’s authority and ability to teach and influence. This can make the difference in whether or not a child will look forward to coming to school. To the child, school must feel like a safe, secure place where he is cared for. He knows he will find comfort and consolation from his teacher or from other caring members of the school staff. Of course, every child needs to feel this at home, too. Until this need is met, the child’s brain is not free to learn. This is the number-one priority on the brain’s agenda! Learning is a luxury!

A five-year-old complained to his parents that he doesn’t want to go to kindergarten anymore, because “no one is in charge.” Upon investigation, the parents learned that there was a bully among the children and their son took the side of the bully in order to avoid being pushed around by him because the teacher was not solving the problem. “No one is in charge” was the child’s way of saying, “No one is protecting me from getting hurt. Being in school is too alarming for me!” As a result, this child became aggressive and uncooperative.

Although research shows that while children who are in daycare or preschool before the age of five show improvements in cognitive performance, the results are the opposite for emotional health and intelligence.  Researchers have found that levels of stress hormones are high in young children whose emotional needs are not taken care of, and this can lead to aggressive behavior, noncompliance, anxiety, and depression, even years later in life. In this environment, there is no room for creative thought and interest.

Whether a child is in daycare, elementary, or high school, his attachment needs should be taken care of as a first priority. What does an attachment-based environment look like? The teacher greets and welcomes her students with warmth and a smile. Throughout the day, she finds ways to let each student know she cares about him or her. She focuses on her students’ good intentions and personal development, instead of on behavior and performance. She knows how to support a child’s interests, curiosity, and natural desire to learn, instead of motivating through competition and prizes. She helps her students feel safe and protects them from being shamed, hurt, or bullied. She believes in her students and sees the goodness in them. She welcomes the parents of her students into the learning process.

Our goal should be to create learning environments that are attachment-based, in which teachers give their students the sense of home, safety, and security they need to be able to focus on learning and thinking creatively.

8 thoughts on “Attachment as Important at School as at Home”

  1. I was just wondering about this. I am a new mom back to work after an extended mat. leave. I am a kindergarten teacher – such an important role in a young person’s life. I totally believe in the AP philosophy but I’d like some more support in applying these principles in the classroom. Any ideas?

  2. Thank you for bringing awareness to such an important issue. My son is still under 2, and I am already concerned about how he will be treated when he eventually goes to school (unless we decide to home school!) Erin’s comment above raises an important related issue: teacher awareness, resources, training, and SUPPORT for providing healthy attachments to their students. Perhaps if members of society showed as much interest in the emotional development as the intellectual development of our kids, then schools would look different. Imagine a culture like that!

  3. I will send some more articles about the classroom to Attachment International. Basically, any way that you secure and protect attachment at home with your children gives you the way to do this in the classroom setting, too. One point I can make here is the idea of “collecting,” as Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls it. This means collecting your student’s eyes, smile and agreeable nod all throughout the day, conveying a sense of warmth and invitation to be with you. Collecting the parents, too, so they are on your side together with the child also helps very much — keeping the parents attached.

  4. My family’s experience with an API support group led us naturally to a preschool with emphases on social-emotional development, positive discipline, developmentally appropriate learning, parent participation and parent education. This experience led us naturally to an elementary school with the same emphases. My family has been very fortunate to have these schools where parents as well as students are “collected.” I know there are other schools out there where families can find this kind of education. Look for co-op preschools with parent education components (perhaps run by the adult education program of the local public school district). For elementary schools, looking for one that is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools may help.

  5. I am surprised that this article does not mention the obvious and natural way for children’s attachment needs to be met during the day- By unschooling or homeschooling. A child’s attachment needs cannot be a priority in an environment that is oppressive and developmentally inappropriate for children of all ages, from preschoolers to high schoolers. Children’s basic physiological needs are denied in school (elimination, hunger, thirst, rest, play), their emotional needs are denied as well as their creative and spiritual needs. In my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing, I discuss how traditional schooling actually disrupts secure parent-child attachment, with more severity to the attachment injury the older the child gets. Nature intended for children to learn joyfully, freely and with their parents, families, friends and community, not held hostage in a building for the best years of their lives being treated with neglect and in far too many cases, abuse. Please AP parents, research how unschooling is the natural next step in attachment parenting.

  6. Sylvia, I love your comments.
    Laurie, yes, you speak of an ideal situation and how we would all long for this. Unfortunately, there is a growing world-wide trend for parents to work long hours and leave their young children in daycare at younger ages. This is an alarming situation, an unprecedented “experiment” you might call it, with very high risks. Your books is very important and I hope it will wake people up and make them think about priorities. But while the school system serves so many parents and children, we must try to influence it by making it attachment safe and developmentally friendly as much as we can for the sake of families. For example, this year we are doing a pilot in a community elementary school with the principal and the staff to help them become attachment safe and developmentally friendly. After the principal became aware of this, she became very enthusiastic and wants her whole staff to be involved in transforming the school. We hope it will give the children the rest (they need from securing their attachments) they need in order to grow.

  7. Can’t wait to read Laurie’s book. I homeschool one challenging student and think I’m due for a hit of inspiration…


  8. Dear sosshana,
    Thank you for this article. I rin into it because i a, currently in the middlemof a worrisome situation for my son. He is 2 and 3 months and has been in daycare since 13 months. He gets very attached to one teacher which i think is good but there have been a couple of bad situations. One last summer when all teachers changed except one, and that one wasnt the one he was mostly attached so he had a couple of weeks of difficult adjustment with constant crying amd tamtums. Then he got attached from last august to one of the new teachers (rachel ). Now in june , so 3 weeks ago, the classroom transition to mew level happened so he went with all the kids to new classroom with only one teacher again from old class and she is not rachel. He is having again a hard time, dropp offs are incredible distressing and rachel is now floating classrooom so he sees her sometimes but when she liaves he gets totoally distressed. He does not want to go in the mornings and when i pick him up he says he is sad because rachel had to leave. I am very worried because i dont know if it is good that he sees her or it would be better not at all if she cant stay all day in his class and try to form a new attachment or should i speak with the school to see what they can do for him to not have to lose rachel? I am confused also because they keep telling me he is adjusting well, and that he cries after i leave vut then he plays and he cries when he sees rachel in the hallway but not as much….what are your thoguhts? Is he adjusting or is he shutting down? On the other hand i dont see he is attaching to anybody else since the teachers dont seem very engaging but when he is crying, amd when i asked about other people he gets quiet.

    Thank you in advance.

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