4 things teachers need to know about attachment theory

Attachment theory is often talked about in schools, but how well do you understand it? Pam Jarvis shares the essentials

Attachment theory: What teachers need to know

Attachment theory was created in the mid-20th century by the British psychologist John Bowlby. 

Bowlby drew his evidence from his clinical psychiatric work with children who had been evacuated from the cities during the Second World War.

Many of his claims have since been challenged, particularly that the mother is the only source of security in the first three years, and that recovery from poor maternal attachment in infanthood is unlikely. 


Quick read: EYFS: Why 'you’re OK’ is the worst thing to say to an upset child

Quick listen: Why attachment-aware teaching matters for every child

Want to know more? How attachment theory helps behaviour


However, his concept of the internal working model (IWM) remains at the heart of modern attachment theory.

The IWM concept describes a process whereby children, through their early relationships, construct an IWM of what to expect from other people, and of their own level of “lovability”. 

In summary, stable and loving relationships create an IWM that says “other people are nice and I am lovable”, whereas troubled and fragmented relationships create an “other people are unkind and I am not lovable” IWM. 

Attachment theory: the cortisol question

Recent neurological research has added to this paradigm with the finding that young children placed under stress exhibit cortisol dysfunction. In healthy physiology, cortisol has a regular cycle, rising to a peak as the person awakens from sleep. 

It falls steadily throughout the day, reaching its lowest point prior to the onset of sleep; it then rises steadily in the later stages of sleep, and peaks at the point of waking. 

Cortisol levels, additionally, rise in response to external stressors. This is commonly described as “fight or flight” response, which is managed by the body’s hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) system. Levels of cortisol return to baseline when the situation is resolved.

Over the first two decades of this century, a variety of studies have been undertaken to research stress caused to children in combinations of daycare and family home-based care, finding a complex set of evidence.

The studies indicate that when children experience ongoing stress due to early insecure relationships with adults that destabilise their emotional equilibrium, this sets in motion a problem with stress management that may eventually become toxic to that individual.

Such toxicity then impacts on emotional functioning and cognitive functioning as well, particularly with respect to memory.

Executive function

Raised cortisol has been empirically linked to poorer executive functioning across three cognitive domains: inhibitory self-control, flexibility and emergent metacognition (the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts, as seen in this 2016 study). 

Researchers have found that executive functioning develops from birth, and underpins a growing ability to focus attention, control one’s own actions, resist distractions and engage in goal-directed activity, and that working memory is a component of this process. 

Executive functioning has also been linked to the development of cognitive skills that promote academic ability (Espy 2004) and mitigate against aggressive behaviour (Ellis, Weiss, & Lochman 2009).

The strongest implication of the current evidence is the requirement for human societies to provide secure, nurturing environments for infants (if the society in question wishes to increase psychological health and economic productivity in future generations). 

But in a society in which approximately a third of all children live in families experiencing the huge stresses of poverty, what use is the information above to school teachers?

Attachment theory in the classroom

Here are four key points:

  • When considering why children may not be progressing as expected, consider emotional issues alongside cognitive, as research now overwhelmingly indicates that these are intricately intertwined.
  • Don’t immediately assume that where children live in socioeconomically deprived environments, the only issue to consider when it comes to lack of progress is related to what Ofsted (controversially) describes as lack of cultural capital.
  • Contrary to the beliefs of early attachment theorists, the IWM remains open to change throughout life where emotionally supportive relationships are encountered. For example, Shonkoff et al (2015) found that supportive adult-child relationships outside the immediate family circle could blunt the impact of insecure family relationships and strengthen emotional resilience at any point in childhood. It is quite possible for such relationships to be built in professional children’s services environments.
  • Before deciding upon an intervention strategy for a child of any age (or even an adult) consider what impact relevant options may have upon a person whose current emotional setting communicates to them that they lack lovability and that other people don’t care about them.   

Dr Pam Jarvis is an honorary research fellow at Leeds Trinity University

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