01. Attachment Theory

This section looks at attachment theory and research as these inform the Story Links approach:

1. Developing positive attachment through Story Links

A child experiences secure attachment when they have experienced an emotionally containing (empathic) relationship with a consistently available care-giver.  However,  attachment anxiety occurs when the primary carer has been unable to provide this appropriate emotional containment.  This anxiety can have a negative impact on the pupils’ behaviour and learning in school.  The Story Links model is based on the premise that for such pupils, attachment anxieties  may be reduced if a way can be found to bring the parent into a positive relationship with the child within the educational environment.

Healthy attachment occurs when the parent and child are engaged in a mutually enjoyable activity.  When the parent of an infant engages in games such as peek-a-boo they are not thinking ‘I better do this so that I form a good bond with my child’; they are doing it because they’re enjoying it; because it gives them, as well as the baby, pleasure.  By engaging the parent in the creative process of spontaneous story making, Story Links sessions aim to provide a mutually enjoyable educational activity. The idea is that the co-created story can become a positive attachment object for the child – holding a reminder of the parent in school and a reminder of a positive shared school-based experience while at home.

Reading together as a means to foster positive attachment
Reading together as a means to foster positive attachment

In discussing the home learning programme the parent is encouraged to reflect on whether the reading activity was something that they also enjoyed. Parents and children can easily become embattled over homework activities, particularly with this group of children. So at the beginning of each session the teacher asks the parent open questions about the home reading activity: Was it a relaxing time for them? Was their child relaxed? Where did they sit? Were they snuggled up together on the sofa or under a duvet?  Did they both enjoy it?

  • Story Links sessions provide a ‘mutually enjoyable activity’ for parent and child within a supportive educational environment
  • The story-making activity provides the opportunity for expression of empathy within the safety of the story metaphor
  • Engagement in story is a right-brain (imaginary/visual, emotional) activity and provides a shared emotional experience for parent and pupil.

2. Introduction to Attachment Theory, Behaviour and Learning

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s and highlights the central importance of the parent/child relationship, particularly in the first 2-3 yrs of life,  to the child’s healthy psychological development. While this is now taken for  granted by most child professionals, it was a radical departure from the then established developmental models most of which considered developmental stages as being entirely located within the child. What Bowlby did was to emphasise that a child’s development can only be considered within the context of their relationship with a primary carer.

Video clip: Sroufe on Attachment Theory

When Ainsworth (1979) published the results of her Strange Situation clinical experiment, showing that healthy attachment patterns along with three anxious forms of attachment- avoidant, ambivalent and confused – can be identified at one year of age,  attachment theory began to receive widespread acceptance  and even to change social policy particularly in relation to parental contact for hospitalised children.

While attachment theory has informed health policy for many years, it seems, however, that it has had a much lower profile in relation to educational policy. True, it is beginning to inform practice in the early years (Elfer, 2002),  particularly within the UK Sure Start initiative,  but at primary school level and beyond,  while attachment anxiety is beginning to appear on pupils’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs), there are few educational professionals who have an understanding of attachment theory. This is despite a growing body of research evidence (Sroufe et al, 2000) that poor attachment patterns have a strong correlation not only with BESDS but poor educational achievement.

I didn’t realise, you know, how much he wanted, as I say, I think it was the fact that I was coming into the school as well because even Miss W said he used to get quite excited and he couldn’t wait for me to come in.
Pete’s Mum

The child brings behavioural patterns from the relational dynamic established with their primary carer into school and these will affect the quality of their relationships with both peers and adults. Behaviours associated with poor attachment patterns that are exhibited in the classroom may include:

  • poor concentration
  • constant talking
  • ignoring instructions in class
  • getting into trouble during breaks
  • refusing to be helped with work
  • presenting explosive reactions
  • exhibiting a sudden deterioration in behaviour when making mistakes.

(Geddes, 2005)

These are clearly behaviours that can seriously challenge a classteacher and it is easy to see why these pupils are often at risk of exclusion.

3. Healthy Attachment

Bowlby identified 3 stages in the development of healthy attachment. These are:

  • Observation stage
  • Separation stage
  • Individuation

Healthy attachment: Observation Stage

Diagram of the Observation Stage (Attachment theory)

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

  • Mother and child’s first interaction
  • Occurs during first 7-8 months
  • Mother adapts her behaviour and routine to focus entirely on her new-born infant
  • Mother constantly observes infant in order to anticipate and satisfy his needs
  • Sensitivity of mother’s response to infant’s emerging ability to communicate feelings sets pattern for child’s future interactional learning and primary sense of self.

Healthy attachment: Separation stage

Diagram of separation stage in development of healthy attachment.

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

  • Mother and infant explore first separations and reunions
  • Infant sometimes plays within hearing but not sight of mother
  • Child begins to hold a picture of himself interacting with mother in head
  • Child becomes increasingly confident and is able to tolerate brief separations

Healthy Attachment: Individuation

Diagram of Individuation Stage in developemnt of healthy attachment.

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

  • Playing and learning takes place in the shared space where there is room for relationship with others
  • Child’s mobility allows exploration of wider environment leading to to necessity of setting limits
  • Child learns ways in which to manage  anger and frustration when his wishes are not met

4. Anxious Attachment

Ainsworth used the Strange Situation Procedure to identify three tpyes of anxious attachment. These are categorised as:

  • Rejection/Avoidant
  • Overprotection/Ambivalent
  • Confusion/Disorganised

The Strange Situation Procedure (Mary Ainsworth)

Anxious Attachment: Avoidant/Rejection


(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

Mother unable to respond to infant who is then unable to develop a sense of self

  • Infant’s energy goes into trying to get the mother’s attention
  • If attempts fail, infant may develop own rejecting responses which exacerbate the mother’s rejection
  • In class child may be attention seeking often leading to a  negative response which amplifies mother’s rejection or child may withdraw in order to avoid personal interaction

Anxious attachment: Ambivalent/Overprotection

Diagram of Ambivalent Insecure Attachment

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

  • ‘Smothering mothering’
  • Child rarely has chance to experience frustration – needs are met before he is aware of them
  • Never has opportunity to discover that frustration and anger can be survived
  • May develop omnipotent behaviour where wishes feel like demands – no realistic sense of self
  • In school child may seem not to be able to work independently and teacher may collude by being overprotective

Anxious Attachment: Disorganised/Confusion

Diagram of Confused Insecure Attachment

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

  • Mother’s emotional availability is inconsistent
  • Mother and child in a state of perpetual motion, frantically searching for each other
  • Child may alternate between hyperactivity and despair
  • Alternatively he may take on a parenting role towards the mother
  • In the classroom child may have an inability to concentrate and a physical hyperactivity

Classification of Attachment Percentage at One Year Response in Strange Situation

Research (Ainsworth et al) indicates around 30 % of children have some sort of attachment anxiety as shown in the diagram below:

Securely Attached
60-70 %
Explores with M in room Upset with separation Seeks physical touch and comfort upon reunion
Insecure: avoidant
Ignores M when present Little distress on separation Actively turns away from M upon reunion
Insecure: resistant
10-15 %
Little exploration with M in room, stays close to M Very distressed upon separation Ambivalent or angry and resists physical contact upon reunion with M
Insecure: disorganized/ disoriented
5-10 %
Confusion about approaching or avoiding M Most distressed by separation Upon reunion acts confused and dazed — similar to approach-avoidance confusion in animal models


5. Attachment in the Classroom

Secure attachment in the classroom

Children with a secure sense of self are able to share the attention of the  teacher with their peer group, without feeling that that they have been rejected by the teacher.

Diagram of Secure Attachment in the Classroom

(Diagram adapted from Barrett and Trevitt, 2006)

Characteristics of securely attached children in the classroom include:

  • More able to make positive attachments with teachers and peers
  • Expect interactions with adults to be affirming of their own worth
  • More able to take risks when exploring new situations – have expectation that help will be there for them
  • More able to tolerate frustration in the learning process
  • Able to share adults attention with other children

Insecure attachment in the classroom

Children who have not experienced a secure attachment relationship can exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Poor concentration in classroom – ‘I can’t trust anyone, so I must be constantly watchful’
  • Constant talking – ‘Silence is sary and taling keeps bad thoughts away’
  • Ignoring instructions- I’m in control, don’t tell me what to do’
  • In trouble during breaks- ‘I can’t handle unstructured situations, I feel out of control, the chaos is frightening’
  • Refusal to be helped with work – ‘I was left helpless I’ll never be helpless again’
  • Explosive reactions when maing mistakes – ‘If I get it wrong I will be rejected again’
  • Sudden deterioration in behaviour- ‘Something has triggered difficult memories from my past’

6. Neuroscience and Attachment

The triune model of the brain (MacClean 1990) proposes three distinct areas of brain functionality:

  • The Survival Brain/ Reptilian Brain
  • The Emotional Brain/Limbic System
  • The Thinking Brain/Neo-cortex


In this simplified model the infant is born with the ‘survival’ brain intact. If the child experiences a secure emotional relationship the ’emotional’  brain develops in a healthy manner. Lastly the ‘thinking’  brain develops but the nature of this development  is  dependent on the previous development of the ’emotional’  brain.

The impact of  attachment relationship on brain development is powerfully illustrated by research conducted at the University of Michigan which compared the brain of a securely attached child  compared with that of a child neglected in infancy as shown in the diagram below.

Comparison of brain development in securely and insecurely attached children.

Allan Schore is a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience and attachment and the video below gives an introduction to his work and that of others working in this area.

7. Intergenerational attachment patterns

Adult attachment interview research (Maine et al) shows 70% – 80% correspondence between parents early experience and their own parenting style. This implies that most people replicate the parenting style that they experienced themselves.  However, it also indicates that there is the possibility of changing these intergenerational patterns of parenting – and this is what the Story Links intervention aims to do.

From the Dragon’s Mouth