Samantha Rodgers' blog

Attachment theory and its implications for teachers

Recently, I have been doing research into attachment theory- and its role in education.

Attachment refers to the way in which people relate to other people, and is formed in the first two years of life. Once established, it is a style that stays with people and affects how people relate to others.

Some of the earliest research comes from John Bowlby 1973, who wrote about attachment, separation and loss and focused on how infants become emotionally attached to their primary care-givers and become distressed when separated from them. He refers to these as contributing towards our “inner working models” of self and social life.

He also posits that this attachment characterises us from the ‘cradle to the grave’- that attachment plays an important role in not just the partners we choose, but all relationships we develop and how we parent our own children.

There are three major categories, secure, anxious and avoidant.


Connect                 Protect

This attachment is characterised by people who are trusting, comfortable and kind with themselves, feel a sense of belonging. They have a balance of closeness and independence. To use a see-saw analogy, they balance their need to protect them- selves from hurt with the need to connect with others.


Connect                  Protect

This attachment pattern manifests as people being clingy, worried about people they have relationships with leaving, as well as having a strong dependence on others. On the see-saw, they need to connect more than protect.


Connect                  Protect

This pattern indicates people very protective against being hurt, people who may suppress outward emotion, appearing distant and distrusting. They have a stronger need to protect than connect.

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, 1987 found that 60 %  of people have secure attachments, 20% have anxious and 20% have avoidant attachments.

So what does that mean in a school context?

Kennedy and Kennedy (2004) have done research in this area and have found the students with secure attachment histories are more likely to:

  • see themselves as supportive, helpful, and positive, competent and worthy of respect
  • relate more positively to both peers and adults, demonstrate greater resilience and engage in more complex play than other children
  • exhibit more flexible and socially appropriate emotional expression and control, more focused attention and participation in class
  • demonstrate better functioning goal-corrected partnerships, characterized by more mature perspective-taking, mutual communication of affect, and joint planning
  • report more satisfying interpersonal relationships and greater trust in others more prone to positive self-disclosure, and cope more adaptively with stressful situations.

Students with insecure attachments, either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’:

  • use less effective strategies in stressful situations to self-regulate
  • may resist seeking help from others and demonstrate less dependence upon their social network, due to natural inclination or fear of being let down by them
  • limit access to their own feelings and view others as undependable or rejecting
  • fail to develop trusting relationships with others, seeing others as unable to provide emotional closeness and comfort, and thus feeling socially and emotionally isolated.
  • may show more externalizing and aggressive, antisocial behaviours

In addition, their research shows that  the quality of the teacher–student relationship may be the single most important factor for a student’s positive experiences of school. Especially for at-risk students, teachers may be their only positive, supportive adult model. Those teachers have a unique opportunity to help students foster positive representations of themselves, others, and relationships in general.


Accordingly, in the classroom, teachers need to recognise, understand and act upon the following:

(1) the impact of a positive teacher–student relationship on students, especially  ‘at risk’ students

(2) that interactions between students and the teacher will impact on their relationship and classroom behaviours

(3) that students’ behavior reflects their relationship history and strategies for coping with stress


Strategies that enhance the family’s and student’s connectedness to the school along with positive teacher–family relationships have been found to be positively related to increased student achievement, positive student attitudes, and self-concept, and positive parental and student attitudes toward the school.


Phew! This adds a whole new layer of the power a teacher has in the classroom, beyond their knowledge and classroom practice.

If you want to read the full article, here it is:

Flourish: Positive Accomplishment

This one is a teacher favourite – where we get to talk about growth mindset! Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University believes that people can be categorised in two ways: having Fixed or Growth Mindset.

Fixed mindset people are those who believe that talents and abilities are set in stone. They believe that you are either intelligent, or not, and it will never change. They feel that they need to prove themselves over and over and will often take the easier route if it guarantees success, even if it isn’t challenging or engaging. I used to be that person. I can easily identify that when I was at school, that’s how I felt. Right or wrong- that was how it was and I don’t think my school or anyone else encouraged anything different. We just didn’t know any better.

However with time and more life experience, I learned that I could get better at things. Learning became more important than ‘knowing things’. I changed from a fixed mindset – at least in some areas.

The key word that Dweck emphasises, when people fall into a fixed mindset- particularly when something is hard … is ‘yet’. The acknowledgement that I can’t do something at the moment- but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be good at it at all. It is a small difference in language, but a huge difference in mindset.Dr Norman Doidge uses a helpful analogy- the brain as a muscle. The more you use it- the stronger it becomes.

The course then went on to focus on character strengths and to see the accomplishments we have made through our key strengths. As a teacher I see plenty of students who have fixed mindset and those with low self esteem. They see themselves as their failures. Using something like the VIA Character strengths quiz forces students to see themselves in a positive light with a lot of strengths: love, zest, kindness, leadership, honesty, perspective, hope, and so on, that can be a real shift in how students see themselves, and the contribution that they make to the world around them. Of all the strengths that we studied, this one could well be the most powerful, especially in helping people recognise their own worth.