Attachment Theory in Early Childhood Education

Here’s what you need to know about building healthy attachments for children in your classroom.

Attachment Theory in Early Childhood Education

Attachment Theory in Early Childhood

But I don’t want to go!” If you’re a parent or primary caregiver of a young child, you may have heard some version of this sentiment during morning drop-offs at school or daycare when it’s time to say goodbye. The attachment children form with their parents is powerful and vital for their safety and security, but it’s not the only important bond created in early childhood.  

Attachment theory suggests that healthy bonds between educators and children in the classroom can help lead to greater social-emotional regulation, higher confidence in taking on new challenges, and even improved academic performance later in life.

Teacher drawing with students


What is attachment theory? 

Attachment theory is a psychological and evolutionary theory that focuses on the relationships or bonds between people, including between a child and their caregiver. 

In the 1950s, British psychologist John Bowlby was the first to analyze the attachment theory, describing it as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” His work was later expanded on in the 1970s by an American psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, who identified three specific styles of attachment that children had with their parents or caregivers.

Bowlby attachment theory

Bowlby’s work was focused on understanding the anxiety and distress that children experienced when separated from their caregivers. While earlier theories suggested that attachment was a learned behavior, Bowlby believed children were born with an innate drive to seek and remain close to attachment figures (such as parents or educators). 

According to Bowlby, there were four distinct characteristics of childhood attachment: 

  • Proximity maintenance: The desire for children to be near the people they’re attached to.
  • Safe haven: The desire to return to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
  • Secure base: The view of attachment figures as a base of security from which children can explore their surrounding environments.
  • Separation distress: The anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Ainsworth attachment theory

Building on Bowlby’s research, Mary Ainsworth performed a now-famous study titled “Strange Situation.” In the study, children between the ages of 12-18 months began in a room with only their parents. While the child explored the room with parental supervision, a “stranger” would enter, talk with the parent, and approach the child. The parent would quietly leave the room and soon re-enter to comfort the child. 

Based on the various reactions each child in the experiment had, Ainsworth found three distinct attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, and avoidant attachment. Additional studies around Ainsworth’s work have revealed that early attachment styles could help predict children’s behaviors later in life.

Attachment styles

Later research around attachment theory, performed by Main and Solomon, expanded on Ainsworth’s findings and added a fourth style of attachment: disorganized attachment. Here is a deeper look at the four distinct styles:

Secure attachment

The most common attachment style in children, secure attachment is seen in children who show distress when separated from their caregiver and joy when reunited. These children are comfortable seeking reassurance from their attachment figure when feeling nervous or frightened. 

Ambivalent attachment

Children with an ambivalent attachment style become highly distressed when a caregiver leaves for any amount of time. While considered uncommon, this style of attachment results when children cannot depend on their caregiver to return when needed. 

Avoidant attachment

Children with the avoidant attachment style show no preference between their caregivers and strangers. This is often the result of abuse, neglect, or punishment for children relying on their parents or caregiver. 

Disorganized attachment

Children with disorganized attachment styles show no distinct behavior when separated or reunited with their caregivers. The disorganized pattern of behavior is likely associated with inconsistent caregiver behavior, where the child sees their guardian as both a source of comfort and fear. 

Why is attachment important in child development? 

Research suggests that failing to form secure attachments during early childhood can have strong, negative impacts on children later in life. They often display lower self-esteem, lower self-confidence, and less independence than their peers. On the other hand, children who display healthy attachment traits often experience more success in early childhood education, displaying improved socialization and academic performance. 

Additionally, studies have shown that children who are more securely attached are more empathetic, less disruptive, less aggressive, and more mature than those with ambivalent or avoidant styles. For early childhood educators, this means children with better social-emotional skills who can better express their feelings, listen and follow instructions, and get along with their classmates.

How to promote secure attachment

Early childhood educators are tasked with creating positive connections between children’s home environment and their learning environment. This helps build healthy attachment traits in the classroom and also supports children in developing strong self-regulation skills to manage their emotions and behaviors. A few ways that educators can promote secure attachment in the classroom include:

  • Connecting with families to learn more about each child: Understanding children’s home lives can help educators mirror routines to create a more familiar and comforting environment. A tool like brightwheel’s communication app allows educators and administrators to easily connect with families to send real-time messages, emergency alerts, child updates, and much more.
  • Showing sensitivity and empathy: Treating children with compassion and empathy can help them view educators as a secure base, allowing them to explore their learning environment safely. 
  • Displaying positive behavior through body language: When interacting with children, body language like eye contact or positive facial expressions allows them to feel seen and heard. 
  • Responding calmly to outbursts or requests: Modeling appropriate behavior helps teach children how to interact properly with peers and manage their own emotions when they’re scared, angry, sad, or frustrated.


While healthy attachment traits start in the home, educators are tasked with reinforcing healthy habits (or managing unhealthy habits) as soon as children enter the classroom. Creating an environment that establishes trust, promotes positive social behaviors, and builds a connection between you and your children is critical to a child’s overall development and learning.

Subscribe to the brightwheel blog