What is attachment and why is it important?

Beginning at approximately six months of age, infants come to anticipate specific caregivers’ responses to their distress and shape their own behaviours accordingly.
The quality of attachment that an infant develops with a specific caregiver is largely determined by the caregiver’s response to the infant when the infant’s attachment system is ‘activated’. A normally developing child will develop an attachment relationship with any caregiver who provides regular physical and/or emotional care, regardless of the quality of that care. In fact, children develop attachment relationships even with the most neglectful and abusive caregiver. Therefore, it is the quality of the attachment between the child and the carer that is crucial.

Research has shown that having a ‘loving’ primary caregiver and developing an ‘organised and secure’ attachment to a primary caregiver acts as a protective, resilience factor against social and emotional maladjustment for infants and children (Egeland & Hiester, 1995; van Ijzendoorn;, Sagi & Lambermon, 1992). Attachment disorganisation and insecurity has been proven to be a risk factor for later development.

Children may develop specific attachment relationships with different caregivers based on how that specific caregiver responds to them in times of distress or need. A child may develop an organised and secure attachment with a loving mother whilst simultaneously developing an organised, insecure and avoidant attachment with their rejecting father and/or a disorganised attachment with a grandmother, who displays atypical behaviours during interactions with the child (Benoit, 2004). Identifying how a child responds to others and different situations, particularly the adults trying to look after them, can be very important information when you are trying to work out how best to support them. 

What next?

Attachment theory and research has come a very long way since Bowlby's seminal papers from the 1960’s and 70’s. Since that time there have been advances in cutting-edge behavioral genetics, emotional neuroscience, quantitative psychology research and the effects of intergenerational trauma regarding the mechanisms and trajectories of attachment. However, despite this new body of knowledge there is still more to understand and even more to influence those who govern and manage our educational, health and social care and judicial systems in the design and deployment of policies and practice in ways that facilitate relational approaches.
Future research is already focusing on the development of attachment patterns and their transmission from one generation to another and is viewed more from a life history perspective. The biological bases and correlates of attachment processes and the relations between the attachment system and other behavioral systems is also extending attachment research in applied directions.

It should be noted that much of the research around attachment has been gathered from individuals from Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies, who represent as much as 80 percent of study participants, but only 12 percent of the world’s population. This means that they are not only unrepresentative of humans as a species, but on many measures they are outliers. Therefore, more research informed by comparative, multi-ethnic studies is required.

Shaver & Mikulincer (2010) argue that from the outset, Bowlby’s (1982) interest in understanding attachment processes came from a desire to improve parenting, psychotherapy, and social policies, especially for children. Whilst much needed basic research has been conducted to establish and validate the core propositions of attachment theory, only recently have the findings been used to create and evaluate interventions. Moreover, little research has been directed at attachment processes that are likely to exist in social domains such as work organisations, schools, and societies.

It is the aim of the Attachment Research Community to facilitate and collaborate with individuals, groups or institutions wishing to pursue an attachment aware and trauma informed approach to their work in education. It is also the aim of ARC to collate and disseminate current research with the aim of building up a body of knowledge that can inform and inspire generations to come.

Find out more about trauma

Trauma is a psychological response to an event that a person’s nervous system perceives as life-threatening to themselves or others and which exceeds their capacity to cope with the emotions involved.


Find out more about resilience

Resilience is about how well a person can adapt to challenging events in their life such as a tradegy, accident, natural disaster, health concern, relationship, work or school problem.


About ARC & how to join

ARC supports the development of best attachment and trauma aware practice in education to benefit everyone's mental health and well-being.