Attachment theory and children’s learning in school

Written by: Dr Elizabeth Harlow | Published:
A solid base: Attachment theory is concerned with the role of the primary carer in providing a child with a sense of safety: a secure base from which to thrive and flourish (image: Adobe Stock)

Attachment theory has clear and important implications for education. Dr Elizabeth Harlow considers its relevance to children’s learning and looks at how some schools have been applying the principles of the theory to the organisation of pastoral support and teaching and learning

Child development in general, and the children’s learning in particular, might be understood from a number of overarching psychological perspectives such as the biological, psychodynamic, behavioural, cognitive and humanist.

Over time, the socioeconomic and political context together with theoretical innovation and empirical research has meant that some of these perspectives have fallen out of favour, while others have been combined in order to further their explanatory potential and application in practice.

In illustration, Piaget’s model of cognitive stages in children’s ability to learn has been found wanting, when tested in the light of new data on the ability of children to imitate: hence the advancement of cognitive social learning theory (Glassman & Hadad, 2009).

Since the 1970s, attention has been given to the application of attachment theory to the process of children’s learning. This theory, which has its origins in the psychodynamic or psychosocial perspective, has also been subjected to extensive development: most recently in the light of neuroscience.

Following an introduction to attachment theory, this article considers its relevance to children’s learning, but also illustrates the way in which some headteachers and their leadership teams have been applying the principles of the theory to the organisation of their schools.

Finally, questions are raised about the place of child development and theories of learning in the education of teachers and the preparation of headteachers for their role as organisational leaders.

Read also: Attachment theory in schools: The research and a range of resources, training and support, Dr Elizabeth Harlow, Headteacher Update, January 2018:

Attachment theory

The origins of attachment theory are attributed to John Bowlby, who was a psychoanalyst. Bowlby and his colleagues were developing an explanation of the way in which the relationship between the primary carer (usually the mother) and the child created the structure and process of the child’s mind.

Bowlby, however, moved away from only psychoanalytic thinking, and informed by studies on animals, he began to take into account also the practicality of the care provided to the human infant. From his research, Bowlby concluded that the role of the primary carer is to provide the infant with a sense of safety: a secure base from which to thrive and flourish.

The secure base is formed by consistent, warm, reliable care and by means of the emotional sensitivity of the parent who is (ideally) attuned to the child’s needs. In consequence, the child develops an “internal working model” in the mind, which is drawn upon when the child engages with the world.

Put another way, the quality of the earliest relationship(s) will inform (though not determine) the way in which the child (and later the adult) not only relates to others, but also explores life’s opportunities. At risk of oversimplifying, it is argued that without a secure base, children are more likely to be anxious and less able to make the most of the learning opportunities with which they are provided.

Parents who have not had positive parenting experiences themselves, or who are stressed by isolation, poverty, mental ill health, domestic abuse and substance addictions, may struggle to provide a secure base for their children.

While children living in such a household may be insecure, anxious and demonstrating associated behaviours, so too might children who have been removed from their parents, who are being looked after or have been looked after previously.

Importantly, however, a child’s “internal working model” is just that, a working model, with new relationships and experiences having the potential to create positive change (Schofield & Beek, 2018).

In keeping with this principle, Crittenden (2000), who has embellished Bowlby’s original theory with cognitive theory (among others), reinforces the potential for individual change, and critiques linear cause and effect models of child development.

Fonagey and Campbell (2015) have explained the way in which relationships and attachments construct the mind, while neuroscientists theorists such as Porges (2011) explain the way in which relationships and attachments construct the brain (the biological perspective). For Porges (2011), the anxieties experienced by children who have not enjoyed secure attachments are biological. The contribution of neuroscientists means that attachment theory may be understood as a biopsychosocial theory. For a more fulsome discussion of this see Harlow (2019). Practice-focused literature, however, and practitioners themselves, do not always differentiate between the theoretical foundations of attachment theory: nevertheless, the application of the principles may be beneficial.

Literature on attachment theory and children’s learning in school

The application of attachment theory to the school setting is not entirely new, as Marjorie Boxall experimented with the introduction of nurture groups in 1970 (Bentham & Boxall, 2012). Nurture groups were for children who were struggling to learn: “The routine of the nurture group day was planned to provide a predictable, reliable structure in which the children would come to feel safe and cared for, so that they could trust the adults, to explore and learn.” (Bentham & Boxall, 2012)

Descriptions of nurture groups have been published as well as evaluations (see for example, Cook et al, 2008; Vincent, 2017). However, there is a growing interest in the way in which attachment theory may have relevance across the school and beyond the construction of specialist groups.

The growing body of literature on the application of attachment theory in school fulfils a number of functions. First, it alerts readers to the theory and explains its relevance to the school environment (for example, Geddes, 2006; Geddes, 2017; Marshall, 2014). Second, it might propose interventions for individual children, such as in assessing their needs (see Golding et al, 2013) or in helping them become more emotionally aware in order that they manage their behaviour. In terms of the latter, emotion coaching is advocated by Bombèr and Hughes (2013) and Gus and Wood (2017). For more on emotion coaching, see also an article in Headteacher Update (Gus & Meldrum-Carter, 2017).

Third, practical advice for classroom staff members may be provided (see Brooks 2020) and finally, it may describe ways of systemically changing the “whole school” (see Langton & Boy, 2017; Webber, 2017). It is suggested that, by changing the whole school, outcomes would be improved for all children.

In addition to expecting a high performance from children (rather than assuming a low performance) and making well-prepared educational interventions, a whole school approach would ensure that a warm, sensitive relational approach would be evident in all strategies and policies that shape the structures, processes, culture and practices in the organisation.

Attachment theory and whole school approaches in practice

In 2018, in his mission to encourage schools to take a whole school approach to the application of insights from attachment theory, Sir John Timpson (in association with the Alex Timpson Trust) partnered with the virtual school headteacher (VSH) of a major conurbation within England and made a range of resources available to schools within the region. These included: training for all school staff members, an audit of how the school was implementing the principles of attachment theory, membership of ARC – the Attachment Research Community – a budget for the purchase of books on attachment theory, free accessible books produced by Sir John (e.g. Timpson, 2016), and participation in a regional network conference.

In 2019, the VSH identified a sample of four schools that were performing well and had made use of at least some of the resources available. This sample included both secondary and primary provision. All four of the schools were in areas of either high or relatively high deprivation, with one of the schools serving a predominantly Black and minority ethic population.

On behalf of the Alex Timpson Trust, in order to gain feedback on this regional initiative, I visited the schools and listened to each headteacher’s description of how principles of attachment theory were informing functioning and practice. While preserving anonymity, what follows is an indication of the information provided during the visits.

Mission statements, values and school culture

Headteachers explicitly stated a commitment to respect for individuals, the importance of good relationships and relationship-based teaching and learning. In one instance, there was a commitment to taking a systemic approach to the creation of the school as a “safe haven” for all pupils. There was a belief that education was for life rather than for specific exams and the school was seen as having a crucial role in the lives of pupils and the families of pupils. Such sentiments were communicated directly and indirectly by means of documents, the website, social media, extra-curricular activities as well as the use of space within the building and in the school grounds.

Policies and procedures

All aspects of the schools’ functioning were constructed in accordance with the needs of all children, including the most vulnerable. When introducing new policies and procedures, or making amendments to those already in existence, the question might be asked: “What would this feel like for a child?”

In addition, the views of pupils and parents were taken into account: views were gathered by means of written survey and/or a range of verbal communications. The structure and timetables for the day were consistent, routine and predictable in order to reduce uncertainty and associated anxiety.

Knowledge, skills and the abilities of staff

Headteachers sometimes acknowledged that they were influenced by their own personal experiences either as children or as parents. Although they had made available to all their staff team the resources on attachment theory indicated above, in general there was already a level of familiarity, and a commitment to relationship-based approaches to education.

Furthermore, specialist members of the staff team (such as counsellors) might already be in post. Importantly, the general desire to keep abreast of theory and research was evident and insights from attachment theory were being supplemented by compatible perspectives: for example, knowledge on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma was sought out and acted upon.

All staff members were expected to invest in the approach being taken by the school, for example, by being fair and consistent with pupils, attuned to their needs, and sensitive in their dealings. In addition, there may be an expectation for them to participate in professional reflective practices, which may include supervision.

The roles and tasks of staff

The whole school team was engaged in providing quality education, but also in providing the emotional environment that would optimise the opportunities for learning to take place.

Providing the warm, welcoming organisational climate began each day with staff members meeting and greeting pupils and their parents in the school grounds or at the door. It was described as an opportunity to “check-in” with anyone who was upset or experiencing difficulties. While parents were encouraged to become engaged with the school by a range of participative events and social media, knowledge on attachment theory and the emotional needs of children was cascaded to them by means of parenting classes. While children were listened to, so too were their parents, and the approachable stance of the school staff team extended beyond the organisational boundaries.


Attachment theory and children’s learning in school is a large topic, and this summary has indicative status only. However, it is being suggested that a child needs to feel safe and secure in order to make the most of the learning opportunities available.

Furthermore, the application of attachment theory in the school setting allows for alternative interpretations of a child’s disruptive behaviour: that is, rather than being seen as wilfully troublesome, disruptive behaviour may be seen as resulting from current fears and anxieties that have a history in biography and developmental context.

Increased staff awareness of such interpretations, together with the acquisition of associated relational skills, might lead to enhanced teaching ability. In consequence, a relationship-based approach to teaching and the organisation of school life in general, has the potential to enhance educational performance overall. This suggestion is currently being explored by action research which is underway at the Rees Centre, University of Oxford.

Headteachers interviewed were eager to learn from research, literature and training opportunities: according to one headteacher, they were “hungry” for knowledge. While this is to be applauded, it also gives rise to questions relating to the knowledge that had been received by means of professional training thus far. Do post-qualification training courses make the links between theories of learning and organisational leadership? Do initial teacher training courses make the links between child development and the ability to learn?

As one headteacher said about attachment theory: “I wish I’d had it in training, when I was training to be a teacher.”

  • Dr Elizabeth Harlow is a professor of social work at the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the University of Chester. The preparation of this paper has been made possible by funding from the Looked After Children in Schools initiative of the Alex Timpson Trust. Visit and email

Further information & references

  • ARC: The Attachment Research Community is a charity dedicated to supporting schools to develop attachment and trauma-aware practice:
  • Bentham & Boxall: Effective Intervention in Primary Schools: Nurture Groups, Routledge, 2012.
  • Bombèr & Hughes: Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why relationships matter in school, Worth Publishing, 2013.
  • Brooks: The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020.
  • Cook, Yeomans & Parkes: The Oasis: Nurture group process for key stage 3 pupils, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (13), 2008.
  • Crittenden: Attachment and Psychopathology. In Attachment Theory: Social, developmental and clinical perspectives, Goldberg, Muir & Kerr (eds), 2000.
  • Fonagy & Campbell: Attachment and Mentalizing. In The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities, Elliot & Prager (eds), Routledge, 2015.
  • Geddes: Attachment in the Classroom, Worth Publishing, 2006.
  • Geddes: Attachment Behaviour and Learning. In Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom: Theory and practice, Colley& Cooper (eds), Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017.
  • Glassman & Hadad: Approaches to Psychology, McGraw-Hill, 2009.
  • Golding et al: Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in School, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013.
  • Gus & Meldrum-Carter: Pastoral support: Emotion coaching, Headteacher Update, March 2017:
  • Gus & Wood: Emotion Coaching. In Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom: Theory and practice, Colley& Cooper (eds), Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017.
  • Harlow: Attachment theory in schools, Headteacher Update, January 2018:
  • Harlow: Attachment theory: Developments, debates and recent applications in social work, social care and education, Journal of Social Work Practice, December 2019.
  • Langton & Boy: Becoming an Adoption-Friendly School, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017.
  • Marshall: The Teachers’ Introduction to Attachment, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014.
  • Porges: The Polyvagal Theory: New physiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication and self-regulation, WWNorton and Company, 2011.
  • Schofield & Beek: Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption, CoramBAAF, 2018.
  • Timpson: Looking After Looked After Children, Timpson Ltd, 2016.
  • Vincent: It’s small steps, but that leads to bigger changes: Evaluation of a nurture group intervention, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (22), 2017.
  • Webber: A school’s journey in creating a relational environment which supports attachment and emotional security, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (22), 2017.

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