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A Secure Attachment Base is Ideal to be a Great Learner

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Abstract

Secure attachment allows a person to grow and learn while being confident of his or her place in the world. The early years of life determine who we are and how we operate in the world (Venske, 2005). California is ranked second largest class size of all states in "Students enrolled per teacher in K-12 public schools" at "21.4 students to one teacher" (National Education Association, 2010, p.17). This ratio makes teaching difficult: students suffer. Applying secure attachment theory in classrooms may encourage students to succeed. Elements of secure attachment echo elements of successful teaching. Secure attachment in the classroom may intensify educational tools for teachers to support successful learning. Who we are is a result of an accumulation of events that begin at conception. How we operate in the world is profoundly attributed to the connection we have with our caregivers during our first years of life (Bowlby, 1988, p. 15). When a child thrives in her environment as a direct result of her caregiver's efforts, this is called secure attachment. In this paper, I posit that the basis for secure attachment in infants is the same as the elements required for a solid foundation for learning at any age. "In essence this role is one of being available, ready to respond when called upon to encourage and perhaps assist, but to intervene actively only when clearly necessary" (Bowlby, 1988, p. 11). The areas of secure attachment we will focus on include the caregiver's or teacher's ability to sensitively address the infant or student's needs, the caregiver's or teacher's ability to instill self-trust in the child/student, and the student's ability to work autonomously, or without the attachment figure present, to cultivate learning outcomes. In this article I will examine elements of secure attachment such as sensitivity to a child, trust, and autonomy. These elements of secure 38
A Secure Attachment Base is Ideal
to be a Great Learner
Heather L. Corwin
Abstract: Secure attachment allows a person to grow and learn while being confident of
his or her place in the world. The early years of life determine who we are and how we
operate in the world (Venske, 2005). California is ranked second largest class size of all
states in “Students enrolled per teacher in K-12 public schools” at “21.4 students to one
teacher” (National Education Association, 2010, p.17). This ratio makes teaching
difficult: students suffer. Applying secure attachment theory in classrooms may
encourage students to succeed. Elements of secure attachment echo elements of
successful teaching. Secure attachment in the classroom may intensify educational
tools for teachers to support successful learning.
Keywords: Education, Attachment Theory, Secure Attachment, Great Teaching
Who we are is a result of an accumulation of events that begin at
conception. How we operate in the world is profoundly attributed to
the connection we have with our caregivers during our first years of
life (Bowlby, 1988, p. 15). When a child thrives in her environment as
a direct result of her caregiver’s efforts, this is called secure
attachment. In this paper, I posit that the basis for secure attachment
in infants is the same as the elements required for a solid foundation
for learning at any age. “In essence this role is one of being available,
ready to respond when called upon to encourage and perhaps assist,
but to intervene actively only when clearly necessary” (Bowlby, 1988,
p. 11). The areas of secure attachment we will focus on include the
caregiver’s or teacher’s ability to sensitively address the infant or
student’s needs, the caregiver’s or teacher’s ability to instill self-trust
in the child/student, and the student’s ability to work autonomously, or
without the attachment figure present, to cultivate learning outcomes.
In this article I will examine elements of secure attachment such as
sensitivity to a child, trust, and autonomy. These elements of secure
38
© 2012 Association for Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health
Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 27(1), Fall 2012
Heather L. Corwin received her M.F.A. in Acting from FSU/Asolo Conservatory. She
is now a Ph.D. student of somatic psychology at The Chicago School of Professional
Psychology, RME with ISMETA, and a Certified Rolfer. She teaches movement/voice
at Azusa Pacific University; acting at Pasadena City College. You can find more about
Heather at www.BodybyHeather.com.
Corwin 39
attachment will also be looked at through the lens of impactful and
successful learning elements in an educational setting. I posit that
when elements of secure attachment are present in the classroom, the
student has the foundation to learn successfully and easily.
Literature Review
“I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to
endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
~Eleanor Roosevelt
Sensitivity to Child
A sensitive and responsive mother helps establish a secure
attachment with her infant (Ainsworth, 1974). A secure attachment
implies that a caregiver’s responses are consistent and continually
meet the child’s needs. The important part of this attachment process
is the child’s ability to trust that the caregiver is going to meet her
needs. “In the first two years, as attachment grows, so does that baby’s
sense of security and confidence in being protected and comforted”
(Gordon, 2009, p. 102). When a mother is interested, curious, and
present with her infant, she has the accurate tools to successfully bond
with and nurture the child. Just as important is the mother’s ability to
self regulate and remain in a state of calm when the child is upset,
even if she knows she is not meeting the child’s need accurately.
As long as mom remains committed to accurately determining the
reason for the child’s distress, and, therefore, addresses the needs of
her child, the child will ideally get her needs met in a timely manner.
For example, most newborns often have few needs such as eating,
wearing a dry diaper, temperature regulation, and feeling safe. I would
go one step further and suggest that the child often enjoys the warmth,
safety, and linkage with her mother as a soothing tool which could
translate into being held or worn close to the body. Being around the
child consistently gives the parent or caregiver the experience of
learning the child’s moods and expressions which lead to the ability to
discern the need in the child. “The sensitivity that attachment-style
parents develop enables them intuitively to get behind the eyes of
their child to see situations from his or her viewpoint” (Sears & Sears,
2003, p. 18). The adult noticing the child’s preferences is the type of
sensitivity also required in a great teacher. “As you become more
sensitive to your baby, your baby becomes more sensitive to you” (Sears
& Sears, 2003, p. 13). Growing this sensitivity is helpful in all types of
communication including refining the ability to teach.
40 Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health
Whereas teaching does not usually require an assessment of the
student’s basic needs unless the child is acting out in the class, a good
teacher does need to be sensitive to the student’s curiosity. Basic needs
that will affect a student’s success may take the shape of behavior such
as falling asleep, blankly gazing out the window, or distracting self and
other. In cases where basic needs are not being met, something is
usually going on at home as a result of the other people, the
environment, or the student pushing himself too hard by working a
late shift the night before (as some college students do). Assuming
basic needs are being met, learning can take place. In any case, the
teacher needs to be sensitive to how the student learns, what part of
the knowledge or process being conveyed sparks interest in the child,
and how to make the knowledge accessible. In other words a great
teacher needs to nurture. “The nurturance of a loving adult does more
to foster intellectual competence than any course or program or
teacher” (Gordon, 2009, p. 211). Ideal is the situation wherein a
student has a teacher who can nurture and have intellectual
competence.
Furthermore, “Early relationship experience affects later
relationships, both as a separate factor and as an organizing model”
(Venzke, 2005). A child who learns she is valued when she is an infant
will go through her life knowing she is valued. The knowing is inherent
and unshakable; it is a part of her core. That knowing is an essential
part of how she processes information, emotional and intellectual. If a
child does not have this knowing as a part of her experience, doubt and
anxiety can outweigh confidence in her learning and growth. As a
possible consequence, teachers may need to combat that anxiety
through naming what is happening in the room, acknowledging the
student’s abilities, and nurturing the student’s growth. These
supporting behaviors by the teacher may be the student’s first
experience with an adult who is expressing secure attachment
behavior. This type of supportive behavior can and will lead to trust.
Trust
Trust and self trust is indispensable both in the teacher and
student. Mary Gordon (2009) expresses her experience working with
children just entering kindergarten who exhibit traits of success upon
meeting them:
You could tell, right from that initial entrance, which ones were
going to be winners and which ones would struggle. The kind of
Corwin 41
start they had had in life determined their overall sense of
competence and their ability to cope with the stress of transition
to school. (p.16)
Inferred from this passage is the ability of a teacher to recognize a
student’s ability to trust herself. The patterns set up in infancy will
best determine how the child operates in the world. This includes the
implicit and inherent perception of how the child takes in the world.
These root beliefs are the core of a secure attachment for the child.
These beliefs can be fostered by mirroring.
Mirroring is the action of the caregiver reflecting the behavior and
emotion that the child is communicating as a direct response to a
child’s expression. This activity helps the child learn what she is
conveying at the same time the child builds trust that she is being
listened to or heard. Being heard is crucial for the child to understand
and believe her needs will not only be recognized but also met. This
requires of the caregiver the ability to play and interact with the child
in the moment. Without the spontaneity of play, the caregiver cannot
stay in the moment and accurately reflect the needs or emotions of the
child.
The reciprocal quality of these interactions enables the infant to
develop a sense of agency through having an impact on the
caregiver, as well as to begin to understand his or her own
expressions by experiencing how the caregiver experiences these
expressions. He comes to organize his experience of both self and
other through experiencing the caregiver’s experience of both.
When the caregiver experiences interest, joy, love and delight
while interacting with the baby, in turn the baby comes to
experiences his - or herself as being interesting, joyful, lovable
and delightful. (Fosha, Siegel, & Soloman, 2009, p. 284)
All of us have teachers who have left indelible impressions upon us,
good and bad. When I recall my kindergarten teacher, I do so with
supreme dislike and anger that she could treat a young person so
poorly. Not only was she insensitive, she believed in public humiliation
and exercised her joy of that weekly to me during the interminable
year I was her student. In contrast, I think of my high school’s
guidance counselor and her ability to help me learn orientation,
emotional articulation, and feeling heard. The kindergarten teacher
terrorized me; the counselor became a personal haven. The counselor
exhibited secure attachment behaviors that included the “Quality of
maternal caregiving, particularly caregiving that is sensitive, i.e.,
42 Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health
involving prompt, contingent, and appropriate responsiveness to
infant cues and signals (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978 ), is
the key theoretical antecedent to attachment” (Cassidy & Shaver,
2008, p. 229). In other words, a caregiver needs to listen, notice,
address needs, and respond appropriately to build secure attachment.
This attachment allows the child to trust her feelings. “The consistent
availability of the mother or an attached caregiver provides confidence
and helps the child learn to trust himself, culminating in the child’s
developing independence” (Sears & Sears, 2003, p. 12). This
independence leads the child to enjoy and excel through autonomy.
Autonomy
A clear sign of a child maturing into a healthy adult is the child’s
ability to independently think and make decisions free of the parent or
caregiver. The child can connect the dots of learning on her own rather
than continuously rely on her parent to make those choices.
When a mother and an infant of two or three weeks are facing
one another, phases of lively social interaction occur, alternating
with phases of disengagement. …Throughout these cycles the
baby is likely to be as spontaneously active as his mother. Where
their roles differ is in the timing of their responses. Whereas an
infant’s initiation and withdrawal from interaction tend to
follow his own autonomous rhythm, a sensitive mother
regulates her behavior so that it meshes with his. In addition
she modifies the form her behavior takes to suit him: her voice
is gentle but higher pitched than usual, her movements slowed,
and each next action adjusted in form and timing according to
how her baby is performing. Thus she lets him call the tune and
by a skilful interweaving of her own responses with his creates
a dialogue. … In a happily developing partnership each is
adapting to the other. (Bowlby, 1988, pp. 7-8)
Explicit in the passage above, Bowlby makes clear the dance of
communication necessary between mother and child that leads to
secure attachment “partnership.” When a child’s needs are met, the
child can relax and expect those needs to be met in the future based on
the past. Hence, the curiosity about the world and how it works and
how the child fits into that world can be explored, rather than the child
being preoccupied with concerns for basic necessities, like whether or
not she is going to be fed, or changed, or safe. In the classroom, if the
Corwin 43
child’s needs have been met, the child already enters the learning
arena with curiosity and confidence whereas the disorganized child
requires more attention and assurance that her needs will be met.
When the child trusts the teacher to meet her needs, only then can
profound learning – and perhaps learning how to learn – begin.
A baby is not born with bad feelings about himself. All babies
think they are wonderful. How a child feels about himself after
a time, however, is certainly determined to a great extent by the
early messages he gets about himself from his parents.
(Oaklander, 2007, p. 281)
It is not the teacher’s responsibility to undo the damage to the child’s
psyche. However, continuing the damage is not acceptable nor is
ignoring the needs of the student. If a teacher spends all of her time on
the talented and exceptional students, the struggling students will
never be given the tools to succeed. A teacher may not have the time
when working with a student to counteract the poor attachment of the
parents to the child, but the teacher can identify needs. If even one of
the student’s needs is met by the teacher, the student might recognize
other ways of being as a result of that need being met. That
acknowledgement by the teacher could lead the student to examine
her life and make small changes that foster health to reclaim her
attachment potential with another adult or caregiver.
“A baby and a parent together form a powerful dyad that allows
children to be present in an evolving drama starring the most
influential, indelible, and life-shaping relationship ever” (Gordon,
2009, p. 52). This influential dyad informs communications between
the child and everyone else after this relationship. This is why secure
attachment is so significant. “Securely attached individuals don’t
“need” their attachment figures present to regulate their commotional
reactions to a stressor” (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008, p. 233). When big
stressors occur to the child who is securely attached the child usually
has the skills and ability to adapt and deal with the trying event.
This skill applies to learning. Learning is being challenged to do
something or create a skill that otherwise did not exist prior in the
student’s life. The student may have the capacity to draw upon other
experiences to create parallels or support for the learning. For
example, if the student had spent her summer fishing with her family
in the deep woods of Wisconsin, she may have learned that she can
catch fish with skill, drive a boat, and take out a hook from a fish’s
mouth without hurting the fish. After those experiences, taking a math
44 Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health
test might not seem so daunting. Perspective can be taught and
learned. Support from parents can be like a quiet mantle of love that
boosts the confidence of the student to the point that fear exists, but
courage propels the child to seek new heights with success. The child
will risk failure to learn. Assignments that are to be conceived and
executed as homework do not seem as daunting because she knows
she has other skills that may remain secret to others… but she knows
she has skills. This list of secret skills grows exponentially with secure
attached children as they age and mature. Secure attachment bolsters
the child with courage throughout life.
Self-regulation is the final element vital for successful autonomy in
a person. Pat Ogden introduced the concept of the “window of
tolerance” which is a person’s ability to tolerate her circumstances
prior to being overloaded or deregulated. A person may become
disoriented, angry, shaky, as the nervous system responds and
prepares for fight, flight, or freeze – evidence that the window of
tolerance has been exceeded. “A window of tolerance may be
determined both by constitutional figures (temperament) and by
experiential learning” (Siegel, 1999, p. 254).
Other factors include sleep patterns, illness, and hunger, which will
all exacerbate and narrow a window of tolerance. When a mother sees
her child “hit the wall” (or touch the window pane, metaphorically
speaking), she has many tools she can use to help resource her child
back into the window of tolerance. For example, the mother can talk
softly with a low tone, breathe, speak slowly, make eye contact with the
child, and touch the child. All of the skills just mentioned model
regulated behavior for the child and can amplify the bonds of
attachment.
Attachment serves as a crucial way in which the self becomes
regulated. As the child’s evaluative mechanisms become more
active, and memory processes enable the child to respond to
discrepancies, subjective meaning is created in engaging with
the social surround. … As infancy gives way to the toddler
period, dyadic regulation is supplanted by “caregiver-guided
self-regulation,” in which the adult helps the child begin to
regulate states of mind autonomously. (Siegel, 1999, p. 240)
Sadly, some infants do not have care-givers who are able to self-
regulate and therefore are unable to offer the skill of self-regulation to
their child.
Corwin 45
Repeated senses of being out of control – experiencing emotions
without a sense of others helping to calm them down – can lead
such persons to be unable to soothe themselves as they
develop…The result is very disorganizing,…which in itself
creates a further state of distress. (Siegel, 1999, pp. 255-256)
Another imperative element to self-regulation is the ability to
orient. For a child, this means understanding how things work in the
day to day world. Examples of orientation would be the child’s knowing
that he can count on mom to feed him predictable behaviors and
patterns on which the child can rely. As a teacher, the tools used to
orient include a course outline or syllabus, clear learning goals, clear
assignments and due dates, noting where the bathrooms are located,
and any other rules, information, or boundaries required of the
students to succeed in the class.
An integral piece to orienting is naming parts of learning or
explicitly breaking down a process of learning so the child can make
what might be unconscious into a conscious learning. The reason a
teacher might want to do this is to aid the child to articulate the parts
of a process that work for him and the parts that do not may be
reconsidered or refined. This meta-learning encourages the child to
explore his own preferences, value his personal experience, and more
fully integrate the lesson. Plus, feeling supported by the teacher, the
student ideally feels more empowered and positive emotionally. “The
ability to integrate each moment or experience into recognizable
components for learning is also informed by emotional state making
emotions inherently integrative in their function” (Siegel, 1999, p.
240). Regardless of the combination of orienting tools the teacher
employs, using orientation will help the student succeed.
Summary
To address the increasing classroom sizes of students in California
and across the country, introducing secure attachment theory
elements may foster an additional point of view from which educators
can excel, inspire students, and help these students thrive. An infant
who develops secure attachment is a given a solid foundation for life.
She is given the skills to excel as a student because learning employs
the same functions required within secure attachment. When secure
attachment is present, the child can focus on learning rather than
fundamental needs. Educators have the opportunity to provide this to
students in their classrooms, especially to those who have not had a
46 Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health
“secure attachment” experience in their early beginning and formative
years, by incorporating these same principles involved in the “secure
attachment” relationship dynamics into their relationship with their
students in order to create and / or insure a secure attachment
dynamic is occurring there.
In conclusion, a person who trusts herself, is sensitive to others
around her, and who works autonomously when given a task, will
succeed through the perils of existence as a life-long learner.
References
Ainsworth, M.S. (1974). The development of infant-mother attachment. A final report to
the office of child development. Washington, D.C.: Office of Child Development.
Retrieved from: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED122924.pdf.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachement:
A psychological study of the Strange Situtation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base, Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human De
velopment. London: Routledge.
Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of Attachment Theory, Research, and
clinical Applications (Second ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Fosha, D., Siegel, D. J., & Soloman, M. F. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion (1st ed.).
New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Gordon, M. (2009). Roots of Empathy. New York: The Experiment, LLC.
Oaklander, V. (2007). Windows to our children. Gouldsboro, Maine: The Gestalt Journal
Press.
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2003). The Baby Book. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Siegel, D. J. (1999). The Developing Mind, How Relationships and the Brain interact to
Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press.
Venzke, B. A. (2005). The Process of Socioemotional Development Uncovered.
PsycCRITIQUES, 50(21).
... Securely attached children probably have parents who are sensitive and responsive to the child's needs (Ainsworth et al, 1978). Secure attachment is " when a child thrives in her environment as a direct result of her caregiver's efforts " (Corwin 2012, 39). Part of our ability to be able to take in information has to do with how we have been taught to do so, consciously or unconsciously, by our caregivers. ...
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Roots of Empathy New York: The Experiment Windows to our children. Gouldsboro, Maine: The Gestalt Journal Press The Baby Book The Developing Mind, How Relationships and the Brain interact to Shape Who We Are
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Gordon, M. (2009). Roots of Empathy. New York: The Experiment, LLC. Oaklander, V. (2007). Windows to our children. Gouldsboro, Maine: The Gestalt Journal Press. Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2003). The Baby Book. New York: Little, Brown and Company. Siegel, D. J. (1999). The Developing Mind, How Relationships and the Brain interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press. Venzke, B. A. (2005). The Process of Socioemotional Development Uncovered. PsycCRITIQUES, 50(21).
The development of infant-mother attachment. A final report to the office of child development
  • M S Ainsworth
Ainsworth, M.S. (1974). The development of infant-mother attachment. A final report to the office of child development. Washington, D.C.: Office of Child Development. Retrieved from: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED122924.pdf
The Healing Power of Emotion
  • D Fosha
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Fosha, D., Siegel, D. J., & Soloman, M. F. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Windows to our children
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Oaklander, V. (2007). Windows to our children. Gouldsboro, Maine: The Gestalt Journal Press.
The Developing Mind, How Relationships and the Brain interact to Shape Who We Are
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