Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1939, fear and anticipation gripped the world. In London, government officials grappled with the difficult question of how to keep children safe during the expected bombing of London by the Nazis. The plan that was conceived involved loading thousands of children, with notes pinned to their clothing recording their identification and essential information, onto trains which carried them into the British countryside. Loyal citizens in the countryside cared for these children until they were returned home safely. But following this successful operation, some psychologists noticed that children who had been spared from the physical danger of living through the London Blitz nevertheless showed signs of emotional and behavioral disturbance. They theorized that children who are separated from their parents at such an important developmental stage suffer damage to their psyche that affects their behavior and ability to regulate their emotions far into their lives.
This theory was further developed into the 1970’s and became known as attachment theory. A psychologist named Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment, known as the strange situation experiment, to test this theory. This experiment observed how a toddler reacts once their parent returns after initially being separated from said. The experiment classifies different types of responses called attachment styles.
The first response is a child who is upset when the parent leaves and relieved when the parent returns. This is called secure attachment since the connection with the parent seems to provide a sense of security that allows for exploration and risk tolerance. Other children continue to be upset after the parent returns and cling to the parent, refusing to return to play. This is called anxious attachment since the child appears anxious for connection to the parent. The third type is the child who shows anger toward the parent when they return. This is known as avoidant attachment since the child appears to be avoiding connection with the parent.
When these children are followed up years later, their attachment style appears to affect their relationships as school aged children, teenagers, and adults. While those with secure attachment styles generally tend to have healthy relationships, those with an anxious attachment style have difficulty regulating their emotions and tend to be at greater risk of being mistreated in their relationships and sometimes even seeking relationships with others who are controlling. Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to have difficulty tolerating emotions. They often seek control over others and struggle to find satisfaction in relationships.
While the early attachment theorists postulated interesting explanations for this phenomenon, current research points to neural pathways that develop from experiences at the earliest stages in life, which control how we experience emotions and relationships. In therapy, those neural pathways can be rewired as the therapist provides a healthy attachment experience. While someone with an anxious attachment style may feel unsafe and insecure outside of the face to face connection with their therapist, when the therapist maintains healthy boundaries by sticking to a set structure for the therapy, they send the implicit message that the client will be safe and is capable of caring for their own needs outside of the actual face to face time. Similarly, as the person who feels unsafe with connection and craves control experiences healthy boundaries with their therapist, they learn that they can be safe in their vulnerability. These experiences create new neural pathways, which allow people to develop a secure attachment style later in life even if they had a different attachment style earlier.
As we prepare to return to school, teachers can consider the implications of this theory when building their own connections with their students. While some children come to school with healthy secure attachment, others will not have that advantage. What is going on at home is often not within the influence or awareness of the school or teacher, but they can adjust to it. Recent landmark research about how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) impact many aspects of life including learning and school behavior points strongly to a connection between school performance and home experiences. It also identifies resilience factors. A sense of purpose, problem solving skills, self-regulation skills, social acceptance and connections, and feeling part of a community are all protective factors for children who otherwise face adversity, and they support more positive school performance.
As parents and teachers, we are often confronted with challenging behaviors that interfere with the tasks we are trying to accomplish. Before we respond as adults, we can ask ourselves “Does our response build connection with the child or damage it? Will they feel more securely attached or less securely attached?”
It is important to remember here that being inconsistent and passing our boundaries can equally damage the security of healthy connection, but healthy consistent boundaries can always be maintained in a firm fair and friendly way. When considering a response or consequence for a negative behavior, we must ask ourselves “Will this response model my own self-regulation skills? Will my response build the child’s sense of purpose? Will it protect their sense of belonging and social acceptance? Will they feel connected and supported through it?”
Rav Mattisyahu Salomon Shlita tells a story he witnessed as a bachur learning in Kfar Chassidim. A bachur had behaved in a terrible manner that involved being dishonest with his Rebbi, Rav Elya Lopian Zatzal. Rav Lopian told the bachur “If I thought that you knew how much I loved you, I would punish you terribly for your dishonesty!” In this one sentence, Rav Lopian brilliantly conveyed to the bachur his connection and belief in him, his disappointment in his behavior, and modeled self-regulation with a strong sense of purpose. Not every child comes to us with their essential information pinned to their clothing, but if we pay attention, we can understand what they are communicating to us with their behavior and provide them with the protective tools of resiliency that will serve them well in school, at home, and throughout their lives.
For more information on the ACE’s study and resiliency please see https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html
Menachem Hojda LMSW CCTP is a clinical social worker in Michigan, specializing in work with children and families with a focus on behavior, trauma, and attachment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.