Attachment theory suggests that our earliest relationships form the blueprint, or template, for what we expect from all relationships we go on to develop. These blueprints are developed at a time before we have language and so are very resistant to change. Even when children form new relationships, they continue to expect the pattern of responses from adults they have experienced in the past.

If a child has experienced early care where the adult is available, responsive and able to meet their needs (and has developed a secure attachment), the child will expect adults in the future to be similarly available, responsive and able to meet their needs.

If a child has experienced early care where the adult is unreliable, unresponsive, not attuned to their needs, threatening and/or abusive (and developed an insecure attachment), the child will expect the same from adults in future relationships.

Secure attachments

From the moment a baby is born (and some research suggests even before birth), a baby starts to build up a picture of their world. When a baby signals their distress (for example, due to feeling hungry, cold or wet) and is soothed by their caregiver, the baby starts to build up an understanding along the lines of, 'when I'm upset someone makes me feel better again'. When the caregiver is well attuned to the baby's needs, the baby is soothed and returns to a comfortable state. This interaction is repeated many times a day and forms the beginning of a baby being able to control its emotional state. The baby learns this pattern and starts to be able to wait for short periods of time and to signal less often and less loudly when they are upset. This is the beginning of a secure attachment.

Newborn babies are difficult to manage and new parents often feel overwhelmed. It takes time for a parent to get to know their baby and to start to be able to understand what the baby may be needing. Every parent knows the feeling of having tried everything but still being unable to soothe their baby. Thankfully, research suggests that parenting only has to be 'good enough' - not perfect. As long as parents get it right the majority of the time, secure attachments will develop. Research figures vary, and there are many cultural differences, but around 60-65% of children have been found to have secure attachments.

Insecure attachments

Not all caregivers can manage to be sufficiently attuned to their child's needs and be able to soothe them. This can happen for a variety of reasons - for example, a parent being preoccupied with their own needs/problems/grief, being separated from the child or being unable to be consistent in their relationships. Difficulties which develop in early child-caregiver relationships are very rarely deliberate.

There are three patterns of insecure attachment which have been described.

Avoidant insecure attachment

Where a caregiver is slow to give relevant care or shows a lack of emotional connection to their child, the child may stop signalling their needs (because they cannot see the point). Romanian orphanages showed the extreme outcomes of such lack of care. While most children are not subjected to this level of absent care, some children in care may have experienced neglect. This causes children to become withdrawn, quiet and 'closed off'. These children may not show their emotions to others, even though they are feeling just the same emotions. They are less likely to trust adults and may not seek support even when they are in real need.

Often they can appear quiet, calm and self-reliant. These children can be mistaken for being resilient and independent and are not always noticed in school. These children are at risk of developing mental health difficulties.

Ambivalent insecure attachment

This pattern develops when a child receives inconsistent care or when the caregiver does not understand the child's needs. For example, where the child's caregiver is permissive at times and authoritarian at others; where the child is the centre of attention at times and ignored at other times; where the child is tired but the adult tries to play. Because the child cannot predict whether their signals will be responded to in a way that makes them feel better, the child keeps trying to signal, even when the caregiver has responded. These children are not easily soothed and need a lot of attention.

Disorganised insecure attachment

A disorganised attachment is not really a pattern at all. It is used to describe the behaviour of a child where care-giving has been so chaotic and unpredictable that the child has not yet developed a way of understanding and predicting what is likely to happen in their world. This kind of attachment is often, but not always, associated with children who have experienced abusive caregiving. Imagine being a helpless child who is biologically pre-programmed to signal your needs to your caregiver and the caregiver bringing pain, humiliation and distress. Children who have had these experiences can show behaviour which is difficult to predict and may not appear to link directly to what is happening at the time.

The Virtual School can provide attachment training to all professionals involved in the education and care of our children in care, including foster carers.