Children come to teachers, on average, at 5 years old. This is just after a big growth spurt, just as they have learnt the right word for that odd looking fruit in tesco, just as they have established that first ‘best friend forever’, just as they can kick that football as far as the park gate. The trepidation they must feel walking into the classroom full of somewhat unfamiliar faces, a crisp white shirt on and some itchy trousers. Then the added assumption that these 5 year old’s are walking into that classroom with what is deemed a “normal” family and a secure attachment .
Now imagine you’re that 5 year old, who for no fault of your own, have had a far from “normal” childhood. Walking into yet another unfamiliar space, another adult they have to listen to and another environment where they lack control. Many theorists believe healthy, predominantly maternal, attachments create a balanced adult: Bowlby, Ainsworth and Harlow. But what happens to those children who have lacked this prior to primary school? Do they become insecure, vulnerable children who we can’t help?
The psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto went through a difficult childhood herself and created a theory based on a lack of adult understanding and sought to help children release and discover their individual inclinations. She believed the adult should be a role model and example opposed to imparting methods. This approach resonated with me, children today will experience and be savvy to much more than even my generation would have known. Dolto believed the educator’s role was to teach children how to lead themselves. Amazingly a nursery was opened in Paris in the late 20th century that was based on Dolto’s theories. The Maison Verte was a nursery setting for the child and their parent, to help create a stepping stone into the education system and reduce separation anxiety. These settings are still around today. Indeed it is a setting I would love to experience myself. I believe it is best to facilitate a child’s own interests, engage in their positive aspirations alongside them.
There are other psychologists who advocate multiple attachments. Bruno Bettelheim helped give insight into childcare systems, he studied children living communally in what was called a kibbutz in Israel. The children all lived away from the family home in special houses. This may have developed less one to one attachments but they thrived socially and built meaningful friendships. Contrary to his presumption that the children would become mediocre adults they, on the whole, thrived and became successful individuals. So peer relationships can help form meaningful attachments.
If a child’s attachment isn’t insecure but is enough to cause occasional ambivalent behaviours what challenges do educators face? There is little chance that in the 35 hours teachers have a child each week they can reverse or overshadow the home environment. It is therefore crucial school can be a place of trust and understanding, where a child can be a child. Encouraging play in the classroom as much as possible, engaging with the outdoors and allowing education to occur as naturally as possible. Indeed psychologist Michael Rutter, who refuted Bowlbys claim of a single secure attachment to the mother, voiced that family discord was the source of antisocial behaviours, not maternal deprivation. I have to side in favour of Rutter, a child may have always lacked a steady, loving mother. In no means does that label the child as unloved and lacking attachment.
Virginia Satir also highlighted the importance of the family unit on attachments. Her study delved into the role a person plays and adapts at times within the family and the seed this plants for adulthood. She voiced the importance of positive emotional connections in order to stay true to ones authentic self. This, to me, shows the compensatory role some children adopt when they feel unsure of an attachment. They want to feel included, loved and their needs attended to. So if a mother lacks the drive to provide all of these the wider family can. Families come in all shapes and sizes, even foster families. I have been witness to the wonder of a good foster setting, the turn around in that child within a short space of time was so encouraging.
Being exposed to attachment theory and all it’s complexities it’s hard not to notice obvious lack of meaningful attachments. When we hear the horror stories from Romanian orphanages or see grave images of children systematically left to fend for themselves on the streets of other countries we are shocked and appalled. This stark need for care and love may not be as apparent in a small council school in Dundee but it may still be there. 1 in 5 Scottish children are living in poverty, in Dundee that becomes 1 in 4 and in the worst affected areas within Dundee that becomes 1 in 3. Half of these children are from “working families”, the effect this can have on family dynamics and the level of stress and anxiety within the home is cause for concern. Away from the home the teacher can adopt the Social Learning Theory advocated by theorists like Bandura, where positive interaction can lead to healthy attachments.
It is hard to disconnect our own experiences and childhoods from those children we come into contact with. Expecting their lives to mirror our own, in some strangely ingrained manner. Not all children will have a mother at home. Not all children will have a sole attachment. That doesn’t discredit the attachments they do have and the ones they deem beneficial and important.