Academic journal article Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology

Infant and Child Attachment as It Relates to School-Based Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology

Infant and Child Attachment as It Relates to School-Based Outcomes

Article excerpt

For children, school is an environment in which social expectations for behavior must be learned, and the repercussions of success or failure can be enduring. Two theories of human development, Bowlby's (1987) model of attachment and MacDonald and Leary's (2005) theory of social pain, provide some insight into the explanation and prediction of social dysfunction in children.

First, Bowlby's (1987) ethological theory of attachment has provided a framework for understanding how children view themselves in relation to the social world. Children's adaptive behaviors may function to elicit caring, support, and nourishment from a primary caregiver, typically their mother. According to Bowlby, it is this attachment relationship that teaches the child that other people can be depended upon for social support and results in a psychologically secure child capable of demonstrating appropriate levels of independent exploration and social contact seeking. Conversely, a poor attachment relationship may affect attempts at friendship formation and the development of social competence in the child (Elicker, Englund, & Sroufe, 1992).

Using the Strange Situation method, Ainsworth and Bell (1970) were the first researchers to empirically document the different attachment styles theorized by Bowlby. Under direct observation of mother and child interactions during and following a separation, the subjects were classified into one of three attachment categories: (a) secure, (b) anxious-ambivalent, and (c) anxious-avoidant. A fourth category of insecure attachment, disorganized-disoriented, was later identified by Main and Solomon (1990). For insecurely attached children, their social world can be perceived as dangerous and confusing with low expectations of empathy or gratification in response to social need. Possible consequences of these experiences are a negative self-concept and a low sense of self-worth (Verschueren, Marcoen, & Schoefs, 1996).

A second theory, social pain theory (MacDonald & Leary, 2005), has its roots in the biological premise of species evolution and adaptive survival. Because early humans were reliant on acceptance into the social group for physical survival, MacDonald and Leary theorized that the neurologically-based pain sensors that guide a person's response to physical danger evolved into a system that warned of emotional danger or social exclusion through the aversive experience of "pain affect." These feelings of pain are supposedly influenced by social rejection that through negative reinforcement result in the individual moving away from the rejection toward a more accepting social group.

Children are particularly sensitive to these pain cues; their early survival requires that signs of physical distress are responded to with needed food, water, or safety, all accompanied by a mother's calming touch. For securely attached children, social pain provides easy to understand cues to human behavior that, if attended to, lead to expected results. With an internal working model of the self as deserving of social contact and others as reliably providing support when necessary, social pain--much like the burn of a hot stove--is a brief, soon abated signal to steer the securely attached child away from social danger and toward social inclusion. In contrast, the insecurely attached child is at increased risk of not having fundamental needs met. If the child is lacking in adult attention or contact, these seemingly small experiences, which are typically abated in the securely attached child, may manifest themselves through physical symptoms or behavioral outcomes.

With respect to both Bowlby's (1987) attachment and MacDonald and Leary's (2005) social pain theories, investigators have found that insecure attachment is correlated with specific outcomes at each stage of a child's life, with a specific emphasis on early childhood. The subsequent sections will not only detail the results of this research, but will attempt to show how these outcomes are mediated by the child's attachments and experience of social pain, resulting in a more thorough understanding of these children and a firmer foundation for intervention study. …

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