Applications of Attachment Theory in School Psychology

By Kennedy, Janice H.; Kennedy, Charles E. | Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Applications of Attachment Theory in School Psychology


Kennedy, Janice H., Kennedy, Charles E., Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology


School psychologists have traditionally focused on prevention, assessment, and intervention strategies for a myriad of factors that influence school performance. Skills that enhance the performance of these tasks include a thorough knowledge of both adaptive and maladaptive developmental processes. Moreover, the effective practice of school psychology requires a strong theory and research-based perspective (Merrell, 2002). One such perspective is Bowlby's (1969/1982) ethological attachment theory, which provides an essential framework for understanding the impact of early social-emotional relationships on cognitive-affective structures the child uses to construct views of the world, self, and others.

Attachment theory addresses social-emotional development from the perspective of both process and outcome and has identified a variety of markers predictive of later academic performance, social competence, and psychopathology. Subsequently, the theory offers school psychologists a theoretically and empirically based framework from which to approach hypothesis generation relevant to assessment and individualized intervention planning. Attachment theory provides an awareness of and new meanings derived from the child's history and the subtleties of observed child, parent and teacher behaviors in the current context.

In the current paper, we present an overview of John Bowlby's ethological theory of attachment and describe risk factors for the development of insecure attachment. Behavioral trajectories of children and adolescents according to attachment classification are discussed. Finally, student-teacher interactions within an attachment perspective and implications for assessment and intervention are presented.

Brief Overview of Bowlby's Ethological Theory of Attachment

Attachment is an affectional bond between child and primary caregiver that develops over the first 18 months of life (Ainsworth, 1989). Infants are born with a propensity to direct precursory attachment behaviors to human figures (e.g., crying, looking, clinging) to which caregivers are particularly likely to respond. These behaviors elicit caregiving and bring the caregiver into close proximity with the infant, ensuring protection from environmental dangers and a sense of security. Over time, infants begin to direct these responses primarily to one or a few caregivers. Around 7-8 months of age, infants show attachment to caregivers by protesting their leaving and grieving for them during their absence. During toddlerhood, children form a goal-corrected partnership in that they can begin to perceive events during interactions with mother from her perspective (Bowlby, 1969/1982). For example, toddlers may be less insistent than infants in demanding that their needs be met immediately if they have developed confidence in the caregiver's dependability in meeting their needs. During this time, infants are forming an internal working model (IWM)--a hypothetical construct of the attachment relationship which informs them about their own self-worth and the dependability of others to provide needed attention and care (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985).

The IWM provides mental representations of self and others and appears to be the mechanism by which early experiences influence the quality of later attachment relationships. With development of language and cognitive abilities these representations become more elaborate, stable and symbolic (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). They form the basis for expectations of dependability and responsiveness of others and affective tone within interpersonal relationships (Cicchetti, Toth, & Lynch, 1995; Main et al., 1985), both within and beyond the family. These representations are viewed as guiding and structuring cognition, language, affect and behavior through the development of both adaptive and maladaptive strategies for coping with stress and seeking social support (Cicchetti et al. …

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