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Mel Gravely

How Attachment Theory Can Help Improve our Parent Engagement Strategy in Head Start

attachment theory head start

I saw an interesting article recently on Medium called “The most important theory you’ve never heard of as a parent.” That theory is attachment theory, coined by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the late 60s.

We often discuss how the presence of a parent is important for the development of the child. However, just being there may not be enough. Attachment theory says that it’s “how” the parent is there that is important to the entire life of a person.

As we know, early childhood education is so much more than education. Degree requirements of Head Start staff means that the majority of employees have had at least some training on early childhood psychology and development. We know that we need to understand all facets of the child to be successful educators, from physical, mental, and emotional. Continuous learning about prevailing psychological theories and parenting techniques can only help us better serve our families in Head Start.

John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

John Bowlby’s attachment theory states that a young child (under 3) needs to develop a successful relationship with at least one (could be two or three) primary caregiver in order for the social and emotional development to proceed normally.

A primary caregiver is a person, who establishes a tight bond with the child. The child relies on this caregiver to attend to its needs. As the caregiver offers care and support, the bonds formed at that stage build a solid security foundation for the child. Children understand that there’s always someone to take care of their needs, to feed them when they are hungry, to support them when they are sick, protect them when they are scared, love them for who they are, and so on.

Children, who had a strong attachment with an attentive caregiver, grow up confident and resilient. They know how to form healthy emotional relationships because they learned how to do it with the primary caregiver.

Children, who had either an insecure attachment or no attachment at all, usually have trouble forming strong emotional bonds. They experience trust issues because they don’t expect anyone to care for them properly. People with poor childhood attachments are more prone to substance abuse and criminal behavior.

How Can the Theory Help Us at Head Start?

While parents know that being present in the child’s life is highly important, they may not understand how the quality of their presence can affect the child’s life in the future. Educating parents about the attachment theory could help them reevaluate their presence.

Quality of Presence

When parents are always busy working, cooking, cleaning, playing computer games, they are present. However, they aren’t forming proper attachments with their children. A quality presence involves interacting with the child, showing love, care, compassion, and involvement.

For example, a seemingly tiny problem like a scratched knee could help form a healthy attachment. If a parent dismisses the incident, loneliness will add up to the hurt, thus creating a feeling of insecurity. If a parent hugs and shows compassion, a child feels safe. In the future, the child in the first example will have issues with compassion and identifying with a person in a relationship. While the second child will know how to form a healthy bond.

Irregular Presence

Irregular presence could be the same as no presence at all. When parents aren’t consistent in their care for them, children feel insecure. They don’t know when to hope for support from the parent and when to expect withdrawal. These children start showing their needs loudly, trying to get noticed. As adults, they’ll need constant reassurance from people they try to form relationships with. That’s why it’s vital to be consistent about the quality of a parent’s presence in a child’s life.

Final Thoughts

Parents often don’t understand how important their relationship with young children is. It may seem that feeding and dressing children are sufficient. It’s important to educate caregivers about the urgent need of small children for the quality presence and explain the effect poor attachments can have on their adult relationships and behavior.

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