Abstract: This article explores the concept of attachment theory as a foundational competency for caregivers. Readers are introduced to the importance of relational pedagogy as a focus in training and the trainer’s responsibility to nurture connections and curiosity in order for meaningful learning to occur.
Keywords: relational pedagogy, attachment, trainer competency, child and youth care education
No one can deny the idea that a kind heart is a precondition and predisposition for professionals providing care for children and young people. Many professional caregivers tend to have this characteristic as a central part of their personality. They are big-hearted, sensitive, responsible, and well-intentioned. But what do we mean by this? How do we teach it and how might we measure or evaluate it?
A foundation for caring
Child development takes place best in the context of secure relationships. The main predictor of how well a child will do in life is the strength of the relationship he or she has with a parent or caretaker. This relationship impacts the child’s present and future mental, physical, social, and emotional health. It is not founded on the actual quality of care or depth of parental love, but on the nonverbal emotional communication between child and parent or caretaker known as the attachment bond. While it is easiest to form this secure attachment bond with an infant, it can be formed at any time or at any age.
This theory of attachment was first proposed by John Bowlby who described it as a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings (Cf. Bowlby, 2016, p. 26). He considered that children needed to develop a secure attachment with their main caregiver in their early years. This theory has been revised to acknowledge that multiple attachments can occur with other adults throughout the lifespan, although early experiences may continue to have a significant impact.
Children in alternative care who were cared for by a caregiver who could provide a secure and stable relationship and who had the presence and availability to attach to the child were described as important persons for their individual development (Gahleitner, Radler, Gerlich & Hinterwallner, 2016). These secure attachments support mental processes that enable the child to regulate emotions, reduce fear, attune to others, have self-understanding and insight, empathy for others and appropriate moral reasoning. Bowlby called these mental representations the ‘internal working model’. Insecure attachments, on the other hand, can have unfortunate consequences. If a child cannot rely on an adult to respond to their needs in times of stress, they may have more difficulty learning how to soothe themselves, manage their emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships.
Relational pedagogy – namely the idea that attachment is critical to the development of the child – underpins all interactions between caregivers and children. It acknowledges the importance of educators being intentional about their work with children and families and recognizing the centrality of relationships for caring and learning (Moyles & Papatheodorou, 2009). It focuses on the individual as a human being, be it the young child, the parents/caregivers and their being together and interconnected experience. It implies a relationship, an obligation and the infinite attention which we owe to each other. It invests a dialectical relationship between the child in alternative care and caretaker and acknowledges the cultural, social and structural context where such relationships can develop (Levine, 1996).
A focus in training
In order to provide relational pedagogy or attachment-based care to children and young people we must find ways to teach such caring to caregivers in training. We can look to different theories in pedagogy and see that they arrive at similar conclusions, namely that education (and especially early childhood education) is based on relational care. These elements of human connectedness support and promote the development of a child. This assumes that the child is embedded in reliable relationships and secure attachments (Ostermayer, 2006). Healthy developmental steps lead to a child´s self-assurance, security, trust and confidence.
Teachers of child and youth care students should provide stable relationships in an environment that is safe from threat and coercion. Based on my own teaching experience this is a key factor for a positive learning experience. When I truly believe in their ability to become a quality child and youth care worker and when I succeed in developing an authentic relationship with them, their effectiveness in learning become more and more effective.
While forming a secure attachment with students is normal and expected, it doesn’t always happen. It is the responsibility of a child and youth care trainer or teacher to be aware of this very important issue. Teachers who consistently reject or ignore their student´s needs tend to produce child and youth care workers who try to avoid an authentic contact to their children and young people entrusted.
Since attachment experiences – both secure or insecure – have such relational consequences, it would be helpful to know what our trainees and students have experienced in their own childhood. It may seem difficult to ascertain, but with some experience and practice a trainer can develop an awareness of this issue. In my own experience, I have seen that a good instructor often has an instinctive awareness of the emotional needs of his or her trainees or students. This is a skill any child and youth care practitioner would use in his or her daily professional work. When I interact with my students and need to assess their emotional state and experience with healthy attachments, I use the same techniques as I do in my own practice with young people and their families. It is primarily about observing and assessing what one needs in order to have an effective learning experience.
Connection and curiosity a prerequisite for learning
Education only becomes possible when a student is ready to face the world with an open attitude and mind. An active learner must be able to focus their attention and have a willingness to absorb new concepts and ideas. On the other hand, learning cannot occur when the student must protect or safeguard their self because of perceived threats among his or her relationships in the learning environment. Freedom from fear is the beginning of curiosity for a learner.
Curiosity can then lead to concentration. Concentration, in turn, requires a relaxed and quiet atmosphere and the possibility for the student that there is space and time to explore his or her perceptions and experiences. An atmosphere of anxiety-free openness, curiosity, and calm concentration forms the psychological starting conditions for successful learning.
It is not only the kind and good hearted caregiver we are seeking. We need a care workforce who is well informed about the principles of attachment and bonding and is educated about the impact of a secure attachment to child`s development. Trainers must maintain a focus on the issues of attachment theory. Perhaps it will turn out that expressions like ‘attachment-based approach’ or ‘relational pedagogy’ will become keywords for our future work with children and youth at risk.
Bowlby, J. (2016, May 1). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Retrieved from http://www.abebe.org.br/wp-content/uploads/John-Bowlby-A-Secure-Base-Parent-Child-Attachment-and-Healthy-Human-Development-1990.pdf
Gahleitner, S., Radler, H., Gerlich, K. & Hinterwallner, H. (2016, May 1). Together Against Violence Österreichischer Teilbericht (pp. 13-20). Retrieved from www.donau-uni.ac.at/imperia/md/content/department/psymed/forschungsartikel/daphneber
Levine, J. (1996). Developing pedagogies in the multilingual classroom: The writings of Josie Levine. London, UK: Trentham.
Moyles, J. & Papatheodorou, T. (2009). Learning together in the early years: Exploring relational pedagogy. London, UK: Routledge.
Ostermayer, E. (2006). Bildung durch Beziehung. Wie Erzieherinnen den Entwicklungs- und Lernprozess von Kindern fördern. Freiburg: Herder.
About the author
Hermann Radler is a professional psychotherapist, specialized in trauma therapy, who has longstanding experience working in alternative care of children and working with traumatized children and with children and youth at risk. He is founder and Executive President of the Federal Association of Therapeutic Communities Austria and President of FICE International, and he is a strong advocate for the transition to family-based or family-like care settings. He is lecturing students at the University for Applied Science “Campus Vienna”, Dept. for Social Work, Austria.