31. Using attachment to guide tertiary students teaching

Kumari Valentine (Psychological Medicine)

Attachment relationships have traditionally focussed on the relationship between infant and primary carer(s). They are secure when carers are consistent, attuned with the infant and provide a safe haven as well as a secure base from which children can explore the world (e.g., Bowlby, 1988). Insecure attachments result from non-optimal carer behaviour (e.g., Bowlby, 1988) and are associated with numerous negative outcomes (e.g., Belsky & Fearon, 2004; Benoit, 2004). Early attachment relationships are relatively stable over time (e.g., Fraley, 2002) and generalise, such that attachment relationships with carers allow individuals to develop internal working models regarding how to behave with others (e.g., Ammaniti, Van Ijzendoorn, Speranza, & Tambelli, 2010) and what to expect of others’ behaviour. Thus, relationships other than those between children and carers, for example, romantic relationships, are also considered attachment relationships (e.g., Hazan, Zeifman, Cassidy, & Shaver, 1999). I argue that the relationship between teachers and (tertiary) students is another example of an attachment relationship. The functions of an attachment relationship, certainly in infancy, are to provide safe haven and a safe base (e.g., Bowlby, 1988). I argue that these functions become more psychological than literal as infants grow and that (tertiary) teaching is a context in which the teacher has a role to provide these important conditions for optimising learning. While there has been some writing about the importance of an attachment focus in teaching children (e.g., Libbey, 2009), there is a scarcity of writing about the role of attachment in tertiary education. In this theoretical paper, I argue that an attachment model is useful for informing teaching practice at the tertiary level and that enhancing attachment relationships is likely to be associated with good learning outcomes. Based on the literature about attachment and my experience as a clinical psychologist, I discuss how an attachment framework might influence some teaching decisions and propose strategies (with associated research hypotheses) for improving tertiary attachment teaching relationships.


Ammaniti, M.,  Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., Speranza, A. M., & Tambelli, R. (2010). Internal working models of attachment during late childhood and early adolescence: an exploration of stability and change. Attachment & Human Development, 2(3), 328-346.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of Attachment Theory. Routledge: London.

Belsky, J., & Fearon, R. M. P. (2004). Infant–mother attachment security, contextual risk, and early development: A moderational analysis. Development and Psychopathology, 14(2), 293-310.

Benoit, D. (2004). Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome. Paediatric Child Health, 9(8), 541–545.

Fraley, C. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6(2), 123-151.

Hazan, C.,  Zeifman, D., Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Libbey, H. P. (2009). Measuring student relationships to school: Attachment, bonding, connectedness, and engagement. American School Health Association, 74(7), 274–283.

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