On their first day of school, preschool or daycare children can have a variety of emotional responses. Some children are nothing but happy to be in a new place. They explore, their environment, ask questions and don’t think twice when their caregiver leaves. Other children however, have a harder time adjusting to the new environment and new people. They feel uncomfortable without their caregiver and are hesitant to engage with their new peers. All of these responses are can be normal and with time children will become more accustomed to and comfortable in their new environment. But, these different initial reactions can be attributed to a psychological concept developed by Mary Ainsworth known as attachment.
Attachment refers to the closeness of the relationship between a young child and their primary caregiver (in most cases the primary caregiver is a mom or dad but the term refers to anyone who spends the most amount of time caring for the young child). Children can have different attachment styles depending on the relationship with their caregiver and these different styles can predict how well they handle being in new situations without the caregiver present.
There are 4 main attachment styles: secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized. Each style is associated with a different response when children are put into new unfamiliar situations without their primary caregiver.
Securely attached children notice when their caregiver leaves and protest, but after a small amount of time the child will begin to explore their environment, and begin to play. When their caregiver returns they are happy to see them and quickly at ease.
Avoidant attachment leads to children being virtually indifferent to their caregiver’s presence. They don’t notice when the caregiver leaves and don’t notice when they return either. They have no difficulties engaging with the new environment and beginning to play.
Ambivalent attachment leads to children being quite distraught when a caregiver leaves them in a novel situation. They are not easily calmed down and don’t engage in the new environment or begin to play. When the caregiver returns they immediately go to them but are not easily soothed and still not calm.
Lastly, disorganized attachment characterizes children with no consistent pattern of behaviour in new situations. When the caregiver is present, when the caregiver leaves and when the caregiver returns, their behaviour varies from indifferent to the caregiver to extremely attuned to their presence.
Clearly the best attachment style for children to have is the secure attachment. Children who are securely attached typically have caregivers that are consistently attentive to their emotional state and are responsive to their needs.