Eli Mooiweer; Jasmijn Mooiweer; and Lieke Wolbers

Creating a safe space for every student is crucial for their development. In this chapter we will be talking about how you recognize attachment and related behavioral issues in your students and yourself, why it is especially important in the international school context and provide you with some strategies for your own classroom.

In international schools the amount of students spending the entire duration of their primary education in one school, or even country is significantly low. Creating an environment where you as a teacher recognize attachment issues in your classroom and adapting to your students needs is important.

Attachment issues can show up in children in many different ways. For  example, students may demonstrate unfocused, disruptive, controlling, withdrawn or destructive behaviours. Learning why a student is behaving the way they are may help you find more effective ways of adapting to them and helping them succeed..

To start the chapter, we chose this video that introduces the topic of attachment through children’s perspective. Though the video is short, it shows why attachment awareness is important.

History of attachment theory

At the latter end of the nineteenth century, child development researchers and psychiatrists identified that infants and young children have a need to be near familiar caregivers. When children were separated from their caregivers, they displayed stress behaviours and anxiety. However, the notion of why this was the case was subject to speculation and many psychiatrists, including Freud, believed that this was because parents provided food for their children. In the 1930s the psychiatrist Ian Suttie (1935) theorized that affection was a primary need of children and not connected to the need for food. Later studies on rhesus monkeys provided more evidence   that the fulfillment of emotional needs are paramount to a healthy development.

Security theory

In the 1920s and 30s, psychologist William Blatz developed a personality development-based theory, which highly influenced Mary Ainsworth, who developed her own body of work on attachment theory. In Mary’s own words, her theory encompassed the following:

“… in infancy and early childhood the individual needed to develop a secure dependence on parents in order to gain the courage necessary to brave the insecurity implicit in exploring the unfamiliar world and learning to cope with it.” (Ainsworth, 1983, p.4)

This secure dependence on parents would later be referred to as having a ‘secure base’ which would become one of the key concepts that attachment theory was built on.



Another important contribution to the understanding of attachment theory was psychologist Harry Harlow’s research. Harry was heavily influence by Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and published an important paper about attachment and development called, The Nature of Love, based on his research with rhesus monkeys.


Providing his monkeys with the basic physiological and, arguably, safety needs Harlow could experiment with the need of love and belonging. Harlow’s research was mostly focused on cognitive and social development in infants and his views did not always match up with the general public opinion. The general public at the time believed that “paying attention to young children would “spoil” them and that affection should be limited.” (Cherry, 2020a), yet Harlow set out to prove the importance of safe and secure caregivers during early developmental stages in non-human primates like rhesus monkeys.

Harlow’s most notable study was that of maternal deprivation and the behaviour development of primates (Vicedo, 2010). In his study Harlow separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers within hours after birth and provided them with two artificial mothers. One ‘mother’ was made of wire and one was covered in cloth. Both could hold a bottle for feeding the monkey, only the cloth mother could offer the soft and warm touch of cloth.

The Rhesus monkeys were divided in three groups:

  1. no artificial mothers at all.
  2. both artifical mothers  but only always fed through the wire mother
  3. both artifical mothers but was always fed through the cloth mother.



Watch this video that explains attachment theory and refers to Harlow;s experiments with infant rhesus monkeys.

  • NOTE: These experiments include practices that would not be ethical today.
  • What do you think about this theory? How might you test it an an ethical way? is this possible?

Harlow’s ‘science of love’ was groundbreaking and his outcomes surprised many people. Through these experiments, Harlow successfully proved that primates have an innate need for maternal affection in their early life stages. He went on to further extend this research by placing the rhesus monkeys used in his experiments in a naturally socialized group of rhesus monkeys and observed their social behaviour in an effort to study the long lasting effects of deprivation of affection in early childhood. (Suomi & Harlow, 1972)

What Harlow was working for was finding evidence for the biological needs for love and belonging, even though his methods were cruel.  “Harlow’s experiments were often unethical and shockingly cruel, yet they uncovered fundamental truths that have heavily influenced our understanding of child development.(Cherry (2020b) ”


Please keep in mind that his experiments would not be ethical in today’s society. If this could be troubling to you, please skip the first link which is the original film. The second link is an option that does not show video or images of the experiments at the time, but still talks about what the experiments were.

  1. Mother Love (1959) Full Film – Monkey Maternal Deprivation Experiments (26:54) (Homunculus Cinematix, 2019)
  2. Harlow’s Horrifying Monkey Experiments (4:33) (SciShow Psych, 2017)

Applying nuance to ethological connections to attachment

In the first week of November 2020 many online news articles popped up describing new research findings that shed more light on the depth of attachment bonds between horses and their human caretakers. Below you can find examples of these headlines and links to the articles:

The rough wording of many of these headlines upset quite a few horse owners across the globe. One blog described the reason for this: “If you are a horse owner, chances are you reacted very strongly to these claims. We all have stories about our horses that don’t seem to align with this.” (“Does this study really claim your horse doesn’t love you? – Good Horse”, 2020)

It is interesting to ponder if we sometimes project things that are true for us onto other species. As attachment theory has been influenced by the field of ethology. many important findings within the topic of attachment have resulted from extensive (often unethical) experimentation on other species. Critics of attachment theory have often posited that these links have been overgeneralized.

There is no consensus on the interpretation of links made between attachment in humans and attachment in other species, like the rhesus monkeys. Nuance can easily get lost in the translation of research findings and their implications. Even though some interesting findings were reported on, horse-owners will not suddenly cease to believe their horses have affection for them as caretakers and that might be for the best.

More questions

In 1961 Mary Ainsworth presented the findings of one of her studies to the Tavistock Mother-Infant interaction study group in London for the first time. It was met with many different criticisms. The term attachment was felt to be too broad and abstract to be used as a term in a defined scientific field of interest. Another question the presentation elicited was “How do you know that the child was attached?” This question led Ainsworth to construct a catalogue of behaviours which might serve as a set of criteria for attachment and to another study called The Strange Situation.

The Strange Situation was inspired by Harlow’s study, as it placed human infants in an unfamiliar environment, using the mother as a secure base for exploration. This study helped Ainsworth develop a classification system for attachments.

The Strange Situation

The  Strange Situation experiments take place in a furnished playroom that is equipped with toys so that the 12-month olds can engage in exploratory play. The room has a one-way window so that the researchers can observe the situation covertly. Additionally, the room has two chairs; one for the mother and one for the research-assistant who functions as the ‘stranger.’

The experiment consists of eight episodes that all last approximately three minutes. McLeod (2018) lists the episodes in the following manner:

(1) Mother, baby, and experimenter (lasts less than one minute).
(2) Mother and baby alone.
(3) A stranger joins the mother and infant.
(4) Mother leaves baby and stranger alone.
(5) Mother returns and stranger leaves.
(6) Mother leaves; infant left completely alone.
(7) Stranger returns.
(8) Mother returns and stranger leaves.

Mcleod (2018) reported that during the experiment expressions of behaviour were recorded and scored through a reference, linking the behavioural expressions to a value in four domains:

  1. proximity and contact seeking
  2. contact maintaining
  3. avoidance of proximity and contact
  4. resistance to contact and comforting.

The evaluation of these values worked to help classify and analyze the attachment between mother and infant.  Ainsworth’s, ‘caregiver sensitivity hypothesis,’ argued that caregivers who are attuned to their child’s needs and moods achieve a more secure emotional attachment. The type of attachment to primary caregivers may be an indicator for future relationship dynamics. This experiment is most clearly understood when viewed. Watch the video footage of the experiment to solidify your knowledge.

The Strange Situation in action (optional)

  1. 3.14 minutes / the experiment itself -(Thibs44, 2009)
  2. 4.38 minutes / experiment explanation and experiment footage



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by Eli Mooiweer; Jasmijn Mooiweer; and Lieke Wolbers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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