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John Bowlby's Perspective on Learning and Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 1, 2014

Early in his work in child guidance, British researcher John Bowlby became concerned about the ability of children raised in institutions to form lasting relationships with others. He developed an explanation for these behaviors that is referred to as an ethological theory (Schickedanz, Schickedanz, Forsyth, & Forsyth, 2001) because he studied relationship building within an evolutionary context. Bowlby proposed that children who grew up in orphanages were unable to love because they had not had the opportunity to form a solid attachment to a mother-figure early in life (Bowlby, 1969). This attachment is an emotional bond that occurs between two people and is essential to healthy relationship building. Bowlby’s work led him to suggest that this bonding process begins at birth and is well under way by about 6 months of age. During this time, infants typically attach themselves to their primary caregiver. From about 6 to 18 months, a young child separated from an attachment figure (often the mother) will be quite upset and engage in frequent crying. Fear of strangers is another common behavior during this period.

Damon (1983) identifies four stages in the attachment process:

  • Preattachment (Phase I) lasts from birth to approximately 12 weeks of age. During this time, children make little distinction between people in their vicinity. They turn toward them, follow them with their eyes, and are generally more content when others are around.
  • Attachment-in-the-making (Phase II) is the period from about 12 weeks to 6 months of age. At this point, children continue to be interested in people around them. They do not express concern when strangers are introduced during this period. The main change at this phase is that infants become more enthusiastic in their responses to their primary caregivers. They begin to clearly prefer that key person who is providing for their basic needs.
  • Clear-cut attachment (Phase III) begins around 6 months of age and continues to about 2 years. Now, the young child clearly discriminates between people who provide primary care and others. As children begin to explore the world around them, they use the attached person as a secure base from which they move out to interact with people and things. The bonds between primary caregivers and the child are strong, and it is hard for the child to be separated from these attachment figures. Strangers produce more anxiety and concern for children during this phase as well.
  • Goal-corrected partnership (Phase IV) finds the 2-year-old beginning to develop relationships with attached persons that are more complex and that start to recognize the goals and plans of the attached adults. Up to this point, the child has focused on having needs met, and the attachment bond is a rather one-sided relationship. Slowly, these partnerships mature, and the increased opportunities for reciprocal interactions benefit both the child and the adult.

Although infants typically develop a primary attachment to one caregiver, other attachment bonds can also be significant. Fathers, siblings, relatives, and other important caregivers can be attachment figures to the young child. Mary Ainsworth, a key American researcher to study attachment, describes these as secondary attachments (Ainsworth, 1973) and discusses the importance of these bonds in her work.

Bowlby (1969) also describes the more positive aspects of this attachment relationship. As the infant/toddler becomes more confident in his caregiver bonding, he becomes more able to use the attached person as a base from which to explore. If, for example, a mother and her 1-year-old son go to the park for the afternoon, the strongly attached child will typically remain close for a short time and then move off to briefly explore his new surroundings. This sense of confidence and competence allows young children to learn more about the world around them and continue to grow emotionally and intellectually stronger.

Clearly, the attachment relationship has important implications for the early childhood classroom. Teachers of infants/toddlers in particular need to be aware of the importance of attachment and be prepared to deal with the separation problems that many children will face when attached caregivers leave. Another issue is the effect of high turnover rates in child-care centers on secondary attachments. Raikes (1993) found that children who spent at least 9 months with a high-quality teacher were more likely to develop a secure relationship and that attachment security was enhanced.

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