Attachment Theory in Practice

By Megan MacMillan, Communications Director 

At WPGA we believe that healthy attachments between child and teacher are critical for optimal student development and learning. As such, our JK-7 teachers receive professional development through the Neufeld Institute to understand the roots of children’s behaviours and how to foster authentic and compassionate relationships with their students. Below is a conversation with Ciara Corcoran, Head of Junior School, on how we apply attachment theory as a best teaching practice.

What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory has been expanded on over the years, but in basic terms, it’s a psychological model that offers insight into human relationships, specifically, how interpersonal relationships and individual behaviours are influenced by a child’s emotional bond with key adult figures from an early age. A strong emotional bond between a child and an adult role model, resulting from the adult’s consistent nurturing and care, is proven to have tremendous positive and lasting effects on children’s academic learning and social-emotional wellbeing, including their relationships with self and peers. 

When did the school adopt attachment theory as a professional development teaching tool?  
For several years we’ve invited family therapists, trained by the Neufeld Institute, to speak at parent education sessions on attachment-based strategies parents could use with their children. These were so well received that we had the Neufeld Institute provide coaching to our JK-7 teachers on adapting and implementing theory into practice as the basis for meaningful teacher-student relationships.

How do our teachers forge deep attachments with their students?
To build trusted relationships, our teachers connect with each student through small but meaningful gestures, such as a handshake, a question about their weekend or a genuine interest in their strengths. Through these types of interactions, which appear unstructured but are, in fact, intensely purposeful, students feel valued as an equal and important member of our WPGA community.

How does this teacher-student bond affect learning?   
When a student has the security of an attachment, the mind is open to absorb new information. It also encourages students to look to their teachers for direction with regard to values, identity and life choices rather than looking to peer attachments for all decision making.

Do these techniques benefit some children more than others?  
All children have the capacity to flourish when they feel valued, but strong attachments can be incredibly profound for children who are more sensitive or who feel misunderstood. When these children experience attachment, they feel confident and supported to speak up thoughtfully, take thoughtful risks and behave in ways that reflect healthy self-esteem and boundaries.     

What is next for WPGA in terms of teacher professional development?
One exciting current endeavour is our new research partnership with UBC. The research focuses on the brain’s capabilities for learning, with the desired outcome of developing and testing teaching strategies to best help our students effectively process and conceptualize information. We are fascinated by the data thus far and will share our findings as soon as the project is complete.