Emotional Attachment Theory in Childcare Settings


Emotional attachment is more than a normal feeling in young children. It is vital for the healthy development of children. Robbins and Zacks (2007) define attachment as “a reciprocal relationship formed between a child and a care giver” (p.457). It constitutes the bond that exists between a primary care giver and a child. The primary caregiver is essentially a parent (Stovall & Dozier 2000, p.133).

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Indeed, parents serve as the key determinants of myriads of factors and or circumstances that are critical in arriving at decisions on early childhood development of their children. The modern society “lacks sufficient paid parental leave policies, undervalues the work of parenting and lacks financial supports for parents who stay at home with their children” (Berlin, Zeanah, Lieberman 2008, p.43).

This then means that an alternative source of emotional attachment is necessary for childcare settings. In fact, teachers can proactively play this role. There is a growing body of research in the province of early childhood care, which indicates the impacts of emotional attachment in childcare setting on kindergarten children and toddlers. Data acquired from this body of research indicates that there are immense benefits associated with early childhood care and education. However, with regard to Behrens, Hesse and Main (2007) “placing a child in non-maternal care can have a lasting negative impact on that child’s life unless there is sensitive consideration of timing, quality and goodness of fit for the child” (p.1553).

Primary and secondary childcare givers need to participate in the regulation of child emotions and management of stressful conditions. Touch is one of the ways of showing emotional attachment to a child. It can take many forms, including hugs. Given the characteristics of modern society, which is ever busy, this research proposal argues that a substantive source of touch for children is realisable from the school environment. From this perspective and through consideration of existing literature on early childhood emotional attachment, this research proposal confirms the need to conduct research of a lack of emotional attachment in childcare settings. The focus of the paper is, however, on the necessity and positive impacts of hugs in school within the contexts of legislation and sociological perceptions of a child.


This research proposes to deploy the methodology of gathering primary data on the role of hugs in the childcare setting and then conduct its analysis. The analysis will be conducted to reveal the relationship between hugs and emotional attachment between childcare professional and the children in kindergarten. However, to build on the premises of the study, thorough scrutiny of existing literature on the roles of touch in enhancing management of children emotions in a childcare setting is warranted.

This means that secondary data will also be utilized in making the comparisons of the results obtained in this study and the existing wealth of knowledge in the field of childcare. Consequently, a literature review cannot be negated. Secondary data is vital while making statistical inferences that articulate ethical and moral concerns of physical contacts in the form of hugs in school care settings.

Sample Size and Selection

Due to resources constraints and impracticability of conducting a study of an entire population, samples will be utilised in the study. The selection of sample size is based on the need to incorporate differing variable that may produce different results in the study. These variables include gender, age and even cultural affiliations of the sample to be studied. The precise sample size will depend on the anticipated level of accuracy.

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Data Collection Methods

In the collection of the primary data, questionnaires and direct observations are vital for utilisation. For the case of questionnaires, the sample will be required to fill out questions on circumstances in individuals experience when teachers proactively intervened in managing one’s emotion during challenging moments in life. Questions will also be framed to capture the perception of the children concerning the capacity of hugging to attract sexual attachments when hugs are given childcare professional belonging to the opposite gender. This approach is deemed essential, particularly for the case of controlled group encompassing adolescent school going kids.

Kindergarten children, being the primary sample of concern in the study, direct observation is deemed being the most appropriate way of collecting data. This is because such children may have problems in filling out the questionnaires without the aid of teachers or some other older people. Where older people and teachers may get used to aid children in filling out the questionnaires, the researcher would act as a third party, and hence such data would widely be anticipated to be inaccurate. While collecting data through direct observation, an artificial stimulus will be administered. While the kid attempts to cope with arising emotions, a hug is then given by professional children care staff of different gender and thereafter, the response of the kids is recorded.

Ethical Considerations

Giving children hugs is necessary. However, myriads of ethical arguments exist against it, especially when sexual connotations issues are incorporated into the entire picture. Centre for Attachment (2011) notes, “hugging children in a professional setting is probably not a good idea in this day and age” (Para.5). Apparently, many people would raise the alarm high, citing the capacity of hugging children as an indication of child molestation.

This is a challenge, especially considering that such accusations have the capacity to haunt the professional concerned. The argument against hugging in school setting relies on myriads of ethical, moral and cultural principles. A large number of studies have confirmed that touch is critical in the enhancement of healthy emotional development of a child. However, in school setting gender is a critical issue. In the home based-childcare settings, it sounds ethically appropriate for a father to hug her teenage girl.

However, despite the contribution that teachers make in enhancing cute development of children, in school care settings, male teacher hugging teenage girls is seen by many people as widely being a violation of moral principles vital for being upheld by childcare professionals. Nevertheless, amidst all these arguments, it is perhaps, subtle to argue that whether hugging is necessary for school care settings, the whole issue depends on age coupled with gender concerns. Arguably, it could sound right to hug pre-kindergarten children and children in the elementary levels. Indeed, “If you can give just one child a hug, you can make a difference …” (Grant 2005, p.1).

However, when it comes to children older than nine years, hugging a child needs a second thought, particularly where the child and the professional in charge of the care facility belong to differing genders. Therefore, for teachers working in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, it is widely unavoidable for them to hug kids out of needs for the depiction of protection and compassion. In this context, it is plausible to conduct research on the impacts of hugging in school.

Children are attached to people who are predominantly responsive and sensitive to their emotional needs during social interactions (Whitebook & Bell1999, p.38: Volling & Feagans 1995, p.179: Manlove & Guzell 1997, p.153). Physical contact is perhaps one of the plausible ways of enhancing the role of attachment in children development. In the words of Fonagy and Steele et al. (1991), “when infants begin to crawl and walk, they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to” (p.893).

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However, when the child reaches the pre-kindergarten age, the familial attachments tends to disintegrate as professionals in children care settings takes up the roles of being with the kids during most of their time. According to Tronick, Morelli and Ivey (1992), “separation anxiety or grief following the loss of an attachment figure is considered to be a normal and adaptive response for an attached infant” (p.568). Such behaviours evolve since they are critical in enhancing the likelihoods of child survival. Since when kids reach school-going age separation between the primary caregivers occurs, teachers (secondary caregivers) can indeed help in building further on children’s emotional responsiveness through enhancement of physical contact, hugging is one of the ways for achieving this.

Literature review


An enormous body of literature on the impacts of emotional attachment contends that various forms of touch can immensely foster cute psychological development of children. In general, emotional attachments “are characterised by the interaction patterns, which develop to fulfil the infants’ needs and emotional development” (Vaughn, Bost & van IJzendoorn 2008, p.102). However, the majority of studies in childcare settings tend to focus on the impacts of maternal attachment on the development of children. For instance, Bowlby (1951) argues, “distress at separation from the mother is universal in babies” (p.13).

This distress is incredibly characterised by despair latter being accompanied by detachment. Detachment in the early years of a child’s life has immense repercussions in adulthood. Skuse (1984) contends with this line of view by asserting that “a significant period attachment of one to five years was imperative historically to biological survival, and if it was not in place, then emotional and intellectual problems would occur in adulthood” (p.551). From this context, it is apparent that cute development of emotional attachments in children is not only critical for their psychological development, but also for their cognitive ability development coupled with splendid intellectual capacity development.

An attempt to consider the impacts and necessity of hug as a form of touch on a child’s attachment calls for consideration of the effectiveness of touch rendered by varying people on a child to the child’s ability to handle situations of varying emotions. In spite of many children in the non-maternal form of care being placed under some form of home care, many of the studies have predominantly focused on childcare centres. There is indeed very little evidence pertaining to differences in the quality of emotional attachment provided in centre-based and home-based care (Moss 2006, p.71).

Arguably, the differences in magnitudes of levels of attachment in a childcare setting need to be reflected by the differing levels of quality of care in different childcare settings. In this line of view, Loeb et al. argue: “In other samples, there is evidence that quality of care may be higher in home-based care for infants and toddlers” (2004, p.48). From the perspective of the Early Child Care Research Network, the least levels of quality caregiving are evident in centres for infants of six months (2000, p.116). In addition, Early Child Care Research Network (2000) informs that such centres have a larger population of large group sizes coupled with higher child-adult ratio besides possessing most well-trained and specialised caregivers (p.118).

Children develop various behaviours as coping mechanisms for dealing with undue emotions. Where no one is available to help the child in managing his or her emotions, a child many develop undue antisocial behaviours. In this end, a study by Marshall argues out that “there was less antisocial behaviour among children observed at 10 and 18 months where they were in the care of relatives as compared with childminders or nurseries/centres, with children in nurseries showing poorer language development than those in other types of care” (Marshall 2004,p.166). This study confirms that the development of a child is highly impacted by the nature of the childcare setting.

Furthermore, Loeb et al. (2004) insist that children living in home-based care setting have tendencies of possessing greater magnitudes of aggressive behaviour in comparison to children living with ‘kin and kith’ members (p.57). However, children who live in an individual care setting are perceived as being less socially competent in comparison to those living in-group care setting (Love et al. 2003, p.1024: Loeb et al. 2004, p.57: Wessels, Lamb & Hwang, 1996, p.232).

Indeed, findings indicate an immense association between centre-based programs participation and children’s cognitive development amongst children coming from families having low incomes. Living in a society of busy parents, children spend the better part of their time in schools than they do with their parents. In the light of the differences in the development of social behaviour depending on the nature of care setting, it sounds significant to evaluate the impact of hugging as a form touch in schools (where kids spend the majority of their time) on the child’s ability to help manage his or her emotions.

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Is hugging right or wrong in school care settings?

Whether it is right or wrong for a teacher to give a hug as one of the forms of touch to a child at a kindergarten level depends on the purpose of the hug. As children break for the holidays, some may feel emotional about departing with their tutor. In such a situation, a hug is not a compromise for the kids to express their emotions. It indeed sounds awkward for a teacher to deny a child a hug- it is the end of a term, and hug is a polite way of saying goodbye. After all, it is just a farewell hug and therefore based on the intent; arguably, there is nothing wrong about it.

The necessity of telling a child whether hugging in school is right or wrong

Attempting to respond to the query whether it is appropriate to tell children that hugging in a school care setting is right or not, one needs to pay incredible attention to the fact that children develop their cognitive abilities as their chronological age increases under normal circumstances. Social experience, age and cognitive growth indeed advance with the advancement in complexity coupled with any development-working model. Essentially, as Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters and Wall (1978) reckon that “attachment-related behaviours’ lose some characteristics typical of the infant-toddler period and take on age-related tendencies” (p.141).

Therefore, in this context, the appropriateness of telling a kid a hug is not appropriate or not in a school care setting is dependent on the age of that child. For an adolescent, particularly where the social interaction between the childcare professional and the child is predominantly characterised by individuals of the opposite gender, it is, perhaps, necessary to inform the kids that hugging in school care settings is not appropriate. However, for the kindergarten kids, the process of informing kids about the appropriateness of hugging in school care setting involves bargaining and negotiations.

This perspective is supported by Waters, Kondo-Ikemura, Posada and Richters who claim, “The preschool period involves the use of negotiation and bargaining” (1991, p.23). Ideally, therefore, children are likely to take warning against touch in a school setting as prejudicing their long-cultivated manners of showing emotional attachment to their primary caregivers. In this context, Marvin and Britner (2008) argue, “four-year-olds are not distressed by separation if they and their caregiver have already negotiated a shared plan for the separation and reunion” (p.269).

As the chronological age advances, for the case of school-age kids, social skills establishes a central place in the internal working models utilised in integrations with other children. At about the age of six years, it is common for children to develop goal corrected partnerships with their primary care givers who are principally the parents. In this partnership, all the parties are normally willing to compromise in an attempt to make the relationship so established get gratified (Fraley & Spieker 2003, p.401).

Indeed, according to Kerns (2008), “by middle childhood, the goal of the behavioural attachment system has changed from proximity to the attachment figure to availability” (p.366). By the time a child reaches the age of 7 to 11 years, a shift towards secure-base co-regulation may take place. Thus, caregivers need to adopt methods of negotiation as a way to continue supervision and communication as the child in question progresses towards endeavouring to acquire more independence.

Parental figures remain as substantive centres of the social world of children amid the fact that they spend an incredible amount of time in alternative care centres. However, the centrality of parents figures in the social world of children reduces incredibly “particularly during the child’s entrance into formal schooling (Kerns 2008, p.368). The various forms of emotional attachment, arguably, also need to reduce as a child grows up since, in the process of seeking self-identity, a child needs to acquire new coping mechanisms for their emotions (Schaffer 2007, p.97). In this context, it is arguable that encouraging touch in a school setting through hugging is an endeavour to continue denying a child a plausible opportunity to gain independence in managing his or her emotions.

In a school care setting, two important parties are of substantial influence on a child. These are childcare professional and other children. As Schaffer (2007) reckons, “although peers become important in middle childhood age, the evidence suggests peers do not become attachment figures, though children may direct attachment behaviours at peers if parental figures are unavailable” (p.109). From this argument, it is possible to highlight the two extreme relationships that a child encounters in due course of his or her development from preschool to school age. In the first instance, parents are immensely involved in the management of a child’s emotions; being the primary caregivers.

As argued before, in the relationship between parents and children, touch is so significant in their emotional and cognitive development. In the other extreme, children acquire independence after a few years in school. At this period, the much-accustomed interaction with parents is replaced by peers who Schaffer (2007) argues that the “evidence suggests peers do not become attachment figures” (p.109). In this context, it is crucial to posit that in the transitory process, in between the two extremes, there need to be another party that may help the children to transit from their accustomed parental emotional guidance to the much free world of peer interaction. Essentially, this party should be the professional childcare giver.

Childcare policies

An immense body of research claims that attachment patterns and distributions are largely consistent in differing cultures. However, different polices in different places dictate how the expression of attachment is accomplished in different cultures. Even during the times of Bowlby concerns of social policies, enormously constituted a major driving force in the care of children; something that was replicated in the attachment theory developed by Bowlby. As Rutter reckons, the main challenge in the enactment of attachment policies rests on “the difficulty in applying attachment concepts to policy and practice (2008, p.958).

This challenge is arguably conspicuous since attachment theories place more emphasis on the necessity of sensitivity coupled with continuity in various childcare-giving relationships while neglecting behavioural stimulation approaches and or reinforcement of subtle children behaviours (Rutter & O’Connor 1999, p.823). With the existence of child care policies, “supporting early child-parent relationships is an increasingly prominent goal of mental health practitioners, community-based service providers and policymakers” (Berlin, Zeanah & Lieberman 2008, p.91). With the aid of findings of the attachment theory, plausible policies are in place to guide in monitoring early childhood development through myriads of child-parent care relationships and support programs.

Throughout the history of childcare, statutory regulations have played a proactive role in establishing the modes of relationships between children and caregivers. As a way of example, childcare policies have had an immense implication on institutionalised and hospitalised children, coupled with children living in daycare centres that are of low quality. In a school care setting, statutory policies are prohibitive of any kind of relationship between a childcare giver and a child that may truncate into molestation.

It is important also to note that, apart from the provisions of statutory regulations in matters of childcare, schools also set their own regulations largely based on ethical and moral principles. While it sounds, perhaps, ethically appropriate to hug a child caught up in emotional turmoil as a way of encouraging him or her, many schools prohibit hugging irrespective of the motive behind it in school care settings.

Likely results and recommendations for further study

Bowlby is one of the earliest leading scholars in the field of childhood attachment in childcare settings. He explored myriad of fields including cognitive psychology, the theory of object relations, the theory of control systems and many more, and how they affect the attachment in children (Simpson 1999, p. 115). Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, on the other hand, introduced a “secure base” as a concept for addressing this attachment in the 1960s through the 1970s.

She indeed brought forth four paradigms of looking at the attachment of childhood care settings. These paradigms are “secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, insecure-ambivalent attachment and disorganised attachment” (Bretherton &, Munholland1999, p.89). While endeavouring to set a scholarly inquiry on the roles, hugs can play in harnessing children emotions in school care settings, it is important, however, to note that attachment changes as children progress from childhood to adolescence as evidenced by Mary Ainsworth four paradigms. The results of this study are anticipated to show a relationship with these four paradigms.

Besides assuming that physical contact between the caregiver and a child through hugging can make a childcare giver manage the emotions of a child, something that is critical for an improved emotional performance of a kid, it is necessary to conduct an inquiry into whether physical contact in the form of hugs in school settings is essential. Should this yield positive results, it becomes necessary to adopt policies that would foster hugging as a critical way of helping to comfort school-going children in an effort to enhance attachment between them and their caregivers.

The question that remains is: ‘Do such schools miss the benefits that attachment between caregiver and a child in a school setting can have on influencing a child’s emotional growth and, therefore, sacrifice improved emotional performance of children?’ Another critical question is: ‘Does negation of enhancing attachments between a care giver and a child result in low-quality child care?’ Is it then relevant to consider changing policies of childcare giver child relationship in child care settings as established by the management of various schools and by policymakers necessary? In an attempt to seek answers to these questions, a scholarly inquiry on a lack of emotional attachment within a childcare setting is vital.


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