Education through attachment. Childhood studies affirm Waldorf education

Philipp Gelitz

The boom in creches in the last few years means that an area of psychology – namely attachment research – has also become of interest for parents, educators and doctors. If previously the circumstances of successful or dysfunctional attachments between parents and children tended to be investigated in a clinical setting in the context of certain psychiatric disorders, the question of attachment is today also of wide educational interest: how does attachment arise? What specific forms are there? Can someone “form attachments” with several people?

Attachment types

The British child psychiatrist John Bowlby is deemed to be the father of attachment theory. As long ago as the 1940s he was studying the effects of family patterns on child development. A lot of research has been undertaken in this field since then, including the so-called “strange situation” test developed by Mary Ainsworth. It can be used to identify the attachment type in children aged 12 to 18 months. In the test, the main caregiver (mostly the mother) is in a room with her child with toys and another person. After a time, once the child is playing, the main caregiver leaves the room. What happens then indicates the attachment pattern of the child. Four types are generally distinguished.

1. The securely attached child who mourns for the attachment figure for quite a while but does eventually allow himself or herself to be comforted and is happy when the caregiver returns. These children are certain that everything is always well when the main cargiver is there. They feel fundamentally acknowledged and secure.

2. The anxious-avoidant child who shows little reaction both when the caregiver leaves the room and when she returns. But these children are inwardly very distressed. They feel hardly accepted, occupy themselves only with themselves and avoid contact to avoid stressful experiences.

3. The child with an anxious-ambivalent attachment who is very insecure, cannot be calmed and displays behaviour which is in turn clingy and aggressively resentful when the caregiver returns. This child feels fundamentally insecure because he or she never knows what is coming.

4. The child with a disorganised/disoriented attachment who gives the impression of being completely disoriented and shows no signs of attachment to any particular person. These children display stereotypical movements or only move briefly or not at all or alternatively display other compulsive forms of behavour.

Interaction is crucial

But attachment research investigates not just the attachment of a child with his or her parents or caregiver but also studies the conditions which produce a secure or insecure attachment. According to the current state of knowledge, the following factors are crucial for a secure attachment:

  • Is the caregiver sensitive to the needs of the child? Does he or she “see” the child or confuse the latter’s needs with his or her own?
  • Is he or she always reliable and available?
  • Are his or her reactions reliable?
  • Does he or she interpret undifferentiated expressions such as screaming, for example, mostly in the right way?

The interaction between the main caregiver and the child crucially determines the possibilities of the child to explore, that is, to explore his or her surroundings through play. Self-confidence and a feeling of self-esteem as well as appropriate situational adaptation arise through being acknowledged, acceptance and an appropriate response – in short: through parental warmth.

If the interaction is characterised is unpredictable reactions from the adult and the latter himself or herself has an ambivalent relationship to the child, this creates an anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern. The child never knows exactly where he or she stands. And if the interaction mostly proceeds in such a way that the adult does not accept and see the child with inner warmth but has to assert himself or herself against the child, this gives rise to an anxious-avoidant attachment pattern. In such cases children are highly stressed and concerns themselves only with themselves or the surroundings. But they do not explore the world from a secure base but as compensation because they have resigned from forming an attachment.

Secondary attachments

Each child, however, requires a main caregiver who is there for the child from the first days of life – but who does not necessarily need to be the mother. The child can also always continue to develop further attachments to the father, siblings or carers, for example. If this happens “naturally” within the family, these further primary attachments occur almost by themselves through proximity. If it happens “culturally” through the wish of the parents for daycare, this places high demands on parents and daycare carers with regard to the sensitive development of an attachment to a “new” person. The latter is then a secondary attachment figure. This aspect becomes particularly fascinating if we consider that subsequent relationships with friends, partners and, above all, own children are crucially influenced by the attachment experiences in the first years of life.

Interpersonal dynamic

There are two discoveries which we will  briefly discuss here. The first is the discovery that human behaviour is decided much less by the genes than was assumed even just a few years ago. On the contrary, it is a dynamically developing interaction between adult and child which produces attachment in the first eighteen months of life. The more children feel accepted and understood, the more secure they become in the way they feel about themselves and the world. The more they feel themselves misunderstood and wrongly perceived, or the less they can rely on the response to their utterances, the less secure they will feel in every respect. Children are then hardly able to explore the world because they are under the permanent stress of assuring themselves of their secure bond with the world.  

The warmth of the relationship is key

The second discovery is that adults and children have to live in community, have to acknowledge one another, touch, see and hear one another. That is the prerequisite for a life with self-confidence and a feeling of self-esteem. The relationship is what matters in the first instance – acceptance and parental warmth – not the conventions and content of upbringing. The latter are secondary. Without common, warm living together, no upbringing or teaching is possible because it is a secure attachment which first makes us receptive. Children who are insecure in the relationship with their parents, carers or teachers are forced to activate their attachment behaviour because neurobiologically it always takes precedence over explorative and learning behaviour. Attachment stress means the release of hormones which prevent exploration of the surroundings and learning. First comes attachment, then education!

Attachment theory and Waldorf education

In Waldorf education we like to refer to the envelope around the child. Just as the womb surrounds the unborn, so the etheric envelope surrounds the pre-school child who is protected through habitual actions and communal living against the emotional demands of explicit learning, emotional attractions and external demands. In the years to puberty, the child is protected in the astral envelope which keeps it removed from critical judgement. In the period to the age of majority, the free activity of the I, self-realising activity on the basis of a person’s own life motifs, is enveloped by the last veils of the soul. Taking account of these envelopes in an age-appropriate way is a task of education. The child should be protected from damaging premature developments and overextension.

If attachment theory now suggests that the environment of the small child must be sensitive, reliable and available, then this corresponds to the approach of Waldorf education to care for the etheric envelope of the small child. The development of habits through a rhythmical course to the day and rituals, as well as the sensitive perception of the child through the adult are both elements of the etheric, of life. Even if we normally describe such perception either as an emotional ability or alternatively as mere physical receptivity, there is nevertheless always an underlying sphere of life which is not perceptible with the senses. As Rudolf Steiner puts it in The Study of Man: “If you pick up a piece of chalk, for example, then this is a physical process which is very similar to the spiritual process which takes place when you send out the etheric forces from your eye to grasp the object through sight.” But these “feelers” (Steiner) cannot be recognised by sensory means, Steiner says. Looking at things was very similar to physical touch in a much more subtle way. “What is important in every respect for the sense impressions of the eye and ear is not so much the passive part but the active part which we extend towards things.”

Anthroposophical understanding of attachment

From an anthroposophical perspective, establishing an attachment is the active envelopment of the child in the etheric perceptual activity of the adult. Here it is less important how long or how precisely I look at the child, listen to him or her or morally judge what he or she says; much more important is the qualitative way in which I perceive the child. The important thing is that I should accept the reality of the way the child is, that I support him or her through my active perception, through my interest and acceptance, through my intent to understand him or her. The child senses that because then his or her and my perceptual activity intersect. The child is precisely not an object like the piece of chalk mentioned earlier which I, as the subject, touch. On the contrary, two subjects, the adult and child, encounter one another in the invisible space of reciprocal perception. It is not just looks which are exchanged but living activities. This is a supersensory processes in the sphere of life which then comes to expression in the secure or insecure attachment of the child to his or her main caregiver. Looking permanently at one’s mobile phone severs this space in the relationship.

The neurobiologically demonstrable security (or indeed stress) of an attachment has its origin in the encounter between the etheric “feelers” arising from the perceptual activity of the twelve senses of the adult and child. Since small children exclusively familiarise themselves with the world through imitation, the perceptual activity of the adult determines the perceptual possibilities of the child. Both the perception and imitation of the loving, anxiety-free and targeted perceptual activity of the adult produces the basic trust in the child: the world is good, I am secure, and from this safe haven I can explore the world. Here mutual touch is of central importance in the first year of life. A joint etheric garment is thus woven through a common rhythm of life and the encounter through touch, seeing and hearing. Such knowledge can help parents to envelop their child more actively in their own perception and helps educators in creche, kindergarten, daycare centre and school to understand how a new (secondary) attachment can be developed at all: namely through life together and perceiving one another in community.

That is the real reason for long settling-in periods in creches and kindergartens. But such settling-in is not a one-way street with activity and adjustment by the child, but a joint, living activity focused on mutuality in the etheric space between educator and child.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.