What Is Secondary Attachment? How Teachers Can Create Learning Environments That Foster Secure Relationships

Attachment theory is heralded as the gold standard in the psychological field for understanding the process by which a child develops a sense of relationship to self and other. Most of the attachment research focuses on the parent child relationship as it is in the first three years of life that these attachment dynamics solidify.

Research has shown (Schore 2001) that secure attachments in childhood create the foundation for mental processes such as metacognition and reflective functioning, emotional regulation, and attunement.

But the field of interpersonal neurobiology has taught us that the brain is plastic across the lifespan (Siegel, 2012) and that attachment patterning can change across the lifespan as well, as a result of safe and secure relationships. That being the case, it is important to look at the role of what John Bowlby, a pioneer in attachment research, referred to as “secondary attachment figures,” e.g. teachers, caregivers and therapists, and the ways these figures become essential in the development of secure attachment in their students.

How much can an adult – outside of the home – impact a child’s developing sense of self? The answer seems to be quite a bit. Recently authors in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and education such as Lou Cozolino and Kirke Olson have written about the impact teachers have on the attachment development of their students. In fact, Cozolino emphasizes how imperative it is for teachers to foster secure attachment.

How Can Teachers Impact the Outcomes of Their Students?

In addition to primary parent figures, teachers can be critical figures throughout a student’s lifespan to support the student’s needs for connection and exploration, as demonstrated by the Circle of Security.

In addition to primary parent figures, teachers can be critical figures throughout a student’s lifespan to support the student’s needs for connection and exploration, as demonstrated by the Circle of Security.

Reflective Functioning
As secondary attachment figures, teachers can develop skills to understand both themselves and their students behaviors or feelings – a skill that Peter Fonagy (Fonagy et al., 1997) refers to as “reflective functioning.” One way these skills can be enhanced and developed is through the process of mindfulness meditation. Meditation supports the ability to stay aware of one’s own internal experiences – body sensations, emotions, thoughts – while simultaneously paying attention to the facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal communications of another.

As teachers develop these reflective skills, they foster secure attachment in the classroom. Teachers are setting the foundation for promoting students’ executive functioning, skills which inform a child’s ability to focus, problem solve, make decisions, develop persistence and inhibit impulsive behavior – all of which are essential for academic learning.

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This cultivation of perception of one’s own internal mental states (intentions, feelings, thoughts, desires and beliefs), as cultivated in meditation practice, can help teachers to make sense of and anticipate the feelings and actions of their students. This curiosity about their students’ internal lives (another benefit of mindfulness practice), what Fonagy refers to as “mentalization,” is a function of the teacher’s attuned reading and modulating of the students’ internal state. Mentalization is a key means of helping students to regulate their emotional lives and creates pathways for greater emotional regulation skills in the future. A teacher’s ability to mentalize the internal world of the student also fosters the child’s capacity to make sense of his or her own internal experience.

Creating Learning Environments That Foster Secure Relationships

While we can focus on the importance of teaching children meditation, it might be more significant that teachers learn basic mindfulness skills themselves. Mindfulness practice can lead to the development of greater reflective functioning and mentalization capacities, so that teachers can engender an environment of curiosity and connection, instead of frustration and isolation. These skills provide the foundation of secure attachment relationships over time.

Teachers may routinely misinterpret insecurely attached children’s “problematic” behavior as aggressive, unpredictable, uncooperative, withdrawn, reactive, distracted, or impulsive.  Therefore, it may also be important for teachers to have a basic understanding of the distinct attachment styles so that they can interpret a child’s “misbehavior” through the lens of “what happened to you?” as opposed to “what’s wrong with you?” This approach will lead to teacher/student relationships that are born of curiosity and compassion, which can have a great effect on a student’s relationship to themselves and others over time.

The role of teachers – in influencing attachment patterning in students – extends far beyond the classroom, impacting the student’s work and love relationships in adulthood.

In My Work …

As a therapist specializing in working with the effects of early childhood trauma on adult relationships, one of the most important questions I ask when learning about a client’s early life is: “Was there a teacher or mentor with whom you were close as a child?”

This question is fundamentally important. First, it instills a reflection opportunity for the client independent from their parent-child relationships. Second, if the answer is yes, this person has a fundamentally higher likelihood of achieving “earned security” in their lifetime.

Getting Started with Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help you cultivate, understand, and develop curiosity for your own internal mental states. To get started, you might try these guided mindfulness practices:

Julia Barry, MFT
is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Somatic Experiencing® and EMDR Practitioner in Boston, MA. Julia’s clinical practice focuses on the treatment of trauma, attachment and mother-infant bonding, relationship issues, sex and sexuality and personal growth. Julia has received training in psychodynamic psychotherapy, with an emphasis on adult and infant attachment, Somatic Experiencing® (a body based method for working with trauma) and EMDR.


  • Cozolino, Louis.  Attachment Based Teaching:  Creating a Tribal Classroom, 2014
  • Fonagy, et al. Attachment and reflective function: Their role in self-organization. Article: Development and Psychopathology 9(4):679-700 · February 1997
  • Olson, Kirke.  The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School, 2014.
  • Schore, Allan N.. Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health. INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL, Vol. 22(1–2), 7–66 (2001)

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