Ages & Stages: Bonding & Attachment

Bonding is a process of connecting that goes far deeper than words or touch.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage

0 - 2

When an infant feels "known" by her caregiver, she begins to develop a strong sense of self.

When toddlers feel secure in their primary relationships, they are better able to explore and embrace the world.

Strong bonds with their caregivers help toddlers weather stormy periods when they're learning to tolerate frustration.

3 - 4

Preschoolers still need help finding ways to ease into new relationships and routines.

Four-year-olds often adore their teachers. At the same time, they are working hard to become more independent.

Preschoolers enjoy nurturing one another.

In so many ways, three-and four-year-olds are individuals with their own preferences and styles.

5 - 6

Kindergartners may have many styles of attachment and bonding, but each one represents the need to feel connected to you and the group.

Children need you to accept their style of bonding, meeting them on their own terms.

0 to 2 "You're so special to me."  by Carla Poole

Rachel's eyes widen, and a warm smile spreads across her face. She is sending a clear signal to Helene, her caregiver, that she is ready for an affectionate snuggle. Her quiet body and steady gaze are her way of saying, "Hi! Let's play!"

Over time, a primary caregiver learns to read a baby's unique set of cues and follow her rhythms. Their relationship, like a dance, deepens into a comfortable intimacy. Helene knows Rachel's favorite way to be held, what will make her chuckle, and when she is getting tired. They have formed a deep bond during their daily caregiving routines: feeding, diapering, quiet cuddling, and singing to sleep. When an infant feels "known" by her caregiver, she begins to develop a strong sense of self, just what a baby needs to blossom into an energetic and happy toddler.

Moving Into Toddlerhood

Beginning around seven months, babies become mobile and actively explore their environments. Ten-month-old Matthew, for example, quickly scoots toward a colorful ball that has rolled into a far corner. Halfway across the room, he stops and turns toward his favorite caregiver. She smiles and says, "I see you, Matthew. I see you crawling toward that ball!" Having touched base with this important person, Matthew comfortably continues his exploration.

Children this age are also developing preferences for specific people and styles of interacting. Sixteen-month-old Sally always looks for Vera when she is upset. When Vera is not there, it takes Sally a little longer to pull herself together, even when she is lovingly comforted by another caregiver. The benefits of a strong bond between a toddler and her primary caregiver far outweigh the stress caused when her primary caregiver is unavailable.

Kiara, a feisty two-year-old, protests when Carmen, her teacher, tries to coax her inside for lunch, so Carmen tells her that she can go back outside right after nap. Kiara takes one last run around the play yard before she slowly walks inside. She is trusting Carmen to follow through on her promise, and Carmen will. They are building a relationship based on respect and trust.

Toddlers are often wonderful relationship builders, especially when their expanding need for autonomy is respected. Gradually, they begin to relate the positive feelings from their first relationships to other adults and children as well. However, they are new to all of this and can become worried or overwhelmed when they are cared for by too many adults.

Early Bonds Are Building Blocks

Positive relationships during the first few years of life have a dramatic effect on a child's ability to empathize with and care about other people. Early bonds of love set the stage for how children feel about later relationships.

What You Can Do:

Infants and toddlers need lots of time with the same caregiver, so let them play favorites!

  • Spend special time together one-on-one.
  • Let the child pick the activity and set the pace. Daily life requires the toddler to make many necessary adaptations to adult expectations. A playtime during which the toddler is the leader can be a powerful growing experience, building trust and love between child and caregiver.  

3 to 4 "Wanna Play?"  by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

With a little encouragement, three-year-old Joni develops a comforting morning ritualblowing Dad five kisses from the window before he walks to his car, then running over to the couch in the cozy corner, snuggling in, and requesting, "Three Bears, again!"

Though young children are drawn to various classroom activities and generally enjoy playing with friends at the easel or in the block center; caring adults still play significant roles in the bonding process.

Bonding With Peers

Four-year-olds often adore their teachers and may even want to marry one of their parents. But at the same time, they are becoming more and more independent. Busily testing out the intricacies of peer friendships, some fours become "best friends." This special bond may last for years or just an instant, and it often involves specific language and secret signs. For instance, every day Sammy waits patiently by the door to greet his friend Eric with "Hi, Buddy Boy!" Eric replies with the same phrase, and the two boys bump fists three times, shout, "Let's do it!" and head for their "cave" under the giant playhouse. Same-sex bonding is common at this stage. Typically, during a game of Duck, Duck, Goose, Mark selects Jon, who picks Darryl, who chooses Nathan. However, Becki and Tim, who carpool together, are inseparable playmates throughout the day.

In so many respects, preschoolers are individuals. Some children are comfortable hugging and touching as they bond physically. Others may appear standoffish and warm up slowly. Adults need to tune in to individual preferences and help children be respectful of one another's styles.

What You Can Do:

  • Remember, some children will need time just with you. Try to schedule one-on-one time when you can be together enjoying an activity or chatting or as a time when a child can regroup and just feel close.
  • Don't hesitate to communicate with children using reassuring words and gestures.
  • Help hesitant preschoolers enter activities. For instance, you might observe children's play and at an appropriate time say, "Looks like you guys need a driver. Andrea might like to steer the ambulance."
  • Share books about friendships. For instance, an old friend is welcomed home in the charming book Old Bear by Jane Hissey (Philomel Books). Use stories to help children work through separations and friendships.
  • Enlist volunteers-warm, caring individuals who are willing to spend regularly scheduled time talking and playing with youngsters.

5 to 6 "I like it this way!"  by Ellen Booth Church

Almost without your noticing, Sophia slides her hand into yours. At the same time, Frederick and Jamallia jump up and down, recounting their first experiences on the school bus. Glancing toward the door, you see Max, with a shy, furtive smile that says, "I am here." It is the start of a new school year.

Tuning in to Individual Styles

Wendy, a small, quiet little girl, attaches herself to you like a strip of Velcro. She follows you everywhere, silently observing classroom action from the safety of your hip. Some children need physical closeness in order to feel safe and accepted. Children like Wendy may need to stay physically attached for months, breaking away when they feel ready. Forcing or cajoling only backfires because the child sees this as rejection.

Rather than ignore this child, include her in whatever you are doing. Give her things to do to help you and ask her opinion (without expecting answers). When you are speaking to other children gathered around her, speak to her as well.

Brian, filled with the drama of life, expresses his likes and dislikes loudly, making sure that you (and everyone else in the class) know he is there. Children looking for connections may use positive and negative attention-getting devices. But their basic goal is still to feel happy and accepted. While these children need to feel attached just as much as others, they probably will not be the ones to ask for a snuggle.

Try to find ways to support and connect when the child is not acting out. Respond when the child is connecting in positive ways with comments such as "It's great to talk quietly together, don't you think?"

Charise wants to connect but isn't too sure how close she wants to get. She may give you a quick hug, a touch, or a big smile, then quickly be on her way. In kindergarten, children are becoming as interested in friendships with other children as they are in connecting with the adults in the classroom. Some feel a budding sense of confidence and want to connect with everyone, so they may only have the time (or inclination) to look for reinforcement from their teacher through quick interactions.

Acknowledge children's attempts at bonding and make an effort to gradually engage them in longer and deeper connections. At the same time, keep in mind that it takes only an instant to show a child you support and appreciate her.

Joel, silent and still, takes in the whole scene from a distance. He plays near others but is not directly involved. Totally aware, Joel feels out his connections with deep intensity. Another name for this style of attachment might be "Big Eyes." This is the child who watches everything, possibly recording the events of the day internally for later cross-referencing. You may catch him looking your way and, when you smile in return, get a fleeting grin or a split second of eye contact. This is his way of bonding. Your acceptance of these moments is key to building attachment.

Slowly add more contact. It may take time and intuition to be able to tell when this child feels comfortable. When. he seems to have recorded enough about you and the classroom, you might suggest that he bring a familiar comfort item or toy to school. Then try using the toy as a bridge into discussions. Some children respond more when you talk to the toy instead of them!

What You Can Do:

  • Be prepared for some children to change bonding styles throughout the first few months. Some may jump into the program easily and months later go through separation issues.
  • Be flexible with expectations. Follow each child's lead.
  • Many children want to connect with friends but don't always know how. Suggest playdates with classroom friends to parents. Some children connect better at home and build on these experiences to create deeper friendships in school.
  • Make time each day to listen to and connect with children. Tune in to body language and emotions as well as what they are saying.

What to Expect Next

  • The "cool quotient" is a big consideration among sevenand eight-year-olds. Children may want to bond with you but may be concerned about appearing babyish. Remember, they need to feel attached just as much as younger children.
  • Connect with warmth and support, tempered with respect for children's need to be part of the group. Find subtle ways to show you are connected (and cool!).

  • Subjects:
    Child Development and Behavior, Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development
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