Attachment Theory

Attachment theory focuses on the emotional bonds between children and their caregivers. It helps to explain how early attachments shape children’s emotional development and future relationships.

The Thrive Approach is underpinned by attachment theory to help understand what a child or young person’s behaviour is communicating.


What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory helps to explain the relationship between a child or young person and their primary caregiver(s).

It suggests that young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver in order to survive. The nature of this relationship directly influences how the young person develops throughout the course of their lifetime, both physically and mentally. As such, this relationship will affect the young person’s capacity to make friends, explore the world around them and engage with learning.

British psychologist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, believed that the early attachments established between young children and


their primary caregivers play a critical role in their development and mental functioning, including how they relate to others and respond to stress throughout their lives. Bowlby’s work, along with the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth, contributed to the development of attachment theory.

Secure attachment typically comes from consistent, responsive caregiving, leading to healthy relationships and emotional resilience. However, inconsistent caregiving or neglect can result in insecure attachment, leading to difficulties in relationships and emotional regulation.



How Thrive uses attachment theory

Understand behaviour as communication

Thrive uses attachment theory to help us understand a young person’s behaviour and what this tells us about their social and emotional development. By understanding what a young person’s behaviour is communicating about their unmet social and emotional needs, those working with the young person are then in a position to make a positive difference to their life.

However, if adults don’t recognise what is behind a young person’s behaviour, they will find it difficult to meet their needs. This can result in social disengagement, underachievement in education, exclusion and potential issues in adult life.

Ensure pupils feel safe, supported and ready to learn

The Thrive Approach draws on attachment theory to explore how healthy attachment relationships can be formed and how these can be used to achieve better outcomes for children and young people. Research tells us that our brains prioritise attachment security over exploration, suggesting that a safe relationship is necessary before a child or young person will be ready to engage with learning.

Build emotional resilience

The Thrive Approach helps adults to develop empathy and compassion for those in their care, including understanding the potential origins of behaviour. As an attachment-aware approach, Thrive shows how behaviour can be positively improved, while giving children and young people a secure base and enabling them to build emotional resilience. Ultimately, this can lead to children and young people leading fuller, healthier lives and developing the capacity to thrive.




Key information

  • Attachment theory helps us to understand the importance of the relationship between a child or young person and an adult.


  • The Thrive Approach helps adults to build safe and supportive relationships so that children and young people are open to learning.


  • Thrive uses attachment theory to understand children and young people's diverse, confusing and sometimes distressing behaviour.


  • Thrive's relational stance enables adults to help children and young people to learn to trust, building their resilience and capacity to regulate their emotions.


  • Building trusting relationships offers adults supporting children and young people the very positive reality of making a difference to young people's futures.



Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main types of attachment styles?

There are four primary attachment styles identified in attachment theory:

Secure attachment: Characterised by trust and safety, a lack of concern with being abandoned, and the belief that we are worthy of love.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment: Involves a high level of anxiety about relationships and a need for constant reassurance and closeness.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment: Marked by a desire for independence and a tendency to avoid close relationships.

Fearful-avoidant attachment: Involves a mix of desire for close relationships and fear of being hurt or abandoned.

How are attachment styles formed?

Attachment styles are formed during early childhood through interactions with caregivers. Consistent, responsive and sensitive caregiving typically leads to secure attachment, while inconsistent, neglectful or abusive caregiving can lead to insecure attachment styles.

Can attachment styles change over time?

Yes, attachment styles can change due to life experiences, therapy and significant relationships. For instance, someone with a secure attachment style can develop an insecure attachment style after a traumatic relationship and vice versa.

How does attachment theory apply to adult relationships?

Attachment theory suggests that the attachment styles formed in childhood influence adult relationships. Adults with secure attachment styles tend to have healthier, more stable relationships, while those with insecure attachment styles might experience challenges in intimacy, trust and communication.

What impact does secure attachment have on child development?

Secure attachment is associated with various positive outcomes, including better emotional regulation, social skills, academic success and resilience to stress. Securely attached children tend to have higher self-esteem and better overall mental health and wellbeing.

Impact and Research

Settings that have adopted the Thrive Approach have reported many benefits, including fewer disruptions in class, reduced exclusions and improved academic results.

Learn more


Hear first-hand from the schools and settings using Thrive to support mental health and wellbeing. Explore our latest blog posts and news articles, or listen to the Thrive podcast, Connected.

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