By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell
Head of School, Currey Ingram Academy
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning. In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
The eighth article in this series explores the importance of attachment in early life as a precursor to social and emotional well-being later in life.
Introduction – Attachment Issues Run Deep
I had a player on a school basketball team I coached a number of years ago. He was a very good athlete and, at first glance, seemed to be one of those students who had it all going for him. I soon discovered surprising behaviors. In a nutshell and despite initial impressions, there was this emotional inconsistency and immaturity about his behavior. Attention and approval seeking, along with general immaturity stood out.
One day after practice, I decided to speak with him. In one of the best 15-minute discussions I’ve ever had with a student or athlete, I was able to understand his behavior.
He was adopted out of an orphanage in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he was adopted later in childhood out of a situation that was wrought with abuse and neglect. I immediately knew how profound the impact his first few years of life was having on his current behavior. I told him I understood how the lack of love, comfort and caring at an early age results in attachment issues, often manifested by the behaviors he was displaying. Moreover, how such issues are often hard to understand because they have their origin in events that the person cannot remember, due to how young they were at the time.
The Study – Harlow’s Attachment Studies
How does one empirically study the importance of a caregiver’s love for their child? In a series of controversial experiments during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harry Harlow used monkeys to study the importance of a mother’s love for healthy childhood development.
Harlow separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers a few hours after birth. The infant monkeys were “raised” by one of two “surrogate mothers.” One was made of wire with an attached bottle for food; the other was made of soft terrycloth but lacked food. Harlow found that the baby monkeys spent much more time with the cloth mother than the wire mother.
The implications for the researchers were that providing affection (via the terrycloth in this case) plays a greater role than sustenance when it comes to childhood development. They also found that the monkeys that spent more time cuddling the soft mother grew up to be more healthy.
Harlow expanded his research in subsequent studies to show that monkeys, when scared, would always seek comfort from the terrycloth mother and monkeys that he separated during infancy from other moneys showed numerous maladaptive behaviors and never really learned to be part of the adult monkey social group.
Circling back to my former student athlete, one can appreciate all the similarities. For example, although he was fed, there was minimal body contact/comfort, thus leading to underdeveloped social responses later in life.
With the increasing number of adoptions out of neglect-filled circumstances through the late 20th century and into the 21st century, research and clinical work on attachment disorders has needed to keep pace, as these children grow towards adulthood.
At Currey Ingram, we have noticed a definitive spike in the number of students who fit this profile. These are bright and beautiful young men and women who, simply put, did not get the love and comfort they needed in infancy. Thus, despite being adopted into wonderful and loving families since an early age, these students still have deeply rooted social and emotional obstacles to overcome.
The first step a school takes to help these students is to be knowledgeable. With knowledge, comes understanding and with understanding comes a level of compassion needed to truly make a difference. There’s many reasons I’m proud to be the head of school at Currey Ingram Academy but one reason that I do not say often enough is that there is a pervading attitude of unconditional love among our administrators, faculty and staff for our students. This, of course, benefits all students, but I think it is worth pointing out that reasoned unconditional love goes an even longer way with attachment-deprived students.
We also have found that explicitly teaching students to think about their emotions is helpful. We have had mindfulness and character education programs, K-12, for a number of years. Last year, our counselors received training with Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a model that trains professionals to provide effective support and treatment for the complex developmental trauma that often results from early rearing without proper attachment opportunities.
This year we are excited to adopt the RULER program, developed at Yale University. RULER is a much more broad-based school program that teaches all students and educators how emotions drive learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships, and health.
“R” stands for recognizing emotions in yourself and others. “U” stands for understanding the causes and consequences of emotions. “L” refers to labeling emotions accurately. “E” focuses on expressing emotions appropriately. And, “R” refers to the effective regulation of emotions.
At their best, schools are much more than disseminators of factual content. We are accepting and explicit instructors of social and emotional skills. The student mentioned at the beginning of the article ended up having a transformational season that ultimately had a positive impact on his academics and social life outside of basketball.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.