Positive Relationships: Attachment & the key person - National Strategies EYFS series: part 1

In the first of our new National Strategies features on the EYFS, Ann Langston, Jonathan Doherty and Teresa Todd take a look at attachment and the role of the key person in a child's development.

The Early Years Foundation Stage is built around four themes: A Unique Child; Positive Relationships; Enabling Environments; Learning and Development. Attachment and the role of the key person are very obviously linked to the first two themes. Attachment is also linked to the second two themes through the kinds of environments that foster it in the home, in settings and in the contribution it makes to a child's holistic development.

Attachments are 'the emotional bonds that infants develop with their parents and other key caregivers, such as their key person in an early childhood setting' (Woodhead & Oates p1:2007).

There are two components: the need to be safe and feel comfortable in the relationship the child has with the parent, parents or caregiver, and the appropriateness of the care. Such a bond provides a sense of security to explore the environment and return to the adult in times of distress.

Originating from the work of John Bowlby (later Mary Ainsworth), attachment is a central process of child development, as it influences a child's cognitive, social and language development and all future relationships. Children with strong attachments in their early years typically cry less when separated, engage in more pretend play, are less prone to attention deficit problems, and can control their personal feelings (Doherty & Hughes, 2009).

A Unique Child

Imagine what it would be like to be a baby or a very young child. The infant psychiatrist, Daniel Stern, tried to do just that when he wrote a baby's diary from the perspective of six-week-old Joey, inviting readers of his book to:

'Step into Joey's world and recall what you have never really forgotten. Imagine that none of the things you see or touch or hear have names, and few if any memories attached to them. Joey experiences objects and events mainly in terms of feelings they evoke in him and the opportunities for action they offer him ...It is not clear to Joey how he gets from one moment to the next or what, if anything happens between them ... but all his senses are focused on each one, and he lives each intensively' (Stern 1990).

Initially the baby's whole world is one of feelings experienced moment by moment through the senses. These feelings centre on relationships with people, like their mother or father, and around whether they meet their basic needs for food, safety and comfort in a timely and loving way. The EYFS reminds us of the vulnerability of young children and tells us that they develop resilience when their physical and psychological well-being is protected by adults (EYFS card 1.3: Keeping Safe).

Stern talks about the 'smallest moments' which babies piece together into an understanding of everyday experiences from which they build ideas about themselves, the people who care for them and the world itself. When a baby leaves its own home to be cared for in any setting, everything is new. They are completely dependent on the adults to help them to get through the small moments so that they build new relationships and benefit from the experiences on offer.

Positive Relationships

Attachment is like a thread that links the young child to the people they know well. Research has shown that a critical time for the formation of attachment is between six and 24 months. After this, relationships become more difficult.

Positive relationships are based on mutual respect. In the EYFS this is explained as 'every interaction is based on respectful acknowledgement of the feelings of children and their families' (PiP 2.1: PR: Respecting Each Other). This means that professionals should respect and value not only themselves and their own feelings, but also other people and their feelings, including babies' and young children's feelings - which are constantly communicated through their body language, their verbalisations, cries, moods and behaviour.

Being positively emotionally attached to people helps the child feel safe and confident that the person they depend on is there for them. Conversely, if a child feels uncertain, because they do not know what to expect from their carers from one moment to the next, they become anxious and do not feel safe or able to trust others.

Ironically, babies who are insecurely emotionally attached can sometimes be the 'clingy' babies who want to be with the caregiver most of the time, seeking reassurance, while babies who have developed trust in others are happy to go off on their own a little and find out about the world, knowing that when they need their carer they will be near, ready to protect them.

The key person

By the time a baby or young child arrives in an early childhood setting, they will already have experienced many interactions with their care-givers - how people behave towards them and what to expect in the course of a day. Like Joey, babies have no way of asking about what is happening to them, nor do they have any way of telling us about their needs. They expect us to know what they are feeling and to judge their needs and wants for them.

Being a key person is like being a parent, a mind reader and a detective all at the same time. We have to carry out these roles with kindness, generosity and a real understanding of the feelings of the baby we are caring for. For a baby in the nursery, having a key person is like you or me having a holiday rep on hand when we arrive on a foreign holiday, because the key person helps them to settle in and to understand what is going on, and stays with them for as long as necessary until they have everything they need, physically and emotionally.

Understanding the baby's emotional state is very important, and being able to imagine how the baby might be feeling is part of this. This is known as empathy. Young children are geared to be empathetic to the feelings of others and to communicate their emotions to other people.

At its simplest level, empathy requires the caregiver to share and understand the baby's feelings and to respond to the baby sensitively. However, babies are very good at giving us clues and they are also good at communicating. Of course, we need to be able to interpret what they are telling us by tuning in and listening to them.

Listening to children

In order to 'listen' to a baby, we need first to learn from their parents, who are the best interpreters of their baby's experiences. Parents hold the key to their children's feelings, life story, behaviours, interests, ways of communicating, language and everything else about them. We need to respect this knowledge and value the insights and information it provides.

The 'conversations' we have with families will be different for every child, because not only is every child unique, but every family is also unique, each with its own different story. A 'key person' needs to develop active listening skills, learning from the baby as well as their parents. When we observe a baby we begin to get to know and understand them much more, because we begin to become attuned to them. We can then respond with appropriate understanding and care.

Effective practice

In a truly inclusive setting, leadership and management are also crucial in developing strong secure attachments. Leaders and managers:

- ensure that every child has a designated key person

- ensure that every member of staff understands the importance of supporting children's attachment to their key person

- provide continuing professional development to focus on child development and the role and skills of the key person, especially on empathy

- make links with other agencies that can support staff and parents when children's wellbeing is a grave concern, such as child and adult mental health services, community paediatric services, social services

- provide time for staff and parents to share with and celebrate the uniqueness of each child

- emphasise the need to record children's stories in learning and developmental journeys (often using ICT), presenting images and words that reflect the child's journey - especially at times of transition, such as from home to setting or from one setting to another

- ensure there is recognition that every child and every family have their own contribution to make and that 'although attachment relationships are universal, they are patterned by the culture in which they are formed' (Woodhead & Oates 2007), so they celebrate difference and share what is new.


Attachment is the emotional tie between the young child and the caregiver. Attachment theory has been influential in helping us understand the importance of parents and care-givers developing positive early relationships with their children.

The key person has an instrumental role to play in making and sustaining the emotional ties between adult and child, since it is by forming secure and enduring early relationships that a young child's development outcomes and life chances are enhanced. The EYFS sets out how the key person works with parents to support young children's early attachments.

Ann Langston is senior early years regional adviser (North West), Jonathan Doherty is early years regional adviser and principal lecturer in education/head of early childhood education, Leeds Metropolitan University, and Teresa Todd is early years regional adviser; all at National Strategies


- Abbott, L, and Langston, A (2005), Birth to Three Matters. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press

- Doherty, J, and Hughes, M (2009 in press), Child Development: Right from the Start. London: Pearson

- Department for Education and Skills (2007), Early Years Foundation Stage. Nottingham: DfES

- Langston, A, and Abbott, L, 'Birth to Three', in Bruce, T (ed) (2006), Early Childhood. London: Sage Publications

- Oates, J, and Woodhead, M, in Oates, J (ed) (2007), Early Childhood in Focus 1: Attachment Relationships, Milton Keynes: The Open University


- The Early Years Foundation Stage (ref 00261-2008PCK-EN) is available from DCSF publications, tel: 0845 60 222 60, e-mail dcsf@prolog.uk.com or visit www.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/eyfs

- Excellence and Enjoyment: social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) (PNS 2005, ref 0110-2005KIT) is available for download at: http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk/. It provides a whole-school or setting approach to promoting social and emotional skills, classified into five aspects: self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills. There is a strong emphasis on collaborative staff development.


Social and Emotional Aspects of Development

- An easy-to-use structured package of support materials that builds on best practice and pre-existing materials such as the SureStart PSED file and SEAL. All materials are linked to EYFS, showing how how PSED underpins everything in it.

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