EYFS consultation: Question of responsibility

Anne O’ Connor, early years consultant, trainer and author specialising in the Prime areas of emotional and physical development
Monday, January 6, 2020

Making ‘positive attachments’ to adults and ‘forming friendships with peers’ should not be part of the Early Learning Goals for children, says early years expert Anne O'Connor

Anne O’ Connor
Anne O’ Connor

As we know, we should always be careful what we wish for. I have both a personal and a professional interest in the way that insecure attachments affect children’s well-being and capacity for learning and development. So, I should be pleased to see such words as ‘attachment’, ‘relationships’ and ‘self-regulation’ featuring so prominently in the Rationale for Change and proposed Early Learning Goals (ELGs) within Personal, Social and Emotional Development in the Government’s current consultation on the EYFS.

However, these words have no value whatsoever if their use does not lie securely within an understanding of attachment theory and the development of executive function skills that include self-regulation, persistence and impulse control. Sadly, this would seem to be the case here.


Attachment and executive function skills are intrinsically bound together, in that self-regulation is much less likely to develop without ‘good enough’ attachment experiences. Children do not ‘form positive attachments’ without adults and others around them being stable and ‘emotionally available’ enough to provide those nurturing experiences of relationship in the first place. The emotional availability of those around them, among other things, is key to a child’s ability to form healthy attachments.

It is not the child’s responsibility to work hard at creating attachments. A young child living with insecure attachments, for whatever reason, or who is not yet interested in forming friendships, does not ‘get better’ at it by putting more effort in, by ‘working towards’ relationships as a specific learning goal.

Attachments are not a learning goal against which a child’s development can be judged. Attachment is more a ‘lens’ through which we gain a greater understanding of a child’s well-being. An understanding of attachment theory can better enable us to understand and appreciate what a child is communicating through their behaviour and motivations. It helps us understand what they might need from us in order, ultimately, to be able to develop the self-regulation required to work and play co-operatively, to take turns, to make friendships and to show sensitivity to their own and others’ needs.

This will not come about just through a learning programme or scheme of work, or setting it as a goal for the child to work towards and be judged against.

Not only is attachment development (healthy or otherwise) intrinsic to early experience, it is developmental and, therefore, highly contingent on a wide range of other factors (biological, neurological, environmental and social, to name just a few), which a young child has absolutely no control over.

Stating that children at the expected level of development ‘will form positive attachments to adults and friendships with peers’ is as inappropriate an age-related ELG as is expecting all children to have reached a certain height by the end of the EYFS, or to have lost all their baby teeth – and to judge their progress by the number of new teeth they have gained. And rather like second teeth coming in, executive functions are more likely to be seen to be developing well during the seventh rather than the fifth year.

Are we really going to judge a child who is shy and struggling to make friends as failing to meet the required ELG? Let alone those on the autistic spectrum, adopted and looked-after children, or those struggling to form attachments in emotionally fragile homes and acting out distress through anti-social or withdrawn behaviour.


Putting attachment and executive functioning skills at the heart of a curriculum (ideally from birth to 25 years) would, indeed, be a wise move. It would match our current understanding of brain plasticity and the best timeframe for compensating for any potential lack of positive early relationships.

The more we understand the necessity of good enough attachment and early relationships, and their impact on the way the brain develops healthy executive functioning skills, the healthier and more resilient we will become as a society. However, responsibility for children’s attachments lies with us, the adults caring for them, not the children. The focus on attachments and executive functioning skills as ELGs is, therefore, misguided, ill-informed and potentially damaging. It needs to be challenged.

  • Proposed PSED goals: self-regulation
  • Self-regulation
  • Children at the expected level of development will:
  • show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others, and begin to regulate their behaviour accordingly
  • set and work towards simple goals, being able to wait for what they want and control their immediate impulses when appropriate
  • give focused attention to what the teacher says, responding appropriately even when engaged in activity, and show an ability to follow instructions involving several ideas or actions.

ELG: Building Relationships

  • Children at the expected level of development will:
  • work and play co-operatively and take turns with others
  • form positive attachments to adults and friendships with peers
  • show sensitivity to their own and to others’ needs.

The sector has until 31 January to respond to the consultation here

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