Category: Attachment

Attachment: Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

Attachments in the New Specification

The new specification for AQA places more emphasis on the formation of attachments and has removed the need to explore the impact of day care. The topic of “Attachment” now starts by exploring the early interactions between infant and caregiver that are the building blocks for the development of this bond.

babyAlthough the introduction of the concepts of reciprocity and interactional synchrony are welcome additions, the newly published textbooks seem to offer a blurry and, sometimes interchangeable, definition of these concepts. This is particularly important to point out because even the AQA approved books seem to offer slightly different definitions to the historically popular books (e.g. the companion series). I queried this with AQA and was told that candidates need to be aware that the concepts overlap but that they should be able to define the terms separately. They were very helpful and the senior examiner recommends referring to Condon and Sander (1974) which is on page 16 of the Scheme of Work on the AQA website and is discussed further below.

The Over Lap

The concepts in this area are describing the metaphorical dance between infant and caregiver. It looks, feels and acts like a conversation between infant and caregiver. Though no words may be uttered (not on the baby’s part anyway) this two-way interaction has two active contributors. The interactions will be rhythmic and mutual; infant and caregiver are likely to appear to be in harmony as they take turns in this attachment promoting conversation which is likely to involve the infant and caregiver responding to each other with similar sounds, emotions and behaviours. Infant and caregiver are able to anticipate how each other will behave and can elicit a particular response from the other.

What does it look like? The caregiver who smiles at their baby in response to a smile-like facial movement from the infant or who opens their mouth in mock surprise when the infant scrunches up their face, is engaged in this two-way pattern of interaction and is laying the foundations for an attachment to form. The infant that cries and elicits a sad expression and look of upset on their caregivers face or the caregiver who laughs in response to their infants giggling sound and tickles them, is experiencing synchronised interaction.

Defining the Terms Separately


The word reciprocal means two-way, or something that is mutual. Infant and caregiver are both active contributors in the interaction and are responding to each other. This is referred to as reciprocity.

Interactional synchrony

The word synchrony means a simultaneous action or occurrence. Interactional synchrony relates to the timing and pattern of the interaction. The interaction is rhythmic and can include infant and caregiver mirroring each other’s behaviour and emotion.  The infant and caregiver’s behaviours and affect are synchronised because they are moving in the same, or a similar, pattern.

Condon and Sander (1974) have investigated interactions between infants and caregivers in particular in relation to responses to adult speech. In their paper they report “As early as the first day of life, the human neonate moves in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.

According to research by Meltzoff and Moore (1983) infants as young as 3 days imitate the facial expression of adults. This implies that this ability to mirror is an innate behaviour.

Beyond the course

Learners may be interested in the applications of this knowledge in Psychology. Music therapists and other therapists who work with parents and infants/children who have experienced disruption in their attachment formation (e.g. when children are adopted and attachments with foster carers need to be transferred to adoptive parents) recognise the importance of reciprocity and interactional synchrony in their therapeutic work. For example, caregivers are encouraged to mirror and share their child’s emotion by imitating facial expressions and engaging in reciprocal behaviour in response to music or other stimuli.

Attachments: Rutter Versus Bowlby

Rutter’s Challenge: Is Monotropy a Valuable Concept?

Most, if not all, A Level Psychology textbooks make reference to the challenge made by Michael Rutter regarding Bowlby’s concept of monotropy (the idea that infants need one bond that is stronger than all the rest) but they make this reference fairly superficially. I often find that students are aware that Rutter made a challenge but don’t really understand the grounds on which Rutter disagreed with part of what is arguably one of the most important and influential theories A Level Psychology students will come across.

Good Old Radio 4

radioBBC Radio 4’s science programmes are, in my opinion, exceptional. In June (3rd June 2014) an episode of The Life Scientific was aired which focused on the work of Michael Rutter. The interview with Rutter (still available to listen to at time of blogging) is a must listen for any A Level Psychology teacher, student or anyone interested in Developmental Psychology.

From the Horse’s Mouth

horseI love hearing about how researchers got into their field, what motivates them and what sort of people they are more generally. You don’t get this knowledge from the pages of a textbook and so taking the opportunity to hear learn first hand from the researcher, rather than simply reading a (possibly false) biography online, should not be missed. One of the things that particularly struck me was that Rutter is in his 80’s and is still working; he talks about how he still works with the individuals who were part of his study of Romanian orphans who were adopted. In a society where many people are driven by making as much money as possible then retiring as soon as possible, it is refreshing to hear someone value the meaningful nature of their work and for someone of his vast experience to hold great value too. This is something I would make explicit when discussing this interview with students as the potential benefit in the classroom goes much further than the content of the A Level specification.

In the Classroom

About 15 minutes in to the episode, Rutter refers to the differing approaches of the Tavistock Clinic in London (taking a Psychoanalytic approach), where Bowlby was working, and South London’s Institute of Psychiatry, where he was working. It could easily be assumed that Rutter and Bowlby were rivals or enemies but during the interview, Rutter speaks highly of Bowlby’s work. Rutter models the use of evaluative thinking, a vital part of being a Psychologist which can be used to help dispel the myth that this is an Assessment Objective that is purely the task of A Level students. This gives students the opportunity to see (or hear) that analytical thinking is a vital skill to master in order to be an effective learner, in or out of formal education, and is not something you do (or appear to be doing) at school then switch off when you think you are not assessed anymore.

I would either ask students to listen to the episode (or part), with some questions to focus them on particular aspects, for homework or play all or part of the episode in class. You might ask students to defend Rutter’s challenge using what they have learned and possibly counter criticise by thinking about how Bowlby might defend his position regarding monotropy. Rutter basically suggests that it doesn’t make sense to need one (usually maternal) bond more than any others because if that bond was broken the cost would be so high.

I’m not going to repeat the interview here; listen to the episode and hear Rutter make his case (he talks about the differing effects of deprivation and privation too). This audio resource puts the detail on a blurry textbook representation of what is arguably a key evaluative point of Bowlby’s  Attachment Theory. Rutter also talks about his study of Romanian orphans in a way makes criticising on knee jerk methodological grounds seem somewhat churlish. A great opportunity to stretch students thinking and avoid relying too heavily on weaknesses of research in evaluative writing.

Other scientific lives

Another useful episode of the Life Scientific for A Level Psychology is an interview with circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster.

Demystifying the Language of Bowlby (and other theories)

Vexing vocab = struggling students

Many theories in Psychology appear riddled with new and complex terminology for often very abstract concepts. This can be hard for many students to cope with, particularly if they have struggled to decode language throughout their education.

A prime example: Bowlby’s Theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (AQA) is a good example of a theory with what seems like many brand new complex terms. Teaching students about Bowlby’s ideas without considering the origins of his terminology can leave students feeling that they are learning copious amounts of brand new language. They will struggle to apply this learning if they acquire it without full understanding.

I don’t think that there is much chance of A Level students retaining knowledge of Bowlby’s Theory, or theories like this, and using the terms in the appropriate context if they don’t consider why he chose the words he did to describe his concepts. Students can easily be under the impression that theorists simply make up words and terms to sound clever and make other people feel inadequate. A term that has no semantic associations in our memory is likely to be quickly forgotten.

Laying the foundations

foundationsWhen teaching Bowlby’s theory I start with an activity where I display a list of words associated with Bowlby’s proposals about how attachments develop. For example, the list includes: evolve, adaptive, innate, continuity, hypothesis, internal, model, mono, critical, sensitive and period. I ask students in small groups to identify words they are familiar with and those they are not. I also ask them to use the words in a sentence and to identify words with several meanings or uses. As a class we then unpick the words, considering what they mean and the ways they are used; this is to ensure students are all familiar with what will make up most of the key terms for the lesson.  I generally find that many are quite confident about doing this; however, there are always a significant number of students who are not at all confident with the use of many of these quite common words.

Reducing new learning, lightening the load and maximising memory

Understanding the meaning of the list of terms above makes Bowlby’s theory quite predictable and so much easier to understand and remember. I think that unpicking the origins of these words reduces the amount of genuinely brand new learning that students are exposed to. I have found retention of Bowlby’s theory to be much better since using this approach, in no small part because they had somewhere old to put their new learning (or however, you want to describe it or analogise) and the new learning didn’t actually feel so new.

Narrowing a gap

Students who were familiar with the terminology already are able to see why Bowlby chose to combine words and use terms such as continuity hypothesis, internal working model and critical period. The consequence of this is that they also understand it better now. Using literacy skills, such as being reminded that the prefix mono refers to one thing suddenly makes terms like monotropy make much more sense and in turn increases the chance it will be remembered.

The students who are learning theses terms for the first time in this lesson are also benefiting from this approach. These students have learnt these concepts twice, which in itself is a benefit, but they have also had the opportunity to fill in the blanks in their vocabulary and to have experienced the process of decoding language when it is not familiar. This is a vital skill for good literacy and making this skill explicit has a place in every lesson in every subject.

Beyond Bowlby

I think this type of starter is appropriate for many theories in Psychology and would work well to introduce the main approaches in Psychology too.