Tagged: 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.

Parenting classes and attachments revisited

On 17th May 2012 I blogged about an activity idea inspired by the media interest at the time concerning the Governments provision of a £100 voucher, available in high street stores, to give parents access to parenting classes.

Can parent?

This week the BPS has posted a comprehensive overview of the 2 year trial of these parenting classes on their website (“Parenting classes on trial across England”). The trial itself and the scope of the classes can be found at: http://www.canparent.org.uk/parenting-class.html.

Internal working models and secure attachments

As well as the obvious behaviour management support and advice, the scheme aims to help children to form secure attachments with their caregivers.  The 4 minute video on the site makes reference to parents needing support in helping their children develop a strong sense of who they are”, very much echoing Bowlby’s ideas that a child’s self schema, or template of themselves in relationships, comes from their early childhood experiences.

Student activities

Here are 6 questions/activities which could be used in isolation or combination, after initial teaching of Attachment Theory, to explore this topical issue. The activities/questions are intended to help students achieve a deep understanding of Attachment Theory in context and provide meaningful teacher (and student) assessment opportunities of their understanding and ability to apply their knowledge.

  1. What evidence might the Government use to back up their claim that some parents need help and that the £100, Government funded, voucher is tax payer’s money well spent?
  2. With reference to research, how might this impact on society in the future? (e.g. a reduction in riots, anti-social behaviour, crime rates)
  3. With reference to research in this area explain how parents give a child a sense of who they are and why this is important? (e.g. Bowlby, internal working model, positive relationships in future)
  4. What sort of parental behaviour might compromise a child’s chance of developing a positive working model and a secure attachment?
  5. How would you deliver knowledge of the development of attachments in an accessible way to a wide audience of non-psychologists?
  6. Create a persuasive argument drawing on the research you have learned about, using your skills of analysis and reasoning, that these parenting classes are unlikely to be effective (this way students will have considered two sides of a real world issue as well as critiqued attachment theory and its evidence base!)

Should all parents learn about Attachment Theory?

This week it was announced in the news that “The Government is to issue £100 vouchers for parenting classes in an attempt to stem the breakdown of family discipline blamed by ministers for last year’s riots” (ITV news online, May 14th 2012).

I often find that students of Psychology are somewhat surprised that some of the content of the module they study on Attachments is not more widely known. It is also worth noting that prospective adoptive parents are specifically taught about attachment theory such as Bowlby’s influential work in the field of early social development prior to a child being placed in their care.

This topical Government announcement has received much criticism; many arguing that parents should not need to be taught to parent, some argue that the parents that most need help won’t attend and others, like myself, see it as a positive move depending on the implementation of the system.

While teaching Attachments as part of the AS course (AQA spec A) it could be worth asking students to consider whether what we know from research in Psychology should feature in the content of parenting classes and, if so, what material they might select as most pertinent and how they might present this to a broad audience. Discussions in the media regarding this provision have also touched upon the idea that perhaps some degree of parenting should be taught in schools. Students could consider whether they think that knowledge of the Psychology behind early social development should feature perhaps as part of the KS4 programme of study.

Designing their session to be included in a parenting class programme or a unit of study for other students could be a useful revision activity giving students opportunity to review and apply their knowledge in a novel way.