Attachment and Peer Competence

Peter LaFreniere
Dept of Psychology
University of Maine
 During the preschool years, researchers have
consistently noted a gradual rise in social competence
as children acquire greater cognitive and emotional
maturity and self-control and a corresponding decline
in angry outbursts and aggressive behavior.
 One of the first researchers to document age trends
was Florence Goodenough who questioned mothers
regarding these behaviors in a study conducted over 65
years ago.
 She described a developmental trend in which anger
and aggression peaked at age two and steadily declined
during the preschool years, though it remained more
common in boys than girls.
 We recently conducted a study with an extensive
sample using teachers as informants. Over 800
preschool teachers in 12 countries (United States,
Canada, France, Italy, Austria, Russia, Finland, China,
Taiwan, Spain, Mexico and Brazil) participated.
 They evaluated over 4000 preschoolers using the
Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation Inventory
(SCBE), a rating scale developed to assess patterns of
social competence, emotion regulation and
expression, and adjustment difficulties.
 Principal components analyses clearly identified three
factors in all samples representing social competence,
anxiety-withdrawal anger-aggression.
 This basic division between two broad types of
emotional/behavioral disorders has been extensively
verified in early childhood and adolescence.
 Let’s look under the hood…
Social Competence and Behavior
Here is a list of behaviors that you may observe when the
child is in your care. Circle the number that reflects the
frequency of the behavior that you observe for the child.
SOMETIMES (2 or 3)
OFTEN (4 or 5)
Social Competence Items
 Helps with everyday tasks (e.g., distributes snacks)
 Accepts compromises when reasons are given
 Takes pleasure in accomplishments
 Negotiates solutions to conflicts with
other children
 Cooperates with other children
Social Competence Items
 Takes other children and their point of view into
 Comforts or assists another child in difficulty
 Shares toys
 Attentive towards younger children
 Works easily in group
Anxious-Withdrawn Items
 Maintains neutral facial expression
 (doesn’t smile or laugh)
 Tired
 Worries
 Timid, afraid
 (e.g., avoids new situations)
 Sad, unhappy or depressed
Anxious-Withdrawn Items
 Inhibited or uneasy in the group
 Inactive, watches other children play
 Remains apart, isolated from the group
 Doesn't talk or interact during group activities
 Goes unnoticed in a group
Angry-Aggressive Items
 Easily frustrated
 Gets angry when interrupted
 Opposes the teacher's suggestions
 Irritable, gets mad easily
 Forces other children to do things they
don't want to do
Angry-Aggressive Items
 Hits, bites or kicks other children
 Gets into conflicts with other children
 Hits teacher or destroys things when angry with
 Screams or yells easily
 Defiant when reprimanded
 From the standpoint of parents, teachers,
clinicians and the children themselves, the most
readily apparent type of adjustment problem to
the preschool classroom involves an inability to
tolerate frustration, regulate anger and control
aggressive behavior.
 This type of problem is referred to as conduct
disorder, externalizing behavioral problem or
undercontrolled behavior, depending upon the
theoretical orientation of the investigator.
Anger-Aggression Scale
 Preschool equivalent of broad-band syndromes
 conduct disorder or externalizing symptoms.
 The items describe angry, aggressive, selfish, and
oppositional behaviors.
 Emotion regulation and affective expression were shown to
be as central as aggressive behavior to this scale. The item
with the highest factor loading in all four US samples was
"irritable, gets mad easily" and poor frustration tolerance
and defiance were among the other high loadings.
 Children with extreme scores on this scale tend to
express their negative emotions in ways that hurt or at
least disturb others.
 They function poorly in social situations, where they
require almost constant supervision, often to protect
others from their outbursts.
 The angry-aggressive group was found to be the most
interactive with peers, but also the most rejected,
results that correspond precisely with theoretical
expectations, since aggression is associated with peer
rejection across a wide age span.
 Boys were rated higher on this scale than girls and
younger preschoolers were rated higher than older
 These gender differences were replicated in every
 Age differences were found in many cultures, but not
in Japan and Italy.
 The second basic type also has a long history of
investigation and is referred to variously as
affective disorder, internalizing behavioral
problem or overcontrolled behavior.
 Children who illustrate this second type of
problem often withdraw from social contact in the
face of distress or high levels of emotional arousal
and may inhibit behavioral and emotional
expression when aroused.
 The anxiety-withdrawal scale of the SCBE is composed
of items describing anxious, depressed, isolated, and
overly dependent behavior.
 The emotional items on this scale describe a child who
is often sad, worried, timid, afraid and who rarely
smiles or laughs during play with peers.
 The anxious-withdrawn group was observed to be
significantly less interactive than all other groups,
but not rejected by their peers.
 These preschoolers spent much of their time in
activities on the periphery of group life, such as
onlooking and parallel play, and were also prone
to be alone and unoccupied.
 Children with extreme scores on this scale are seen
by their teachers as sad, depressed, tired and
worried, as well as isolated.
 They show little interest in the activities,tend to
have a poor self-image and show high levels of
immaturity, as they often seek adult attention in
situations that do not require it, and find it
difficult to perform tasks within their capabilities
without regular assurance, giving up easily where
others would persist.
 There were no gender differences on this scale. This
was replicated in every culture.
 Age differences were slight, with younger children
scoring higher than older children. This pattern was
replicated across culture, except China.
Social Competence
 This scale of the SCBE taps a broad range of
behaviors designed to assess the positive qualities
of the child's adaptation.
 Refers to behaviors that indicate a well-adjusted,
flexible, emotionally mature and generally
prosocial pattern of social adaptation.
 The emotional items on this scale emphasize emotion
regulation, including the child’s ability to remain calm
during conflict, show pride and pleasure in their own
accomplishments, accept compromises cheerfully, and
demonstrate empathic awareness of other children’s
needs and goals.
 The socially competent group received the most
positive nominations and the least negative
nominations from peers, and was highest in
sociometric status.
 score high on assessments of ego resiliency
 show cooperation and affective-perspective taking
 express high levels of positive affect and relatively low
levels of negative affect,
 are appreciated by their teacher.
 Boys were rated lower on this scale than girls and
younger preschoolers were rated lower than older
 These gender differences were replicated in every
 Age differences were also replicated across culture.
 Attachment theorists have proposed that patterns
of co-regulation established within early social
relationships provide an internal working model
(IWM) for later social relations (Bowlby, 1980;
Sroufe, 1996).
 Because the attitudes, expectations and
interpersonal skills that the child acquires are
carried forward and reintegrated into emerging
developmental contexts (LaFreniere & Sroufe,
 Competence in one developmental period tends to
promote adaptation within that period, while
preparing the way for the formation of competence
in the next. (Sroufe & Rutter, 1984).
 Because homeostatic mechanisms are inherent to
both the family system and the attachment
subsystem, family environment and quality of
attachment tend toward stability, though early
deviations are likely to result in greater
disturbances later on (Cicchetti, 1990).
 The child who shows persistent deviations may be
assumed to be involved in a continuous
maladaptive process.
 A transactional model implies that a stable
manifestation of maladaptation depends on
environmental support, while the child's
characteristics, reciprocally, partially determine
the nature of the environment (Cicchetti &
Schneider-Rosen, 1986).
 Central questions for developmental psychopathology
have to do with where such stability resides and how
positive change may be realized.
 Attachment theorists believe that the child's
representational model of the attachment figure is
closely interwoven with the child's emerging self
concept, and the child's representation of
 Bretherton argues that ¨if an attachment figure
frequently rejects or ridicules the child's bids for
comfort in stressful situations, the child may come
to develop not only an internal working model of
the parent as rejecting but also one of himself as
not worthy of comfort or help.¨
 Alternatively, if a child experiences the attachment
figure as trustworthy, loving and sensitive, the
child is likely to form a related model of the self as
lovable and worthy of help and comfort from
 IWM’s are thought to guide the processing of
social information, as well as the child's beliefs,
attitudes and feelings about the self and
expectations regarding relationships.
 Although IWM’s remain open to new input as the
child encounters new people, they nevertheless
tend towards stability because the child actively
selects partners and forms new relationships that
fit the existing model.
 According to Bowlby, an IWM will be resistant to
change once it is initially constructed, since it
tends to operate outside the child's conscious
awareness and because new information is
assimilated to the existing model (Bowlby, 1980).
 In a new social milieu the child actively elicits
confirmation of the IWM, while often ignoring or
discounting counter evidence.
 Such "self-fulfilling" prophecies may bias a
development by creating pathways that originate
with the caregiver's behavior towards the child.
Toddler Period
 Developmental theorists such as Ainsworth
(Ainsworth et al, 1974), Erikson (1963), Kopp (1982),
and Sroufe (1996) view the toddler period as critical for
the development of an autonomous self-system,
capable of independence and initiative, as well as
responsiveness and conformity to rules and
expectations of others.
 Human evolution is rooted in the basic primate
patterns of group living involving elements of both
cooperation and competition, and the care of children
in all cultures changes dramatically at this age by
presenting the child with a wider variety of social
partners than during infancy.
 Despite this increased diversity of social partners,
central developmental tasks for this period still
involve changes in the ongoing relationship with
the primary caregivers.
 Attachment theorists believe that child’s capacity
for emotion regulation is shaped within the
child's closest relationships.
 Sroufe (1996) employs the term guided selfregulation to capture the intermediate position of
the toddler, between the earlier stage when the
dyadic-regulation provided mostly by the caregiver
predominates, and the later stage when the
preschooler achieves true self-regulation.
 In this intermediate stage, toddlers are learning
how to regulate their own emotions and behavior
within the limits and guidelines provided by their
Two important influences on the dynamics of
this learning process have been clarified by
the overall quality of the parent's approach to
discipline during the toddler period is more
important than any specific childrearing practice,
2) attachment history has a profound impact on the
transition towards more autonomous functioning.
 Substantial evidence demonstrates a link between
parenting styles involving warmth and control and
later child outcomes though genetic factors,
particularly gene-environment interactions may
underlie these associations.
 In this research variables are often formulated to
index qualitative dimensions of parenting that
operate across a wide range of different contexts.
 Sroufe and colleagues view emotional support and
quality of assistance as key aspects of parental
competence. Their approach involves different
problem-solving situations, each presenting the
parent-toddler dyad with a unique challenge.
 The 1st situation involving free play is minimally
challenging, particularly with respect to the issue
of autonomy.
 The 2nd situation, in which the parent was
instructed to interrupt the child's play at a
prearranged signal and get them to put away the
toys is designed to test how smoothly the pair
could accommodate a potential conflict of wills.
 The 3rd situation involved a graded series of
physical problems presented from the simplest to
the most difficult to assure that all children would
be taxed beyond their capabilities to solve the
 This procedure is designed to assess the flexibility
of the parent-child dyad, including parental
support and guidance, and the child's emotion
regulation and motivation.
 Toddlers with a history of secure attachment with their
mothers were found to be more enthusiastic in this
context, expressing more positive affect and less
frustration, and were more successful, by virtue of
their greater persistence, flexibility and cooperation.
 Toddlers with a history of anxious attachment
showed different patterns of maladaptation. An
earlier pattern of anxious-resistant attachment was
associated with poor emotional regulation. These
toddlers were often clingy, and easily prone to
emotional dysregulation, becoming frustrated
and/or oppositional in the cleanup and problemsolving situations.
 Toddlers with an anxious-avoidant history were
somewhat disengaged with the tasks, showing little
pleasure or enthusiasm, and often ignoring their
mothers' attempts to involve them.
 Historically, this research was important for
demonstrating continuity in both the patterns of
the child's emotional competence and maternal
sensitivity across different developmental periods,
at a time when researchers were questioning such
 Maslin and Bates (1983) also found that securely
attached infants engaged in less conflict with their
mothers at age two than toddlers with a history of
insecure attachment. In particular, toddlers who
were earlier assessed as anxious-avoidant were
more prone to enter into conflict with their
mothers. Reciprocally, their mothers were more
restrictive and controlling.
 As with the attachment assessment, these studies
reveal disturbances in the parent-child
relationship, rather than problems that reside
exclusively within the child.
 During the toddler years however, the tensions and
problems experienced with the primary
attachment figure may be carried forward into
other adult-child relationships,
 It appears that the capacity for regulating
affectively arousing stimulation is central to
positive adaptation in both the family and peer
 For example, Easterbrooks and Lamb (1979) and
Lieberman (1976) found secure attachment to be
associated with positive, reciprocal exchanges with
agemates at 18 months and three years,
Preschool Period
 During the preschool years, basic patterns of
attachment are transformed reflecting
developments in language and cognition, as well as
shifting issues in psychosocial adjustment.
 For the child experiencing a secure relationship,
there is a new partnership with the caregiver that
reflects these advances and allows for increased
autonomy and initiative.
 Within the parent-child relationship, the secure
strategy incorporates perspective-taking, mutual
commun-ication of affect and desires and joint
planning, however a number of deviations from this
pattern are possible, (Crittendon, 1992; Sroufe, 1989).
 A transactional model casts the child as an active
agent rather than a passive recipient of
environmental input or a direct product of genetic
 A new social milieu, such as the preschool, may be
constructed differently by different children
according to their attachment history.
 Considerable evidence has established a direct link
between an infant’s primary attachment
relationship and peer relations. Compared to
insecurely attached peers, securely attached
 behave more positively towards their peers
 receive more positive behavior from them,
 are better liked by peers,
 enjoy more positive and synchronous friendships,
 are viewed by their teachers as helpful, cooperative,
empathic and socially competent
Minnesota Longitudinal Study
 Attachment history (12 and 18 months) has been
related to emerging behavioral problems in preschoolers.
 Results indicated that for this high risk, inner city
sample (n=180) behavioral problems were evident
 85% of infants with stable insecure attachments,
 60% with mixed attachments and
 29% with stable secure attachments.
 The investigators then examined other risk factors
in the home in order to discover why some securely
attached infants showed later behavioral problems
and other insecurely attached infants did not.
 Compared to securely attached infants without
later problems, secure infants that did show
problems had mothers who were less emotionally
supportive and not as clear or consistent in their
guidance and limit setting.
 Other evidence suggested that these mothers
experienced more confusion and disorganized mood
states during this period and were less involved with
their child than mothers of secure infants without
behavior problems.
 When children with an earlier history of secure
attachment were subsequently exposed to less
than adequate maternal care and support, they
were more likely to manifest behavior problems
than secure infants in stable caregiving
 Similarly, anxiously attached infants could become
well-functioning preschoolers if their caregivers
responded adequately to their needs during later
developmental stages
 risk factor for internalizing behavior problems,
including anxiety, high dependency on adults,
social withdrawal, passivity, submissiveness with
 As infants and toddlers they were observed to be
wary, easily upset, and difficult to settle. They
were also characterized by a poverty of exploration
and at times they showed explicitly angry,
tantruming behavior, all presumably based on a
history of inconsistent or chaotic care.
 Later they were found to become low-status,
peripheral members of their preschool peer group
three years later.
 Some of these children exhibited extreme
passivity and an infantile dependence on adults,
while others were more forward with their peers,
but became easily over aroused and disorganized
in the face of minor frustrations.
 The adoption of an avoidant behavioral style in
order to cope with chronic insensitivity and
rejection by their primary caregiver may lay the
foundation for a defensive personality
characterized by hostility and negative
expectations of others.
 Preschoolers with anxious-attachment histories
were found to express more hostility and negative
affect towards their peers, and were more rejected
by them than securely attached children.
 Researchers have also found that preschoolers
with a history of avoidant attachment appear to be
vulnerable to externalizing problems which may
be expressed in relational aggression.
 In free play sessions, a high percentage of children
with avoidant histories took advantage of and
mistreated their play partner. In all cases of
victimization the "exploiter" had an avoidant
history, while the victim often had a resistant
 Preschool teachers often have distinct emotional
reactions to children with different attachment
 Several studies have shown that they often nurtured and
protected children with resistant histories, but
sometimes reacted with anger to the open defiance and
bullying of children with avoidant histories.
 These distinct emotional responses on the part of new
caregivers underscore the transactional nature of these
early emotional disorders.
Disorganized pattern
 Main and Solomon (1990) believe that these
children respond to internal conflict by displaying
contradictory or incomplete behavior patterns
formed in response to chronic abusive or
frightening parental behavior.
 As preschoolers, they appear to be inflexible and
controlling, possibly as an attempt to bring some
semblance of order to an otherwise chaotic
network of close relationships.
 This pattern may also involve a role reversal
between parent and child in caregiving and
 Such behaviors are believed to be mediated by
deviant patterns of emotional regulation and
communication in the parent-child relationship.
Appropriate Practice
 From the National Association for the Education of
Young Children, 2009.
Appropriate Practice
 1. Creating a caring community of learners
 2. Teaching to enhance development and learning
 3. Goal oriented curriculum
 4. Assessing children’s development and learning
 5. Establishing reciprocal relationships with families.
- National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009

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