The Science of Relationships

Attachment Theory In Action - Podcast

Our own Dr. Kelley Munger speaks with Karen Doyle Buckwalter of the Attachment Theory in Action podcast where they discuss attachment relationships in educational settings.

In this episode of the Attachment Theory in Action with Karen Doyle Buckwalter, she and Kelley Munger discuss attachment theory for educators.

In this first of a two-episode podcast series, they focus on how educators can leverage knowledge about attachment styles, neuroscience, and attachment theory to create stronger relationships with students, helping them learn and grow. Listen to the podcast and see the transcript below and be sure to subscribe to the Attachment Theory in Action Podcast on your favorite player.

Stress, trauma, and a lack of safety actually shut down learning, growth, and relationships - but on the other hand, a secure presence (IE a teacher that you feel safe and seen with) can actually light up the part of the brain that's ready to learn, ready to connect, and ready to grow.

Dr. Kelley Munger

Partner, FuelEd

Narrator: Welcome to attachment theory and action. A weekly podcast presented by the knowledge center at Chaddick. Our podcast is dedicated to therapists, social workers, counselors, and psychologists, working with clients from an attachment-based perspective.

Join host Karen Doyle, Buckwalter for an insightful, informative, and inspiring conversation with leading attachment theory, researchers, and clinicians in the field.

Today, Karen welcomes, Dr. Kelly Munger to the show for part one of their two-part discussion on attachment relationships in educational settings, or two will be released on Tuesday, April 13th.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the attachment theory and action podcast. I'm your host, Karen Doyle buck, Walter.

Getting ready to join you again here today. So let me tell you a little bit about our topic and my guests for today. It's going to be a little bit different because we're going to be looking at attachment relationships. In educational settings and the importance of the types of relationships that educators have with kids and how that relates to academic achievement.

So I have joining us here in a few minutes, Kelly Munger, and she is a founder and partner in an organization called FuelEd. And she'll be telling us more about them and their work. I'd like to share a bit about Kelly. She holds a BA in English from Auburn university and MA in teaching from Lee University and an MA in counseling, psychology from Covenant seminary.

She completed her PhD in early intervention and special education at the University of Oregon in 2019. She's a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma adult attachment. Special education and human development. And she's passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.

Wow. That's a great descriptive sentence there at the end. I love that. So Kelly will be joining us in just a minute. Stay tuned.

Welcome to the attachment theory and action podcast today. I'm so excited to talk with you about this topic or the impact of relationships and attachment on education. This is great.

Kelley Munger: Thank you so much for having me and I am really excited to talk to you.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, how did you first start getting interested in looking at this intersection of attachment theory and relationships and how that impacts education?

Where did that all come from for you sort of your informal introduction or how you got into this? Because I shared with listeners. Some of your educational background.

Kelley Munger: Awesome. All right. Well, well, it's a pretty good story. So early in my career, I started in education in a pretty unique way. I taught overseas in China for two years.

And then came back to the States to have my first baby and ended up working in homebound education, working with special education students or students who had maybe like medical complications happening.

And so from there, I became a therapist and so it was sort of like one big circle because, in my work as a therapist, I began to see that there's not enough collaboration, there's not enough linking between what we do 40 hours a week at school and what we do and the therapy room for an hour a week. And I really began to get really interested in how in this system, we have to leverage these relationships between teachers and their students, between teachers and families in order to see students really flourish, especially students who might have extra or special needs or exceptionalities.

So then I went back and got my Ph.D. and I met Megan FuelEd's founder and once she began to tell me about FuelEd's work, I was all in and ready to go and so I've been working at that intersection ever since.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: That's great. You know, I think that, you know, there's so much data out there about how secure attachment or lack of secure attachment or disorganized attachment impact the trajectory of development and in terms of education and even how kids are viewed and how the teachers view them. You know, when we look at Alan Struse longitudinal study, who looked at every possible angle, there is.

And, but it just sometimes seems like if we get too much into talking about relationships and therapy like that, that's off putting to educators. You know, and so I was so excited to see what you guys are doing and really looking at, at both of these issues in, in a very, in how they interfaced. Because I, I, I think sometimes educators are like, wait a minute, wait a minute.

We're here to teach kids. Something, we're not here to be a therapist, you know, we're not here to be a counselor. I mean, we're here to teach. And I think that can sometimes be a barrier. So maybe before we even get into some specific content, how, how have you found? Cause I know a lot of our listeners are thinking, Oh, I want to get the school on board, but.

You know, sometimes they think I'm too therapist-y and they don't want to hear

Kelley Munger: That's a great word. Right. It's so interesting because like I said, so I have a master's in teaching and I have a master's in counseling psychology. So I've been a licensed teacher and I'm currently a licensed therapist. And so I'm also, I should say, married to a teacher. So my huband is as a veteran 21 years high school science teacher. Wow.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: So if you can get him on board, then you know, you can get others on board, right ?

Kelley Munger: Well, I'd been, you know, he and I have had this very rich, long conversation in our marriage that spans two decades about this intersection and even one of my, one of my favorite stories is that my, my husband, two years ago for, for father's day, a group of students got together and, and gave him a stack of father's day cards.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Oh, wow. Oh my gosh that is amazing

Kelley Munger: But I think that. That is a part of the fruit of our long conversations and him really seeing, Oh, okay. So I'm not a therapist. You're right. I'm a teacher, but that the intersection is a secure attachment, not necessarily at therapy that sometimes teachers and, and I, and I get it would feel unprepared overwhelmed by the idea of being a therapist.

In their classrooms, but the idea of being a secure attachment figure is something that once, once you can provide sort of the science behind that some of that sort of basic knowledge, then teachers can say, Oh, I think I can do that. Yeah.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes. Yes. I really love, I love how you're separating that out.

And, you know, I was, as I was getting ready for this interview, I was wishing I could remember where I had read this, but I had read a study at one point and it was talking about. Secondary attachment figures. And maybe if a child does not have secure attachment with a, with a parent who are they most likely to have, you know, in the orbit around them a secure attachment relationship with, and I remember, I, I was like. In my head, I'm like, Oh, it's going to be a grandparent or it's going to be an auntie. You know, that's where I was. It was a teacher and that just really hit me about, well, think about this. Yeah. I mean, they're often with a kid like a child all day long, and I thought, okay, so some of my preconceived notions are coming into play here.

Cause I was expecting it to say a family member. And it did not say a family member. And I see you shaking your head. What do you have to say about that?

Kelley Munger: Well, I think it's interesting. I would let, I. I wonder if there's data about that across cultures? I think particularly in our culture, there's not a widespread or uniform emphasis on that sort of aloe parenting or grandparenting culture.

And, and so I think that particularly in a, in a really individualistic or more individually oriented culture teachers really are spending the most time with children sometimes even over and above parents. Yes. But definitely above grandparents and aunties and a lot of, a lot of fans, that's certainly not true across the board.

Right. I think I'm not surprised by that because the sheer number of hours that teachers invest in relationships with kids that, that translates to that relational capital, those moments of shared joy being known and seen and felt by someone.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes yes

Kelley Munger: and the structure and consistency of school is, is sort of that framework, like a trellis for those relationships to grow on.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes, absolutely. And so I know that you part of the education you do with teachers is just about brain development in general, and you know how that relates to. To regulation and impulse control and all of the things that they see day in and day out from students. So could you share with listeners, maybe a couple key nuggets that, that you have found teachers very receptive to, as you talk about some of those things.

Kelley Munger: Sure. So, Oh, well I could share a lot in nuggets, but I'll start. One would just be the idea that stress and trauma and a lack of safety actually shuts down learning growth and relationships. And, but on the other hand, a secure presence. Someone IE a teacher that you feel safe and seen with can actually light up the part of the brain that's ready to learn, ready to connect, ready to grow,

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yeah,

Kelley Munger: teachers of course have a lot of buy-in to these ideas. Yes, they are generally passionate about learning development, flourishing growth. That is, they wouldn't do it if they didn't care about that. Right. why would you be a teacher. If that wasn't something you're really invested in.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Right.

Kelley Munger: So seeing that security within the teacher actually fuels growth within a student is very exciting and motivating, and it FuelEd that's a huge foundation of what we do.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yeah. So what I hear you saying is a big part of it is child development. It's like teachers know about child development. I mean, they learn about, about this and consider this in terms of readiness to learn and, you know, even different depending what age you're certified to teach in all of that relates to to child development and, and readiness to learn. So that does seem like it would be a really great way to help them relate to what they're trying to accomplish. Like you said.

Kelley Munger: Yeah. And then, and then maybe the missing part, right. And how we prepare teachers. And this was really part of Megan's story founding FuelEd is that we're not, we were trained in child development in our pre-service sort of our teacher preparation programs, right? You learn about what is typical development look like? What does atypical development look like? What we spend, I think, and I think it FuelEd at FuelEd that we believe that we spend too little time talking about what actually fuels that development, no matter what a child brings in terms of their genetic or environmental endowment.

That relationships are a protective buffer and they do spark all kinds of growth in all kinds of children. So um part of, to go a little deeper with that. Another thing that most teachers are unaware of is this idea of regulation being a parallel process. And so the attachment figure. Is actually regulating the child or student or even the colleague who's distressed.

Right. And I'm talking about relationships between admin and teachers or between teachers and teachers that when you have a regulated and secure caregiver or secure attachment provider, That that's actually foundational to a child, being able to learn to inhibit an impulse or to calm down after becoming upset to return to calm.

So the idea that yeah, first we need to understand development and what it looks like, but also how do we leverage security in relationships between teachers and students to create a calm, ready to learn regulated student?

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So it's sort of like, it's not just. This is child development.

And then there it is, it's a static thing, and this is where that kid's at, but more how, how do I impact that? Or how do I help with that? Or, you know, what, what can I do to further that if maybe a child is not where we would hope for them to be chronologically? Or something like that, based on that.

So yeah, I can see that those concepts really, really being helpful. So well, another thing that You, I think that you're familiar with. Cause I've seen you guys write about this that I think is important for listeners to hear about is what are, when you look at, if you look at attachment and secure attachment versus insecure attachment, what are some of the things in the literature that this has an impact on from an education perspective?

Kelley Munger: Right? So impact on students?

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes. Yes.

Kelley Munger: Right. So with, with a history or with enough experience with secure attachment, you're going to see students who have more self-regulation, which is something we're all really interested in, especially. You're going to have students who are. Able to approach you know, challenges with more competence.

You're going to have students who are going to have increased interpersonal awareness and interpersonal skills because that's been modeled and experienced they're able to give and receive empathy care, kind of you're going to see increased collaboration and relationships and and then of course just increase academic competence.

From, you know, where they, where they are versus where they would have been without that secure. Right,

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Right. Absolutely. I think, you know one of the things that I think about a lot with attachment theory, as it relates to these kinds of things that you're talking about is the whole safe haven and secure base concept and that, you know what you're saying and we know that part of that I think of circle of security and the idea of going out and exploring the world and then coming back in to refuel And that if you never feel secure enough to go out and explore, it's going to be hard for you to learn new things. And so I think, you know, this idea that the more safe and secure a child feels, you know, the more likely they're, I mean, learning new things is taking a risk.

Yeah. And I think that that's where we see a lot of kids collapse who do not have a secure attachment history or who have trauma in their background. I remember I was supervising a series of therapy play groups in, in the public school, in a cross cat, special ed classroom. And one of the things that the teacher said at the end, I did interviews.

So with the impact of the groups, and she said that the kids were more willing to take a risk.

Kelley Munger: Yeah, absolutely. Right. So that actually reminds me when I was similarly, I was doing some research in some early education environments. This is very, very high trauma and high stress environment and when the kids were first show up in the classroom, they would always sort of glue themselves to the walls around the classroom and it was sort of this self-protective

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: So interesting.

Kelley Munger: I got my back to the wall, not to the door. I'm not actually free to sort of play and move about and explore. And so as those students began to feel a sense of safe Haven with that teacher, that they were forming that relationship with then you began to see more circling and more, and these are young children, right?

But you began to see literally more movement. I mean, if I could put a GPS on, on those kids, it would be amazing to watch how much more movement and motor movement you're seeing as they began to feel more safe and secure.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: That's fascinating. Yeah. It reminds me of how I always want a table in a corner against a wall at a restaurant.

You like, you feel so exposed in the middle, you know, who wants that middle table, right. All right. So as the kids, you know, felt more comfortable and more secure, it sounds like, you know, they were willing to venture out to a middle table or across the river or whatever.

Kelley Munger: Start scooting around. Wow. We think of attachment as that invisible string, right from the other, they show up in that classroom they don't have that string. And so they sort of stick to the wall because there's no better choice but once that little string is woven between the teacher and the student then the student becomes more free and it's, it is a paradox about attachment.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes,

Kelley Munger: The independence risk-taking challenge and, in kids who know that they have somewhere to return if things don't go well, or the challenge is really difficult.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Right. That back to that safe Haven and secure vase. Yeah. I love that. That's, that's a really fascinating. Example

Kelley Munger: Now I want to do that study.

I would say the same for my husband. His classroom is always a safe haven for, for his students. They're there during lunch break, they're there during their breaks, they those high school students circle back around and throughout the day, even if they don't have him in class.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: I just see that as like the bottom of the circle and circle of security, you know, like coming back and, and refueling so that you can go back out into the world and face whatever's happening.

It's so neat to see that in an educational setting and, you know, we can all probably even remember from our, you know, I just, this is really out there, but I'm going to share it. You know, with this Facebook group, with people I graduated with, you know, class of 1983 at my high school. And I posted this, this, this post and said, write something about one of your favorite teachers.

And it was really amazing to see like all the things that people remembered. I mean, well I was in elementary school and, you know, miss Mrs. So-and-so, I remember her bringing my work when I had a broken leg and I, you know, I remember Ms. So-and-so doing, you know, bringing me something in the hospital and I mean, it was really amazing.

And then I have this pillow that my English teacher embroidered with my initial and she gave it to me when I graduated from high school and I still have it. And so I wrote, Oh, you know, Mrs. So-and-so made me and this other classmate and I tagged the classmate, a pillow like this, and I showed a picture of it. I still have it from 1983 and my classmate. Took a picture and she had the pillow too. We both had carted this pillow around from our English teacher since 1983.

Kelley Munger: It's a transitional object.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yeah. I took it to college. I took it all these places with the me and it is just, yeah. Can you believe that?

Kelley Munger: I can, because you internalized her as an attachment figure and it, you, weren't going to, you wouldn't throw away a picture of your mother. You're not going to throw away that embroidered pillow.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Nope. You know, I thought, Oh wow. I'm sure my, my my friend, you know, doesn't have hers anymore and sure enough she had hers.

Kelley Munger: Well, we often think at FuelEd about just how many educators don't know. About their impact in terms of attachment. And that's, that's part of our work is. Is not just to help educators to grow, but also to honor and value educators and to give them a sense of themselves.

And I think a lot of educators. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We give teachers are heroes, all of that. But they don't necessarily have the words and the science around attachment and around the power of attachment and even giving that to teachers is a gift. It's a way of saying, wow, what you do is amazing and powerful.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Well, you know, I love that. And. Somebody in this little group said, we need to contact some of these teachers and tell them the impact they had so now you're inspiring me to try to look some of them up and go do that. So it really is when you frame it that way, such an opportunity. And to really yes, of course you're having an impact on their education, but just having an impact on the trajectory of their life, just in relationships for the future and other aspects of their lives is just amazing.

Kelley Munger: Yeah. And I, can you as a therapist, how many stories have I heard from adults about well, when I was scared I would run to school.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Not the embroidered pillow they carried around?

Kelley Munger: Just the idea of when I was afraid I had one safe place and it was school.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes. Yeah

Kelley Munger: And it wasn't because the building was awesome. It was because the people in the building were awesome.

Karen Doyle Buckwalter: Yes. Yes. Well, Kelly, I am so loving this conversation and everybody, I look forward for you joining us next week for part two with Kelly and she is from FuelEd if you want to look up some of their additional work, but that Kelley will be joining us again next week. So please join us.

About the author

Kelley Munger


Kelley holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. She is passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.

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