Relationships Facilitate Learning

Early studies of infants who were institutionalized provide well-documented evidence of the physical, social, and cognitive deterioration that occurs in infants who experience a lack of intimate emotional relationships with significant caregivers (Spitz, 1945). More recent studies of children adopted from orphanages around the world demonstrate how these children, who did not receive stimulation or consistent relationships with caregivers, dramatically improved their developmental functioning when placed in a nurturing and loving environment. For example, a child who is withdrawn and lethargic will begin to brighten and show interest in the surrounding world when he or she is with attentive, loving, focused caregivers. Research on early brain development highlights the “pruning,” or the “use-it-or-lose-it,” process that occurs in the connections among brain cells. This process strengthens the connections among frequently used cells and weakens, and eventually eliminates, the connections among brain cells that are not used. This “pruning” of the brain occurs during normal, everyday activities and experiences, and it literally shapes the structures of the brain (Institute of Medicine, 2000; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007).

Daily caretaking routines such as holding, rocking, bathing, feeding, dressing, and talking to infants all help create new connections in the brain. Expensive toys, flash cards, or other gadgets are not necessary to get a jump start on cognitive development or to “make a smarter baby.” Children play creatively and learn from the most ordinary of items—by crawling through cardboard boxes, sorting and banging with plastic or metal bowls and lids, or playing “peek-a-boo” with mommy’s scarf. Parents and early childhood programs need materials that capture the child’s imagination and interest, but they do not need to purchase special items that are marketed to boost “brain power.” (See the Additional Resources section for publications that provide ideas for materials, activities, and play experiences for infants and toddlers.)

adult hands are giving a baby a pacifierRelationships guide learning in several ways. For example, adults are responsible for the child’s environment and the amount of sensory stimulation in that environment. One of the first developmental tasks of the newborn is to regulate his or her states of arousal—from deep sleep to drowsy awake, to alert, to fussing or full-blown crying. In each of these states, the infant is more or less able to respond and interact with his or her environment. The infant is most open to social interaction and exploration when in a quiet, alert state.

Parents and family members, teachers, family child care providers, home visitors who work with parents, and other caretakers play an important role in helping infants regulate their states of arousal by tending to their needs: changing a wet diaper, feeding a hungry baby, rocking a tired baby to sleep, and keeping sounds and visual stimulation at a comfortable level. Significant adults are the guides for learning who and what is “safe.” For example, a 9-month-old baby will look at a parent or teacher when a new person comes into the room to check whether it is okay to interact; or a crawling baby will look at her father when approaching what looks like an area too steep to navigate. During this kind of responsive caregiving, infants begin to develop a sense of trust in the people who care for them and form the bonds of attachment that hold the parents and other caretakers in a special place in that child’s life. In a secure relationship, a child learns that “I matter,” “Someone understands me,” and “My needs will be met”; this forms the basis for self-esteem as well as the expectation that people are good and the world is safe. This confidence and security ultimately build the self-regulation that is necessary for young children to become successful learners, and it promotes competence in all areas of development.

Implications for Practice

The relationships that you build with the children and families in your program enhance or inhibit children’s learning. How do you build an effective relationship with a child and family? What happens when you just do not “click” with a child in your care? How do you take care of yourself, so you have the energy to care for the children and support parents in that caretaking?

  • Relationships take time and attention. Recognize that, like adults, children come to your program with a history of relationships that will influence how they approach a new relationship. Think about the characteristics of important relationships in your own life and the qualities that make them special—trust, acceptance, feeling understood, having your needs met. These are the same qualities that you want to bring to your relationships with children.
  • As you think about relationships with children, think about relationships with their parents. They are co-equal partners with you in supporting their child’s development and learning, whether you work directly with children in group care settings or with parents and families in a home-based program. Engaging and partnering with parents and families helps you get to know the child in a larger context, and helps families get to know you. A successful partnership contributes to parents’ and families’ sense of confidence and competence in their abilities to support their children. It also contributes to your sense of enjoyment, excitement, and fulfillment in your work. If there are challenges in developing and maintaining a positive relationship with a family, talk to your supervisor to get the support you need to respond to families with sensitivity and respect.
  • Typically, we have difficulty acknowledging that we do not always hit it off with all the children in our care. Children affect us differently, and we need to recognize when a child in our care “pushes our buttons.” Think about the children you feel particularly close to and those who often leave you feeling frustrated. Although these feelings of closeness and frustration are normal, it is your responsibility to manage them so that they do not interfere with how you interact with children. Talking openly with a supervisor in a safe and supportive setting about your relationships with the children in your care provides the opportunity to get the support you need to respond to children with sensitivity. The children who challenge us as teachers and family child care providers are also the ones who give us opportunities to increase our self-awareness and understanding of how our own experiences influence what we bring to our interactions with children.
  • Who you are as a person and your own temperament, past experiences, family and cultural values, and current life circumstances shape how you respond to the children and families in your program. Working with young children and families is challenging, rewarding, and emotionally hard work. As a teacher, home visitor, or family child care provider, it is vitally important that you pay attention to your stress level and how you take care of your own needs. Stress relief means different things to different people. Explore what helps you—exercise, time with friends, time alone, mindfulness practices, meditation, a good book, a hot bath, listening to music, going out dancing—and recognize when you need to nurture yourself, so you have the emotional energy to nurture the families and children with whom you work.