The Ordinary Magic of Relationships

And just when the child thought he could travel no more, his hand brushed one of the leaves. A warm wind, gentle as a hug, scooped him up, and he knew everything was going to be OK.

So you’ve always said that the most important thing children can have going for them is having a loving relationship with their parents, right?  Well, you’re in good company!

No less than Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child joins generations of theorists, researchers and practitioners in affirming that the single most important thing that can positively impact a child’s development is a stable relationship with at least one caring and supportive adult.

Often called attachment, this relationship is ideally with the child’s primary caregiver, and starts at birth.

Advances in neuroscience have given us more specific information about the “serve and return,” or back and forth, responses between a child and caregiver and how they specifically wire the brain for later relationship building and emotional maturity.

Kids living in challenging family situations may not have this kind of stable relationship with a parent. But does this mean they’re doomed? Luckily: NO! We now know that this relationship can also be with another competent adult: a family member, such as a grandparent; a childcare provider; or even a close neighbor, for example. As children get older, these relationships with other competent adults become more important and can have a huge impact on the child’s resilience.

But there’s more! The third kind of relationship that contributes to resilience is the child’s relationship with peers. This includes siblings, playmates, “best friends,” and, in adolescence and adulthood, romantic partners.

We know that children experiencing family substance use disorders and other adverse childhood experiences may have fewer opportunities to forge these relationships, especially in the home setting. So, it is even more important the child’s early childhood classroom provide many opportunities to establish and explore friendships with other children.

The early childhood classroom is the ideal place to foster all three kinds of relationships. Teachers, especially for younger children, act as surrogate caregivers for the majority of a child’s day. When these teacher-child relationships take priority because of the role they play in fostering resilience, children thrive. Teachers can also learn so much important developmental information about each child as we interact.  And  this can be used to both support children’s self-regulation and their learning in more traditional pre-academic areas.

Everyone can get into the act! Teachers, support staff, directors and other adults in the center or school can ALL provide children with stable and caring relationships that nurture resilience, when this is the priority.

How? Easy as abracadabra! Practices as simple as welcoming each child by name or knowing a child’s favorite lunch item invite children to see the world of adults as their own personal “magical helpers!”

While such strategies may seem like they take time away from our “real work,” the HUGE benefits for kids’ long-term social-emotional and cognitive development would seem to make setting relationship building a priority a no-brainer (or really: a full-brainer, since it is supported by brain research!)

Along the same lines, the research on resilience highlights how important it is to give children lots of time to collaborate with each other. Whether they are playing out scenes from a favorite story on the playground, or working together to solve a tricky math problem, opportunities to interact with friends give children the chance to to develop the relationship-building skills that are critical for resilience.

Skills like

  • Social problem-solving,
  • Perspective-taking and
  • Conflict resolution

all take time and practice to develop! Classrooms that offer lots of time for play and child-directed learning create the best chance for resilient outcomes for EVERY child, moving forward.