Quality Area 5 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) focuses on respectful and equitable relationships between educators and children. Dr Leonie Arthur explores why educator–child interactions should always be respectful, responsible and reciprocal.

Relationships aren’t static; each day, our interactions shape and reshape them’ (Casper & Theilheimer, 2010, p.80). How do your interactions with children shape your relationships with them? Are there changes you can make that will strengthen these relationships?

How do you support all children to participate in interactions with others and build relationships? What else can you do to support respectful relationships and a sense of community?

Why are relationships so important?

Relationships underpin all aspects of children’s learning.

Positive, trusting relationships are essential for children’s sense of identity, connections with others, sense of wellbeing and confidence in themselves as learners.

Bernstein argues that educational settings deliver powerful messages to children through their curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices. These messages helped shape individuals’ perceptions of what they might do now and in the future, and what they might become.

When children get the message they are valued and respected, they are more likely to explore their environment and to seek out challenges that extend learning and promote feelings of competence. Respect for children and their families also promotes a sense of connectedness and belonging to the early childhood setting and facilitates relationships with others. Respectful relationships support social aspects of learning such as collaboration, co-operation, democratic participation, teamwork and active citizenship.

The attachment research of Bowlby shows that secure early relationships promote emotional and social competence later in life. While children’s first and strongest relationship is with members of their family, sensitive and positive relationships between educators and children build on this foundation.

These trusting relationships provide a secure base for children to explore their environment, try out new ideas and communicate with others.

Effective learning environments involve more than the physical environment. They also include the social environment.

The social environment, consisting of relationships and interactions, is at the heart of the curriculum. The term ‘pedagogy of relationships’ was termed by Carla Rinaldi, a pedagogical director from the Reggio Emilia centres, to capture the importance of relationships in teaching and learning.

Effective relationships include a ‘pedagogy of listening’ that focuses on openness to and respect for difference and active listening and interpretation of meanings. Children actively construct their understandings as they interact with others in their environment.

Interactions between children and adults, as well as with peers, support the acquisition of new learning and the building of relationships. In order for educator–child interactions to support learning, there needs to be respect for children’s ideas and a positive relationship. When there is a warm and respectful relationship between the child and educator, and sensitivity to children’s ideas and understandings, educators are able to interact with children in ways that scaffold new learning.

Socio-cultural theorists such as Vygotsky highlight the ways in which children learn through social interactions. It is the combination of play-based learning environments with resources that are appropriate to children’s family context, interests and understandings along with sensitive interactions between educators and children that best supports children’s learning.

Socio-cultural perspectives consider the social, historical and cultural aspects of everyday life and aim to better understand children by taking each of these dimensions into account.

Children learn about collaboration, conflict resolution and negotiation through these daily interactions.

From a socio-cultural perspective, the educator and children are viewed as equals, rather than as existing in separate, hierarchical domains. This view challenges the traditional power relationships between educators and children and encourages educators to take children’s ideas seriously. The relationship between the educator and the child mediates learning.

Respectful interactions

Janet Gonzalez–Mena says that in order to build relationships, educators’ interactions with children must be respectful, responsive and reciprocal.

Educators show respect by listening to children’s ideas, valuing diverse ways of being, doing and thinking and engaging in meaningful conversations with children. Respect means being sensitive to different communication styles, rather than assuming that all families communicate in the same way. For example, it may not be appropriate to expect a child to maintain eye contact when interacting with an educator if this is not what happens in the family and community context.

Culturally competent educators find out about and respect diverse family values and practices and use this knowledge to develop respectful relationships and culturally-appropriate interactions. They plan environments that respect children’s competencies and emerging understandings and that nurture a community of care. They adapt routines to take account of family practices and children’s growing independence. Respectful relationships also ensure that all children are included in the learning community.

When educators respect children’s ideas and preferences they view children as active contributors to the early childhood learning community. They provide an environment that encourages children to choose what, how and when they engage in experiences and who they interact with in these experiences.

Strategies such as daily group meetings, children’s participation in setting up environments and easy access to resources enable children to have a voice in determining the experiences and resources that are provided and to negotiate the curriculum with educators. This active involvement in decision-making supports children’s autonomy and agency and promotes respectful relationships where children are viewed as active constructors of their own learning.

Responsive interactions

Responsive educators view children as strong and capable and able to make meaning from diverse experiences. They understand and value children’s family and community culture, including language/s spoken at home and interaction styles. To be able to respond to children effectively they tune-in to what children are doing, saying and thinking. This means, as Siraj– Blatchford has suggested, that educators listen and observe carefully, take notice of the verbal and non-verbal language children are using in play and respond with genuine interest.

Sensitive discussions with children about their understandings and ideas and flexible approaches to curriculum enable educators to respond to children’s lead. They are then able to provide play environments that connect to children’s worlds and join in play in ways that facilitate and extend relationships and learning and foster positive dispositions.

Responsive educators observe children’s play and interactions and draw on a repertoire of practices in their interactions with children. Different practices, or pedagogies, are appropriate with different learners in different contexts. At times, it may be appropriate to provide a clear demonstration, for example how to save children’s photographs onto the computer.

and numeracy concepts and processes such as directionality of print. Some children may need the educator to support them to initiate interactions, join in play and negotiate roles. At other times, it may be appropriate to join in children’s play and model problem solving by experimenting and hypothesising and by verbalising thinking. Many pedagogies are most effective when the educator engages in conversations with children and uses questions and comments to scaffold learning.

Educators who are responsive to children’s ideas are able to interact with children in ways that extend thinking and construct new understandings. Siraj–Blatchford refers to these types of interactions as ‘sustained shared thinking’. Sustained shared thinking involves both the educator and the child, or children, actively participating in interactions about an area of interest. Responsive teaching occurs when there is a warm and responsive relationship between the educator and children and a shared focus of attention and shared purpose.

Warm, supportive, responsive relationships between educators and children are also critical to the scaffolding of new learning. In these types of relationships, children feel safe to take risks and to try out new ideas. Educators offer support and encouragement, ask questions that challenge thinking and provide feedback and explanations.

Reciprocal interactions

When educators are sensitive to children’s play and interactions and readily available to children they are able to join in play and take part in reciprocal interactions. In these contexts educators initiate and respond to children’s verbal and non-verbal communication and engage in conversations with children.

These two-way exchanges are opportunities for the sort of sustained shared thinking that scaffolds children’s learning, extends vocabulary and builds conversation skills. Siraj– Blatchford suggests that useful strategies for sustained shared thinking include recapping what a child has said, adding details that extend the interaction, inviting children to elaborate and clarify their ideas and asking open-ended questions.

How can a focus on relationships support children’s positive interactions?

Supportive environments encourage collaborative learning where children share ideas and experiences, express feelings and negotiate meanings with their peers. Educators have a critical role in modelling and scaffolding collaborative interactions and positive social behaviours.

When educators listen to diverse perspectives, verbalise feelings and give reasons for preferences in socially acceptable ways they promote positive social interactions among children.

Participation in children’s play can enable educators to model how to enter play, consider others’ perspectives, problem-solve collaboratively and negotiate with others. They can also talk with children about their feelings, scaffold children’s problemsolving and conflict-resolution skills, and assist children to learn to appreciate diverse interaction styles and perspectives.

A respectful, connected approach that focuses on understanding diverse perspectives and negotiation supports children to self-regulate their behaviour and collaborate with others. Positive relationships and inclusive language can build a sense of community amongst the children. When children have input into the expectations and responsibilities, or ‘rules’, in the early childhood setting, they develop shared understandings and relationships of care. In these environments there is a strong focus on responsibilities as well as rights, respect for others, listening to each other and sharing ideas, and building of relationships amongst children.

Mutually respectful relationships that provide for children’s agency and autonomy and opportunities to engage in meaningful experiences that connect to children’s family and community experiences enhance both social and academic learning outcomes.

As the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) states, supportive relationships enable children to develop the dispositions and skills necessary ‘to interact positively with others… to appreciate their connectedness and interdependence as learners, and to value collaboration and teamwork’ (DEEWR, 2009, p.12).

Dr Leonie Arthur is a lecturer in early childhood education at the University of Western Sydney. She was a member of the consortium contracted to develop the Early Years Learning Framework and has written a number of resource books to support educators in their work with the Framework.

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 98, Winter 2011

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