All learning takes place within a web of relationships. An early childhood setting includes three core relationships: educator-child, child-child, and educator-parent. And many classrooms also include a relationship between educators. The quality of these relationships greatly impacts learning. A positive web of relationships — characterized by trust, love, and respect — increases the likelihood of educational success across all domains. At the heart of learning are the relationships we nurture.
EDUCATOR AND CHILD
Trust, Love, and Learning
Trust and love are the foundation of any positive relationship.
An educator elicits a child’s trust by (1) caring about the child’s well-being (2) maintaining consistency and predictability (3) believing in the child. First, children who feel cared for and whose basic needs are met, including the need to express their own ideas, build trust. Second, educators who maintain consistent and predictable classroom routines and limits give children the stability they need to feel comfortable and confident to explore their surroundings. A strong feeling of dependence enables a child to experience independence. Third, believing in children helps them to believe in themselves which, in turn, makes it easier to trust others. This gift of trust is perhaps the greatest gift an educator can give a child.
An educator elicits a child’s love by loving the child unconditionally, by loving the child regardless of what the child feels, says, or does. Such an educator will take responsibility for the well-being of that child as if he or she were her own child. When a child feels loved (and taken care of) by an educator, this sparks the child’s love toward the educator, as it says in Mishlei (Proverbs) “As in water, face reflects face, [so does the heart of man to man]”. The greater a child’s love toward an educator, the greater the child’s potential and desire for learning, for positive feelings enable the child to become more open to the educator’s influence.
Connecting through Conflict
Conflict is an opportunity to connect more deeply with another person. And children are no exception. When children work through conflict in a positive manner this nurtures trust and love. There are four feelings children need to experience during any conflict (usually these feelings build upon one another) so the conflict will become a source of strength for both the individual children and the relationship.
- Both children need to feel safe. Children feel safe when a caregiver is present. Words of comfort may also be needed. A simple “Are you okay?” or “I’m here to help” can work. If there is a “victim”, the caregiver should always approach that child first.
- Both children need to feel heard, acknowledged, and understood. The caregiver needs to listen carefully to each child, ideally at eye level, to acknowledge and grasp what each is feeling and how each perceives the situation at hand. This attention and validation prepares the groundwork for a solution.
- Both children need to feel hopeful that the conflict can and will be resolved. Optimism is a transformative power. Optimism helps us to see the potential within people and situations rather than the focusing on limitations. Positive expectations help a child to feel more confident to resolve a conflict (e.g. “I’m confident you can both work this out”).
- Both children need to feel empowered to solve the problem. A child’s role in problem-solving will depend on age and ability, but they should not feel passive (i.e. that the adult is solving the problem for them). For example, saying to Jordan who just grabbed a doll from Sasha, “Sasha will give you a turn when she’s finished” (1) reassures Jordan that he will have a turn after Sasha finishes playing and thus encourages him to give it back (2) gives Sasha the confidence to offer a turn once she’s finished (3) gives both children a feeling of shared problem-solving and mutual accomplishment.
EDUCATOR AND PARENT
Parents as Partners
That parent and partner share the same letters reminds us of the importance of nurturing the educator-parent relationship. The primary beneficiary of this partnership is the child. Educators and parents can help each other gain a deeper understanding of the child to be able to educate the child in a more effective manner. As Barbara Biber writes, “…the child lives one life. He does not shed his home self when he enters the school door. It should not be possible for him to leave his school self out on the front porch when he returns home.”
Since parents and children are typically experienced as a unit, a positive relationship between educator and parent generally engenders positive feelings from the educator toward the child. Moreover, the closer a family feels to an educator, the closer the child will feel toward the educator (and to the school), for children’s feelings toward others tend to reflect the feelings of their parents. Lastly, when a family feels close to an educator, the family is more likely to share information about home life and solicit help problem-solving particular challenges facing the child or family.
Strengthening Home-School Communication
Before discussing effective communication methods, we first need to consider how we as educators feel toward parents in our classroom. Are we accepting, loving, and supportive? Are we respectful? Do we listen without passing judgment? And how do parents feel about us? Do they trust us? Do we keep conversations confidential? Do we use positive language when discussing their children? Are we sincerely interested in collaboration or are we just trying to get our way? Once we have established the right emotional tone to the relationship, then we can be effective communicators.
There are three things all parents need to know:
- Is my child well taken care of?
- Do the teachers understand and appreciate my child?
- Do the teachers have good news to share about my child?
Nothing tops a short, positive anecdote about a child’s day to communicate our appreciation of a child. Positive anecdotes, when communicated properly, address children’s successes as well as failures (areas of growth). Most parents appreciate honesty and authenticity. Framing a personal or developmental challenge as an area of growth is actually positive because it highlights the child’s inner potential and what the child can accomplish through effort and guidance. Personal narratives, whether communicated through conversation or writing, give parents the sense that their child is taken care of, understood, and noticed for their accomplishments as well as their struggles.
Even when we know what we want to communicate, it may not be obvious how to communicate the message. There are three basic questions to ask when selecting a method of communication:
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What does the family need?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of each tool?
Let’s take an example. A child has just started school and we want to let the parent know that the child has stopped crying and become engaged (Question 1). We recognize that the parent feels anxious so the sooner we communicate the better it will be (Question 2). How should we proceed? Waiting for a face to face meeting at pick up is impractical. A well-crafted email takes time to write and may not be read immediately. A quick telephone call could work nicely. Or perhaps we should send via text a photograph of the child playing. We choose to call, to use the opportunity for a “live” two-way communication (Question 3). This kind of thinking helps an educator reach a parent in the best way. And it all begins with love and respect for both the child and the parent.