What is different about a "relationship-based approach" to infant and toddler care?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Extending the Dance in Infant and Toddler Caregiving: Enhancing Attachment and Relationships

About the authors

Dr. Helen Raikes

Helen H. Raikes, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. She has maintained a career-long interest in secure base relationships for infants and toddlers and first created an attachment-based model while Director of Infant Toddler Programs and Director of Research at the SRI/Saint Elizabeth and Gallup Organization Child Development Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her work focuses on programs for children in poverty, with special emphases on infants and toddlers, children at greatest risk, and optimal timing of intervention as it relates to developmental trajectories, school readiness and later success, as well as on innovative continuous program improvement efforts using research and evaluation.

Dr. Carolyn Edwards

Carolyn Pope Edwards, Ed.D., is a Willa Cather professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, with joint appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Child, Youth and Family Studies. Much of her writing describes and analyzes relationship-building practices and pedagogical documentation in the world-renowned infant–toddler centers and preschools in northern and central Italy. She is active on many policy commmittees at the national and state levels that focus on early childhood curriculum and teacher preparation from preschool to primary and was part of the NAEYC Working Group on Developmentally Appropriate Practice.


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Q: In your new book Extending the Dance in Infant and Toddler Caregiving: Enhancing Attachment & Relationships, you liken the relationship between infant and parent to a dance and describe the relationship with the child's teacher or caregiver as "extending the dance" ... can you explain what you mean?

CPE: Many people have noticed how much the interaction between parents and infants seems like a dance. Adult and child seem to follow each other in a natural flow of "moving minds and bodies," as a British psychologist put it. The dance is universal. In every culture, mothers sing to their babies, rock them, dance with them in their arms, and exchange words and sounds that are the beginnings of communication. To speak of "extending the dance" means that the first dance of parent and child extends outward to include other significant people, including people outside the family when the child is in quality care. We want to help teachers develop their own beautiful dance with children in their care—one that builds on the first dance but does not replace it. The metaphor of the dance—back and forth, with gentle rhythms and sensitive pauses, moving to a synchronous inner beat, is woven throughout our book.

HR: Other metaphors have been used to characterize the back and forth nature of a well developing infant-parent relationship, e.g., some liken it to tennis or ping pong game and then talk about the serve and return nature of the relationship. We liked the dance metaphor best because of its beauty—the increasing synchrony between the infant and the parent is a work of art. But also, the metaphor allows us to convey the emphasis of the secondary "dances" as extensions of the primary relationship. Teacher–child relationships build on parent–child relationships, but from the child's point of view, there is continuity, one extends on the other.

Q: What is a "relationship-based approach" to infant and toddler care, and in what ways might that differ from other approaches commonly used?

CPE: A relationship-based approach is one that addresses the relationships up front and gives them priority in organization and planning. It is intentional about all of the relationships between (and among) children, families, and educators. Other approaches, instead, address other aspects first (e.g. curriculum or costs) and minimize the importance of attachment issues. As a result, the emotional environment may get short shrift.

Many strategies are effective for building relationships: orienting children and parents when children begin child care; keeping teachers and children together throughout infancy; creating space to support small groups; building strong partnerships with parents; documenting children's learning; hiring relationship-oriented staff; and creating soothing, beautiful environments indoors and out. Curriculum and individualized planning get lots of attention in our approach, but in a context of thinking first about the whole context of relationships.

HR: This approach also emphasizes an ecology of relationships—a belief about the relationships at every level and their relatedness. All the relationships parallel one another and each influences the other. Thus, the respect and care accorded the child by the teacher becomes a model for the parent and child; the respect and care shown parents by teachers is consistent with respect shown to children; the working model that the child learns from caring and synchronous relationships extends to his other relationships including other children.

Q: Do you have a before and after example of a program that may have changed its approach to one that is more relationship-centered?

HR: I was director of the infant-toddler program in an employer supported program in Lincoln, NE, in the 1980s. Initially, the children "graduated" with every developmental shift and gradually we shifted to a model where teachers stayed with children throughout the infant-toddler years. The story of this shift is documented in the book. Many teachers and directors from all over the USA talk with us about their efforts to make this shift. For some it involves a sea change while others work over time at making the change. Many indicate their philosophical agreement but may find the practicalities take a while to implement.

CPE: I was director of infant and toddler programs at the University of Massachusetts inspired by ideas from Scandinavia, as introduced by a professor named Roberta Collard, who founded the infant program. This was in the late 1970s and 1980s, and we didn't use the term "relationship-based," but in fact that was our philosophy.

Thus, when I learned about the Italian methods, and heard Loris Malaguzzi of Reggio Emilia say that "education is relationships," I was already primed to understand what he meant. George Forman and I began immediately to work with our UMass students and colleagues to translate the ideas and strategies we were observing in Italy into our own American situation. We made many changes, especially in the methods of documenting children's learning through digital technologies.

At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where I teach now with Helen Raikes, we are part of an early childhood education program that considers relationships to be one of the guiding principles or themes of our work with children and adults. With our team of faculty, we have introduced many changes, for example, in our approach to teacher preparation, where we have infused skills of observation and documentation systematically throughout all of the coursework and field experiences.

Q: What have you found teachers like about this model?

HR: As we note in the book, some teachers may initially feel an affinity for a particular age of child within the infant-toddler years so they might feel at first that they would have difficulty with it. But we have found that teachers who are strongly identified with positive development for youngest children will say they know children on a much deeper level, are better able to support development, and experience a calm, rhythmic approach to infancy when they follow this model. We have noticed that turnover is much reduced.

CPE: Most teachers go into infant and toddler education out of love and admiration for very young children. They have a strong sense of caring and appreciation for children's feelings, and for the feelings of the children's families. They would also like to have strong and respectful relationships with their colleagues, so they can work together and support one another. These teachers find a relationship-based approach very satisfying and a wonderful context for their own professional growth and development.

Q: How did your own interest in young children's early learning and development develop?

CPE: I began my studies at Harvard University in anthropology, where I had the opportunity to learn about child care and socialization worldwide. Over my career, I have lived and worked in Mexico, Kenya, Italy, Norway, and China, and am always fascinated by the youngest children, and how they live in different cultural contexts.

My education at Harvard was interdisciplinary and focused on the big issues of child development. Early education became my focus when I taught at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and was director of the laboratory school for 13 years, and began to visit Italian programs with Lella Gandini and learn from educators in Reggio Emilia and Pistoia. Through those experiences I learned to listen closely to children's words and watch their actions and interactions, become more of a partner to parents, and think more deeply about teacher development.

HR: I became engrossed in learning about the developmental process while studying at the University of California, Davis, and later at Iowa State University. Increasingly, I became intrigued by the confluence of brain development, social emotional and other forms of development. The spiritual nature of early relationships, to me, and their literal shaping and formative nature early on are compelling to me.

This fascination with relating and the frame it provided for development and attachment led me to a decade of intensive work directly with infants and finally onto work with infants and toddlers at risk, through a formative trip to the faevallas in Brazil and with Early Head Start.

Q: In your ideal vision, you recommend that programs be set up so the teacher/caregiver can move through the program with the child ... (a) What do you find is the main philosophical objection to this approach, and how would you counter it, and (b) What do you find is the main practical obstacle to this approach, and how would you counter it?

HR: Philosophically, I think an objection may be around the centrality of parents in development, which is, of course, so fundamental. There may be fears of secondary caregivers becoming too important in the child's life or of somehow undermining the importance of the parent. However, this is an unnecessary fear.

Extended families and communities of helpers have long surrounded and helped to care for babies. Babies benefit from these relationships and by being a part of the networks of supporting relationships that adults have with one another within this circle of caring. The intimacy and support also help parents in their own important parenting work. By putting the book in some historical and cross cultural context, we have attempted to illustrate how long standing and universal it is for children to be involved in multiple supportive relationships.

Practically speaking, providers may have short-term objections to this approach because it does require potentially a new kind of intentionality to implement; it may initially seem too difficult to put into place. However, it is best to approach the task in ways that seem natural to the individual program.

Again, there is no one right or single approach, and the best approach is what makes sense within one's own program while working towards the goal of supporting relationships.

CPE: I find many people—both parents and teachers—distrust the idea of continuity of care. Parents worry that their child might get stuck with a weak teacher, and teachers worry about what would happen if they and a parent don't get along. I don't know why, but these issues seem important to Americans but not to adults I have met in other countries such as Italy and Norway, where teachers often loop for years with the same group of children, even during elementary school. Parents and teachers in those countries look forward to working several years together and believe that interactions improve over time, as do teachers' skills at meeting the needs of each individual child. Probably this difference in attitudes about continuity of care is just a matter of what people know and are used to, and not something fundamental that can't be changed.

Practically, yes, there are some obstacles to continuity of care and other aspects of the relationship-based model, but these can usually be worked out through careful planning and consensus-building within the community. There is no one right model for relationship-based care; for example, continuity of care can come about in many formats.

Q: If a caregiver would like to begin to implement the approach propounded in your book, what are two or three small steps he or she could take to begin?

CPE: One easy way to begin is to set up a primary teacher model in your classroom, with each child and family connected to one particular teacher. This teacher makes a point of being the one to greet the family in the morning, assist the child with key transitions and moments of care, and communicate with the parents by means of phone calls, notes, and conferences. The primary teacher is the reference person for the parents and secure base for the child. A second step is to examine your environment and make it more soothing, aesthetic, and supportive of small group interaction. And third, take some actions to improve your systems of two-way communication and documentation so that they make children feel visible and cared for as members of a little community of peers and adults.

HR: I think the primary teacher is the key. Everything builds out from that. Even programs that cannot have an exclusive primary teacher model could move in that direction by designating one teacher as mostly responsible for a particular child, so that whenever possible, she or he is the one to respond first. This does not need to be a rigid system but rather a system to work towards. The child will also begin to look for the mostly primary teacher so it all can happen in a rather organic way, with some intentionality. Parents can be told what the caregivers are trying to do but also be told there will be some flexibility. When interacting with parents of a designated child, whenever possible, the primary teacher might be the one who does the communicating.


Extending the Dance in Infant and Toddler Caregiving: Enhancing Attachment and Relationships


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