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“In short, somebody has to be crazy about that kid” (Bronfenbrenner, 2005, p. 262). Drawing on insights from theory and practice, reflect on the vital nature of relationships for young children’s learning and development.
Relationships are vital for children’s socio-emotional development and their all-round cognitive development. Many theorists such as Bronfenbrenner and Vygotsky place an emphasis on the importance of relationships in children’s lives. Similarly, Attachment Theory outlines the different benefits associated with strong, warm relationships between children and adults. Implementing Relational Pedagogy and reciprocal relationships through the Aistear framework is a possible solution to promoting strong relationships in the classroom.
Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Model of Human Development emphasises the importance of relationships in a child’s life. It shows that children’s lives are “lived interdependently through a network of shared relationships within and across systems of a society” (Hayes & Filipovic, 2017, p. 4). At the centre of the model is the child itself and the micro-system including friendships and relationships. Similarly, the meso-system recognises the cruciality of links between two or more microsystems, in an educational context this could be inferred as the relationships between teachers and parents, the child and his family, the child and his teacher, the child and his peers (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017).
In Bronfenbrenner’s most recent model, Process-Person-Context-Time (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) he states that these are the four main properties of the Bio-ecological Model (process, person, context and time). Similarly to the micro-system and meso-system, the ‘process’ component of the Bio-ecological model recognises the importance of relationships (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017). It states that children develop through relationships and that strong relationships can help children who have had damaging life experiences (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017). Interestingly, Bronfenbrenner recognises that even the most positive environment may be of no use to a child without stable, warm relationships (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017). This concept can be transferred to an early childhood and primary school setting. Practitioners should note that their relationship with the children in their classroom is of the utmost importance and that a highly resourced classroom is not essential to deliver high quality education (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017).
The concept of Relational Pedagogy highlights the importance of good quality, reciprocal relationships between the adult and child in educational settings. In addition, Relational Pedagogy promotes the importance of trusting the child, respecting children’s ideas, making learning meaningful and connecting learning to the child’s interests (Hedges & Cooper, 2018). The Primary School Curriculum recognises the importance of the relationship between the teacher and child: “the quality of the relationship that the teacher establishes with the child is of paramount importance in the learning process” (DES, 1999, p. 20). However, in order to implement Relational Pedagogy effectively, teachers must be highly skilled and trained (Neylon, 2012).
Attachment theory highlights the importance of relationships for the development of young children. Children need to form strong, stable relationships with their primary and secondary attachment figures in order to grow into emotionally robust and socially able adults (Bowlby, 2007). An insecure attachment can be defined as having an unpredictable bond with an attachment figure (Bowlby, 2007). Insecure attachment can contribute to mental health problems, poor oral language skills, poor maths ability and less curiosity than children who are securely attached (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). On the contrary, secure attachment to teachers has been liked to higher academic performance and better socio-emotional intelligence (Kennedy & Kennedy, 2004). Therefore, it is important that teachers develop a warm, respectful relationship with their students. Teachers can do this through implementing a child-centred curriculum, modelling how to be kind to others, having rules and consequences as opposed to threatening children (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). It can be easier for children to develop a secure attachment with a teacher if they are with the same teacher for multiple years (Bergin & Bergin, 2009), similarly to how many primary schools in Ireland allow teachers to remain teaching the same class for junior and senior infants.
Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory is closely linked to Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Model of Human Development. Bronfenbrenner believed that you simply cannot understand a child without having an understanding of the context in which he is coming from (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017). Similarly, Vygotsky saw children as “cultural beings, living in particular communities at particular times” (Dunphy, 2008, p. 56). He strongly believed that learning is more effective through social interactions and relationships with other children and with adults (Soler & Miller, 2003). Vygotsky considered play an precious learning experience for children and he especially valued socio-dramatic play. He believed that this type of play allowed children to show their comprehension of day-to-day life experiences and the roles of different people in society such as the dentist and the shopkeeper (Hedges, 2010).
Relationships between the child and teacher are vitally important for academic success and the development of socio-emotional intelligence. In their article, Pianta, Downer and Hamre (2016) discuss the importance of the relationships between teacher and child in order to deliver good quality education. They state that “teachers’ daily interactions with students are among the most important ways to foster child development in prekindergarten through third grade” (Pianta, Downer & Hamre, 2016, p. 123). Likewise, this article outlines a longitudinal study of 1,000 prekindergarten and kindergarten children in rural schools. This study found that children who had a good relationship with their teacher and who were emotionally supported in the classroom developed better social skills and displayed fewer behavioural problems. Furthermore, children who had a warm relationship with their teacher in early childhood showed higher academic and cognitive achievement as they moved through elementary school (Pianta, Downer & Hamre, 2016).
Strong teacher-parent relationships can also contribute to the learning and development of the child. It is important to note that not only are relationships between teachers and their students important, but teacher-parent relationships can also contribute to the success of children in school. Julius (2017) discusses the importance of parent-provider partnerships. She states that “a strong parent-provider partnership yields a secure, healthy environment that fosters the growth and development of a child’s intellectual and socio-emotional skills” (Julius, 2017, p. 48). Children whose parents have a positive relationship with their teacher adapt to new settings with ease and display less behavioural problems than children whose parents do not have a relationship with their child’s teacher (Julius, 2017). However, in the modern day where teachers must manage large class sizes, paper work and a demanding curriculum it can be difficult to find the time to develop relationships with parents. Likewise, parents often lead busy working lives where often a childminder or grandparent may drop and collect their child to and from school. It can be difficult for parents to find the time to create a relationship with their child’s teacher. Julius (2017) describes three characteristics to developing and maintaining good relationships with parents: communicating openly, creating a mutual respect and trust and being responsive with parents.
It can argued that Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Model of Human Development and Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory are both embedded in the Aistear curriculum framework (Gray & Ryan, 2016). A curriculum framework can be defined as “a scaffold or support which helps adults to develop a curriculum for the children in their setting (NCCA, 2009, p. 54). The Aistear framework supports practitioners, parents, childminders and infant teachers in providing playful learning experiences for children from birth to six years old in Ireland. The principles set out in the Aistear framework outline the importance of relationships for the child’s learning and development (NCCA, 2009). Aistear recognises children as valuable citizens in society, acknowledging their connections with their parents, family and community (NCCA, 2009). Furthermore, the Aistear framework states that children “learn and develop through loving and nurturing relationships with adults and other children” (NCCA, 2009, p. 9). This solidifies further, the importance of warm, good quality relationships for children’s development.
Aistear promotes a child-centred, play-based approach to teaching. This curriculum framework encourages the use of group work, child led activities and the concept of democracy in the classroom whereby children can decide what they would like to learn about, based on their interests (NCCA, 2009). Similarly, the adult facilitates the learning as opposed to taking a traditional, didactic approach to teaching. This allows the adult to interact on a personal level with children, learning about their interests, strengths and personalities. This in turn creates positive, reciprocal relationships with the children. Therefore, it can be argued that the implementation of the Aistear curriculum can help to promote good quality relationships in both early childhood settings and infant classrooms.
Bronfenbrenner and Vygotsky both value the importance of relationships for young children’s learning and development. They believed that children were sociable beings living in society who learn best through interactions with others and building relationships (Dunphy, 2008) (Hayes, O’Toole & Halpenny, 2017). Furthermore, Attachment Theory highlights the cruciality of relationships for children in order to grow into socially able and emotionally robust adults (Bowlby, 2007). Along with socio-emotional skills, strong relationships with adults can help increase a child’s cognitive development and their academic performance (Pianta, Downer & Hamre, 2016). The Aistear curriculum framework is a possible way of building teacher-child relationships in the classroom through child-led learning, group work and reciprocal relationships (NCCA, 2009).
- Bergin, C., & Bergin, D. (2009). Attachment in the Classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 21(2), 141-170. doi: 10.1007/s10648-009-9104-0
- Bowlby, R. (2007). Babies and toddlers in non-parental daycare can avoid stress and anxiety if they develop a lasting secondary attachment bond with one carer who is consistently accessible to them. Attachment & Human Development, 9(4), 307-319. doi: 10.1080/14616730701711516
- Bronfenbrenner, U. and Morris, P. A. (2006). The Bioecological Model of Human Development. In R. M. Lerner, & W. E. Damon (2006). Handbook of child psychology: Vol 1, Theoretical models of human development.
- Department of Education and Skills. (1999). Primary School Curriculum: Introduction (1st ed., pp. 2-80). Dublin.
- Dunphy, L. (2008). Developing pedagogy in infant classes in primary schools in Ireland: learning from research. Irish Educational Studies, 27(1), 55-70. doi: 10.1080/03323310701837871
- Gray, C. and Ryan, A. (2016). Aistear vis-à-vis the Primary Curriculum: the experiences of early years teachers in Ireland. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24(2), pp.188-205.
- Hayes, N., O’Toole, L., & Halpenny, A. (2017). Introducing Bronfenbrenner: A guide for practitioners and students in early years education. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
- Hayes, N., & Filipović, K. (2017). Nurturing ‘buds of development’: from outcomes to opportunities in early childhood practice. International Journal Of Early Years Education, 26(3), 220-232.
- Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2018). Relational play-based pedagogy: theorising a core practice in early childhood education. Teachers And Teaching, 24(4), 369-383. doi: 10.1080/13540602.2018.1430564
- Hedges, H. (2010). Whose goals and interests? The interface of children’s play and teachers’ pedagogical practices. In L. Brooker and S. Edwards (Eds.), Engaging Play (pp.25-38). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.
- Julius, G. (2017). The Importance of Parent-Provider Relationships in Early Education. Exchange, Sept/Oct, 2017, 48-50.
- Kennedy, J., & Kennedy, C. (2004). Attachment theory: Implications for school psychology. Psychology In The Schools, 41(2), 247-259. doi: 10.1002/pits.10153
- NCCA. (2009). Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework and the Primary School Curriculum. Audit: Similarities and differences (1st ed.). Dublin.
- Neylon, G. (2012). Training Students in Post-modern Pedagogies in the Field of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC); Reconciling the Old with the New.
- Pianta, R., Downer, J. and Hamre, B. (2016). Quality in Early Education Classrooms: Definitions, Gaps, and Systems. The Future of Children, 26(2), 119-137.
- Soler, J., & Miller, L. (2003). The Struggle for Early Childhood Curricula: A comparison of the English Foundation Stage Curriculum, Te Wha ̈riki and Reggio Emilia. International Journal Of Early Years Education, 11(1), 57-68. doi: 10.1080/0966976032000066091
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