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Loving Relationships


Monday 24 August 2020

In response to the question “how would you describe love?” my darling friend Biel said “it feels like everything. Love the people and love the trees, love everything. It’s a really happy feeling of your heart, the heart which you feel in your body”. Biel, at five years of age, has true wisdom of the heart.

I reflect on Biel’s words as Early Learning and Care settings across Ireland reopen. I am led to consider all the ways we express love in our every day, especially with young children in support of their emotional well-being and learning. Love to me is hugely connected to learning. Indeed, current research shows a child’s need for a connected relationship with at least one dedicated caregiver throughout the day is as important for healthy growth and development as the need for food, water and air (Corbett, 2009, Szalavitz & Perry, 2011, Hughes, 2013, Ministry of Education New Zealand, 2017, and Page, 2018). For me, an Early Learning and Care service cannot be offered without love.

“The way we care for our babies is how they experience our love,” said Magda Gerber, a renowned early childhood educator in the United States. One of the most natural ways I see the ‘way we care’ being expressed is through educators offering children hugs, using an open palm gesture as an invitation, suggesting a cuddle and engaging when a child desires them to.

With recent requirements of physical distancing, I am conscious that some children, and their families, might be feeling anxious that they should not get too physically close to anyone outside of their immediate family. While you as an educator absolutely CAN hug the children, as acknowledged in the let's get ready campaign video, I know at times hugging others may feel a bit strange. Let’s look at some other ways babies and children experience our love. Below are some ways to foster loving relationships.


  • A smile, your smile, the key person they know that cared for them before the COVID-19 pandemic. The person that made time to connect through story videos and more while the children were home. Shine your biggest smile as children and families arrive each day.
  • Laugh with children. If laughter isn’t the best medicine, what is?
  • Share stories, stories from recent times or times in the past, storybooks, puppet stories and other props can aid you in storytelling. Talking aloud about experiences, real or fantasy, can give us a deeper understanding of such experiences and help us form connections to the people, places and things within the stories.
  • Acknowledge children’s feelings and emotions. We can say different things to ensure children know we hear them, understand them and we are here to support them. An example of framing our language is:

Avoid: "Go play, you're fine"

            and try: "It's ok to feel nervous, you can stay with me until you are ready."

It will take a while for all of us to be comfortable in social situations again. We need to connect with children's emotions and empathise.

Avoid: "you're ok."

and try: "are you ok?"

Avoid: "Don't cry, there is no reason to be sad"

and try: "I see how upset you are, you really wanted that toy/daddy to stay with you. I know it doesn't feel fair." 

As adults, we need to see things from children's point of view, to recognise the big emotions they may be feeling and sometimes put words to them. Children deal with the same uncomfortable feelings as adults do; anger, disappointment, sadness etc. But they may not have learnt the words to face those emotions yet. They need us to connect and understand. We must be aware of how we might respond when a child is upset. Our immediate natural reaction can be to want to stop what is happening and possibly panic a little, but allowing children to feel the intensity of what they are feeling, is so important for their own emotional growth and our role is to support them in understanding their emotions.

  • Adopt a style of interaction called invite, suggest, engage (Dalli & Kibble, 2010). The pattern begins with an invitation by the educator, is followed with a suggestion, and ends in an engagement. Preparing for a rest as an example:
    • “You seem tired; shall we get ready for a rest?”
    • Encourage the child to be involved by giving them time and allowing them to take the lead.
    • Comfort and reassure the child that going to bed is a desirable thing to do.

Being responsive in this way slows down the pace of the adult’s activity and makes for a more peaceful interaction.


  • Give a child your full attention, when preparing for a rest, nappy changing or having a meal. When playing, be fully present. Observe, listen to what the children are doing and saying as well as not doing and saying. They need us to ‘tune in’ and listen attentively so we can interpret their needs and wants.
  • Watch, wait and wonder (Cohen, Muir, Parker, Brown, Lojkasek, Muir, & Barwick 1999). Be curious about the child’s experience, how are they reacting? Experiences are different for everyone. Something you think is scary for the child might be no problem. Something you think is no problem, may be scary. If a child falls, put words to what happened and wonder how the child feels based on their reaction before rushing in and picking them up. Be there at their eye-level, say “Oh I saw you fell…”, and then follow their lead.
  • Go slowly, avoid the urge to rush around all day. Allow time and space for adjustment to new situations.
  • Trust children, trust in their inherent capabilities, babies and children are extremely competent. If we are developmentally responsive educators, we design our environment and curriculum to suit the characteristics of children, trusting in their ability to make decisions as capable learners.
  • And lastly, of course, there are other ways of physical contact to slowly help us all feel more comfortable; high fives, fist bump, or foot/elbow shakes.


Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist, believes the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he or she will be to recover from trauma and thrive. “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love,” he said. For loving relationships, I encourage us all to consider what makes us feel love for each other? How can we best care for each other? As we try to get used to our new normal and follow the necessary government guidance, it is our responsibility as educators to do everything we can to have meaningful and loving relationships with the children in our care.



Dee Finn, a lover of life, laughing and chocolate. Currently residing in Co. Clare, Ireland. It's a little bit closer to her home in the beautiful seaside landscape of West Cork than when she lived in Wellington, New Zealand. Wellington is her second home full of loving relationships and happy memories. She feels honoured to have had many opportunities to build a rapport with some of the greatest early childhood educators around while working as Teacher and Principal with Childspace Early Learning Centres. Now she is developing new relationships with educators in Ireland as she works in a variety of roles; Development Worker with Clare County Childcare Committee, Tutor with Limerick Clare Education Training Board as well as a play-based advisor through an Instagram page called Play_Potential. Empowering educators with what they need so children in their lives can grow to their fullest potential is a passion of hers. Appreciating and supporting babies and young children's abilities, interests and strengths are always on her mind.

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