September is a month of new beginnings for some young children, beginning their first journey into early learning and care settings or beginning their first journey into primary school. For early years educators and/or primary teachers, it is the beginning of a journey of relationship building, getting to know each child as an individual and as a member of a group. We know how important it is to build relationships with children. Building relationships is highlighted in our National Frameworks Aistear and Síolta as central to children’s wellbeing and development; Aistear’s principle on relationships states, children have a fundamental need to be with other people. They learn and develop through loving and nurturing relationships with adults and other children, and the quality of these interactions impacts their learning and development (Aistear Principles and themes, 2009, p.9). Responsive, sensitive, and reciprocal relationships, which are consistent over time, are essential to the well-being, learning and development of the young child (Síolta Principle, 2006, p.7).
Being involved in an Erasmus+ project which is currently finalising a framework on developing child-centred competencies for early years educators and students hoping to work with young children, I have found that many of the aspects of child-centredness focus on the importance of relationship-building between educators and children. The framework highlights strategies for promoting the child-centred practice and discusses creating a culture of child-centredness, providing an opportunity for individual educators or teams to build on their existing knowledge of working with children and families to think about how the nature of their practice might be improved. This project is currently ongoing, however once completed we will share a link to this publication via Early Childhood Irelands website.
So, this blog will focus on supporting relationship building in early years settings and how to develop a culture where the child/children are at the centre of everything we do. Building relationships through a child-centred culture involves strategies such as:
- Engaging in one-to-one interactions with children
- Getting down to the child’s level for face-to-face interactions
- Using a pleasant, calm voice and simple language (depending on age and stage of the child)
- Providing warm, responsive physical contact
- Following the child’s lead and interest during play
- Helping children understand playroom/classroom expectations, why things and resources are placed as they are, why sharing of resources/materials may be required etc.
- Listening to children and encouraging them to listen to others
- Acknowledging children for their efforts and accomplishments
- Fostering a relational involvement with children
A child-centred culture involves providing environments and activities that absorb, fascinate, and engage children at the limit of their capabilities. This type of environment not only helps to build relationships but also secures children’s involvement. We can help children to become involved by sharing control, giving them the time and space to become deeply immersed in their work and play. This prompts high-level engagement and is more likely to happen when adults give children ownership of their learning (Laevers & Declercq, 2018). Involving children requires educators to observe children and provide resources that afford opportunities for them to forge connections with the world. High levels of involvement in a setting can be seen as an indicator that children’s rights are being met. And that the environments and activities provided support children to be confident and capable learners in a culture of child-centredness.
For children to grow as confident and capable learners, they need caring educators who support and respect that children come into the world ready to learn. Thinking about children and respecting them as capable learners involves recognising that children learn by doing and that they use all their senses – sight, sound, hearing, smell, and taste to explore the world around them including objects and materials. Through these experiences, in a child-centred environment, children begin to develop knowledge and an awareness of their built and natural environment.
Supporting children to be capable learners in a child-centred environment, requires educators:
- who are respectful listeners and keen observers?
- who support children with meaning-making, figuring out how things work and why?
- who negotiate with children, helping them to turn take and problem solve?
- who cares for them, know them well and are sensitive to their interests and intentions?
- who has a strong understanding of where children are at?
- who scaffolds and extend their learning through positive interactions?
Enriching and extending children’s learning will depend on adults who can assess children’s learning and adapt the practice to plan for future learning. Celebrating children’s progress and achievements and sharing with children will help to create rich portraits and guide children through their learning journey and are all elements of child-centred practice.
The child-centred practice focuses on building positive caring relationships with children and securing children’s involvement. Securing children’s involvement requires competent adults/educators who have the knowledge and skills to drive relationship building and the commitment to putting the needs and rights of children first.
However, competence goes beyond the use of knowledge and skills, it includes a personal dimension (Urban et al., 2011) that acknowledges both professional ethos and values. The professional ethos (ethical principles that guide practice) and values (beliefs that guide our actions) recognise both how to conduct oneself in professional contexts and the ethical importance of the encounter with a child. Guiding and shaping the professional self involves the use of critical thinking skills, initiative, problem-solving, decision making and the constructive management of feelings (European Commission, 2007).
Developing and shaping the professional self who can practice as a child-centred professional, involves reflecting on practice, being open-minded, and having the ability to consider one’s actions, considering the reasons for the practice, and exploring how particular actions can be justified. Reflective practice is the ability to consider one’s actions, making connections to their ethos, values, and wider theory. In many respects, the reflective child-centred professional is like a researcher who is developing knowledge and understanding of their practice
Placing the child at the centre of professional practice, building a collective understanding of children’s needs and interests works best when working practices both inform and facilitate a child-centred approach. Settings and services with an ethos that values reflection, observation, and listening are well placed to understand children’s needs and interests.
According to Aistear (2009), it is through these early supportive relationships that children learn to feel secure, communicate and enjoy being with people. Adults working with children must consider their role with children and ensure that all interactions are respectful, playful, enjoyable, enabling and rewarding. It is through the daily routine that adults can ensure that each interactional moment is intentional and purposeful for children and that these everyday activities are a time for one-to-one interactions and engagement with the child. Through this engagement, the adult can build on the child’s interests and abilities and develop warm reciprocal relationships.
Aistear (2009) Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Dublin
Campbell-Barr, V. (2019) Professional Knowledge and Skills in the Early Years, London: Sage
European Commission (2007) Key Competences for Lifelong Learning: European Reference Framework. Belgium: European Commission.
Laevers, F. & Declercq, B. (2018) ‘How well-being and involvement fit into the commitment to children’s rights’. European Journal of Education, 53 (3), pp. 325-335.
Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (2006) Síolta National Quality Framework. Dublin.
Urban, M., Vandenbroek, M., Lazzari, A., Peeters, J. & van Laere, K. (2011) Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care (CoRe). London and Ghent: University of East London,