Relationships are at the heart of everything we do at SEEC—relationships with parents, with each other as educators, and, most importantly, with the children. Forming strong relationships with children is the most important thing we can do as adults. It is through these relationships that much of who a child comes to be will emerge. Let’s start with a short biology lesson about the brain. Your brain has three parts—the rational brain, the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain and the part that is most developed at birth. This is where body functions such as sneezing, coughing, breathing and instincts are controlled. The mammalian brain is where emotions live—fear, anger, joy, sadness. The rational brain is the part that most of us associate with the brain—the thinking part. At birth, and throughout much of childhood, the rational brain is still developing. This means that instinct and emotions arising from the other two parts of the brain often take over behavior—think tantrums and biting here. It is only through relationships, coupled with experiences, that these vital connections in the rational brain are formed, resulting in a child who grows up with the ability to cope with stress, form fulfilling relationships of their own, manage anger, feel kindness and compassion, have the will and motivation to reach for and achieve goals, and have the ability to love intimately.
Many of the things we do here in our infant classrooms (and we have some pretty amazing infant teachers here!) are things that not only should be happening in every infant classroom but with babies and toddlers everywhere.
* Take their distress seriously: because of the way the brain of a very young child works they feel emotions strongly and need to be not only allowed to experience them but learn to name them and understand how to cope with them. A child who is upset should be held and comforted and allowed to be sad while the adult talks about what he or she might be feeling.
* Support yourself as the adult: it takes a lot of energy and patience to help support a child as she grows. This ability to override the emotional part of the brain doesn’t develop quickly. In fact, it may be the mid-20s before the rational brain fully kicks in (this may be why that first love is something you remember so clearly….). Because of this, being with young children all day can be exhausting so adults need to give themselves permission to step away from the child or the situation and find ways to recharge themselves throughout the day.
* Physically soothe young children: touch, rocking, massage and hugs all release oxytocin and opiods in the brain. These chemicals, sometimes called the “love chemicals” are the ones that make you feel calm and safe. Their production also reduces stress hormones in the body. Touch is a vital part of a strong relationship with a child.
*Experience real joy with them: when was the last time you felt real, true, in your gut joy? Young children experience it all the time and at the tiniest things. Finding a bug on the sidewalk, seeing an airplane in the sky, playing with bubbles—these all bring real joy to young children. It is important that you share that joy with them through the excitement in your voice, the words you use, and by giving them your complete attention. Sharing true moments of joy is a great way to build a relationship.
* Provide lots of face to face, 1:1 interactions: while we all interact with our children on a regular basis, we are often doing it with all sorts of distractions in the background. Forming real relationships means having face to face interactions on a regular basis, ones where we are really paying attention.
* Allow for clinging: someone once said that being with a toddler is like being possessed by a demonic lover. Clinging, while annoying, is an important way for children to calm themselves when they are stressed (and sometimes for adults as well!). Those love chemicals get released with the physical contact from clinging and can help a child feel more calm and safe. This is probably why you also want a good hug when you are feeling stressed!
* Let your child lead: let the child choose what to do and what parts he wants you to play. The more you let the child lead the play, the stronger the relationship gets as the child feels respected, trusted and cared for.
Building strong relationships with children takes time and patience. Strong relationships formed early in life will serve as an anchor for a child even when they are floundering out there in the world later in life. Knowing in their hearts that they are truly cared for will always be with them and is the best gift you can give them for a life time of love.