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What is the significance of relationships and emotional connection in children's learning?

5 early years experts Ask an expert

This year’s EECERA conference theme (Happiness, Relationships, Emotion & Deep Level Learning) focused on exploring the links between the cognitive and the socio-emotional aspects of early childhood development. Inspired by the EECERA 2016 theme, we turned to not just one, but 5 early childhood experts to find out what their views are on the significance of relationships and emotional connection in children’s learning. Here’s what they had to share…

Author Ann Clare Communication and Interaction in the Early Years  Ann Clare, author of Communication and Interaction in the Early Years

Safe and secure

I have always advocated that if a child (or even adult) is safe and secure then the medium for learning exists. Brain research tells us that for children to feel this security then they first need to form strong relationships. It is through close relationships, support and interaction that children will be challenged in their learning. As Laevers (1994) demonstrates in his work, if a child feels ‘good in their skin’ then they are open and receptive to learning; if children don’t feel like this they will not be able to concentrate and become involved, and therefore deep level learning will not take place.

verity campbell-barr quality and leadership in the early years Verity Campbell-Barr, co-author of Quality and Leadership in the Early Years

Quality relationships

Post-structuralist critiques of quality Early childhood Education and Care (ECEC) have challenged modernist attempts to measure and assess quality, both in regards to the presumed certainty that assessments provide and for the non-measurable attributes that are missed when measuring quality; instead taking a more philosophical approach. Relationships and emotions provide an example of the complexities of quality. The relationships a pedagogue forms with children, parents and colleagues, as well as between children, are essential to quality, but there is no one approach to form an emotional relationship. Relationships will be culturally variable, for example child-centred pedagogy will shape relationships between children and pedagogues, but will be informed by cultural constructs of children, their learning and appropriate emotional responses. International comparisons highlight the differences in understandings of child centred relationships, but pedagogues will also be sensitive to the differences within their communities – relationships with one child will require different skills and sensitivities to that of another and the process of forming a quality relationship will be ongoing, never a fixed and measureable attribute.

michael jones talking and learning with young children Michael Jones, author of Talking and Learning with Young Children

Positive early relationships

The foundations of communication are laid down during the positive interaction between infants and their parents. Language development and successful learning come through the confidence built up within children’s positive early relationships. Children continue to thrive when early years practitioners provide them with positive interaction and conversation. Initially, children benefit from talking about what they already know; particularly about home life and family relationships. From this secure base they can go on to develop new knowledge and explore new ideas while being taught and cared for away from home. The challenge for practitioners is to find time to explore ideas with children…

Janet Rose et al Health and Well-being in Early Childhood Janet Rose et al, authors of Health and Well-being in Early Childhood

Nurturing environments

Well-established research on the physiological, psychological, sociological, and neurobiological components of early childhood, emphasises the nature of children’s relationships with nurturing environments and supportive adults and their subsequent impact on emotional development. The recursive and symbiotic nature of interpersonal interactions structure the developing brain, mind and body and lay important foundations for emotional well-being. Of particular interest is the growing evidence on how early relationships shape the psycho-physiological regulatory ability to respond appropriately to stimuli and return to a normal resting state, known as vagal tone. Optimal resting vagal tone and appropriate reactivity is thought to underlie healthy, adaptive behavioural and emotional responses to environmental demands and is strongly influenced by attachment relationships. Attuned relationships, which offer appropriate sensory stimulation and secure relationships, promote the development of vagal tone and help establish more balanced emotional responses. In turn, this helps to create a more stable state for the child, who is then more receptive to learning.

ioanna palaiologou child observation in the early years Ioanna Palaiologou, author of The Early Years Foundation Stage and Child Observation

Understanding the world

The relationships between children’s social and emotional interactions and cognitive development has been a key theme in research on how children learn. In recent years research has been placing emphasis on the essentially social and emotional character of learning and children’s dispositions as the basis for shaping their capabilities to explore and understand the world around them. The social context in which learning takes place is essential for children to develop and extend their understanding of the world around them as well as explore and modify the norms, values and how society works. Children through social interactions with others (peers and adults) are engaged in a number of playful activities in order to expreince the world and assist their learning. It is also important to point to emotional connections of children as an integral part to learning that is often overlooked. Thus effective learning environments are the ones that emphasise the interplay of social and emotional interactions, address the sociocultural world of children to support the creation and acquisition of knowledge.

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