Why is it important to develop relationships in infant and toddler care?

During their first years of life it is crucial that infants develop confidence, self-esteem and a feeling of security and trust in the people who care for them. These factors give them a secure base for all of their subsequent social and emotional development. Babies who develop this “emotional security” are then more likely to become toddlers who have the confidence to “walk alone. ” Alicia Lieberman discusses this concept of “walking alone” in her book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler.

In order to become independent learners, confident to explore the world around them and try new things, toddlers must first of all develop a sense of trust. This sense of trust builds when the infant has developed secure attachments with caregivers, and feels reassured, valued, respected and truly cared for. Obviously a child whose emotional needs are not being met through the development of secure and positive relationships with caregivers, will focus more on getting those needs met than on exploring and learning.

Research on what helps children be successful at school, carried out by Heart Start through the “Zero to Three” organization, emphasises the need for children to be curious in order to learn. The research identified seven characteristics of successful learners, and among them, curiosity. Infants and toddlers have a natural, healthy curiosity, a trait that should be encouraged in a safe way by their caregivers, as it is vital for their confidence, self-esteem and learning. Those children who do not develop secure attachments to their caregivers will be less likely to show this lively curiosity in their world.
Helen Raikes has described in her 1996 article, A Secure Base for Babies: Applying Attachment Theory Concepts to the Infant Care Setting, how babies that had developed secure attachments were more likely to explore their surroundings, join in with play and interact with the adults in the setting. These infants know that they can look back and “return to base” if need be. It was the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby who identified four stages of attachment of the child to the mother or the primary caregiver.
He noted that during the third stage, (between the approximate ages of 7 and 24 months), infants often develop a strong attachment to the primary caregiver and may develop “separation anxiety” if that caregiver is replaced by someone else. Continuity of the caregiver, the development of a consistent, caring relationship with one person, is therefore very important for infants at this stage, as they may experience much trauma if a change of caregiver takes place at this time. However, the first characteristic of successful children, identified by the Heart Start research, was that of confidence.
Children’s feelings of competence and confidence develop as a result of secure, positive relationships with their caregivers. Also, the confidence that comes from having a clear sense of their own identity means that children are more likely to develop empathy and respect for others and feel relaxed and secure in the company of other adults. Confident children who can interact successfully with their peer group will more easily develop the social skills needed for their future success. Of course, co-operative interaction with others, either children or adults, will help further their learning too.
But perhaps the most pressing need for the development of relationships in infant and toddler care arises through consideration of those children who come from an unstable home environment, where their emotional needs have not been met by their parents. The social and emotional growth of these children will be furthered hindered and delayed if they are then not given any opportunity to develop a continuous, positive relationship with a primary caregiver, assigned from the time of the child’s enrolment up until he or she reaches the age of three or even five.
How can primary and continuous care be implemented in order to develop a relationship with a child? It is the responsibility of the primary caregiver to respond appropriately to the infant or toddler to ensure that their emotional needs are met. An “appropriate” response is one that makes the child feel respected, valued and cared for. Just as all relationships take time to develop, so must primary caregivers take time to really get to know the children, become aware of their personality and temperament, their likes and dislikes and body language cues.
This is the first and foremost response that will help to build a relationship and ensure children’s emotional needs are met. In order to get to know children, it is important to become sensitive to the cues and messages they send out – both verbal and non-verbal. In turn, caregivers should be vigilant about their own body language cues as well as the words they use because when children become aware of negative feedback, (both verbal and non-verbal), from their caregivers it can greatly affect their self-esteem.
The caregiver should aim to give positive responses to the child, using open and friendly body language, eye contact, smiles, nodding etc. Of course, this does not mean that the caregiver must always say “yes” to a child’s demands, if those demands are unreasonable or unsafe, and assertive behavior management strategies should be applied whenever they are necessary. Along with ensuring the quality of responses and care given by the primary caregiver, continuity of care can be implemented in three ways: • Children can be placed in mixed age groups. This means that the children under 2.
9 years of age can be cared for in the same room, as long as the requirement ratio is adhered to for the youngest child in the group. • Children can be placed in groups of the same age. This ensures that when the children are ready, they and their caregivers will move to the next environment. • Children can be placed in groups of the same age, and will stay in the same room. This means that the children remain in a setting that is familiar to them, while the learning materials and resources of the room change in accordance with their developmental progress.
However, the concept of primary and continuous care must take into account the fact that a major amount of the childcare day is spent doing routine care giving activities, such as toileting, hand washing, eating, etc. Since these routine activities take up so much time, the development of a relationship with the child must be prioritised during these times. In their book, The Creative Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers, Dombro, Colker and Trister-Dodge emphasise that this job of building a relationship with a child should be the focus of the caregiver’s work.
Although learning activities should be included as part of a quality curriculum for a child, in practice they only form a small part of the child’s day – the majority of that day being spent doing routine activities. Therefore the “curriculum” for a child does not only consist of learning activities. If relationship building is to be given the emphasis it deserves then the daily routines need to be considered as “curriculum” too, since the majority of daily adult-child interaction takes place during these daily routines.
Routine activities can be made enjoyable and fun with lots of opportunities for learning built in; the caregiver can interact with the child in a friendly and positive way during these times, showing the child that s/he is valued and respected. If caregivers are aware of the importance of building positive relationships with the children in their care then they will have no doubts whatsoever that they must work in accordance with the maxim, “relationship is curriculum”. References Dombro, A.
L. , Colker, L. J. & Trister-Dodge, D. (1999). The Creative Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers. Washington DC: Teaching Strategies. Lieberman, A. (1993). The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: Free Press. Raikes, H. (1996) “A Secure Base for Babies: Applying Attachment Theory Concepts to the Infant Care Setting,” in Young Children, 51 (5), 59-67. Zero to Three (1992). Heart start: The emotional foundations of school readiness. Washington DC: Zero to Three. http://www. zerotothree. org

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