Apr 9, 2015

Why Consistency Matters to Social-Emotional Development

Sonja Raymond is currently the owner and director at Apple Tree Learning Centers, which is based in Stowe, Vermont and offers high-quality programming for local and vacationing children age 7 weeks - 12 years. Sonja started at Apple Tree in July of 2000. She has her Bachelor's Degree in Education with a concentration in Special Education. Sonja is a huge advocate for early education and is currently a mentor for many programs statewide, helping them obtain stars or become NAEYC accredited.

Relationships with Caregivers are Essential to Early Learning

Science tells us that the majority of brain development happens by age three. We know that the interactions and relationships a child experiences with her caregivers form the foundation of her learning and development when it comes to her thinking, social skills and emotional development. That’s because a child’s earliest development is “transactional”—it happens through what scientists call “serve and return” interactions with adults, in which the child learns from the adults’ responses to her actions. For example, a child feels encouraged to explore a new toy when her caregiver smiles at her, or is soothed with a hug and reassuring words by her caregiver when she is sad, which lets her know that she is safe. This important relationship is demonstrated in this video from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

How Children Form Strong Relationships

This kind of learning is most effective when the child has what scientists call a “secure” relationship, or attachment, with her caregiver. Attachment to the caregiver is described as “secure” or “insecure” depending on whether the child experiences “the attachment figure as available and responsive when needed.”1

While many scientists identify a child’s attachment with her parents as most critical to her development, it has also been found that “virtually all infants develop close emotional bonds, or attachments, to those who regularly care for them in the early years of life,”2 and that these relationships have a strong impact on their development. Therefore, child care providers can play this essential role for children who spend time each week in a child care setting during their earliest years.

According to the Building Bright Futures Early Childhood Budget Report – FY2013, 26,000 Vermont children depend on child care. That means thousands of Vermont children are relying on secure attachments with their child care providers for healthy cognitive, social and emotional development.

Secure relationships with caregivers help children develop in these ways: 

  • They learn to trust others.
  • They develop better coping skills in stressful situations. 
  • They’re better able to describe their feelings with words and communicate with others.
  • They are more confident about exploring the world around them.
  • They develop a sense of self-worth, and are better at cooperating with others and understanding the feelings of others, which help them to form strong relationships with peers in the future.

The Role of Trust in Healthy Development

The development of trust is an important step in healthy development. An infant learns to trust others through predictable interactions with his caregivers and the warmth and responsiveness of their care. According to E. H. Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, a child who experiences predictable, responsive interactions will develop trust for his caregiver and will later expect predictability and trust in future relationships. On the other hand, a child who experiences unpredictable responses or caregiver interactions that are not related to his needs learns to mistrust others in relationships.3

Furthermore, secure relationships form an important buffer against damaging stress. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, supportive adults can create safe environments that help children learn to cope with very stressful experiences, which helps them tolerate and recover from stressful events in the future.4

Children Need Consistent Caregivers

For the 26,000 Vermont children who spend a significant portion of each week in care with someone other than a parent or guardian, the consistency of their caregivers can be at risk, because staff turnover is a challenge in the early childhood field. Most programs struggle to pay staff competitively or offer health care and professional development opportunities, due to the high cost of providing quality care, which leads to high rates of staff turnover. 

It’s crucial that Vermont’s providers have the support they need to retain qualified, talented staff—so that our children are experiencing the consistent relationships they need early on for later success in life. The formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission, which is designed to study the high cost of care and explore possible sustainable private/public funding systems for the early childhood field, will be vital to ensuring all children have the ability to access early childhood programs who attract and keep highly qualified staff.

1Cassidy, J. (1999). The nature of the child’s ties. In J. Cassidy & P. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 3-20). New York: Guilford Press.
2National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Jack P. Shonkoff & Deborah A. Phillips, (Eds.) Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
3Erikson, E. H. (1965). Childhood and society (2nd Ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
4National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition. http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu

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