Relationships with Children in Early Childhood Practice - Enduring Foundations and Responses to a Volatile World

As part of our Quality in Practice series, Early Start from the University of Wollongong explore Quality Area 5 of the National Quality Standard.

1. Relationships: A foundation for high-quality early childhood practice

Quality Area (QA) 5 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) concerns the relationships educators have with children and the relationships that children have amongst themselves. Relationships form a foundation for high-quality early childhood practice, a principle enshrined in our National Approved Learning Frameworks: Being, Belonging, Becoming and My Time, Our Place.

Strong relationships between educators and children (Standard 5.1) are characterised by important features. Whatever their age, nurturing and responsive relationships provide children with a sense of safety and security, while at the same time giving them confidence to act autonomously and pursue their own interests. Reciprocity in relationships establishes the conditions for respectful interactions and verbal communication. This empowers both the child and the educator. When relationships are reciprocal and built on a nurturing foundation, each individual is empowered to be effective and grow.

Relationships between children (Standard 5.2) are equally important although there is a critical difference. In early childhood education, peer interactions are nested within an environment influenced by educators. In early childhood and outside school hours care settings, where peer relationships become increasingly child-led, it is critical to maintain a culture of respectful and supportive interactions. Peer-to-peer relationships give children a different medium to explore their interests, collaborate and become socially competent. Through these interactions, children have a powerful forum to navigate and understand the perspectives of others, while enhancing their social and emotional skills. Children of all ages are exploring and discovering how their interactions affect others, and how they are influenced and affected by others. As children move from toddlerhood into the preschool years and beyond, however, they become increasingly able to communicate their needs, negotiate, share goals and collaborate; such as we see in shared pretend-play.

As humans, we feel safest in the presence of familiar and nurturing people who make up our family and community. The regulating effects of strong relationships acts as a protective factor during and after stressful events. This is especially important in volatile times. Many children and families are experiencing volatility at the moment because of the COVID-19 crisis, but also because of other factors such as the recent bushfires and familial stress. Positive relationships can mitigate these affects by calming the body’s stress response system, which, when supported in early childhood, creates a template for healthy future relationships.

At times of social upheaval and heightened anxiety, it is important to reflect on the challenges we face with these pressures and demands, and to revisit the foundations of high-quality early childhood practice.

Quality Area 5 discussion

Leanne Gibbs discusses Quality Area 5 of the National Quality Standard with Fay Gowers and Marc de Rosnay at Early Start, University of Wollongong. Different aspects of the standards are examined and contextualised in relation to the current COVID-19 crisis and the changes in early year’s practice it has necessitated.

Quality Area 5 Discussion with Leanne Gibbs, Fay Gowers and Marc De Rosnay

2. Strong, respectful relationships matter for every person

In the Australian early childhood education and care context, 96% of approved services are rated meeting or above the NQS for QA5. This is an increase of 11% since the reporting of data began in 2013, and it is one of the areas in which Australian early childhood services excel. This strength demonstrates respect for children and an understanding of the importance of relationships in the pedagogy and practice of educators.

While we are tracking well in QA5, it should be acknowledged that strong, respectful relationships matter for every child and in every education and care setting. The concept of Belonging is embedded in the learning frameworks. The “experience of knowing where and with whom you belong” (Early Years Learning Framework, p.7) is an integral part of the formation of identity. Along with the home learning environment, education and care settings provide ongoing opportunities for children to construct the dynamic and fluid elements of their unique identities within a network of safe and secure relationships.

High-quality and mutually respectful relationships provide children with the opportunity to experience themselves as equals (Element 5.1.2: Dignity and rights of the child). It is essential for educators to provide a balance in the educator-child relationship so that children can demonstrate their increasing autonomy and independence within the constraints of secure relationships.

The learning frameworks are aligned with the goals of the Alice Springs Declaration to provide an environment/atmosphere that supports all Australians to be active and informed citizens. Educators can provide environments that promote a strong sense of agency in children; e.g. ensuring children are provided with choices and involvement in planning. Agency is enhanced when children experience relationships that enable and empower them to grow from their experiences, and influence those around them.

The elements of QA5 help educators develop reflective practices across a range of contexts. Whilst no element is more important than another, educators disproportionately set the tone for how relationships will occur between children within early childhood settings. As discussed above, when educators engage in nurturing, reciprocal and respectful relationships with children they enable children to experience themselves as important and effective in the world; this will influence how children engage in their own relationships and provide a model for children’s peer interactions.

Observing children’s interactions and reflecting on their relationships is a rich source information about their development, interests and capacities. We need to remember, however, that children are also keen observers of social activity, so the ways in which educators relate to each other and to families are also important. The importance of fostering connections across contexts and the value of forming high-quality relationship with families in shaping children’s educational experience are prioritised across the standards, with this emphasis reflected in QAs 4 and 6. Whilst QA5 discusses respectful educator-child and child-child relationships, these relationships do not exist in a vacuum; a culture of supportive and respectful relationships can create a virtuous cycle that enriches all participants in early childhood environments.

3. Adapting our practice to a volatile world

Understanding the current context

Education and care environments enable children to explore and learn socially acceptable behaviours within a safe and secure space. Children have opportunities to manage their behaviours and responsibilities within a variety of group settings. Such interactions promote skills like collaboration, negotiation, sharing, turn-taking, listening and speaking. However, the events of the past few months have impacted children in important ways. Many have had less time with other children, meaning a reduction in exposure and opportunity to engage in learning relationships with peers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic some children may have experienced relational poverty (see Morgan et al., 2015, section 6), particularly those who already had an accumulation of vulnerabilities. In such cases, anxieties and stresses already felt by children will have been amplified during the crisis. These children will need time and consistency within the early learning environments, both structurally (i.e., predictable routines, clear expectations) and relationally.

Establishing and restoring a sense of safety and security

The needs of children from birth to 5 years have not changed, it is the external conditions imposed upon us that have changed the way we live and go about our work. In times of crises, the foundations of high-quality education and care have the most influence. Restoring or establishing children’s sense of safety and security is paramount. As children and families return to their early learning environments, authentic relationships renew children’s capacity for connection and learning.

When children are not feeling safe and secure, or they feel the structures they depend on are unreliable, it is possible they will resist educators’ attempts to re-engage them. This can be difficult for everyone, but it is important to recognise that the child’s need for safety and security is always their first and foremost need. Coming back from isolation imposed by COVID-19, some children will have a need to restore a sense of safety and security. For others there will be a need to establish a sense of safety and security.

The challenge of establishing strong, respectful relationships with children is integral to all early childhood practice, it is a process that we are all used to but might be more difficult under current conditions for a variety of reasons (e.g., children having been isolated for extended periods, caregiver anxiety about infection). The challenge of restoring relationships adds other complexities because children might feel the need to test relationships more, or they may simply be more unwilling to engage.

In pre-schoolers and young school-age children, issues with socio-emotional development typically manifests as challenging, socially disruptive patterns of behaviour that, without intervention, can evolve into persistent antisocial behaviour. As people who work with and care for children, we need to see these behaviours as a form of communication and an expression of a need. While our call to action is often the child’s behaviour, we should resist seeing the child as the problem but rather turn our focus to the underlying causes.

Understanding what children are saying through their behaviour

When helping children with difficult behaviours it is useful to be aware of red flags children may communicate through their behaviour. These signals often consist of ongoing difficulties sustaining attention, emotional volatility or disengagement. For example, we might see:

  • inattention listening to a story
  • disengaging from daily routines and experiences
  • tantrums that last longer than would be typical
  • difficulty accepting changes in routine or at transition times
  • becoming easily upset or worried (to the extent that they may be unable to be distracted and move on)
  • a lack of engagement in meaningful play, or wishing to engage in more solitary play
  • ongoing conflict with peers
  • emergence, or re-emergence, of separation anxiety
  • regression around behaviours such as toileting or the need for ‘security blankets’

While one of these alone might not raise concern, if multiple red flags are present educators need to have an increased and active presence. Co-regulating with the child to regain equilibrium of emotions within a relational context means acknowledging that the current situation is difficult, showing empathy and employing strategies that will deescalate the situation, while maintaining the child’s sense of dignity and self. This process builds and strengthens relationships with children as their individual needs are better understood and supported.

Understanding our own role in setting the tone for strong, respectful relationships

It is also important for educators to reflect on the importance of their own emotional regulation and expression, and utilise this to their advantage. Through their interactions and relationships with children, educators can start to reorganise the emotion regulation template for children through their own actions, expressions and communicative behaviours.

As children get older, their need for understanding and information increases. By respecting children’s informational needs, we talk to them in ways that help them make sense of the world and current events, and we provide opportunities for them to explore ideas through their exploration, play and interactions.

Finally, it is important to stress that the quality of the relationships between educators and children can be enhanced by the quality of the relationship educators have with families. Knowledge of children’s experiences when they have not been attending a service can inform educators’ responses. Respectful communication with families enriches relationships and provides a valuable window on the broader context of children’s lives.

Remember that families also experience emotional responses in the aftermath of difficult external conditions, such as: guilt (e.g., “I had to work so I didn’t get to play as much with my child as I would have liked”, “I need my child to attend ECEC in order to work but I feel guilty exposing my child to risks”); stress due to loss of employment; or feelings of well-being (e.g., “I was able to spend quality time with my child during lockdown and it has strengthened our relationship”). It is through the partnership educators have with families that this can be understood and responded to for the benefit of the child.

4. Further implications for practice

At times of uncertainty, instability and stress we need to prioritise practices that ensure children feel safe, secure and valued. It is a time to slow our communications and interactions and to find power in the pause. Effective environments rely on the communication of clear expectations amongst staff, between educators and children, and with families. Because children’s capacities to self-regulate may be compromised, educators need to identify children who are potentially struggling in this area and remain close by. Restoring a sense of safety and security demands educators remain regulated themselves, show patience, be gentle and offer reassurance to children and families.

When we reflect on our pedagogy, it is important to return to the fundamentals of evidence-based practice, and what is key in supporting children’s development and wellbeing. Each of the following aspects of quality practice contributes to supporting children in its own way; all indicators are considered necessary in achieving a high-quality environment:

  • high levels of intentional and relational pedagogy
  • organisational structure of learning experiences (e.g., use of grouping and well-defined learning areas)
  • opportunities for reflective practice
  • resource allocation and classroom arrangement
  • approaches to extension and engagement
  • engagement in sustained shared thinking
  • a broad range of curriculum content and integrated experiences
  • use of assessment to inform planning
  • an understanding of child development and the need for differentiation
  • valuing diversity and responsiveness to individual needs
  • commitment to quality leadership and staff collaboration
  • effective communication
  • supportive management structure
  • staff stability
  • connections with families and the broader community

When we find ourselves navigating challenging and uncertain times such as these, educators need to prioritise the relational aspect of their role. Many of the practices identified above have a reinforcing connection to relationships. For example, engagement in sustained shared thinking depends on educators having trusting and responsive relationships with children, while at the same time contributing to the growth and development of such relationships. This will mean listening actively and sensitively, demonstrating responsiveness and empathy. Educators are better able to adapt themselves to the needs of children and families when they accept where individual families and children are at, which is achieved through cultivating authentic relationships that are sensitive, caring, tolerant, compassionate and empathetic.

Creating a sense of community can promote children’s sense of belonging at times of stress. This can be as simple as offering children choices, which gives children an opportunity to have their voice heard, feel respected, have a level of control over their lives, and build a sense of belonging through the notion of ownership. However, it is important to keep in mind that too much choice for some children can become overwhelming – particularly those who come from more complex and vulnerable circumstances, who often take comfort in routines and the predictability of the education and care setting.

Being in tune with children takes patience, reflection and skilled observation. When we cannot rely on verbal interactions as with our youngest children, we need to sit comfortably in the pause using this as time to read, interpret and respond to the cues of the individual child, tuning into their non-verbal social-emotional language. These practices enable educators to match need and provision (meeting the child where they are at), captured through synchronous and interactive interactions. Attunement requires educators to be proactive in their approach to determining the pathway forward, drawing on strategies that foster sensitive and responsive connections, communicating clear expectations, and prioritising slow and reciprocal interactions – placing relationships at the centre of our work.

5. Suggested Readings

Ludy-Dobson, C. R., and Perry, B. D. (2010). The role of healthy relational interactions in buffering the impact of childhood trauma. In Gil, E. (Ed.) Working with children to heal from interpersonal trauma: The power of play. 26-43, The Guildford Press.

Morgan, A., Pendergast, D., Brown, R., and Heck, D. (2015). Relational ways of being an educator: trauma informed practice supporting disenfranchised young people. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(10), 1037-1051

Neilsen-Hewett, C., Siraj, I., Howard, S., Grimmond, J. and Fitzgerald, C. (2018). Case studies of effective practice: Evidence from the Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) Study. NSW Department of Education, NSW Government.

Perry, B. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children. Adapted in part from Maltreated children: Experience, brain development and the next generation, Norton & Company: New York.

Siraj, I., Kingston, D. and Melhuish, E. (2015). Assessing quality in early childhood education and care: Sustained shared thinking and emotional wellbeing (SSTEW) scale for 2-5 year-olds provision. Institute of Education, University College London: London.


Fay Gowers, MEd (Early Years)
Community Engagement & Research Coordinator
Early Start
University of Wollongong

Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, PhD
Academic Director of the Early Years | School of Education
Director of Pedagogical Leadership | Early Start
University of Wollongong

Marc de Rosnay, DPhil
Professor of Child Development & Academic Director
Early Start & School of Psychology
University of Wollongong

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