Now that we have a shared understanding of how behavior is defined, this section of the chapter will support you to explore and reflect on the connection between relationships, social development, emotional development, and behavior. Did you know that relationships with others may influence behavior either positively or negatively?
Reflect for a moment on this photo of the young boy playing Jenga. As he moves and/or removes the blocks the structure becomes unbalanced and even unpredictable. A child’s behavior and the relationships in his or her life can mirror this game of Jenga. Social and emotional development are also important to the foundation as they help to inform how the child manages feelings and emotions and how he/she can socialize and cooperate with others within a relationship.
According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect practically every aspect of their development. Simply put, relationships are the “active ingredients” of the environment’s influence on healthy human development. They incorporate the qualities that best promote competence and well-being – individualized responsiveness, mutual action-and-interaction, and an emotional connection to another human being such as a parent, peer, grandparent, aunt, uncle, neighbor, teacher, coach, or any other person who has an important impact on the child’s early development. Relationships engage children in the human community in ways that help them define who they are, what they can become, and how and why they are important to other people (NSCDC, 2004).
When children have secure and stable relationships with caring adults, they are more able to develop warm and positive relationships with others. These children are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and have stronger skills getting along with others. (NSCDC, 2004). When relationships are secure and stable the child’s social skills to support interactions are strengthened, along with the ability to express and manage feelings and emotions.
It is also important to understand that the relationships children have with other children also inform and influence their behavior. Young children learn from each other how to share, how to participate in shared interactions such as, taking turns, the reciprocal acts of giving, and receiving, how to respect and accept the needs and wants of others, and how to manage their own impulses.
Simply being around other children, however, is not enough to build the skills for positive behaviors. The development of friendships is critical, as children learn and play more competently in the bond created with friends rather than when they are dealing with the social challenges of interacting with casual acquaintances or unfamiliar peers. Positive relationships and positive behaviors all add to healthy brain development and depend upon the relationships with individuals in the child’s close community as well as in the family. (Harvard, 2006).
It is within that context of family that we must remember that everything we think, say, and do is processed through our own individual lens and our unique cultural backgrounds. For teachers it is essential to see and understand your own culture to see and understand how the cultures of children and their families influence children’s behavior. Only then can you give every child a fair chance to succeed (Kaiser, Raminsky, 2020).
According to Kaiser and Raminsky, your culture and the children’s cultures are not the only cultures at work in your classroom. Every school and early childhood education program has a culture too. The cultures of most American schools are based on White European American values. As the makeup of the US population becomes more diverse, there is more cultural dissonance—which impacts children’s behavior.
White European American culture has an individual orientation that teaches children to function independently, stand out, talk about themselves, and view property as personal. In contrast, many other cultures value interdependence, fitting in, helping others, and being helped, being modest, and sharing property. In fact, some languages have no words for I, me, or mine.
Children who find themselves in an unfamiliar environment—such as a classroom that reflects a culture different from their home culture—are likely to feel confused, isolated, alienated, conflicted, and less competent because what they have learned so far in their home culture simply does not apply. They may not understand the rules, or they may be unable to communicate their needs in the school’s language. (Kaiser, Rasminsky)
It is because the way you respond to children’s behavior and conflict is bound to your own culture, it is common to get the wrong idea about a child’s words or behaviors. When you observe a child’s behavior that appears to be noncompliant, ask yourself if that behavior could be culturally influenced. Honest and open conversations with the family will help you understand and respect their cultural beliefs and practices regarding education and child development.
Affirm the Child, Not the Behavior
Dan Gartrell, 2020
In terms of relationships, when you as the teacher are responsive to the children’s culture you are better able to form genuine and caring relationships with the children and their families. You can scaffold on this to build on what the child already knows and can do and identify their next steps for learning. This information will help you choose and implement appropriate activities and strategies that honor children’s cultures as well as life experiences and teach children what they need to know and do to be successful in the world today. (Kaiser, Rasminsky).
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) outlines the fundamental importance of positive relationships in an article by Drs. Gail Joseph and Phillip Strain. When adults invest time and effort to teaching proactively prior to behavior “events” children are more successful in achieving improved behavior change, even in situations that might lead to escalating challenging behavior. The key is communicating non-contingent affection and unquestioned valuing of children. The bottom line is that success is dependent on building a positive relationship first. Adults need to invest the time and attention with children as a precedent to the optimum use of sound behavior change strategies (CSEFEL).
The first step is to invest the time in relationship building, and the second is to understand that as your relationships with the child become stronger, so does your potential influence on their behavior. Children will “cue in” on the presence of you as a meaningful and caring adult and will attend differentially and selectively to what you say and do, continuing to seek out ways to ensure even more positive attention from the adult (Lally, Mangione, & Honig).
Review these strategies as you work to build relationships with children (adapted from work by Drs. Joseph and Strain (CSEFEL):
- Offer children a choice as much as possible vs. asking for compliance. Instead of saying “it’s time to clean up”, ask the child if she would like to put the blocks in the basket or the cars on the shelf.
- Take time to reflect to determine if you might ignore some forms of challenging behavior (for example a child’s loud voice), which is simply a decision about where and when to intervene. Note that this is different “planned ignoring” for behavior designed to elicit attention.
- Be aware of your own behaviors and expectations. Set appropriate goals for behavior and determine a way (possibly a counter or visual reminder) to make and track multiple and ongoing relationship deposits.
There will be times that you should and will need to give feedback to children that is in the form of correction and reminders. This will not hinder your relationship building. The important take-away is that your positive interactions need to happen in a greater number and frequency. As you learn to do this you can begin to keep a tally of how many times you remind a child about an unwanted behavior. The goal is for you to find at least twice the number of positive things to comment on and tally those also (CSEFEL).
When children do not receive positive feedback, they are less likely to enter the positive cycle of motivation and learning. The conclusion here is that when children have positive interactions with teachers and other adults, they have fewer instances of challenging behavior. When children feel safe and understood they can use those positive interactions to help build positive relationships. This will build motivation and stimulates within the brain a cycle of repetition focused on motivation and learning.