Source: The following summary is wholly based on articles by Lally, J. R. (2009, November). The science and psychology of infant-toddler care. ZERO TO THREE; and Lally, J. R. (2012, Jan-Mar). Want success in school? Start with babies! Kappa Delta Pi Record; and Lally, J. R., Mangione, P. (2017, May). Caring relationships: the heart of early brain development. Young Children.
It takes time for the science of infant development to filter down to child care programs. We now understand that babies come into care with their own agenda for learning, their own hard-wired thirst for knowledge, and using all of their senses. Their discoveries are not siloed into separate domains like language, emotional, and intellectual, but instead infants’ experiences inform multiple parts of their development. Babies’ brains are designed to learn from their caregivers, and so their apparent ‘helplessness’ functions as a way to strengthen bonds with their caregivers. It’s important to balance what we know about how babies learn with infant and toddler caregiving practices in child care programs. Lally notes:
“As shown by research compiled in From Neurons to Neighborhoods (National Research Council & Institute of Medicine, 2000) and other sources (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994; Honig, 2002; Sroufe, 1996), babies seek out their caregivers for help with their physical survival; emotional security; the provision of a safe base for learning, modeling, mentoring, and regulation of social behavior; information about the workings of the world; and appropriate rules for living. They also exhibit their own skills as inventors, communication initiators, imitators, interpreters, integrators, meaning seekers, relationship builders, and curious, motivated, self-starting learners. And, because of the way the young child is wired for this learning, unique adult accommodations are required.” (2009)
Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher on infant cognition, showed that babies learn differently than school age children, and must be treated differently than older children. Other research indicates that babies do not thrive in environments designed specifically for older children, and actually “become less interested in learning, expect less of themselves, and are more stressed and less cooperative.” (Lally citing Gopnik 2009a). Though older children can learn through adult-directed learning targets, babies learn best through opportunities to explore “anything new, unexpected, or informative.” This explains why replications of school-age environments and experiences do not work for babies. In light of this understanding, infant teachers now pay attention and adjust their interactions with babies to accommodate babies’ interests into their learning experiences. For example, a teacher might notice a baby’s fascination with looking at her own hands and fingers and engage with the baby using elements of story, her fingers, or a prop such as a bright red ball and talk back and forth in an exchange using warm tones and clear, simple words, thereby attending to the child’s physical, social, emotional, and intellectual needs. This type of interaction takes into account babies’ active role in learning and treats them as active participants in learning rather than passive audiences.
Child care programs that understand how babies develop also appreciate that “relationships and experiences with trusted caregivers are the base for all learning.” This secure relationship is understood to be foundational for a child’s positive trajectory, including helping a child feel secure about learning, their self image, and relationships with others. Such centers include hazard-free learning areas that are appealing and cozy, and caregivers who understand infant development, and offer opportunities for children to explore without interruption.
Program Best Practices to Support Infant Learning and Development
- Secure Attachments – A single caregiver is primarily responsible for an infant’s care. All staff know who assumes primary care for a particular child, and all staff can help support that care. Secondary caregivers are well-informed about a child’s needs, and teaming with teachers helps support the goal of primary care, while still allowing for flexibility.
- Small Groups – Much research has emphasized the benefits of low ratios for infants’ positive trajectory including the development of secure attachments and the ability to more easily move about freely to explore objects and themes of interest.
- Continuity of Care – Teachers can develop strong relationships with infants and toddlers when the same teachers are afforded the opportunity to continue their care to infants throughout a child’s first 36 months.
- Individualized Care – The program meets the child’s needs and is flexible to needs that may arise. This attention to a child’s personalized needs helps the child develop a positive sense of self as they understand that their needs matter too.
- Cultural Connections – Children whose home cultures vary widely from the majority culture of the center are cared for by teachers who integrate the child’s family customs, materials, and practices into the care setting through a variety of ways: outreach to families, professional development, and an openness to learning.
- Children with Disabilities are Included in Care – All children, including those with special needs, are accommodated into care using the same practices described above.
As well as forming attachments to parents, infants can and do form attachments with caregivers. Lack of secure attachments in care can have negative effects, such as increased stress and decreased learning. (Dalli, 1999; Honig, 1998; Raikes, 1993, 1996). Belsky, Spritz, & Crnic (1994) and Honig, (2002) believe that the security a child feels in their early attachments is related to their positive self image and later relationships.
- Teachers follow a child’s lead in feeding, sleeping, and forming, developing and strengthening relationships with the infant.
- Teachers form relationships with infants, and also families of infants.
Sense of Self
How teachers behave, what they do, how they talk about their own feelings, how they conduct themselves around other teachers, all these interactions influence the infants teachers care for. These small interactions affect how children behave and the way children learn to relate to others. (Bornstein, & Bornstein, 1995).
- Infant teachers receive professional development around their own role in helping children develop a sense of self.
- Teachers pay attention not only to what they do as they’re caring for an infant, but also how they’re caring for an infant. When speaking, is their tone exasperated? Do they express frustration in a healthy way? Do they show infants that their own fear of spiders is also warranted for the infant in care? Do interactions with the child reflect genuine interest?
Families are children’s first teacher and the way families influence a child’s care are integrated into child care practices. Child care practices that fail to do this risk causing a child to feel torn or confused between their family practices and program practices. At worst, the child rejects their family’s practices. Integrating a family’s care practices in child care helps children feel supported in their family identity and secure in their care inside and outside their family.
- Teachers interact with families to learn more about a family’s practices, and integrate a family’s care practices into child care practices.
- Teachers reinforce practices in care that help infants maintain strong connections to their family. For example, they ask families about how they feed their child, how they comfort their child, and sleep routines. This attention to what families do supports a child’s sense of belonging.
Different Practices Along the Birth – 36 Month Timeline
During the first 36 months, children are interested in security, exploration, and self. These topics are more prominent at different times throughout a child’s first three years. See Greenspan’s Stages of Emotional Development below.
Greenspan’s Stages of Emotional Development Summarized
- Regulation and interest in the world (birth+) – During the first 4 months of life, babies absorb through their senses and also learn to self calm. Babies are unique and respond differently to care. Some are more sensitive than others. Caregivers must pay special attention to each infant to determine what is special about each infant’s way of taking in information, acting on information, organizing information, and self-calming strategies.
- Falling in love (4 months+) – By 4 months, the second stage of infant’s development can vary for some babies. Some infants reach out and embrace interactions with caregivers. Some infants need caregivers to “woo” or encourage them to engage through making facial expression, sounds, holding positions, or different kinds of touch. At this stage babies become interested in more than just having their basic needs met and are learning to engage and relate with people.
- Purposeful communication (8 months+) – At this point, babies need information that confirms their communication signals are understood. They do this through reaching out, being assertive, being curious, and sometimes even being aggressive. This serve-and-return pattern between infants and caregivers where they each “read” and respond to each other sometimes results in overstimulation. Seasoned caregivers read this signal too and know when to back off from stimulating interactions.
- The beginning of a complex sense of self (10 months+) – By 10 to 18 months, babies need acknowledgement for all they have recently mastered. They are intentional and understand how sequences of actions lead to what they want (I put my coat on, then we can go outside). They are creative and active. Caregivers who praise babies’ action help develop that child’s positive self identity. Imitation and simple pretend play are hallmarks of this stage. Caregivers who help expand infant’s play help infants learn new ways to grow.
- Emotional idea (18 months+) – By 18 to 24 months, children engage in pretend play. Caregivers can help immensely when they encourage children to express their feelings in words instead of only acting out emotions. This time of make believe offers great flexibility for children to explore ideas about sex, aggression, rejection, and separation. When children express their emotional ideas, it can be very freeing for them. However, caregivers should be aware when any such expressions become uncomfortable for them to help identify “hot spots” and “blind spots” that they need to work through. In working through these areas of discomfort, caregivers can give children better support to further explore emotional areas of interest.
- Emotional thinking (30 months+) – From about 30 months old, children’s emotional development changes between make-believe and the real world. Emotions that were formerly acted out in pretend play are now expressed through reason. At this juncture, setting limits is important, but must be balanced too with sympathy for what the child feels. Caregivers have an opportunity to reflect on their own strengths to consider whether they excel more around skills in setting limits or skills in engaging in pretend play, and make corrections as needed.
Source: Lally, R.J. (2009) cites: From S. I. Greenspan, “Emotional Development in Infants and Toddlers” in Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Social-Emotional Growth and Socialization (pp. 15–18), by J. R. Lally (Ed.), 1990, Sacramento: California Department of Education. Originally published in First Feelings: Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child, by S. I. Greenspan, 1985, New York: Viking. Copyright by S. I. Greenspan. Condensed with permission. Discussed more fully in Infancy and Early Childhood: The Practice of Clinical Assessment and Intervention with Emotional and Developmental Challenges, by S. I. Greenspan, 1992, Madison, CT: International University Press.
- As they observe infants transitioning through growth stages, teachers plan accordingly for children’s developmental trajectory, incorporating flexibility into their planning. For example, depending on the age of the child, challenging behavior like biting will be handled differently depending on the child’s development.
- Teachers are flexible and accommodating during a child’s transitional developmental stages.
Individualized care meets each unique child’s needs and interests, and encourages further curiosity, exploration, and growth. Responsive practices are accommodating, receptive, thoughtful, and flexible. When using responsive practices, teachers:
- Respect an infant’s interests and respond to those interests rather than imposing own agenda.
- Keenly observe infants in care, find ways to connect to a child’s exploration and play, and expertly read an infant’s cues.
- Slow down and let the infant’s rhythm guide learning so as not to miss opportunities to let discovery unfold at child’s own pace; teachers do not ‘over help,’ but instead help a little as needed
- Use mirroring and encourage the use of hypotheses to model learning
- Before taking action, considers and is flexible about many aspects of the whole child including; where the child is now in the moment (current mood), who they are (temperament), and where they have been (their history).
An emergent curriculum accepts that most all children come into the world with their own learning goals and that following a child’s lead keeps them on a continuum of learning throughout their lives. Teachers have an opportunity to encourage infants to continue to be self-directed learners and explorers. Researchers Raikes & Pope Edwards (2009) emphasize how important it is for infants’ development to let them direct their own learning choices and agenda. Teachers can support this by:
- Instead of focusing on lessons and plans, focus on planning experiences that encourage learning. Teachers find ways to encourage and support children’s natural curiosity.
- Teachers carefully observe the children in care and document observations to maintain a record of a child’s interests and guide planning. Teachers acknowledge that this process is ongoing and adaptive.
- Plans include alternative strategies and approaches so a teacher may adjust based on a child’s interest and focus.
- Planning is understood to serve three goals: to help teachers get to know each child better, to learn more about the child’s interests, and to strengthen their connection with the child.
The Curriculum Planning Process, which is used in an ongoing fashion, looks like this:
Observe -> Document -> Assess -> Reflect & Plan -> Implement -> repeat
The teacher uses this framework to collect data, test hypotheses, and flexibly implement any needed adaptations or updates. This process is flexible enough that it can be used to implement any adaptations or corrections in any planning timeframe: whether in the moment, daily, or weekly. It does not have to follow this cyclical pattern illustrated above, but can be interactive among all steps.
Action Still Needed
What we know to be best practices for optimal infant development are not yet implemented at the majority of child care centers in the United States. The reasons for this are complex and include the high cost of providing quality care and high staff turnover rates. Bolstered by information about brain development, including the extraordinary brain development of children age two and younger (Lally, 2012), we can champion what we know to be best practices for this important group of people as more people begin to appreciate the long-term benefits of quality early child care. These practices will help infants and toddlers build strong relationships. Neuroscience informs us that early experiences affect brain architecture (Spence, Shapiro, and Zaidel, 1996), and the benefits of such practices in infant care settings will extend into children’s life trajectory and may counteract adverse experiences.
Author information about J. Ronald Lally:
RONALD LALLY, EdD, is co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies, WestEd, and the Program for Infant Toddler Care (PITC), as well as one of the founders of ZERO TO THREE. His research deals with social-emotional development in infancy and the impact of early intervention on adult functioning. He is the executive producer more than 20 Program for Infant/Toddler Care (PITC) infant–toddler training DVDs. These DVDs and accompanying print materials are the most widely distributed infant–toddler care training materials in the country. He and his staff have been responsible for the development of infant–toddler and preschool guidelines and standards for the states of California and Ohio.
Related Resources cited in original article by J. Ronald Lally:
The Program for Infant/Toddler Care www.pitc.org/ The Web site of The Program for Infant Toddler Care offers information, resources, and training opportunities for infant/toddler caregivers and links to PITC publications distributed by the California Department of Education. Key publications containing information about quality infant–toddler care are: Concepts for Care: 20 Essays on Infant/Toddler Development and Learning Edited by J. Ronald Lally, Peter L. Mangione & Deborah Greenwald (Editors). San Francisco: WestEd. California Infant Toddler Learning & Development Foundations & DVDs (2009). Sacramento, CA: CDE Press. California Infant Toddler Learning & Development Program Guidelines & DVDs (2009). Sacramento, CA: CDE Press.
Sources cited in original article by J. Ronald Lally:
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Belsky, J., Spritz, B., & Crnic, K. (1994). Infant attachment security and affective-cognitive information processing at age 3. Psychological Science, 7(2), 111–114.
Bornstein, M. H., Putnick, D. L., Heslington, M., Gini, M., Suwalsky, J. T. D., Venuti, P., et al. (2008). Mother-child emotional availability in ecological perspective: Three countries, two regions, two genders. Developmental Psychology, 44, 666–680.
Bornstein, M., & Bornstein, H. (1995). Caregivers’ responsiveness and cognitive development in infants and toddlers: Theory and research. In L. Mangione (Ed.), Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Cognitive Development and Learning (pp. 12–21). Sacramento: California Department of Education’s Bureau of Publications.
Buffett Early Childhood Fund & Ounce of Prevention Fund. (2009). Educare. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from www.buffettearlychildhoodfund.org/educare.html
Dalli, C. (1999, September). Starting childcare: What young children learn about relating to adults in the first weeks of settling into a childcare centre. Paper presented at the Early Childhood Convention, Nelson, New Zealand. Early Head Start. (2009). Early Head Start National Resource Center. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from www.ehsnrc.org/
Edwards, C. P., & Raikes, H. (2002). Extending the dance: Relationship-based approaches to infant/toddler care and education. Young Children, 57(4), 10–17.
Gopnik, A. (2009a). The philosophical baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Gopnik, A. (2009b, August 16). Your baby is smarter than you think. The New York Times, p. WK10.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. Fairfield, NJ: William Morrow.
Greenspan, S. I. (1990). Emotional development in infants and toddlers. In J. R. Lally (Ed.), nfant/toddler caregiving: A guide to social-emotional growth and socialization (pp. 15–18). Sacramento: California Department of Education.
Hauser-Cram, P., Warfield, M. E., Shonkoff, J. P., & Krauss, M. W. (2001). Children with disabilities. A longitudinal study of child development and parent well-being. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 66(3, Serial No. 266).
Honig, A. S. (1998, August). Attachment and relationships: Beyond parenting. Paper presented at the Head Start Quality Network Research Satellite Conference, East Lansing, Michigan.
Honig, A. S. (2002). Secure relationships: Nurturing infant/toddler attachment in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Lally, J. R. (2003). Infant-toddler child care in the United States: Where has it been? Where is it now? Where is it going? Zero to Three, 24(1), 29–34.
Lally, J. R., & Mangione, P. L. (2006). New perspectives in infant/toddler care [DVD]. Sacramento: California Department of Education Press.
Mangione, P. L. (1995). Program for infant/toddler caregivers. Infant/toddler caregiving: A guide to culturally sensitive care. Sacramento: California Department of Education and WestEd. National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development.
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Oser, C., & Cohen, J. (2003). America’s babies: The ZERO TO THREE Policy Center data book. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE. Program for Infant/Toddler Care. (2009). PITC’s six program policies. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from http://www.pitc.org/pub/pitc_docs/138?x-r=disp
Raikes, H. (1993). Relationship duration in infant care: Time with a high-ability teacher and infantteacher attachment. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 8(3), 309–325.
Raikes, H. (1996). A secure base for babies: Applying attachment concepts to the infant care settings. Young Children, 51(5), 59–67.
Raikes, H., & Pope Edwards,C. (2009). Extending the dance in infant and toddler caregiving. altimore: Brookes.
Sroufe, L. A. (1996). Emotional development. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
The summary above is wholly based on this source: Lally, J. R. (2009, November). The Science and Psychology of Infant-Toddler Care. ZERO TO THREE; and Lally, J. R. (2012, Jan-Mar). Want success in school? Start with babies! Kappa Delta Pi Record; and Lally, J. R., Mangione, P. (2017, May). Caring relationships: the heart of early brain development. Young Children.