- Describe the importance of relationships to cognitive development.
- Discuss the role of culture in interactions.
- Identify ways you help staff build interactions that support play, exploration, and learning in your program.
The Importance of Relationships
One of the most important findings from modern brain research is how critical others are to the developing brain. As Ellen Galinsky says, "there is no development without relationships." Relationships are central to all of your work. The importance of relationships is a theme you will see appear in almost every course in the Virtual Lab School. Relationships will be covered in greater depth in the Families course, but they are also crucial for promoting cognitive development.
Relationships don't just happen. They take time to develop and deepen. According to Janet Gonzalez-Mena and Dianne Widmeyer Eyer, relationships grow from interactions that are respectful, responsive, and reciprocal. These types of interactions build security and confidence in children and youth and support them in becoming capable learners. It is for this reason that mixed-age groups should be advocated for all programs serving children and youth; most importantly infants and toddlers.
For a powerful example of the importance of interactions, consider the famous "Still Face Experiment." In this experiment, caregivers were asked to interact playfully with an infant. Then they were asked to look away and remain unresponsive for a period of time. Researchers found that infants became quite distressed by the sudden unresponsiveness of the adult. These experiments have been used to investigate many aspects of parent-child attachment, social emotional development, and cognitive development. Daily interactions matter!
Interactions that Support Learning
Scientists have recently started to describe the "serve and return" style of interactions and their impact on brain development. Interactions literally change the brain. To learn more, you can watch Harvard University's "Serve and Return Interaction Shapes Brain Chemistry" video to see how interactions influence the developing brain.
This lesson, and the lessons completed by direct care staff members, cover two essential aspects of interactions: physical and verbal. Physical interactions include play. Verbal interactions include encouragement and conversations.
It is often said that play is children's work. Play is the time when children explore their interests. According to Zigler, Singer and Bishop-Josef, (2004): "The promise of play-and its many other well-documented benefits-extends significantly beyond the development of literacy, arithmetic, and science skills so spotlighted in today's early childhood classrooms. Play contributes to the emotional, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual development of the child in ways that cannot be taught through instruction. They must be experienced, and play is the natural, built-in way children accumulate that experience."
Optimal development in children and youth takes place in an environment where collaboration with others, discussing, analyzing, and developing personal meaning through application of what is being learned is encouraged and facilitated. This can be especially important for school-age children after a long day of structure and academics.
Adults can increase learning by interacting with children during play in different ways:
- Adults can remain close during periods of play and provide occasional support or problem-solving assistance.
- Adults can model complex ideas. They can build a tower with blocks. They can shake a rattle. They can experiment with mixing paints. They can create rockets with children in the school-age program. In short, they can be involved in learning experiences.
- Adults can imitate and expand children's ideas. If an infant waves, the adult waves back and says "Hi." If a toddler or preschooler begins to dance, the adult adds a movement and sings a song. If a school-age child tosses a basketball, the adult tosses it back and suggests a game.
- Adults can help children to expand their imaginary play by asking questions about what the child is doing or going to do.
- Adults can use play to model complex vocabulary words or focus on key skills from the curriculum. For example, an adult might comment on the "stethoscope" in the dramatic play doctor's office. Or an adult who knows children are working on identifying insects might provide magnifying glasses, soil, and plastic insects in the sensory table.
Children and youth want and need adults to interact with them. They desire human interaction. The amount and types of interaction they desire during play and learning will differ among children and the types of experiences they are involved in. Adults should always be available. Here are some strategies direct care staff members learned in their courses and that you can help adults use to promote learning with children of all ages:
Jeremy’s block tower is almost as tall as he is. As he reaches to add one more block, he looks at you and smiles.
A 6-month-old is exploring a bin of colorful fabrics.
Felix and Olivia are trying to fill buckets with water in the sensory table, but they are using cups that are designed with holes in the bottom. All the water drips out before they can pour it into the bucket.
Jayla is frustrated that she can’t get the box of blocks back on the shelf. You notice other blocks have fallen and are in the way.
Three children have noticed a bird nest in the tree outside the playground fence. They really want to get closer to the nest.
D’Angelo and Kaitlyn are trying to build a ramp for cars to race down, but it keeps falling. They are starting to look frustrated.
Jose is frustrated that he can’t get the model plane wings constructed like they look in the directions.
Three children have noticed a bird nest in the tree outside the fence. They are very concerned about the well-being of the baby birds.
Dominic and Ashley are playing pool. Dominic is having a hard time getting any balls into the pockets.
As you observe in child development and school-age programs, make note of the kinds of questions and statements you hear. Notice whether adults are telling children what to do, what will happen, or what they are thinking. Adults may know what will happen when a child pours sand through a sieve, but letting the child figure it out allows learning to happen and encourages further discovery. Instead, encourage adults to use open-ended questions about what happened to the sand after it was poured into the sieve.
The Role of Culture in Interactions
Each child comes to your program with unique experiences, expectations, and abilities. No two humans interact the same way! This means staff members must be ready to interact appropriately with children who have different backgrounds from their own or who enter the programs with special needs.
The first step is for staff members to recognize the influence of their own culture. Among staff members, culture may express itself in ideas about how children or youth learn, how people should interact, how children should be disciplined, how much children should direct their own experiences, how boys and girls should behave, and myriad other ways. Clearly, these day-to-day ideas influence the experiences children have and, in turn, their cognitive development. To guide staff members as they reflect on culture, you can be prepared to observe interactions, ask questions about assumptions, and facilitate discussions.
One common way culture manifests itself in interactions is during conversations between staff members and children. Staff members often may find themselves responding to questions from children about diversity. Help staff understand how to respond in ways that promote understanding, awareness, and honesty. Help them avoid bias or judgment in their answers. For example, they should avoid answers like, "William uses a wheelchair because his legs are broken" or "Big boys don't cry like that." Encourage children to notice how we are all alike and different. Also watch for biased language. Staff members might call children "baby girl," "big boy," or "cutie" rather than their given names; talk with them about the importance of using names. Additionally consider:
- Do staff members comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments?
- Do they make comments about play that apply differently to boys and girls? For example, do they say things like, "Oh, don't get your dress dirty!" to girls on the playground? Do they comment more on girls in dramatic play and boys in blocks?
- Do they praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their academic achievements?
- Do they comment on children's size (e.g., "He's going to be a football player")?
- Do they encourage girls and boys to play sports or lift weights? Do they encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys"?
- Do staff members encourage peaceful solutions for all children (e.g., avoid giving directions like not hitting kids with glasses)?
- Do staff members have conversations with all children-including those who may have speech and language difficulties or who are learning English?
Management Practices That Support Effective Interactions
Take the time to model the following behaviors that support cognitive development:
- Get to know the children in your programs by name. Greet them and their families. Notice their efforts and accomplishments.
- Join activities, play with children, or read to babies whenever you have a chance. Structure your schedule so you have opportunities for quality time with children and staff.
- Show staff that you enjoy your job and enjoy spending time with them! Have rich and interesting conversations with staff members throughout the week.
- Model an inclusive attitude. If you see any examples of bias in your programs, say something. Model unbiased language and interactions. Make it clear that men and women can be equally strong and nurturing, that we all benefit from a range of experiences, and that our labels do not define our interests or abilities.
- Value different teaching styles and recognize staff members who take instructional risks.
- Provide opportunities for staff members to share their experiences with their peers.
- Use case studies and scenarios to analyze challenges and explore effective responses. Use some of the examples provided in this lesson as models.
- Encourage peer-to-peer coaching and modeling, where staff members play roles of both observer and teacher working together to strengthen their interactions.
- Stay current on evidence-based practices for children and youth.
- Work with the training and curriculum specialist to provide feedback to teachers after they have been observed to support their effective interactions.
- Recruit diverse role models. Include leaders, volunteers, and practitioners from a variety of backgrounds. Children, youth, and their families should "see themselves" throughout the child development or school-age program. For example, staff and volunteers who come from similar backgrounds allow children to have role models. Hiring bilingual staff or recruiting bilingual volunteers is especially important if your program enrolls many children whose first language is not English. Also, hire and recruit staff or volunteers with disabilities. Bring in speakers and visitors from the community from different cultural, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious backgrounds to raise cultural competence for the staff and children.
Watch this video that summarizes the important points of this lesson and describes ways managers can support cognitive development through interactions.
Sometimes we all struggle with knowing how to respond to others. Download the What do I Say Now? Activity and complete the scenarios. Training and curriculum specialists also have these scenarios in their Virtual Lab School lesson. Talk with the training and curriculum specialist in your program about how you would each respond to the scenarios. Are you responding consistently? What steps would need to be taken in each of your unique roles? How do you approach the situations differently according to your roles? How does knowing this help you each support staff members better? How, in turn, does this support cognitive development for children and youth? After you have completed the scenarios and discussed them with the training and curriculum specialists at your program, compare your answers to the Response Guide.
Conduct your very own scavenger hunt by looking for interactions that support learning in your program. Download the Scavenger Hunt activity and use it to help you look at your program in a creative way. An extension of this activity could include creating a bulletin board with pictures and descriptions of staff members using these strategies.
You can also download the Questions that Support Thinking Skills guide and use it as a resource with staff members. Consider using it during observations to help you notice the types of questions staff members ask. You can also use it to start a discussion during a staff meeting, providing it as a follow-up to a discussion about performance, posting it in classrooms, or using it to provide feedback and examples during individual observations and meetings with staff.
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Zigler, E., Singer, D. G., & Bishop-Josef, S. J. (2004). Children's Play: The Roots of Reading. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.