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Promoting Social-Emotional Development: Responsive Relationships

Responsive relationships are at the very core of providing high-quality care for children and youth. Managers have the task of promoting responsive caregiving and modeling how to respond positively to young children and youth for staff and families. In this lesson, you will learn about the importance of building relationships and how to create an emotionally warm and welcoming program.

  • Identify how building relationships among adults and children contributes to a positive climate.
  • Describe the practices that a program manager uses to create an emotionally warm and welcoming program for children, youth, their families, and staff members.
  • Identify practices such as collaboration, cooperation, and conflict resolution that can build interpersonal skills and promote positive relationships. 


Think about the places where you feel safe and comfortable. What are the factors that make those places special for you? What is the overall climate in those places? Adults can choose where to work and with whom to interact. Many of us gravitate toward positive people who value us and with whom we enjoy spending time. Children must spend their time in places not of their own choosing because the adults in their lives have made decisions about who will care for them and where they will be while their parents are at work. Children who are cared for in long-term, stable relationships build a strong sense of self. 

When the adults in children’s lives respect one another and get along well, the children benefit. Staff members who have time to meet regularly, participate in professional activities, and share information build positive relationships that then support the children in their care. Likewise, caregivers and parents need to trust and value the information and knowledge that each brings to their relationships with each other and the children. These positive adult-adult relationships will enhance the children’s social-emotional development. 

As a manager, you can promote practices that reflect a family model, where the center or youth program is a true community of staff members, families, and children caring for and about one another. 

Promoting Social-Emotional Health

Notice examples in the video about the importance of self-care.

Practices that Result in an Emotionally Responsive Program

When you walk into a positive, emotionally responsive child-care center or youth program, you can feel the warmth. You see staff smiling, children talking to their peers and caregivers, and perhaps the manager sharing a cup of tea with an interested new parent. You serve as a positive role model, putting relationship-based caregiving principles into practice. When managers foster a climate in which staff members’ own emotional needs are acknowledged and respected, that sense of belonging and trust is shared with the children. A child-care center or youth program should mirror a healthy family atmosphere. Creating this atmosphere is the job of the manager. Enhancing staff morale requires your time and effort. The following web site describes several ways you can build staff morale:

Young children need ongoing relationships with caring adults who truly know them and value them as individuals. You can support staff members with collaborative decision-making, time for planning, professional development training and information, and reflective supervision. See Lesson Five for more information on building an effective team.  

Just as you support your staff, you must support children’s families by respecting their views, culture, and linguistic heritage. You can intentionally plan community-building opportunities so staff and parents can get to know one another. Collaborating on a project, such as planting a garden, in which staff, parents, and children contribute to the creation of an important part of the program is a meaningful way to bring the community together for a purpose.

Managers serve as mentors for staff. Careful selection and hiring of personnel who share the same relationship-based caregiving values is a critical part of creating an emotionally responsive program. Ensuring that new staff are welcomed and mentored so that they feel a sense of belonging is another way the manager creates a cooperative team environment.

Healthy Relationships with Families

Children learn to be social first and foremost as a member of their family. Families teach children about relationships and appropriate social behaviors. Parents and caregivers play an essential role in children’s social development. Involving families and parents helps staff members understand and develop relationships with families. Research shows that children of families who are involved in their programs develop more positive attitudes and self-confidence. Family involvement can help teachers incorporate the family’s values and culture into the classroom activities. Also, involving the family in the classroom or program helps staff members understand what is happening in the home and encourages parents to support and promote similar behaviors at home. Additionally, the parent-staff relationship is an important model for children. Supportive parent-staff relationships are fostered through good communication skills and mutual respect.

Supporting Staff in Relationship-Based Caregiving

Provide opportunities for staff members to receive emotional support. You should be sensitive to staff members’ emotional needs and seek understanding when you observe staff engaging in responses that indicate a high level of stress (e.g., anxiety, outbursts of anger, and extreme happiness). As a manager, you should schedule a regular time to meet individually with each staff member. Individual meetings are important because they provide an opportunity to build positive relationships. If difficulties arise, you have established a safe space to discuss any concerns that may develop about a staff member’s emotional responses.  The following are some ways you may support staff’s engagement in relationship-based caregiving:

  • Allow time during staff meetings for those who wish to share their celebrations and challenges.
  • Schedule personnel so they have time to interact with one another and with the families of the children who are in their care each day.
  • Always use positive language when discussing staff and families. Point out strengths that you notice (even small things that may be overlooked by others).
  • Consistently demonstrate hopefulness, optimism, and empathy.
  • Teach staff how to use conflict-resolution skills. Include conflict-resolution steps, and list strategies for dealing with conflict in the staff handbook.

Encourage collaboration and cooperation among caregivers and families. Have written program policies regarding interpersonal communication and conflict resolution (e.g., staff handbook, family handbook) that reflect a relationship-based caregiving program

Conflict Resolution

At some point in your career, you will have to help settle a conflict. This might be a conflict between two staff members, or it might be a conflict which you are involved in yourself. You can navigate these conflicts and preserve relationships through communication. First, think about the outcomes you want for yourself, the individuals in conflict, and your program. Then, consider any negative thoughts that are getting in your way. Try to have an open mind for the conversation. As Stephen Covey writes in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you should, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Worry less about getting your own point across, and focus instead on understanding others’ positions and interests. Try to understand the root cause of the conflict. Ask clarifying questions to help guide you to the important issues. If your communication partner becomes emotional or begins to vent, just continue listening. Take a supportive stance throughout the conversation. When handled well, difficult conversations can become safe spaces for adults to learn and grow.  

Here are four key strategies for responding to conflicts in a healthy way that builds relationships:

  • Recognize and manage your own stress. Conflicts can feel very threatening for both parties. Conflicts are more intense than simple disagreements. They can become emotionally charged and persistently stressful. Recognize stress in yourself and take steps to handle it appropriately before it can lead you to escalate the conflict. Take a deep breath. Step away from the situation and take a few minutes to notice everything around you in a mindful way (listen to the birds, feel the cool air on your skin, etc.). This can be calming.
  • Remain aware of your emotional reactions to the situation. Seek to understand how you feel and why you feel this way. You can’t help settle a conflict if you don’t understand your role and how you feel.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal communication. This means your own nonverbal communication and the nonverbal behavior of the other person. If you sense tension or anger, use strategies to defuse the situation. Speak calmly and provide reassuring expressions.
  • Focus on solving the problem rather than “winning.” It is less important to persuade the other person that your opinion is correct than it is to resolve a conflict. Compromise is the key to solve the problem.

Cooperation, Collaboration, and Conflict Resolution

Watch this video to learn about fostering positive staff relationships.

Reflective Supervision

Listen to a description of what reflective supervision is and think about how you can use this type of supervision to support your staff members.

In Summary

As a manager, you set an emotional climate for others to follow. You lead through positive interactions with families and staff members. You make decisions that intentionally build a relationship-based community among the children, families, and staff. Building a relationship-based caregiving environment is key to ensuring the successful development of the children and youth in your care. Staff want to develop value and satisfaction from their work. You and your staff should strive to create an environment that is welcoming, positive, and emotionally safe. You are a leader who is always observed by others. Remember that child care and youth programs are like a family so seek ways to always build relationships that create a nurturing environments for the children, families, and staff. 


What current practices do you use that promote cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork among staff? What specific practices do you want to learn in order to build a positive emotional climate focused on relationship-based care? Download the Effective Team Building document below from Child Care Exchange ( You may find one or more of the following articles helpful as you work toward building effective teams.


It is important for staff members to be reminded that their daily interpersonal interactions affect the social-emotional experiences of all the members of the program community (colleagues, families, and children). You can use the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Code of Ethical Conduct (NAEYC) as a discussion starter during staff meetings and professional-development activities. Reminding staff members about ethical practices that promote positive interactions builds a responsive and relationship-based climate. Reading together and discussing the attached NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct and brief articles such as Gossip-Free Zones can reinforce the message to staff that we are a relationship-based program committed to respectful interactions with children, families, and colleagues.

After clicking on the links below and reading through the Apply documents, share with a trusted colleague how you might incorporate these ideas in your program.


To work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something
Conflict resolution:
A set of ideas and ways to reduce sources of conflict; processes of conflict resolution generally include negotiation, mediation and diplomacy
An act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint action


True or false? As a manager, it is your responsibility to create a healthy family atmosphere.
Which of the following are ways you can support staff to engage in relationship-based caregiving?
Identify which practices you can use in your program to promote positive relationships among teachers, children, parents and guardians.
References & Resources

Baker, A. C., & Manfredi/Petit, L. A. (2004). Relationships, the Heart of Quality Care: Creating community among adults in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bruno, H.E.(2009). Leading on Purpose: Emotionally intelligent early childhood administration. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Convey, S. R. (2004).  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons for Personal Change. New York, NY: Golden Books.

Dombro, A. L., Jablon, J. R., & Stetson, C. (2011). Powerful Interactions. Young Children, 66 (1), 12–16.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2010). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Zero to Three. Three building blocks of reflective supervision. Retrieved from: