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Tips on Building Positive Relationships with Young Kids

February 11, 2013


Nothing may be accomplished unless the child feels they have a home base.

Margaret Lewis

Tenderloin Child Care Center

When 3-year-old Kevin started preschool, he hit other kids at least five times in just the first week.

The teachers could see that Kevin wanted to play with other kids — he just didn’t know how to get started.

“Nothing may be accomplished unless the child feels they have a home base,” says Margaret Lewis, a teacher at Tenderloin Child Care Center in San Francisco.

Positive relationships with adults and other kids are key to the development of young children, according to research.

But when it comes to real-life early care and education settings, how can adults foster such relationships?

Preschool teachers and experts share their tips on creating positive relationships by helping children develop social skills, emotional intelligence and confidence.

Teach communication skills

Since Kevin needed to learn skills for connecting with other kids, the teachers worked on teaching those skills at circle time.

They used puppet stories that let children take turns entering play appropriately. Also, they gave Kevin positive feedback on skills he already had, such as putting his things in a cubby.

One of the teachers, Sara, also coached him on getting into group play.

For example, if he approached a group of kids playing together, Sara moved close and helped Kevin find words. She might ask, “Kevin, what is it that you want to do?”

When Kevin said “Play with blocks,” she would say to the others, “Kevin wants to play with blocks with you.”

Build strong relationships

When the teachers met to figure out a plan on how to help Kevin, they decided that Sara would be the one to build a special, close relationship with him.

She spent lots of time going where he went, talking with him, and sitting with him at lunch and nap time.

Kevin’s relationship with the teacher made him feel safe so he was more confident in approaching other children.

In about three weeks, the hitting disappeared completely.

“Success comes with the strength of the relationship with the child,” Lewis says. “And through this relationship, behavior may slowly change.”

Create a sense of belonging

Children should be included as much as possible, says Laurie Prusso, a child development teacher at Modesto Junior College.

“Get their input and give them meaningful tasks,” Prusso says. “Activities like counting out plates or utensils for lunch is a way to practice math skills and give children a sense of belonging.”

Simple things like playing “Ring-Around the Rosy” and singing together also foster a sense of belonging, Lewis says.

Create a positive environment

Katie Zolezzi, director of Early Head Start in Pacific Beach, advises to make the environment child-friendly with lots of choices that are “yes” and few, if any, “no’s.”

“If something is a ‘no,’ remove it from the environment or lock it up,” Zolezzi says.

Create spaces for private time

It’s important to have a place for children to withdraw from the group when they feel tired or emotionally overwhelmed, says Nefertiti Bruce, an early childhood specialist at the Devereux Foundation.

It can be as simple as a couple of beanbag chairs in a corner.

“When a child seems about to lose control, teachers should suggest that the child use one of the be-by-myself spaces,” Bruce says.

Model appropriate behavior and social skills

Instead of teaching children to obey without question, adults can teach them how to use self-control and self-respect by modeling that behavior, says child care educator Dawn Fry.

“I really believe the respect we (the staff) showed each other was the best model the children could have had,” says one expert. “We treated the children with respect, using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with them intentionally.”

Take advantage of “teachable moments”

Instead of punishing or isolating a child in time-out, caregivers can use an incident of misbehavior as an opportunity to talk with the child about better ways they could handle such situations in the future, according to Zolezzi.

She adds that being there “while the child reflects on why he or she is sitting off from the others” is a good time for adults to teach appropriate behavior.

“If it were a case of trashing someone else’s building in the block area, I would talk about how much work the other child put into the building,” one expert explains. “I would tell the child to look at the other child’s face, and we would talk about feelings. I would then suggest we build a building” together.

Teach words for feelings

On her classroom wall, Lewis has a poster showing pictures of children whose facial expressions reflect different feelings.

“We talk to the children about how the children on the poster are feeling,” Lewis says. “We’ll bring a child over to the poster and ask ‘What kind of face is he making? He looks sad, doesn’t he?’”

Lewis says it helps children identify their own feelings.

Understand the development stages of early childhood

It’s important for parents and teachers to remember that “much of what we label as misbehavior is age-related behavior that will pass with loving adults who respond with care and affection,” Prusso says.

Zolezzi adds that in very young children, even an unacceptable behavior like biting is “not cause for alarm.”

Rather, it’s an opportunity to discuss “soft touches” and to give the toddler words to use in the future, such as “Tell Paul you don’t like him taking your truck.”

Teach conflict-resolution skills

Create a “Feelings Table” where children are encouraged to go and solve their own conflicts by talking about their feelings, Bruce suggests.

“Teachers can introduce a simple problem-solving process during group time, explaining to children that when they have a conflict with a classmate they can come over to the ‘Feelings Table’ to talk about it,” Bruce says.

Bruce describes a time when it worked for two arguing boys.

Instead of settling it, Bruce suggested that the two go to the Feelings Table and said she was very confident that they could work it out themselves.

After two or three minutes, the boys yelled “Miss Bruce, Miss Bruce, we’re friends again.”

“They had two of the biggest, proudest smiles I had seen in a long time,” Bruce says.

Originally written by Amanda Montague.