Building Relationships in Early Childhood

How building positive, nurturing relationships in early childhood can help promote children’s social-emotional development.

From  Building Positive Relationships in Early Childhood

Last updated on April 04, 2023

Relationship building is a process where people use a combination of skills and strategies to connect and form relationships with others. These start developing during early childhood. Children can boost their social-emotional development by learning interpersonal skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, and empathy, all of which promote positive relationships. In this post, we’ll discuss building positive relationships with children—its importance, how to incorporate relationship-building strategies, and classroom activities to encourage it.

teacher and little girl smiling over paper and paints

Why is building relationships important in early childhood?

Early childhood is a significant time. The interactions and relationships that children experience and form during this time can greatly influence the skills they develop. Building positive relationships with children sets the groundwork for developing social-emotional skills. It helps young children communicate, form meaningful relationships with others, face challenges, and regulate their emotions. 

Children are observant, and what they observe in your interactions with them and their peers shapes their expectations for how people treat each other. The combination of these interactions can form positive, nurturing relationships that children use to learn about the world and how they fit into it. Children grow and thrive in relationships—built on caring and understanding—that provide love, security, and responsive interactions. This helps children feel safe and cared for and can support positive communication, cooperation, and motivation in early childhood settings.

Strategies to build relationships with children

Relationships aren’t built overnight. Building positive relationships with your children requires investing time, attention, and effort into a series of actions and strategies. Consider the following strategies that help with relationship building. 

Use positive interaction

Repeated interactions with a child build the relationship you’ll have with them. Incorporate positive interactions into your daily communication. Establishing a pattern of positive interactions is key to forming that positive relationship. For example, start with a warm greeting every day. This simple practice can make a child feel safe, comfortable, or excited to enter the classroom. Other examples of positive interactions include saying the child’s name, using a comforting voice, following the child’s lead, and being responsive.

Create secure attachments

Children understand social-emotional cues from adults. You can imagine that a child will feel hesitant and unsure about an adult who is unpredictable, unresponsive, and indifferent. These feelings lead to insecure attachments. They can make children feel a lack of control over their environment and their relationships with other people. Your goal is to create secure attachments. You can do this by comforting them, responding to them, and meeting their needs. Secure attachments help children develop positive social-emotional skills and can help build feelings of confidence and competence.

Make deposits into a child’s emotional bank

An emotional bank is a psychological term used in the context of a mutual relationship. It’s an “account” built on trust instead of money. An emotional bank grows when someone makes more deposits than withdrawals. Withdrawals happen when you engage in behaviors that are harmful to relationship building. Being an educator can be challenging and sometimes evoke feelings of frustration and discouragement. It’s especially important at these times to take a step back and ensure that you’re communicating in a way where you’re making deposits instead of withdrawals. 

You can make deposits into a child’s emotional bank by:

  • Using encouraging and positive words
  • Acknowledging a child’s efforts
  • Avoiding the combination of encouragement with criticism
  • Following a child’s lead during play
  • Using gestures such as thumbs up, hugs, and high fives to celebrate accomplishing tasks

Vanderbilt University and the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning offer three relationship-building strategies for how educators can speed up the process of relationship-building:

  • Offer choices. When possible, shift how you guide children into tasks. Instead of saying, “It’s time for paint,” you might offer them the choice of painting or doing a puzzle.
  • Consider if forms of “challenging” behavior can be ignored. This doesn’t mean to ignore  behavior designed to gain your attention, but rather making limited decisions about what behavior to correct. For example, if a child is using a loud voice when speaking to their friends, you would evaluate whether this behavior needs or warrants immediate correction.

Self-monitor your deposits and withdrawal behaviors. Use a visual or physical reminder to keep track of your emotional bank deposits and withdrawals. At the end of each day or week, evaluate which children have received deposits and whose emotional bank you need to focus on filling.