For parents leaving their babies or young toddlers in care for the first time, it can be a stressful experience. When the paid maternity leave ends, parents must make the decision of whether or not both parents will work outside the home. The choice to leave their young child in early learning and care can create a number of concerns, one big one being how their relationship with their young child will be affected if the parent is not spending the majority of the child’s time with them. These are valid concerns, but research has suggested infant attachment to their parents is not generally affected by being in care, so long as the parents have a strong bond with the child when they are with them.

Understanding Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was first introduced by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the 20th Century. Bowlby observed that early attachments could significantly affect a child’s emotional development and adult relationships in later life. He concluded that children between six and 30 months were very likely to form emotional attachments to familiar caregivers, especially if the adults are sensitive and responsive to child communications. This led him to propose the Attachment Theory after he studied the negative impact of maternal deprivation on young children.

Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist who worked under Bowlby early in her career, later devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC) to investigate how attachments might vary between children. Her research in Uganda, then her well-known Baltimore Study in the 1960s, in which she noticed distinct individual differences in the quality of mother-infant interactions over time, led her to categorise these different attachment styles into three types: secure attachment styles, insecure attachment styles, and not-yet attached. She found a connection between maternal sensitivity and secure attachments. Sensitive mothers were familiar with their babies, provided spontaneous and specific detail about their children, and babies of sensitive mothers cried less and felt free to explore in the presence of their mother. Generally, she concluded that babies of sensitive mothers have secure attachments.

Attachment and Caregivers

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While Bowlby’s initial findings focused on maternal deprivation, later studies have contradicted his emphasis. Schaffer & Emerson (1964) found that specific attachments started at about eight months and shortly thereafter, the infants became attached to other people. By 18 months, very few (13%) were attached to only one person, and some had five or more attachments. Rutter (1972) noted that several indicators of attachment, such as protest or distress when an attached person leaves, have been shown for various attachment figures – fathers, siblings, peers, and even inanimate objects. Weisner, & Gallimore (1977) found that mothers are the exclusive carers in only a very small percentage of human societies, and often there are a number of people involved in the care of children, such as relations and friends. Van Ijzendoorn, & Tavecchio (1987) argue that a stable network of attachment figures is more important than the number of figures.

The Positive Effects of Early Learning and Care

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Some studies in the 1970s and 1980s found negative effects on young children in daycare and attachment, but arguments against those studies included that few mothers worked outside the home during those times, and the quality of the care facilities themselves were perhaps lower than you’d see today. Since then, much has changed, and research has shown many positive effects of early learning and care for young children, including social relationship development.

One study conducted in Norway found that infants who were in early learning settings scored higher on tests measuring cognitive and language development than infants who were cared for at home. Another study conducted in Canada found that children who attended high-quality care were more likely to to have better cognitive and language development than those who attended lower-quality care or stayed at home.

Both the Norwegian and Canadian studies highlight the importance of high-quality early learning for children’s cognitive and language development. High-quality early learning centres provide a safe and stimulating environment where children can learn and develop essential skills. They also offer opportunities for children to interact with other children and adults, helping them develop social skills and emotional intelligence.

In Australian early learning settings, we follow a National Quality Standard which lays out seven quality areas on which centres should meet or exceed. The fifth quality area is ‘relationships with children’ and its intent is to promote relationships with children that are responsive, respectful and promote children’s sense of security and belonging. Relationships of this kind free children up to explore the environment and engage in play and learning.

Please rest assured, when you’re leaving your child at one of our campuses, your child’s wellbeing is our number one priority. We support children to develop in a holistic manner, including socially, cognitively, physically and emotionally. If there are tears (from either of you!), we’re here for both of you, and know it means your relationship with your child is not only in tact, but flourishing.

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Teaching children emotional awareness, in themselves and recognising emotions in others, is an important part of children’s growth and wellbeing. Understanding emotions is also not something ingrained, and not necessarily an easy thing to teach or grasp, especially as these small humans’ brains are rapidly developing in all areas.

In children, all kinds of changes are happening at the same time, and some areas, such as children’s language skills, develop before their self-regulation skills. This means that while your child may have a broad vocabulary, they still may not be able to put into words how they’re feeling. A toddler’s capacity to regulate their emotional state and emotional reactions can affect everyone around them, and can carry on to academic performance, long-term mental health, and their ability to thrive in a complex world.

Helping children to identify and label emotions is an important first step and something Little Scholars focuses on in our educational programming. Small children do not yet have the vocabulary to identify feeling words like angry or frustrated, or have the skills to “read” facial cues or to interpret body language.

So how do we teach emotional intelligence in children?

Even the littlest Scholars are learning emotional intelligence by communicating how they feel, according to Jodie, a lead educator in the nursery studio at Deception Bay.

“If a child is expressing an emotion or a behaviour, [we question] is it because they need something from us? ‘I can see you’re feeling sad, how come you’re feeling sad?'” Jodie says. “If we begin to speak to the babies about what they’re feeling, information I’ve learned from [child psychologist] Justin Coulson, it will relate to five things, either them being hungry, angry, lonely, tired or stressed. It’s often one of those things that will cause big emotions.

“They’re obviously not able to completely communicate with us on what their needs are. I’ve learned not to ask the children what they want, but what do they need?” she says. “Maybe they’re feeling hungry and frustrated, so offering them an apple could work, where they can get some of that anger out through crunching. Maybe they’re feeling tired, but they need a little more comfort first. What other feelings are they feeling?”

At our Burleigh campus, children and educators have feelings chats as part of their morning routine. In the Toddler studio, children ask their educators questions such as ‘why is she angry?’ providing a great opportunity for further conversation. Educators support the children in understanding their emotions through discussions as part of their morning routine.

“During the morning, we will sit down for our morning meeting [with children] so when we come inside, we’ll ask how they’re feeling, they’ll express how they’re feeling – happy, sad, ‘good’, and throughout the day we’ll do activities and they’ve gotten really good at recognising and showing those emotions,” says Sasha, lead educator in the Toddler 2 studio. “It’s crazy to see how much they can take in and understand.

“It’s harder for some of the younger ones [to grasp], but we still try to get them involved by asking ‘how do you think that person looks in the photo?’ or ‘how could we make that person feel better?’ and get them to try to understand how others may be feeling,” Sasha continues. “They’re getting really good at being able to understand their own emotions, and we try to support them in how they can support themselves if they are feeling sad, or feeling overwhelmed and need space. Next year they’ll be learning more about how others feel and how we can help them.”

Raylene, an educator in the senior kindy studio at our Yatala campus, says the benefits of exploring emotions, all emotions including the hard ones, allows children to not only identify them but develop the skills to go through them.

“One child mentioned that she would cry all day if she couldn’t see her mummy again. Mr J mentioned that he gets angry when he can’t find his treasures. Mr T doesn’t like when Mummy drops him off etc which led to a discussion about developing strategies to cope with these emotions when they occur. [It’s] so powerful. Mr J said that he could take a big breath and then think about where he put his treasures. Miss K said that she would give her sister a big hug if she couldn’t hug Mummy. Mr T said he could come with Miss Ray,” says Raylene. “Ensuring educators create opportunities for children to communicate their feelings and then giving children the tools to not only identify them, but develop strategies to manage them, rather than saying ‘you’re OK’ is the power moment.”

Tori, an educator at the same campus agrees.

“I feel teaching children about their emotions is so important, especially teaching children their emotions are valid and it is OK to feel those emotions,” says Tori. “One of my favourite book series is the ‘A little spot of’ which demonstrate scenarios for children and strategies to help with those emotions. I find once children know it is OK to feel various emotions and learn strategies they can use when they feel this they begin to regulate easier, understand and respect their peers more when they go through the emotions and can support one another.”

Jodie is right. Research shows that children who learn how to understand emotions in themselves and others are better able to regulate their own responses to strong emotions. Helping children to identify and label emotions is an important first step, and this is supported by the Early Years Framework in helping children develop a strong sense of identity.

Further information

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