Developing positive early relational experiences

In order for children to be able to build relationships with other people it is necessary for them to have a template of how to do this. A child’s first relationship is with their main caregiver and this is usually a mother, father, grandparent or other relative. The quality of this primary relationship can determine the standard of future relationships, as children will often approach new relationships based on their previous experiences. Children who have experienced their first relationship with a parent or carer that is nurturing, supportive, consistent and loving are able to develop an internal feeling of safety and security. This experience enables the child to explore freely and have a natural curiosity and excitement about life. As their early needs for food and stimulation have been responded to and their early interactions through babbling and gurgling have been met with enthusiasm and delight, they learn that their needs are recognised and met and they are worth thinking about and caring for, resulting in high self-esteem. They may present in school as having the skills and ability to build and maintain relationships and respond positively to help and support with this when needed.

However, a child who has had an erratic, inconsistent and unpredictable experience of early relationships may find it more difficult to internalise a sense of safety and security and may experience relationships as frightening and unreliable. If a parent or carer is emotionally or physically unavailable to the child, perhaps rejecting their needs and ignoring them or pushing them away when they cry, the child learns that their needs are not worthwhile and that if you seek comfort from someone you may be rejected. They may present in school as being quiet, withdrawn and self-contained. ‘He seems happy on his own’ may be how this child is referred to. For these children, relationships are frightening and to be avoided wherever possible, even if it means missing out on positive experiences. Some children who have experienced neglect or abuse, may find it difficult to approach staff or allow them to comfort them when they are distressed or upset. These children may have developed self-reliance as a way of coping with this and can find the transition to starting nursery more difficult. This can impact on their social relationships with the other children as they may feel less emotionally and physically safe, these children can benefit greatly from being involved in the group work programmes.

Children need to have positive experiences of separating from their main carer to be able to manage the school day and relationships that occur within the school setting with both adults and children. If a child has not had this positive experience, it is possible to repair some of this by providing consistent, predictable, positive nurturing relationships in school with school staff. This experience can transform a child’s early relational experiences and provide them with a strong base from which to develop and grow. Children also need opportunities for fun, laughter and playfulness which can help to develop and strengthen their relational experiences.

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