Welcome to this course, in which we recognise and acknowledge the expert and specialised nature of pedagogy with infants and toddlers. We aim to support you to understand some key principles, pedagogies and practices for use with this age group. There’s a lot of theory to understand in this first part of the course, but don’t worry, we will keep returning to it, bringing it to life and putting it to use in practical ways and in the context of different topics as we work through the rest of the course.
In this first part of the course, we focus on getting to know the principles behind effective pedagogy with infants and toddlers that have been well-substantiated by research. These principles will form a touchstone for our further examination of key practices and concepts in infant and toddler care and education: relationships, intersubjectivity, caregiving, key teaching, and teamwork. In addition, as we learn about the ways in which infants and toddlers learn to move, play and communicate, we will return to these principles as guides for practice.
The aims for this part of the course are:
- To develop an understanding of key principles for infant and toddler care and education, and begin to reflect upon and implement these in your own setting
- To reflect on your image of the infant and toddler and what this means for your practice
This will involve:
- Reading about and comparing different images of the infant and toddler
- Reflecting on which image(s) of the infant and toddler informs your practice
- Reading about evidence-based principles for infant and toddler care and education
- Reflecting on an example of the principles in practice
- Exploring one of the principles in your practice in your own setting
There is also an opportunity to introduce yourself on the discussion forum, and to read the introductions of others participating in the course. Finally, we offer some additional reflective questions and quizzes as further reading.
Now is a great time to decide on the child that you will observe, study and reflect about for the course activities. Please also take some time to reflect on your current knowledge about the child, which will form a nice touchstone for your progress through the course. Make some notes on the following questions:
- What do you know about this child?
- How would you describe your relationship with the child and with the family?
Now let’s get started with Part 1…
Listen to me, Dr Vicki Hargraves, give a brief introduction to the course, opening with a karakia.
Read How do you view babies? which presents a simplified view of different perspectives on infants and toddlers. We sometimes call these our ‘image of the infant or toddler’. These are the general assumptions and beliefs about infants and toddlers that we (often unconsciously) hold, that frame how we perceive each individual infant and toddler we meet. Some of the ideas you will see in the reading are quite stereotypical, and you are unlikely to fall into one camp of thinking but instead be influenced by several of these discourses. Indeed, some of the concepts might be more prevalent in your practice than others. As you read, consider what you think might be the impact on pedagogy and practice of each of the different images of infants and toddlers.
How do you view babies?
This is a great place to start for those wishing to develop or transform their pedagogy for working with infants and toddlers. Your image of the infant and toddler influences your relationships with individual children and drives the kinds of engagement that unfold.
If you see babies as vulnerable…
Then you tend to see infants and toddlers as dependent and helpless, requiring you to be on standby to support them and relieve discomfort or struggles. You believe you know what every baby needs, and you may control their environment and routines to the extent that you don’t notice what they might be trying to tell you. When you focus on the vulnerability of infants and toddlers, you emphasise safety and protection, and may be more likely to interrupt and control their learning. Views of infants and toddlers as incompetent and irrational lead to interactions which are controlled or unstable and form negative experiences for infants.
If you see babies as communicators…
You listen to and interpret the wide range of signals, sounds and behaviours that infants use for communicating subtle and not-so-subtle messages. Rather than prioritising verbal language and assuming that babies are not communicating much yet, you appreciate the body movements and gestures that infants and toddlers use as a means of communication and engagement with you. You recognise and support children to become part of a group with its own special rituals, games, jokes and treasured objects, and notice the competencies of children to observe and imitate each other to facilitate communication and interaction with others.
If you see babies as teachers…
You have an image of infants and toddlers as strong, confident learners, and allow them to shape relationships, environments and the curriculum. When you see infants and toddlers as agents in their own learning and care, you let the infants and toddlers teach you what they need to grow. You let infants share their interests, and allow them to direct your attention and behaviour. You develop responsive pedagogies rather than rigid assumptions to which you expect conformity and obedience.
If you see babies as partners…
Then you view practice with infants and toddlers as involving a kind of reciprocal dance, where you and the infant/toddler are attuned to one another, and where you notice and respond to each other’s cues. This reflects a sense of give and take in the relationship, rather than a sense of the caregiver always conceding to the infant’s or toddler’s needs or will. You might, for example, occasionally explain to toddlers why you can’t meet their needs, at the same time expressing your belief in the child’s competence to help themselves or find other solutions.
Partnership is associated with positive interactive experiences. In partnership, both the teacher’s and the infant’s behaviours and actions contribute to the type of relationship that evolves. Interactions are not pre-determined according to a set of generalised rules and routines, but developed anew and through relationship with each individual infant or toddler, making space for infants and toddlers to shape the interactions that develop. A pedagogy of partnership might take inspiration from the metaphor of ‘te whatu pokeka’, a traditional pliable wrap for babies which takes the shape of the infant as he or she grows.
If you see babies as researchers…
Then you recognise that infants and toddlers are feisty and demanding, persistent, insistent, grasping for opportunities and exploiting their environment as autonomous learners enquiring into their world. You see them as extremely competent and motivated to learn, driven by dispositions such as curiosity and purposefulness. You support children’s investigations and therefore develop their dispositions and capacities, and increase children’s desires to find out about people, places and things in their world. You talk and write about infants and toddlers as discoverers, inventors and meaning-makers, setting their own goals and achieving them. You slow down in order to actively listen to infants’ and toddlers’ interests, and to participate in or follow these interests as a way of being in tune with the child. You cue into the child’s growing understanding of the world and give them time, space and relational support to allow them to shape their world and enable learning.
Click here to read this on The Education Hub website.
When you reflect on your current pedagogical practices, which image of the infant or toddler do you think informs them? What might other images offer you and your practice? Which image of the infant or toddler do you think would be most empowering for the child?
This next reading introduces the key principles identified in quality infant and toddler pedagogy. We will return to many of these ideas as we work through the course. Read What matters in infant and toddler pedagogy? and make some notes about the key terms and concepts, especially those unfamiliar to you.
What matters in infant and toddler pedagogy?
Close and caring ongoing relationships support all aspects of infants’ and toddlers’ development and learning. These early relationships are primarily with other people but also with places and things. Experiences of responsive, attuned caregiving in the first years of life facilitate emotional and cognitive wellbeing, so a curriculum for infants and toddlers must have strong relational connections at its centre. Infants and toddlers need adults who are willing and able to engage with them in attuned interactions and relationships that are characterised by intimacy, sensitive responsiveness and focused presence.
Infants and toddlers need constant and affectionate company provided by an intimate relationship with their caregivers, and experiences of positive relationships in infancy have far-reaching consequences. The sense of safety provided by a warm and secure relationship promotes children’s investigation of the world and enables them to gradually establish multiple relationships with others. First relationships with a caregiver provide a model for relationships with subsequent teachers and also set the foundations for adjustment, development and learning across a child’s education. Strong, attuned relationships support children’s resilience and security. Through relationships, young children learn how to be empathetic to others’ feelings, to grow and manage their will, to stand up for their own needs and rights and ask for them to be met, to negotiate, manage and express their feelings, and to develop conflict resolution skills.
Research has found that negative early childhood experiences characterised by unresponsive, inconsistent and unstable relationships within stressful environments have a negative effect on brain development. Low quality care and an inadequate relationship with an adult are sources of stress, especially when infants and toddlers have no control over events and no access to or support from a soothing caregiver. Stress is toxic and has a negative impact on brain development, the immune system, emotional wellbeing and cognitive skills, both immediately and later in life. Some areas of the brain that are dependent on emotionally attuned relationships do not activate, and these ‘holes’ in the architecture of the brain can remain across a child’s lifetime. Without the experience of emotionally attuned relationships in early life, infants and toddlers show an impaired ability to regulate their emotions, and without the opportunity to learn socially acceptable behaviours from caring and responsive interactions, they internalise negative patterns of interaction. These effects have a detrimental effect on future relationships.
Pedagogical strategies that strengthen the quality of relationships
Infants form relationships more readily with teachers who show an interest in them and match their own behaviours to the child’s. Infants also form strong relationships with teachers who have a positive outlook, a belief in their ability to form relationships with infants, a gentle and responsive style of interaction, and strong non-verbal communication skills. It is important to bear in mind that there can be contextual constraints that prevent the development of positive relationships between infants and caregivers, including high ratios of children to adults and larger groups of children. Teachers are found to provide more sensitive, frequent and positive care, to act more responsively, and to be increasingly nurturing and warm when they are responsible for fewer children. Low-stress environments that support healthy brain development are also related to the structural qualities of small group sizes and low ratios of children to adults, as well as the presence of supportive relationships.
Calm, unhurried environments
Research shows that the quality of infant and toddler environments has a marked impact on children’s development and learning. Meaningful and intimate relationships develop in environments that are unrushed, peaceful and tranquil. Environments should be amiable and calm, with a flexible and relaxed pace or rhythm to the day, so that interactions and relationships can be given the time, focus and support required. This also enables teachers to give infants and toddlers time and space (without interruption) to play and lead their own learning. Calm environments enable teachers to reflect on the quality of interactions and on relationship development, so it is important to monitor the environment for noise level and the balance of opportunities for quiet rest as well as energetic play. Young infants may benefit from safe spaces in which to lie on their backs without fear of toddlers stumbling over them. Ongoing observation and reflection will ensure that environments continue to support children to feel content and curious.
Consistency over time
Continuity in relationships and consistent caregiving by one or a very small number of teachers enable caregivers to form warm relationships with infants and toddlers in which they can sensitively respond to their changing needs and preferences, and celebrate their achievements and learning. Many settings advocate primary caregiving as a strategy for achieving attentive relationships. Continuity in the caregiver-child relationship builds up more secure and trusting relationships between teachers, children and parents, and also is related to resilience in children. Building an attentive relationship over time will provide many opportunities to observe the infant or toddler across a variety of experiences, enabling teachers to learn what excites, amuses, upsets and frustrates the child and become increasingly sensitive to the child as an individual. It will also allow teachers to come to know what the child knows, understands and is interested in. This is especially important during the infant and toddler years because children’s communication requires more careful observation and interpretation. Teachers should aim to ensure ongoing, consistent and stable relationships and attachments. This means considering how decisions about the programme, room changes or teachers’ schedules or leave will affect relationships, and seeking solutions that support rather than undermine existing relationships. Consistency can also be promoted through daily routines that build a sense of security and familiarity, and by ensuring that colleagues have similar approaches and pedagogies to the care and education of infants and toddlers.
Infants and toddlers communicate in many complex and subtle ways. With each child teachers will need to develop a ‘watchful attentiveness’ to their vocal and body language, watching all their signals and listening for their cues. Infants in particular use all the resources they have available to communicate – nuances of sound, volume and pitch, as well as dramatic whole body movements such as arching the back or waving their arms and legs about. Listening involves all the senses, not just listening but also looking with attention to pick up on the cues that infants and toddlers use to express pleasure, contentment, sadness, anxiety, trust, wonder and surprise. In particular, listening involves a lot of waiting , giving infants and toddlers time, space, and support to express themselves, as well as giving teachers the opportunity to get to know and understand their behaviours and cues.
Attuned interactions with infants and toddlers depend on teachers’ physical and emotional presence, and their ability to orient themselves towards the child’s experience rather than focusing on strategies, techniques or rosters. Presence is an important component of a caring relationship — it makes infants and toddlers feel safe and nurtured and has a significant impact on their emotional well-being. Teachers need to be physically available to children, making space or access for children to be near them or on their lap, but also ‘being there’ requires them to actively make eye contact, display appropriate body language, and respond to infants’ and toddlers’ cues. It involves being engrossed in the infant or toddler, as well as being receptive to them, paying close and full attention to them in the moment. This attentiveness means that teachers are still and quiet, actively present but not actively doing. Teachers need to trust in the child and in themselves that this attentive presence, this ‘doing by not doing’, is part of sound pedagogical practice, and allow the time and space just for being present, reflecting, and interpreting what they are learning about the child by being present.
Interactions that build relationships
In interactions with infants and toddlers teachers need to show sensitivity, presence and an active involvement in the child’s experiences and actions. Attuned relationships with infants and toddlers consist of specific types of responsive and reciprocal interactions that are individualised, sensitive and timely in response to infants’ and toddlers’ verbal and non-verbal cues. Generally these are one-to-one interactions which facilitate the effective reading of infant and toddler cues and that allow for particular kinds of exchanges including episodes of joint attention. In particular, imitation, joint attention (or inter-subjectivity) and empathetic understanding are three skills that are developed in infancy which serve as foundations for social development and enhance the learning of the infant or toddler. Repeated experiences of positive interactions help infants and toddlers develop the ability to trust others. The nature of teachers’ interactions with infants and toddlers has the potential to improve or limit learning.
Sensitive and responsive caregiving supports infants and toddlers with emotional regulation and promotes the development of neural pathways necessary for learning. Being responsive to the infant or toddler’s communications through listening and being present enables teachers to move forward in their understanding of them and, equally, enables the infant or toddler to develop their understanding of the teacher. When a teacher responds to a distressed infant, the child will begin to generalise the teacher’s presence as providing a sense of wellbeing and security. Even the youngest of infants can encode implicit memories before they develop conscious attention of the experience.
A teacher’s relationship with an infant or toddler should be two-way and reciprocal, in that each seeks out the other, learns from the other, and adjusts in response to the other’s behaviour, development and change. In reciprocal relationships, teacher and infant are both involved in maintaining and developing the relationship but will perform different roles and behaviours. Often, the infant or toddler will take the lead, and the teacher’s role is to be observant, reflective and responsive. Developing reciprocity in interactions means that it is important to stop, look and listen for the infant’s or toddler’s response. Learning and teaching become reciprocal when teachers learn from the children as they learn from teachers. Reciprocal dialogues are important, and are developed at an early age often through eye contact and the use of gaze, or mutual eye-to-eye contact which lasts more than a second. It is important to respond to the ‘look’ initiations of infants. Teachers can also enable reciprocity in their relationships with infants and toddlers when they tell infants and toddlers what they are going to do before doing it, ask infants and toddlers for their co-operation, wait for them to process the request, and offer choices.
Reciprocal imitation is an important interactional and intentional strategy which encourages infants and teachers to delight in interactions with each other. Infants in particular are fascinated by seeing others respond to the rhythm, intensity and style of their movements and vocalisations through imitation, or in some other way matching their response to the child’s or building on their communication. Infants enjoy the familiarity and sense of complicity associated with seeing their own behaviour returned to them.
Joint attention / intersubjectivity
Intersubjectivity is a special quality of interaction and relationships which involves connectivity or communion between two people who attend to each other’s cues about their emotions, thoughts and interests. Joint attention occurs when the teacher and the infant or toddler pay joint attention to, and perhaps jointly act upon, some external object, activity or idea. Infants as young as eight or nine months are capable of brief moments of joint attention, and episodes of joint attention become much more frequent by 15 to 18 months of age. Infants and toddlers have strong inclination, desire and ability to engage adults and others in satisfying communication and joint involvement, and will often initiate these interactions. Engagement in a shared activity or focus is enjoyable, provides a sense of delight and emotional connection, and supports the release of hormones in infants for the development of brain cells and neural pathways. At the same time, as an inter-subjective partner for the infant or toddler, teachers can optimise opportunities for learning and development, for example, by providing language and a frame of meaning for the child, appropriate to his or her understanding and the shared context. Research links joint attention to the development of a range of cognitive and social skills, including increased abilities in language and communication. This means that it is not the activity or objects per se that constitute valuable curriculum experiences, but the extent of the adult’s collaboration with the infant or toddler in regarding those objects and activities.
To read the full version of this research review, with references, click here.
As the reading indicates, there is some clear guidance for infant-toddler teachers about how best to meet children’s developmental and emotional needs in this formative period. Access to a familiar caregiver, providing a secure base for the child, in calm, unhurried environments in which children experience predictable, consistent caregiving, are key requirements. Furthermore, a particular interactional style is found to support infant and toddler learning, and this includes imitation, joint attention/intersubjectivity, as well as the reciprocal and responsive interactions that are heavily emphasised in Te Whāriki. Some of the research that underpins these principles is summarised below. That there is so much research confirming the value of these practices is very reassuring for an infant and toddler teacher. However, putting the principles into practice can be more challenging than it sounds. The rest of the course will focus on this.
In summary, research supports the importance of:
- Intersubjectivity and joint attention. Research shows that capacities to develop shared intentionality with others, to cooperate and to participate in joint engagement with others emerge at a very young age. Joint attention is linked to a range of cognitive and social skills, included increased abilities in language and communication. We will learn more about joint attention in Part 3 of the course.
- Responsive, reciprocal, ‘serve-and-return’ interactions. Interactions in which caregivers return the child’s serves (vocalisations and non-verbal communication such as gaze) by responding to the child’s interests or actions are found to form the foundation for brain development. Research has found that parents who have a strong ability to reflect upon and understand their own thoughts, feelings and motivations, and therefore be able to sensitively, empathetically and appropriately respond to the infant’s communication, are three to four times more likely to have securely attached children than parents who had less capacity for reflection. We will examine this pedagogical practice further in the next part of the course.
- Talking with children and developing their communication skills. Multiple studies have shown that the quantity of language spoken to infants and toddlers predicts their communicative ability as they grow older, with the children that are engaged in the most conversation having larger vocabularies and better speech development. Enhanced language skills are associated with cognitive achievement, literacy, as well as a range of academic and social skills. Part 3 of the course is focused on the importance of language and communication in infant and toddler teaching.
- Attuned attachment between infants and caregivers. A large body of evidence shows that a secure attachment to a primary caregiver is essential for an infant’s feelings of security and competence, and influences the formation of neurobiological patterns that affect his or her ability to regulate responses to others and which condition his or her relationships in future life. Secure attachments in infancy are associated with a range of competencies including social skills, positive attitudes to learning, a comfortable sense of self, successful relationships, and emotional and moral understandings. In the fourth part of the course, on caregiving, we will look at how strong attachment relationships occur through attuned caregiving interactions between teachers and children.
- Supporting the capacities of infants and toddlers to construct their own learning, which shows that infants and toddlers are genetically programmed to seek out relationships, learn language, and develop muscle coordination. However, other research suggests that learning can be more effective when children are supported and guided in some of their play, and that reciprocal interactions during play are enjoyable for both the child and adult. We will learn more about the play of infants and toddlers and how best to support it in Part 5.
- Motor development and cognition, including research which confirms the importance of infants lying on their backs and being able to move freely. This forms the topic of study in Part 6.
The following portrait of practice illustrates many of the principles discussed in the reading. Read this short portrait of the way one teacher builds a strong and intimate relationship with one infant, then respond to the reflection questions below.
A portrait of an infant/toddler-caregiver relationship
Mia is Cole’s primary caregiver, and they have a strong relationship. As a baby, she responded to his cues, imitated his gurgles and coos, moved in synchrony and engaged him in mutual gazes. She responded sensitively to his distress and cries, and followed his parents’ routines and customs for bottle-feeding, finger foods and naps. She tried to understand situations from his perspective. She knew their connection was developing when one day he rolled over to the other side of the room and then looked back at her, holding her gaze for a second or two. Because she was continuously available and present to him, he began to recognise her as a trustworthy caregiver and became more cooperative with her during caregiving routines. He increased his responses to her and interactions with her when he was in a good mood. Rather than initiate interactions, she followed his lead and cues, and tried to extend play based on these.
These days Cole sees Mia as his secure base. It is Mia that soothes and helps him when he is hurt. She also shares in his discoveries, pausing to look up at the sky with him when he seems excited by an aeroplane going by: Mia says ‘Aeroplane’, and Cole repeats ‘A- plane’, and they exchange smiles. In general, they keep track of each other, and Cole’s behaviour changes when Mia steps out of the room. Cole likes Mia to cuddle him and rub his back at naptime. When Mia arranges the classroom before the children arrive in the morning, she chooses some toys she has seen him just beginning to explore. Cole’s parents and Mia work closely together; they hand over to one another every morning so each day goes smoothly.
Adapted from Edwards, C. P., & Raikes, H. (2002). Extending the dance: Relationship-based approaches to infant/toddler care and education. Young children 57 (4), 10-17.
How do the strategies that Mia uses to build a relationship with Cole relate to the principles explained in the reading? Can you see examples of a calm and unhurried environment, listening, presence, responsiveness, reciprocity, imitation, and joint attention or intersubjectivity in this portrait?
Relate your learning to practice
Drawing again on the ideas presented in the previous reading, in this activity we want you to cultivate (or further enhance your skills in) the art of presence. Remember that presence means both physical and emotional presence, and the total orientation of your attention towards the child and what they are experiencing. It requires the careful use of eye contact and body language, as well as responsiveness to the child’s cues (you might choose to review the sections of the reading on listening, responsiveness, reciprocity, imitation and joint attention/intersubjectivity which can help you to be fully present). This attentiveness should be akin to engrossment: you should be still and quiet, not trying to do something else at the same time (so it will be important to choose an appropriate time to practise this skill). After your practice, make some notes in response to the following reflective questions:
- What kind of atmosphere does being present create for you, the child, the room?
- How does this principle (presence) come together with the other principles in the reading? Did you find yourself using other pedagogical strategies mentioned in the readings more when you are present?
The key points from this part are:
- Infants and toddlers can be perceived in different ways, and the image of the infant or toddler we hold influences the way we interact with them and the kind of experiences we offer them.
- Key aspects of quality infant-toddler care and education are positive, intimate relationships and responsive interactions. The skills that teachers need in order to be able to provide this include listening, presence, appropriate imitation, and strategies for developing reciprocity and engaging joint attention / intersubjectivity.
- Infant-toddler environments also have an impact on pedagogical quality, and calm and unhurried environments, consistency of caregivers, and structural features such as ratios are significant features.
If you would like to participate in the online forum, please introduce yourself, and explain what you are hoping to get out of the course. You might also like to share what you noticed about trying out this first activity in your setting. What did you notice about being present with an infant or toddler in your early childhood setting? Did it improve your interactions with the child? How did the child respond?
Use these five reflective questions to delve deeper into your current infant-toddler curriculum.
Check out Penni Brownlee’s quiz on her website to examine some of your pedagogical practices from the perspective of respect.