Love and affection are natural and normal aspects of human relationships and are fundamental to the healthy growth of young children. Adults who have experienced loving, stable relationships and as a consequence have developed emotional resilience are more likely to be equipped to deal with complex and emotionally challenging relationships with others.
Practitioners need to be both emotionally resilient and intellectually capable of understanding themselves in relation to the behaviour of others so they are able to cope with the everyday demands of working with babies, young children and their families1.
Young children flourish when they are in the company of adults who are genuinely interested in them and are able to form strong, attuned attachment relationships with them2. Children need to know that the adult who is going to temporarily 'replace' their parent is going to be able to 'mind' about them until their parent returns.
The time and emotional effort it takes to settle a young child into an early years setting is grossly underestimated3. Yet sensitive and thoughtful caregiving routines by an emotionally available key person can make all the difference to the experience for the child. The key person might emulate what a parent does at home, for example speaking in hushed tones to soothe the child's distress, which, as the relationship deepens, becomes a form of professional loving practice.
Young children are spending many hours a day in early years settings in the company of professionals who are doing their best to provide them with suitable attachment relationships as a requirement within the EYFS. Why then might it be considered unprofessional for them to love the children in their care?
I am currently leading a project, Professional Love in Early Years Settings (www.sheffield.ac.uk/education/research/groups/crec/love), to investigate the views of early years professionals on the place of love in the curriculum and to determine how appropriate loving relationships with young children in settings manifest themselves.
A RIGHTFUL PLACE
It is astonishing to me that the words 'loving and secure' have been eroded from the recent iterations of the EYFS (2012, 2014) in relation to 'how children learn to be strong and independent', as if love no longer has a rightful place in early years practice. Is it any wonder that practitioners are confused by these changes and have responded eagerly to our survey? Respondents have told us of their 'utter relief' that research on love and intimacy is 'at last' being conducted.
Defining love in professional roles is problematic because there is no skill set that can be applied, taught or measured. Nevertheless, to deny the existence of love, particularly when research has already confirmed that love matters, is unhelpful4. It is the debate and theorisation of love and care that is important.
Providing opportunities for practitioners to discuss and reflect on each other's viewpoint is likely to bring about a more thoughtful understanding and crucially a shift in their thinking. When practitioners are able to 'de-centre' and to see the world from the view of 'the other', they are less likely to become 'too attached'. This is because they will be thinking about and responding to the needs of 'the other', as opposed to thinking only about their own needs, which will lessen the likelihood of any misunderstanding. When this dialogue and reflection is encouraged it can lead to the creation of policies and implementation of practices that can protect and safeguard young children.
Young children prosper best when they see the most important people in their lives getting on with one another. Children who are securely attached to the key people in their lives are able to form relationships with others, including their peers.
Recognising that education and care are inseparable means taking seriously the fact that children's exploration and learning happens when they have consistent, reliable and predictable relationships with practitioners who provide them with a secure base to return to in times of distress. Undeniably, human relationships (and professional love) are not easy, but they are, I suggest, the key to young children's healthy development and education. This is their birth to three curriculum.
1. Page, J (2014). 'Developing "professional love" in early childhood settings', in L Harrison and J Sumsion (eds) Lived Spaces of Infant-Toddler Education and Care - Exploring Diverse Perspectives on Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, Springer Publishing.
2. David, T, Goouch, K, Powell, S and Abbott, L (2003). Birth to Three Matters: A Review of the Literature. London: DfES
3. Page, J, and Elfer, P (2013). 'The Emotional Complexity of Attachment Interactions in Nursery', in European Early Childhood Education Research Journal.
4. Gerhardt, S (2004). Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain.