Establishing an Emotionally Supportive and Equitable Environment (page 2)
Relationships are the heart of an early childhood program. Just as a plant needs to experience both sunlight and rich soil to produce a healthy plant, a child needs to experience both quality relationships and quality instruction to be successful (Ray, Bowman, & Brownell, 2006). Relationships affect children’s social skills, academic success, and brain development (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b, 2007; Ray et al., 2006). They also affect children’s feelings about the program.
Relationships between staff and children, staff and parents, among children, and among staff define the climate of a program. High quality climates assist children to feel safe, increase positive behavior, and reduce absenteeism from the program. When children are in emotionally supportive environments in the early years, their achievement increases, resulting in higher social, math, and reading scores (Ray et al., 2006). Additionally, supportive relationships positively influence work habits and improve educational resiliency. This is especially true for children who are at risk of school failure (Ray et al., 2006).
Emotional responsiveness (acknowledging and responding to children’s emotions and needs), particularly in the early years, even affects brain development and the biochemistry of the brain. Similarly unresponsive care can alter the brain’s biochemistry. Here’s how this works: when we feel stress, our bodies produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Both hormones help the body to respond to threat. However, when these hormones are activated either frequently or for long periods, they can produce negative effects on the brain. For example, long-term elevations of cortisol can change the architecture of the brain, leading to memory and learning problems (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b, p. 3). Because young children’s brains are “particularly malleable,” stress is especially harmful for this age group (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b, p. 2).
The child’s early experiences also determine how the stress system reacts to subsequent stress. High levels of stress can result in a stress system that responds at a lower threshold of stress and remains stressed for a longer period of time (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b). As stated by the Council, “Like the immune system, which defends the body against threatening infections but can cause autoimmune disease when it turns against the body’s own cells, a poorly controlled response to stress can be damaging to health and well-being if activated too often or for too long” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b, p. 2). Elevated stress can lead to an increased vulnerability for stress-related disorders (depression, anxiety, cardiovascular problems, stroke, and diabetes) (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b).
However, high-quality care in the early years leads to a lessened stress response (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b). In addition, as you will learn in this chapter when a child does experience stress, the responsive teacher can dramatically buffer the child’s stress response through her relationship with the child (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004b).
While teachers have limited influence over the other environments that children are in, they do have control over their classroom. When the classroom environment is emotionally supportive, children not only learn more, but they are more likely to want to come to the program, and absenteeism is reduced.
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