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Building Positive Relationships in Early Childhood

How building positive, nurturing relationships in early childhood can help promote children’s social-emotional development.

Building Positive Relationships in Early Childhood

Building Positive Relationships in Early Childhood

Relationship building is a process where people use a combination of skills and strategies to connect and form relationships with others. These start developing during early childhood. Children can boost their social-emotional development by learning interpersonal skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, and empathy, all of which promote positive relationships. 

In this post, we’ll discuss building positive relationships with children—its importance, how to incorporate relationship-building strategies, and classroom activities to encourage it.

teacher and little girl smiling over paper and paints


Why is building relationships important in early childhood?

Early childhood is a significant time. The interactions and relationships that children experience and form during this time can greatly influence the skills they develop. Building positive relationships with children sets the groundwork for developing social-emotional skills. It helps young children communicate, form meaningful relationships with others, face challenges, and regulate their emotions. 

Children are observant, and what they observe in your interactions with them and their peers shapes their expectations for how people treat each other. The combination of these interactions can form positive, nurturing relationships that children use to learn about the world and how they fit into it. Children grow and thrive in relationships—built on caring and understanding—that provide love, security, and responsive interactions. This helps children feel safe and cared for and can support positive communication, cooperation, and motivation in early childhood settings.

Strategies to build relationships with children

Relationships aren’t built overnight. Building positive relationships with your children requires investing time, attention, and effort into a series of actions and strategies. Consider the following strategies that help with relationship building. 

Use positive interaction

Repeated interactions with a child build the relationship you’ll have with them. Incorporate positive interactions into your daily communication. Establishing a pattern of positive interactions is key to forming that positive relationship. For example, start with a warm greeting every day. This simple practice can make a child feel safe, comfortable, or excited to enter the classroom. Other examples of positive interactions include saying the child’s name, using a comforting voice, following the child’s lead, and being responsive.

Create secure attachments

Children understand social-emotional cues from adults. You can imagine that a child will feel hesitant and unsure about an adult who is unpredictable, unresponsive, and indifferent. These feelings lead to insecure attachments. They can make children feel a lack of control over their environment and their relationships with other people. Your goal is to create secure attachments. You can do this by comforting them, responding to them, and meeting their needs. Secure attachments help children develop positive social-emotional skills and can help build feelings of confidence and competence.

Make deposits into a child’s emotional bank

An emotional bank is a psychological term used in the context of a mutual relationship. It's an “account” built on trust instead of money. An emotional bank grows when someone makes more deposits than withdrawals. Withdrawals happen when you engage in behaviors that are harmful to relationship building. Being an educator can be challenging and sometimes evoke feelings of frustration and discouragement. It’s especially important at these times to take a step back and ensure that you’re communicating in a way where you’re making deposits instead of withdrawals. 

You can make deposits into a child’s emotional bank by:

  • Using encouraging and positive words
  • Acknowledging a child’s efforts
  • Avoiding the combination of encouragement with criticism
  • Following a child’s lead during play
  • Using gestures such as thumbs up, hugs, and high fives to celebrate accomplishing tasks


Vanderbilt University and the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning offer three relationship-building strategies for how educators can speed up the process of relationship-building:

  • Offer choices. When possible, shift how you guide children into tasks. Instead of saying, “It’s time for paint,” you might offer them the choice of painting or doing a puzzle.
  • Consider if forms of “challenging” behavior can be ignored. This doesn’t mean to ignore  behavior designed to gain your attention, but rather making limited decisions about what behavior to correct. For example, if a child is using a loud voice when speaking to their friends, you would evaluate whether this behavior needs or warrants immediate correction.
  • Self-monitor your deposits and withdrawal behaviors. Use a visual or physical reminder to keep track of your emotional bank deposits and withdrawals. At the end of each day or week, evaluate which children have received deposits and whose emotional bank you need to focus on filling.

children and teachers hugging in classroom


How to teach healthy relationships

Early childhood is the best time for children to develop social-emotional skills and form healthy bonds with adults and peers. To teach healthy relationships, you can:

  • Model respect
  • Define boundaries
  • Teach effective communication
  • Disprove stereotypes
  • Explain unhealthy relationships

Model respect

You can’t capture the concept of respect for a child with a formal definition. Instead, start by asking them what they think respect is. Ask them for examples of it. Provide examples of how you model respect and what it looks like in the classroom. Children who show respect don’t yell or talk over others, don’t ignore others even when they disagree, and don’t try to control others. You also might find it beneficial to include how children feel when they are respected—safe around their classmates and teacher, free to talk about their wants, and unafraid of admitting they’ve made a mistake.

Define boundaries

Boundaries can protect children and help them build healthy relationships that align with their needs and values. To help them define their boundaries, you must first help them get in tune with their feelings. While a child might experience difficulty expressing their feelings, guide them through talking about their likes and dislikes. When dealing with a situation, ask them to point out what feels bad or uncomfortable. 

The next step is giving them the tools to express their boundaries to others. Teach them to say “no” if they don’t want to do something. Help them understand the importance of using clear and firm language. No doesn’t mean “yes” or “maybe” — no means no. By teaching young children to set boundaries and respect those of others, you’re giving them the tools to build healthy, lasting relationships.

Teach effective communication

Communication is key to establishing a healthy relationship. You can help them form these relationships by guiding them through verbal and non-verbal communication. You can incorporate lessons on turn-taking, the “three gates of speech”, and listening and speaking procedures.

Turn-taking can help children understand the natural back-and-forth of conversations. The "three gates of speech" is a practice children and adults can use to ensure their words help rather than cause harm. Before your children speak, tell them to let their words pass through three gates where they ask themselves the following questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Effective communication also includes how you teach a child to listen and respond. The SLANT strategy is a teaching prompt to guide children to become efficient learners. The acronym stands for: Sit up. Lean forward. Ask and answer questions. Nod your head. Track the speaker.

Disprove stereotypes

Teach your children to avoid stereotypes and embrace diversity. Whether they get the stereotypes from home or the media, they can lead to unrealistic expectations of others. Debunk any stereotypes they might have about different genders, races, cultures, and more. Encourage boys and girls to play together and celebrate what makes the children different. Guide them to understand and appreciate individuality and diversity. Teach them that everyone deserves respect regardless of their likes, dislikes, and opinions. 

Explain unhealthy relationships

One way of teaching healthy relationships is by teaching about unhealthy relationships. Giving children the information to compare them can help them identify the differences and decide whether they have healthy relationships with adults and peers. In this case, providing examples of an unhealthy relationship is easier. For example, these relationships can include name-calling and insults, dishonesty, intimidation, and violence. Unhealthy relationships can be a heavy topic for children and adults, so check in with your children and offer support along the way.

Relationship-building activities

In early childhood education, children learn best through games and activities. Play is their work. It’s how they build skills and learn new concepts. You can help your children build positive, healthy relationships and promote friendship skills with the following activities:

Trust fall

As the name would suggest, trust falls are a popular trust-building activity. They allow people to form deeper connections by making themselves vulnerable and relying on others. Trust is a big part of building healthy relationships, and doing a trust fall activity with your children can help. As long as you can set up a safe environment, divide the children into pairs and have them take turns doing the trust fall. This will help them build confidence and trust in each other. Consider joining in the activity as well. While they won’t be able to catch you, catching them will help strengthen your relationship.

Turn and talk

Turn and talk is an activity that allows children to flex their communication skills and have discussions with their peers. Typically used in an academic setting, you can tailor the game to non-academic topics for early childhood education. Tell your children to discuss their favorite color or movie. During this activity, remind them of the SLANT strategy for effective listening and responding. 

Greeting gestures

Welcoming a child by name is a great way to strengthen your relationship with them. As they enter the classroom, you can go one step further by incorporating greeting gestures. On a board near the door, illustrate welcome gestures your children might like to engage in when they walk into the classroom. You might add a thumbs-up, a high-five, a handshake, or a hug. In the mornings, have them tap the gesture on the board that they’d like to do. By allowing children the autonomy to control how you greet them, you’re reinforcing the idea of setting boundaries and maintaining healthy relationships.

Just like me

You might agree that it’s hard to form a positive, healthy relationship with someone you don’t know. The “Just Like Me” activity is a way to learn more about your children and vice versa. Prepare a list of statements about yourself. For example, you might write about your life dynamics, interests, or experiences:

  • I have a brother. I don’t have any sisters.
  • I like going to the movies.
  • I’ve been to Disney World.

Sit in a circle with your children and read each statement. For everyone to whom the statement applies, have them stand up and say, “Just like me!” After each statement, you can choose to have the children elaborate or prompt them to sit down before you read another statement. You can continue the activity by going around the circle and allowing each child to make a statement.

Bank filler

It’s time to fill those emotional banks. This bank filler activity is a great opportunity to help your children build healthy, positive relationships with their peers. In your classroom, have your children stand up one at a time. Tell the rest of the children that you’re going to fill their bank with kind, positive statements. Feel free to get the ball rolling for each child with a compliment. As a bonus, get a piggy bank and a bag full of pennies. Each time a child fills their peer’s emotional bank with some positivity, drop a coin in the piggy bank.

Emotional check-in

To build positive relationships with your children, it’s important for them to know that you’re reliable and there for them when they need you. Try incorporating an emotional check-in board into your daily classroom activities. 

Using a board, display different statements that children might use to express themselves. You can use: “I’m feeling great,” “I’m feeling okay,” “I’m having a bad day,” and “I want to talk.” Give each child a popsicle stick with their name on it. When they enter in the morning, have them put their popsicle stick next to one of the statements on the board. Depending on the emotion, take some time during the day to acknowledge or address their selection. This can range from “I’m glad you’re feeling great today” to spending some one-on-one time to discover why a child is struggling.

What do you need from me?

In a mutual relationship, you want the other person to be reliable, and you want to be comfortable with them. Children also look for these qualities in their relationships with their teachers, family, and peers. The “What Do You Need From Me” activity is a great opportunity to prove your reliability to your children.

For this activity, give your children a sticky note with their names on it. Tell them to write or draw something they need or would like from you. For example, maybe they want more classroom books about nature or help counting to 10. This activity can help your children become more comfortable with asking for what they need, thus strengthening the interpersonal relationships they can develop.

There are many opportunities to incorporate relationship-building activities into your early childhood education curriculum. With a tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature, you can easily keep track as you record classroom activities, share live updates with parents, and send daily reports on their child’s day.

The ripple effect

Building positive relationships during early childhood has a ripple effect. It acts as the groundwork for children to build the social-emotional skills used for communicating and interacting with peers, family, and educators. It supports cooperation and motivation. By encouraging positive interactions and guiding children to model healthy relationships through respect and effective communication, you can pass on the tools and skills they’ll use for building positive relationships now and in the future.

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