The Importance of Relationships in Early Education

Using Learning Stories to Build Connections

Stories celebrate the culture and language each child and family bring to the classroom and embrace each child’s unique abilities.

By Judi Garcia-Stevenson

We know from years of research on cognition and the brain how learning takes place and which environments best support that learning. Learning depends on relationships. And a teacher’s relationship with the children he or she works with requires:

  • a desire to know them well,
  • to understand how they approach learning,
  • curiosity about their interests,
  • celebration of their strengths, and
  • regular communication with families.

This is not new.

Educators understand this. Education leaders know this.

But most current early childhood assessment practices do not support educators in observing, documenting, reflecting on, or communicating any of these things.

Dan Siegel, professor of psychology at UCLA describes the brain as a “social organ” designed to be in a relationship. “What happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain. . .[And] the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing” (Seedandspark, 2020, pp43).

So, we know that understanding children well is required for relationships. And relationships are required for the physical architecture of the brain. So then, why are relationships not the primary focus of our practice?

Learning Stories – Child at the Center

Learning Stories require teachers to focus on each individual child’s strengths and approaches to learning and respond intentionally to that child’s needs

There is one approach to assessment that puts the learner at the center and supports respectful and meaningful relationships between teachers, children, and families. And that is Learning Stories.

Learning Stories are a form of authentic assessment that supports educators in actively engaging in the process of focusing closely on individual children, observing what is happening, identifying the learning, and responding within the context of their relationship.

Common early childhood assessment practices focus on what’s missing. They often value academic skills over soft skills such as persistence and collaboration.  And importantly, these assessments compare children’s growth to other children, rather than to themselves.

All of this encourages educators and leaders to decide whether children are successful based on a purchased checklist, which might be biased against children from different cultures or who speak languages other than English. Rather than looking at children’s individual progress over time.

It also encourages staff to tune out the diversity of learners and approaches to learning that exist within their programs. Learning Stories require teachers to focus on each individual child’s strengths and approaches to learning and respond intentionally to that child’s needs.

Learning Stories celebrate the culture and language each child and family bring to the classroom and embrace each child’s unique abilities.

Using Documentation To Connect

Learning Stories are documentation FOR learning, not documentation of learning.

Documenting for learning helps to focus on the “learning journey” of each child. It helps teachers plan for and individualize learning opportunities and interactions. And it transforms relationships with families by identifying children’s strengths.

What evolves over time is an individual portfolio of pictures and words that paint a picture of the child’s growth and development. It includes reflections from teachers, the child, and their family while celebrating unique strengths and abilities.

Learning Stories allow teachers to show an understanding of the child to families. And a way to share teaching methods and goals. Over time, a portfolio of Learning Stories tells its own story of a unique journey.

The portfolio is revisited regularly by families and children. It is a way for adults around a child to connect and build relationships.  And as importantly, reading Learning Stories to a child helps strengthen adult connections with that child.

All of these stronger connections are part of an early education success formula.

 

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