Respectful Practice in Early Childhood Education – Toni Christie

Respectful People, Places and Things

Slow down and be fully present, educators!

That’s one of the catch cries of early childhood expert, Toni Christie, from Childspace Early Childhood Institute, based in Wellington, New Zealand.

She was presenting a recent ECE webinar for Educa, Respectful people, places and things, which covered what respectful practice in the early learning sector looks like. By people, she means educators; places are the physical, built environment; and things are resources and objects.

Her webinar was based on 25 years of work with infants and toddlers and the educators who work with them as well as the findings from her Masters’ thesis.

“This is based on my research, my thinking, and what I understand. It’s not the only way, right way or best way … it’s what works for us at Childspace. Take from this what works for you and leave what doesn’t,” she urged.

Christie shared the early childhood curriculum of New Zealand, Te Whāriki, which states that children learn through their interactions with people, places and things.  This was the basis of her presentation, What do respectful people, places, and things look like for young children?

Here’s a summary of her presentation on respectful practice:

Respectful people:

  • slow down
  • are fully present
  • invite and wait
  • offer choices
  • avoid unnecessary interventions and interruptions
  • view children as competent and capable
  • offer support, not intervention
  • observe peacefully

Respectful places:

  • are places of beauty and nature
  • offer variety without clutter
  • culturally responsive
  • child-led and emergent
  • offer quiet and protected spaces
  • functional and flexible
  • empower
  • provide risk and challenge

Respectful things:

  • are kind to the environment
  • stimulate the senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell
  • are natural and open-ended
  • realm, ethical, durable, natural, beautiful and sustainable

This article will include some of the webinar highlights of what ‘respectful people’ do in action in early childhood education and care. Find out more about what she had to say about respectful places and things by watching a repeat of this Educa webinar, by clicking here.

Respectful people slow down and are fully present

Christie said: “The first thing about respectful people is that they slow down. When we’re working with children we go slowly, we walk slowly, we talk slowly and make that conscious effort to go at that pace. We make those intentional decisions about how we are pacing ourselves in the environment.”

To slow down means being “fully present” in the sense of being mindful.

“It’s about calming our mind, regulating ourselves to be fully available to the child in the moment. We’re there physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Children as competent and capable

Some people may need to have a “massive paradigm shift” to view children as competent and capable rather than born helpless, she said.

“That we really need to do everything for them is so ingrained in our culture and upbringing.”

She explained that young children could drink from porcelain cups or pour their drink from a glass jug as long as they’re the “right size for their little hands”.

“If we are empowering children to use real objects and tools, we need to ensure they are perfectly proportioned for children. Set them up to succeed.”

Ask … then wait

Respectful practice also includes not picking up children from behind as Christie admitted she did at the start of her career as an educator. She advised to approach the child from the front, ask them if they’d like to be picked up, wait for a “signal of consent or assent such as head tilt or body shift” and if it was a ‘no’, just saying that’s ok and waiting just in case they later changed their mind.

“Our teachers are using an open-palmed hand as an offer of engagement. The key is to actually wait. This takes longer than we realise. When I was doing my research, I watched a teacher ask a child if she’d like her nappy changed. The child turned their head, so the teacher said, that’s ok I’ll ask again in a few minutes. It then took 90 seconds for the child to download the question, think about it and turn back to the teacher who still had open palms in her lap and who then asked the child again.

“Think about that interaction versus an educator sniffing and saying ‘ok, someone in here has done a poo’, and there’s much checking of diapers and sniffing of bottoms. There’s a huge difference in how empowered the child is in the first instance.”

Christie suggests educators sit back and watch children to better learn what their charges are capable of as well as their cues and gestures.

Offering choices

Respectful people offer choices such as meals. She explained what this looked like in her service where there were two options – a healthy vegetable based and another fruit based, which could be ‘dinner’ and ‘dessert’.

“We allow the child to choose what they want first. We’re really inviting children to access that process of self-regulation. We’re offering choices all the time to children asking would they like to come to bed, go to the toilet, ask them if they are hungry or tired. It gets them thinking about that. Imagine if we’re always told when we’re hungry, when we need to go to bed. We don’t access that thinking so much,” she said.

Some educators might think this akin to offer too many choices or no boundaries or limitations.

“That’s not correct. We also might ask a child if they want to have a nap, and if they say ‘no’, but in five minutes that child’s behaviour indicates to use they need a sleep, then when we approach them the next time, we’ll say ‘I can see you’re really tired. You’ll feel better after a sleep, so would you like to walk to bed or shall I carry you there?’,” said Christie.

Ditch the clock

Meanwhile, educators at a particular service felt their routines at work made them a slave to the clock.

“They asked themselves, what would happen if we took the clock down from the wall? So instead of having to have all the diapers changed by 11 am, for example, they provided what the child needed when they needed it. Everyone still got their breaks and lunch and the meals arrived and the children had their nap. Teachers found they were able to tune more into the rhythms of the child,” said Christie.

The overriding question, then, is to ask ‘who is it for?’.

“We still ask this about every aspect of the program. If the answer is not the child, we have to rethink the practice.”

For a replay of the webinar, click here.

To see what free webinars and online workshops from Educa are coming up, visit this page.


ChildSpace and All Good Things – an early childhood resources centre –

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