You can work with parents to get children ready for the world of peer relationships. by Carla Poole

LOVING RELATIONSHIPS--FIRST AND FOREMOST WITH THEIR families--the heart of everything that matter for infants and toddlers. Gradually, you also become a part of this loving circle. Over the next few years, as the toddler becomes more independent, she will develop friendships with peers. A close partnership with parents and teachers helps children navigate this exciting and challenging entry into the world of social relationships.

Babies' first social interactions begin when caring adults learn to read their cues. Watch for each child's unique style of communication. Share your observations with parents and ask them what they have noticed. Babies intuitively feel understood when you mirror back their expressions. Try it, and ask parents to try this as well.

Each baby has his own way of signaling when he is ready to interact. Crying is one obvious way, but ask parents about their baby's more subtle cues-an inviting glance, a wave of the arm, a gentle cooing sound. Respond to a baby's invitation with a game of peek-a-boo. Take turns handing toys back and forth. Ask parents what games their baby enjoys and initiate one of them.

Place babies who are not yet crawling near each other. Even 6-month-olds interact when they sit side-by-side exploring interesting toys. Encourage these interactions by talking to them about what they are doing and sharing smiles or gentle touches. As children mature, their attachments with one another strengthen and, over time, they become part of a group.

Small-group experiences enable toddlers to practice the give-and-take aspect of friendships and experiment with asserting themselves and/or complying with another child's desires. Conflict between toddlers is unavoidable. It is part of the learning process but slightly more manageable in a small-group setting. Sometimes toddlers just need a little time to try to work things out between themselves. Given an extra moment, for instance, they may decide that there is enough room on the rug for both of them, after all.

Learning to cooperate takes time. Positive feedback from teachers helps parents remain hopeful that their toddler will acquire this skill-even when conflict over toys is still so common! Tell parents about their toddler's growing friendships and also let families know when their child shares an interest with another child. This is a great topic for a monthly newsletter: "Jose and Miguel love to paint together every morning after snack!" In the room, facilitate positive play interactions by commenting to the children: "You two sure have fun painting together!"

When you must intervene, to stop hitting or biting, keep in mind that toddlers are trying to manage peer relationships for the first time in their lives. They aren't "naughty." If they need help learning how to get along with one another, they are just being toddlers.

Questions for Families

Here are questions to help you understand the unique ways each child interacts socially:

  • How does your child generally react to new situations and people? Differently at different times of the day? When she is home? When she is out?
  • Have you noticed whether she's quick to jump in? Does she take time to warm up? What do you usually do while your toddler gets acclimated?
  • When your toddler is with a group of children, how does she usually interact? With siblings? With any other people who take care of her?  
  • Does she play differently with children than when she is alone?

Share the Care

To help build strong, individual relationships with children, ask parents to share actions and insights:

  • How does your baby call for your attention or let you know what she wants? By reaching, pointing, making purposeful sounds?     
  • How does your child respond when you mirror her expressions?
  • Sometimes parents "just know" something about their child-she's hungry, she's thirsty, she's tired. How do you know these things about your child?
  • What are some of the things your child enjoys doing with you? With other family members and close friends?