Rocking and Rolling. The More We Get Together: How Continuity Nurtures Relationships in the Infant-Toddler Setting
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Luis’ mom, Karina, walks into his classroom. Luis (age 24 months) immediately drops his mother’s hand and runs to his teacher, Molly, for a hug. She asks him about his birthday over the weekend. Luis, his mom, and his teacher have been together for almost 18 months and have an easy rapport. Karina hangs Luis’ lunchbox on a hook, then finds his favorite puzzle and sets it up at the table, where Molly sits with several other children. Molly asks Karina how her new job is going, and Karina shares that she may be getting to pickup a little later than normal due to a change in the bus schedule. “Don’t worry,” Molly says. “Luis and I love hanging out together. Right, buddy?”
Building strong partnerships with families offers tangible benefits for everyone involved, especially the infants and toddlers at the center of our work. Often, our work to establish deeper relationships with children and families is included in a larger effort aimed at providing continuity of care, or “programming and policies that ensure children and families are consistently engaged in high-quality early learning experiences through stable relationships with [early childhood educators] who are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs” (Reidt-Parker & Chainski 2020). This practice most often entails keeping children and educators together for more than one year, and often for the first three years of the child’s life (Theilheimer 2006).
As the field has come to understand the link between adult-child relationships and healthy development, there is a growing commitment among infant and toddler programs to provide greater stability and consistency for children and families. Understanding why and how to implement a continuity of care approach can inspire positive and responsive changes for all—early childhood educators, families, and children.
Benefits of Continuity for Children
Children can form secure attachments with more than one caregiver and, ideally, do. Attachment theory, first proposed by John Bowlby (1969) and further developed by Mary Ainsworth, provides compelling evidence that stronger relationships among all the adults in a child’s life support children’s healthy development. Ainsworth (1963) described attachment as a secure base from which to explore—meaning that children enjoy a safe, dependable, consistent relationship in their lives that offers both the encouragement to move out into the world and a safe “home base” to return to when needed. When all of the essential adults in a child’s life are providing a consistent, nurturing relationship for them to grow within and explore from, young children are well positioned to learn and thrive.
Research has found that continuity of care enhances teachers’ knowledge of individual children, which encourages more focused and individualized interactions. The approach has also been shown to support steady developmental progress for children (McMullen 2017; 2018). In addition, infants and toddlers in environments that intentionally promote continuity of care display fewer behavioral concerns than the children in more traditional settings (Ruprecht, Elicker, & Choi 2015).
Benefits of Continuity for Early Childhood Educators
Studies focused on continuity of care indicate that it may strengthen teachers’ knowledge of child development and learning as they observe a consistent group of children over an extended period of time (up to three years) (McMullen 2017; 2018). Furthermore, continuity of care leads to fewer transitions and interruptions in teacher-child relationships. This contributes to decreased stress for both educators and families (McMullen 2018).
Because teachers and children spend more time together, continuity of care deepens the relationships between them. This can contribute to a teacher’s sense that their job is “emotionally and ideologically rewarding” as they see firsthand how their care is directly and positively impacting children (Reidt-Parker & Chainski 2020, 6). This satisfaction is thought to contribute to increased teacher-retention rates, which are critically important for early childhood education more broadly and for continuity of care settings specifically (Reidt-Parker & Chainski 2020).
Benefits of Continuity for Families
McMullen (2017; 2018) notes that continuity of care contributes to a family-like program culture, with warm relationships unfolding between the adults that “[mirror] feelings they have for close friends and family members” (2018, 48). Settings like these also make it more likely that families feel comfortable advocating for their children, which research indicates they do.
Understanding why and how to implement a continuity of care approach can inspire positive and responsive changes for early childhood educators, families, and children.
Because of the community that arises in programs using this practice, families also tend to experience an increase in their social capital. Social capital describes “the collective value of social networks . . . and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other” (Reidt-Parker & Chainski 2020, 4). Essentially, stronger social networks mean that families have others to turn to for help and support when needed and that they reciprocate by giving such help to others when asked.
Strategies for Providing Continuity of Care
Ideally, continuity of care is achieved when children remain with the same early childhood educator and with the same group of children for up to three years. While many programs find this approach challenging to implement, some of the strategies below—gathered from growing research—can be tried as initial steps to support consistency, relationship security, and family partnerships.
- Amplify efforts aimed at teacher retention. Wages are the strongest predictor of staff turnover in early childhood settings (Caven 2021), so paying the most competitive wages possible can assist with retention. Seeking innovative strategies to enhance compensation, such as bonuses for completion of specific milestones (e.g., a professional development certification), may also help.
- Minimize disruptions to teachers’ group or room assignments. Programs that avoid switching teacher assignments unless absolutely necessary promote continuity and reduce attachment interruptions for children and families. (Reidt-Parker & Chainski 2020).
- Align schedules to promote educator-family connections. Children often stay later in a program than their teachers do. To maximize the likelihood that families and educators have an opportunity to connect each day, programs can explore using schedules that ensure one lead teacher is present at morning drop-off and one is present at pickup.
- Keep group sizes as small as possible. In general, the total number of children in a group is a significant indicator of quality (Miranda 2017). Smaller group sizes promote more individualized, responsive care because teachers have the time, capacity, and emotional bandwidth to get to know each child.
- Consider mixed-age groups. Grouping children of different ages—for example, combining infants, 1-, and 2-year-olds in the same room or grouping as licensing permits—prevents the unnecessary interruption that occurs when children are required to move from one age group to another. Instead, it allows children to transition based on their development and learning.
- Acknowledge and support families through transitions. When transitions to new teachers or peer groups do occur, acknowledge the loss inherent in these changes. Partner with families to discuss what supports their children (and they) may want or need as they move to a new teacher and classroom. While this may look different for each child, include practices such as a transitional family-educator conference during which the current early childhood educator, the new one, and the family meet to discuss the child and the change. Supports could also include “playdates” in the new environment, a “lunch bunch” with new peers before the transition, and a gradual transition into the new setting.
- Use multiple modes of communication to connect with families. Continuity invites the building of long-term relationships with families, and regular communication is an important part of those family connections. Depending on culture, access, and preference, families will differ in how they want to receive program communication. Many early educators now use apps, portals, or messaging services to share information, photos, and videos with families. Some continue to use take-home journals as a communication tool. Ask families if these approaches are working for them, what information they want about their children that they may not be receiving, and what formats they prefer.
- Expand the enrollment activities. Convene a work group of teachers and families to explore what information teachers need (but don’t have) about the children and families they’re serving and what information families want to share but are unsure how. Develop an enrollment questionnaire for newly registered children that explains the purpose of the tool, which is to establish stronger relationships with families from the outset. This will elicit deeper, more meaningful information about children that teachers can immediately use. Consider how enrollment activities, such as welcoming events and other materials, can be used to introduce the continuity of care model and support emerging educator-family relationships.
Learning about and from children and families can only happen once a meaningful relationship is in place. Building a program culture that promotes continuity for all—professionals, families, and children—encourages transformative and nurturing relationships over time. It is partnerships like these that allow for learning, for courageous conversations, and for the kind of high-quality care that helps infants and toddlers grow and thrive.
Think About It
- Were you ever close to a teacher? How did that person support you? What did that person do or say to make you feel special and important?
- What is your experience with continuity of care? What have you heard or observed about this model?
- What do you imagine are the benefits of continuity of care for children, for families, and for educators? What concerns do you have about this approach?
- Reflect on the children you have worked with over time. What developmental changes have you witnessed? What milestones have you observed? How does it feel to know that you play a role in children’s learning and development?
- Consider a family whose child is enrolled in your classroom. What do you know about this child and family? What might you want to learn from and about this family in order to better understand their child’s needs?
- With your colleagues, draft a questionnaire for newly enrolled families so you can learn more about their strengths, interests, questions, and needs. Talk with your program leadership about asking currently enrolled families to provide feedback on the questionnaire to refine it. After families complete the questions, make a plan for using this information as you care for their children.
- Consider how your program approaches the practice of transitioning children to a new teacher/room. What changes in practice or operations might promote greater continuity for both educators and children?
- Reflect on your relationships with the children in your setting. Which children have you known the longest? Has a longer relationship helped you understand their interests, strengths, and needs more clearly and meet these more consistently? In what ways?
- When a child/family you are very close to transitions to a new group or room, how do you feel? What might it feel like to know you could sustain these relationships over a period of years?
- Partner with leadership to suggest ways for families’ voices to be a bigger part of your program. Is your program assisted by a family council that gives guidance and feedback on program operations?
- Consider new pathways to eliciting the knowledge families hold about themselves, their children, and community. As you work with families over a period of years, this information will help you deepen your relationship with them and better understand how their strengths and needs may change over time.
Rocking and Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children.
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Ainsworth, M.D. 1963. “The Development of Infant-Mother Interaction Among the Ganda.” In Determinants of Infant Behavior, ed. B.M. Foss, 67–112. New York: Wiley.
Bowlby, J. 1969. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Caven, M. 2021. “Understanding Teacher Turnover in Early Childhood Education.” Accessed July 15, 2022. https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/understanding-ece-teacher-turnover/.
McMullen, M. 2018. “The Many Benefits of Continuity of Care. Young Children 73 (3): 38–39.
McMullen, M. 2017. “Continuity of Care with Infants and Toddlers. Child Care Exchange 39 (1): 46–50.
Miranda, B. 2017. “Higher Child-to-Staff Ratios Threaten the Quality of Child Care.” Child Trends. June 15, 2017. https://www.childtrends.org/blog/higher-child-staff-ratios-threaten-quality-child-care.
Reidt-Parker, J., & M.J. Chainski. 2020. “The Importance of Continuity of Care: Policies and Practices in Early Childhood Systems and Programs.” Start Early: Champions for Early Learning. https://www.startearly.org/app/uploads/2020/09/PUBLICATION_NPT-Continuity-of-Care-Nov-2015.pdf.
Ruprecht, K., J. Elicker, & J.Y. Choi. 2015. “Continuity of Care, Caregiver-Child Interactions, and Toddler Social Competence and Problem Behaviors.” Early Education and Development 27 (2): 221–239.
Theilheimer, R. 2006. “Molding to the Children: Primary Caregiving and Continuity of Care.” Zero to Three 26 (3): 50–54.
Rebecca Parlakian is the senior director of programs at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed a video series on early STEM and coauthored a recently released early math curriculum supplement. Rebecca has also coauthored five parenting and professional curricula and published articles on topics ranging from dual language development to the impact of screens on very young children. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her most important work in child development, however, is her two children, Ella and Bennett.