Will they hug my child?

The image of a three-year-old standing in the middle of a Hula Hoop in order to social distance jars uncomfortably with the Early Years teacher. It challenges the idea of attachment which is one of the first child development theories all Early Years teachers learn as students. From the early work of British Psychologist, John Bowlby to modern neuroscientists such as Alison Gopnik we learn that creating a safe haven, where children can test their emotional boundaries supported by warm, sensitive and reassuring adults is crucial for children to develop healthy attachments and a powerful predictor of a child’s later social and emotional outcome. The theories of attachment have resulted in nursery practice which include the settling in procedure, the role of the “key person”, and the importance of transition.

Lady hugging son Image by feeeling_blue from Pixabay 

More recently Love has been added to the Early Years lexicon.  People ask what it looks like, how does it differ from care and how is it formed between a child and her teacher? As someone who has worked with children for over 30 years, it’s easy to spot.

It’s the joyful, warm and happy responses which are formed when two people see each other, and it always involves a big hug. In fact, many studies have shown that the majority of staff working with children have a very positive, confident attitude to using professionally loving practices such as hugging and sensitive touch to build security and attachment with children.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and many nurseries were forced to temporarily close, the overwhelming need to keep in touch and send virtual hugs became even more important which is why daily Zoom calls with children, their teachers and their friends provided this essential connection with other human beings.

It was also interesting to discover how many parents were surprised to learn just how much their children (many as young as two years old) missed the love and warmth of their friends especially as on their return to nursery and arriving in their bubble, the first thing every child did after washing their hands was to give each other a hug.

Early Years settings are places where we can create empathy and kindness and it’s the manifestation of these loving relationships which are built from a strong understanding of attachment. Of course, being kind and empathetic is also good for adults. According to medical science it can make us feel happier, improves our mood and lowers our blood pressure.

Better still is seeing someone else smiling or being kind, which automatically activates the same areas of our own brain. The hug, the sensitive arm around a shoulder, the pat on the head and the snuggles as we read stories are not just something to be decided at will – they all form part of feelings of safety, happiness, and more. These are integral human behaviours which are central to every child’s ability to learn to attach.

As we all try and get used to the new normal and follow the necessary government social distancing guidance, it remains our duty as Early Years staff to do everything we can to create safe and loving spaces for children filled with kindness and of course, a hug.

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