An Open Letter to Childhood Professionals and Teachers

photo of child with physical disability in sensory stimulating room with 2 adults

In the year 2000, the National Academy of Sciences collaborated with the National Research Council to publish a report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (National Research Council & Institute of Medicine, 2000). After intensively evaluating the latest science, a select committee made comprehensive recommendations based on four overarching themes:

  1. All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn.
  2. Early environments matter, and nurturing relationships are essential.
  3. Society is changing, and the needs of young children still need to be addressed.
  4. Interactions among early childhood science, policy, and practice are problematic and demand dramatic rethinking.

Over two decades later, we still need to turn these themes into standards of practice. Of course, doing so will require more than reports or funding. At a core level, it will demand a shift in thinking about emotions and relationships as part of a foundational construct that cuts across all work with children. This will require every member of a child’s team—from pediatricians and administrators to speech therapists and teachers, occupational therapists and classroom aides, and all health providers—to understand their critical roles in supporting children’s social and emotional development.

While your role in a child and family’s emotional life may not appear obvious, everyone on a child’s team can apply relationship-based principles in different ways.

Consider these ideas for professionals who serve specific functions on a child’s team:


Your relationship with both parent and child matters. When you establish a relationship considerate of the individual emotional needs of parents, children directly benefit. For parents, it’s essential to trust the people who care for, teach, and treat their child.

When a parent feels comfortable with her child’s teachers, it improves her interactions with the child and her ability to bolster the child’s self-confidence. When a provider or parent feels understood and comfortable, we see this carried through in interactions with the child. It’s a parallel process. A caring and empathic relationship with parents (within professional boundaries) sets the tone for their child’s developmental readiness. Children pick up on their parents’ sense of emotional comfort with those entrusted to their care. 

Teachers influence how well students adapt to the school environment and manage stress. We have repeatedly seen how relationships buffer stress and provide children a soft place to land when they struggle. Although you are responsible for a whole classroom of children, working to help each child feel safe and secure reaps rewards. Feeling safe with others is critical to any human’s mental health and ability to learn (Porges, 2011; Van der Kolk, 2014). 

One way to help children feel safe is to assume the best in them. While we often hypothesize that children misbehave to seek “negative attention” or that inconsistent discipline leads to bad habits, a better explanation is that challenging behaviors are stress responses to feeling misunderstood or adaptations to physiological needs. When we give children the benefit of the doubt and approach behaviors with an open mind, we support emotional development, trust, and regulation.


As the bearer of “news” in the form of a diagnosis or decision that a child qualifies for services, evaluators influence parents’ appraisals of their child, which in turn affect parents’ own stress levels. If you perform assessments exclusively, you may meet a child or family only briefly.   That doesn’t offer the luxury of developing a relationship with a child or parent over the time it takes to see the child’s highest level of functioning. Still, you can gather other sources of information, including:

  • Using and trusting anecdotal data from parents and asking what the child can do in “real life” in addition to using standardized testing.
  • Requesting video recordings from caregivers that show child’s highest level of functioning in his natural environments.
  • Helping the parent and child feel comfortable in your presence while they explore your clinic or office or play together during evaluations.

When we employ relationship-based principles, we prioritize emotional regulation—for both parent and child. Doing so raises the probability that the child will feel comfortable interacting with the evaluator in the loving presence of the caregiver. In turn, the evaluator will most likely see the child’s highest level of functioning under the condition of safety, which is the most appropriate baseline and guide for future goals and services.

Finally, when evaluators offer families a positive interpersonal experience, they can set the tone for a treatment process involving many professionals and organizations over many years. Working with compassion, empathy, and interpersonal warmth provides a valuable buffer to stress that will serve children and families well beyond the actual assessment process.

Relational Engagement as a Shared Responsibility

When professionals view social and emotional development as a shared responsibility rather than a subspecialty of the mental health field, we gain a more global perspective. Even though we perform particular tasks, we are all part of the larger relational environment that shapes, influences, and supports children’s development. When our various fields coalesce around this principle, it becomes a common thread that has the potential to unify early-childhood professionals across all disciplines.

Excerpted from Delahooke, Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention 

I share more about how we can all work together in Beyond Behaviors, Brain-Body Parenting and in my online parent-provider support community, The Parenting Collective. 

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Hi Mona, Great article! In my book De traumasensitieve school I will mention this article. I think it’s important for teachers to know!

The parent angle is so missed in many conversation – so happy you brought it up at forefront .