Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning

Promoting Children's Success: Building Relationships and Creating Supportive Environments

Building Positive Relationships with Young Children

Gail E. Joseph, Ph.D., & Phillip S. Strain, Ph.D.
Center on Evidence Based Practices for Early Learning University of Colorado at Denver

The fundamental importance of building positive relationships with children can be best illustrated by the following scenarios.

Helen and her 30-month-old daughter, Lucy, have a long-standing morning tradition of going to a neighborhood park and playing with other parents and children. They spend anywhere from 1 to 2 hours each day at the park. This day, however, Helen receives an emergency call and needs to return to their home immediately. She and Lucy have been at the park for about 10 minutes, and Lucy is playing “cooks” with her best friend Tito. Helen says to Lucy, “Honey, I’m sorry, but you and Mommy have to go home right now. Everything is O.K., but we have to go.” Lucy begins to whimper and says, “But, I was playing with Tito.” Helen reaches down and hugs Lucy, saying, “I know. Let’s call Tito’s mommy when we get home and invite him over to play later.” Lucy says, “O.K.,” and she and her mom hurry home.

Eric has been a Head Start teacher for 10 years. In that time, he has built a reputation as the teacher for the tough kids. This year, Bill is assigned to Eric’s class because of Bill’s long history of hyperactivity, negativity, and aggression toward adults and peers. Two months into the year, the Center’s administrator sheepishly asks Eric how things are going with Bill. Eric replies, “Great, boy were folks wrong about Bill.” Somewhat flabbergasted, the administrator decides to see for himself. What he observes in less that 10 minutes is as follows. Eric says to everyone, “Look at Bill, he is sitting so quietly in circle; too cool Bill!” When Bill answers a question about the story, Eric says, “Bill, that’s right, you are really concentrating today.” When transition is about to occur, Eric says, “Bill, can you show everyone good walking feet to snack?” At snack, a peer asks Bill for juice, and he passes the container. Eric, being vigilant, says, “Bill, thanks for sharing so nicely.”

After completing a functional behavior assessment, Erin, an ECSE teacher, determines that Jessie’s longstanding tantrum behaviors in the class are designed to acquire adult attention. Erin institutes a plan to ignore Jessie’s tantrums and to spend as much time and attention when Jessie is not having a tantrum. After four days of increased tantrums, Jessie’s behavior has improved dramatically.

In each of the foregoing scenarios, adults were successful in achieving improved behavior change in contexts that many individuals might predict would lead to continuing, even escalating challenging behavior. However, in each case, children were obviously attuned to adults, focused on their communication, and prone to value and seek-out adult approval. In each case, the adults had invested time and effort prior to the events in question, communicating their noncontingent affection and unquestioned valuing of these children. We submit that this prior history of positive relationship building is a prerequisite to effective intervention practices for challenging behavior and thus goal one for adults and caregivers wishing to prevent challenging behavior and enhance children’s sense of well-being and social competence. How does one go about the task of relationship building?

Building Positive Relationships

Building positive relationships with young children is an essential task and a foundational component of good teaching. All children grow and thrive in the context of close and dependable relationships that provide love and nurturance, security, and responsive interactions. A positive adult-child relationship built on trust, understanding, and caring will foster children’s cooperation and motivation and increase their positive outcomes at school (Webster-Stratton, 1999). In a review of empirically derived risk and protective factors associated with academic and behavioral problems at the beginning of school, Huffman et al. (2000) identified that having a positive preschool experience and a warm and open relationship with their teacher or child care provider are important protective factors for young children. These protective factors operate to produce direct, ameliorative effects for children in at-risk situations (Luthar, 1993). Next, we describe some of the key ingredients for relationship building.

First Things First

Utilizing a relationship-building model, proper sequencing of adult behavior is critical. Simply put, adults need to invest time and attention with children as a precedent to the optimum use of sound behavior change strategies. There are two reasons that this sequence is so important. First, it should be noted that the protective factors promoted during relationship building can and do function to reduce many challenging behaviors. As such, taking the time to do relationship building may save time that would be spent implementing more elaborate and time-consuming assessment and intervention strategies. Second, as adults build positive relationships with children, their potential influence on children’s behavior grows exponentially. That is, children cue in on the presence of meaningful and caring adults, they attend differentially and selectively to what adults say and do, and they seek out ways to ensure even more positive attention from adults (Lally, Mangione, & Honig, 1988). It is this positive relationship foundation that allowed Helen with minimal effort to leave the park early with Lucy, for Eric to experience Bill in a much more positive way than prior teachers, and for Erin to alter Jessie’s tantrums in such short order.

Getting to Know You

In order for adults to build meaningful positive relationships with children, it is essential to gain a thorough understanding of children’s preferences, interests, background, and culture. For very young children and children with special needs, this information is most often accessed by observing what children do and by speaking directly to parents and other caregivers. With this information, adults can ensure that their play with children is fun, that the content of their conversations is relevant, and that they communicate respect for children’s origins. Whenever possible, this kind of information exchange should be as reciprocal as possible. That is, adults should be sharing their own interests, likes, backgrounds, and origins with children as well.

It Takes a Lot of Love

For many children, developing positive relationships with adults is a difficult task. Prior negative history and interfering behavior often conspire to make the task of relationship development long and arduous. On occasion then, adults should consider that they will need to devote extensive effort to relationship building. The easiest, most straightforward way to achieve a high level of intervention intensity in the relationship-building domain is to think about embedding opportunities throughout the day (see list below for specific suggestions). While there is no magic number that we know of, we have seen teachers who can easily provide several dozen positive, affirming statements to children each day. For children who have mostly heard criticism, it takes, we feel, a lot of messages to the contrary.

Making Deposits

Figure 1
Figure 1. Making relationship deposits

Figure 2
Figure 2. Making relationship withdrawals

A metaphor for building positive relationships that we find particularly helpful is that of a piggy bank. Whenever teachers and caregivers engage in strategies to build positive relationships, it is as if they are “making a deposit” in a child’s relationship piggy bank. Conversely, when adults make demands, nag, or criticize children, it is as if they are making a relationship withdrawal. For some children, because there has been no prior effort to make deposits in their relationship piggy bank, nagging, criticism, and demands may be more akin to writing bad checks! It may be helpful to reflect on the interactions you have with an individual child and think to yourself, “Am I making a deposit or a withdrawal?” Or, “Have I made any deposits in Bill’s piggy bank today?” Figures 1 and 2 represent example deposits (Figure 1) in the relationship bank or withdrawals (Figure 2) from the bank.

Undoubtedly teachers and child care providers strive to build positive relationships with all of the children in their care. Typically, we have the best relationships with children who respond to us, seemingly like us, and go along with our plans. But as you know, it is more difficult to build positive relationships with some children than with others. We have all had experience with children who push our “hot buttons.” Maybe they demand more attention than others, are disruptive, unmotivated, oppositional, aggressive, or do not give us the positive feedback we get from others. When our hot buttons get pushed, we may feel frustrated and discouraged, or bad about ourselves as teachers, causing us to get angry, raise our voices, criticize, or actively avoid these children. Yet, the very children we find the most difficult to build relationships with are the ones who need positive relationships with adults the most! It is a natural reaction to feel emotional when a hot button is pushed. However, rather than feeling frustrated, angry, or guilty about it, it is more productive to think of the emotional response as a warning sign that you will have to work extra hard to proactively build a positive relationship with this child. If the adult is simply reacting to a hot button being pushed—he or she may consistently become frustrated and avoid the child. We recognize that building positive relationships is far from simple with some children. It takes a frequently renewed commitment and consistent effort. Because this is easier said than done, we have provided some practical strategies for building positive relationships with children throughout the preschool day.

Practical Strategies for Building Positive Relationships

  • Distribute interest surveys that parents fill out about their child
  • Greet every child at the door by name
  • Follow a child’s lead during play
  • Have a conversation over snack
  • Conduct home visits
  • Listen to a child’s ideas and stories and be an appreciative audience
  • Send positive notes home
  • Provide praise and encouragement
  • Share information about yourself and find something in common with the child
  • Ask children to bring in family photos and give them an opportunity to share it with you and their peers
  • Post children’s work
  • Have a “Star” of the week who brings in special things from home and gets to share them during circle time
  • Acknowledge a child’s effort
  • Give compliments liberally
  • Call a child’s parents to say what a great day she or he having in front of the child
  • Find out what a child’s favorite book is and read it to the whole class
  • Have sharing days
  • Make “all about me” books and share them at circle time
  • Write all of the special things about a child on a T-shirt and let him or her wear it
  • Play a game with a child
  • Play outside with a child
  • Ride the bus with a child
  • Go to an extracurricular activity with the child
  • Learn a child’s home language
  • Give hugs, high fives, and thumbs up for accomplishing tasks
  • Hold a child’s hand
  • Call a child after a bad day and say “I’m sorry we had a bad day today – I know tomorrow is going to be better!”
  • Tell a child how much he or she was missed when the child misses a day of school

Beyond the specific strategies enumerated above, we suggest that adults can speed the process of relationship building by:

  • Carefully analyzing each compliance task (e.g., “time to go to paints”) and, where possible, shifting that compliance task to a choice for children (e.g., “Do you want to paint or do puzzles?”);
  • Carefully considering if some forms of “challenging” behavior can be ignored (e.g., loud voice)—this is not planned ignoring for behavior designed to elicit attention but ignoring in the sense of making wise and limited choices about when to pick battles over behavior; and
  • Self-monitoring one’s own deposits and withdrawal behaviors and setting behavioral goals accordingly. Some teachers have easily done this by using wrist golf counters to selfrecord or by moving a plastic chip from one pocket to the next. A strategically posted visual reminder can help teachers remember to make numerous relationship deposits.


Most of this article has focused on what children get out of positive relationships with adults. However, we contend that adults get something valuable out of the time and attention they expend to build these meaningful relationships too. First, as was mentioned earlier, the children we build relationships with will be easier to teach, more compliant, and less likely to engage in challenging behavior. Second, teachers will feel more positive about their skills, their effort – and we think may like their jobs even more. Third, adults will begin to see the “ripple effect” of relationship building. As children learn in the context of caring relationships with adults, they will become more skilled at building positive relationships with other children. Finally, providing a child with the opportunity to have a warm and responsive relationship with you means that you have the pleasure of getting to know the child as well.


Huffman, L., Mehlinger, S.L., & Kerivan, A.S. (2000). Risk factors for academic and behavioral problems at the beginning of school. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.

Lally, J.R., Mangione, P.L., & Honig, A.S. (1988). The Syracuse University Family Development Research Program: Long-range impact of an early intervention with low-income children and their families. In D.R. Powell & I.E. Sigel (Eds.), Parent education as early childhood intervention: Emerging directions in theory, research and practice (pp. 79-104). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Luthar, S.S. (1993). Annotations: Methodological and conceptual issues in research on childhood resilience. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34 (4), 441-453.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1999). How to promote children’s social and emotional competence. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.

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