Behavior & Environment

The Power of Responsive Interactions

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Engagement between children and caregivers through responsive interactions is what developmental researchers at Center on the Developing Child at Harvard have coined as “Serve-and-Return” interactions. This is the way that infants bond and learn from the caregivers in their lives through a back-and-forth exchange. Let’s look at an example: an infant looks at the adult in the eyes, the adult responds by making a kissy face, and the infant copies by making a kissy face, and then the adult smiles in response and says “yes, that’s a beautiful kissy face!” —this interaction shows the child that they are safe, loved, and helps children’s brains form connections related to listening to sounds in native language, reading facial expressions, and the sense of security that they will need for future learning.

If you pull back the lens and look at this back-and-forth interaction from a high level, we see that older children also serve or signal their needs, only they do it in different ways. They serve through misdirected behavior, through challenging every request we have of them, through asking us to play their favorite game for the 10th time when we only have five minutes to get out the door. They signal their need for connection in ways we often miss or can’t respond to because we’re focused on handling whatever is happening in the moment.

The good news is that with older kids, we have more ways to be responsive and they have a greater capacity to store and tap into feelings of love, belonging, importance and value, sustaining them when we need a bit of time to be present, connected and responsive. So be on the lookout for when your older kids are serving or signaling their needs. If we can recognize their serves, we can return in ways that are deeply meaningful to kids.