Many discussions about quality in education and care services include at some point—often as a summary statement—the assertion that ‘in the end, it’s all about relationships’. This is likely to occur whether the topic is pedagogy, leadership, community connections, staff relationships, links with other services and professionals or family partnerships.
Is this ‘throw-away line’ accurate? If it is, might it become an excuse for mediocre curriculum?
Strong, warm, positive individualised relationships between educators and children are fundamental, the cornerstone upon which good programs for each child are built. However, does this strongly held belief sometimes interfere with pedagogy—that is, with offering excellent learning opportunities to children?
Children’s relationships are highlighted as critically important in Belonging, Being and Becoming and My Time, Our Place. Emphasis is on not only educator-child relationships but also children’s relationships with each other. I wonder if time-poor educators, weary of so much change and the many demands made of them, are tempted to invoke the primacy of relationships as a rationale for settling for the ‘same-old, same-old’ learning opportunities and ways of doing things: Play-doh, Lego, the painting easel, a book corner, water and sand, progressive lunches (or not). Might it be tempting to ease comfortably into thinking that relationships are what matter most, and we have good relationships with children and families and children enjoy good relationships with each other—and that’s enough—end of story?
It takes mental and physical energy to be genuinely critically reflective, to strive to improve continually, to make changes and assess their effectiveness and, most importantly, to act—to practise mindfully rather than by sticking with the ‘same old, same old’.
Of course there will be times individual educators and even teams resort to coasting along for a time. But we’ve probably all known programs where the relationships were great but there wasn’t much happening that was dynamic and engaging to support children’s learning, where educators reassure themselves that they are warm, caring and responsive.
Being truly responsive, planning a program that takes account of each child’s uniqueness and supporting each child’s learning intentionally means knowing each child well. That won’t result from long-term ‘coasting along’. It requires considerable thoughtful attention, critical reflection and action. Although children are very good at ‘making do’, that is, making the most of a somewhat bland and boring situation (picture a child in the waiting room at the doctor’s surgery as evidence), they need a balance of new things to explore, learn about and play with as well as some ‘same-old, same-old’. There’s nothing wrong with the list above of standard traditional materials and learning opportunities, but if they’re offered day after day, month after month, in the same way then the program is probably solidly mediocre.
It’s not all about relationships—or is it? Is the importance of relationships in education and care services overrated?