When I meet new parents and their babies for the very first time, I’m transported back to when my husband and I stood right outside the very same infant door . . .
As I cradled Phoenix in my arms, he gazed innocently up at me, and then over to his father, who was juggling the jumbo pack of diapers and wipes. Phoenix’s joyful expression left me with a deep feeling of anxiety.
Little did he know that Mom and Dad were about to make a quick getaway.
Having worked at the center already for three years, we were not only familiar, but friends with Ms. Sadaria, his primary caregiver. Still, we were taken a bit by surprise when, on Day 1, she announced all too soon that it was perhaps time to say our goodbyes and head to work; we could come back in four hours—most of which we spent pretty much in tears. Anxiety and guilt swept us: Would Phoenix feel abandoned? Did he like Ms. Sadaria as much as we did? How would he adjust to the noise and bustle of child care after his quiet home life? Would he get lost in the shuffle? It didn’t help that we were sequestered in the office (did I mention we worked there?) and able to hear his cries of complaint. Now, nine years later, when I meet new parents on their very first day, I’m prepared to offer a shoulder to cry on, empathy for their experience, and words of support. Recently, however, we have found that this has become less and less necessary—leaving one to ponder, what has changed over the last nine years?
Either parents are more eager to get back to work (unlikely) or they are confident that having their infant enrolled at Little Learners Lodge (LLL) is a very nice or great start in life. Since we pride ourselves on our ability to establish trust with both parents and infants, we’ll conclude the latter. So, why the jump in confidence? Let’s back up a little here, to understand why trust is at the core of everything we do . . . When Magda Gerber began working with infants and families in the United States, she developed an approach she called Educaring, the philosophical foundation for her organization, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE).
Magda worked with families to help parents better understand the developmental skills, needs, and unique interests of their babies and helped parents develop the awareness to respond appropriately. The American culture fascinated Magda, and she was surprised to find that with all the blessings found here, parents still struggled with how to support their infants in building trusting and secure relationships with adults.
When she visited our school, in the 1980s, she was further surprised to find that young babies were so often separated from their parents at such an early age. Magda insisted to school founder, Beverly Kovach, that infants belong with their families, and not in child care, until the age of two. A mental health practitioner by profession, Beverly agreed. Yet, as a working mother of two small children, Beverly also understood that future realities would make center-based care more of a norm than an exception. Beverly began to explore how to integrate the Educaring Approach with center-based care that balanced the needs of the infants, parents, caregivers, and school while establishing strong secondary relationships so that infant would thrive while away from their families.
Today, LLL serves as a program in RIE mentorship and, as such, adheres to RIE’s guidelines on things like teacher training and mentorship, group size, physical care routines, environmental preparation, and meeting the social-emotional/physical needs, abilities, and interests of the child responsibly and with respect. The road to certification is long and well worth the effort. And, as we’ve learned along the way, establishing the culture of trust with parents is key, a precursor to our establishing relationships based on care and trust with their babies.
The first step in meeting parents must be taken with great care—for if relationships matter, they are to be cultivated at the onset. LLL operates under one key premise: parents love their babies and want the very best start in life for them. It is our job, then, as infant practitioners, to listen, communicate, and help parents meet the individual needs of their babies when they are under our care. In that caring, we further develop the relationship established with the parent, and now the child, so that a mutual bond of trust and love is cemented. “Go slow. And then go slower.”
Magda would remind us of this tenet when we were working with babies. Well, the same holds true with their parents. In fact, integrating the core principles of the Educaring Approach—respectful, reciprocal, and responsive caregiving throughout the enrollment process—has resulted in establishing a mutually trusting partnership with parents. It also enables us the opportunity to meet and establish a relationship with infants prior to that first school encounter. From our first contact with families to the first day they leave their child in our care is about a year-long process, which looks something like this:
First Contact: Expectant parents make that first inquiry to gather information about infant care programs. These inquiries are met as an opportunity for learning by our RIE-trained infant care specialists. A brief discussion regarding the center’s core values and daily experiences introduces new parents to the concept of RIE, and parents are referred to the school and RIE websites. In meeting both parents at the onset, we are able to dialogue about our core values, beliefs, and expectations around babies. Any differing opinions may even have an opportunity to be flushed out and addressed before baby gets caught up in the middle.
Open House: Each month, LLL offers an introductory presentation of RIE at the school, which serves as an Open House. Parents are able to visit the school facility, meet infant caregivers, and watch a presentation and video of the center’s implementation of RIE. This affords the adults additional time to examine our value system in an effort to make sure that the family and the caregivers are on the same page. Additionally, we are able to demonstrate caregiving routines that can help parents and caregivers to be more consistent with each other. When routines are more predictable for babies, they can feel refueled from the emotional connection with the adult, whether it is a family member or a primary caregiver. Both parents are invited to attend, and if the infant has been born, we often have an opportunity to meet the baby for the very first time.
Individual Tour: After attending an Open House, prospective families can now tour the facility. This hour-long individual time allows families and the RIE-trained administrator to talk about core values and begin to deepen the relationship established at first contact. Parents observe caregiving routines in action and are guided in sensitive observations while theory is put into practice. We are also able to gather important prenatal information from the parents if they are expecting, and, if the baby has arrived, get to know more about him or her personally. After this experience, families are given the opportunity to register their child in the program.
Registration: When they register, prospective families receive a copy of Your Self-Confident Baby (Gerber & Johnson, 2012) and RIE membership. Whether we have met the new baby yet or not, the family is considered a part of our school community. Periodically, we host Parent Education nights or social events, which we encourage registered families to attend. Often, caregivers are present during these events, which enable interaction in what will soon become a daily triad of partnership in care for the infant.
Communication: Each month, parents are contacted by phone by the Infant Supervisor. Unless families enroll in our Parent-Infant classes, this serves as our primary communication prior to the warming-in time, when we begin the process of acquainting the child with his or her caregiver and the environment.
Enrollment: Approximately three months prior to the baby’s first day, we set warming-in dates and assign the baby’s Primary Caregiver. Parents are invited to observe the environment again and are encouraged to take our Parent-Infant classes, which meet weekly, eight weeks prior to their baby’s start date. What an amazing opportunity for baby and caregiver to interact and get to know one another prior to that first day of school!
And then, two weeks before the baby’s first day, the family comes to LLL with their child for the very first time during daily operation. Slowly, we extend the amount of time we spend together with the baby from one hour to two, and then, perhaps, without Mom or Dad, and then for a half day, until finally, when baby is ready to start full-time, she has had an opportunity to establish a rapport with the person who will care for her primarily over the next two years while she is enrolled.
After our having taken those initial opportunities to develop a rapport and bridge between home and school life, the first day of child care is more apt to go something like:
“Good morning, nice to see you again.” Ms. Sadaria greets parents and their baby on the first day. “We have Suzanna’s personal items ready for her; you may recall where they are kept—in the cubby next to the diaper-changing area.” Suzanna’s parents place her on her back in the solarium and let her know they’ll be right back as they put her change of clothes away. She glances over at baby Noah, perhaps recognizing him from Parent-Infant Guidance classes, and then over to Ms. Sadaria, with whom she is now becoming familiar. When her parents return, they sit comfortably on the floor next to Suzanna and discuss the previous evening and morning. When it is time, Mom and Dad say their good-byes—both parents and child seem comfortable in the established routine. While there still may be tears and sadness over separation, both parents and caregiver are confident Suzanna’s needs will be met, having already spent so much time together. Ms. Sadaria will spend the next few weeks getting better acquainted with Suzanna’s cues.
By their first day, parent partnerships and respectful relationships are now well established and we’re already well on the way to developing new RIE advocates. And Suzanna, who will be with Ms. Sadaria for the next two years, is well on her way to becoming a self-confident baby.
Nicole Vigliotti is the Executive Director of Little Learners Lodge in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where the infant and toddler rooms are RIE-Certified.
Published in Educaring, 31(1), Spring 2010.
Gerber, M., & Johnson, A. (2012). Your Self-confident Baby: How to Encourage YourChild’s Natural Abilities—From the Very Start. New York, NY: John Wiley &