Children, Youth, Families & Schools, Nebraska Center for Research on


Date of this Version



Gerdes, J., Durden, T., & Poppe, L. (2013, June). The Role of Relationships in the Primary Years. NebGuide G2201. University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.


Copyright University of Nebraska 2013


Supporting a child’s healthy social and emotional growth takes commitment from all primary caregivers in the child’s life. This includes mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, and other key adults.

For many years, researchers have discussed the importance of attachment in early childhood. It is widely accepted that relationships are an important part of healthy developmental processes.

A wealth of research supports the need for strong, safe, and secure teacher-child relationships. We know that relationships are essential to learning, and that developmental achievements are the result of interactions with other people and with objects. Forgoing attention to the quality of the teacher-child relationship disputes the evidence from brain research regarding effective practice, which indicates that teacher-child interactions are a key element to learning academic skills.

One of the functions of the limbic system is that of the “relationship center” of the brain (Figure 1). The limbic system drives children’s motivation, emotion, and feelings. Thus, a child who has a good relationship with his or her teacher will feel safer and is more motivated to learn.

The authors of From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000) say this about the role of relationships in the lives of young children:

“Despite their diversity, however, all young children seem to require certain things from early abiding relationships. These include:

a) reliable support that establishes confident security in the adult,

b) responsiveness that strengthens a young child’s sense of agency and self-efficacy,

c) protection from the harms that children fear and the threats of which they may be unaware,

d) affection by which young children develop self-esteem,

e) opportunities to experience and resolve human conflict cooperatively,

f) support for the growth of new skills and capabilities that are within the child’s reach,

g) reciprocal interaction by which children learn the mutual give and take of positive sociability, and

h) the experience of being respected by others and respecting them as human beings.

In these ways, relationships shape the development of selfawareness, social competence, conscience, emotional growth and emotion regulation, learning and cognitive growth, and a variety of other foundational developmental accomplishments.” (pgs. 264-265)