In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we connect with Erin O’Connor, developmental psychologist, Director of NYU’s Early Childhood Education program, and co-founder of Scientific Mommy, a research-based website for families and educators to learn more about parenting and child development.
Erin dives into parent and educator relationships and explains that these relationships are so important across the developmental spectrum. She mentions that parents who report having positive relationships with their children’s teacher in early childhood often report having a positive relationship later in life when their child is in high school and beyond.
Beginning in early childhood, a positive relationship is really based on trust and communication.Dr. Erin O’Connor
By being open and honest with one another, parents and educators forming these positive relationships lead to more open lines of communication. When educators feel more comfortable with their parents, they’re going to feel more comfortable sharing the details about what goes on in their classroom and how their child is developing and bringing up concerns and positive interactions.
Dr. O’Connor states that having consistent relationships and clear expectations between families and educators will eliminate any confusion or unclear communication. Parents should also be mindful of their verbal and non-verbal communication to their child’s educator and about their child’s educator especially in front of their children. This can communicate to your child that the school enviornment that they’re in is an environment that you may not necessarily trust or is safe for them.
Families who are new to the child care sector can get off on the right foot with their educators by asking your child’s teacher how they are most comfortable being contacted. This may be through email, phone, or through a child care app, finding out how the educator wants to be contacted and how often is a great way to set boundaries and get on the same page with one another.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships, but Erin shares with our listeners several ways educators and families can work through conflict:
- Reflect on the conflict and work through it rather than avoiding it.
- As a parent, acknowledge that the educator does have expertise in education and child development and respect it.
- For both parents and educators, avoid using “jargon”, create a level playing field in your communication lines to avoid belittling or confusion between the parties.
- As an educator, stay solution-oriented. Focus on the end goal and what you want the families to help you with their children.
- If the conversation gets heated or off-topic, offer to reschedule when both parties are more focused on the end goal and calmer.
There has been research that begins to show that children who have positive relationships with their educators respond better physiologically to stressors in the classroom. Children often rely on their educator as a way to regulate their stress based on their educator’s reactions.
Erin explains that having a positive classroom environment is super impactful for children as well- administrators and director can play key roles in cultivating these types of environments too through:
- Creating trust and communication with all of your educators- it’s important for admins and directors to play a positive role in being seen as a source of knowledge.
- Be objective and approachable. Being open to getting educators feedback is super important in cultivating a positive environment.
- Provide professional development opportunities that engage educators with these topics of communication.
- Provide clear and evidence-based tips on how best to go about dealing with particular situations with families (rather than opinion-based).
If you’re curious to connect with Erin and check out her company, Scientific Mommy, you can visit her website for extensive resources and her Instagram for digestible and shareable bits of research-based information on child development!
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Episode 252 Transcripts:
When we think about why that relationship matters so much for children, there’s a lot of different sort of theoretical lenses to come from. But what it really seems to boil down to it is, children who feel like they have this sort of secure base to go to in the teacher are much more likely to engage in the classroom in terms of interacting with their peers, interacting with materials, taking risks.
Erin, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here today!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Dr. Erin O’Connor. She’s co-founder of Scientific Mommy. We’re going to talk to her today about lots of exciting things, including the parent-teacher connection. As we always do, Erin, let’s start off learning a little bit about you.
Sure. Well, I am a developmental psychologist by training. And my quote-unquote day job, as I refer to it, is I’m a professor at NYU – which is New York University – where I also direct the early-childhood program.
And most recently, I co-founded Scientific Mommy with a colleague of mine, Robin Neuhaus, which its main goal is to really provide sort of bite-size, objective pieces of information about rigorous research that’s conducted on parenting, on child development, in the hopes of trying to take a little bit of the, I think, heightened anxiety around parenting that’s out there based on a lot of sort of more popular media reports or social media that really purports to do parenting the right way. And as we know, there’s not one right way and the research supports that. So really, the goal is to provide that research so that parents and practitioners can feel a little bit more at ease about a lot of the decisions that they make day-to-day.
Cool. And so that actually works out really well because you’re a professor at NYU in the early [childhood education] program. And you’re also working with parents and early-childhood educators to provide them with this information. Now, what are some of these examples, I guess, of things where we’ll see things in the media or social media as parents and we’re sort of freaking out about whether we’re being good parents, that science and research might say we don’t need to be so worried about?
So I think two of the sort of hottest topics in that regard are breast-feeding and sleep training. There are many, but I think those are the ones that often – at least speaking as a parent myself – sort of really get us anxious when we read a lot of what’s out there because so much of it is presented as “This is good,” or, “This is bad,” and so much of it lies in the middle.
So, I really wanted to start Scientific Mommy over a decade ago when I was pregnant with my first child. But sort of life intervened. But what really got me thinking was, there was so much at that time about how if a child wasn’t breastfed, it was going to have all these negative consequences for them. And I really felt that way as I was reading all this in the popular press. And then I started to worry, “What if it just wasn’t possible because of biological constraints or time constraints?”
So, I really start to delve into the research, which I’m lucky to have access to being at New York University. I can get into all these different databases; I can talk to people who have conducted some of this research. And while, yes, there are benefits, of course, the effect sizes or sort of the impact, as we evaluate it, is pretty small.
So, in relation to things like maternal depression, it’s much smaller. And it just started to get me thinking of how there’s so much pressure put on parents to do certain things. And if they can’t do it for whatever reasons, parents tend to feel guilty or depressed. And that, in turn, is what we don’t want for our children and our parents.
And that was what really sort of started me down that road because I also became much more involved in terms of working with parents of younger children because I had a younger child and I wanted to step out of the research for a little bit and become more of a practitioner. And I just learned that a lot of moms who were experiencing a lot of struggles around not being able to breastfeed for whatever reason.
So, that was where a lot of it started for me. And then as my children got a little older and I also started working in different environments, a lot of anxiety seemed to be around sleep training and whether to do it; how to do it; if you do it, it’s bad; if you don’t do it, it’s bad. And what the research says, of course, is it’s all based on a multitude of different factors.
And again it comes down to parental sensitivity being a much stronger predictor than sleep training, whether you do it or you don’t, on child outcomes. And I just really am passionate about helping parents not become anxious around what they do.
Yeah, and you’re right, there’s certainly a lot of anxiety over breastfeeding and sleep training, for sure. So already, hopefully, you’ve helped some of our listeners feel a little bit less anxious about those things if they’re dealing with them at the moment.
And one of the other things that we wanted to dive in with you a little bit further is on parent and teacher relationships. What does some of the information that you’ve seen in the sort of more academic community say about that?
So, the parent-teacher relationship is really so important for children’s development across the developmental spectrum for multiple reasons that we’ll talk about in a second. But I think what is sort of important to think about is how the research also shows that there is this sort of trajectory that a lot of parents and teachers sort of start on, beginning in early-childhood.
So, parents who report having positive relationships with their children’s teachers in early-childhood are often the same parents who are reporting those positive relationships when their children are juniors in high school. So, this really essential relationship for children’s lives is something that we have to think about in terms of sort of these dynamic models of how as parents and as teachers as we approach the relationship.
So, beginning in early-childhood, a positive relationship is really based on trust and communication. So, what the research shows is that not only by being open and honest with one another are teachers and parents forming positive relationships, but also these positive relationships lead to more open lines of communication so that when teachers feel comfortable with the parent, they’re more likely to share details about what goes on in the classroom, to bring up potential concerns that they might have, as well as positive things.
So, that’s one of the most sort of integral parts to this relationship. It’s also building this consistency across environments. So, especially in early-childhood, children are trying to figure out what others are really expecting of them. So, if they are at home, they find that their parents are expecting them to act one way. But then the school environment is very different from how they’re interacting with their parents at home. Sometimes that can be a little bit jarring.
So, if you’re used to sort of a more laid-back environment at home and then you go on to school, for example, and you’re calling your teacher by their first name and you’re sort of delving into conversations without waiting to necessarily be called on, that might be a little bit of a disconnect.
So, the more that we know as teachers sort of what is going on at home, we can try to build that consistent environment for children. And that way they can focus on things with their peers and investigating in the play quarter and not sort of trying to figure out how to navigate the situation of school.
And also just thinking about the models, like I was talking about, is that as parents we often sort of transmit to our kids how we feel, both verbally and nonverbally, about different contexts. So, if we are telling our kids that school is this great, safe place, but then they hear us talking to our partner about how “the teacher did this wrong” or they didn’t like how drop-off was handled, then that’s sort of communicating to the child in a way that you don’t necessarily feel that this is an environment where they’re safe and they can explore.
So, really thinking about how we approach the relationship through our interactions around our children, about their school environment and about their teacher is really important. And I just think that’s something that I think I struggle with and most parents do about just remembering that our kids are taking it all in.
Yeah, yeah, they’re definitely taking it all in, that’s for sure. I get reminded about that all the time with our three-year-old. And he also does definitely, I can confirm, behave very differently with his teacher than he does at home, including apparently he eats his broccoli with his teacher. Who knew?
Isn’t that always interesting? I’ve heard that from so many people. I’m told my child is this great eater. And it’s like, “Well, at home they’ll only eat mac and cheese!”
Yeah, exactly. And so you mentioned a bit about the importance of that relationship and why that’s so beneficial to open up the lines of communication, which makes so much sense. What about if you’re new to, let’s say… like, you’re a parent that’s bringing your child to a new preschool program or a new school program. Is there any recommendations about how to get off on the right foot? Because I find one of the challenges is, like, the relationship can become really transactional really quickly because everybody’s just so busy – like drop-off, pick-up, etc, etc. It’s hard to take the time to build that relationship.
It’s so hard. And especially in the past year or two, there’s been, I think, less ability for parents of young children to go into the classroom and build the relationship that way, which I think we often do.
So, I think one of the most important ways to really start the year off right is to talk to the teacher, tell him or her some of the positive things that you’ve seen already, even if it’s the first or second day, of how the classroom is set up or whatever it is, and then to ask them how they are most comfortable and being contacted.
So, some teachers, it’s going to be emails; some teachers, it’s going to be the phone. Just respecting that they have a life outside of the classroom. I think we all get into that trap of sending emails at 11 o’clock at night when we’re thinking about something. But really asking teachers like, “Is it okay if I email sort of off-hours? I don’t expect you to get back to me right away. But that’s just the way that I often work.”
So, just kind of starting the year off by saying, “Okay, we’re partners in this relationship. And how do you want me sort of to approach this relationship?” –and I’ll tell you a little bit about how I approach these relationships – I think can be really helpful because I think there’s often an assumption on both…
I was a kindergarten teacher at one point in my life, and I’m a parent and I’ve worked with a lot of parents and teachers. Sometimes you come to the relationship with certain expectations and maybe we’re sort of imposing our own expectations of the relationship onto the other person. And that can lead just to misunderstandings. And I think that’s what often can set the relationship off on maybe not the best foot at the beginning, is just a misunderstanding of where the other person’s coming from.
Yeah, sounds like a theme from your perspective is just the open communication is really key. And I know sometimes conflicts can happen. So, any suggestions there, if you do have an issue, maybe as a parent with your teacher or vice versa? How would you recommend approaching that situation?
Yes, and I think conflict is so inevitable often, in relationships. And I talk about this when I’m working with parents and children, it’s also just being able to sit with the conflict and work through it rather than avoid it, is often sort of the best motto.
So, I think when conflict arises in the parent-teacher relationship, for whatever reasons, it’s important to, as always, take a step back. But then as a parent, to sort of acknowledge when you’re speaking with the teacher, that the teacher does have an expertise in education; they have an expertise in child development. And to acknowledge that and respect that is always a good sort of starting point.
And I think one of the most frustrating things for teachers that I’ve spoken to is those questions about, “Do you have children? How long have you been doing this?” It just sort of puts everyone on edge. So, you can be an excellent teacher even if you’re a first year [educator] and have no children. So, I think it’s important to kind of steer clear of those phrases.
And also, for both teachers and parents, not using a lot of sort of jargon. I think as teachers, we live in this world where we’re talking about things like “scaffolding” and using sort of terminology that’s very somewhat sort of siloed in education.
And then maybe if we’re outside of education – and this is from personal experience, that my husband would always talk about the “optics”. And I was like, “I don’t know!” As a teacher, we don’t talk about optics. So, I think just stay away from jargon that is sort of siloed in different areas is a good idea, just so that everyone understands where you’re coming from.
And again, as a teacher, staying really solution-oriented. So, I think it’s very easy to get a little bit off-topic, especially when you might be talking with a parent about something that’s probably uncomfortable for them and likely uncomfortable for you. But if you’re able to really sort of focus on your end goal, what you want the parents to help you with in terms of helping their child, it helps to stay a little bit more calm and to also just convey that confidence to parents.
And I think if the conversation starts to get really off-topic or heated, you can always say, “I’m so sorry, I have, (whatever), another appointment,” or, “Let’s reschedule,” just so allow people to take a little bit of a breather. I think just knowing that that’s an option – I didn’t think that was an option. When I was a kindergarten teacher, I felt like I had to somehow figure this whole thing out when I was meeting with a parent. But sometimes it was better to meet another day, to sort of allow some of that information to sink in for parents and then have them come back sort of with a fresh start can be a really good idea.
Yeah, those are some really good tips. And I can certainly confirm the one point from my end, in terms of the fact that me and my partner are always just shocked by how amazing our children’s early-childhood educator is. And we think it’s like magic when she has all the children, dealing with all their feelings and like all the transitions and everything.
And it’s funny because but then when you talk about, like, kids toys and stuff like that, she doesn’t know because she doesn’t have any children of her own. And it’s always like, it’s difficult to understand. It’s like, wow, she’s so amazing with children, even though she doesn’t have any children of her own. So, obviously that doesn’t matter because we have two kids and she’s much better at managing them than we are and working with those. So, case in point.
And just switching gears here a little bit: we’ve been talking about parent and teacher relationships. What about teachers with the children? That is obviously also critical. Can you talk to that a little bit, in terms of what the benefits are and what teachers can do to help develop those stronger bonds?
Yes, so this is something I’m super passionate about. It’s sort of where a lot of my research lies. And there is so much evidence out there about how important that relationship is for children, especially with children who might be struggling a little bit with their relationships at home.
The teacher-child relationship is so central. So, when we think about why that relationship matters so much for children, there’s a lot of different sort of theoretical lenses to come from, to look at it. But it really seems to boil down to is, children who feel like they have this sort of secure base to go to in the teacher are much more likely to engage in the classroom in terms of interacting with their peers, interacting with materials, taking risks. So, not feeling like they have to be right.
And this translates as children get older, as well. But it’s that idea of… what’s interesting is that there’s this really strong relationship between the quality of teacher-child relationships and children’s math achievement, especially as they get older.
And what it looks like is, it’s because children who have these positive relationships are much more willing to explain what they think the answer is and sort of how they got there so that teachers are then able to sort of figure out if a child doesn’t understand a concept and support them in learning the correct concept answer, whereas children who are either feeling like they have a little bit of conflict with the teacher or if they’re not that close to the teacher, are much less likely to take those risks.
So, teachers are really able to recognize sometimes where the child is at in their understanding, and they might make an assumption that the child understands something when maybe they don’t. But they lose that opportunity to sort of scaffold their understanding – using an education term – better. So, I think that’s an interesting thing that’s come out of the research.
And also there’s a little bit of – and this is sort of a newer field – but there’s been a little bit of research looking at the actual physiological reasons behind it. And what that research is starting to show is that children who have these positive relationships actually respond better physiologically to stresses in the classroom
So, the thinking is that a lot of the same things that we think about in terms of caregiver relationships in the home actually apply in the school so that children are learning how to use – especially when they’re younger, with the teacher – is a sort of an external regulator of their stress and able to come down quicker when they’re a little bit agitated. So, this is a field that’s I think that there’s so much robust evidence showing how important it is. And it’s also a growing field and I think that’s really exciting, as well.
Yeah, that’s super interesting. And even if I just think anecdotally: when I was a student, I would certainly feel more comfortable participating in class when I did feel like I had a stronger relationship with the teacher. And even just in the classes as a whole, the teachers who seem to be really proactive on building those stronger bonds with the students had, like, very high participation and just generally. So, certainly in my own experience, that rings true as well.
And then what about from the administrator’s perspective? So, they play an important role here as well. Is there anything that they can do to help support teachers with building relationships, whether with parents or with the children they’re working with?
Yes, so, I think that’s something that’s so important. And I know I’ve been guilty of it in my own work, really focusing on the teacher and what’s going on in the classroom. But if you look at a lot of the research out there, it really supports this idea of it all starts sort of in the broader school environment.
So, it makes total sense. So, if you have a great classroom but it’s part of a school where there’s a lot of conflict, children are definitely not getting as much of a benefit from that positive classroom environment with the teacher. So, really thinking, as administrators, how we can create that environment is so important.
And I think a lot of it, again, comes down to sort of trust and communication. So, teachers who feel like they’re able to go to their administrator and get their support when they’re experiencing some maybe conflict with another parent or a teacher, they report so much more job satisfaction; they report better relationships with their students.
So, really being an approachable, I think, as an administrator is so important. And being able to be somewhat objective so that… I think all of us have this tendency to be a little bit defensive if there is questioning around what we’re doing. And that’s, I think, a barrier often in relationships.
So, really being open to getting teachers’ feedback and understanding that they are often experiencing somewhat of a different environment than we are as administrators because they’re often the first line of defense when it comes to parents who might not be happy and identifying children who might need some more supports and then being able to talk to parents about that, which can be such a difficult topic. So, really being open to teachers and what they have to communicate.
And then I think also providing professional development and learning opportunities that engage teachers in really these important topics. So, thinking about sort of how they can form these strong parent-teacher relationships. And providing teachers with really clear and evidence-based tips in terms of how best to go about dealing with conflict, dealing with how to best approach parents around referrals and these topics that are so sometimes difficult.
And I think sometimes as teachers, it’s easy to feel a little bit, like, out there on your own. So, if you have that administrator that’s checking in with you and checking in with the teaching community as a whole and providing these professional developments, then it creates that open feeling that the teachers can bring whatever their concerns are up to the administrator.
Yeah, yeah, that’s huge. And your point, too, about administrators talking about these important subjects and that shows that they care about those things and want their teachers spending time on their development and growth in those areas are all so important. So, I’m glad you brought those up, as well.
Circling back to Scientific Mommy: So, you’re a professor. You’ve spent some time in the classroom, as well. And you’re a parent. So, you have all these varied experiences. And you’re now able to get science- and research-backed information out to parents. And I guess I’m curious to know, what do you think was sort of like the blocker for this happening before Scientific Mommy, in terms of parents having access to this kind of information?
Well, I think so much of it comes down to a lot of the research stays in these peer-reviewed journal articles that are only accessible if you have a university connection or, like we were talking about, if you’re a consultant. So, if you’re a parent who’s not in education or psychology, you often just don’t have access to this information.
And I think the way to get access is often how others interpret that information. And often those that are interpreting the information come sort of looking for the answer to their own beliefs. So, a lot of the times it’s not necessarily reported as objectively once it leaves that peer-reviewed research article. So, I think that sometimes is a barrier.
And I just also think – and this is a conversation for another day – but that the quote-unquote “reward systems”, when we think about being an academic or a researcher, are really about sort of presenting your research in these peer-reviewed articles but not necessarily then communicating it to those that the research is aimed to support, which is ironic. But when you’re going out for tenure, all they ask about is the number of peer-reviewed journal articles you have.
So, I think that… and I know when I was sort of trying to get tenure on that ladder, I was just kind of focused on these peer-reviewed journal articles. But it really is so important when we think about why we’re doing all this research and getting the word out about what’s really being found in all this research is so important.
So, I think a lot more avenues are kind of popping up for parents to get more accurate information than had been available in the past. So, that’s a good thing. It’s not just Scientific Mommy, there are a lot of great organizations out there that are providing some really good evidence-based information for parents.
Yeah. And tell us a little bit more about Scientific Mommy. So, what are some of the resources and offerings that are available through the site – and it’s www.ScientificMommy.com, right?
It is. So, that’s our website. And then we also have an Instagram – @ScientificMommy – which, Monday through Friday, we provide sort of just little tips on either recent research articles that have come out about an important topic in parenting or sort of really important pieces of research that may not have been within the past two years but have really sort of defined how the field has grown.
And so what we do is we take that research, we present it with a graphic that sort of illustrates it and then more detail about the information about the study in the notes section. So, that’s our Monday-through-Friday thing. And then our website provides more in-depth information about different resources that are available to parents, longer articles about resources that have been conducted and also just what we’re building towards.
We’re also going to provide information about different educational products that are out there and what sort of the gold standard, is what we call randomized control trials. So, it’s a study where you randomly assigned people to either engage with this educational product or not and you see if there are positive influences on whatever outcomes the educational product is aiming at. So, if it’s social skills, we’re looking at social skills. And allowing parents to sort of take that information and decide whether they want to get this product or get this app. So, also trying to provide parents with information on products, as well.
Cool, very cool. I know I’ve kind of been surprised as a parent that sort of like the educational quality of toys and other products for children hasn’t improved more.
It’s really interesting. There’s a movement out there that’s trying to focus more on that. So, just a really quick snippet from what they’re doing is, they’re looking at these like sort of… I forget what they call them, but they’re basically the toys that are not that expensive generally, but really grab kids attention, but then also really have no value other than what they’re saying is basically entertaining to the child. So, you can do something for four minutes.
Versus those really high-quality toys which are out there, that really force children to engage in the pretend world and take others perspectives. But I think it’s hard as a parent to navigate because often the children are sort of more drawn towards these toys that entertain for four minutes versus the ones that have more value.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve seen that in action, for sure. Awesome. So, lots of amazing resources on www.ScientificMommy.com. Before we wrap up, any other recommendations for our listeners in terms of good resources for parents or for educators that you might recommend?
Sure. So, like I was saying before, there are some really great organizations out there that are taking this research and presenting it in a really accurate way. And I think one of the best ones is the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which you can find online at www.NAEYC.org. They are a great resource, especially for younger children.
Then for if you have a baby or [child aged] zero-to-three, another really wonderful source is Zero To Three. And again, that’s online at www.ZeroToThree.org. So, those two are really great, especially if you have children who are a little bit on the younger side.
And then the American Academy of Pediatrics website – which has really grown, I would say, over the last two years – has some really wonderful information. And they have both professional resources as well as information that’s helpful for parents. And they’re at www.AAP.org. So, I would highly encourage folks to check out those websites.
Awesome. Erin, thanks so much for all this information and for taking the time to share all of this with us. I think it’s really cool what you’re doing. Something I’m passionate about and we’re passionate about with the Preschool Podcast is getting everybody aligned on using research and science to apply in the classroom and at home. And certainly Scientific Mommy is helping with that. And so kudos to you for starting that up. And thanks again for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been absolutely wonderful having as a guest.
Thank you so much, this was wonderful. And I love the work you’re doing because preschool is so important. And the folks who help us take care of our children in preschool are so important.
Yeah, I appreciate you saying that, Erin, and I could not agree more. And I’m sure our listeners will concur. Thanks so much for saying that!