Research: The Respectful Approach

Published on Tuesday, 29 September 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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An antidote to modern helicopter parenting, which is as good for children as it is for their carers may have been identified by researchers at Australia’s Edith Cowan University (ECU).

The Respectful Approach, modelled on Resources for Infant Educators (RIE)TM, guides parents to treat young children as capable and independent humans who can flourish if given safe space and freedom from too much adult direction.

As part of her PhD at Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences, Mandy Richardson conducted the world’s first data-driven study of parenting classes based on the Respectful Approach intervention.

Parents were invited to take part in a class for infants or toddlers over six weeks where they observed their children in uninterrupted play in a room with age appropriate toys.

The infants and toddlers were free to investigate their environment and interact with other children while parents sat in the room and watched with a facilitator. After an observation period, each class introduced and discussed a topic related to the Respectful Approach.

At the end of the program, parents reported significantly lower stress levels, with more confidence and a better understanding of their children’s capabilities.

Children make progress when given space and time

Ms Richardson said the Respectful Approach is ultimately about building a trusting, lasting bond with positive communication between parents and children. There is less focus on checklists and achieving milestones, with acknowledgement that each child is different.

“Participants in the study reported worrying less about performance pressure after attending the classes, which let them refocus on their relationship with their children,” she said.

“As parents we tend to go and ‘save’ our children when they start to struggle with something, instead of letting them try to resolve their own challenges. But if the children aren’t looking for help, perhaps they can be left to do their own thing and work it out themselves.”

Ms Richardson explained the Respectful Approach helps to establish good patterns in early years so children learn to build confidence in their abilities and to deal with conflict in emotionally intelligent ways.

“Traditionally early behavioural interventions have predominantly focused on modifying undesirable child behaviours,” Ms Richardson said.

“By building good communication and a close parent-child bond, we can potentially prevent problems occurring in the long term.”

Ms Richardson and her research supervisor Associate Professor Therese O’Sullivan are now expanding the pilot study to track parents and children over three years to determine whether the decline in parental stress levels has a lasting impact and investigate long term outcomes in child development.

Magda Gerber

The Respectful Approach is based on Magda Gerber’s approach to early education, which puts respect at the centre of the relationship between a baby or child and their carer. Proponents of this philosophy define respect as treating even the youngest infant as a unique human, not as an object and aim to demonstrate this respect in every interaction with a child.

For Magda Gerber the goal of early education and care is to raise an authentic child, one who feels secure, autonomous, competent and connected and to trust in an infant’s competence. She said the role of educators is to provide infants with just enough support for them to enjoy mastery of their own actions.

Important to this is the caregiver’s role as an observer of the child’s communications and needs. Magda Gerber said the more we understand and appreciate the amount of learning that happens during the first two years of life, the less important it is to teach and the more important it is to provide an environment suitable for learning. 

Under the Gerber approach even the tiniest infants are encouraged to participate in caregiving activities such as feeding, bathing, dressing and nappy changes. These activities provide caregivers with opportunities for interaction, intimacy and enjoyment and should be unhurried and pleasurable for both the child and the carer.

Another essential pillar of this approach is that carers provide a safe, challenging yet predictable environment for children to encourage confidence and learning. This goes hand-in-hand with offering plenty of time for uninterrupted play and freedom to explore. As described above this means shifting from teaching infants new skills to admiring and encouraging what they are doing.

The final principle relies on consistency and clearly defined and communicated expectations to enable infants and children to develop respect for discipline and rules. 

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