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Trusting Relationships Are Central to Children's Learning -- Lessons From Edward Tronick

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This blog is continues my series to share the research of child development researchers and neuroscientists who have genuinely inspired me in my 11-year journey to create Mind in the Making. Their work is truly "research to live by."

I am sharing the story of Edward Tronick of the University of Massachusetts Boston because his studies illuminate the importance to trusting relationships to children's development and learning.

It now may seem more obvious that trusting relationships enhance children's learning, but it wasn't obvious not so long ago when Tronick became interested in the subject. In the early 1970s, Tronick collaborated with the pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton at the time when Brazelton was creating the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, a tool designed to interpret what newborns are communicating through their behavior. Tronick recalls those days:

On Saturday mornings, Berry [Brazelton] and Jerry Bruner [the psychologist, now at New York University] and I would go to the newborn nurseries and examine babies together. We did this for seven, eight months in a row. Berry would show us things about babies that we had no idea babies could possibly do, and then we would talk about it afterward. It was just the most exciting sort of thing! The social development in infants had never really been studied. Pretty much at that point in time I said, "This is what I'm going to do."

Tronick's goal has been to pursue how relationships affect children's development:

I [wanted] to understand what's going on in the exchange [between a parent and child] that allows a relationship to be "good" or "smooth." What do these words mean? Can we describe them, and can we come to an understanding of that process?

Tronick began his studies with infants, using a new scientific procedure he developed called the Still-Face.

In Tronick's lab, the baby is placed in an infant seat on a table across from his or her seated parent so that they're literally face-to-face. The experimenter instructs the parent to play with the baby. One mother I observed played "This little piggy went to market" with her six-month-old daughter's toes. The baby squealed with delight when her mother ran her fingers up to the baby's nose as the "little piggy cried 'Wee! Wee! Wee!' all the way home."

The experimenter then instructed the mother to turn away and then to return to the face-to-face position, but not to react to her baby in any way whatsoever -- to keep a still (or frozen) face.

Tronick describes what usually happens in this experiment with babies. Even children as young as three months pick up on the fact that their mothers aren't responding:

They greet the mother. You know how three-month-olds have a really big greeting and that wonderful smile. They give that big smile, and [then] many of them just sort of stop. They're waiting for the mother to respond, and she's not responding. They might look at her, then turn away, and then they'll [turn] back typically and try to [get her to respond]. Then some of the babies kind of collapse [with a] sad, helpless look.

There are a number of things that are stunning to me about that experiment. First, Tronick has found a way to show how the everyday back-and-forth communication between babies and parents really works. Usually, we aren't aware of how we connect and communicate, but when the interaction is stopped -- frozen -- it makes it visible. What's also stunning is how early infants come to expect a response from their parents. And how powerful it is when the parent wears a "still-face," devoid of feeling. Tronick says:

It speaks to the incredible emotional capacities [of] the infant -- to pick up on the fact that the mother's not reacting emotionally the way she normally does. The baby has not only this ability to process what's [happening], but [also] the capacity to respond in a really appropriate way -- that is, they try to get the mother's attention, and then when they fail, they give up, with a sense of their own helplessness. They may be angry and then they become sad.

Of course, the experimenter tells the parent to resume reacting normally and the child quickly recovers. Take a look at the video of this experiment and see for yourself.

You can also try the same experiment with adults. Ask one person to share something important and the other adult NOT to respond. You will find the results are the same. When the connection between us and another person is broken, we wonder if there's something wrong with us, we try to engage the other person, and then, if there is no response, we pull back -- if not physically like the infant, at least emotionally.

Does this study mean we have to be constantly 'in sync' with children, responding to their every move? Tronick had the same question. When he and his colleagues began conducting the Still-Face experiment, they believed that the more the parent and child were in sync, the better. But they've since learned that this isn't the case. He reports:

Only maybe twenty, thirty percent of the time is the interaction "perfectly" in sync. The rest of the time, you're in sync, you're out of sync, you're getting back into sync.

In fact, Tronick has found that moving in and out of sync with others -- repairing a mismatch with a match -- is not only normal, it can be a positive learning experience for both parent and child:

This not being in sync frees up parents from that constant burden of being perfect--because you can't be perfect. No matter how hard you try, you can't be.

It is the reconnecting when you are out of sync that's most important. Tronick says:

When you reconnect, one of the things that can happen -- not always, but some of the time -- is that you create something new. You figure out a new way to do something together that you have never done before. If you create something new, you grow. And babies are about growing.

Jack P. Shonkoff of Harvard University and co-chair of a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences, to review what science has to say about early childhood development, puts it this way: "There is no development without relationships!"