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What's Theory Got To Do With It? EYLF principle 1- relationships.

The Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009, p. 12) sets out five principles of early education and the first is “Secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships”. These principles are founded on early childhood research and theory, as are the practices and outcomes. This blog is designed to help educators understand the links between early childhood theory and this first and very important principle of the EYLF, in addition to how this theory has now been reinforced with current research in to child development.

The most obvious theory behind the principle of relationships is John Bowlby who is known for his theory on attachments. Bowlby believed that children come in to the world with an intrinsic need to form attachments to others. He emphasised the innate behaviours children used to form relationships with those around them. It was Bowlby who first suggested that an infant would have one strong attachment to an adult, who would become a secure base from which the child could explore the world. His theories have been adapted in to current trends such as the circle of security approach. Further to this Bowlby placed great value on the strength of this relationship or attachment to the child’s understanding of the world and their cognitive development (McLeod, S.A, 2007).

Bowlby’s theory of attachment was later extended on by Mary Ainsworth who developed an experiment called “The Strange Situation” which was devised to test the quality of the relationship or attachment between the child and their primary caregiver. Through conducting this experiment Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles - secure attachment, insecure avoidant and insecure ambivalent/resistant. She theorised these attachment styles influence a child’s image of themselves (McLeod, S.A, 2014). Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, took from the theories of Bowlby and many others. He further developed this idea of attachment in to the co-learning relationship between educator and child which is a strong factor in the Reggio schools.

Another theorist who emphasised the importance of the relationships in a child’s life to their learning and development was Urie Brofenbrenner. Bronfenbrenner established the ecological systems theory which not only placed importance on the relationships in a child’s life, but also the interrelationships which exist between them. Bronfenbrenner believed learning could not exist without secure relationships, and further, that the process of development would be smoother when partnerships between the systems in the child’s life are strong (also linking to the second principle of EYLF - partnerships).

Finally, when discussing theory and relationships one can not look past Erik Eirkson, who broke children’s development down in to stages. Erikson claimed for children in the first year and half of life, the greatest goal is establishing trusting relationships. Erikson termed this the trust vs. mistrust stage. Erikson believed that if a child did not ‘succeed’ in a certain stage of development their growth through the next stage would be effected.

It becomes clear that secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships is a principle clearly recognised throughout early childhood theory, but how is this reinforced by current research? The links between these attachment theories and what we now know through our research in to brain development are clear. Working with children who have experienced trauma, in particular, has taught us a great deal about the importance of relationships on the human brain. We have seen MRI imaging which shows the lack of development in the brain of children who have experienced extreme neglect. A lack of trusting relationships in a child’s life will lead to greater stress for the child, meaning their little brains are being flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol, which in turn effects not only their brain development and ability to learn, but also their physical health. There is, in fact, a great deal of research in to this area from renowned psychologists, neuroscientists and molecular biologists such as Bruce Perry, Dan Siegal, and John Medina - to name just a few.

There is great emphasis in the revised National Quality Standard (2018) on educators understanding the theory which underpins the approved learning framework (most often EYLF) and this is because understanding this theory helps us to develop as educators. It helps us to fathom the importance of the decisions we make in regard to children, curriculum and self development. Theory, while sometimes viewed as outdated and unexciting, is actually the very opposite. More often than not these theories are backed up by current scientific and developmental research, and understanding the ideas behind them can be exciting and is most definitely relevant to creating quality early childhood environments.


DEEWR, (2009). Early Years Learning Framework: Belonging, Being and Becoming. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Bowlby's attachment theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html

#quality #braindevelopment #partnershipswithfamilies #EYLF #relationships #NQS #earlychildhoodeducator #imageofthechild #pedagogicalprinciples #earlychildhood #earlychildhoodtheory

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