In this part of the course, we focus on the foundation of quality practices with infants and toddlers: responsive, attuned, and respectful relationships. We look more deeply at the notion of intersubjectivity as a key quality of these relationships, and describe some ways in which teachers can go about developing intersubjective states with infants and toddlers. We also examine a key practice called ‘serve and return’, which can be used with infants and toddlers as a basis for stronger, more responsive relationships.
The aims of this part are:
- To gain a deeper understanding of the concept of intersubjectivity
- To examine the use of serve and return interactions in promoting responsive and attuned relationships
- To practise and reflect upon interactions in your own centre
This will involve:
- Watching Professor Carmen Dalli talk about intersubjectivity and how it supports responsive relationships for infants and toddlers
- Reflecting on your own experiences of intersubjectivity
- Reading about the concept of serve and return interactions
- Reflecting on your capacity for intersubjectivity and serve and return interactions with children in your care
- Practising serve and return interactions with your focus child
There are also some interviews to read and videos to watch about serve and return in our Further Reading section, and our discussion topic for the online forum is about team approaches to ensuring every child gets to experience quality interactions in your setting.
Revisit your learning so far
How many of the principles for effective infant and toddler pedagogy can you recall?
Intersubjectivity is one of the important principles for effective pedagogies with infants and toddlers that was introduced in our reading in Part 1. It relates to the idea of joint attention, when two people share a focus on the same thing, or share thinking about something at the same time. We rely on intersubjective states all the time: it is how we communicate with others. For example, you might join a friend who is looking out of the window at a beautiful view and comment ‘beautiful view’, and both of you know that you are looking at and thinking about the same thing. When you see a car speeding along the road, you might ask ‘what is he is such a hurry for?’. Again, because of your shared context and intersubjective state or joint attention, this comment makes sense.
There is a wonderful sense of coming together in an intersubjective interaction. These are the kind of interactions that stimulate the ‘feel-good’ hormones that promote the development of neural pathways in children’s brains. In addition, when you and a child are looking at something together, you can also add language to describe what you are looking at, or focus on creating some meaning from the interaction. For example, you might look at the rain pouring down the windows and ask a child what they think it would feel like if they could touch it. These kinds of interactions enhance learning for the child.
Watch a video
Listen to Professor Carmen Dalli discuss this concept of intersubjectivity, and what it means to genuinely develop intersubjectivity with a child.
Carmen is Professor of Early Childhood Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where she played a key role in establishing the Institute for Early Childhood Studies in the early 1990s, serving as its director for many years. She is actively involved in the development of early childhood policy in New Zealand, and served as Chair of the Ministerial Advisory group that developed the 10-year Early Learning Action Plan for New Zealand. Carmen has an international reputation for her research on early childhood education and care policy, teacher professionalism, and pedagogy with under-threes, and is a frequent keynote speaker nationally and internationally.
Carmen calls intersubjectivity the key mechanism of infant and toddler pedagogy – the building block and foundation of sensitive, responsive practice with this age group. She describes it as an interrelational space in which we connect our awareness with a child’s, tuning into each other’s world of thoughts, feelings and experiences. It is a space in which the infant or toddler feels seen and known.
You might have noticed that some of the other key principles introduced in Part 1 feature in Carmen’s description of how we develop intersubjectivity with children. Presence is important, as are attentiveness, attunement, and even imitation. I love Carmen’s word ‘engrossment’. Imagine the power of someone being so interested in you that they are engrossed and not paying attention to anything else.
The intersubjective connection is not solely about a sharing a cognitive understanding about something in the child’s environment. There is also a strong emotional component, which is extremely important. This is the part that makes the child feel special, acknowledged, and understood. Making this emotional connection is an essential prerequisite for children’s learning. Children need to feel they are accepted and understood before they are ready to extend themselves and take risks by taking on new learning.
For the teacher, intersubjectivity involves developing an awareness of what the child is conscious of, what they are feeling, and what they are attending to and doing. This means taking the time to stop and observe, and constantly being curious about and interested in what the child might be thinking or doing. Carmen calls this being ‘watchful’. For this, you will be highly attentive to the child’s bodily cues, their facial expressions, and their gaze, vocalisations and tone. You will also be seeking to make an appropriate response that is connected to what the child has offered. It might be as simple as imitating their vocalisation or returning a smile. Essentially, you are looking to respond in ways that show you value what they offered you. It also means taking a shared focus with the child, and this rarely means expecting the child to follow your interest. Instead, you join the infant or toddler where they are, with what they are interested in. You’re aiming to develop a shared understanding of what it is you both observe or experience together, and as you share comments and looks, you are giving time, waiting for the child to understand and to respond.
Carmen’s point about not ‘hi-jacking’ the interaction for your own agenda is also really important. You are seeking to join the child in their world, so you won’t try to change the subject to teach them a colour word, or point out and name all the vehicles going along the road when they are interested in the tree branches ahead. You are trying to ensure an authentic encounter, which means there are no hidden agendas.
Carmen also introduces us to the concept of serve and return as a type of interaction with a child that depends upon, and deepens, intersubjectivity. We will follow up on this in the next reading, and there is an example of a serve and return interaction on a short video clip in the Further Reading section below.
Think about a time when you have experienced intersubjectivity with a friend or family member, a time when you have felt really understood by, connected to, and heard by another person. What things did they do that made you feel that way? Can you translate some of the actions you identify into appropriate actions that would make an infant or toddler feel cared about, supported and understood?
The next reading explores the concept of serve and return in more detail. Read An introduction to serve and return in early childhood education by Thalia Wright and, as you read, note further some of the ways in which the table-tennis metaphor that Carmen introduced (here described as a rally) extends your understanding of this key interactional style.
An introduction to serve and return
Responsive interactions have been identified as a vital element in supporting all children to thrive. Serve and return describes what we see and do in the back and forth of these responsive interactions. Serve and return interactions are critical for all children, but they are particularly important for infants and toddlers in the first two years. It seems intuitive that playing with infants, responding to them and building relationships matters, but the benefit of focusing in on a specific approach like serve and return is that it can help teachers and caregivers to take concrete action and notice things that make a significant difference to the lifelong wellbeing of children. This guide sets out:
- A short introduction to serve and return – what it is and why it matters
- The challenges of serve and return
- How to increase the quantity and quality of serve and return interactions with infants and toddlers
What is serve and return and why does it matter?
Serve and return is a short-hand term coined by researchers at Harvard University in 2005. It synthesises a number of complex ideas around the love and nurturing of infants and helps make those ideas more accessible and practically useful in everyday settings by using the image of a rally in a tennis match or game of ping-pong. Serve and return is the focused, back and forth, two-way interaction between an infant and an adult when both the infant and adult are trying to communicate, to understand each other, to relate, and to show care and interest.
Serve and return uses the image of a tennis rally to make it clear that the infant is an equal partner with agency, feelings and ideas of their own: infants serve as well as return. Serve and return requires adults to act in a relational way that recognises the mana of children and genuinely ‘see’ and get to know the infant in order for rallies to grow and develop. The activity itself doesn’t really matter – what matters most is the relational intention, the common interest, and the ‘rally space’ of mutual back and forth. While words or sounds are often involved, a lot of serve and return is non-verbal. Infants and adults don’t only ‘serve’ (or return) words and sounds: tone, touch, feeling, gestures, eye-contact, smiles, squirming, reaching, swaying and patting are all part of what can be served to and received back from an infant. Serve and return is two way – the adult is physically and emotionally affected during the process and so is the infant. When an adult is connected with an infant in the rhythm of a mutually engaged rally, the infant and the adult are co-regulating and often sharing heart beats, hormones, emotions, and breathing patterns.
Serve and return interactions are important for all children, but especially critical for infants. The value of serve and return interactions in the first 1000 days cannot be over-stated. Infants are born wanting and expecting to connect and, from the very start, they seek out connection with the people around them. Getting a caring and attuned response often enough from the adults around them is essential for all aspects of their holistic development. A wealth of neuroscientific research produced since the 1990s has confirmed that the loving, in-tune, back and forth serve and return interactions that adults have with infants build the foundations for all later brain development, learning, and emotional, mental and physical health. Infants that receive enough love and responsive attention feel safe and soothed, and build brains that are ready to play, explore and learn. Infants who don’t receive enough love and responsive attention miss out on the positive brain building stimulation that comes from interacting with a loving and responsive adult but, much more than this, they feel unsafe and highly stressed. Their bodies are often flooded with potentially harmful stress hormones and their brains are more likely to be wired to be ready to react, defend themselves and survive. This can make it much harder for children to do many of the things we want them to be able to do later on – to make and keep friends, to accept comfort, to regulate their emotions, and to pay attention.
Serve and return interactions have additional value for children with complex and stressful lives. Relationally-focused, loving and attuned serve and return interactions are exceptionally valuable because, in addition to building strong foundations for lifelong resilience, they also help to repair the impacts of trauma and stress experienced during pregnancy, at birth or during the first few months (including the impacts of family violence, substance misuse, chronic illness, and poverty). Focusing on serve and return may be a significant contribution that teachers and caregivers can make to breaking cycles of intergenerational disadvantage. Growing a network of adults who are focused on providing lots of high quality serve and return interactions in the lives of infants and toddlers can be a crucial harm prevention and reduction intervention to support healing and resilience, particularly within the context of external wraparound support from infant mental health professionals and other experts.
The challenge of serve and return
Serve and return is often presented as ‘just playing’ with an infant, and because serve and return is a simple image, it can be easy to think ‘we do all that already’. However, serve and return interactions can often be harder to do than they first appear. A significant challenge of serve and return is to ask how much, and how well, teachers and caregivers are able to engage in uninterrupted, relationally responsive rallies with infants and toddlers. There are a number of factors that are likely to impact on this.
How adults feel matters.Serve and return can feel tiring, draining and frustrating for adults. It needs patience, persistence and focus, and draws on executive function skills. This is because the adult needs to put lots of effort into regulating their own feelings and responses. An adult has to be sufficiently calm and regulated but also open before they can engage, connect, and help to regulate an infant or toddler. While all positive interaction supports the development of children, high quality serve and return requires an adult to be deeply interested in forming a relationship with the child, to have enough uninterrupted one-on-one time to focus in on them, to ‘linger lovingly’ and to notice the small things, rather than just performing tasks like reading, singing, talking, feeding and so on. This is much more than having a ‘key worker’ identified for each child. The quality and quantity of interactions are dependent on how the adult feels about the child with whom they are interacting and how committed they are to the child.
The setting matters. The environment plays an important role in supporting teachers to engage in high quality serve and return interactions. Calm, peer support, respite, respect, belonging, community and connection are all important enabling factors for teachers. By contrast, noise, distraction, administrative workload, long hours, high ratios, staff turn-over, or a negative team culture can undermine the ability of teachers to engage fully and deeply in serve and return. Even small things, like an expectation to regularly stop and take a photo or video, can break the flow and ability to extend and deepen the rally of interaction between a teacher and infant.
Teachers’ and caregivers’ own histories and mental wellbeing matter. Stress, depression, boredom, isolation, exhaustion and their own personal history all impact on their ability of any adult to give infants and toddlers the open, positive, emotionally regulated and focused care they need. An adult’s own childhood experiences can have an (often unconscious) impact on the way they interact with the children in their care. This is recognised for parents, but the same is also true for teachers. It is important to find ways to acknowledge and respond to this as part of teacher selection, training, support and day-to-day practice.
The challenges posed by serve and return can raise some difficult but important questions for early childhood teachers and caregivers to ask about the limits of what can be provided in an institutional setting to support the loving responsive care that is so important to infants. It is not necessary to have all the answers. ECE settings are only one part of a network of whānau, community and specialist providers who all play a part in creating the loving network of relationships around infants. But the more that teachers can engage in serve and return interactions and take time to grapple with the challenges it poses, the more they are likely to find ways of helping children to thrive.
How to support more and better serve and return interactions with infants and toddlers
Be conscious. Serve and return is an action, and the image of a tennis rally is a simple reminder of the goal that teachers are seeking to achieve. Serve and return interactions don’t have to be constant or perfect, but the more that teachers can consciously try to engage in one-on-one, uninterrupted, reciprocal interactions with infants and young toddlers the better. Because serve and return is a relational activity, adults get better with practice as they learn more about each infant and give infants time to get to know them. The aim is to find ways to start building longer and better rallies with individual infants and children.
Slow down. Serve and return is more about ‘being’ with an infant than ‘doing’ with an infant. It helps to slow down, focus in on what an infant is ‘serving’, and be conscious of trying to create a rally of mutual interest and emotional connection. When teachers slow down and focus in, they are more likely to notice the little things and to genuinely respond to the particular infant with whom they are interacting. It takes time and patience (for both the adult and the infant) to learn how to respond and interact. Slowing down and tuning in also helps adults to notice when an infant wants to engage and when they want to rest or be alone.
Be curious. To increase the quality and quantity of the responsive interactions that are happening for infants and toddlers, it can be useful for teachers as individuals and as a team to be open to seeing and noticing more about how, when and for whom serve and return occurs in their setting. Notice how much uninterrupted and focused time adults are able to spend engaging in serve and return with particular children. Consider how the environment or the norms and policies in place may be supporting or hindering serve and return interactions. It helps for teachers to pay attention to their own feelings by noticing when they feel bored, frustrated or as though they are just ‘going through the motions’, as well as when they are more genuinely open and engaged. It is very likely that it feels easier to do serve and return with some infants and harder to do with others. Noticing patterns of what is working well and what isn’t can help the teaching team to identify and try out small changes, access extra resources or expert help, or have new conversations.
Talk about serve and return. Serve and return is reminder of the long-standing cross-cultural wisdom that love, time and attention are essential for all infants. It is not exclusive knowledge only for those who are qualified or highly skilled. Serve and return is also a practical and concrete action rather than a theory. Using the image of serve and return may be a useful way to talk more in ECE teams and communities about nurturing infants by having a common language and clear image of what you are trying to achieve. It can be difficult to talk together about love, attachment, attunement or dyadic interactions, particularly when there are important cultural differences and personal stories that impact the meaning that individuals bring to these ideas. It is vital that whānau, teachers and caregivers talk honestly and openly about relationships in the lives of infants, and serve and return may be a useful doorway to help start deeper conversations about the quantity and quality of relational interactions that are happening for infants in ECE settings and at home. Being open and curious and speaking up about the hard parts of serve and return requires courage and vulnerability. Creating a space and a team culture where teachers and caregivers feel safe enough to reflect and talk about the real and often deeply personal challenges of providing responsive, emotionally attuned interactions with children is a skilled and important task for leaders.
Use serve and return as a touchstone. Relationships are at the heart of Te Whāriki, and the importance of relationships for learning and the holistic wellbeing of children is well established. However, it is easy to get distracted by lots of competing priorities and immediate demands, to be overwhelmed by the difficult issues in children’s lives, or to find it hard to say exactly what you are doing to build responsive and attuned relationships. Serve and return can be a helpful anchor point for good practice and purpose among the complexities of early childhood education. In the same way that focusing on breathing can calm and centre us when we get anxious, focusing on doing the simple actions of serve and return can be of immediate benefit to children and help teachers and caregivers to notice and think about what matters.
What factors do you think might impact on your ability to engage in uninterrupted moments with infants and toddlers in which you can give your full attention to watching, listening and responding to a child? What can you personally do to improve this?
Isn’t it amazing to know that, when you connect with an infant in a serve and return intersubjective interaction, you and the infant or toddler develop shared patterns for breathing, heart rate, hormones and emotions? This makes intersubjectivity a powerful tool for co-regulation. What’s more, serve and return interactions build the foundations children need for all later brain development, as well as their emotional, mental and physical health. Serve and return is probably one of the most important things you should understand about infant and toddler pedagogy, although it is important not to overthink it. It can happen very naturally and might feel like the easiest and most natural thing in the world when you actually reach that intersubjective state.
However, at the same time, we mustn’t take serve and return and intersubjectivity for granted. We can’t assume that having one-on-one time with an infant or toddler automatically leads to these kinds of interactions. As our reading made clear, it is important that, as teachers, we deeply reflect and discuss our ability for serve and return and achieving intersubjectivity, and that we are honest when we find it hard to achieve with a particular child, or when we are not feeling our most emotionally resilient or engaged by our work. Our responsive, emotionally attuned interactions, although not always easy to achieve, are crucial for infants and toddlers, and we should put a lot of time, thought and reflective inquiry into how we can do our best in this area of practice.
Relate your learning to practice
In Part 1, you chose a focus child with whom you will work on all of the following activities. This week we want you to try out a serve and return interaction with your focus child. It is a good idea to ask your critical friend to video this so you can reflect on your success. Consider the following reflective questions, and seek your critical friend’s perspective too:
- How did you feel during the interaction? How easy did you find it to ‘catch’ and respond to the child’s serves?
- Did you achieve moments of intersubjectivity? How do you know?
- How does this interactional style help you to enact the key principles for effective infant-toddler pedagogy? (You may like to revisit these in our reading from Part 1, What matters in infant and toddler pedagogy?)
- Quality interactions in the earliest years of life are found to make a significant impact on the lifelong wellbeing of children.
- Caring and attuned responses from adults support all aspects of children’s development. There is strong evidence from neuroscience that responsive interactions support children to build the neural networks on which all later development rests.
- Intersubjectivity is a quality of interaction that provides an essential foundation for sensitive, responsive practice with infants and toddlers.
- Serve and return is a useful model for responsive and reciprocal interactions with infants and toddlers.
How could you (and your team) use an understanding of the importance of quality interactions to reflect personally and together about your areas of strength and areas of challenge in regard to this area of practice?
Read an interview with Thalia Wright, NEXT Foundation fellowship awardee and author of our serve and return reading, in which she talks about how she came to study the concept of serve and return, what she has learned, and how her understanding has changed and developed.
Watch the Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child’s video for examples of serve and return, and tips for effective serve and return interactions.