Do young children learn from adults they don’t like?

 In Self-Regulation Institute Blog

One of the questions I hear most often from teacher candidates, in-service teachers, and early childhood educators is, “what is the one thing I can do as a teacher that will make the biggest impact on children’s academic learning?” In answering this question, I could list a number of teacher variables that have been shown empirically to influence learning: teacher training, qualifications, years of teaching experience, teacher beliefs, and instructional practices to name a few. However, from my research and my work as a classroom teacher and early childhood educator I have found that the answer to the above question is quite simple; the one thing educators can do to make the most significant impact on children’s learning is to foster a positive relationship with their students. I’m talking about the educators that know a lot about their students. Not only are they aware of how their students are achieving in various content areas, but they also know their student’s favourite television shows, what they do on the weekends and who their best friends are. These teachers know their students’ insecurities, they understand the environments the students excel and even more so, they are aware of the environments that produce stress for their students, both inside and outside of the classroom. These teachers utilize this information to make learning more motivating and interesting for students. While there are many benefits to knowing students on a deeper level, the goal is not simply to have educators who can make tailored and engaging lessons for children they know well. The child’s perspective of their teacher is also key. Young children learn best from teachers they know and trust. It is not simply a one-way relationship where the teacher knows their students, instead the relationship is a reciprocal one, where the student knows their teacher in a similar way, in a way that feels safe, comforting and trustworthy. This is not to say that children don’t learn anything from teachers they don’t like, but what we know from research is that they learn much more from adults they do like and trust (Timmons, 2018).

From an early age, children differentiate between adults that are trustworthy and those who are not. Research conducted by Dr. Rotenberg from Keele University in the United Kingdom, found that children do not apply their trust universally but instead develop trust in response to the individual interactions they have with others. He describes trust as “dyadic and reciprocal.” Children learn individual patterns of trust for each person. Similarly, in an experimental study conducted by Harvard researchers into preschoolers monitoring of the relative accuracy of informants revealed that 3- and 4- year old children are aware when an adult makes a false claim and they remember these errors and subsequently “avoid seeking and accepting information from such an informant” (Pasquini, Corriveau, Koenig, & Harris, 2007, p. 1226). Findings from this research demonstrates the importance of young children’s perspectives of adults as trustworthy or not- in influencing whether they view that adult as a knowledgeable source of information.

The reality is that children can learn somethings from educators they don’t like or trust; however, the key ingredient for learning is positive teacher-child relationships where children learn to trust educators. It is in these relationships where children learn to predict teachers’ responses and interactions. Children begin to learn who and how to trust at birth. Infants are born dependent on their primary caregivers to fulfill their basic need for food, shelter, comfort, and love. When primary caregivers respond to infant cues in a consistent and nurturing way, they learn to feel safe and trust others. The basis for this learning in relationships is the give-and-take or what we commonly refer to in the early years as ‘serve and return’. The basis for learning in the early years is this serve and return dynamic, where adults are sensitive and responsive to the needs of children.

Teachers can integrate strategies and tools of Self-Reg to support them in becoming  increasingly more sensitive to the needs of their students. The practice of Self-Reg can help improve teacher-child relationships by supporting teachers in understanding students across five interrelated domains- biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial. More specifically, the Shanker Method involves 5 steps that teachers can use to support the development of positive relationships while improving learning outcomes for their students. The 5 steps are particularly helpful in recognizing the difference between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. They are: 1) reframe the behaviour, 2) recognize the stressors (across the five domains), 3) reduce the stress, 4) reflect: enhance stress awareness, and 5) respond: develop personalized strategies to promote resilience and restoration.  

The challenge in successfully responding to young children’s cues is to ensure that we as adults are not over- or under- responding. The ‘return’ needs to be sensitive to the child’s needs- this is where knowledge of the individual child is key. Adults can learn how to read a child’s signals and learn when to step in and when to step back. Learning and healthy child development rely on the quality and reliability of the relationships that young children have with important people in their lives- this includes teachers (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2009). In summary, I encourage teachers to look to the Self-Reg community to support them in transforming from being a “provider” to becoming a “Self-Reg Haven,” a place where children can feel emotionally and physically safe to learn.


National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2009).
Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships: Working Paper 1. Retrieved from

Pasquini, E., Corriveau, K., Koenig, M., & Harris, P. (2007). Preschoolers monitor the relative accuracy of informants. Developmental Psychology 43(5), 1216-1226.

Timmons, K. (2018). Educator expectations in Full-Day Kindergarten: Comparing the factors that contribute to the formation of early childhood educator and teacher expectations, Early Childhood Education Journal. Available online at:

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.