Teacher Interaction
  • 17 Oct 2023
  • 14 Minutes to read

Teacher Interaction

Article summary

There are seven sections included in Teacher Interaction. Use the links below to jump to each section.


Without a plan, it’s hard to know where to start or where you may end up. Teaching young children requires intentionality, a meaningful plan grounded in child development, and social-constructivism. Intentionality describes a mindset where you, as the teacher, create meaning - the why - behind all instructional decisions.

Intentionality means that each activity, interaction, selected materials, or learning center have had deliberate thought put into it and matches what is most meaningful for young children’s learning and development. This could be in room arrangement, intentionally placing furniture to prevent an area for running, or a small group, planning carefully for three children’s learning needs in today’s group. Intentionality is also explaining the reasoning behind decisions to others - children, teachers, parents - to grow child development understanding and collaboration that benefits children.

As an intentional teacher, you create a nurturing environment for young children by:

  • Communicating daily with children in positive and respectful tones.
  • Praising children and acknowledging their efforts using kind affirmative words.
  • Encouraging and motivating children to do more and to continue trying.
  • Using words which inspire curiosity, creativity, and confidence.
  • Modeling practical conversational skills of listening and speaking and encouraging children to do the same.* Building positive relationships through immediate and appropriate responses to children's physical and emotional needs.
  • Encouraging children to express themselves freely and foster thinking through open-ended questions.
  • Demonstrating enthusiasm and respect by engaging with children — not just for behavior or academic interventions.

Here are some characteristics of your role as an intentional teacher:

  • Recognize each child is an individual with different life experiences.
  • Understand that families are the child’s first teacher.
  • Establish relationships to engage the family in the child’s learning journey.
  • Observe and use informal and formal assessment tools to guide the development of learning opportunities to scaffold each child’s learning path.
  • Consider every minute of every day as a learning opportunity.
  • Organize, plan, and use reflection as a part of daily practice.
  • Remain curious and motivated as a teacher to continue Professional Development by attending conferences and workshops and sharing with colleagues (including online groups and forums).
  • Recognize that research guides practice and acknowledge that the “this is the way it has always been done” mentality is not a reason to do something.
  • Ensure that each choice made demonstrates knowledge of child development and developmentally appropriate practice.


Interactions involve how a teacher communicates with and responds to the children in their classroom. Because learning is a social process, quality interactions are essential to the development of infants and toddlers across all domains. Meaningful interactions stretch cognitive abilities and teach infants and toddlers to get along well with others. Infants and toddlers spend a good portion of their day in early childhood classrooms, and the encounters they have there will shape their attitudes towards future educational experiences.

Relationships with caring, responsive adults are at the very foundation of a young child's learning. Teachers must provide a consistent and inviting environment that is emotionally supportive of all children. Some suggestions for forming the type of connections with students that will foster meaningful interactions are listed below:

  • Get to know your student's backgrounds, temperaments, interests, and preferences.
  • Respond to their needs and emotional cues consistently and with sensitivity.
  • Validate children's feelings and match their affect.
  • Create a joyful atmosphere, smile, and laugh often, make eye contact, and provide physical affection.
  • Use a warm and welcoming tone of voice and maintain approachable body language.
  • Encourage peer interaction and model social problem-solving strategies.
  • Find ways to show children they are valuable members of your class, and you enjoy being their teacher.

The connections you make with infants and toddlers are essential in providing meaningful interactions that will foster cognitive development. In the book, Powerful Interactions: How to Connect to Children to Extend their Learning (Dombro, Jablon, & Stetson, 2011), the authors discuss a three-step strategy for providing high-quality interactions that positively impact young children's growth and development. Teachers are encouraged to "be present, connect, and extend learning." Once you have determined a child's interests and established a meaningful connection, there are several ways to extend learning in infant and toddler classroom, such as:

  • Offering hands-on opportunities and encouraging exploration.
  • Providing an array of engaging materials that address different interests and learning styles.
  • Engaging in conversations with the children as they play.
  • Looking for opportunities to stretch their thinking.
  • Thoroughly answering their questions using language that they understand.
  • Encouraging higher-order thinking by asking open-ended questions.
  • Assisting children in linking new skills and knowledge to concepts with which they are already familiar.

Consistently facilitating intentional, high-quality, and responsive interactions with infants and toddlers will lead to increased engagement, improved child outcomes, and a life-long appreciation for learning.

Relating with Infants and Toddlers

Nurturing infants and toddlers socially and emotionally is of utmost importance and positively impacts Intellectual Development, Physical Development, Social Development, Behavioral Development, Emotional Development.

Relationships lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes of Self-Confidence, Sound Mental Health, Motivation to Learn, Achievement, and Self-Control.

When building relationships with and nurturing infants, consider these important points:

  • Interactions should inspire curiosity, creativity, and confidence. Always interact with infants and toddlers in positive and respectful tones.
  • Praise their efforts using kind, affirmative words. Teachers should provide opportunities for infants to build on their accomplishments.
  • Build positive relationships through your immediate and appropriate responses to infants’ physical and emotional needs.
  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm and show respect as you engage with infants and toddlers.
  • Interact with infants using sign language in multiple situations.
  • Tone should be respectful at ALL times.

Leading with Equity

Young children’s development in the first five years of life is extraordinary and unparalleled. It is during these years when the brain’s development helps set the tone for later learning and ultimately, success. We know that prevention, by teaching children appropriately and ensuring they meet developmental milestones and skill development, is much more productive and easier than intervention. Also, intervention earlier is more productive than as the child gets older.

However, far too few children have access to high quality early childhood experiences, whether at home or school, and so far before children, children experience inequity. This can be improved best in programs that reflect on how to ensure that children and families have equitable access to attend. This may include scholarships or other supports and creative solutions. While some of these decisions are outside the realm of the classroom teacher’s responsibility, teachers have a voice to help shape program policy.

Teachers also have a responsibility to continuously build a more equitable classroom. Like many other topics, it’s hard to ever know enough or do enough. It is a case of always working to improve conditions of equity, reflecting on our practice to see where we are and where we could go, and building relationships necessary to make equity a reality for ALL children. While this can seem incredibly daunting, every step toward creating equity, every action and strategy that benefits the children in your classroom, can make the life of an individual child that much better. That effect is invaluable. Visit the Resources section for additional topics on Equity.


Inclusion involves more than merely having children with disabilities in your classroom. The practice consists of providing a nurturing environment for them to make meaningful connections with typically developing peers as they play, learn, and grow. The benefits of inclusion for children with disabilities have been well documented and include increased outcomes in language, communication, and social skills. Typically developing peers are provided with daily opportunities to practice empathy, compassion, and friendship skills. While some children with disabilities may require significant accommodations to a particular lesson or even the classroom environment, many will benefit from simple strategies and supports. Making the accommodations necessary to maximize each child’s potential for a successful and enjoyable classroom experience is what inclusion is all about. Children of all ability levels learn best in developmentally appropriate environments that offer the support necessary to interact with their peers in meaningful ways. You may find that many of the children in your classroom will enjoy and benefit from the strategies you use to support a child with a disability.

When thinking about an infant or toddler with a disability, there are some additional things to consider. You may have an infant or toddler with an identified special need, or you may notice a concern as you observe, plan, and reflect on the child’s development.

Tips for Successfully Including Children with Special Needs

  • Use positive, “People First” language. For instance, if it is necessary to refer to a toddler’s disability, say, “toddler with a visual impairment” rather than “visually impaired toddler” or “blind toddler.” If it is not necessary to address their disability, simply use the child’s name.
  • Communicate frequently with families (e.g., daily texts, emails, photographs with short narratives, or a “school-home notebook”).
  • Ask permission to exchange information with therapists (e.g., speech and language, occupational, physical) and identify helpful strategies.
  • Learn about specific disabilities through families, therapists, and other reputable sources (see resources).
  • Use specialized equipment and assistive technology when appropriate.
  • Intentionally select materials and equipment to match children’s varying interests and ability levels.
  • Help a child accomplish a complicated task by breaking it into smaller parts and providing pictures of each step.
  • Take every opportunity to maximize a child’s chance of success. Provide books, posters, and materials that portray individuals with disabilities as strong and capable.
  • Use verbal, visual, and physical cues to provide clear directions and expectations.
  • Enhance oral language with pictures, symbols, props, and American Sign Language.
  • Employ “First-Then” statements when modeling language for an infant or toddler, to help with understanding the order and expectations as the day proceeds (“First we will put the blocks away. Then we are going to wash our hands for lunch.”).
  • Create a picture schedule that reflects daily activities and refer to it throughout the day. Be sure it is posted at infant and toddler level, which may even be adhered with contact-paper on the floor.
  • Assist infants and toddlers with transitions by preparing them ahead of time and telling them what to expect. Have the next activity prepared to reduce transition time.
  • Model for typically developing infants and toddlers how to initiate interactions with peers.
  • Provide a small object (“fidget”) for a toddler to hold during group time.
  • Plan for, and support, peer interactions.
  • Provide play materials and activities designed for two or more children.
  • Be creative and remember that learning should be fun!


In construction, scaffolding is a temporary structure workers use to access heights and areas that are too challenging to reach. In education, scaffolding is the process of providing structured support and guidance for thinking and learning. You scaffold through language and social interactions. The goal of scaffolding is to offer children enough assistance to be more successful than they would be without it. You offer children ways to achieve a task through subtle interventions and varying levels of support.

A key concept in scaffolding is the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD, the range of competencies that a child can perform with assistance but cannot yet perform independently. Teachers can make the most of a child’s ZPD by regularly providing opportunities that stretch the child's existing knowledge and skills and providing the scaffolding necessary for success. Your role is to observe the child, assess their needs, and provide the support needed to reach the next level. Eventually, you remove the support (scaffolding), and the child will be able to complete the task independently. Scaffolding success uses a variety of strategies:

  • Hints - Provide just enough information to enhance the child’s understanding without giving away the answer.
  • Suggestions - Offer multiple ways to complete a task.
  • Modeling - Demonstrate ways to solve the problem or complete the task.
  • Questioning - Ask open-ended questions such as: “What do you think will happen if...?” Or, “What is another way you might...?”
  • Providing Feedback - Offer just enough feedback to move the child to the next level.
  • Offering Encouragement - Inspire the child to continue trying by commenting on their persistence, problem-solving abilities, or creativity.

Scaffolding can take place in various settings, using a variety of tools and approaches. A teacher may ask how to make the block structure taller, or a peer may explain how to hold a crayon sideways to make a leaf rubbing. Scaffolding takes on many forms but always leads to the child coming away from experiences with more information than when they started.

By understanding what children can achieve independently and what they can achieve with assistance from an adult, educators can develop plans to teach skills in the most effective manner possible.

Open-Ended Questions

One way to scaffold a child’s learning is to ask open-ended questions. These inquiries encourage reasoning and creative thinking while helping the child see that there are so many solutions to a problem. Open-ended questions have no one right answer, require more than a one or two-word response, and encourage reflection, creativity, and prior knowledge. They also promote the use of advanced language. Asking children open-ended questions starts a conversation and supports brain development. As you implement the lessons provided in this curriculum, be sure to make good use of scaffolding and open-ended questioning. For more information about scaffolding, visit the Resources section.

Serve and Return (Infants and Toddlers only)

There is likely no more important strategy for teachers and parents of infants and toddlers to learn, practice, and use consistently. Serve and return interactions build infant and toddler brains within an environment of safe, responsive caregiving.

Serve and return interactions can be described initially by thinking of playing tennis. One player serves, and the other player returns the ball. A good game of tennis will have several back and forth plays are the serve.

The same is true for the back-and-forth interactions between an adult caregiver and a baby or toddler. Over time, the number of interactions and the depth of interactions increases. Serve and Return is a means of scaffolding interactions learning with very young children.

There are five primary elements to Serve and Return

  1. Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention.
  2. Return the serve by supporting and encouraging.
  3. Give it a name.
  4. Take turns...and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth.
  5. Practice endings and beginnings.

More information, including video examples, about what Serve and Return is, as well as how to Serve and Return can be found in the Resources section.

Curriculum (Infants and Toddlers only)

Infants are born ready to learn. Through interactions, relationships, and active exploration of the world around them, infants and toddlers begin to build their understanding of how to move, make things happen, communicate, and interact with the people around them. The relationships that infants and toddlers have with their caregivers are critical in the child’s learning and development.

Caregivers play a crucial role in the child’s development. By providing a secure, trusting, and predictable relationships with infants and toddlers, you are providing them with the confidence to explore their environments and build a strong foundation for learning and development. You as the teacher must learn and practice the relationship-building, brain-building strategy of serve and return. This is the basis of responsive caregiving and children’s learning and development in your classroom.

Caring for infants and toddlers in groups can be challenging if caregivers are not aware of the characteristics of infants and toddlers. For example, in an infant room a caregiver may be responsible for 4 children that are in very different developmental stages such as a newborn, a 6-month-old or a 9-month-old.

Relationships lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes of:

  • Self Confidence
  • Sound Mental Health
  • Motivation to Learn
  • Achievement
  • Self-Control

The caregiver’s role is to provide a safe, nurturing environment where routines are based on children’s individual needs and include transitions to and from home, diapering, feeding, naps for infants and toileting, meals, and naps for toddlers.

Routines provide the opportunities for caregivers to observe and respond to each child’s interest and needs for much of the child’s learning. Learning Beyond Paper supports facilitation of infant/toddler individualized exploration and interactions which lays the foundation for responding to the child’s interests and needs.

The environment needs to consist of materials and equipment to support the infant/toddler needs for consistent routines and exploration. The curriculum provides experiences to enhance growth and learning during routines, exploration, and interactions. The experiences are a guide however it is important to observe the child’s response and follow the child’s interests and needs.

Important Curriculum Experience Tips for Infant and Toddler Teachers

  • Activate and assess each infant and toddler's prior knowledge.
  • Employ ongoing-informal assessments to determine where each infant or toddler is, and what their next step should be.
  • Know each infant and toddler. Consider their personalities, interests, ability levels, and learning styles.
  • Describe new concepts in multiple ways as you model and demonstrate the new concept.
  • Support different learning styles (auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic).
  • Select materials that fit each child’s interests and developmental needs.
  • Develop clear learning goals using standards or curriculum.
  • Recognize and provide different levels of support based on individual needs.
  • Provide infants and toddlers with choices about how they will investigate something new.
  • Model, with actions and words, and provide assistance as necessary.
  • Offer many, many, many opportunities for hands-on, multi-sensory practice and exploration.
  • Encourage with your tone and non-verbal communication.
  • Remember to keep it fun and positive!

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