Two Woman on Floor with Baby

So far in this series, you’ve learned about the importance of two interventions associated with positive outcomes for children and families. In Part 1, we explored strategies that emphasize caregivers’ awareness and interpretation of their own actions. In Part 2, you learned how to help caregivers identify and use everyday learning opportunities to enhance child development. Now, let’s focus on the third intervention: supporting caregivers’ responsiveness to their children (Dunst & Trivette, 2009; Mahoney, 2009; Swanson, Raab, & Dunst, 2011). For some caregivers, responsiveness comes naturally, especially when there is naturally a good fit between how the child interacts and communicates and how the caregiver parents. When it doesn’t come naturally or the caregiver struggles with responsiveness, it can have a significant impact on the parent-child relationship and the child’s development. Let’s think more about what this looks like and what you can do to support responsive interactions.

Supporting Caregivers’ Responsiveness to their Children

Responsiveness – how a parent or caregiver responds to and meets the needs of a child – has been found to have significant connections to communication and social-emotional development during early childhood (Mahoney, 2009). Responsiveness is one of those concepts that we know when we see it. We know it when we see a mother who reads her child’s cues, even the subtle ones, like when he shifts his gaze to make a choice about which book he wants her to read. We see it when a father hears his baby cry and immediately picks her up, bounces her and pats her back while soothing her with his voice. We see it when a childcare provider uses a warm expression and voice to calm a toddler then invite him into a turn-taking game of blowing bubbles. All of these interactions teach young children that they are important, that adults care, and that their attempts to communicate and engage with others and the environment have meaning.   

Responsiveness is also something that jumps right out at us when it’s not there. Think of the grandmother who ignores her grandson’s vocalizations because he “doesn’t make sense” and who swats him when he acts out from frustration. Think about the mother who misreads her daughter’s arching back and gaze aversion as a personal offense, which negatively impacts their attachment to each other. Or, consider the father whose depression makes it hard for him to respond to his child’s needs consistently or at all. There are many factors that can interfere with a caregiver’s ability to be responsive, and truthfully, we are not always able to mitigate them. We can, however, keep our eyes on responsiveness and encourage it, celebrate it, teach it, and praise it whenever we have the opportunity.

What Does This LOOK Like in Practice?

Here are a few strategies you can use to support responsive interactions between caregivers and children:

Label it when you see it – When you notice a parent being responsive, talk about it. Describe what you saw the parent do and how the child responded. Ask the parent questions to help her identify responsiveness and the impact, such as “What did you do that made Elena smile?” or “What did Elena do after you smiled at her?” Point out the delight the child showed when her parent interacted with her and praise the parent’s efforts.

Model and facilitate contingent interactions – In the context of interacting with the parent and the child together, model contingent interactions that are responsive to the child’s communication and social cues. Talk about what you are doing and why. Coach the parent to notice the child’s communication attempts, movements, or behaviors and help him/her interpret them with meaning. Point out what the child did before and after the interaction and talk about what the parent could do to respond, keep the interaction going, help the child be successful, etc. Just be careful to turn the interaction back over to the parent after modeling so he/she can practice engaging the child. You may be great at using a responsive strategy but that only matters if the parent can learn from you and use the strategy successfully with the child.

Use your voice and facial expressions – Affect is an important part of responsiveness (Mahoney, 2009). Using a warm voice and expressive facial expressions that convey that you are present, engaged, interested, and enjoying the child send an important message. Talk about the importance of affect and provide specific feedback to parents when they are using their affect in responsive ways. This is especially important when interacting with children who struggle with social-communication or who have sensory differences.

Encourage imitation and turn-taking – Use imitation and turn-taking as the vehicles for building responsiveness. When a caregiver struggles with responsiveness, help her understand the back-and-forth nature of interactions and communication. Use simple turn-taking games to entice the parent and child into interactions. Look for turn-taking games that they can enjoy and sustain (for a reasonable amount of time depending on the child’s age and developmental level). Start small, with the parent imitating the child’s actions or sounds, and shape these interactions into turn-taking. Help the parent look for ways he can take a turn whenever the child does something and vice versa. Encourage the parent to expect, wait for, and prompt the child to respond whenever there is an opportunity. Responsiveness is reciprocal but the parent sets the tone.

All three of the interventions you’ve learned about in this series have responsiveness at their core. When caregivers are more aware of how important their own actions and interactions are, understand the learning opportunities they can facilitate during daily interactions, and recognize how to engage and respond to their children to facilitate development, you increase the chances of intervention happening everyday. You also help build stronger parent-child relationships that last well beyond EI. Like I said before, that’s powerful stuff.

Now it’s your turn.

What is your favorite strategy for supporting caregiver responsiveness?

Share your ideas in the comments below!


Dunst, C. J., & Trivette, C. M. (2009). Using research evidence to inform and evaluate early childhood intervention practices. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 29(1), 40-52.

Mahoney, G. (2009). Relationship-focused intervention (RFI): Enhancing the role of parents in children’s developmental intervention. International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, 1(1), 79-94.

Swanson, J., Raab, M., & Dunst, C. J. (2011). Strengthening family capacity to provide young children everyday natural learning opportunitiesJournal of Early Childhood Research, 9(1), 66-80.

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