Reciprocal Relationships: The Key to Sharing Our Power

Today’s blog has been co-authored by Nichole Parks, Leading for Children’s Director of Programs.

Imagine you’re a teacher in an early learning classroom. A coach comes in for a session, you sit down together and she says, “I’ve identified two goals for you to work on, and now I’d like for you to choose one.” You feel immediately patronized, defensive, and resentful. After all, this is your classroom. Why can’t you direct the coaching session? While the intent of the coach might have been to “give you choice and a voice”, what she actually did was control your voice by inferring the power to decide if, when, and how you use it. With her words, she created an imbalanced and inequitable partnership.

You might be saying to yourself, “Oh this doesn’t actually happen.” However, across the early learning ecosystem, we’re building relationships every day — between teacher and children, teachers and parents, and across program teams. We’re all working to ensure that we set children on a path to thrive. Yet as we saw in the example above, there are too many times when the words we use and the assumptions we make can put strains on our relationships and create inequities, mirroring wider racial and socioeconomic inequities. Coaches might perceive pushback from teachers when, in fact, teachers feel unseen. These feelings of being unseen are not unique to teachers and coaches — such feelings are pervasive in so many relationships in early learning: between families and teachers, teachers and assistant teachers, supervisors and teachers.

The common thread is an imbalance in power, with one person inadvertently presenting information that the other interprets as a directive, rather than an invitation to explore ideas, solutions, and possibilities. Ultimately, we can only build strong relationships when everyone is invited into the conversation as an equal partner. This is at the core of reciprocal relationships.

Communication Barriers in Early Learning Ecosystems

Early learning environments bring people together across a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds, education levels, and professional experiences — and sometimes this can lead to challenges in communication between groups. Research has shown, for instance, that parents from communities of color report poorer interactions with educators than white parents, which can be attributed to differing expectations for communication and implicit expressions of racial bias in interpersonal interactions.

Approximately four in five teachers in the United States are white. Although many describe themselves as colorblind in their teaching practices, they may implicitly express low expectations for communities of color in their interactions with children and families alike. Teachers may position themselves as experts on children’s learning and development, while neglecting to acknowledge family’s unique wisdom and perspectives on their children’s learning. For families — particularly those who have faced racism and discrimination — this leads to feeling undervalued and can reinforce traumas stemming from long histories of interpersonal and systemic racism.

Communication difficulties stemming from power imbalances play out within early learning program teams, as well. Leading for Children’s evaluations have revealed many cases of inequitable interpersonal dynamics stemming from top-down flows of ideas. Coaches speak to looking for a “quick fix”, without inviting teachers to share their wisdom. Program directors reflect on using deficit-based language in employee reviews.

All the while, children are internalizing the behaviors, attitudes, and language that they see and hear from the adults around them. Sometimes, the power imbalances between adults in children’s lives can also affect the way that adults interact with children in the classroom. As Shirley Brice Heath and Leslie Mangiola point out in Children of Promise, different sociocultural expectations of communication can lead to perceived differences in school performance. The questions teachers ask, for example, can lead to cross-cultural misunderstandings of children’s abilities: “In some groups, adults will ask children many questions to which the adults already know the answer. . . ‘Where’s your nose?’ ‘Can you tell Dad who we saw at the ball game tonight?’ In some communities, by contrast, telling what one knows or competing overtly against another invites ridicule, censure, and even punishment from elders.” Children may be reluctant to answer, leading teachers to assume lack of engagement in learning, when in fact the children simply need to be invited to share their thoughts in a way that is meaningful to them.

Moving Toward Reciprocity

Returning to the earlier example of miscommunication between teacher and coach, let’s consider how the interaction might have progressed if the coach navigated the exchange by thinking impact with reciprocity in mind. Instead of directing the teacher to choose a goal, the coach could have invited the teacher into an open conversation about her unique wisdom and goals. Instead of feeling defensive, the teacher would likely have felt seen and valued.

Fundamentally, reciprocal relationships are about inviting people in and creating opportunities to learn together. In Leading for Children’s program evaluations, we see the transformative role of reciprocal relationships time and time again. As a coach expressed, shared planning creates new avenues for program improvement: “I’m learning now to have open-ended conversations so that we can share thoughts and ideas, and we can come up with a strategic plan together.”

Using the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership to Build Reciprocal Relationships

As we build reciprocal relationships, we’re always looking for ways to ensure that others feel seen, heard, and safe in their interactions. Leading for Children’s Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership can help to guide you on your path to internalizing reciprocal thinking:

1. Think Impact — Keep in mind how your actions might affect others. As relationships develop, pause to ask yourself, “How am I inviting others to share their thoughts, to express their wisdom, and to learn together?”

2. Cultivate Self-Awareness — Notice how your background, your culture, your knowledge, and your experiences affect your thoughts and actions as you build relationships.

3. Nurture Relationships — Stay genuine and take your time in building relationships. Think about what you’re giving to others and what they are giving to you through your interactions.

4. Refine Communication — Remember that conversations (rather than top-down commands) are essential to forming lasting connections and defining shared goals.

5. Activate Curiosity — It’s the interest we show in others that determines the quality of our relationships. Ask questions: find out where someone learned a skill, how they formed an opinion. When we genuinely care about what others have to offer, reciprocity will follow.

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, a program director, or a parent, focusing on reciprocity in your relationships will help us create a future in which our children build reciprocal relationships as an automatic reflex. After all, children model the behaviors they see in the adults around them. Our actions today put us within reach of a more equitable society, in which everyone feels invited into the conversation, welcome to share their wisdom.

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Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.

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Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks

Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.

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