Guest Post: Nurture… or Is It Love?

Guest Post: Nurture… or is it Love? | Image 1 | EECERA Blog

Posted 25th February 2019

In this blog post, Hazel Whitters reflects upon the practitioner-child relationship within the context of early intervention.

*The following guest post represents the author’s personal view and does not necessarily represent the view of EECERA as a whole. Any issues or questions arising from the content of this post should, therefore, be directed to the author and not EECERA.
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Nurture as a Principle

Nurturing is a current concept within early years’ services in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.  Research explains the significance of relationship-based practice, and the creation of secure attachment as a foundation for learning (Cassidy, 2008). “To nurture” is a principle and practical response which emerges from this belief – one human being empathically responding to genetic need in another during the earliest years of childhood, and indeed throughout the lifespan.

National frameworks inform practice but effective implementation has to reflect the culture of a community. On an operational level, each organisation develops an approach to practice which is corralled by policies but open to interpretation within each reciprocal relationship.
The inclusion agenda has transformed understanding and increased the skill base of practitioners as the majority of children attend mainstream services. The daily experience of assessing, and responding to a broad spectrum of need, has rapidly extended the knowledge of childcare and education workers. Inclusion has upskilled the capacity of the workforce to focus upon each child’s ability, as opposed to disability or assumed inability.
Learning processes have come to the attention of researchers and practitioners. Concepts such as epigenetics (Champagne, 2015), and neuro-plasticity are discussed confidently by the early years’ workforce and linked competently to practice. The days of “chalk and talk” sessions, and forensically planned group activities have dissipated, and the current approach to implementation embraces the concept of nurturing… or is it love?

Nurturing in Practice or Is It Love?

It is well-publicised that secure attachment with an adult carer provides an essential source of informational and emotional support for an infant or child (Bowlby, 1979). It is also well-publicised that this process can be affected by negative or positive influences, internal or external to the learner (Jack, 2000). In many families daily challenges are faced with optimism and stress is tolerable. However, adversities may result in the use of survival strategies which inhibit learning opportunities and temper the quality of interactions. A position of vigilance is easier to maintain if the status quo remains the same, and “new” learning is rejected.
The result can be toxic stress which affects brain architecture and attainment (Center on the Developing Child, 2017). Increasing resilience to adversity has emerged from research as a directive for practice (Scottish Government, 2018), but in the field of human relationships we also need to gain understanding of processes and consequences in relation to nurture and a lack of nurturing.
Attachment is not a modern concept. Over thirty years ago I was taught that the child was an agent of change who actively created a bond with a parent in a context of unconditional family love. As practitioners we worked on the periphery of this genetically-based attachment system, striving to understand, learning experientially, and attempting to practice within the confines of organisational advice and perceived expectations. Tentative relationships were created with children but workers were duly warned not to get too close as the relationships were short-term.
Today our knowledge is profound, and we understand the long-lasting impact from early implicit memories based upon emotions, and explicit memories from the child’s external world (Felitti et al., 1998; Sroufe et al., 2005). The inner working model, as termed by Bowlby (1979), can change with every experience, and alter actions – what we do, our behaviour – how we do it, and our emotions – how we feel. Attitudes and values are quickly formed and re-formed as we traverse life’s paths. Throughout this journey of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we encounter a multitude of social rules, strive to develop self-regulation and to gain an understanding of ourselves.
21st century nurturing encompasses the creation of a secure attachment between parent-child and practitioner-child to support learning, executive functioning, and attainment. Over recent years, discussion on the concept of love in service-delivery has been raised at academic level (Furnivall, 2015) and certainly in practice. Many practitioners and parents equate nurturing with “professional love”. Love for the purpose of creating an emotional connection between two human beings which portrays respect, and promotes responsive care in a context of learning and development.  A highly valued skill is communicating belief in each child that he or she can achieve.


Every child operates within a micro-system of family members, carers and services (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Relationship-based practice must be used to good advantage in order to support a child to achieve and develop.  “To nurture” presents an exciting context for practice. I have researched many examples of innovative, and inspirational interventions which are used every day throughout our world to support attainment in children (Celebi, 2017; Hoghughi, 2004). Short-term aims may differ, the context may vary, and strategies may be similar or diverse but the rationale for practice with vulnerable families is universal: to increase functioning of the individual and to increase each person’s contribution as a citizen to a local community and to society.

As researchers, we are restricted by funding and led by professional curiosity in the topics that we explore. As practitioners, we are restrained by work-role and led by organisational choices in the interventions which we implement. Parents are bound unconditionally and led by emotional investment in their most important asset – a child. Academics, practitioners and parents will continue to debate and to agree or disagree on the use of nurture, and the concept of professional love in services. We exist as an extended team who share the same goals and motivation. We must operate effectively to close the implementation gap by nurturing every generation of learners. The legacy of intervention can be sustained beyond the professional network.


Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. Abingdon: Routledge
Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P.A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, volume 1. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons
Cassidy, J. (2008). The nature of the child’s ties. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.). Handbook of attachment, theory, research and clinical applications. New York: The Guilford Press
Celebi, M. (2017). Introduction. In M. Celebi (Ed.). Weaving the cradle. London: Singing Dragon
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2017). Toxic stress. Retrieved on 21 June, 2018, from
Champagne, F. A. (2015). Epigenetics of the developing brain. Zero to three, connecting science, policy, and practice, volume 35, issue 3, 2-8. Washington: Zero to Three
Jack, G. (2000). Ecological influences on parenting and child development. British journal of social work, volume 30, 703-720. Retrieved May, 2012, from
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.P., & Marks, J, S. (1998). Relationships of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American journal of preventive medicine, volume 14, issue 4. Retrieved on 25 December, 2017, from
Furnivall, J. (2015). Love makes us lovable. Retrieved on 6 January, 2019, from
Hoghughi, M. (2004). Chapter summaries. In M. Hoghughi and N. Long (Eds.). Handbook of parenting, theory and research for practice. London: Sage
Scottish Government. (2018). What have ACEs got to do with justice? Retrieved on 8 June, 2018, from
Sroufe, L.A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W.A. (2005). The development of the person: the Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: The Guilford Press

About the Author

Dr Hazel Whitters is a Senior Early Years’ Worker and Child Protection Officer in an early years’ service in Glasgow, Scotland. She has conducted research on the therapeutic relationship within the context of intervention and child protection.
Hazel has recently had three books published by Routledge on child protection, family learning/inclusion, and attainment/executive functioning in the earliest years.
Twitter: @JeelyPieceClub

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