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Guiding and supporting tamariki as they explore and learn to understand the feelings of others.

Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
Brainwave Trust Aotearoa

By Brainwave Trust Aotearoa

It’s through their interactions with whānau, and especially parents, that babies and young children learn about themselves, the world and the other people in it.

When children grow up to be positive adults who can be responsible, and be a good friend, partner or parent, it’s no accident. Having parents (or other adults) who understand their needs and provide guidance in their early years is important for reaching that adult state.

Executive function

Important life skills include controlling impulses, staying focused and making plans.

Babies aren’t born with these skills, but they can develop them. The degree that they develop depends on the child’s experiences, beginning from birth.1 The building blocks are developed in early childhood, and parents supporting children with learning them is very important.

Collectively these skills are called ‘executive function skills’, and they’re the basis for both cognitive and social learning.1 They also increase a child’s resilience and ability to cope with difficulty.2

Children learn these skills best when parents help them practise their growing skills, and have reasonable expectations for their child’s age. Parents gently guide children from being completely dependent, to making some decisions for themselves. The early versions of these skills are the foundations for their more developed skills in adulthood.1

Thinking of others

The topic ‘Talking and listening’ discusses the importance of talking about emotions with children. Part of parental guidance is talking about how others are feeling in everyday encounters, which helps children develop compassion for others.6 It’s also a necessary part of the child learning about socially acceptable behaviour.

Parents can help children connect what they’ve done with how it affects others. Noticing and commenting on the helpful, kind things a child does is key. For example, ‘When you picked up the toy pēpi dropped, she stopped crying. Look how happy she is now!’

Paying attention to their attempts at more socialised behaviour will inspire more of it in the future.7 Children thrive on encouragement.

When a child’s behaviour has affected someone negatively, rather than just talking about what they did, help them to see how it affected others. For example, ‘Sene cried when you hit him. He looks very sad.’ This helps children understand how their behaviour affects others.7

Reasoning that helps children become more sensitive about their behaviour to others is called ‘other-oriented induction’, and these types of conversations between parent and child influence children’s moral learning.3


From birth, consistently understanding and meeting baby’s needs – physically, socially, and emotionally – helps to form the beginning of a secure attachment relationship.

As babies become toddlers, they need guidance and ‘scaffolding’ from their parents so they learn how to behave.3 ‘Scaffolding’ means the parent supporting their child’s learning – ideally, just enough for the child to do something themselves.4

However, sometimes parents’ own needs get in the way. If they’re uncomfortable with being needed by their child, they may pressure them to be ‘independent’ before the child is ready. Other parents may be so focused on their own tasks (rather than their child's), that they take over, and they miss the opportunity to help their child learn, and for them to have fun together.5

The importance of having clear limits for children is addressed in the ‘Limits and boundaries’ topic. Part of the parents’ role is supporting their child to gradually understand about socially acceptable ways to behave, until they become internalised. This means that children know for themselves what’s right and wrong, and are less reliant on others to tell them.

Exploration and closeness needs

It’s helpful for parents to understand that their children have two different (but related) sets of needs. One of these is their need for closeness (physically and emotionally) with their parents, and the other is their need to explore.8 This can be quite a balancing act, as on a daily basis children of all ages will move between both these needs many times.

Through following their curiosity and exploring, children are learning about the world and developing important skills. Children will gain most from this when parents support and encourage, but don’t force them.

Exploration and safety

From a young age, children will look to their parents to see if what they’re doing is safe, and check that their parents are watching out for them.4

Parents need to be aware of their child’s safety, and also any unintentional messages they might be sending their children. Are they showing by their words, tone of voice and facial expressions that they support what their child is doing? For example, looking horrified as their child gets muddy or collects things from the garden may discourage their child from future exploration.

Once safety has been addressed, supporting as much exploration (and the mess it sometimes causes) as a child is ready for, will hugely benefit their development.

All great adventures, large and small, come to an end. Perhaps the child got tired, hungry or had a fright.4 Regardless, children need to be welcomed back by their parent. When parents can provide the comfort and reassurance their child needs, ‘this refuels them to go out and explore again’.9 Exploring under their parents’ watchful eyes, and coming back over and over again, is how children will ultimately grow to become independent.10

A useful way to remember the role of parents as they meet their child’s needs is to be ‘bigger, stronger, wiser and kind’ in their interactions with their child.5


  1. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s ‘air traffic control’ system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function: Working paper 11.(external link)
  2. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience: Working paper 13. Retrieved from link)
  3. Smith, A. B. (2005). Effective discipline and supporting change. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
  4. Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Marvin, R., & Powell, B. (2004). Travelling around the circle of security.
  5. Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., & Marvin, R. (2009). The circle of security. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), The handbook of infant mental health (3rd ed., pp. 450–467). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  6. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
  7. Honig, A. S., & Wittmer, D. S. (1991). Socialization and discipline for infants and young children. Early Child Development & Care, 66, 65–73.
  8. Siegel, D. J. (2004). Attachment and self-understanding: Parenting with the brain in mind. Retrieved from link)
  9. Dolby, R. (2007). The circle of security: Roadmap to building supportive relationships. Watson, Australia: Early Childhood Australia. (p. 3)
  10. Dolby, R. (2007). The circle of security: Roadmap to building supportive relationships. Watson, Australia: Early Childhood Australia.