I loved playing volleyball in high school. I took pride in being a scrappy player. “Ball first, body second” was the motto that led me to be colorfully adorned with bruises all over my elbows and hips during each season. It’s also the reason I wound up in the ER (twice) for stitches in my chin. In my view, the ball wasn’t unplayable until the second it hit the ground. Up until that point, I did everything I physically could to get my body to the ball.
I tend to think about my experience playing volleyball when I hear the term “serve and return” in child development. In a developmental context, serve and return refers to back and forth social interactions, often (but not exclusively) between the child and parents, teachers, and other caregivers.
I came across the term most recently in a consensus statement released by ten of the top scholars on the topic of early education. (I discuss the statement on the NJC Podcast here.)
In the statement, they write:
Developmental science tells us that a key ingredient is the instructional, social, and emotional “serve-and-return” interactions that occur daily between teachers and children, as well as among classmates. The odds for better outcomes are improved when these back and forth interactions are consistent and responsive. This brain building interplay motivates and deepens learning, enables children to organize and focus their attention and other capacities needed to learn, and promotes peer cooperation and support.”
As I think about serve and return again in the volleyball context, I wonder how many teachers, parents, and caregivers are essentially standing on the court, watching serves go by because they didn’t come right to them.
Serve and return is the essence of a responsive environment. It’s an active, not passive, concept. In volleyball, you prepare for a serve by getting low, extending your arms to a ready position, and rolling to the balls of your feet, anticipating the serve and preparing to move toward it. When the serve comes, the team springs into action, moving into position to pass or receive a pass in order to return the ball.
It’s fluid motion.
Granted, in the serve and return of healthy relationships, we don’t want to aggressively spike our return, but at the same time, I wonder how many of us are waiting for the serve on flat feet, unwilling to move. We stand and watch balls hit the floor all around us.
The most detrimental breakdown of serve and return comes in situations of neglect, addiction, and trauma. But on a smaller scale, we can miss serves in everyday moments as well.
This happens to us as parents, when we’re looking at a cell phone when a child is cooing, talking, or literally climbing all over us, seeking connection.
This happens in the classroom, when a child makes a comment or bid for attention that is dismissed or ignored, or when we become too concerned as teachers with teaching the lesson rather than teaching the child.
This happens any time we expect connection to follow a clean script, or when we are too uncomfortable with flexibility to stray from what WE had envisioned in order to embrace what we actually see in front of us now.
And here’s where the real problem arises.
There is great support for research-based approaches to early childhood. This means taking what we know from research and applying it in our educational environments. I’m all for that. But, as I’ve said before, research is only as good as the sense we use to apply it.
I’ve had teachers tell me of programs where they are expected to teach by script, or where classroom approaches are rigid and unbending. The thinking is that these programs are more rigorous or research-based. But kids don’t fit neatly into our flow charts or research designs. And scripts are not responsive.
While I appreciate the need to follow a clean, controlled design for research purposes, these are not always the same conditions that nurture learning — and real connection — in a real world. The researchers cited in the paper above don’t even expect such a rigid design, but rather, suggest a responsive one.
Research may co-exist with education, but they aren’t the same thing. Children are more than data points.
Ready for the paradoxical twist?
The researchers in the consensus statement note that the serve and return within early childhood environments is a critical and healthy part of optimal development and positive early education outcomes. They likewise emphasize that each program needs to be individually responsive.
So research-based practice actually needs to be responsive, not scientifically sterile.
This is that challenge of studying preK programs. It’s hard to scientifically measure the result of consistently changing variables. While a disciplined scientist controls the environment in order to isolate results and draw clean conclusions, a teacher or parent responds to the environment and all its messy realities.
As parents and teachers, we need to shake out some of our stiffness, get agile, and be willing to move and adapt in order to respond and return those serves.
We need to physically move. We need to get on the floor and really connect with kids.
We need to verbally move to build on what kids are saying and create real conversations, not one-sided monologues.
We need to move mentally and be willing to shake off the comfort of “what we’ve always done” for something we need now.
Because if there’s one thing I learned from my scrappy days digging volleyballs, it’s that returns aren’t made from a rigid, stationary position. They require anticipating, moving, and being willing to get down on the floor.
Read and listen to more on the consensus statement here.