Education and social care are built on strong working relationships and being responsive to one another’s needs. But life is about so much more than that. Here, university lecturer and doctoral student Paul Darby reflects on the power of professional love and its many manifestations…

I have recently been talking to my early years students about a new concept for me, it is called professional love. The thought of this as a subject for discussion in the field of early years care and education seemed a little ‘out there’ and introducing the subject left me feeling nervous. I was teaching a group of undergraduates who are generally encouraged to develop critical analysis and explore and develop a professional evidence base.

I also wondered what this term could actually mean; love as far as I am aware is a wholly subjective concept, having been in love in many different ways throughout my life it seemed to me that this may be an awkward conversation with a group of students. Partly because I may have to offer some of my own subjective experiences, and also because I have a professional and largely objective relationship with my students.

I considered this carefully and read what relevant academic material was available, I was surprised to find minutes for a conference, and also to discover that the study of love is an academic discipline. The material that I read was inspiring and contained qualitative narratives from professional practitioners who clearly defined the importance of emotional connections within their interactions. This was a welcome diversion from the generally detached objectivity of academic papers and policy reviews.

It occurred to me that perhaps poetry would be an even more productive medium to explore the meaning of professional love. The work of Loris Malaguzzi and his poem, The Hundred Languages of Children is evocative of an emotional responsiveness to children (The Hundred Languages of Children: Reggio Children – 100 languages).

Welcome to Holland, by Emily Perl Kingsley, beautifully conveys the bittersweet feelings experienced by a mother whose baby is born with Downs Syndrome (Welcome to Holland:  Welcome To Holland — Emily Perl Kingsley).

Over the years, working in nursing and social care roles I reflected that some of the experiences and professional relationships that I have made, may have called for emotional connections. Because of the intensity of the situations, there were similarities with the nature of a loving relationship. Interestingly as I write this, I feel a sense of discomfort, and this may well be due to my own inability to express this.

But on closer thought and reflection, I remember freely holding the hands of people in times of deep distress. This was a natural response to their needs, listening closely and sharing feelings with virtual strangers through an unsaid non-verbal understanding. Reading the faces of those in front of me and responding to emotional cues for support and reassurance.

The act of responding to emotional needs within a professional context requires a high level of emotional literacy. It comes with experience and confidence, a reflective response to situations, reviewing interactions with others helps to build this. The situation of being in a ‘caring profession’ is a privilege, people place great trust in you. This trust deserves a respectful attitude, a recognition that the wrong response can cause a lasting effect in the emotional memory of those who place their trust in you.

Following this quite deep process of reflection, I decided to go with it and introduce the idea to the students. I felt that the best way to deliver it was in a group discussion linked to the emotional needs of young children. We began talking about the concept of emotional responses to children and how important it is to create a warm and responsive relationship. The students began to respond positively with examples from their own professional experiences.

Some of the stories caused an emotional response in the group, recalling emotive and yet deeply professional responses to children and their families.  We recalled positive memories from our own childhoods, images of mothers gently tossing duvets over us and warm embraces. There was a sense of connectedness as we talked freely as a group, all who shared their stories were deeply respected and supported. It became totally clear to me that as a group of early years professionals they were deeply connected and committed to the needs of the children in their care.

I am very happy that I chose to explore the nature of professional love and include it in my teaching. It reinforces the significance of relationships in all of our lives. Knowing that the students that I teach have such an emotionally responsive and empathetic outlook is a credit to them and enhances the academic discipline of early years education and care.

In future I intend to integrate this concept of professional love more frequently in my interaction with students.  Professionalism can be contextualised in many different ways; this experience has taught me that emotional responsiveness and the awareness of self and others is central to early years professional knowledge and skills development. It enables us to use the word ‘love’ freely, with a purposeful intent to meet the deep emotional needs of others.