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  • Writer's pictureLena Agree JD, PsyD

How your Nanny Should Support Your Child's Emotional Development: “Contingent Responding”

Updated: Apr 17

This is the first of a 4-part series of posts addressing how your nanny can support your child's social-emotional development.

Your nanny/au pair spends many hours with your child, so it is imperative that she influence your child’s social-emotional development in a positive way. Research has identified contingent responding as one of four behaviors every childcare worker should practice to support children’s social-emotional development at any age.

o Contingent responding

o Warmth/positive affect/positive regard

o Joint attention

o Responsive routines and limits

What is contingent responding? This term sounds complex, but it just means responding to the child’s cues: (a) quickly, (b) sensitively, and (c) in a way that accurately addresses the child’s needs at that time.

There are generally 3 types of cues a child will exhibit, and each one requires a different/contingent response. These are:

1. Distress cues

2. Social cues

3. Emotional cues

Cue #1: Distress cues.

These are cues the child exhibits when in distress, such as crying or having a tantrum. When a child is in distress, the response should be immediate. It is important to take the child’s distress seriously, without diminishing it, and acknowledging what the child seems to be experiencing (eg: “You are really upset about this”!).

The “contingent” aspect refers to paying close attention to what the child may be thinking and feeling, because distress cues can look the same but mean very different things.


3 year-old Jenny is having a tantrum over wanting a toy at the store.

Is she doing her very best to force you to buy the toy for her? Or, is she actually upset about something else, for which she needs comforting, and wants the toy for emotional soothing?

Here, a non-contingent response would be to assume that all children who have a tantrum over a toy are being manipulative and should be punished or ignored. If Jenny was upset about something needed soothing, and instead she was punished or ignored, she would feel emotionally overwhelmed and left alone to manage it, which is too difficult for a child. If this pattern is repeated, it can cause long-term damage.

A contingent response requires more work to determine what Jenny may actually be thinking and feeling. See posts on Teaching Your Nanny How to Care for Your Child for more information on this topic.

A helpful rule that all child caregivers should employ is: “When children look like they need a ‘time out,’ they really need a ‘time in.’”

Cue #2: Social cues: These include cues that indicate your child is seeking:

~ Individual attention (look at me),

~ Joint attention and enjoyment (look at this with me), and

~ Play (do this with me).

It can be tempting to devalue the importance of these cues, because they are not as emotionally charged as distress cues. However, they are equally meaningful and deserve the same level of seriousness.

We can actually empathize with these needs, because as adults we engage in the same types of social cues. You wouldn’t want to be ignored or put off for too long when you seek attention. The same general rule applies to children, except that their brains are developing in response to their environment, so a chronic failure to respond can cause actual damage.

One (perhaps obvious) caveat to look out for with childcare workers is the phone. If you suspect your nanny/au pair’s attention is frequently divided between your child and her phone, then she is likely neglecting too many of your child’s social cues.

Cue #3: Emotional cues

Children need adults to help them manage and makes sense of their feelings. A sensitive caregiver anticipates this need. She looks for evidence of emotional states in your child and tries to understand them. She notices when your child is unhappy, confused or disengaged, and attributes these states to feelings, rather than defaulting to physiological explanations (tired, hungry, cranky). She also suggests words to your child to help him/her describe the feelings (eg: “You seem frustrated” or “Wow you are really excited”!).

A nanny who responds contingently responds differently to different feelings. If your child is sad, she would try to comfort him/her. However, if your child is confused, she would not only comfort, but also help him/her understand the situation better.

Of course, it can be difficult to determine a child’s feelings, and no one gets it right much of the time. The take away is that your nanny/au pair should know to look for various emotions in your child, and respond in different ways to different feelings.

Please read the next post to learn why your nanny’s expression of warmth is so important to your child’s social-emotional development.

Based on research by:

Atkins-Burnett, Sally, Shannon Monahan, Louisa Tarullo, Yange Xue, Elizabeth Cavadel, Lizabeth Malone, and Lauren Akers (2015). Measuring the Quality of Caregiver-Child Interactions for Infants and Toddlers (Q-CCIIT). OPRE Report 2015-13. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Halle, T., Anderson, R., Blasberg, A., Chrisler, A., & Simkin, S. (2011). Quality of caregiver- child interactions for infants and toddlers (QCCIIT): A Review of the Literature, OPRE 2011- 25. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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