Interview with Harvard University’s Dr. Junlei Li: How ‘Simple Interactions’ Can Create Strong Relationships and Healthy Development

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Interview with Harvard University’s Dr. Junlei Li: How ‘Simple Interactions’ Can Create Strong Relationships and Healthy Development

Our daily lives are full of small, seemingly mundane events that can go unnoticed. However, for all of us, and especially for children, these “simple interactions” are the building blocks for bigger, more meaningful events that shape our lives.

Simple Interactions is also the name for an early childhood development approach to promote strong relationships between children and their caregivers, both at home and in school.

The approach gives teachers a framework to work with students and utilize everyday interactions to improve overall development. Simple Interactions has garnered positive reviews from educators and child psychologists who deem the approach effective and easy to implement in various situations. It is also highly accessible and freely available. In fact, you can download the Simple Interactions Tool here. But before you do that, let’s explore the concept with the person who developed the Simple Interactions approach.

Dr. Junlei Li is a co-founder of the Simple Interactions approach. A renowned expert in developmental psychology and early childhood education, he serves as the Human Development and Education Program co-chair and the Saul Zaentz senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

To give Thrive readers a better understanding of the Simple Interactions approach, we asked Dr. Li to explain the concept and how it works. The following Q and A is full of terrific insight from one of today’s foremost children’s education theorists.


Thrive: ‘Simple Interactions’ is connected to the Fred Rogers Institute. Would you tell me a bit about that connection? What does Fred Rogers have to do with ‘Simple Interactions?’


Dr. Junlei Li: So much of my own work was inspired by the legacy of Fred Rogers, ever since I was a graduate student studying psychology in Pittsburgh, long before I worked with Fred Rogers’ organizations. While I first started developing the idea of Simple Interactions with colleagues in the United States and China, I was also working at the Fred Rogers Institute as a faculty chair and co-director. I had a wonderful colleague there who is the executive director of the Institute today, Dr. Dana Winters. We worked together on many projects to explore what “simple interactions” looked like in everyday life, and how we might help grown-ups to trust themselves.

Just like Fred Rogers was insistent that educational television should be free and accessible for all children and families, the group of us who developed the Simple Interactions approach insisted that it should be free and accessible in the public domain for anyone to use and play with – and never be packaged and sold to a publisher or a commercial interest.


What are ‘simple interactions’ and why are they important for families and educators?


Families and educators have long understood that the relationships we build with children (and with each other) are essential to trusting, learning, and developing. This is as true for children as it is for adults. Sometimes the world outside pressures us to think about “big moments” in these relationships – a big exam, a vacation, birthday parties, recitals, and graduations.

We could also use a reminder that human relationships are made up of simple, everyday, and mostly ordinary interactions. From the diaper changing, feeding, and putting to bed when children were young, to the daily interactions with school bus drivers, crossing guards, school front desk, and teachers, to the endless drives to practices or games. These moments are the very basic and essential building blocks of relationships – and relationships are the very foundation of healthy human development.


Would you give an example of a ‘simple interaction’ that a family member or caregiver may be doing and not even realize?


During the pandemic, we gave a talk on Zoom for parents. Afterward, I received an email from the person who was helping with the tech support on Zoom. She told me that as a mother of children with special needs, she felt she always had to be focused on getting her children to the “next thing” on time and ready. This sometimes caused her to be frustrated with her husband, who always seemed to want to “have a good time” with the kids, regardless of such urgencies. Then she said that she realized that some of the most important and joyful moments are not just “getting to the next thing,”but also the in-between times. She reminded herself not to miss out on those. I was very touched.

I think as parents and caregivers, we know the importance of both “getting to the next thing” and the “in-between times.” What are your in-between times? Ever since my children were little, whenever I could, I like to drive them to school and pick them up, even if it is just a few minutes of conversation – or quiet.


These ‘simple interactions’ have been credited with improving brain development in children. What is the connection between these moments and brain development?


I think we know a lot about children’s brain development and how nearly every aspect of that development – cognitive, social-emotional, even the part of the brain that coordinates muscles – are supported by reciprocal interactions with people and the world.

I actually want to talk about something unusual. I learned over the last few years that adults’ brains change when we become caregivers. This is true for birth mothers (as we can imagine), but also true for fathers, and even true for adoptive/foster parents. It turns out that there is this “caregiving” network inside our brain, and it rewires itself both to get ready for caregiving, and the caregiving experience itself rewires the brain. Isn’t that amazing? It means that all of us may have the capacity to provide care to children, and the more we do it, the stronger that capacity gets.

And if we don’t feel like we are being very good parents, caregivers, or teachers – it doesn’t mean we aren’t “born with the instinct.” It simply means that something might be holding us back – stress, isolation, lack of support. So instead of feeling a deficit about ourselves, we can trust ourselves and be both humble and courageous enough to ask for help. We all need help and support as caregivers and teachers, and we can all provide that help and support to someone else.


What are some practices a family member or caregiver can utilize to be more intentional about engaging in these sorts of interactions with the children in their lives?


I think the first thing we can do for ourselves – and for our children – is to trust ourselves. Of course, we are always trying to be better, and we always have opportunities to learn and grow as parents or caregivers. The trust is not that we are perfect, but that we do not need to be perfect to be helpful (that phrase came from my favorite human development pioneer, Fred Rogers).

My colleague Dr. Dana Winters, the executive director of the Fred Rogers Center and a working mother of two lovely daughters, reminded me that parents and educators often have to live in a “never enough” world. There are all sorts of voices and pressures that make us think that no matter what we do, we are never good enough as parents and caregivers. Sometimes, we transfer that “never enough” into our interactions with children – and then to our children themselves.

I think if we trust ourselves to learn and discover, to be present and to find joy (and even humor), to understand and to share with our children in moments of happiness or frustration, in moments of excitement and mundane, we will find our own connections. There is no one way to be a “good enough” caregiver or parent – and you don’t have to act, sound, and be like something made out of a cookie-cutter.

In that context, the Simple Interactions way of observing and reflecting is very different from an evaluation tool. We never wanted a teacher or a parent to look at the tool and rate themselves (e.g., “I should be at Z, why am I only at Y”). We hope it serves as a mirror – and you can see yourself at a particular moment. A few of our collaborators are parents and teachers. Sometimes, half-jokingly and half-seriously, we might say, “I had an XY moment today! (or any combination of letters).” What follows is not a discussion of why “XY” moment is bad. It is more like “Does XY fit the situation? Is it necessary or appropriate? Are there opportunities to see if we can move from XY to Y, or Y to YZ?”

Look, we are never that nerdy in every moment of our lives. One final thought about why we shouldn’t chase after “Z” moments all the time – we are pretty sure that not only are “Z” moments unnecessary sometimes, they might even be inappropriate. Trust that you will discover and understand in your many interactions with specific children within specific situations what is necessary and appropriate – and what is real and true for who you are as a caregiver or educator.


You have spent your career researching young children. What are some things you’ve learned that are especially important for families and educators?


Actually, I spent my career working in many settings for young children, school-age children, and youth are learning and developing. In that process, my colleagues and I realized one important common sense idea: We as a society cannot make a lasting, positive impact on children of any age if we do not understand or support the needs of the adults who are caring for and teaching children. That includes families, educators, and many others.

I hope leaders understand that, and I hope families and educators feel empowered to make that case, wherever they are. The tool we use to support that kind of advocacy is not a chart or a manual, but a simple and essential question.


How do our practices, programs, and policies encourage, enrich, and empower the human relationships around children, families, and professionals?


You can ask that question in any institution or organization or system, and I think it’s equally relevant and essential. We’ve tried to do that, in schools, in communities, with government agencies, and with foundation partners. We really think if we can take a moment in any decision or development process, and just ask ourselves that question, and think and talk about it in an honest way, we will – just like caregivers and teachers – discover and understand what the heart of our work is all about.