Serve and Return Interactions

Serve and return interactions

The key to building a child’s brain architecture is the quality of serve and return interactions between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family or community. Without responsive caregiving—or if responses are unreliable or inappropriate—the child’s brain’s architecture does not form as expected which affects lifelong health and behaviour.

Serve and return refers to the two-way, back-and-forth interactions between a child and a responsive adult. Serve and return interactions help make strong connections in developing brains and build the foundation for a child’s lifelong behaviour and health.

Take small moments during the day to engage in serve and return with a child. As you engage in serve and return interactions, allow the child to take the lead. You can follow these 5 steps to practice.

Video shared with permission from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child

Why Serve and Return Interactions Matter

Why are serve and return interactions so important for a child’s healthy development? In this video, we see how early interactions between adults and children shape brain architecture, setting the foundation for future development.

Video shared with permission from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return Interaction

Step 1:

Pay attention to a child’s serves and share the child’s focus of attention.

Is the child looking or pointing at something? Are they making a sound or facial expression? That’s a serve. The key is to look for small opportunities throughout the day when the child is trying to connect with you by making serves.

By paying attention to serves, you’ll learn a lot about a child’s interests and abilities which will help you respond to their needs. You’ll also strengthen your bond.

Step 2:

Return the serve by supporting and encouraging the child.

Supporting and encouraging rewards a child’s curiosity. There are so many ways to respond to a child’s serve and let them know that you acknowledge them. You can offer them comfort with a hug and gentle words, play with them, smiling and nodding to let the child know you’re noticing the same thing they’re pointing at.

Not getting a return can be stressful for a child. When you return a serve, children feel seen, heard and understood.

Step 3:

Use words when you can and name the child’s focus of attention.

When returning a serve, it’s important to use words when you can and name what the child is focused on. You can name anything—a person, a thing, an action, a feeling, or a combination. For example, when a child points to a toy car, you can also point to it and say, “yes, that’s a car”.

When you name their focus of attention, you make important language connections in their brain, even before they can talk or understand words. By using words, you help them understand the world around them and know what to expect.

Step 4:

Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth.

Every time you return a serve, give the child a chance to process information. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they’re learning many things at once. Waiting is crucial because it also helps you understand their needs and helps keep the turns going.

Taking turns helps children learn how to deal with situations and get along with others. When you wait for their response, you give children time to develop their own ideas and build their confidence and independence.

Step 5:

Practice endings and beginnings.

Children will signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, pick up a new one, or turn to look at something else. They may also walk away, start to fuss, or just say, “done”. When you share a child’s focus, you’ll notice when they’re ready to end the activity and begin something new.

Allow the child to take the lead. When you allow them to take the lead, they feel supported to explore their world. This will make more serve and return interactions possible.



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