Is There Research to Support RIE®?

We see it working, but is there research to support RIE®?

The short answer to the above question is…is there ever!!! Going all the way back to the start of Resources for Infant Educarers®, research has been at the foundation. In Budapest, prior to coming to the U.S., Magda met Dr. Emmi Pikler when she enlisted Dr. Pikler as a fill-in pediatrician. She was so impressed with the respectful way Dr. Pikler treated her daughter that she immediately dropped her old pediatrician, retained Dr. Pikler, and thus began a decades long friendship, mentorship and collaboration that resulted in the formation of RIE®.

Dr. Pikler did extensive naturalistic research about the children at “Lóczy” (also called the Emmi Pikler Institute). RIE® practice is based on this research, notably on the progression of unassisted motor development, and the development of self care and communication skills in the context of primary caregiving. Dr. Judit Falk, who followed Dr. Pikler as head of Lóczy, stated, “The development of the children in Lóczy was our only criteria for judging the results of our work. Our observations of their development, and the three follow-up studies, including the one done under the auspices of WHO [the World Health Organization], confirmed our concept” (Falk, J. 2007).

This study confirmed the success of Pikler’s proposition that sensitive, focused care by a stable small group of caregivers (one being the primary or “own” carer) along with the freedom to move and explore as they please in a safe but interesting environment, would provide children sufficient security and stimulation to produce healthy individuals, in spite of being raised in an institution without parents. The Educaring® Approach is based upon and elaborates this work in the family and childcare contexts.

In the parent-infant classes my family took with Magda, and as a RIE® trainee under her, I learned about a number of evidence-based developmental theories that support what we were learning at RIE®. Magda often referred to the work of Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmentalist who studied the progression of development by carefully observing his own children as they grew up. It is from his work that the infant/toddler stage came to be known as “The Sensorimotor Stage” that we can hear Magda referring to in “See How They Move.” The importance of supporting a child’s desire to move, to crawl, sit stand, walk, throw, run, as well as to touch, taste, explore and experiment, which we all recognize as a major aspect of RIE®, is backed up by Piaget’s constructivist theory. Through Piaget’s work we can appreciate how young children construct their understanding of the physical and social world by following their intrinsic interests.

Magda also taught us the concept of “scaffolding,” which grew out of the work of the Russian developmentalist, Lev Vygotsky. From this perspective, we learned that our quiet presence and attention can often be enough to support children’s learning, but when they need more help, providing the least amount of help that will get them past an impasse as they pursue their own learning objectives is enough.

Another researcher, who actually coined the term “affective neuroscience”, was Jaak Panksepp, who studied the neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions by studying animals. He was able to locate the brain systems devoted to particular primary (meaning unlearned, instinctual) affects. If an emotion could be identified as a genetically preserved instinct, specific to a particular region in the brain, he would count it as innate and refer to it in all capital letters. Thus, he identified seven primary affects: SEEKING, PANIC/GRIEF (related to separation distress), FEAR, PLAY, RAGE, LUST and CARE. Panksepp’s work on primary emotions is directly relevant and support the seven basic principles of Educaring®, which is why I was so keen to have him keynote the RIE® Conference. Unfortunately, he passed away before we could make that happen, but you can read his books and articles to learn about his research. His article in the Summer 2008 American Journal of Play is a great place to start. His work offers convincing scientific evidence to support what Magda always said, that play is what babies instinctively do when they are not sleeping or being cared for.

On the more interior aspects of the Educaring® Approach, Magda found support in Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious, as did Pikler. Freud made the idea that people have an inner life, based upon early childhood experiences, that continue to motivate and affect a person in a lifelong way. Magda often referred in classes to Attachment Theory, which was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The Educaring® value of having at least one stable, sensitive and dedicated adult (which at home would be a parent or close relative, and in childcare a “primary caregiver”) who responds to the child’s cues in a timely, attuned manner to create security is fully supported by Attachment Theory. I recommend everyone do some reading of Bowlby’s work. There are books listed at the end.

To take Attachment Theory further, coming into the present time, psychologist and developmentalist Allan Schore has tied Bowlby and Ainsworth’s work to neuroscience by identifying the neural correlates in brain development of the differing attachment patterns. If you have the will, I highly recommend his book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. For less technical but very useful (and less costly) reads on this topic, I suggest Why Love Matters: How Attachment Shapes a Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhardt or Affect Regulation Theory by Dan Hill.

Magda also frequently referred to Margaret Mahler’s Separation/Individuation Theory, and I encourage you to look it up if you are not familiar with it. It can be helpful, although, personally, I find certain points of disagreement with her basic assumption that the infant is not aware of being separate from the mother at first. I don’t really think Magda thought so, either, although she respected what Mahler had to say. You can decide for yourself!

If I had more time, I would bring in a number of other researches that are relevant to our work in Educaring®. There are so many studies in so many fields that relate, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and cognitive science. I would love to challenge you to read scientific

journals to look for support, or lack of support, for in being informed we will be better able to articulate why we do certain things so differently from the mainstream. And if you are embarking upon graduate studies and want to do research in the field of infant care and education, that would be exciting and I would love to hear from you. Here’s the thing: babies haven’t really changed in 50,000 years, but the more we know about how they develop, the better we can be at taking care of them!


Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. London: Routledge.

Bowlby, J. (1979, 1989). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. New York: Routledge.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Falk, J. (2007). Some information about the history of Pikler Institute. In A. Tardos (Ed.) Bringing up and providing care of infants and toddlers in an institution. (p. 7). Budapest, Hungary: Pikler- Lóczy Társaság.

Mahler, M., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mahler, M. (1979). Separation-individuation. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget and Vygotsky 2nd edition. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Mooney, C. G. (2010). Theories of attachment: Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton & Klaus. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J. (2008). Play, ADHD and the Construction of the Social Brain: Should the First Class Each Day Be Recess? The American journal of pla. Summer 2008. University of Illinois.

emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J. & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Pikler, E. (2007). Give me time: Gross motor development under the conditions at Lóczy. In A. Tardos (Ed.) Bringing up and providing care of infants and toddlers in an institution. (pp. 135-150). Budapest, Hungary: Pikler- Lóczy Társaság.

Pikler, E. (1994). Peaceful babies – contented mothers (excerpt from 1969 book of same name). Sensory Awareness Foundation Bulletin, 14 Pp. 5-45.

Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of

emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Tardos, A., Ed. (2007). Bringing up and providing care for infants and toddlers in an institution. Budapest, Hungary: Pikler-Lóczy Társaság.

Tardos., A. (December 2010). Introducing the Piklerian developmental approach: History and principles. The Signal: Newsletter of the World Association for Infant Mental Health, Vol. 18 No. 3-4, Pp. 1-4.

Tardos., A. (December 2010). The researching infant. The Signal: Newsletter of the World Association for Infant Mental Health

About Our Associate:

Ruth Anne Hammond (Los Angeles, California), author of Respecting Babies: A New Look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach (2009), is a RIE® Associate and Mentor, having studied under its founder, Magda Gerber, and was RIE® President from 2005 to 2011. She taught at Pacific Oaks College for 20 years and was Master Teacher in its Infant/Toddler-Parent Program for 17 years. She participates in a study group on affective neuroscience with Dr. Allan N. Schore of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. A former professional dancer, she continues to express her love of movement in her work with infants and toddlers. •

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