Building Positive Learning Environments for Young Children Starts with You

A girl shows her toy links

By Sarah Merrill and Jamie Sheehan

When we think about early learning environments, what comes to mind? Often, it's things: alphabet puzzles, books lined up neatly on shelves, blocks, water tables, and more. But the most important part of a positive early learning environment is you. Teachers and family child care providers—all the education staff working with the children are what matter most. Though staff roles may look different across various types of settings (e.g., home-based, center-based, family child care), you remain the most important component of a responsive environment.

Positive early learning environments start with you when you create a positive social and emotional environment that is built on caring and responsive relationships. Children can't explore and learn, experience joy and wonder, until they feel secure. They need to trust their caregivers and know their needs will be met. Young children need adults to establish the relationships by being consistent and responding to social and emotional cues, both in classrooms and home-based settings.

When you build a unique relationship with children, learn their cues and communications, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and the areas where they need support, you help them feel safe. That's why providing nurturing, responsive, and effective interactions and engaging environments is the foundation of the Framework for Effective Practice, or the House Framework. The practices at the foundation of the house are critical to promote early learning and development in all domains.

But what you do for the children in your care is not everything! Take care of yourself! Make sure you feel safe and secure in the environment, too. When providers calmly manage the stresses and challenges they experience in an early childhood program, children feel safe and secure.

What helps you keep cool when challenges ramp up? When the toilet breaks one more time? When the children are antsy after a week of rain? Self-regulation skills. "Self-regulation" is your ability to manage your feelings, actions, and thoughts so you stay goal-directed and do not get derailed. For example, when a car pulls out in front of you on the highway, can you stay calm and carefully slow down so you don't hit it? Will you still get to the movie on time? Your self-regulation skills are at work every day, in so many ways.

Young children are just learning how to regulate their emotions, behavior, and cognition. But they can't do it alone. They need you! The Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework says it clearly in the Approaches to Learning and Social and Emotional Functioning domains, where the self-regulation goals for young children include "the support of familiar adults."

Exactly what kind of support can you give young children? It's called co-regulation. "Co-regulation" is an interactive process where adults provide regulatory support to children in the context of a shared, nurturing relationship. It looks different at different ages, but adult support remains a critical piece of the puzzle throughout childhood. Even as grown-ups, we often need support from others to regulate ourselves—think of when you call your mom or meet a friend to talk through a bad day.

You might co-regulate when a baby is startled by a dog barking loudly. You pick the baby up, rock him, reassure him in a gentle tone, and rub his back until he is calm again. A preschooler becomes incredibly angry when a peer pushes her on the playground. In this case, you might kneel to the child's level and validate her feelings (e.g., "You're very mad because someone pushed you!") and suggest pro-social next steps (e.g., "Should we tell them how you feel?"). When you respond calmly to a child, the child's feelings often de-escalate. Children tend to turn up the intensity if they feel they aren't being understood. When you respond calmly, you show children what regulation looks like.

To work with children as they co-regulate, you need to:

  • Identify your own feelings and reactions when you are stressed.
  • Find healthy outlets to manage your emotions. Exercise can be an effective stress management practice for many people, while others find that meditation works best. Experiment and discover which strategies work for you.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts and beliefs about child development, behavior expectations, and individual children. Make sure you're interacting in developmentally, culturally, and linguistically responsive ways.
  • Use strategies to calm yourself so you can respond to children effectively and compassionately. Decide what works best for you. Drinking a glass of water? Singing a song with the children?

A key part of building a positive early learning environment is providing children with the co-regulation they need. There are three main ways you can do this:

  • First, build a warm and caring relationship with each child and their family. Your goal is to understand their development, communication style, and temperament. Some children may need a lot of support to co-regulate and others not as much. You only know those cues when you know the child. Parents can help you here because they know their children best!
  • Second, create an environment of "yes" for children that buffers them from environmental stressors. Establish predictable routines, transition strategies, and behavioral expectations appropriate to their development. You can also create a "cozy corner" in your classroom or family child care home where children can go if they are feeling overwhelmed. Share these ideas with families so they can create "yes" spaces in their home.
  • Third, offer children intentionally planned learning experiences to help them practice self-regulation skills. For example, you can plan fun activities to help children as young as 18 months learn to name their own feelings, recognize others' feelings, and self-soothe in moments of distress. Model these skills yourself and point out when you see other children and adults using them, too. Review your curriculum to ensure it offers appropriate social and emotional learning opportunities.

You are the most important part of the early learning environment. Offering young children calm, nurturing, and predictable social and emotional environments, and promoting their self-regulation skills, helps them feel safe and secure so they can learn, play, and grow.

Sarah Merrill and Jamie Sheehan are Program Specialists for the Office of Head Start.