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Promoting a Sense Of Self: The Environment

The environment consists of the space in which children learn as well as the people in that space—their peers and caregivers. This lesson will focus on how the family child care environment influences children’s sense of self and describes how you can create environments that engage children in meaningful experiences that promote development and a healthy self-concept.

  • Describe how the environment influences a sense of self.
  • Consider the importance of adult self-awareness as part of the environment.
  • Consider unique challenges and opportunities affecting a sense of self for members of military communities.
  • Recognize methods of self-care that help family child care providers be healthier and more effective.



Think about some of the memorable environments you experienced as a young child. Hopefully, you can think of many places that left you with happy memories, like your childhood home, a relative’s home, schools, a favorite vacation spot, or your local park. These environments bring back good memories because you felt safe and secure and had fun. Think about what else makes these environments memorable. Was it just the place itself, or was it also the people there with you? The people in a learning environment play a crucial role in making it positive. Are there also environments that left you with unhappy memories? What was different about these environments? Was it a feeling of uncertainty, fear, boredom, or anxiety? Was it a feeling of not being welcomed and encouraged? Was it unsupportive or emotionally unavailable adults? The environments we are in and the people we share our environments with help shape who we are. Our self-concepts are developed in homes, schools, libraries, and playgrounds, and with our families, friends, child care providers, and teachers. The learning environment that you are creating will impact the children and families you serve.

Consider the situations below. These kinds of scenarios can happen in any family child care program.

  • A family child care provider greets families as they enter the home. Three-year-old Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The provider laughs and says, “Look at you smiling at Francessca! Are you flirting? What a ladies’ man! You come here, buddy.” A few minutes later, Josie, also a 3-year-old, arrives with her mother. Like Hayden, Josie buries her head in her mother’s shoulder and smiles as she turns to glimpse at her provider. This time the provider says teasingly, “Aw, someone is shy! Why are you being shy with me? Don’t you be shy with me, you’re my doll baby!” 
  • Clarice, a new mom, fills out the intake paperwork and developmental screeners for her infant. As she tries to answer questions about family history, she grows more frustrated. She adopted her son, and some questions assume he was born into the family. She does not know where or how to communicate the information she feels should be shared about her son’s history. She starts to worry that this family child care home won’t be a good fit for her family.

What messages is each child receiving about his or her identity? What messages are the families receiving about what and who you and your program values? What messages are they receiving about the expectations you or your program have for them?

As you read the scenarios, perhaps you felt a pang of empathy for the children and families. Some individuals weren’t receiving positive messages about their identities. As a family child care provider, you are responsible for creating safe, nurturing, welcoming, and accepting environments for all children and families in your program. In doing so, you need to consider not only the physical space, but also social interactions and exchanges that take place within that space. Take a few moments to consider alternative ways the above scenarios could have occurred:

  • Three-year-old Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The provider laughs and says, “Good morning, Hayden! What a good snuggle you’re giving your Mama. I can tell you’re happy to see your friends, too.” A few minutes later, Josie arrives with her mother. Like Hayden, Josie buries her head in her mother’s shoulder and smiles as she turns to glimpse her provider. This time the provider says, “Hi Josie! We’re so glad you’re here! Hayden and Mariah are playing with books. Would you like to come over or do you need a minute?”
  • Clarice, a new mom, fills out the intake paperwork and developmental screeners for her infant. The form does not assume that she gave birth to her son but asks if her child was adopted so she can skip over sections that don’t apply. Space is provided where she can share information about the circumstances in which her son became part of her family. She is happy to see a statement that she can skip any question or talk to the provider in person about the form. She tells her partner that she thinks they chose a really great place for their son.

Environments that Promote Children’s Sense of Self

Environments play a large part in identity formation and comprise many aspects. As discussed in the Family Child Care Learning Environments course, an environment is a combination of the physical space, appearance, and contents, as well as the people, relationships, and sense of community within it.

As an adult, you may have several choices about where you spend your time. You can seek out places that you feel good in and you can avoid places that make you feel uncomfortable or stressed. Children don’t have this level of control about where and how they spend their time. In Lessons One and Two, you learned that children develop their sense of identity primarily as a result of the messages they receive from the significant adults in their lives. The children in your program will likely spend a large amount of their day with you. Therefore, it is essential that the choices you make regarding the environment convey that they are accepted, valued, and capable.

Infants and toddlers in particular come to know themselves through their caregiver’s eyes. According to J. Ronald Lally (2009), an expert in infant-toddler development, infants and toddlers learn the following things from their caregivers that influence their sense of self:

  • What to fear
  • Which behaviors are appropriate
  • How messages are received and acted upon
  • How successful they are at getting their needs met by others
  • What emotions and intensity level of emotions they can safely display
  • How interesting they are

What do these messages look and feel like in your care setting? What messages do you want your family child care environment to send? How do you want children and their families to feel when they are in your space? What do you want them to learn about themselves?

We all want to provide children with environments that are safe, welcoming, and responsive. Intentional planning and design can help ensure your family child care home is a special place for the children and families you support. Your family child care environment should be a warm and supportive space that encourages children of all ages to be who they are with you and explore new ideas. It should be safe, stimulating, and developmentally appropriate, and it should validate children’s thoughts and feelings, and provide them with numerous opportunities to practice skills and experience success.

Environments tell a story about who and what is important. Therefore, your environment should reflect the different cultures, personalities, needs, interests, strengths, and developmental levels of the children, families, and providers who spend time there. Ongoing attention to the social, physical, and academic dimensions of the environment (Loukas, 2007), as well as the verbal elements of your environment (Kostelnik, Stein, & Whiren, 2012) is key to creating a high-quality space that promotes learning, exploration, and respect for individual differences. Take a moment to reflect on the ideas highlighted below. In what ways does your environment reflect this guidance? How can you improve your environment to make it more welcoming and supportive of the children and families you serve?

  • Clean, safe, and properly lit environments to support young children’s exploration
  • Calm environment to support young children’s abilities to focus on their caregivers, each other, and the materials they are exploring
  • Appropriate child-sized furniture to enable young children to reach materials on low shelves and take part in daily routines
  • Warm, responsive adults nearby to interact with children and encourage and support social experiences for children of varying stages of development
  • Cozy area for children to support relaxation and comfort
  • Adaptive materials and equipment such as special seating for body positioning, adapted utensils for eating, or toys that become activated in response to sounds or movement
  • Accurate representations of the cultures, languages, and families in the greater community
  • A variety of books and materials to interest and meet the developmental needs of all children
  • Language from adults that is kind, caring, demonstrates responsiveness to children's needs and ideas, and is always respectful

Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

As highlighted in Lesson Two, no two children or families will ever be the same in your program, and it is your responsibility to be sensitive and responsive to each child’s and family’s needs. This impacts how you organize and plan your family child care environment to ensure that all children will be successful. For example, while some children in your program may be able to thrive in busy, crowded, and even loud surroundings, others may require quiet, less crowded, and less busy spaces.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that in order to support all children’s development, caregivers must begin from a place that considers (1) research-based information about children of that age generally, (2) the unique individual child (e.g., interests, needs, strengths, worries), and (3) what is known about the child’s social and cultural context (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020). This is the common, foundational component of all practices that follow, including the early childhood environment. Family child care providers and environments need to be dynamic to meet the diverse and ever-changing needs of every child in your care. You will have to:

  • Modify your family child care environment to meet the needs of individual children in your program
  • Adjust for differences in individual children throughout the day or day-to-day as circumstances change and events occur
  • Provide modifications as children grow and their needs change
  • Make accommodations to include the multiple ages or developmental stages of the children you serve in each activity and learning setting

Embracing Family Experiences: Considerations for Programs Serving Military Families

Think about the military families you know or serve. How are their identities shaped by the experience of being military families? For many families, military service and personal identity can be intertwined. Consider these potential influences:

  • Living on a military installation: Many families, military and civilian alike, base their identities in some part on where they live. Where a family lives can send messages about their lifestyles, preferences, and experiences. Children form their identity and sense of self based in part on their home and surrounding community. For military families, living on an installation can build a strong sense of community. This helps shape how the family sees itself in relation to others.
  • Deployment: Deployment is one of the most stressful events a family can experience. Families must learn to adapt to changing circumstances before, during, and after a deployment. The service member’s sense of self may change drastically as a result of experiences during deployment. Family members, particularly spouses, can also experience changes in how they perceive themselves after long periods of independence or parenting solo.
  • Frequent moves: A permanent change of station can cause a great deal of stress for families as children adjust to new child care settings, schools, programs, and friends. Children and family members may reinvent themselves in a new location, or they may struggle to define themselves in a new school or community.
  • Work hours: Military family members may also work unconventional or long hours when they are home.
  • Retirement and return to civilian life: Many individuals who retire from military service are young and find themselves ready for a second career. This can be a difficult transition. Service members may have a difficult time finding new employment in which their skills are valued. They may feel a sense of loss as they leave the active-duty community and may struggle to develop their civilian identity.
  • Remember that issues that affect civilian families affect military families, too: Divorce or marital conflict, unemployment for a spouse or partner, and health care needs are just a few of the events that can shape a family’s identity.

Military life is not all about challenges, though. Military families have a variety of supports that you can help families maximize. Military families often have a strong sense of community. They may live on an installation with other military families, and they may have a group of friends in similar circumstances. They also have access to health care, mental health, and advocacy resources through their service or installation. These can be valuable assets for families as they work to define themselves. Finally, they have access to you—military child care. You understand the families’ context and can be a valuable source of social support.

Here are some additional ways to support military families, based on recommendations from families surveyed in the National Military Family Association Report on the Cycles of Deployment (2005):

  • Help a family to be realistic in their expectations of themselves and of each other. This applies to deployment, permanent change of station (PCS), retirement, and other major life transitions. Help families open lines of communication with one another about their expectations, fears, and excitement.
  • Provide families with information about how their child might react before, during, and after deployment or other transitions. Recognize that children’s responses will vary based on age, developmental stage, and temperament.
  • Offer ongoing support to families with regard to return and reunion challenges.
  • Remember that families—even those with experience—do not always have the information and support they need.

Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others

Adults who care for themselves are better able to care for and support children. Remember that early interactions with important adults help define how infants and children see themselves and what they expect from others. When adults are emotionally available to respond to a child’s cues with affection and patience, they are teaching the child that he or she is safe and important. An adult who is under stress, coping with trauma, or experiencing mental health problems or addiction will have a harder time caring for young children until the caregiver themselves receives the help they need.

As a provider, you are a direct part of the family child care environment that must be attended to. Wittmer and Petersen explain that, “Knowing ourselves involves exploring our strengths and vulnerabilities. We need to wonder about, and try to understand the meaning of, our reactions, our frustrations, and the parts of our job that bring us joy. This exploration can sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable” (2013, p. 409).

Self-care is an active and powerful choice. Caring for yourself means to engage in activities that increase or maintain your optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but also the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being.  Practicing self-care is an indication of a positive self-concept. Providers who are aware of self-care practices can act as positive role models for children. You can create an environment that helps children to engage in self-care. Your own self-care practices can be a starting place to demonstrate the importance of self-care.

Considering Your Own Sense of Self and Wellness

All of us can find ourselves struggling to make sense of situations and relationships at times, with children, our work more broadly, or in our personal lives. With children, observations are one of our best strategies as family child care providers. Intentional, reflective observations can help you understand a child in your program better, which in turn can change your feelings or thoughts about that child. Whether a child or adult, when we understand someone better, we almost always are better able to feel compassion and kindness towards them.

Another strategy you can use is visualization. See yourself interacting positively with a child in your program. If he or she displays behaviors that seem to disrupt your teaching approach, try seeing this child without those behaviors and you responding in a caring way. Then, try carrying out your imagined caring response with the child.

Many of us are accustomed to saying “yes” to everything that is asked of us for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Learning how and when to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate. It shows you know your limits and are able to prioritize, which will make you a better family child care provider and caregiver. It is also important to learn how to relieve stress. Here are a few tips:

  • Consider keeping a journal. It can be therapeutic to write the day’s events and your perspectives on paper. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you be mindful about the positive aspects of your life.
  • Make connections. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Have a cup of coffee with a friend. Speak to the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These small moments can help you feel connected and supported.
  • Even a small amount of regular exercise can help you feel better, sleep better, and cope better with life’s daily stressors. Healthful eating can make a difference, too.
  • Remember to breathe. When we are stressed, we tend to breath shallower. Taking a moment for a few deep breaths can be a quick way to lower our stress levels.

According to child care professional Jeff Johnson (2007), your attitude can help make changes in your life and your program. Johnson has six suggestions:

  • Positive outlook: Thinking positively about situations and people can help bring about beneficial outcomes. Your personal outlook on life plays an important role in your self-care.
  • Self-awareness: Knowing who you are includes being aware of your feelings, your breath, your emotions, your thoughts, and your relationships. Start by taking an inventory of your strengths and areas for growth. Examine your life, past and present. Notice how far you’ve come and the skills you possess that got you to this point.
  • Healthy selfishness: It’s important to recognize your own needs as valid and do what is necessary to meet them.
  • Relinquish control: Allowing yourself to relax and see things as gray instead of black and white can allow you to see more options and opportunities in life.
  • Playful attitude: Changing your mindset requires playfulness, curiosity, and excitement. Try exploring life through the eyes of a child and see how different things seem.
  • Thoughtful choices: As life gets busy, slow down and make sure you are making thoughtful choices. Reconcile with yourself that you may never master a task perfectly, and sometimes it is going to have to be good enough.


As you watch the video below, reflect on how your program builds a supportive social, verbal, and physical environment for children. Consider how you specifically can support military families and children’s sense of self.

Sense of Self: Military Families

Listen as providers describe how they promote a sense of self among military families.


Within safe, nurturing, responsive, and accepting environments, children can develop a sense of self and self-confidence that says, “I matter,” “I am deserving,” and “I can make things happen.” However, in unpredictable, less-responsive, and unwelcoming environments, they may come to feel fearful and anxious while seeing the world as unsafe.

In your daily interactions and your family child care environment, you support a positive sense of self for the children in your care when you:

  • Get to know and respect each child in your program as an individual.
  • Show interest and be actively involved in what children are doing in your program.
  • Respond to and meet children’s individual needs in a timely manner.
  • Respond positively as each child develops new skills or accomplishes tasks.
  • Organize and offer materials in a way that enables all children in your care to actively participate.
  • Support all children and continually ensure all children feel safe to be themselves in your family child care.
  • Plan activities that enable children to express themselves and explore their sense of self and others (e.g., ask them to draw pictures of themselves or their family and friends, trace their bodies on paper on the floor, share their favorite foods, toys, places of interest, books, etc.).


What types of spaces helped you feel safe, valued, confident, understood, and successful when you were growing up? Which of these characteristics or qualities do you want to try to recreate within your family child care setting?  Take a few minutes to respond to the questions in the Self-Reflection: Environments activity. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach or family child care administrator.


In this lesson, we introduced the idea of self-care and its importance in your work as a family child care provider. Self-care is actually discussed in many different caring professions, including nursing and social work. Read the following attachment, What is Self-Care?, and take the Self-Care Assessment to identify strategies you currently use to help promote your own health and resilience and strategies you might wish to incorporate into your self-care plan.

Work to develop a self-care plan that is balanced in the different areas: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and professional. Try to form habits that span these different areas of self-care.


True or false? The environment of your family child care program only consists of the physical space and the materials in it.
You have a family who will be experiencing deployment soon. How can you provide a positive, supportive environment?
Finish this statement: Self-awareness in family child care involves…
References & Resources

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Fox, L. & Lentini, R. H. (2006). “You got it!" Teaching social and emotional skills. Young Children, 61(6), 36-42.

Gartrell, D. (2006). Guidance matters: Build relationships through talk. Young Children, 61(5), 50-52.

Guerra, N. G., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2008). Linking the prevention of problem behaviors and positive youth development: Core competencies for positive youth development and risk prevention. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 122, 1-17. doi:10.1002/cd.225

Johnson, J. (2007). Finding your smile again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Redleaf Press.

Kim, T. E., Guerra, N. G., & Williams, K. R. (2008). Preventing youth problem behaviors and enhancing physical health by promoting core competencies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43(4), 401-407. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.02.012.

Kostelnik, M. J., Stein, L. C., & Whiren, A. P. (2012). Children’s self-esteem: The verbal environment. Childhood Education, 65(1), 29. 

Lally, J. R. (2009). The science and psychology of infant-toddler care: How an understanding of early learning has transformed child care. Zero to Three. 30(2), 47-53.

Loukas, A. (2007). What is school climate? Leadership Compass, 5(1), 1-3.

Meece, D., & Soderman, A. K. (2010). Positive verbal environments: Setting the stage for young children's social development. Young Children, 81-86.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (n.d.) Self-Care Inventory. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2020). Developmentally appropriate practice.

National Military Family Association. (2005). Report on the cycles of deployment: An analysis of survey responses from April through September.

Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Burchinal, M. R., Clifford, R. M., Culkin, M. L., Howes, C., Kagan, S. L. and Yazejian, N. (2001). The relation of preschool child-care quality to children’s cognitive and social developmental trajectories through second grade. Child Development, 72, 1534–1553.

Petty, K. (2009). Deployment: Strategies for working with kids in military families. Redleaf Press.

Smith, K. (n.d.) Positive classroom environment and student-teacher rapport. The Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson Education Inc.

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.). Merrill Prentice-Hall.