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Promotion Social-Emotional Development: The Environment

A high-quality family child care home should support children’s social-emotional development and learning. This lesson describes how you can use your home environment to create meaningful opportunities for children’s social-emotional growth.

  • Identify characteristics of family child care environments that support children’s social-emotional development and learning.
  • Explore resources that provide information about supporting social-emotional development across mixed-ages of children (infants, toddlers, preschool, and school-age).
  • Discuss how to build a sense of community among the children in your family child care setting.



 As a family child care provider, you welcome children and their families into your home for daily care. Your home environment must meet their needs for safety, security, and a sense of belonging. At the same time, your home also serves as a place of love and security for your own family members. Carefully consider how to plan an environment that provides a warm home for the children in your care, while creating space and time for your own family.

Research highlights that the quality of a caregiving environment may have a significant impact upon a child’s future. Creating an environment that promotes relationship building and fosters healthy social interactions takes intentionality and planning. When preparing your home environment for learning, it is important to think about routines and ways to integrate family culture. Your goal is to create an environment that supports the social-emotional development of all children and families. This lesson will explore how high-quality environments support the social-emotional development of all children.

We know that many factors influence child development. While some, such as genetics, are out of our control, environmental factors are very much within our control. Developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, studied the effects of the social environment on human development. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory explains how the environment you grow up in affects your thinking, emotions, and interests. His theory considers five interrelated systems and their impact on children. These systems include:

  1. Microsystem: The microsystem is made up of groups that have direct contact with the child including family and school or child care.
  2. Mesosystem: The mesosystem is made up of the relationships between the groups from the first system. An example could be the parent-caregiver relationship, and how it affects the child.
  3. Exosystem: The exosystem includes factors that affect the child’s life, but do not have direct connection with the child. An example of this could be their parent’s workplace.
  4. Macrosystem: The macrosystem contains cultural elements such as family values and religion.
  5. Chronosystem: The chronosystem refers to the stage of life that the person or child is in and how it affects various situations. This includes the changes in a person or environment over time.

While this system does not account for biological factors, it helps us think about the ways in which the environment and relationships impact children’s development and behavior. It encourages the caregiver to consider the whole child when planning the environment and space in which they will learn and grow. Many family child care providers serve children who are at different ages and stages of development.  At each stage, children are working on developing different social and emotional skills. As a responsive caregiver, your goal is to provide a healthy, safe environment for each child.

Infant and Toddler Social-Emotional Environment

For infants and toddlers, creating a safe, secure environment where they can form a meaningful attachment to you is critical to their positive social and emotional development. The type of care environment you provide affects their social-emotional development. All children develop in individual ways, but all infants and toddlers need consistent, warm, nurturing care. Your home environment must meet their needs for feeding, diapering, following their cues for play, and allowing them to sleep when tired. You provide predictable, consistent care that forms a safe basis for infants and toddlers to learn to self-regulate, form attachments, and feel safe to explore the world around them. Infants and toddlers need lots of physical care and opportunities to have items from the environment “brought to them.” As infants become more mobile, you can arrange the environment to encourage safe exploration and play.

A caregiver holds up a smiling toddler

Some tips for your infant and toddler environment:

  • Provide board books that reflect children’s cultural backgrounds. Hold the child on your lap and discuss pictures of faces when looking at books together: “He looks surprised to see that new toy.”
  • Provide a mirror and describe the child’s feelings, “Look, I see your smile—you are so happy!”
  • Provide developmentally appropriate toys that promote social interaction with you and other children.
  • Engage in conversations during feedings, snack times, diapering, dressing, etc.
  • Follow the infant’s or toddler’s lead: allow the child to socially disengage when ready.
  • Always comfort the child who is upset, frightened, or overwhelmed, and use gentle hugs and a soothing voice.
  • Acknowledge the child’s efforts to engage with you. Look where the child is pointing and comment on or name the item at which they are pointing. Respond to any coos or other vocalizations. This “serve and return” interaction helps build brain architecture.
  • Provide opportunities for infants and toddlers to make choices (e.g., toys, snack foods, etc.) and explore safely in your home.
  • Respond to the child consistently as this helps build trust.
  • Provide activities such as group singing, movement, etc. for children to build relationships with peers.
  • Always acknowledge when children share or engage in other thoughtful behaviors.

You may want to reference the posters from the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (CECMHC) that are included with this lesson as examples of how to use caregiving routines in your daily environment to support a healthy social-emotional development.

Environments that Support Social Emotional Development

Watch as we show examples of the characteristics of supportive environments for infants and toddlers.

Preschoolers’ Social-Emotional Environment

Preschoolers’ social-emotional development is also dependent on being in a safe, warm, and nurturing environment. Preschoolers are developing at a fast pace and are able to learn from modeling and imitation. You may hear them repeating things they have heard from home, TV shows, and you. It is critical that as a family child care provider, you remember that what you say and do has a great impact on the social development of the children in your care.

The following are characteristics of caregiving environments that are supportive of preschool children’s social-emotional development and learning.

Schedules and Routines:

  • The schedule should be simple and include predictable routines. This does not mean it must always be strictly followed, but it should be one children can count on regularly.
  • Provide visual reminders of the schedule.
  • The indoor and outdoor environment should promote positive social interactions among the children and with you.
  • The environment must be safe—free from dangerous materials or potential for harm.
  • Materials and toys should be logically grouped (e.g., puzzles are near a table, messy art supplies are near a water source, etc.).
  • There are only a few transitions throughout the day. Children get advance notice (“In three minutes, we will clean up and get ready for lunch”) when a transition is about to occur.

Activities and materials:

  • Activities and materials are rotated to engage preschool children and maximize their attention.
  • Materials and toys are developmentally appropriate.
  • There are a variety of toys that promote social interactions (e.g., cars and trucks, water toys, blocks, dress-up clothes, and props) and some toys that promote individual play (e.g., writing materials, puzzles).
  • There are enough toys and materials for children to play with.
  • Materials and toys are purposefully arranged to create opportunities for children to engage in social interactions with one another and with you (e.g., eating lunch family style so children ask each other to pass bowls or plates of food).

Responsive Caregiving:

  • Support turn-taking with toys, equipment, and materials.
  • Encourage children to talk to one another to solve problems.
  • Model appropriate language to help children deal with conflict or solve problems with each other.
  • Follow children’s interests and incorporate their interests into the environment.
  • Encourage children to share their thoughts and express their feelings around events (this may be especially important if children are dealing with a parent’s deployment or absence).
  • Validate children’s feelings and thoughts.
  • Encourage friendships among the various age groups in your home. This promotes a sense of community in your family child care home. Everyone belongs and everyone contributes to a positive environment.
  • Encourage children to create and build friendships; watch for children who seem to enjoy playing with one another and comment on their play.

Fostering Social Emotional Development in Preschoolers

Watch this video to learn ways to foster social emotional development in preschoolers.

School Age Children’s Social-Emotional Environment

Your family child care home is a place where all children can feel a sense of belonging and community. Although school-age children may seem more socially and emotionally mature than the younger children you care for, they still make mistakes. It is important that you build relationships with all of the children in your family child care home. Creating a safe, emotional climate is important. You help create a sense of community when you create caring relationships, provide structure and safety, and set reasonable limits and boundaries.

As they grow socially and emotionally, school-age children need an environment where:

  • They are always greeted by name as they enter your home. Be sure to also say good-bye when they leave at the end of the day. This shows that you recognize and care for them as individuals.
  • Help the school-age children make decisions about the rules you have for them in your home (e.g., tech time, homework time, etc.). They are old enough to help you create expectations. Have them write the rules on paper and post them (and be sure to share with families).
  • Allow children to express their feelings and carefully listen to them. Often at this age children are learning to navigate social issues at school or in the community. You are a trusted adult they can turn to for help and guidance.
  • Show your care and acceptance of each child. Within your environment, display their artwork, projects, etc. Share their enthusiasm about special topics or events with their families.
  • Be sensitive to what is happening with their military family. School-age children understand separation due to training missions, deployment, etc. They may have heard about upcoming disruptions or family moves. Be warm and nurturing when children are talking about difficult issues. Provide space for school-age children to be alone if they need it.
  • Encourage school-age children to assist younger children. The environment in a family child care setting provides a chance for older children to model socially appropriate behaviors for the younger children.
  • Have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. Be aware of bullying and the problems it causes for children who are bullied as well as children who engage in bullying behavior. Bullying may occur through social media as well as in school. Stay informed and aware of resources in your community that help children and families with this issue. Never dismiss a child who is concerned about bullying. 


Creating Community in Family Child Care

Watch this video to learn how to create community in your family child care home.


In this lesson, you learned about creating a high-quality family child care environment where infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children learn and grow together socially and emotionally. Children with strong social-emotional skills are more likely to do well in school and in life. As a significant adult caregiver, you form loving, nurturing attachments to the children in your care. You are a role model for the children. Along with their family, you shape their outlook on peers and adults. They are watching and learning from you all the time. The warm, responsive interactions you promote in your family child care environment play an important role in the healthy social and emotional development of each child.


Observing your indoor and outdoor learning environment will allow you to assess the community aspect of your program. Read and complete the activity, Observe: The Environment. How might you use this information to make any needed changes to the social-emotional environment in your setting?

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Providers working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Emotional Skills/Regulation Activity Plan handout to develop an emotional skills/regulation learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).  


Family child care environments are ideal for creating a true sense of a small community. Just as in a family, in your family child care home, there may be children of different ages spending time together in play activities and daily routines. Use the handout, Maintaining a Safe and Caring Community, and write down how you might deal with the issues presented. Discuss your ideas with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


Developmentally appropriate:
An approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education; its framework is designed to promote young children’s optimal learning and development
Emotional climate:
The emotional relationships between members of a community and the quality of the environment within a particular context
Secure attachment relationship:
A relationship between the child and his or her caregivers that provides emotional and physical security for the child and is the foundation for development and learning
Serve and return:
Similar to the back-and-forth process in a game of tennis, the “serve and return” meaningful interaction between young children and their caregivers helps support brain development, communication and social skills


Which of the following does not foster children's social and emotional development?
You notice that the parent of an 18-month-old in your care, becomes easily frustrated when their child runs from them. Which strategy could you use to engage the parent in the child’s social-emotional development?
Which of the following materials or toys promote social interaction among preschool children?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Bradshaw, C.P. & Waasdorp, T.E. (2020) Preventing bullying in schools: A social and emotional learning approach to prevention and early intervention. (1st ed.) W.W. Norton & Company.

Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.

Center on the Developing Child (2017). Serve and return. Harvard University.

Copple, C, Bredekamp, S. & Koralek, D. (2013). Developmentally appropriate practice: Focus on infants and toddlers. The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dodge, D. T., Rudick, S., & Colker, L. J. (2020). The creative curriculum for family child care (3rd ed.). Teaching Strategies.

Fox, L., Lentini, R., Binder, D. P. (2013). Promoting the social-emotional competence of all children: Implementing the pyramid model program-wide. Young Exceptional Children, Monograph Series 15, 1-13.

McCloud, C. (2006). Have You filled a bucket today: A guide to daily happiness for kids. Ferne Press.

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

Trevarthen, C., J. Delafield-Butt, & A. Dunlop. (2018). The child’s curriculum: Working with the natural values of young children. Oxford University Press.