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    • 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 members of military communities.




    As an infant and toddler caregiver, you have to think about how the physical and social environment of your classroom and program influences the sense of self. You can think critically about the messages families receive when you talk to them or when they see you interacting with their infants and toddlers, or when they complete school forms. By doing so, you can help children and families feel confident and proud of their identities. This lesson will help you identify specific ways to meet this important goal.

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

    • An infant and toddler caregiver greets families as they enter the infant classroom. Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The caregiver 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 arrives with her mother. Like Hayden, Josie buries her head in her mother’s shoulder and smiles as she turns to glimpse at her caregiver. This time the caregiver says, “I wonder if you’re feeling a bit shy this morning? Do you need a few minutes to cuddle with Mom?”
    • 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 does not know where or how to communicate that information.

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

    As you read the scenarios, perhaps you felt a pang of empathy for the children, families, or infant and toddler caregivers. Some individuals weren’t receiving positive messages about their identities. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are responsible for creating safe, nurturing, welcoming, and accepting environments for all children and families in your classroom and 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 infant and toddler caregivers might have responded to the above scenarios:

    • Infant Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The teacher laughs and says, “I can tell you’re so excited to see your friends.” 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 teacher. This time the teacher says, “We’re so glad you’re here! Hayden and Mariah are playing with books. Would you like to come over?”
    • Clarice, a new mom, fills out the intake paperwork and developmental screeners for her infant. She struggles to answer personal questions and is relieved to see a statement that she can skip any question or talk to an administrator in person about the form.

    Environments that Promote Infant and Toddler Sense of Self

    Environments play a large part in identity formation and comprise many aspects. As discussed in the Infant and Toddler Learning Environment course, an environment is a combination of the physical space and contents as well as the adults, relationships, and sense of community within it.

    As an adult, you may have several choices about where you get to 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. Infants and toddlers don’t have this level of control about where and how they spend their time. In Lessons One and Two, you learned that infants and toddlers develop their identities primarily as a result of the messages they receive from the significant adults in their lives. Therefore, every choice you make regarding the environment will send messages to the infants, toddlers, and families in your care. What messages do you want your care setting to send? How do you want infants, toddlers, and families to feel while they are in your care setting? What do you want them to learn about themselves?

    We all want to provide children with spaces that are safe, welcoming and responsive. Intentional planning and design can help ensure that your care setting is a special place for the infants, toddlers and families in your care. Your care setting should be a nurturing and supportive space that encourages infants and toddlers to be who they are with you and explore new ideas. It should be safe, stimulating and developmentally appropriate. It should validate children’s thoughts and feelings and provide numerous opportunities to practice skills and experience success. Take a moment to download and read the Zero to Three article, The Science and Psychology of Infant-Toddler Care, available in the Learn section of this lesson, to learn more about establishing an environment with an infant or toddler’s sense of self in mind. In addition, take a moment to reflect on the ideas highlighted below:

    Environments tell a story and should reflect the different cultures, personalities, needs, interests, strengths and development of the infants, toddlers, families and caregivers who spend time there.

    • Clean, safe and properly lighted 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
    • Child-sized furniture to enable young children to reach materials on low shelves and take part in daily routines
    • Caring adults nearby to help interact, encourage and support social experiences for infants and toddlers
    • Cozy area for infants and toddlers to support relaxation, comfort and ongoing nurturing
    • Adaptive materials and equipment such as special seating for body positioning, adapted utensils for eating or toys that become activated in response to sounds

    Your Sense of Self

    As described in the first two lessons, the earliest interactions identify and help define for infants and toddlers what they come to expect about relationships. When adults are emotionally available to identify a young child’s cues and provide responsive care, they share a very strong message, such as, “I understand your feelings and needs and know exactly what to do next.” As infants and toddlers experience adults who understand and share in their thoughts and feelings, they can build a positive sense of self.

    As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are a direct part of the care environment. Wittmer and Petersen highlight 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). Another way to think about this is the “care” that is behind the “caregiving”.

    All of us can find ourselves struggling to make sense of situations and relationship-building at times with some young children and families. As you likely learned in previous courses, observation is one of our best strategies as infant and toddler caregivers. Observation can help us get to know an infant or toddler better, understanding him or her better, which in turn can change our feelings or thoughts about incidents or interactions.

    One strategy you can use is visualization. See yourself interacting positively with an infant or toddler. If he or she displays behaviors that seem to disrupt your caregiving approach, try seeing this young child without those behaviors and your responding in a caring way.

    Infants and toddlers come to identify themselves by the images they hold and see of themselves within their caregiver’s eyes. Infants and toddlers come to learn about how they appear to others. According to J. Ronald Lally, infants and toddlers learn the following things from their caregivers that influence a 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

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

    • Positive outlook: Thinking positively about situations and people can help you bring about beneficial outcomes. Your personal outlook on life plays a critical role in your level of 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 weaknesses. 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.
    • Playful attitude: Changing your mindset requires playfulness, curiosity, and excitement. Try exploring life through the eyes of a child and see how differently 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.

    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: Most families, military and civilian alike, base their identities in some part on where they live. Where a family lives sends messages about their lifestyles, preferences, and experiences. 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. The family members, particularly the spouse, can also experience changes in how they perceive themselves after long periods of independence or single parenthood.
    • Frequent moves: A Permanent Change of Station (PCS) can cause a great deal of stress for families as children adjust to new schools, programs, and friends. Children or 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 that values their skills. 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 are often part of a strong military 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 childcare. You understand the families’ contexts 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, changing station, 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 what they can expect before, during, and after deployment or other transitions. Recognize that every child’s response may be different on the basis of age, developmental stage, and temperament.
    • Offer ongoing discussions and 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.


    As you watch the video below, consider how the physical environment and the caregivers’ reactions help support young infants’, mobile infants’ and toddlers’ developing sense of self.

    Environments That Promote Sense of Self

    Watch this video to see how these environments and caregiver interactions help support infants’ and toddlers’ at different points in their development.


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

    Below are some things you can do in your environments to support a developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care:

    • Respond in a similar fashion to boys and girls.
    • Respond to and meet individual needs in a timely manner.
    • Redirect infants and toddlers to what is safe and OK to do.
    • Respond positively as each infant and toddler develops new abilities.
    • Organize materials in a way that enables all infants and toddlers to participate actively.



    What types of spaces helped you feel safe, valued, confident, understood and successful while you were growing up? Which of these characteristics or qualities do you want to try to recreate within your infant and toddler care setting? Download and print the Self-Reflection: Environments Activity. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a colleague, supervisor, trainer, or coach.



    In this lesson we introduced the idea of self-care and its importance in your work as an infant toddler caregiver. Self-care is actually discussed in many different caring professions, including nursing and social work. Read the following attachment about self-care and take the Self-Care Assessment to identify strategies you currently use to help promote your own resilience, and strategies you might wish to incorporate into your self-care plan (resources from Work to develop a self-care plan that is balanced in the different areas: physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual and workplace/professional. Try to form habits that span these different areas of self-care. Share your self-care plan with your trainer, coach or supervisor.




    True or False? It is important that the environment of an early care setting reflects the different cultures, personalities, and development of the children, families, and caregivers.


    Which of the following are strategies you can use to support military families in your care?


    Six-month-old Josie has been crying non-stop for over 30 minutes. You have tried feeding Josie, changing her diaper, singing to her, and holding her as you walk around the room. You notice that your breathing has become shallow and you are beginning to feel frustrated by the crying. You ask your co-worker to take over with Josie while you practice deep breathing techniques and visualize yourself interacting with a calm, happy Josie. What is this an example of?

    References & Resources

    Gartrell, D. (2006). Guidance Matters; Build Relationships through Talk. YC Young Children, 61(5), 50-52.

    Johnson, J. (2007). Finding Your Smile Again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

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

    Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013).  Infant and Toddler Development and Responsive Program Planning–A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.