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Promoting Social-Emotional Development: Supportive Environments

Managers are leaders who set the overall tone of the program. Creating a relationship-based community within a child care or youth program requires intentional efforts and authentic leadership skills. In this lesson, you will learn the importance of your role in creating an environment that is supportive and staff feel valued and encouraged to grow professionally. You will learn how the environment should be open and friendly to children, youth, and families and how the environment should be supportive to all those who are involved with the program.

  • List examples of how you contribute to and maintain a supportive environment in your program.
  • Learn about resources that can be used to enhance your leadership skills as they relate to supporting your own and other staff members’ professional growth.
  • Describe the ways managers can receive feedback and grow professionally in their roles as leaders.


In managing a child care or youth program, it is easy to become caught up in all of the tasks that need to be completed. As the program leader, your role is also to model and demonstrate the values that you hold regarding relationship-based care for children and their families. Keeping the needs of the children and youth as your first priority can be challenging with so many responsibilities. Demonstrating that that the children and youth are your first priority is an important way that you communicate the program’s mission and value of maintaining an emotionally supportive environment. As in any family, the tone set by adults influences the growth and development of the children. As the program leader, the children, families and staff will look to you to demonstrate how to react to difficult issues, make decisions, and interact with one another. 

Creating and Maintaining a Supportive Environment

As the program manager, you are charged with creating and maintaining a supportive environment. Gathering feedback from staff and families about their perceptions of the program environment will be important in creating a supportive program.

Feedback can be gathered formally (e.g., checklists, formal rating scales) or informally (e.g., suggestion box, brief written surveys, exit interviews with staff and parents). This feedback should be shared with staff and other key stakeholders, such as parent advisory board members, when appropriate to help address any needed improvements. 

Maintaining a supportive environment includes building relationships with children, staff and families. You can do this by assisting staff in setting and meeting professional goals, welcoming and mentoring new staff members, and contributing positive comments and ideas that enhance staff members’ and families’ confidence and competence in their roles as caregivers and parents.  

Creating a Supportive Environment

The physical environment is also a key responsibility for a manager. Creating a supportive climate for work includes the following:

  • Providing adequate supplies, practical furnishings, and professional-development activities
  • Ctreating staff work spaces (e.g., designating places for adults' belongings to be kept while at work)
  • Furnishing staff meetings and professional development activities with comfortable chairs 
  • Including professional materials in staff lounges or/resource areas
  • Ensuring there are private places for staff and parents to discuss confidential matters
  • Prepare a "family corner" with a couch and comfortable seating for families (and staff, too) to review information about installation and community resources that may be of interest

Creating Supportive Environments

Watch this video to learn about creating supportive environments for children, families, and staff in your program.

Anti-Bias Environments

You have the important task of ensuring that the program environment is open and welcoming to all families and staff. The staff and family handbooks should have written information about the program’s values and beliefs regarding acceptance across racial, ethnic, linguistic, and ability differences. As a manager, you can model appropriate conversations with families to learn about their cultural beliefs and practices with regard to child rearing and developmental milestones. Greetings in the languages that staff and family speak should be evident. Literature and music should be representative of the cultures of staff and families, and program toys and materials should be inclusive of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the staff and families. As a manager, you will need to remain sensitive to issues that might arise concerning families’ beliefs about feeding, dressing, toileting practices, and child guidance and discipline. Your willingness to learn and ask relevant questions rather than make assumptions about a family’s culture and child rearing practices that is different from your own will be an important leadership trait. 

What Role Does Culture Play in Social-Emotional Development?

Children develop social-emotional competence within the context of their relationships with their teachers, caregivers, family, and culture. Children develop a communication style, learn socially appropriate ways of responding, and become more independent from their caregivers, families, and communities. For example, some cultures teach children to avoid eye contact while communicating. However, other cultures view eye contact as an essential component of a social interaction. Expectations about developmental milestones also are driven by cultural values and priorities. In some cultures, children are not expected to feed themselves until they are 3 or 4 years old. In other cultures, children are expected to start feeding themselves in late infancy and early toddlerhood. Culture also influences parenting practices and ways of dealing with emotions, including handling stress and coping with adversity. Family priorities affect social-emotional competence. For example, some families might place a high value on talking about and expressing emotions as they happen. Children might learn to say exactly how they feel, when they feel it. Also, many African-American and Hispanic families may prioritize family and encourage their children to share and play with others at a very early age. Conversely, many white families are more likely to encourage their children to be independent; they might expect their children to independently eat, get dressed, and play. Instead of judging whether a behavior is bad or good, Derman-Sparks and Edwards (2010) suggest that we:

  • Respect the cultures of others
  • Encourage others to appreciate the richness of this culture
  • Recognize our own assumptions about culture and challenge biased assumptions
  • Embrace, celebrate, and honestly discuss difference and similarity

How Can Staff Members Support The Needs of All Learners?

Research shows children with disabilities are less likely to develop friendships than their typically developing peers. Many young children with disabilities have difficulty with peer interactions. Delays in social interactions are characteristics of many developmental disabilities, including autism. If these social delays and friendships skills are not addressed when children are young, they are at risk for social isolation, rejection, and social-emotional delays.

You can teach staff members specific strategies for supporting the needs of all learners. A variety of strategies are provided below:

Possible Supports for Children with Social-Emotional Concerns or Delays

  • Set up "buddy" activities, and pre-arrange so that two children are intentionally paired up and go to an activity or center together. Pair a more socially competent peer with a peer who is working on social skills, or pair two children who are developing a friendship.
  • Children with social delays often have delays in play skills as well. If the child has difficulty playing with toys or materials, focus on teaching the child to play with toys and materials.
  • If a child is having difficulty completing a task, ask another child who has finished to help or give clues for finishing.
  • If a child has difficulty with transitions or self-care routines (e.g., hand washing, getting dressed), pair the child with another child for help.
  • If the child uses a daily picture schedule, embed social interactions by having a card for "Ask a peer to play" and support the child in asking the peer to play.
  • Embed the child's interests or preferences into social games or activities, and support the child in taking turns, sharing, and talking to other children. When appropriate, use the child's interests as reinforcement for play (e.g., "The balls are for two children to play with. Let's ask a friend to play with you!").
  • Use a classroom-wide reinforcement system.
  • Give the child classroom jobs or roles that involve social interactions (e.g., passing out props during circle, asking children, "What are you going to play with" after circle time, and giving choices during snack: "Do you want a cookie or crackers?").
  • Some children might need specific verbal cues ("Ask your friend Molly for the red truck") or suggestions for play ("Jane, you can be this baby's mommy and Shannon, you can be the doctor").
  • Encourage parents to arrange play dates for their children and other children in the classroom.
  • Have family days or invite parents to the classroom and support or encourage friendships between families.

Feedback and Growth as a Manager

As a manager, you will set goals and develop a professional growth plan with individual staff members to facilitate their professional development. Self-reflection is an important skill to have as a leader. Using your journals and self-reflections, you may want to meet with your administrator (or a trusted peer who does not work in your program) to set your own professional goals and develop an action plan to address your growth as a manager. Receiving feedback from staff members and your supervisor is important to facilitate your development as a leader. Even those who have been managers for many years find that self-reflection and goal setting are important to their continuous growth as a professional.


Your role is to ensure that the program is a welcoming, friendly, and emotionally-responsive environment for the children, families, and staff. Your vision of a welcoming environment is evident through the care you demonstrate for the physical and emotional comfort of the children, families, and staff (e.g., comfortable furniture for adults, posters depicting cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children, families, and staff, the selection of games and materials for classrooms) have an impact on building an emotionally responsive environment that indicates all are welcome in this caring community.


Follow the link below from the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children and read the article, It’s Not the “What”, it’s the “How”, by LaRocco and Bruns about authentic leadership. Which of the four key behaviors of authentic leadership will you focus on in your professional development activities this year? Are there staff members that you can encourage to take on leadership behaviors within your program? How will you encourage them to assume a leadership role?


Ensuring a welcoming, safe environment—physically and emotionally—for all of the members of the program’s community is a key responsibility for the manager. Read through the questions on the handout, Let’s Talk Policies, and think carefully about the emotional environment in your program. What steps could you and your staff take to put your philosophy about relationship-based care into practice with children, families, and colleagues?


True or False? Gathering feedback from staff and families about their perceptions of your program’s environment is not necessary.
Which of the following are effective ways to create a supportive environment for staff, children, and families?
Finish this statement: A strategy for supporting the social-emotional needs of all learners is…
References & Resources

Baker, A. C., & Manfredi/Pettit, L.A. (2004). Relationships, the Heart of Quality Care: Creating community among adults in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hyson, M., & Tomlinson, H. B. (2014). The Early Years Matter: Education, care, and the well-being of children birth to 8. New York: Teacher's College Press.

LaRocco, D. J., & Bruns, D. A. (2013). It is Not the "What," it's the "How": Four key behaviors for authentic leadership in early intervention. Young Exceptional Children, 16(2), 33-44.