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Promoting A Sense Of Self: The Environment

This lesson will focus on how the environment influences preschool children’s sense of self and describes how you can create environments that engage children in meaningful experiences that promote development.

  •  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.



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, schools, favorite vacation spot, or your neighborhood 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 a positive one. Now think about environments that you experienced that you would not consider as memorable. What was different about these environments that made them less memorable? 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?

Environments that Promote Preschool Children’s Sense of Self

Environments play a large part in identity formation and comprise of many aspects. As discussed in the Preschool Learning Environment course, an environment is a combination of the physical space, appearance, resources, and contents as well as the interactions, 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. Young children don’t have this level of control about where and how they spend their time. In Lessons One and Two, you learned that young children develop their sense of identity primarily as a result of the messages they receive from the significant adults in their lives. Many children will likely spend a large amount of their day with you in your classroom and program. Therefore, every choice you make regarding the environment will send messages to them telling them if they are accepted, valued, and capable, or not.

What messages do you want your classroom 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 classroom setting is a special place for the children and families in your care. Your classroom environment should be a nurturing and supportive space that encourages children 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. Ongoing attention to many aspects of your classroom environment, for example the social, verbal, physical, and academic dimensions (Kostelnik, Stein, & Whiren, 1998; Loukas, 2007), is key to creating a high-quality space that promotes learning, exploration, and respect for individual differences.

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 classroom and it is your responsibility to be sensitive and responsive to each child’s and family’s needs. This becomes crucial when it comes to how you organize and plan your classroom environment to ensure all children will be successful. For example, while some children in your classroom 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 states that in order to support children in developing a positive sense of self, teachers should begin all practices with a foundation of nurturing and responsive caretaking. Responsive classroom 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 classroom environment to meet the needs of individual children in your classroom
  • Adjust for differences in individual children throughout the preschool day or day-to-day as circumstances change and events occur
  • Provide modifications as children grow and their needs change

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 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, 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 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.

Considering your Own Sense of Self

As described in the first two lessons, the earliest interactions identify and help define what young children 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 young children experience adults that understand and share in their thoughts and feelings, they can build a positive sense of self.

As a preschool teacher, you are a direct part of the classroom 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 particular times with some young children and families. As you likely learned in previous courses, observations are one of our best strategies as preschool teachers. Observations can help you get to know and understand a child in your classroom better, which in turn can change your feelings.

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

According to child-care professional Jeff Johnson (2010), 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 in life.
  • 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.


Creating Supportive Environments

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

Sense of Self: Military Families

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


In your daily interactions with children, consider doing the following to support a developing sense of self for the preschoolers in your care:

  • Get to know and respect each child in your classroom as an individual.
  • Show interest and be actively involved in what children are doing in your classroom.
  • Respond to and meet children’s individual needs in a timely manner.
  • Respond positively as each preschooler develops new skills or accomplishes tasks.
  • Organize materials in a way that enables all children in your care to actively participate.
  • Respond in a similar fashion to boys and girls in your classroom. Check your classroom materials (e.g., books, posters, other learning materials) for bias or misconceptions regarding individuals from different groups).
  • 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 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 a preschool teacher. 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? The environment of your classroom 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 the classroom involves…
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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. YC Young Children61(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. (2010). Keeping Your Smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. St. Paul, MN: 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. (1988). Children’s Self-Esteem: The verbal environment. Childhood Education, 65(1), 29. Retrieved from

Loukas, A. (2007). What is School Climate? Leadership Compass, 5(1), 1-3. Retrieved from

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

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

Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Burchinal, M. R., Clifford, R. M., Culkin, M. L., Howes, C., Kagan, S. L., & Yazejian, N. (2001). The relation of preschool child-care quality to children's cognitive and social developmental trajectories through second grade. Child Development, 72(5), 1534–1553.

Smith, K. (n.d.) Positive Classroom Environment and Student-Teacher Rapport. Minneapolis, MN: The Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A multicultural perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N J: Pearson Education Inc.

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.