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Promoting Social-Emotional Development: High Quality Environments

A well-planned, high-quality environment should support children’s social-emotional development and learning. This lesson describes how your preschool classroom environment can create meaningful opportunities for children’s social-emotional growth.

  • List characteristics of environments that promote children’s social-emotional development and learning.
  • Explore resources that provide information on supporting the social-emotional development of all children in your classroom.
  • Discuss how you can foster relationships in your classroom environment.



Your classroom environment should be a nurturing and supportive space that encourages positive interactions between children. It should be safe, stimulating, and developmentally appropriate. High-quality environments provide opportunities for children and adults to interact and play together in a variety of settings, using many types of materials. These environments should make children feel welcome, validate their thoughts and feelings, and provide them with numerous opportunities to practice and learn social skills. As you have learned, social-emotional skills are integral to children’s overall development and learning, and research highlights that the quality of an environment may have a significant impact on a young child’s future. This lesson will explore how high-quality environments support the social-emotional development of all children in your classroom.

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 impact 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-teacher 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 parents’ 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 systems theory does not account for biological factors, it helps us to 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.

Creating Environments that Support Children’s Social-Emotional Competence and Development

Consider the following characteristics of high quality, supportive environments when it comes to young children’s social-emotional development and learning:

Schedules and Routines:

  • The classroom schedule includes a predictable routine.
  • There are visual reminders of the daily classroom schedule and routines.
  • The classroom schedule includes a combination of small-group and large-group activities, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Routines are arranged to promote interactions (e.g., children holding hands to walk outside, going to the bathroom or washing hands with “buddies,” sitting near friends during snack time, sharing cubbies and interacting at arrival and departure times).
  • The environment is safe and free of dangerous materials or potential for harm (e.g., there are no large open spaces or obstacles). Refer to the Safe Environments course for detailed information about creating and maintaining a safe classroom environment. 
  • Each learning center is easy to enter and exit.
  • There are few transitions in the classroom schedule per day.
  • Routines are structured and predictable to promote children’s independence (children learn to independently follow daily classroom routines).

Activities and Materials:

  • Teachers rotate activities and materials to maintain children’s motivation and maximize engagement.
  • Materials are developmentally appropriate and provide opportunities for learning.
  • Learning centers and materials are clearly labeled.
  • There are a variety of toys available that promote social interactions (e.g., cars and trucks, water toys, blocks, dress up clothes and props) as well as toys that promote individual play (e.g., puzzles, writing materials).
  • There are a sufficient number of materials for children to play with.
  • Materials and learning centers are purposefully arranged to create opportunities for children to engage in social interactions with each other as well as with adults (e.g., smaller portions are provided for snack so children engage in interactions to ask for more).

Responsive and Nurturing Adults:

  • Support is provided to promote sharing and taking turns with materials.
  • Teachers encourage children to use their words and to talk with their friends to solve problems.
  • Developmentally appropriate language is modeled to help children deal with conflict or solve problems with each other.
  • Clear warnings and transition signals are used to help children efficiently transition between activities.
  • Children’s interests and preferences are incorporated into classroom experiences and routines.
  • The needs of all children in the classroom are addressed (e.g., using social stories or scripts for children who may have a hard time sharing materials with peers, using an individual visual schedule for children who may need supports during transitions).
  • Children are encouraged to express their thoughts and share their feelings about events or situations.
  • Children’s feelings and thoughts are validated.

Fostering Relationships

By establishing and maintaining relationships, children discover who they are and learn to understand others, which is a critical component of social-emotional development. As a preschool teacher, it is your responsibility to create supportive environments that foster and promote relationship building and a sense of community. Remember that your goal is to be nurturing and responsive to all children’s needs in your classroom.

Relationships are central to children’s development because relationships enable children to safely explore their surroundings and learn how to be members of their social and cultural worlds. It is through relationships that children learn appropriate ways of responding to emotions and expressing their own feelings. Relationships in the preschool years help children learn to play, interact with others, and develop friendships.

A relationship is a sustained interaction, with emotional connections, that lasts over time. Relationships take time to develop and have important meaning among the individuals involved. Fostering relationships is an ongoing process that enables children to learn about themselves, others, and their environments. Practices that promote nurturing and responsive relationships include supporting children’s play, responding to children’s conversation, providing positive feedback, encouraging appropriate behavior, building ties with each child and family, and collaborating with classroom staff members and other professionals (Fox, Lentini, & Binder, 2013). In the Learn, Explore, and Apply sections of this lesson, you will have the opportunity to discover and reflect on additional practices and strategies to build relationships in your classroom and program.

Preventing Challenging Behaviors in the Classroom

High-quality environments send powerful messages to children about the ways they should conduct themselves and treat others. Think about the strategies at the beginning of this lesson regarding schedules and routines, activities and materials, and responsive adults. Not paying attention to these areas ahead of time can significantly affect children’s behaviors and actions in your classroom. There are many reasons why children may exhibit challenging behaviors in preschool. For example, they could be spending too much time doing an activity (e.g., sitting too long for circle time when this is not developmentally appropriate) or they may not know or understand the expectations for what they need to be doing. Challenging behaviors may also occur if preschoolers are left waiting for too long for things to happen (e.g., going through too many transitions during the day that take too long), or simply not having specific directions or expectations about what they need to be doing during the day. It is important to consider changes to the routine or environment first if a challenging behavior persists.

Challenging behaviors often involve conflicts among children. Being able to resolve conflict and solve problems are important social skills for young children because these skills enable them to make and keep friends, complete their daily routines without problems, and engage in meaningful learning experiences. Children who are able to solve problems and resolve conflicts with peers are more likely to engage in positive interactions, make and keep friends, and have a more positive transition to kindergarten. Social-emotional skills supported through problem-solving and conflict resolution include:

  • Self-regulation
  • Communication
  • Identifying and talking about emotions
  • Working together with other children.

Teaching children to problem solve can help reduce impulsive behavior, help children control their behaviors and talk about emotions, and prevent aggression and other challenging behaviors. In the Apply section of this lesson, you will find resources to help support children’s social-emotional growth. There is also more information on preventing challenging behaviors in the Positive Guidance Course.

Meaningful Family Participation in Preschool Children’s Social-Emotional Development and Learning

It is critical in your work with preschoolers to acknowledge that families are their first and most significant teachers. Families play a important role in supporting children’s early social-emotional development. Families teach children how to be social, how to treat others, and what appropriate behaviors are. Family involvement can help teachers incorporate family values, cultures, and beliefs in their classroom and school environment. Along the same lines, involving families helps them understand what is happening in the classroom, which promotes consistency of practices between school and home. High-quality family-teacher relationships fostered through mutual respect and ongoing communication serve as important models for young children.

Consider the following strategies to engage families in their children’s social-emotional development:

  • Ask families to share their thoughts on children’s social-emotional development. Gather information about their backgrounds and beliefs.
  • Make children’s books that discuss feelings and social interactions available in your school lending library.
  • Provide resources for families in your classroom library or school resource library.
  • Invite families to come to your classroom and observe experiences and activities that promote children’s social-emotional learning.
  • Be responsive to families’ needs or concerns about their children.
  • Be sensitive and respectful of individual families’ preferences or life circumstances.


Being a Nurturing and Responsive Teacher

Watch this video to learn about being a nurturing and responsive early childhood care provider.

Unrealistic Expectations

Watch this video to learn about unrealistic expectations in preschool that may contribute to children’s challenging behaviors.


Some classroom toys and materials are more likely to promote children’s social interactions with others. As you consider available toys and materials in your classroom environment, incorporate some of the following in your daily plan, as these toys promote social interactions:

  • Blocks
  • Dress-up clothes and props
  • Toy vehicles (e.g., cars and trucks, trains, ramps, road signs)
  • Puppets
  • Balls
  • Wagons, tricycles
  • Housekeeping materials (e.g., kitchen, dolls, dishes, phone)
  • Water and sand toys
  • Large pieces of paper on the wall or floor and painting or writing materials and utensils


Use the Social Environment Checklist to reflect on how your classroom environment supports children’s social-emotional growth. Then complete the Relationships in my Classroom activity to identify ways that you foster relationships through your interactions and experiences. Share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.

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. Staff members 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).


For more information on supporting children’s social-emotional development, review the resources provided in the Supporting Social-Emotional Growth activity below. Use the Fostering Relationships handout to learn more about fostering relationships in your classroom and arranging your environment to promote children's development and learning. 


Sustained interactions with emotional connections with particular, important meaning between the individuals involved
Social stories or scripts:
Short stories that describe social activities and behaviors used to support children in learning and using appropriate social skills


Your colleague asks that you observe his classroom and help him figure out why several children seem “out of sorts.” After observing, you share with him that…
Which of the following materials or toys promote social interaction among preschool children?
Social-emotional skills supported through problem-solving and conflict resolution include all of the following except…
References & Resources

Ashby, N., & C. Neilsen-Hewett. (2012). Approaches to conflict and conflict resolution in toddler relationships. Journal of Early Childhood Research 10 (2): 145–61.

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

Coleman, J. C. et al. (2013). Preventing challenging behaviors in preschool: Effective strategies for classroom teachers. Young Exceptional Children, 16(3), 3-10.

Division for Early Childhood. (2010). Position statement: Identification of and intervention with challenging behavior. Young Exceptional Children, 13(5), 47-48. Doi: 10.1177/1096250610388151

Fettig, A., Schultz, T. R., & Ostrosky, M. M. (2013). Collaborating with parents in using effective strategies to reduce children's challenging behaviors. Young Exceptional Children, 16(1), 30-41.

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.

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended practices for teaching young children in inclusive settings. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M. M., & Corso, R. M. (2012). Preventing and addressing challenging behavior: Common questions and practical strategies. Young Exceptional Children, 15(2), 32-46.

Koralek, D. (2010). Adapt the environment to meet differing emotional needs. Teaching Young Children, 4(2), 8-9.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2013). Beyond “I’m sorry”: The educator’s role in preschoolers’ emergence of conscience. Young Children, 76-82.

Taaffe, C. R. (2019). Two’s company, three’s a crowd: Peer interactions in preschool social triangle. Young Children, 74(4).

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

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