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Promoting A Sense Of Self: The Environment

The environment consists of the space in which children learn as well as the people in that space—their peers and caregivers. This lesson will focus on how the environment in your program influences children’s sense of self and describes how you can create environments that engage children and youth in meaningful experiences that promote development and a healthy self-concept.

  • Describe how the environment influences a sense of self.
  • Consider the importance of adult self-awareness as part of the environment.
  • Recognize the uniqueness of military life and the effects it may have on school-age children and their sense of self.
  • Describe methods of self-care that help school-age staff members be healthier and more effective.



Think about the environments you experienced as a school-age child. Hopefully, you can think of many places that left you with happy memories, like your childhood home, a relative’s home, schools, a favorite vacation spot, or a local 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 positive. Are there also environments that left you with unhappy memories? What was different about these environments? 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? The environments we are in and the people we share our environments with help shape who we are. Our self-concepts are developed in homes, schools, libraries, and playgrounds, and with our families, friends, and teachers. The learning environment that you are creating for school-age children will have an impact on the people they are becoming.

Environments that Promote School-Age Children’s Sense of Self

Environments play a large part in identity formation and comprise of many aspects. As discussed in the School-Age 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. School-age children don’t have this level of control about where and how they spend their time. In Lessons One and Two, you learned that school-age 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 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 do these messages look and feel like in your care setting? What messages do you want your program 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 spaces that are safe, welcoming and responsive. Intentional planning and design can help ensure your program setting is a special place for the children and families in your care. Your program 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.

Environments tell a story about who and what is important. Therefore, your environment should reflect the different cultures, personalities, needs, interests, strengths, and development of the children, families, and providers who spend time there. Ongoing attention to the social, verbal, physical, and academic dimensions of the environment (Kostelnik, Stein, & Whiren, 1998; Loukas, 2007), is key to creating a high-quality space that promotes learning, exploration, and respect for individual differences. You can support school-age children's sense of self and honor individual differences by ensuring that the environment includes:

  • Clean, safe, and properly lit environments to support children’s exploration
  • Calm environment to support children’s abilities to focus on their providers, each other, and the materials they are exploring
  • Appropriately sized furniture to enable children to reach materials on low shelves and take part in daily routines
  • Warm, responsive adults nearby to interact with children and encourage and support social experiences for children of varying stages of development
  • Cozy area for children for relaxation and comfort
  • Adaptive materials and equipment such as special seating for body positioning, adapted utensils for eating, or toys that become activated in response to sounds or movement
  • Accurate representations of the cultures, languages, and families in the greater community
  • A variety of books, materials, and supplies to interest and meet the developmental needs of all children
  • Language from adults that kind, caring, demonstrates responsiveness to children’s needs and ideas, and is always respectful

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 program and it is your responsibility to be sensitive and responsive to each child’s and family’s needs. This impacts how you organize and plan your school-age program environment to ensure all children will be successful. For example, while some children in your program 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 (NAEYC) states that in order to support all children’s development caregivers must begin from a place that considers (1) research-based information about children of that age generally, (2) the unique individual child (e.g., interests, needs, strengths, worries), and (3) what is known about the child’s social and cultural context (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020). School-age staff members and 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 school-age environment to meet the needs of individual children and youth in your program
  • Adjust for differences in individual children throughout the day or day-to-day as circumstances change and events occur
  • Provide modifications as children and youth grow and their needs change            
  • Make accommodations to include the multiple ages or developmental stages of the children you serve in each activity and learning setting

Change your environment and practices as you learn more about best practices, and the children and families you support

Embracing Family Experiences: Considerations for Programs Serving Military Families

Think about the military families you know and serve. How are their identities shaped by the experiences of being military families? For many families, military service and personal identity can be intertwined. Consider these potential reasons:

  • 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 can send messages about their lifestyles, preferences, and experiences. Children form their identity and sense of self based in part on their home and surrounding community. 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 spouses, can also experience changes in how they perceive themselves after long periods of independence or parenting solo.
  • 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 and 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 in which their skills are valued. 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 often have a strong sense of 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 child care. You understand the families’ contexts and can be a valuable source of 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 expectations of themselves and of each other. This applies to deployment, permanent change of station, retirement, and other major life transitions. Help families open lines of communication with each other about their expectations, fears, and excitement.
  • Provide families with information about how their child might react before, during, and after deployment or other transitions. Recognize that children’s responses will vary based on age, developmental stage, and temperament.
  • Offer ongoing support to families regarding return and reunion challenges.
  • Remember that families—even those with experience—do not always have the information and support they need.

Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others

Adults who care for themselves are better able to care for and support children and youth. Remember that interactions with important adults help define how children see themselves and what they expect from others. When adults are emotionally available to respond to a child’s cues with kindness and patience, they are teaching the child that they are safe and important. An adult who is under stress, coping with trauma, or experiencing mental health problems or addiction will have a harder time caring for children until the caregiver themselves receives the help they need.

As a school-age staff member, you are also a part of the program environment that must be attended to. Wittmer and Petersen (2017) explain 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”.

Self-care is an active and powerful choice. Caring for yourself means to engage in activities that increase or maintain your optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but also the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being.  Practicing self-care is an indication of a positive self-concept. Providers who are aware of self-care practices can act as positive role models for children. You can create an environment that helps children to engage in self-care. Your own self-care practices can be a starting place to demonstrate the importance of self-care.

Considering your Own Sense of Self and Wellness

All of us can find ourselves struggling with situations and relationships at times, with children and youth, our work more broadly, or in our personal lives. With children and youth, observations are one of our best strategies as school-age staff members. Intentional, reflective observations can help you understand a child in your program better, which in turn can change your feelings or thoughts about that child. Whether a child or adult, when we understand someone better, we almost always are better able to feel compassion and kindness towards them.

Another strategy you can use is visualization. See yourself interacting positively with a child in your program. If he or she displays behaviors that seem to disrupt your teaching approach, try imagining this child as they are but without those behaviors and you responding in a caring way. Then, try carrying out your imagined caring response with the child.

Many of us are accustomed to saying “yes” to everything that is asked of us for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Learning how and when to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate. It shows you know your limits and are able to prioritize, which will make you a better school-age staff member and colleague. It is also important to learn how to relieve stress. Here are a few tips:

  • Consider keeping a journal. It can be therapeutic to write the day’s events and your perspectives on paper. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you be mindful about the positive aspects of your life.
  • Make connections. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Have a cup of coffee with a friend. Speak to the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These small moments can help you feel connected and supported.
  • Even a small amount of regular exercise can help you feel better, sleep better, and cope better with life’s daily stressors. Healthful eating can make a difference, too.
  • Remember to breathe. When we’re stressed, we tend to breath shallower. Taking a moment for a few deep breaths can be a quick way to lower our stress levels.

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 an important role in your 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 areas for growth. 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 different 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.


As you watch the video below, reflect on how your program builds a supportive social, verbal, and physical environment for school-age children and youth.  Consider how you can specifically support military families and school-age children’s sense of self.

Creating Supportive Environments

See supportive environments in school-age programs with emphasis on the social, emotional and verbal aspects of the environment.


In safe, caring, responsive and accepting environments, children and youth can develop and grow a sense of self and self-confidence that says, “I matter,” “I am deserving,” and “I can make things happen.” However, in unpredictable, less responsive, and unwelcoming environments, they may come to feel unaccepted and anxious.

In your program environment, consider doing the following to support a positive sense of self for children and youth:

  • Get to know and respect each child and youth as an individual.
  • Show interest and be actively involved in what children and youth are doing in your program.
  • Respond to and meet children’s individual needs in a timely manner.
  • Respond positively as each child and youth develops new skills or accomplishes tasks.
  • Organize and offer materials in a way that enables all children and youth to actively participate.
  • Support all children and continually ensure all children feel safe to be themselves in your program.
  • Plan experiences that enable children and youth 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, share their favorite foods, games, places of interest, books, etc.).


What types of spaces helped you feel safe, valued, confident, understood, and successful when you were growing up? Which of these characteristics or qualities do you want to try to recreate within your school-age setting? Take a few minutes to respond to the questions in the Self-Reflection: Environments activity.  Then, share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach or administrator.


In this lesson we introduced the idea of self-care and its importance in your work as a school-age staff member. Self-care is discussed in many different caring professions, including nursing and social work. Read, What is Self-Care?, and then complete  the Self-Care Assessment to identify strategies you currently use to help promote your own well-being and strategies you might wish to incorporate into your self-care plan.

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 administrator.


True or False? At times you may need to modify your program environment to meet the needs of individual children.
Your co-worker seems shares that she feels “burned out” and asks what she should do. What suggestions do you offer?
Finish this statement: Military families…
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Erdman, S., Colker, L. J., & Winter, E. C. (July 2020). Preventing compassion fatigue: Caring for yourself. Young Children, 75(3).

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. Young Children, 61(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. (2007). Finding your smile again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Redleaf Press.

Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping your smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. Redleaf Press.

Kostelnik, M. J., Stein, L. C., & Whiren, A. P. (1988). Children’s self-esteem: The verbal environment. Childhood Education, 65(1), 29.

Loukas, A. (2007). What is school climate? Leadership Compass, 5(1), 1-3.

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

National Alliance on Mental Illness (n.d.) Self-care inventory. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2020). Developmentally appropriate practice. 

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

Petty, K. (2009). Deployment: Strategies for working with kids in military families. Redleaf Press.

Smith, K. (n.d.) Positive classroom environment and student teacher rapport. The Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota.

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