- Reflect on the importance of the learning environment and how it helps shape who we are.
- Recognize the uniqueness of military life and the effects it may have on school-age children and their sense of self.
- Recognize methods of self-care that will make school-age staff members 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, schools, 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 make 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. The environments we are in and the people we share our environments with help shape who we are. Our self-concepts are developed in our homes, schools, 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 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. 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 program 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 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.
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 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 a message 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 self-perception 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 employers that value their skill set. 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 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 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 (2006):
- 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 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 and Wellness
As a school-age staff member, you are a direct part of the program 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 school-age children and families. As you likely learned in other courses, observations are one of our best strategies as school-age staff members. Observations can help you get to know and understand a child in your program better, which in turn can change your feelings.
Another strategy you can use is visualization. See yourself interacting positively with a school-age child in your activity room. If he or she displays behaviors that seem to disrupt your teaching approach, try seeing this child without those behaviors and you responding in a caring way.
Self-care is a very active and powerful choice to engage in the activities that are required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being. In your role as a school-age staff member, you can create an environment that supports children to engage in self-care. Your own self care practices can be a starting place to demonstrate the importance of self-care. Learning to use self-care practices is an indication of developing a strong self-concept and staff members who are aware of self-care practices can act as positive role models for children.
Many of us are accustomed to saying “yes” to everything that is asked of us for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Learning how to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate, and it shows you know your limits and are able to put your needs first, which will make you a better school-age staff and team member. It is also important that you learn to let go of 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. Go out for lunch or for 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 little 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. As we get stressed out, we tend to breath shallower. By taking a moment to take a few deep breaths, we are taking time for ourselves and lowering our stress levels.
Supporting Yourself by Reducing Stress: Taking Care of Yourself while Taking Care of Others
According to child-care expert 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.
- 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.
Be a Role Model
Being a school-age staff member is an important job. It means that you will have young, impressionable minds watching, listening and learning from you. You must be acting as a role model at all times. Being a positive and supportive role model will help school-age children develop their own sense of self. They will be provided with examples of how to behave and interact.
As you see these examples of supportive environments for school-age programs, reflect on your program builds a supportive social, verbal and physical environment for school-age children and youth. Consider how you specifically help support military families and school-age children’s sense of self.
In your program environment, consider doing the following to support a developing 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 materials in a way that enables all children and youth to actively participate.
- Respond in a similar fashion to boys and girls in your program. Check your classroom materials (e.g., books, posters, other learning materials) for bias or misconceptions regarding individuals from different groups).
- 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 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 school age staff member. 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 http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/search?q=self-care). 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.
Johnson, J. (2007). Finding Your Smile Again: A child care professional’s guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Kostelnik, M. J., Stein, L. C., & Whiren, A. P. (1988). Children’s Self-Esteem: The verbal environment. Childhood Education, 65(1), 29. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1290007205?accountid=9783
Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping Your Smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Loukas, A. (2007). What is School Climate? Leadership Compass, 5(1), 1-3. Retrieved from https://www.naesp.org/resources/2/Leadership_Compass/2007/LC2007v5n1a4.pdf
National Military Family Association. (2005). Report on the Cycles of Deployment: An analysis of survey responses from April through September. Retrieved from https://www.militaryfamily.org/wp-content/uploads/NMFA-Cycles-of-Deployment_Report__2005_.pdf
Petty, K. (2009). Deployment: Strategies for working with kids in military families. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
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.