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Creating a Positive Social-Emotional Environment

Two women smiling at each other while one woman is holding a baby.

In honor of Valentine’s Day and “love” month, no matter how you choose to celebrate, or not, it is a good time to reflect on the social and emotional practices including friendship skills and relationship building strategies we use in our environments.

Let’s start at the beginning. The moment you welcome and enroll a new family in your program. I say family, not just child, because it is the entire family that we are working with and hopefully building a relationship with. How do you welcome new families to be sure that they feel understood and accepted? How do you show them that their child will be safe, loved, and supported?

Begin by assessing your physical environment. Provide places for families to sit, say goodbyes, and see themselves in. We often forget to have furnishings that are comfortable for adults, not just children. Are you a parent yourself? How about an aunt, an older cousin, what about a fur baby parent? Think about what you like and dislike when you go into a doctor’s office, the vet, or even a kid’s store or play place. Does the environment feel warm and welcoming? Give families a chance to get to know you and the staff by including photographs and bios. Be sure that families are present in the space by having photos of them as well, in addition add books, dolls, and materials that represent a variety of family structures and cultures.

Next, get to know the children and their families. Truly, get to know them. I prefer to keep a detailed notebook about the children. I also keep a piece of paper or sticky notes near me that are more accessible to jot down notes throughout the day. Learn grandma's names, pets name, where the family goes on vacation, etc. Use these details in daily conversations and check-ins with children and their family members. This will make them feel special in addition to helping the child build trust in you. Send out intake forms and frequent evaluations or surveys. Invite families to participate in school wide events or even more simple and regular occurrences like story time or field trips. Find out about parents' hobbies and expertise so that you may invite them to teach the children or share their skills.

Last but not least, work diligently on your interactions with children as well as how you teach children to interact with their classmates. All of this begins again, with your environment including your routines and procedures you have in place for children. If you model respect, compassion, and care to the children then surely you will begin to see this in the children’s interactions with their peers.

Social and emotional skills; this can be the most challenging part of our job! Teaching children how to play and get along with others in addition to regulating themselves is arguably the most time consuming yet rewarding part of child care and early education.

Here are some crucial pieces of friendship skills:

  1. Help children get to know each other. Start as simply as making sure they all know each other's names and something they like. Make a chart to graph common interests and similarities, have a show and share day, give each child a special day with their favorite thing (snake day, bubble day, outside day, etc.)

  2. Discuss, model, and teach emotions frequently. Read books about feelings, talk about feelings often, display and provide feeling charts, an alone center, an emotion or a calm down toolbox, etc. Teach children to stop and identify how they are feeling and then begin to consider how others might be feeling. One of my favorite questions to ask, “What would help you/them feel better?”

  3. Sharing is usually NOT developmentally appropriate. Be mindful of asking young children to share. Sharing is much more special when it’s children’s own idea and when they understand how other people feel about sharing, too!

  4. Help children solve their own problems. Problem solving is an intricate task to teach with young children and it will likely take months for them to get it but again, it’s so very worth it in the end!

  5. Have children take ownership in the school and their friendships.

Get down on children’s level as frequently as possible, listen to them, figure out what they’re aim is. So often I will notice children ask for something and adults will tell them no, but I find out they have this amazing plan for why they have to run outside or why they just NEED that one thing; if only we would give them a little more time or ask a few more questions about why they need to do that one thing. Figure out their interests and get them into the classroom. I have a few little guys who just love Star Wars. I know nothing about Star Wars and don’t have an interest in it. But for them, I'll try! I recently came into a handful of Star Wars books and immediately filled the shelves with them.

Most important of all, give children your time and energy, let them know you care, and they’ll give this and more back to you.


Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.

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