Last reviewed 5 April 2012

Introduction

Practitioners spend considerable time planning to ensure that the learning environment, both indoor and outdoor, meets the developmental needs of the children. However, the emotional environment is often overlooked. Liz Hodgman looks at the emotional environment, what it is, why it is important and how it can be planned for and provided.

What is an emotional environment?

An emotional environment is one that promotes emotional wellbeing and provides stability for the children according to their individual needs.

A good emotional environment will provide the children with:

  • adults who will provide them with emotional support, understanding their feelings and showing empathy

  • a sense of feeling safe and secure enabling them to learn and develop, giving them the confidence to explore and overcome any challenges they may face

  • a safe place to explore their feelings, knowing they will be accepted by the adults around them and supported to develop how they express their feelings over a range of emotions, positive and negative

  • warmth and a welcoming and accepting environment

  • inclusivity, where everyone is valued, embracing all cultures, genders, ethnicity, language, religion, special educational needs and disabilities

  • support to develop their independence and life skills.

A good emotional environment will “provide a secure base from which children grow into well-rounded, capable adults with robust mental health”. DfE (2009) Every Child Matters.

Why is it important?

A child’s social and emotional development is vital for their future if they are to achieve their full potential socially, academically and career-wise as an adult. With a positive emotional environment children will flourish across all areas of their development as they will have a positive disposition to learning, learn to share and work co-operatively with others, be well behaved and learn to become independent. They will be better able to deal with major transitions in their life, for example starting school, Year 6 to year 7, etc.

A child who has a poor emotional environment may struggle to develop positive relationships with their peers, fall behind academically and risk later involvement in crime. They may also develop physical health and mental health issues in their adult life. They are unlikely to reach their full potential.

What are the key contributions to a positive emotional environment?

Positive relationships with key adults

Research has shown that children with good bonds of attachment with their main caregivers are more likely to have good mental health as adults. Strong bonds — normally with their parent but can also include their key worker in a childcare provision — help to develop a resilience to stress, an ability to balance emotions and enable the child to have meaningful interpersonal relationships in the future.

Practitioners need to develop strong bonds with their keyworker children. This will be enabled by developing good communication with the child’s family, understanding the needs of the child, what helps to calm them, etc.

All staff should be aware of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory and the important role they play as a keyworker to their allocated children.

Some children will require intense emotional support from their keyworker, for example children who have experienced trauma or loss, witnessed domestic violence between their parents or been abused. This can be very draining for the practitioner. In order to prevent burn-out and to ensure that the child is receiving the best support possible, staff should receive regular supervision from a worker who has been trained to deliver supervision, with good active listening skills and ability to challenge thinking.

The personal touch

Making the setting as personalised as possible helps children to feel valued. It can also help children to develop a sense of belonging and ownership. This can be achieved in a variety of ways.

The use of children’s names is very important, but also learning and using parents’ names and ensuring a warm welcome at each visit to the provision can have a positive impact on the whole family. Use activities and songs, for example the “hello” song to help the children learn each other’s names.

Children feel very special when they see a photograph of themselves above their peg beside their name. This also helps them to identify their own peg/belongings and increases their independence.

Ask children who are starting at your provision to bring in a drawing or piece of artwork that they have done at home. Display it prior to their arrival for their first session. This will help to provide a link to home and give support around transition which can be very distressing for some children.

If possible, involve the children in the registration process when they arrive for each session. This may be by having their own “signing in” sheet and a pen, or by having their photo and name on a board and having to find it and move it to another board. This will make them feel special and valued.

Diversity

It is important that different cultures, religions and languages are reflected within the provision. It helps children feel that their home life is acknowledged and respected and that they are valued within the provision. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as adding welcome signs in different languages, using flags from around the world, or images that reflect the diversity of the children, families and staff within the setting and by toys and resources.

Behaviour

Planning for the emotional environment can be a real support for managing behaviour. Helping the children understand the “rules” or boundaries of the provision can be done by using visual displays. Use photographs of the setting to show the children what behaviour is not acceptable, for example, not wearing shoes indoors or walking around drinking. Add red crosses over the photos and explain to the children that this means you can’t do what is in the photo. Encourage them to think of their own “rules” and add them to the display. This will give them some ownership of them and they are more likely to stick within the boundaries.

Using pictorial behaviour charts is a very good way for children to see and understand the consequences of their behaviour and that of their peers. Pick a theme for the chart that picks up on the interest of the children and use that to develop a fun interactive display that will encourage the children to behave.

Choices

As adults we are continually faced with choices and decisions to be made. If children are encouraged to make choices when they are young they will find it much easier as adults. Consider areas of the setting environment where you could introduce choices for the children. How children access toys and resources might be easily rearranged, allowing children to choose what they want to engage with.

Children also benefit from being able to go back to an activity and complete it later. This is especially important for art and craft related projects. Consider setting up a “holding area” for uncompleted art work so that the children can chose when to return to complete it.

Routines

Routines are really important to children. They help children to feel secure, knowing what is going to be happening next. Timetables and routines need to have some flexibility to allow children to complete tasks and to follow their particular interest. Adding visual timetables to your setting will enable the children to check for themselves what is planned for them. These can be easily made by using photographs of the children themselves undertaking regular activities, for example washing their hands, eating lunch or dinner, listening to a story, having a sleep, etc. Laminate the photographs and display them in the right sequence in a place that is accessible to the children. If you add sticky back velcros to the wall and the backs of the laminated photographs, the display can easily be changed or the children can help to plan the daily routine at the start of each session, adding the photographs in the right order.

Celebrating achievements and effort

It is really important that the environment helps children to celebrate what they have achieved and the effort they have made. This gives them self-confidence and a greater determination when attempting future tasks, knowing that their efforts are recognised and valued. This can be done in a variety of ways from displaying the children’s artwork around the provision with their name and age next to it, to presenting the children with certificates at special circle times.

Supporting feelings

Helping children to understand feelings and developing their vocabulary to include emotional language can be supported with resources. These can include books about feelings as well as emotion cushions and dice. Puppets are also useful to help children discuss difficult topics. You can also purchase some lovely large photograph type flash cards with faces depicting different emotions. You could also make your own resources with the children and a digital camera, asking them to pull faces for different feelings.

Developing independence

Practitioners need to plan how to support independence and the learning of life skills for each child within their care. This may mean looking at what resources need to be used to provide an enabling environment for them to develop new skills. For example, for a child who is learning to go to the toilet independently this may mean providing a step for the toilet, a child toilet seat, baby wipes and visual reminders of how to wash and dry their hands.

In conclusion

Planning for the emotional environment should be part of the general cycle of planning, observing the children, noting their interests, needs and abilities and planning accordingly. This will help to ensure that the children within the provision have a sound and secure foundation to their emotional development, physical and mental health.