Creating a positive climateNeed help?
Read about how important a positive social and emotional climate is for promoting children’s social and emotional development, and the different aspects of the centre culture and climate that help to achieve a positive atmosphere for children and teachers. There is space to take notes in your workbook below, followed by some reflection questions.
Creating a positive social and emotional climate
Children’s personal experiences of emotions and social interactions in their families and communities is hugely influential in shaping the social and emotional wiring of the brain, and patterns for behaviour and for social interactions can be set early in childhood. Researchers agree that early childhood is a critical period for helping children to develop skills in self-regulation, social skills and emotion knowledge, and these skills are ideally consolidated before school entry when the demands on children’s independence and self-management increase.
Teachers can support and nurture children’s emotional wellbeing and support them in the development of social and emotional competencies. This might be particularly important for children from low socioeconomic areas, or children from families with relationship difficulties or mental health issues, who, research shows, are more likely to develop social and emotional difficulties.
One of the first foundations to put in place to support the development of social and emotional skills is a supportive social and emotional climate. Positive emotional climates support children’s wellbeing, positive behaviour and ongoing engagement within the early childhood setting, as well as positively influencing children’s social and emotional behaviours beyond the setting. Warm and supportive emotional climates are also thought to reduce conflict, aggression and challenging behaviours in children.
A positive climate can be developed when teachers focus on developing:
- an intentional focus on social and emotional competence
- strong relationships
- consistent expectations and positive tones
A positive social and emotional climate is also supported when teachers embed specific and intentional strategies for supporting children’s emotional development, for scaffolding children’s social skills, and for supporting children to self-manage their behaviour and learning.
An intentional focus on social and emotional competence
Having a policy or an intentional focus on supporting children’s social and emotional competence can lead to better awareness, clearer expectations and consistent practice. A lack of formal policy has been reported in the literature to contribute to a lack of intentional practice to support social and emotional learning.
Intentional practice can be built through:
- Schedule centre-wide reviews to develop shared understandings and consistent practices regarding social and emotional competence amongst your team. Effective teaching practice is easier to implement when teaching teams share philosophies and objectives.
- Policies which contain guidance about strategies for supporting children’s social and emotional development rather than focusing on procedures for dealing with challenging behaviour only. Involve families in reviewing policies and guidance, and use this as an opportunity to find out about families’ beliefs about and expectations of appropriate behaviours for their children, as well as beliefs about the best way for children to develop these behaviours.
- Reflective practice focused on emotions, and on discussing and reflecting on relationships that you hold with individual children.
- Displays, assessments, and conversations with families about children’s learning that focus on children’s developing social and emotional competencies.
Strong, positive relationships and supportive interactions between teachers and children are found to form a foundation for children’s appropriate social and emotional development. Children’s ability to engage in learning opportunities and eventual school success are hugely influenced by their ability to establish a strong relationship with a teacher. Children with secure attachment relationships are more likely to have good social skills and emotional literacy and regulatory skills. Research also suggests that children with insecure attachments to their parents are able to create secure relationships with teachers in compensation, resulting in the same positive consequences for their social and emotional learning.
Strong relationships enable teachers to support children to develop confidence, self-efficacy and positive representations of themselves. Children with high self-esteem are more resilient and better able to regulate emotions because they have high expectations for being able to manage difficulties and achieving success. They also allow teachers to teach prosocial and emotionally appropriate behaviours through being a trusted model. Children pay more attention to teachers that are responsive and caring towards them. Strong relationships help children with regulating their emotions (which will influence their capacity to develop self-regulation and resilience), and offer a sense of safety (which can help reduce challenging behaviours). They also encourage the development of language and social skills, with early language in particular important for sophisticated social interaction. Strong relationships also support children to develop successful relationships with peers, as the experience of warm and sensitive relations with adults influence children’s expectations of other relationships and lead them to recreate similar relations with their peers.
Strong relationships can be built through:
- Transition processes that focus on welcoming, continuity and belonging, as well as daily welcoming of every child and whānau by name.
- Plenty of one-to-one interactions with each child, conversing about shared interests and experiences, following the child’s lead in play, and developing episodes of sustained shared thinking. Research shows that teachers’ relationships with children can be strengthened when teachers focus on strengthening daily interactions with children. Listen attentively and appreciatively to children’s communications, be emotionally available and respond to children’s emotional cues and perspectives.
- Positive feelings, attention and warmth towards children, praise, and encouragement. Consider children’s preferences and cultural expectations when expressing warmth and affection or praising diverse children, including challenging children (who are often the ones who need it most). Smile at children and use affectionate words or terms of endearment, brief tickles, pats on the back, special handshakes, and cuddles on your lap. Expression of affection by teachers is found to be linked to children’s ability to appropriately show emotion and interact appropriately with peers, while negative interactions are associated with increases in behaviour issues.
- Synchronising emotions through coordinating actions, facial expressions, vocalisations and eye contact.
- Home visits and sharing positive news and notes with families.
Consistent expectations and positive tones
Consistent expectations and routines and positive, supportive environments contribute to a positive climate by helping to reduce anxiety for children and supporting them to be competent and capable in the setting. Consistent and well-understood expectations also serve to communicate and enact key values related to social and emotional competence, such as being considerate and showing kindness and empathy.
Consistent expectations and a positive atmosphere enable children to openly communicate feelings and distress and play and interact with each other in positive, sociable ways. They also allow children to practice social and emotional skills, experiment and take risks while feeling secure and trusting that the environment is predictable, consistent and fair. Consistent expectations and a positive tone also support children to take initiative and share ideas in ways that enhance their self-esteem.
Consistent expectations can be built through:
- Key values which guide practices in your setting, and are linked to expectations of behaviour. Refer to these often during interactions with children.
- Clear expectations for behaviour which children have helped to construct, and which are used to ensure consistent responses to children’s behaviour. Use simple language and plan how you will teach, prompt and model these expectations (encourage older children to help with this). Use child-friendly visual cues to remind children of expectations.
- Clear and calm routines with explanations about how these keep everyone safe and activities running smoothly. Review expected behaviours and routines regularly with children to ensure they are still useful and appropriate.
- Acknowledgment for children’s attempts to meet expectations. Comment on ways in which children are demonstrating key values such as becoming more caring or more responsible.
- Opportunities for children to take responsibility for the needs of the group, or show others important routines and valued actions, for example, through peer tutoring or leadership roles.
A positive tone to your early childhood setting can be created through:
- Supportive language, friendly tones, and a focus on affirming children and families. Share the positive aspects of the day with families as children leave and celebrate children’s successes and achievements. Avoid expressing negative emotions, criticism, nagging, yelling and reprimands.
- Well-organised materials and environments that promote children’s active and appropriate engagement and enable relaxed and playful interactions between teachers and children so that teachers do not need to spend time managing children’s inappropriate behaviour.
- Rich, meaningful, and well-resourced curricular programmes, that are responsive to children’s needs and preferences. Children are more likely to be engaged, cooperative and demonstrate positive behaviours when they are involved with the people and activities that they enjoy. Offering a choice of activities and materials gives children a sense of control or power over their environment, increasing motivation and participation.
- Physical and emotional safety for children, promptly reassuring, comforting and supporting children in a calm and considered way at moments of heightened emotion. Anticipate problems and prevent or redirect problem behaviour.
- Teacher wellbeing. Maintain your own emotional wellbeing by, for example, developing self-awareness and mindfulness, which leads you to be more positive, calm and reflective rather than reactive. Learn about your triggers for negative emotions, strategies for dealing with emotions and ways to prevent emotional exhaustion, such as balancing personal and professional needs, and asking for and accepting support.
To read the full version of this research review with references, click here.
In this interview, Barbara Dunn from Flatbush Kindergarten in Auckland talks about how the Māori kaupapa and values of the kindergarten support intentional practices for establishing and maintaining a positive social and emotional climate for tamariki.
Learn more about Barbara Dunn
Barbara Dunn was born in South Auckland, although her whakapapa to the Hokianga defines who she is, what she does, and why she does it. Her practice is defined by giving, showing, and affirming whanaungatanga, aroha, and manaakitanga. When the ENGAGE programme was introduced to her centre, Barbara immediately recognised these values reflected in its core. She sees the use of games, language, and intention in the programme as central to the beliefs of Māori in their mahi with tamariki.
As we know, the fabric of family life has changed dramatically. Whereas once upon a time you had two parents, you had a sibling, everyone knew what they were doing, and when they were going, and who Nana was over there, and who Aunty was over there, but the fabric of that life that we knew in our lifetime has changed so much, and there’s so many people that have opposing opinions and influence on children, that sometimes they fall through the cracks. There are a lot out there that are screaming – silently screaming for awhi and support.
How do you create a welcoming and emotionally safe space for tamariki and whānau?
We do that by having, some would say high expectations, but we have expectations of not just ourselves, but of our children, and it starts when they walk in that front door. Now, it starts before – even when they walk in the front gate. The expectation is we will acknowledge each other – and we role-model that. Every child that comes in that gate – every whānau that comes in the gate: ‘mōrena’. If we know the other reo for mōrena, we will use it. ‘Ata mārie’. Well, I mean, that’s Māori, too, and if we know the names of the adults, we will use them. One mum every morning: ‘mōrena Katarina’. I don’t think anyone uses her full name. Everyone that I’ve heard has called her Kat, and that’s kei te pai, but why not use that beautiful name that’s been gifted to her? I think she feels really special now, you know? That, oh my god, someone knows what my full name is, and they know how to pronounce it. Her children are beautiful. They see us acknowledging not only them, but their parents, their whānau, and that’s where it starts – at the front gate.
We have a very open kind of programme, where part and parcel of it is to respect each other, respect yourself, and respect the place that you’re in, whether you’re here at kindergarten, or you’re at home, or you’re out in the shopping centre, looking after each other – manaakitanga. We do encourage our children, if they see a friend crying, or even if it’s not a friend, someone they know comes to kindy and is crying out there in the playground, and we say to them, go and make sure they’re okay, go and help them up. ‘I didn’t hurt him’. That’s kei te pai – you don’t have to hurt someone to help them.
Again, expectations we have of looking after each other. So, giving them real examples, and letting them walk through it, and guiding them through those steps – it goes a long way. It goes a long, long way, in terms of self-regulation. You get the ones that just constantly need to burn that energy off, and someone inadvertently gets knocked down. So, we stop them, we bring them back and they’re going, what are you doing? You can hear the words in their heads: what are you doing – why are you making me stop? So, you go, you need to pick him up. You knocked him down – help him up, take him, get him a tissue, and then go and get him a drink of water.
How do you acknowledge and promote the mana and self-esteem of every child, teacher, and parent?
So, there’s one whakataukī that we use, and the whakataukī is ‘Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu’. So, what that means is, although little, it is precious. So, we’ve been able to use that whakataukī right throughout the kindergarten, for every situation that we could find, and sometimes it’s the children that bring it to our attention. For example, worms and bugs that children are used to standing on and going, aaargh – freaking out over when they see it wiggle. It’s being able to take that moment and capture it with them with the whakataukī, and just saying, calm down, ahakoa he iti – and saying that slow enough that they’re getting you – he pounamu, that worm has got mahi to do. That’s what we do, too, is we give a reason for their being – although it may not be it – but that worm has mahi to do, has work to do – he needs to get from here to there. ‘We’ll pick him up’. Ka hori – no, we’ll guard him as he makes his way over. Most in the morning, you have two or three children just watching this worm slowly. ‘He’s not moving, Barb’. That’s kei te pai – he’s having a rest, like we do our rest when we do our mahi. We have mahi to do, and we need to rest, and we need to get from here over to there, to go into our mahi. So, it’s looking after ourselves, looking after each other, because that worm needs to get over by those plants, to look after it in the garden – that’s his mahi. ‘Oh’. So, you know, in a roundabout way, and a beautiful long way, it made sense. Again, at mat-time, when we’ve had groups of children, we’ve got them up two at a time, one is obviously taller than the other, and our opportunity to give another example of the meaning of the proverb. Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu, and they’ve got it. So, when I start saying ahakoa, they join in with us, and finish the proverb.
How do strong relationships support children with emotional regulation and social emotional learning?
For the kids to be able to go out into that world, and to be able to be active, and to have interactions with people that are going to be so beneficial, not only for them, but for others around them, to be able to get to that point, they need to start somewhere. So, with the mahi that we do here, we set them up for that. The core to our teaching is value-based in Māori, around manaakitanga, aroha, and whanaungatanga. Without those three core values, they will struggle. They will struggle. And what’s good for Māori is good for everyone. We’ve seen it to be tika – to be true, because of the mahi that we’ve been doing with those three pou – values. To be able to have a relationship, you have to be able to sit down and kōrero with someone, and a lot of our kids struggle with that, and it’s not surprising, because a lot of them come with different reo. English is not always the reo they come with, and sometimes the reo they do come with, we’re not fluent in it. So, we have to go searching through the whānau: ‘this happened, and he was trying to say this – can you see what’s going on?’ So, again, that brings us – the whānau in onboard with us.
For a glossary of the te reo Māori terms that Barbara uses in her interview, click below:
Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu: a proverb meaning ‘although it is small, it is precious’
Ata mārie: good morning
Awhi: support, an embrace
Hā ki roto, hā ki waho: breathe in, breathe out
Ka hori: No
Kei te pai: that’s okay, that’s fine (also ‘I’m fine’)
Kōrero: to talk
Manaakitanga: hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others
Mōrena: good morning
Pou: a value
Taihoa: wait, hold on
Whanaungatanga: relationship, kinship, sense of family connection – a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging
Barbara suggests that a positive social and emotional climate in early childhood settings can be important, especially for children that lack social and emotional support in their lives outside of the setting. One important thing we can give children at this stage of their education is a strong social and emotional foundation on which to build a healthy sense of identity, self-esteem, and social and emotional competence.
There are several ways in which Barbara and her teaching team ensure that the climate of their setting is highly positive for children and supports their wellbeing as well as enabling them to learn social and emotional skills. Firstly, the teachers have high expectations for themselves and for children. These are linked to the key values (manaakitanga │hospitality, aroha │love and care, and whanaungatanga │relationships) that underpin their philosophy. The values serve as pillars (pou) for practice, and these practices are clearly articulated and consistently performed through regular routines and actions – things like welcoming families as they arrive and the use of whakatauakī.
These practices, and the values that sit behind them, are accompanied by high expectations on the part of teachers. Children are expected to acknowledge, care for, and respect each other, as well as show care and respect for themselves and their place (resources and equipment). Teachers ensure they role model these expectations, and reference them in a number of ways across the day. They acknowledge children and families as they arrive each day, greeting them as they come in the door, and knowing and using their names and greetings in their first languages. They reinforce values and expectations through everyday opportunities, such as when a child gets hurt. Barbara points out that this expectation of caring for one another promotes the development of a range of social and emotional skills, such as self-control (inhibiting an impulse for charging through the playground in order to stop and help a child who has been knocked down), as well as knowledge of how to make a friend feel better.
The key values that underpin practice at Flatbush Kindergarten are also encapsulated in whakatauakī that the team use on a daily basis. One of these, ‘ahakoa he iti, he pounamu’ (although it is small, it is precious) invites children to respect all living things, including each other. This kind of respect is a key way in which teachers and children protect and enhance each other’s mana.
As well as the practices associated with manaakitanga which focus on strong welcoming of families and promoting a sense of belonging, the value of whanaungatanga encourages teachers to prioritise connections and the building and maintaining of social relationships. This means actively promoting time for meaningful interactions and korero with each other. As Barbara explains, it is important to be attentive to and use the child’s home language, and to draw on the support of family and whānau to enable these interactions to be as meaningful as possible.
The strong Kaupapa Māori that guides practice at Flatbush Kindergarten leads teachers to provide a consistent environment for children, enabling children to be confident and secure in their understanding of expectations for behaviour, as well as supported in achieving the social and emotional competencies that make this positive environment possible. The way that Barbara and her team’s practice draws on Māori values should also draw our attention to the way that positive social and emotional climates for young children need to take account of children’s culture and language. A culturally responsive environment will draw on the activities, values, and languages of children and their families to ensure that children have a strong sense that their cultural identity is valued and supported. You can read more about culturally responsive practice in the further reading section, and we will also touch on this topic again in Part 6.