The culture and climate created in an early childhood setting forms an important foundation for social and emotional competence. Children need to experience a positive sense of wellbeing and feel secure and safe in order to make gains in social and emotional competencies. In this part we examine the kind of practices and policies that support a positive social and emotional climate in an early childhood setting, as the first step for enhancing children’s social and emotional skills.
The aims for this part of the course are:
- To understand important components of the social and emotional climate of an early childhood setting for supporting children’s positive behaviour and engagement
- To reflect on the quality of the social and emotional climate you promote in your own setting
This will involve:
- Reading about how to create a positive social and emotional climate as a foundation for teaching social and emotional competencies
- Reflecting on your own abilities to provide positive support to children, and what impacts on this
- Watching an interview with Barbara Dunn from Flatbush Kindergarten about their intentional focus on creating a positive social and emotional climate for children
- Inquiring into the quality of the social and emotional climate in your own setting
There is further reading about one kindergarten’s inquiry into improving their social and emotional climate, and a link to webinar on encouraging positive relationships and environments for infants’ and toddlers’ social and emotional competence. You might also find it helpful to engage with some of our resources on relational pedagogies and on culturally responsive practice as further reading. You can also use our online forum to discuss your setting’s policies and practices for implementing a positive social and emotional climate.
Revisit your learning so far
In Part 1, we introduced social and emotional competence as having four different components. Can you recall these?
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.
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:
- Self-review developing 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.
How positive is your attitude to the children in your setting? Do you find it easy to offer children affection, and positive encouragement? Or are you naturally more reserved about showing affection and positive feelings? How calm are you during routines and play? How easy is it for you to stay calm and positive in difficult situations, such as conflict situations? What do you think impacts on your ability to be calm, positive, and affectionate on a daily basis, and how might you mitigate some of these factors?
Watch a video
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.
About Barbara Dunn
Barbara 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.
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.
Relate your learning to practice
In the remainder of the course, our activities focus on undertaking an inquiry into social and emotional learning in your setting. This means evaluating your current practice, as well as children’s abilities and skills in relation to social and emotional competence, and using the data you collect to plan how you might modify practice and improve children’s social and emotional learning outcomes. There are many ways to inquire into practice, and often a good way is to make use of tools that already exist for assessing practice.
For this part, we focus on inquiring into the social and emotional climate in your setting, and we use an existing and easily accessible tool published online in He māpuna te tamaiti | Te Whāriki Online (tki.org.nz). Have a look at pages 102-3, and read through the sections on ‘Creating a supportive environment’. You will see several statements listed by theme (there are five themes in all, including ‘Establishing a positive climate’, ‘Constructing values’, ‘Developing and promoting expectations’, ‘Establishing consistent routines’, and ‘Creating a safe and inclusive space’). You’ll see that there is space to evaluate your practice as ‘emerging’, ‘partly in place’, and ‘embedded’ for each section. Note that before you can make an overall judgement for each section, is probably helpful to use a highlighter (or several highlighters) to indicate which parts of each indicator are emerging, partly in place, and embedded, as it is unlikely that you will have consistent scores for each part of each section.
Next think about how you might collect evidence to make judgements in relation to these statements. You might choose to intentionally observe practice over a morning or afternoon, looking for evidence of the practices listed. You might choose to hand out copies of the tools to different people in your setting – including leaders and managers, fellow teachers, teachers in other teams, and parents – and collect and collate their subjective impressions. Their experience of your setting is crucial information!
When you’ve collected some data and evaluated your progress against each of the indicators, use your results to determine which area of creating a positive social and emotional climate you would like to work on and improve. Then make some plans of actions you will take to improve practice. For example, if you determine that the routines you use in your setting are not as consistent as they might be, and that you would like to focus in particular on co-constructing routines for particular activities, make a list of the action steps you need to take to achieve this.
In this part of the course we learned that:
- A supportive social and emotional climate forms an important foundation for the development of social and emotional skills, and promotes wellbeing, engagement, and positive behaviour.
- Positive climates are created when teachers an intentional focus on promoting social and emotional competence and ensuring strong relationships.
- Environments that are characterised by positive affection and tones, consistent routines, and behavioural expectations also are important in supporting children’s wellbeing and positive behaviour.
- Teaching teams can use publicly available tools to assess the quality of the social and emotional climate in their setting.
What policies and procedures does your setting have related to providing consistent routines and expectations in relation to children’s social behaviour and emotional wellbeing? Is this a priority for your setting or something you might need to implement?
Watch a webinar with Dr. Karyn Aspden and Linda Clarke on supporting the social and emotional competence of infants and toddlers. This webinar delves into topics such as building strong relationships and attachment, which is a key part of creating a positive social and emotional climate. The webinar also touches on topics that are the focus on subsequent parts of this course, including supporting emotional regulation and building social skills.
Read this report on the ways that one kindergarten investigated and improved their social and emotional climate and children’s social and emotional learning through the introduction of key practices, including mindfulness, mantras, and breathing techniques.
Develop your understanding of the principles of culturally responsive teaching practices, to support you to consider children’s cultural identities in developing positive social and emotional environments.
Take a look at our guide on relational pedagogies to consider how you might improve the relationships you build with children in your setting.