The Emotional Environment

The emotional environment is a key part of children’s personal, social and emotional development. Having high levels of emotional wellbeing is a necessary foundation for learning in early childhood. Before babies and young children can learn, they need to feel secure, happy and emotionally nurtured. Therefore, practitioners working with infants from birth to three years should consider the ‘emotional environment’ as a central part of their role.

But what is an ‘emotional environment’? When you step into a room, your brain takes in lots of information about the physical environment: is it a safe, comfortable, pleasant and aesthetically pleasing place to be? If there are other people in the room, your brain will also take in information about the mood and atmosphere: are the people in the room welcoming, warm and calm? Do you feel at ease in this place? Babies and young children are very sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers and the emotional environment can have a profound effect on their experience. In essence, it is all about relationships.

Below is a summary of good practice for supporting young babies, older babies and two-year-olds to achieve high levels of emotional wellbeing in their early years settings.

Practitioners must be sensitively attuned to young babies, learning how individual babies communicate their needs and responding promptly.

Having a strong key person system is important. Young babies should always be with someone they know; it may be useful for key workers to have a buddy system.

Sensitive touch supports babies and adults to build warm, meaningful relationships. Being held by a calm and trusted adult helps babies to regulate their emotions.

From the beginning, caregivers should talk to babies. You can tell babies what will happen during daily routines; describe the things that you are doing; express your delight and affection for the baby; talk about your surroundings; recite rhymes or sing – the possibilities are wide! Not only does this support communication and language development, it can also support your relationship to grow and be soothing for the baby. While a baby might not understand the words, they will sense the emotions behind them and respond to the tone of your voice.

Routines such as nappy changes, dressing/undressing and feeding should be seen as opportunities for bonding between you and the baby in your care. For example, giving a baby your full attention during nappy changing turns this task into an important opportunity for connection and interaction. These routines can be seen as a valued part of each day.

During care routines, take things slowly and gently. The way you handle, touch and talk to a baby influences their sense of self-esteem. Even the youngest babies will appreciate your clear communication (“Here is your cardigan. I’m going to put it on you so you’ll be warm,”) so they learn what to expect. Treating young babies with dignity and respect is important: world ‘peace starts on the changing table’ (Ute Strub, physical therapist)

It is essential that all practitioners working with babies have a solid understanding of attachment by attending relevant training. See useful links below for more information on this.

As babies gain confidence they will move away and explore the world around them, but will want to regularly check in with a trusted adult for ‘emotional refuelling’. Practitioners should recognise the importance of ‘just being’ with babies, responding warmly and sensitively to their need for comfort and touch.

You can help babies to build a strong emotional vocabulary by naming emotions and responding appropriately (e.g. looking concerned/sad when a baby is upset, or truly meeting a baby in their joy/excitement).

Babies feel secure and confident when there is a strong (but flexible) sense of rhythm to their days. Having consistent caregiving routines, like a favourite song before settling down for a nap, helps a baby to know what to expect.

Seek babies’ assent and cooperation with day-to-day experiences, like taking their photograph for learning records. Be aware of non-verbal communication; a baby who does not want to photographed might look uncomfortable or turn away. Remember, empathetic and respectful care helps babies to develop healthy self-esteem and builds strong relationships between babies and caregivers.

Babies on the move may want to participate in care routines. For example, they might hold out their arm for the sleeve of their coat. Gradually, babies will want to be more and more involved, and while their attempts might be unsuccessful, allowing them plenty of time communicates your respect and builds trust between you.

You can use care routines as enjoyable moments of connection and interaction. By giving care routines your full attention, you will be able to respond to the baby’s interests and cues.

Babies may enjoy singing, playful games and jokes during care routines too.

Two-year-olds are highly motivated to explore their worlds and may be beginning to develop a strong sense of themselves as individuals, but they continue to need the care of highly responsive adults.

Adults should meet children in their emotions, for example, mirror their excitement with real enthusiasm or their frustration with genuine concern. Be prepared to support children to work through intense feelings that can arise, naming their emotions and validating their experience.

At this age, children continue to need adults available for emotional refuelling. Busy children will regularly ‘check in’ with their trusted caregivers for comfort. When children bring you a book or simply request to sit on your lap for a while, it is important to make time for them.

Care routines continue to provide opportunities for trust-building and interaction, as well as supporting the child to gain independence. Remember that these routines should happen ‘with the child, not to the child’; keep the child’s rights and dignity at the forefront of your care.

At this age, children may become more interested in others’ play and want to join in. Adults play an important role in helping two-year-olds to build friendships with their peers: helping them to notice and understand cues given by other children; supporting them to understand the rules that have been established for games; talking about feelings and modelling how to respond.

Two-year-olds will appreciate being able to participate in day-to-day life (like helping set the table for mealtimes). Viewing them as rights-holders helps adults to recognise that young children should have a say in matters that concern them and be able to make many of their own choices.

Practitioners working with two-year-olds should have a good understanding of play. Symbolic play, for example, can help a young child express their feelings and is a useful insight into their thinking, experiences and culture.

Useful links:

https://www.annafreud.org/early-years/early-years-in-mind/resources/what-is-attachment/

https://www.teachearlyyears.com/under-2s/view/emotionally-secure-environments

https://www.teachearlyyears.com/under-2s/view/interacting-with-babies – ‘Interacting With Babies’ by Ann Clare.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMyDFYSkZSU – ‘How a child’s brain develops through early experiences’.

https://foundationyears.org.uk/2020/12/putting-wellbeing-at-the-heart-of-our-early-years-practice/ – ‘Putting wellbeing at the heart of our early years practice’.

Available courses:

Check https://www.bristolearlyyears.org.uk/cpd/ for most up-to-date local course and CPD opportunities available.
Free open university Attachment Theory in the early years online course; https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/early-years/attachment-the-early-years/content-section-0?active-tab=description-tab

NDNA, Brilliant Babies online; https://www.ndna.org.uk/NDNA/Shop/Item_Detail.aspx?iProductCode=PUB-BABIES&Category=PUB&WebsiteKey=5e278c52-0dec-4482-ad81-d06b25949f8b

Available reading:

Health and Well-being in Early Childhood. By Janet Rose, Louise Gilbert and Valerie Richards

Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a babies brain. By Sue Gerhardt.

The Social Baby Understanding Babies’ Communication from Birth. By Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews

Beginning Well: Care For The Child From Birth to Age Three – empathy from the very beginning. By Pia Dögl, Elke Maria Rischke and Ute Strub.

The Holistic Care and Development of Children from Birth to Three. By Kathy Brodie.

Early Learning Contacts

Nicola Theobald, Early Years Improvement Officer
Kate Hubble, Senior Foundation Years Consultant
Nicky Bale, Foundation Years Bristol Standard Consultant
Beth Osborne, Foundation Years Consultant Birth to Three
Kate Irvine, Interim Foundation Years Consultant
Ali Carrington, Interim Foundation Years Consultant