Adapting Environments for Children and Families

By Amy Santos, Ph.D.

Military Family
[Flickr, OpLove_10-05-09-1971 by Rob Bixby, CC BY 2.0, Oct. 2, 2009] Retrieved on Nov. 19, 2015
During our November 12th webinar on Social Emotional Development in the Early Years: Creating Supportive and Inclusive Environments, Dr. Micki Ostrosky and I highlighted specific characteristics of children’s physical environments such as housing quality, noise, street traffic, crowding, and access to transportation that impact their social emotional development. In whatever environmental conditions we (children and adults) live, it is part of human nature for us to learn to adapt to our specific situation. For example, it is not unusual for military families who reside on and off base to learn to live with constant aircraft or artillery noise.

Learning to adapt to our environment enables us to function and go about our regular routines and activities. However, for young children these adaptive behaviors can negatively impact their overall development, thereby having both positive and negative consequences. For example, children living in noisy environments can learn to ignore the constant noise around them, a potentially positive thing. However, some children may not be able to discriminate what environmental noise and sounds they should and should not ignore. In an effort to tune out noise, children also may disregard important auditory input like conversation initiations and responses by others.

Researchers have noted that children who are constantly exposed to these conditions are less likely to pay attention, less motivated to perform tasks, can become socially withdrawn, and have less interactions with peers and adult caregivers — all these are necessary skills for academic and school success.

Fortunately, as parents, teachers, or military family service providers, we have the capacity to create and promote supportive environments to alleviate the chronic and toxic environmental conditions to which some children may be exposed. One of the ways adult caregivers can support children living in these situations is to engage with them through literacy activities. My colleagues, Dr. Angel Fettig and Dr. LaShorage Shaffer and I wrote in our 2012 article, Helping Families Connect Early Literacy with Social-Emotional Development that literacy activities can support children’s language and communication skills as well as positively impact their social-emotional development. In this article, we share some strategies for using literacy activities, such as book reading and storytelling, to promote social emotional development.

Creating multiple opportunities to read together whether it is part of a bedtime routine or at different times during the day, provide children and adults those important one-on-one times to interact. Reading together can provide children and adults with a chance to engage in an activity that is calm and quiet — away from the chaos and noise that might be present in their environment. Reading together can also be a time where children can focus on one activity and not be distracted by multiple inputs in their environment. Most importantly, reading together provides a chance for a child to have an adult’s undivided attention especially on those busy days.

In our forthcoming webinar on Social Emotional Development in the Early Years: Enriching Social Emotional Literacy (December 3, 2015) we will focus on strategies to support the development of children’s emotional literacy, including building their vocabulary skills. Literacy-rich environments are linked to increased success in school — not only academically but just as importantly, socially and emotionally.

Remember, as parents, teachers, or military family service providers we play an important role in designing and creating environments from which children learn and grow, and thus we must choose wisely when we do so!

This post was written by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Amy Santos, PhD, members of the MFLN FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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