Beginning the Year

Fostering a Responsive Learning Environment for Children Birth to Five

The beginning of the year is an especially important and formative time for young children and their families. Young children rely on positive relationships, routines, and predictable environments to thrive. For many children and their families, this may be their first significant time apart and/or their first experience in a school/program setting. To that end, effectively preparing for children’s first day, and the days that follow, are critical to children’s well-being in the immediate and in the long-term.

Getting to Know Children and their Families

Consider how you may begin to foster a nurturing and safe learning environment, inclusive of all children and families, even before the first day of school. Here are some ways to support a strong foundation with children and families from the start:

  • Call the family and introduce yourself. During your call, ask about the child’s interests, likes, and dislikes. Ask each family about their preferred method of communication throughout the year. Share the contact information or the school/program (e.g., phone number, email address).
  • Ask the family to share a favorite photo (e.g., a family photo, a photo where the child feels safe, or a photo of a happy memory). Print these photos to make a classroom book, to display throughout the room, or to place in the child’s cubby.
  • Host a “welcoming event” so children and families can visit the classroom, meet the teaching team, and ask questions. 

Creating a Responsive Learning Environment

A warm and inviting environment is critical to supporting children’s learning and family partnerships. Rich and effective physical spaces for children, birth to five, accommodate the strengths, interests, and developmental needs of each child, which is essential in supporting all children’s growth and learning.

Children and families should feel welcomed from the moment they arrive each day. Here are some ways to create a greeting area that is family-centered, cozy, organized, and functional:

  • Create a bulletin or message board to display morning greetings and/or resources and information for families 
  • Display children’s artwork and photos of children and their families
  • Label children’s cubbies with their name and picture 
  • Provide comfortable seating for two or more adults
  • Include a space for adults to sign-in and an age-appropriate space/materials for older children to sign-in to foster writing and literacy skills 

Learning happens in every part of an early childhood classroom. Responsive environments ensure materials are organized, accessible to children, and aligned to their developmental needs. Here are some ways to ensure the learning environment is safe and supportive of all children at all times: 

  • Arrange the room so that visual supervision of all children is maintained at all times 
  • Create active, noisier play areas away from relatively quiet, less active areas. Choose floor surfaces, such as carpeting or vinyl, to support the intended experiences of each area. For 3K and Pre-K environments, divide the classroom into interest areas to support children’s active exploration and learning, including space for: 
    • blocks, dramatic play, music and movement, art, science/discovery, toys and games, sand and water, library, writing 
  • Include comfortable places and materials (e.g., floor chairs) for adults to sit, allowing them to be at children's eye level while interacting during learning experiences
  • Avoid “runways” by positioning furniture in a manner that encourages children to walk throughout the space
  • Ensure furniture and equipment is age and developmentally-appropriate for the children using the space 
  • Ensure classroom shelving will not tip over, storing heavier toys on bottom shelves
  • Make sure all equipment is in good repair, conducting a daily check of materials and toys to ensure they are in good condition 
  • Use safety locks for cabinets/drawers for spaces that children should not access
  • Keep electrical cords and electrical devices out of children's reach and cover electrical outlets not in use 
  • Check all materials to make sure that they do not present choking hazards
  • Store hazardous equipment and materials, including adult belongings and tote bags, plastic bags, and cleaning supplies away from children’s reach in a locked cabinet/area

Materials and Displays

To ensure safe learning experiences for all children, materials are to be age and developmentally-appropriate, supporting a wide-range of skills. Materials should be accessible to children throughout the day and should be rotated regularly based on children’s strengths and interests. Provide multiples of favorite toys, choose materials that honor diversity, and incorporate homelike touches and non-commercial materials that reflect children’s culture. 

All materials should have a designated place on shelves and/or in containers that are labeled with the name and/or picture of the item, so that children can easily locate, access, and return items throughout the day. When children know where things belong, and how and why they are grouped together, their independence and self-help skills are being fostered. Such organization also supports children in participating in cleanup and in caring for the classroom. Here are suggested materials by age group: 

Most of the display space within the classroom should be saved for children's authentic work, such as paintings, drawings, photos of children engaged in learning experiences, and/or three-dimensional projects. Displays should be posted prominently and at children's eye level.

Welcoming Children and Families

During the first days and weeks of the school year, both children and their families look to teaching teams to provide the care they need to support their family’s individual transition. This is likely to look different for each family. For some children, this may be the first time they are attending school or school may be a familiar place. For other children, this may be the first experience away from their family or they may have been participating in a year-long program leading up to September. No one transition will look the same, and therefore, teaching teams should partner with families to develop an individual plan that will meet the needs of each child. For example, some children will be excited to spend the whole day at school and will have minimal to no challenges separating from their family, while other children may need their family to stay a little longer at morning arrival, during the first few weeks of the school year, to support their transition.

To the extent possible, a team member should communicate with families prior to the first day of school to learn about the child’s strengths, needs, and interests, as well as gathering any information regarding prior experiences with being at a school or program, away from their family throughout the day. This information will help teaching teams effectively prepare for children’s arrival into the classroom by developing a plan in advance and in partnership with their family, fostering seamless and supportive transitions.

Getting to Know Families and their Children, translated versions are available on the Building Family-Community Relationships page.

Back to Top