Supporting Young Children as they Transition to an Early Learning Environment

An early childhood educator interacts with a toddler

Key Takeaways

  • Caregivers can help infants and toddlers feel safe and comfortable in the transition to an early learning environment through warm, nurturing, and individualized interactions. 
  • Infants and toddlers need help in supporting self-regulation, which is the brain’s ability to control the body, emotions, and behavior. 
  • Understanding developmental limitations and providing consistent support and scaffolding will help children with situations that they can’t yet handle. 

When you’re welcoming young children into your early childhood education program for the first time, it’s important to think about the specific supports that infants and toddlers need during this major transition. After all, these children are adjusting to an unfamiliar environment away from loved ones and familiar faces. It’s up to educators to build nurturing relationships. Let’s look at how you can tailor your interactions with young children and help them with self-regulation, so that they feel safe and comfortable.  

Tailoring interactions to individual children’s needs

As early educators, you already know the importance of greeting children warmly, showing empathy, and conveying emotional support and affection through gentle touch. But how do you ensure that you’re responding to the diverse needs of individual children?

  • All children differ in temperament, and this can affect how they approach new surroundings and people. One factor to consider is a child’s level of sensitivity to sensory stimuli like sights, sounds, and activity. Think about this when planning your approach to interactions with a child. For example, it may help to tailor your tone of voice and consider the noise and activity level in the room with a child who enters cautiously vs. one who bounds in eagerly.  
  • If a child’s home language isn’t the primary language spoken in the classroom, try to pay extra attention to non-verbal cues. And be sure that you’re not overlooking a child whose home language or culture is not a match for yours. 
  • Does a child in your care have a disability or developmental delay? You may find that they don’t connect in the ways that you’re accustomed to. Speak to the family about their child’s ability and methods of interaction. Observe how the child reaches out for connection and try to respond to those cues. 
  • Babies born prematurely and babies affected by maternal chemical dependence during pregnancy can easily become overstimulated. What can seem like disinterest on their part is more likely a need for sensitive interactions. These young children may need extra comfort and support to help calm them and reduce stimulation, such as swaddling for an infant or a secure embrace for a toddler.  

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Supporting self-regulation

For infants and toddlers to feel more at ease in an unfamiliar environment, they’ll need support in self-regulation. Self-regulation is the brain’s ability to manage and control the body, emotions, and behavior, and young children’s brains are still developing these abilities. There are four types of self-regulation responses that infants and toddlers need help managing:

  • Regulating body functions: For children in the first weeks and months of life, focus on providing sensitive caregiving that helps babies’ basic body functions develop a steadier, regular pattern. This includes gently holding and caressing newborns when they’re distressed and providing consistent interactions during feeding and sleeping routines. 
  • Regulating emotional responses: Stay attuned to children’s emotional states and support infants and toddlers in learning to recognize and manage emotions. Children at this age will need warm, supportive scaffolding from caregivers. When you’re there to help to calm upsetting emotions and stress reactions, young children are less likely to become overwhelmed.  
  • Regulating attention: During toddlerhood and at two years old, children are beginning to learn to intentionally focus their attention and ignore distractions. You can help support this development through brief back-and-forth interactions focused on a toy or book. Warm and positive responses may even extend the interactions! 
  • Regulating behavior: This is an area that requires sensitive and responsive support. Most children under the age of three are not developmentally ready to do things like switch from one task to another or stop themselves from doing something tempting. Approach your interactions with these limitations in mind and be consistent in helping children with these challenges. 

The transition to an early learning environment can be scary for young children, but the comfort, consistency, and individualized support you provide can help them feel safe and secure.  

Adapted from the ZERO TO THREE Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators.

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