Home/Resources/What Does “School Readiness” Mean in an Infant-Family Program?

What Does “School Readiness” Mean in an Infant-Family Program?

Credit: rSnapshotPhotos / Shutterstock.com

Learn how research has shown that for the very young child, social-emotional skills—like the ability to listen, communicate, and form relationships with others—are crucial for supporting the development of academic competency.

People might think of school readiness as describing a concrete set of cognitive and academic skills. Research has shown that for the very young child, social-emotional skills—like the ability to listen, communicate, and form relationships with others—are crucial for supporting the development of academic competency. Social-emotional health (or infant mental health) is the foundation of success in school. Social-emotional skills provide children with the solid base they need to become proficient in more traditional areas of school readiness, like literacy and numeracy.

As a leader, what can you do to support staff in their efforts to promote children’s social/emotional health? You can encourage staff members to develop nurturing relationships with children. We know that such relationships are critical to children’s later success in school. Research shows that supportive relationships have a tangible and long-term influence on children’s healthy development, contributing to better social, emotional, and cognitive development for infants and toddlers (Zeanah, C. H. & Doyle Zeanah, P., 2001). As a child grows, healthy relationships with parents and caregivers shape self-image, and provide the resilience needed to face new challenges. Healthy attachment, built upon nurturing, sensitive adult-child interactions, is crucial for the development of trust, empathy, compassion, generosity and a conscience. Research has shown that attachment relationships provide a context for supporting the development of children’s curiosity, self-direction, persistence, cooperation, caring, and conflict resolution skills (Greenough et al., 2001). All of these qualities impact children’s ability in the classroom, their openness to learning, and their success in communicating with others in a meaningful way.

When speaking with staff about their work with children or when observing staff/child interactions, the following questions and tips are a guide to the many ways that staff members can support social/emotional health and school readiness among very young children.

Tips for Coaching Staff to Support Children’s Social/Emotional Skills

How do staff members…

1. stimulate and promote children’s curiosity?

Tip: Use children’s interests—rather than a pre-set curriculum—as a stepping stone to new knowledge or skills. If children are fascinated with dinosaurs, you can use this topic to develop literacy skills (reading books about dinosaurs), motor skills (stomping like dinosaurs), numeracy skills (counting dinosaurs), and teamwork skills (building a classroom dinosaur out of craft materials).

2. recognize children’s accomplishments, or “catch them doing something good”?

Tip: Thank children. Give them specific compliments—rather than “That’s good,” say: “I saw the way you picked up the blocks when you were done with them. That was so helpful of you.”

3. encourage children’s independence?

Tip: When feeding a baby who wants to hold the spoon, let her do it! Get another spoon for your own use, and let her start learning how to feed herself.

4. support the development of peer relationships?

Tip: During mealtimes, encourage children to pass and share food items, talk together, laugh and enjoy one another’s company.

5. manage conflict peacefully among children?

Tip: Recognize, label, and validate the feelings of children, while emphasizing a nonviolent approach to resolving conflicts. For example: “I see that Carter took the red car from you, and you feel angry. But we use our words, not our hands, to let someone know how we feel. Let’s walk over and tell Carter with our words that you did not like that. Maybe then you both can share the car.”

6. set expectations that a child can do a “little more,” i.e., encouraging the child to expand his/her skills without frustrating the child?

Tip: Thoughtfully group children with others who are at a slightly higher skill level in a particular area (e.g., gross motor skills or pretend play). Observe them to ensure the level of challenge is appropriate and not too frustrating.

7. model and encourage empathy and compassion?

Tip: Help children put words to their emotions by giving them the language they need—“happy,” “sad,” “frustrated,” “disappointed,” “excited”—to do so. When reading a book, ask children: “How do you think the little boy is feeling now? Is he happy? Excited? Scared?”

8. listen and respond to children?

Tip: Always try to acknowledge a child, even when you are too busy to stop what you are doing at that moment to attend to her: “Jaden, I know you are awake. I can hear how much you want to come out of your crib. I’ll be over to get you as soon as I finish changing Macy’s diaper.”

9. encourage persistence in tasks?

Tip: Be patient. Avoid stepping in to do for children when you see them experiencing a little frustration with a task. Instead, encourage and coach children to find the solution themselves: “This puzzle sure is tough. Are you looking for the corner piece up there? It might be a blue piece since it’s a picture of the sky… Do you see any blue pieces?”

10. promote children’s self-confidence and self-esteem?

Tip: Celebrate children’s successes. For a child who has been slow to develop gross motor skills, recognize when he/she has made strides: “Molly, you ran across the whole the playground! You are really getting strong. I’m so proud of you!”


  • Greenough, W., Emde, R.N., Gunnar, M., Massinga, R., & Shonkoff, J.P. (2001). The impact of the caregiving environment on young children’s development: Different ways of knowing. Zero to Three, 21(5), 16-23.
  • Zeanah, C.H., & Doyle Zeanah, P. (2001). Towards a definition of infant mental health. Zero to Three, 22(1), 13-20.

This content is available only to ZERO TO THREE members.

In addition to outstanding resources like this, ZERO TO THREE membership provides a wide range of valuable benefits and exclusive opportunities to connect with your peers.

Learn More


Related Resources


We need your support now more than ever to ensure all babies have access to the quality care, services and support they need to thrive.