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What are the environmental factors that affect child development?

You have heard of the nature and nurture debates as to what affects a child’s development. The first two layers of children are basically the nature elements. They are inborn parts of genetics that affect the temperament and brain development of a child.

The environmental factors make up the nurture elements affecting the child. These are the parts of a child’s life which are not part of the genetic growth of the child but involve the world around him.  These factors can be divided into three areas:

  • Environmental factors
  • Biologic factors
  • Interpersonal relationships

These factors are further broken down into what are called determinants of health. These are conditions and supports which will allow the child to grow and develop in a healthy manner. Or they will lead to long term stress that leads to slowed or stalled development in the areas of social, emotional, language, cognition(learning) and physical skills.

As you look to support your child, these are areas you need to look at. You then need to consider how to improve them if they are weak or absent. This may require you to make changes in yourself, or to reach out for supports in your community to provide for you and your child.

This is an important step to take because, never in the history of man, have parents been expected to be the sole provider for their children. Ancient communities shared in the feeding, housing, and clothing of each other. They shared in the care and education of the children of their community.

With that concept of community support, these are the areas to explore now to see if you can make positive changes:


Housing is important for all of us. That includes not just a roof over your head, but space for your child to play, including green spaces. Is your home safe from violence and from toxins such as lead? It is an important environmental factor that affects a child’s safety and sense of security.

The family income is a second environmental factor with effects on child development and safety. Without a living wage or employment, the ability to find safe housing is limited. There is also concern about food insecurity and poor nutrition, an inability to provide adequate clothing, and an ability to receive health care.

Employment for the parent(s) is an important factor for the ability to provide the needed care for their children. But employment also means the need for childcare, which can be expensive if wages are insufficient. Adequate employment opportunities may be an issue if the job is far away and there is little in the way of public transportation. Many single mothers also deal with income inequity in terms of what they are paid compared to their male counterparts. Finally, there may be a higher unemployment rate in certain communities or regions, which will not allow parent(s) to meet the financial needs of their family.

The fourth environmental factor deals with education opportunities. Looking at children it would include qualified preschools and the quality of the k-12 system that they will go to. The education opportunities and level of education of the parent(s) also affects how well their children do. If parents don’t have at least a high school degree, their ability to have a decent paying job and job security is not likely.


A child’s gender has a significant effect on the type of life he or she will have. Around the world women are not treated as equally capable of owning property, having the same pay for the same work, and being allowed to have the education needed to achieve the professional levels of men. The World Economic Forum 2020 puts the United States at a score of 53 out of 153 countries for equality success. Women are more likely to be victims of abuse and discrimination, especially if she is a minority or a member of the LGBT population.

Health is another area of concern for long term productivity of children when they grow up. Their health care is important but so is the health of their parents. The mother’s prenatal care is important for delivering a healthy baby. Any chronic health problems in the child or parents can lead to stress in the family. Communities need to have adequate health resources so children can have health problems addressed, immunizations given, and dental care provided.

Children are at risk of developing mental health disorders if they are not in a safe, secure, and supportive family. If the parent(s) has a mental health disorder, the child will be at risk of abuse, neglect, or fear due to attachment issues.

Family health practices regarding nutrition, sleep schedules, activity, and oral health are all important for skill development. Without these practices, the child’s brain and body may not be able to keep up with the demands of development and learning.


Children need to develop secure attachment to their primary caregivers, be that their parents, or other adults, if they are to grow and thrive.

Attachment is the strong emotional bond that occurs between a baby and his/her primary caregiver. If this bond isn’t secure for any of a variety of reasons, the child will become distressed. This can lead to problems with growth, including failure to thrive. There can be significant behavioral issues. The child’s brain development may also slow or stall out.

There are four types of attachment:

  • Secure
  • Anxious – preoccupied
  • Dismissive – avoidant
  • Fearful – avoidant (also known as disorganized)


These 4 types are influenced by both the temperament of the child and adult, and any developmental issues, as well as environmental factors, such as domestic abuse, or parental mental health or physical health problems which make the parent less emotionally available to the child.

Parenting styles (of which style of discipline is a part) also affects how a child grows and learns as well as how he turns out as an adult. With parenting styles which are less based on support and nurturing, but rather on rules and expectations, there is a higher risk for children to grow up with mental health problems, including personality disorders.

 The types of parenting are:

  • Authoritarian or Disciplinarian
  • Permissive or Indulgent
  • Uninvolved
  • Authoritative

The last part of interpersonal relationships that affect children are their social networks. These are the opportunities to interact with others outside of the immediate parent-child dyad. The broader the range of people a child can learn from, the more likely the child will be open to learning and being part of the community. If the child does not have many opportunities to interact with others, there can be gaps in his social and emotional development. This can lead to fear of others not-like him, and eventually biases, discrimination, or bigotry.

These are all areas which will be explored in further articles. Through understanding of the effects of different environmental situations and factors on how a child grows and develops, parents and adults working with children can see if they have needs for different approaches than they may have been taught, or how they were raised.

If you are interested in an in-depth look at 3 factors of children and adolescents that can create positive or negative futures, check out my program, Developing a Calm Classroom.