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Understanding Development: Infants Through School-Agers

Understanding child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about typical development. You will also learn developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior.

  • Describe typical child developmental milestones.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior.
  • Identify risk factors that make children more likely to experience abuse or neglect.



You have already learned that understanding how children develop and learn (i.e., child development) is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. Why do you think this is true? What are the risks of not understanding child development? If we don’t understand child development, we are likely to think a child should act older than he or she is. We might put children in situations that are too challenging for them, causing the child and ourselves to get frustrated. The child may not understand what we want, and we may not understand why the child won’t “behave.”

Understanding child development is a protective factor helps us recognize when a child needs extra help. If we do not understand child development, we might become frustrated instead of recognizing an opportunity to scaffold or strengthen a child’s experiences. When we get frustrated, we do not use our best thinking. We are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. We may be less able to support the children who need our help the most.

Let’s begin by thinking about some common behaviors you might see every day in programs for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-agers:

  • Solomon is a young infant. He cries for long portions of the day.
  • Flora has pulled every toy off the shelf and keeps going back for more. She is always right behind you every time you try to start cleaning up. She doesn’t seem to want to play with the toys. She’s just really interested in touching everything.
  • You told Hilary it was time to get a diaper change. She yelled, “No!” and ran away from you.
  • Zoe is having lunch in a highchair. She says, “All done” and starts throwing peas on the ground. She barely ate anything.
  • Carli and Claire only want to play with each other. They tell other children, “You can’t play with us.”
  • Clark does not nap. He never falls asleep and is always moving when asked to lie down.
  • Aylen comes running to you screaming, “He hit me!”
  • It’s time to go to elementary school, but Taylor is still eating breakfast and moving very slowly.
  • Two boys get in a fight over who deserves a foul in their pick-up basketball game.
  • Claire keeps getting the candy she got at school out of her backpack even though she has been asked several times to put it away.

Based on what you have seen, heard, or experienced in your work or in your community, do these scenarios ring true? Have you seen them happen? Have you experienced them? If you have spent time in family child care programs serving young children and youth, you have likely seen some or all of these behaviors. They are reflections of typical child development. We all go through stages as we grow, and certain behaviors can be expected at certain stages. This does not mean that all behaviors are easy for us as adults to deal with. It does mean that we can be prepared to recognize behaviors as reflections of growth and help children develop and mature. You will learn more about this in the Cognitive Development course.

Let’s take look at how children typically develop from birth to 12 years. The information on this table is compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( and the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). You can find this information in easy-to-use information sheets in the Apply section.

Development Milestones


Social / Emotional

  • Calms down when spoken to or picked up
  • Looks at your face
  • Smiles at people when they talk or smile
  • Cries when hungry wet, tired, or wants to be held

Language / Communication

  • Makes sounds other than crying
  • Reacts to loud sounds

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Follows objects with eyes and recognizes people at a distance as they move
  • Looks at objects for several seconds
  • Waves arms at dangling objects dangled in front of them

Movement / Physical

  • Holds head up when on tummy
  • Kicks both arms and legs while on back
  • Briefly relaxes hands from fists for short periods
  • Grasps adult finger

Social / Emotional

  • Smiles on own to get attention
  • Begins making early noise sounds of laughter when prompted to laugh
  • Looks at you, moves or makes sound to get or keep your attention
  • Smiles or coos at self in the mirror

Language / Communication

  • Makes cooing sounds (“ooo”,“aahh)
  • Makes sounds back when spoken to
  • Moves head in the direction of your voice
  • Makes sounds when looking at objects

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Opens mouth at the sight of breast or bottle
  • Looks at hands with interest
  • Looks at objects placed in hand or in front of them

Movement / Physical

  • Holds head steady without support
  • Maintains hold of a toy placed in their hands
  • Swings arm at objects
  • Brings hands to mouth
  • Pushes up from ground onto elbows when lying on tummy

Social / Emotional

  • Knows familiar people
  • Enjoys looking at self in a mirror
  • Laughs
  • Plays by grabbing foot when laying on back

Language / Communication

  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Begins to drool and create small bubbles with tongue and lips while making noises (i.e., "blowing raspberries")
  • Makes squealing noises
  • Begins to make consonant sounds (jabbering with “m” and “b”)

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Brings things to mouth to explore them
  • Reaches to grab objects
  • Closes lips to show disinterest in more food
  • Plays by banging objects on the tables or ground

Movement / Physical

  • Rolls from tummy to back and may roll from back to tummy
  • Pushes arms straight when on tummy
  • Uses hands to support when sitting
  • Supports weight equally on legs when standing with support

Social / Emotional

  • Is shy, clingy, or fearful of strangers
  • Shows several facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, surprised
  • Looks when you call their name
  • Reacts when you leave (looks, reaches for you, or cries)
  • Smiles or laughs when you play peek-a-boo

Language / Communication

  • Makes different sounds like “mamama” and babbles
  • Lifts arms to be picked up
  • Responds to own name

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Looks for objects when places out of sight
  • Bangs two objects together
  • Picks up toys one in each hand

Movement / Physical

  • Moves into the sitting position without support
  • Transfers items from one hand to the other
  • Uses fingers as a “rake” to pull food and objects towards self
  • Sits without support
  • Lowers body with control while using support

Social / Emotional

  • Plays games such as “pat-a-cake” and “peek-a-boo”
  • Lifts foot for shoe or sock when you dress them
  • Rolls ball back for you to return to them when playing
  • Shows preference for certain people and things

Language / Communication

  • Uses simple gestures like waving “bye-bye” or shaking head “no”
  • Says “mama” and “dada”
  • Responds to “no” (pauses briefly or stops)

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Puts objects inside a container
  • Looks for objects they see you hide
  • Uses index (pointer) finger to poke and try to get objects out

Movement / Physical

  • Pulls up to stand
  • Walks or “cruises” along furniture for support
  • Drinks from a cup without a lid with adult support
  • Uses thumb and finger “pincer grasp” to pick up small items

Social / Emotional

  • Copies other children while playing
  • Shows you an object they like
  • Claps when excited
  • Hugs items like dolls and stuffed toys
  • Shows you affection (hugs, cuddles, kisses)

Language / Communication

  • Tries to say one or two words, besides than “mama” or “dada”, like “da” for dog and “ba” for ball
  • Looks for a familiar object when named
  • Follow simple directions when given with gesture, (gives toy when hand is out and told, “Give me the toy.”)
  • Points to ask for something

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Starts to use things correctly (like cups, phones, books)
  • Stack at least small two objects
  • Scribbles back and forth on paper
  • Dumps objects out by turning containers upside down

Movement / Physical

  • Takes a few steps independently
  • Feeds themself finger foods
  • Squats to pick up an object from the floor and then stands up without support

Social / Emotional

  • Explores alone but with parent close by
  • Points to show something of interest
  • Puts hands out for you to wash them
  • Looks at a few pages in a book with you
  • Helps you dress them by pushing arm through sleeve or lifting a foot

Language / Communication

  • Tries to say three or more words besides “mama” and “dada”
  • Follows simple instructions without any gestures (gives toy when told, “Give it to me.”)
  • Shakes head no

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Shows interest in copying simple chores like sweeping or wiping the table
  • Plays with toys in a simple way (playing in their intended way, pushing a toy car)
  • Scribbles on own

Movement / Physical

  • Walks independently
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Tries to use a spoon
  • Climbs on and off furniture independently
  • Tries to kick a ball after observing an adult

Social / Emotional

  • Notices when others are hurt or upset
  • Looks at your face to see how you react in new situations
  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what told not to do)
  • Imitates others, especially adults and other children
  • Shows more and more independence

Language / Communication

  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Says sentences with at least two words together like, “More milk”
  • Points to at least two body parts when asked
  • Uses more gestures like blowing a kiss and nodding yes
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Holds something in one hand while using the other hand
  • Attempts to use switches knobs and buttons on a toy
  • Plays with more than one toy at the same time
  • Begins putting items where they belong, like toys on the shelf
  • Stacks 4 objects

Movement / Physical

  • Kicks a ball
  • Runs
  • Walks up and down the stairs while holding on for support
  • Eats with a spoon

Social / Emotional

  • Plays next to other children and sometimes with them
  • Shows you what they can do by saying, “Look at me!”
  • Follows simple routines independently when told

Language / Communication

  • Says about 50 words
  • Says two or more words, including one action word like, “Daddy run”
  • Names things in a book when you point and ask what it is
  • Says words like “I”, “me”, “we”

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Plays make believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Shows skills in simple problem-solving skills like standing on a small stool to reach something
  • Follows two step directions like, “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet”
  • Knows at least one color
  • Tells you what they drew after drawing or scribbling a picture

Movement / Physical

  • Uses hands to twist and unscrew objects
  • Takes off loose clothing alone
  • Jumps off the ground with both feet
  • Can turn book pages one at a time

Social / Emotional

  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting

Language / Communication

  • Carries on conversation using at least two or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks Who, What, When, Where, or Why questions
  • Says what action is happening in a picture book when asked like “eating” or “running”
  • Says first name when asked
  • Talks well enough for others to understand most of the time

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Copies a circle with a pencil or crayon
  • Avoids touching hot objects after a warning
  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  • Builds towers of more than 6 blocks

Movement / Physical

  • Strings items onto a string such as large beads or macaroni
  • Dresses self in loose clothing
  • Uses a fork
  • Pedals a tricycle

Social / Emotional

  • Pretends to be something else during play (teacher, dog, superhero)
  • Would rather play with other children then by themself
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Avoids danger, like not jumping from tall heights on the playground
  • Likes to be a “helper”
  • Changes behavior based on where they are

Language / Communication

  • Says sentences that are 4 or more words
  • Says some words from a familiar song or story or nursery rhyme
  • Talks about at least one thing that happened during their day like, “I played ball.”
  • Answers simple questions like, “What is a crayon for?”
  • Says first and last name when asked

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Identifies several colors
  • Tells you what comes next in a known story
  • Draws a person with three or more body parts
  • Can recall parts of the day

Movement / Physical

  • Catches a large ball most of the time
  • Self serves food and able to pour liquid with supervision
  • Unbuttons items
  • Holds writing utensil between fingers not with a fist

Social / Emotional

  • Follows rules when playing games with others
  • Takes turns when playing games with other children
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Does simple chores at home

Language / Communication

  • Tells a story with at least two events that they’ve either heard about, or made up
  • Answers simple questions about a book or story read or told to them
  • Carries on conversation using at least three or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Uses or recognizes simple rhymes (bat, cat, ball, tall)

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Counts to 10
  • Names some numbers between 1 and 5 when you point to them
  • Uses words about time like yesterday, tomorrow, morning, or night
  • Pays attention for 5-10 minutes during activities
  • Can write some letters of their name
  • Names some letters when you point to them

Movement / Physical

  • Buttons some buttons
  • Hops on one foot may be able to skip
  • Can print some letters or numbers

Social / Emotional

  • Shows more independence from parents and family
  • Starts to think about the future
  • Understands more about his or her place in the world
  • Pays more attention to friendships and teamwork
  • Wants to be liked and accepted by friends
  • Friendships tend to be with children of the same sex; may talk about members of the opposite sex as "gross" or "weird"

Language / Communication

  • Uses simple, complete sentences that average five to seven words
  • Can follow a series of three directions in a row

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Can focus attention on a task for at least 15 minutes

Movement / Physical

  • Strong motor skills, but balance and endurance can vary
  • Sense of body image begins to develop

Social / Emotional

  • Starts to form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • Experiences more peer pressure
  • Peer acceptance is very important; may take part in certain behaviors to be part of "the group"
  • Becomes less negative about the opposite sex
  • May experiment with lying, cheating, or stealing

Language / Communication

  • Can follow a series of five directions in a row
  • Might be nervous about asking for help

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Can focus attention on a task for about an hour
  • Faces more academic challenges at school
  • Becomes more independent from the family
  • Begins to see the point of view of others more clearly

Movement / Physical

  • Becomes more aware of his or her body as puberty approaches; body image and eating problems sometimes start
  • Develops secondary sex characteristics like breasts and body hair

As you read the milestones, did you notice any behaviors that might frustrate or challenge adults? This table can help you remember that behaviors like biting, mouthing everything, tantrums, not following directions, talking back to adults, occasionally lying, and making demands can all be normal parts of development. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and constructively. You’ll learn more about how to do that in the next two lessons.

Remember, these milestones tell us what children typically do at certain ages. They are not hard and fast rules. Individual children will vary a great deal in when and how they reach different milestones. If you have a concern about a child’s development, talk to your family child care administrator.

Understanding Temperament

Temperament influences how each of us interacts with the world and the people around us. If you reflect on your own personality and preferences, it becomes clear that we all have certain ways we interact. Understanding our own temperament and the temperaments of the children around us can be very helpful. We are born with certain temperament traits or styles, and temperament is thought to be consistent across a life span. There are nine temperament traits that you might see in yourself and the children around you, as identified by Thomas, Chess, and Birch in Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children (1968). Read below to see the nine traits and examples of characteristics on the extreme of each trait. Remember, most children fall somewhere in the middle of each continuum.

Activity Level

Jared prefers to sit on the couch and read a book.

Sasha is always on the move. She plays with every toy and seeks out active play items much of the day.


Felicia has variable schedules. Some days she eats snack, and some days she doesn’t. She chooses different activities every day.

Lucas likes his routines. He gets up at the exact same time every morning and eats the same things for breakfast every day.


Micah moves from activity to activity. It is easy to shift his attention to a new idea or project.

Malia enjoys working on projects for long periods of time. She can spend an afternoon drawing careful pictures.

Approach to New Things

Abby prefers to watch other children participate in activities before she tries.

Clyde is the first one to volunteer during special activities.


Blair misses her friends from her old school. She talks about her old program every day and has not joined into activities in your program.

Juan joined right into the read-aloud group during his first library field trip with you and left with several new friends.

Intensity of Reactions

Jillian rarely shows emotions. She remains relatively calm.

Bryce’s parents love to film his reactions to special events and surprises: he gets so excited. When he is upset, it is best to give him space. When he is excited, upset, or surprised, everyone around him knows.

Threshold of Responsiveness

Summer is often described as “being in her own little world.”

Calvin gets upset if you give him a direction or correct him. He seems very sensitive.

Quality of Mood

Liv tends to worry about things and seems serious most of the time.

Talia is generally happy and cheerful.

Attention Span and Persistence

Foster is interested in many different things. He tends to dabble: he will start a project, get bored, and move onto a different project.

Malik does multi-day and multi-week projects. He has been working on a model car for two weeks. He wants to get every detail perfect.

Take a minute to reflect on your own temperament. How do you define your temperament traits? How does understanding temperament help you understand your own behaviors and the behaviors of children?

Thomas, Chess, and Birch also have identified three temperament types that summarize these traits. The three temperament types are:

  • Adaptable: These are “easy children.” They are open to new situations, have a moderate activity level, and are generally happy.
  • Feisty: These children have a high activity level and usually strong responses to new stimuli. They might be considered energetic, assertive, and full of emotion.
  • Cautious: These children need time and support to feel comfortable in new situations. They might be considered timid or serious.

Now take a minute to think about your own temperament type. Which of the three do you relate the most to? Do you find it easier to work with individuals (including children) who share your own temperament type? If you have a feisty temperament, you might find it harder to engage and connect with cautious children. You might think they move slowly or take too long to adjust. You might not understand why they need so much help or space. If you have a cautious temperament, you might find yourself challenged by the energy level of feisty children. You might think they are always moving or yelling. Knowing your own temperament lets you step back and recognize these challenges or tensions as part of your personal interaction style. This lets you take steps to prevent stressful interactions between yourself and children.

How can you use an understanding of temperament in your work to prevent child abuse and neglect? First, understanding temperament helps you remain calm and see frustrating situations as potential personality differences. Second, you can use your understanding of a child’s temperament to come up with solutions to problems that work for them. Here are a few ways you can use temperament in your work:

Tips for children with cautious temperaments:

  • Provide plenty of space and time for the child to get comfortable. Encourage families to stay as long as possible to help children transition into your program.
  • Avoid forcing eye contact or getting in the child’s face. Approach children slowly and give them time to warm up to you. When approaching their body to assist in self-care announce actions you are going to do to support the child prior to taking actions. (“I see your nose is running, I’d like to help you blow your nose.”)
  • Minimize changes to schedules and routines.
  • Encourage children to bring comfort items, such as a favorite blanket or teddy bear.
  • Comfort children when they become upset. Spend time sitting together and watching others play.
  • Provide reminders when there will be changes in the schedule. Include a transition time prior to changes in activity. Discuss with child when upcoming transition will occur (“In 5 minutes it will be time to clean up for lunch.”)
  • Provide consistent spaces for things like rest, calming spaces, or doing homework.

Tips for children with feisty temperaments:

  • Provide lots of opportunities for movement. Let them help turn the pages of stories. Give them extra time to relax before a nap. Take them outside or to parks to run and use their energy.
  • Provide opportunities for exploration. Stay close when introducing new or exciting objects. Help the child learn to explore safely.
  • Do not punish intense reactions. Rather comfort the child: give hugs and help them work through emotions.
  • Support children in recognizing their emotions so that they can identify their emotions and learn cope when strong emotions are experienced. Validate children’s emotions by acknowledging without judgment which characteristics of their emotion they are expressing with their body and behavior.
  • Step in when needed to help a child work through difficult interactions with other children.
  • Establish daily routines that will help the child feel more secure.
  • Provide transition time between activities. This gives child time to finish what they are working on and prepare them for change (“In 5 minutes it will be time to go outside.”)
  • Use positive directions by telling children what to do instead of what not to do. This helps children learn how to meet appropriate expectations. (“Use and inside voice please.”)

Children at Risk for Abuse and Neglect

There are three categories of children more at risk for child abuse and neglect: young children, children with special needs, and children with challenging behavior. Why do you think these children are at an increased risk? Generally, these children might have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others. The adults around them might get frustrated easily or not know how to help the child. This can put the child in a dangerous situation. We must be careful to remember this does not mean that the child causes the abuse and neglect. The child is never to blame. It also does not mean that only children in these categories are abused or neglected. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.

Children under the age of 4 are at the greatest risk for child abuse and neglect. Can you think of reasons why this might be the case? When we think about the developmental milestones described above, we might see reasons. These children are least able to communicate their wants and needs to us. They are also not developmentally ready to solve complex social problems, regulate their behavior or emotions, and follow complicated directions. All of this leaves them vulnerable to negative interactions with adults who do not understand development.

When children do not meet the milestones described above in predictable ways and at predictable times, we can experience stress. We may not understand the child’s communication, we may not know how to meet the child’s physical needs, or we may doubt our competence. All of this can leave a person feeling helpless and confused. This stress puts children with developmental delays or disabilities at greater risk for child abuse or neglect.

Children with severe and persistent challenging behavior are also at a greater risk for abuse or neglect. When children demonstrate severe and persistent challenging behavior, adults often feel personally challenged. It’s not unusual to feel like a child is “pushing your buttons.” Adults may not know what to do in a moment of crisis, and might resort to unacceptable punishment practices.

Always try to see a child’s behavior through the lens of their developmental age and abilities.  It is not the job of the provider to blame the child’s parents for unwanted behaviors, but instead to partner with families. It is important for educators to help family members understand their child's abilities.

Special Concerns for Infants and Toddlers: Prolonged Periods of Crying

Crying is a normal part of infancy. All babies cry. Between the first and fourth months of life, many infants become more fussy and crying increases. Some experts refer to this as the period of PURPLE Crying. This does not mean babies turn purple from crying. Rather, PURPLE is an acronym describing the characteristics of this stage. You can visit the PURPLE Crying website to learn more:  

Even healthy infants sometimes cry for hours during this stage. Sometimes, it can be hard to comfort the infants. They might seem inconsolable. Crying tends to be worse in the evenings, but you might experience prolonged periods of crying with infants in your program. This can be very frustrating, and it might make you doubt your ability to care for the infant. It’s not unusual to begin feeling stress and to need a break. The best thing you can do is to realize that this is a phase in the infant’s development, and it will end. Try offering comfort that may help both you and the crying infant. Can you play some soft, soothing music? If being held helps to calm the infant, can wearing them in some sort of carrier help provide them the comfort they need, while also keeping your hands free to attend to other children and activities?  

Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken Baby Syndrome (also known as Shaken Impact Syndrome) is a serious form of abuse that usually occurs when a parent or caregiver shakes an infant out of anger or frustration, often because of prolonged periods of crying. Severe shaking causes an infant’s head to move violently back and forth resulting in serious or fatal brain injury. There is often no external evidence indicating a child has been shaken. The following signs and symptoms may indicate shaken baby syndrome:

  • Altered level of consciousness
  • Drowsiness accompanied by irritability
  • Coma
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Dilated pupils that do not respond to light
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Posture in which the head is bent back and the back arched
  • Breathing problems and irregularities
  • Abnormally slow and shallow respiration
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Death

Shaken Baby Syndrome is completely preventable. Caring for an infant can present challenges and frustrations. However, it is never acceptable to shake a baby. The following tips may help prevent abuse:

  • Take a deep breath and count to 10
  • Take time out and ask another caregiver to take over momentarily
  • Call someone for emotional support
  • Communicate with parents –there may be a medical reason why the baby is crying
  • If you suspect a child has been shaken, call emergency medical services


Now let’s think about how knowledge of child development looks in a family child care program. Knowledge of child development comes across as realistic expectations for behavior. Having the right expectations for children of various ages ensures that we are providing appropriate interactions and responses based on their age and level. This can sometimes be more complicated in family child care programs, where there the children in your care may vary greatly in age and skill level. Watch this video to learn more about realistic expectations.

Understanding Development

Learn about realistic and unrealistic expectations for children.

Read the following statements from family child care providers. On the left, you see unrealistic expectations. On the right you see realistic expectations. Which programs do you think feel like better places for children? Which providers do you think feel less stressed at the end of the day?

Unrealistic ExpectationsRealistic Expectations
Marchia cries all the time. She is spoiled rotten and thinks she needs to be held all the time.When Marchia gets upset and cries, I know she’s trying to tell us something. I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong and help soothe her.
Decklen never listens! All the kids are supposed to go inside, wash their hands, sit on the carpet, and pick a book. What does he do? He stops and plays with dolls.Decklen does best when I give him directions one step at a time. It’s hard to keep a long list of things to do in your head.
These kids need to sit cross-legged for the entire group time. Group time is 45 minutes in kindergarten, so they’ve got to start practicing sitting that long now.We keep group times short and sweet. It’s a time for us to build community, but we really think of play, one-on-one, and small groups as major learning times.
Caldwell is bossy. I need to put him in his place.Caldwell is learning to be a leader in the program. I need to find good channels for him to use those skills.
Julia and Cassidy talk and giggle nonstop. Those two need to be separated.Julia and Cassidy’s friendship is really important to them.
Joseph lied to me about washing his hands. He is completely dishonest.Joseph is testing the boundaries. I need to make sure I’m consistent but fair with him.


How can you make sure your expectations of children are appropriate?

  • Continue to learn all you can about child development throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School has courses that will help you learn more about cognitive, physical, and social development. You will also learn about how children develop communication skills and a healthy sense of self.
  • Gather information about child development to share with families. The handouts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Apply section are a good place to start, but your trainer, coach, family child care administrator, or local resource and referral agency might have other resources you can share.
  • As a provider, spend time observing children in your program or in your wider community. This will help you begin to understand what is typical for each child in your care. You can also visit programs that serve children who are older or younger. This will help you take the long view on development. If you expect the same thing from 4-year-olds that you see happening in the school-age program, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
  • Remember what you have learned here when you get frustrated. It can be frustrating when a toddler says “No” or bites, or a preschooler refuses to hang up his coat, but this is a part of growing up. Many of the behaviors that challenge adults are very typical parts of normal child development. If you have a concern about a child’s behavior, talk to your trainer, coach or family child care administrator. He or she can help give you perspective on whether the behaviors are typical.
  • Ask for help when you need it. We all need new ideas and support. When you are feeling frustrated or unsure about what to do for a child, ask your trainer, coach, family child care administrator, or a fellow family child care provider for ideas. This is a great way to build your own social connections and professional knowledge.


Read the Reframing Activity below and review each of the scenarios in the table. Indicate whether you think the scenario represents a realistic expectation for the child’s behavior or an unrealistic expectation. Then write what you think a provider should say that reflects realistic expectations. After rewriting realistic expectations you’re encouraged to share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


It is important to find resources that can help you understand child development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed excellent guides. These can be great resources to share with families, but they are also a nice tool for you to keep in your program and refer to regularly. Read and review the Milestone Checklists for the age groups of children with whom you work. These simple, one-page checklists are available in English and Spanish. They can also be useful reminders for you about realistic expectations for development across childhood.

Understanding child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. Help families learn developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior by having resources readily available. Use the Child Development Websites activity to create a list of resources to help families learn more about age-appropriate behavior and expectations. Providers working toward their CDA credential should use the activity titled Family Resource Guide: Child Development Websites to complete this activity.


Developmental milestone:
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age
Child development:
Changes that occur as children grow from birth through adolescence; the changes can be physical, mental, emotional, or social
An educational term that likens the process of building a skill in a child to the temporary structures used in building a house; in teaching, it can involve giving hints or prompts and gradually reducing these supports over time
Developmentally appropriate:
Knowledge and practice based on how young children develop and learn, what is known about an individual child, and what is culturally important


Clyde thinks 3-year-old Julian should put his toy away, go get his coat, line up, and wait at the door the first time she asks him. Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
Lucia, a preschool family child care provider, begins her day with a large-group circle-time activity. She begins by going over the calendar, talking about the weather, and then reading a story. She expects the children to remain seated the entire 30-minute group time and to participate when she asks them to. Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
Three-month-old Sydney is crying when her mother brings her in this morning. Her mom looks very tired. As Sydney is handed to her teacher, Sydney screams and cries more loudly. Read the following thoughts that Sydney’s family child care provider might have. Which of the thoughts shows Sydney’s provider has realistic expectations for Sydney’s behavior?
The children begin a game of pretending to be monsters as the provider prepares the room for rest time. One child gets scared and continues crying through nap time. The provider says, “Stop crying and go to sleep.” Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
At pick up, Jadyn’s dad tells you his nine-year-old is having difficulty in math. You recall that yesterday, Jadyn got more and more frustrated with a math sheet, and instead of participating at snack time as usual, he sulked and stared at the wall. You comment to Jadyn’s dad, “Sometimes school-agers are nervous about asking for help. Jadyn might need to hear that it’s okay to ask for help.” Does your response express a realistic expectation for Jadyn’s behavior?
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2019). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Violence Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones.

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Council on Accreditation (2013). Glossary: Temperament.[letter]=T&cHash=e79524c68eac91434e364a043b1639a8

The Family Advocacy Program.

National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (2013). CHILDHOOD SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT. 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network in partnership with the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. Sexual Development and Behavior in Children.

Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. (2022). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

Shaken baby syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2021, from

Thomas, A., Chess S., & Birch, H.G. (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York University Press.

University of Minnesota REACH: Supporting Military Families through Research and Outreach. Resources available from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2020). Child maltreatment.

ZERO TO THREE: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2006). Child Abuse and Neglect.