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Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

There is growing evidence that children’s social-emotional development is associated with better outcomes at home, at school, and in the community. Social-emotional development refers to how children learn to express their feelings, develop relationships, and practice social skills. This lesson will introduce you to social-emotional development and its significance for children’s overall development and learning.

  • Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with social-emotional development.
  • Describe and define social-emotional development.
  • Discuss how family child care providers and parents serve as facilitators of young children’s social-emotional development.



Consider all the different people in your life. At home, your relationships might include your spouse, parents, children, other family members, and friends. You also have relationships with the children you care for and their families, the person who delivers your mail, your health-care provider, your neighbors, and others in your community. How important are your relationships to your daily life and well-being? What would your life be like without those relationships?

Without positive relationships, it would be difficult to achieve a sense of belonging and acceptance or to feel like you are part of a community. Relationships are at the foundation of social-emotional health. Children spend the first years of their lives creating deep bonds with their families and caregivers. As they mature, they are ready to begin developing strong relationships and bonds with their peers, teachers, and other individuals.

What is Social-Emotional Development?

Children begin developing social-emotional skills at birth. Research indicates that children are born ready to connect with other people in their environment. The infant’s brain matures as a result of their interactions. When a child’s emotional and physical needs are met, learning pathways in the brain are formed, which leads to learning in all developmental domains. Emotional signals, such as smiling, crying, or demonstrating interest and attention, strongly influence the behaviors of others. Similarly, the emotional reactions of others affect children’s social behaviors. As children mature and develop, their social-emotional skills become less centered on having their own needs met by their caregivers and more focused on participating in routines and enjoying experiences with friends and caregivers.

Adults assist children as they form positive feelings toward themselves, others, and the larger world. Young children develop and learn in the context of relationships. When children are encouraged, nurtured, and accepted by adults and peers, they are more likely to be well-adjusted. On the contrary, children who are neglected, rejected, or abused are at risk for social and mental health challenges.

Supporting the social and emotional health of the children in your care is important because:

  • Early relationships set the stage for healthy brain development
  • Relationships and interactions with important caregivers impact the development of relationships with others
  • Poor social, emotional, and behavioral skills impact academic achievement
  • Early intervention and support can reduce the need for higher-cost interventions later

Take a moment to think about what social-emotional development means to you. What comes to mind? How do you explain social-emotional development to others? According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional development (also called social-emotional learning) consists of the following five core components:


This is the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions, thoughts, and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

Examples of questions someone who is self-aware may ask:

  • What are my thoughts and feelings?
  • What causes those thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?


This is the ability to control one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

Examples of questions someone who has good self-management may ask:

  • What different responses can I have to an event?
  • How can I respond to an event as effectively as possible?

Social awareness:

This is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school and community resources and supports.

Examples of questions someone who has good social awareness may ask:

  • How can I better understand other people’s thoughts and feelings?
  • How can I better understand why people feel and think the way they do?

Relationship skills:

This is the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes clear communication, active listening, cooperation, avoiding social pressure, conflict resolution, and obtaining or providing help when needed.

Examples of questions someone who has good relationships skills may ask:

  • What actions can I take to improve my interactions with other people?
  • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
  • What can I say or do better to understand the expectations others have for me?

Responsible decision-making:

This is the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions. This includes consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

Examples of questions someone who is a responsible decision-maker may ask:

  • What consequences will my actions have on myself and others?
  • How do my choices align with my values?
  • How can I solve problems effectively?

The Role of Family in Social Emotional Development

Children develop social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships with their primary caregivers, families, and cultures. Considering how diverse our society is, you can imagine that this diversity is also expressed in how families from different cultures teach children to manage emotions, socialize, and engage with others. For example, in some cultures, children are taught that it is respectful to avoid eye contact when communicating with adults. For other cultures, eye contact is an essential component of social interaction. Culture also affects parenting practices and ways individuals deal with emotions, including handling stress and coping with adversity.

Family priorities affect social-emotional competence. For example, some families might place a high value on talking about emotions and expressing them as they occur, whereas other families may value the opposite. As a family child care provider, you need to be sensitive and respectful of individual differences in social-emotional development when engaging with children in your care and their families.

Young children’s social and emotional development is critical to their ability to be successful in relationships with others at home, school, and in the community. As a family child care provider, you play an important role in helping children develop their social and emotional competence.


Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

Watch this video to learn about the importance of social-emotional development in children’s lives.


All children need nurturing, warm, relationship-based care in order to develop socially and emotionally. It is through caring relationships that children learn how to get along with others. You are an important role model in the lives of the children you care for. Therefore:

  • Always be positive and respectful when interacting with children and other adults (your own family members, parents of children you care for, neighbors, etc.).
  • Express your own emotions in a positive way. Stay calm when under pressure and keep your emotions regulated.
  • Be aware of your body language and keep it positive.
  • Communicate regularly with all children you care for and their parents.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Social & Emotional Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Social & Emotional Development Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


How do you define social-emotional development? What are your views on your own abilities to build relationships? What has most affected your own social and emotional development? Read over the questions in the activity, Thinking About Social-Emotional Development. Review your responses with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator.


It is important to support the families of the children you care for in your home. Use the Resources for Families handout and visit the websites to discover new ways to promote young children’s development and ways to assist children in developing empathy and social emotional competence. Share the information with families as well.


Understanding and caring about how another person is feeling
Social-Emotional Development:
The development of the ability to form secure relationships; identify, experience, and regulate emotions; explore the environment; and learn


True or false? Social-emotional skills begin developing in the preschool years.
Social-emotional development is the child’s capacity to…
During pickup, a parent compliments your social interactions with the children in your program. She asks how you stay so positive and calm. Which of the following is an appropriate response?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). (n.d.).

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020). SEL: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted?

Council on Accreditation. (2021). Standards for child and youth development programs.

Talking is Teaching. (2016). Six ways parents can raise empathetic children.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.