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Social-Emotional Development: Preschool Children

This lesson will help you understand how children develop social-emotional skills during the preschool years. You will learn about social-emotional milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.

  • Identify typical social-emotional milestones in preschoolers.
  • Discuss the role adults play in supporting the social-emotional skills of preschoolers.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.



Children’s emotional well-being during their early years has a powerful effect on their social relationships. Children who are emotionally healthy are better able to establish and maintain positive relationships with adults and peers. Consider your own children or others you know and the different stages in their social-emotional development as they were growing up.

Preschoolers are learning to talk about their feelings and the feelings of others. Social-emotional development, however, involves more than just expressing emotions. It entails taking turns, becoming independent in following routines, interacting more with peers, engaging in meaningful relationships with others, controlling emotions, and developing a positive self-image. These skills are crucial for children’s successful participation in school and home experiences and for their overall growth. These skills build children’s social-emotional abilities that influence their success in school and in life.

Social Emotional Milestones

Both social and emotional development include behaviors that represent children’s emotional growth and their ability to successfully navigate their world through interactions with adults and peers. Since these skills develop together, this area of development is referred to as social-emotional development. Social-emotional milestones focus on children’s developing abilities to regulate their attention, emotions, and behavior, and to form positive relationships with adults and peers.

The chart below provides a closer look at how preschoolers develop social-emotional skills at different ages. Remember that individual differences exist when it comes to the exact age at which children meet these milestones. As highlighted in the Cognitive, Physical, and Communication courses, milestones are not checklists with which to judge children’s development. Rather, they provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children, so you are prepared to meet their changing needs. Think of these milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development in preschoolers. Although the skills mentioned in the chart develop in a predictable sequence over the preschool years, each child is unique in when they will master each skill. Your goal is to help all children grow and learn to their potential.

Social-Emotional Developmental Milestones in Preschool

Age 3
  • Copies adults and friends
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Takes turns in games
  • Shows concern for a crying friend
  • Dresses and undresses
  • Understands the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers”
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Separates easily from family members
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
Age 4
  • Enjoys doing new things
  • Is more creative with make-believe play
  • Expresses interest in playing with other children
  • Comforts others
  • Avoids situations that appear dangerous to them
  • Changes their behavior based on their surroundings
  • Talks about their likes and interests
Age 5
  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be like friends
  • Is more likely to follow rules
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Can identify their own name, age, gender, and hometown
  • Can tell what is real and what is make-believe
  • Shows more independence
  • Does simple chores like clearing dishes from the table
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Developmental milestones.

Social-Emotional Development in Preschool

Watch this video to learn about social-emotional development across the preschool years.

Remember that expectations about developmental milestones are driven by cultural values and preferences. For example, in some cultures, children are not expected to feed themselves independently until they are 3 or 4 years old. In other cultures, children are expected to start eating independently in early infancy and toddlerhood. In your daily interactions with children and their families, you should remind yourself that culture and family priorities influence children’s social-emotional competence.

If you are concerned about a child’s development, consult you trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. Then, carefully share your thoughts with the child’s parents. Describe the child’s behavior and the reasons you are concerned. Be sure to have specific instances of concern that you can describe for parents. In some situations, families might be encouraged to contact either their health-care provider or their local public school district, which can arrange a free developmental screening for the child and may help the child and family get help and resources.

Preschoolers and Social-Emotional Development

As you study the chart above, you may notice that the milestones are associated with different aspects of social-emotional development: Some are associated with children’s ability to engage in relationships with others and others are associated with positive self-awareness. Some milestones relate to children’s ability to regulate or control emotions and others correspond with children’s ability to perform various tasks independently. Let’s take a closer look at these aspects of social-emotional development:

Relationships with others

Preschoolers engage in pretend play with friends and use words and sentences to express their feelings and thoughts. Even though they may still need adult support to share toys and materials with friends, they improve on their own as time passes. Preschoolers also improve in their ability to understand and appropriately respond to their friends’ feelings. Children with healthy social-emotional development have a balance of all these components.


Preschoolers improve their ability to control their bodies during different activities throughout the day (e.g., sitting at circle time or playing in the gym), take turns and have conversations with peers, acknowledge and use their own names and the names of others, and self-evaluate and know when they made appropriate or inappropriate choices.

Emotional regulation

Preschoolers display a variety of emotions in different ways. For example, they may say, “I’m upset!” They may match facial expressions to happy, mad, sad, or they may laugh when excited. At the same time, they improve their ability to manage their emotions to match the situation and environment and to control their emotions (e.g., separate easily from family members). Although preschoolers are better than toddlers at regulating emotions, they still need a great deal of help and practice developing these appropriate behaviors. 


Preschoolers with healthy independence will follow predictable daily routines and activities in family child care, at home and outside the home, for example, at an outdoor playground. They may start identifying a favorite friend and ask that friend to play; independently play with toys and materials; and complete many self-care tasks, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, eating snacks, feeding themselves, or getting ready for bed. Independent preschoolers will also tell caregivers about their day and learn and use new vocabulary daily.

Emotional Literacy

Emotional literacy is children’s ability to label and talk about their own emotions or feelings, as well as the feelings and emotions of others. This is an essential component of social-emotional development because it helps children understand their own emotional experiences and, at the same time, helps them acknowledge and understand the emotional experiences of others. Emotional literacy helps children solve problems and regulate their emotions; these skills are essential for success in preschool and beyond. Children who label, talk about, and are aware of their emotions are more likely to focus on and engage in daily routines and activities and less likely to become easily frustrated, have excessive tantrums, or act impulsively.

Many children learn to identify and discuss emotions through interactions or conversations with responsive adults in the context of positive relationships and supportive environments. In your program, you should embed opportunities for social-skill development throughout the day. For example, you can share your emotions about events or experiences and encourage children to share their own emotions. You can also read books that discuss emotions or social interactions. In the Apply section of this lesson, you will find additional examples of resources and activities you can use to foster children’s emotional literacy.

Supporting Preschool Children’s Social Emotional Development

Children learn social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships by watching, imitating and responding to the social behaviors of others. Children also learn from the ways others respond to their emotions. Social-emotional skills are closely connected to a child’s family, cultural background and early experiences. Children learn by interacting and forming relationships with members of their families, child care groups, schools, and communities.

Social-emotional learning begins in infancy, and adults are the most influential models for young children. When caregivers validate children’s feelings, address their needs, and are responsive and supportive, preschoolers are better able to communicate their needs and emotions and are more likely to demonstrate healthy social-emotional development.

Healthy social-emotional development is strongly associated with responsive caregiving. Responsive caregivers are supportive and positive, provide stimulating materials, play and engage with children, share events and experiences, follow children’s lead, and support children’s interests and learning. Responsive caregivers plan meaningful opportunities throughout the day to help children practice and learn social skills. As you read this section, envision the role you play in fostering healthy social-emotional development for the children in your care.


Social-Emotional Skills for Preschoolers

Watch this video to learn about the range of social-emotional skills that are important for preschoolers


Preschool-age children in your care need daily opportunities to participate in activities and routines that help them learn new social-emotional skills or practice existing skills in fun, stimulating, and supportive environments. You can purposefully use strategies throughout your day to support young children’s social-emotional development. Understanding developmental milestones is an important aspect of working with young children. Learning and understanding how preschoolers develop social-emotional skills and competence will help you foster their social-emotional learning and determine what kinds of experiences are most valuable. You will find additional resources to foster children’s social-emotional competence in the Apply section. Consider the following in your daily interactions with preschoolers:

  • Be responsive to children’s interaction attempts and build on what children say.
  • Engage in frequent, developmentally appropriate social interactions with children and adults throughout your daily experiences and routines.
  • Follow children’s leads, cues and preferences.
  • Include emotion words in conversations with children.
  • Make books available that discuss feelings and social interactions.
  • Ask children meaningful questions about their actions, interests, events and feelings.
  • Encourage children to use their words and talk to their peers when conflicts arise. Use developmentally appropriate language and provide conversation models and cues for children to follow if they need help solving a problem.
  • Ensure that you are sensitive to children’s unique needs, experiences, and backgrounds.
  • Reach out to children’s families and be responsive to their needs and preferences.


Observing preschool children during their typical daily routines and activities is the best way to see which children are developing strong social-emotional skills and which ones need more support. While thinking about the preschoolers in your family child care setting, highlight the behaviors you notice and think about the ways you can support children’s social-emotional skills. Read and complete the Observing and Supporting Social-Emotional Skills During the Preschool Years handout. Then, share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator.


Use the resources in this section to learn more about young children’s social-emotional development and the ways you can support the preschoolers in your care. The resources include a support guide that may be useful for families.


Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children within a certain age range can complete
Developmental screening:
A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need support; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers or others who know both the child and the child’s development well
Emotional literacy:
Children’s ability to label and talk about their own emotions or feelings, and the emotions or feelings of others
Social-emotional competence:
The achievement of healthy relationships with caregivers and friends, a positive self-awareness and ability to control emotions, and the ability to independently participate in daily routines and play across a variety of environments
Emotional self-regulation:
The ability to adjust emotional state to a comfortable level of intensity to accomplish goals


Finish this statement: Emotional literacy…
Which of the following is not a social-emotional developmental milestone of a typically developing 4-year-old?
Which of the following does not promote preschool children’s social-emotional development?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Brown, W. H., Odom, S. L., & McConnell, S. R. (Eds.) (2008). Social Competence of Young Children: Risk, Disability, & Intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Developmental milestones.

Daily, S., Burkhauser, M., and Halle, T. (2010). A review of school readiness practices in the states: Early learning guidelines and assessments . Child Trends, 1(3), 1-12.

Dunlap, G., & Powell, D. (2009). Promoting Social Behavior of Young Children in Group Settings: A Summary of Research. Roadmap to Effective Intervention Practices No. 3. Tampa, Florida: University of South Florida, Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children.

McElwain, N., Halberstadt, A., & Volling, B. (2007). Mother- and Father-Reported Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to young children’s emotional understanding and friendship quality. Child Development, 78, 1407-1425.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2012). Teachers’ Lounge: Determining if Behavior is Bullying. Teaching Young Children, 5(5), 34.

Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. Helping Children with Challenging Behaviors Succeed in the Classroom.

Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M., Smith, B., & McLean, M. (Eds.) (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: A Comprehensive Guide for Practical Application. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Publishing.

Soundy, C. S., & Stout, N. L. (2002). Fostering the Emotional and Language Needs of Young Learners. Young Children, March 2002, 20-24.

Yeary, J. (2013). Promoting Mindfulness: Helping young children cope with separation. Young Children, November 2013, 110-112.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.