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    • Review social-emotional development.
    • Identify universal caregiving strategies that support social-emotional development and prevent challenging behavior.
    • Describe how universal screening complements caregiver and family input.





    Think about a time when you encountered a challenge in your life. Did you feel the issue bubbling up? What steps did you take to address the challenge? Reflecting on past challenges can create an opportunity to plan and prevent the same challenge from happening again.

    Prevention means encouraging behaviors you want to happen rather than responding afterward. As you have learned in previous lessons in this course and throughout the Virtual Lab School, promoting healthy social-emotional development through responsive relationships, high-quality learning environments, and effective workforce strategies are the best ways to prevent challenging behavior.  

    Social-Emotional Development

    Children begin developing their social-emotional skills at birth, and all children need support to grow into emotionally intelligent adults. Caregivers play an important role in supporting the social-emotional development of children. Social-emotional development consists of five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, as identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Review the CASEL competencies below.


    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 regulate 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 constructively 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 and ethical 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 communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

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

    • How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out well?
    • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
    • How can I communicate with other people to understand and manage their expectations of me?

    Responsible decision-making:

    This is the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on 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?

    Universal Strategies to Promote the five CASEL Competencies and Prevent Challenging Behavior

    The following universal strategies are specific ways to support developing the CASEL social-emotional competencies in all children. While children who are at risk of or who have challenging behaviors will certainly benefit from caregivers using these strategies, all children need support for social-emotional learning. Think about ways you can purposefully use the following universal strategies during daily routines so that children have frequent opportunities to develop the five CASEL competencies.   

    Build Competence

    Think about learning as a cycle, meaning that you observe children’s abilities and use that information to inform what you do to support them. You build competence, or new skills and knowledge, in children by considering where they are in their learning, their family, and their culture, and tailoring your expectations so that they are successful and so that desired behaviors are reinforced. Ask yourself reflective questions like, “What can the children do now?” and “What can I do so they strengthen and build on these skills?” to help the children in your care build competence. 

    For example, a child who is just beginning to use gestures to communicate will benefit most from caregivers who use rich but simple language with gestures, such as “Put the toy in the box” while pointing to the box. This practice demonstrates that the caregiver is thinking about what the child can understand, and it shows the child that using gestures is a good way to communicate wants and needs, thereby building the child’s competence in using gestures in addition to their growing language. 

    Caregivers demonstrate self-awareness when they thoughtfully consider whether their actions build competence in children. Building competence creates self-awareness in children because it connects, “What do I want or need?” and “What am I feeling?” with “What can I do to get my needs met?” 

    Positive Communication

    How you communicate is as important as what you communicate. When working with children and coworkers, think about the nonverbal and verbal messages you send and how these messages impact your relationships with others. When your communication is delivered in a positive and encouraging way, it tells others that you care for them through their challenges and celebrations and are willing to problem-solve together. Positive communication builds relationship skills by helping children learn to navigate the challenges that are an expected part of growing up in friendly and cooperative ways. This is closely related to the information in the Virtual Lab School Positive Guidance courses.

    For example, a child complains to a caregiver that another child took their coat. The caregiver approaches the other child and in a friendly tone of voice says, “You’re wearing your friend’s coat,” gesturing to the other child. “What will your friend wear when we go outside in the cold?”

    Modeling positive communication helps children learn to problem-solve in a prosocial way, and children recognize how actions affect others’ feelings. Positive communication shows children that problems, mistakes, and misunderstanding are a natural part of being with other people, and that we can deal with these issues in ways that strengthen friendships and relationship skills rather than hurt feelings and more misunderstanding.

    Cooperative Learning

    Learning to work with others is an important skill that develops throughout one’s life and promotes social awareness. Through our interactions with others, we learn to problem-solve together, understand others’ emotions, and recognize that we all need support and encouragement to thrive. Expectations for cooperative learning will vary depending on the development of the children. Infants and toddlers grow to be aware of their peers but aren’t likely yet to problem-solve, share ideas, and take turns well. Preschool and school-age children have much more sophisticated social awareness. They invent games, ask others to play with them, and even negotiate with one another. While it’s important to monitor that their interactions are respectful, conflict can create an opportunity for you to help children to learn to problem-solve together. School-age children are aware of the strengths and traits of peers and may request input from individuals based on their specific knowledge or ability.

    For example, two school-age children working on math homework while at an after-school program need help and ask a staff member for assistance. The staff member suggests they find out if Nora, one of the oldest children in the program, can help. Nora is viewed as a good “helper” and enjoys being around younger children. The staff member encourages a cooperative learning opportunity for all the children involved and supports the two younger children in recognizing that asking peers for help based on their specific strengths is a way to meet a need or solve a problem.

    Self-Reflection and Self-Assessment

    Self-reflection and self-assessment are thinking about one’s feeling, thoughts, and actions and how they affect oneself and others. The practices of self-reflection and self-assessment allow for self-management. Self-management helps you to be a more thoughtful caregiver and helps children build competence, solve problems, and develop relationships. Children and adults who practice self-management are less reactive, meaning that they use self-reflection and their emotions to assess situations and carefully choose to respond or not respond based on how they think it will affect others. This describes the process of responsible decision-making.

    For example, a 10-year-old in a school-age program has been experiencing difficulty developing friendships. The child often interrupts others, cuts in line, and needs reminders to respect personal space. The other children express annoyance with the child which causes hurt feelings. Rather than directly telling the child what to do so others are more welcoming, a caregiver provides support by acknowledging the child’s feelings and modeling self-reflection. “I’m sorry you aren’t feeling included by others. I know that doesn’t feel good. You can talk to me about why you think you are being left out if you think that will be helpful.” Even if the child chooses to not further engage in the conversation, the caregiver has posed a self-assessment opportunity that may prompt the child to think about their own feelings, the feelings of others, and how actions influence the child’s friendships.

    Balanced Opportunities

    Children are most engaged in learning when opportunities provide diverse experiences that meet their needs and interests. It’s important to plan a wide range of learning opportunities, but continue to be flexible in your planning and schedules so you are responsive to the children in your care. Consider the following ways to provide balanced opportunities:

    Small group vs. whole group vs. independent instruction and learning

    Some activities can be enjoyable and enriching for children when they are all together, such as singing a song, going over the morning routine, or participating in a game of Simon Says. Other times it may be best to have smaller groups because, for example, there aren’t enough materials for all the children to participate at once, or you want to target support to children with similar learning needs. Most children benefit from being able to have some independent time so they have a brief break from the hard work that goes into cooperating with others.

    Child-directed vs. caregiver-directed

    Scheduling times when children can choose their activities helps them feel like they are trusted to make responsible decisions and provides opportunities for them to explore their interests. Balancing times when the children can make decisions about their play and activities while making sure you meet your program’s standards is one way to balance child-directed and caregiver-directed activities. Infants and toddlers will spend most of their time in child-directed or free play. As children become older, you can gradually expect them to be successful and engaged with more caregiver-directed activities.

    Quiet time vs. talking time

    Many children love to come to their program because they get to socialize with others. Setting clear expectations for when children can freely talk with one another lets them know what is expected. This might be based on specific routines or activities. For example, outside voices are for the playground and we use inside voices inside the building. Programs are often busy environments with a lot of action. This can be overwhelming for some children, and most benefit from some quiet time built into the day so they can collect their thoughts and have time to be fully engaged in listening.

    Physically active vs. more sedentary activities

    Physical activity is important for healthy child development. Toddlers and older children should be able to spend some time either outside or have indoor activities where they can run, jump, and climb every day. For indoor activities, children do well with a balance of seated activities at a table and times when they can play or sit on the floor or move freely through the learning environment. Think about activities that work fine-motor skills such as coloring and blocks and activities that work gross-motor skills such as performing the movements to a song. Children not yet walking should spend much of their time playing on the floor in different positions to promote exploration of movement.

    Universal screening

    Universal screening is used to assess all the children in your program, such as through a questionnaire that considers what most children can do at a specific age. This is a strategy to ensure early identification of potential learning and developmental concerns. Screening does not confirm that intervention is needed or that a child has a disability. Rather, it informs families and program staff that a child may be on track, or at risk for learning and developmental concerns. You may recommend that families speak with a doctor or specialist if their children’s screening shows a potential delay or concern. Since social-emotional development is foundational to future success and learning in all areas, child care programs should consider screening all children in this area (NAEYC, 2009; Division for Early Childhood, 2007).

    In addition to screening tools, your ongoing observation of children’s behavior and development provides valuable data. As a program caregiver, you likely spend a considerable amount of time with the children in your care. Using data from screening tools, caregiver observation, and family input provides a more authentic assessment of children’s behavior and development. While screening tools consider the diversity of children and families, know that there may be reasons an individual child is considered at risk based on culture or family-specific experiences more than development. Think about culture and individual family norms when using data to inform your thinking about children and potential conversations with families.


    To thoroughly assess children’s behavior and development, you will gather different types of information. Observation, or purposeful examination of teaching and learning, is a practice that aids you in developing clear pictures of children’s behaviors and needs. Observation is more than looking or watching; it involves using what you see or hear to create data that further informs your actions. As you hear Rosemarie Allen, Ph.D. speak about observation, reflect on the types of data you collect to prevent challenging behaviors. When there is a challenging behavior in your program, what do you need to know to guide your next steps?

    Using Observation to Inform Assessment

    Listen as Rosemarie Allen, Ph.D. describes how to use observation to assess children’s behavior and needs.


    Reflecting on Relationships

    Relationships develop at different paces and some take more effort than others. You will quickly form bonds with some of your coworkers and the children in your care, while other relationships may be more challenging and take time to grow. Some children, especially those with challenging behavior, may be more difficult to emotionally connect with. You may feel afraid to admit this to yourself and to others. Know that this is a normal feeling and does not mean that you don’t have unconditional support for the well-being of all the children in your program. If you ever struggle to build a mutually engaging relationship with a child in your care, use the questions below to guide your reflection. If you feel comfortable, share your feelings with a trusted coworker, trainer, coach, or administrator.

    • Is the child’s family culture different from my own? Is this affecting my feelings toward the child?
    • Am I considering that the child has challenging behavior because they lack specific skills most children this age have developed?
    • Do I disagree with some of the family’s parenting practices?
    • Am I placing judgment on the child’s interests rather than following their lead and trying to engage in those interests together?
    • Is the child’s family under considerable stress or have they experienced trauma, making it difficult for the child to form relationships?



    Complete the Using Universal Strategies to Support Social-Emotional Learning activity and reflect on the strategies you already use and whether there are other strategies you want to make a part of your practice in the future.



    Review the Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! An Early Care and Education Provider’s Guide for Developmental and Behavioral Screening handout. Consider giving the Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! Screening Passport and How to Talk with the Doctor handouts to families so they can track when their children are screened and have support in speaking with their doctor about results.


    Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP)An approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education.




    True or false? The CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) competencies suggest that social-emotional development is made up of the following five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.


    Select which caregiver response promotes the development of social-awareness.


    Identify the practice that reflects providing children with balanced opportunities.

    References & Resources

    American Institute for Research. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning Coaching Toolkit. Washington, DC: Yoder, N. & Gurke, D. Retrieved from

    Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional, Learning. (2013). Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs: Preschool and Elementary Edition. Chicago. Retrieved from

    Division for Early Childhood. (2007). Promoting Positive Outcomes for Children with Disabilities: Recommendations for Curriculum, Assessment, and Program Evaluation. Missoula, MT. Retrieved from

    Henderson, J. & Strain, P. (2009). Screening for Social Emotional Concerns: Considerations in the Selection of Instruments. Retrieved from

    Merrill, S. (2020, September 11). Trauma is 'written into Our Bodies'-but educators can help. Edutopia.

    NAEYC. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8: A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

    US Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! A Compendium of Screening Measures for Young Children. Retrieved from