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Understanding Child & Youth Development

Knowledge of child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about typical development and examples of behaviors you may observe in your program. As a support staff member, you will not need the depth of knowledge that direct care staff need on child and youth development. However, knowing what to expect from children at different developmental stages aids you in recognizing when there is a mismatch between what a child can do and what a staff member or family member expects.

  • Describe typical child development 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 knowing 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? Without child development knowledge, you are more likely to have either too high or too low of expectations for children. Expectations that are too low do not challenge children and limit their learning. Expectations that are too high create a mismatch between what caregivers expect children to do and what children can actually do. This is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect and limits caregivers’ abilities to make sound decisions. When frustrated, you are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. You are less able to support the children who need your help the most.

To develop appropriate expectations, you will need to be familiar with typical behaviors in children. Review these examples of behaviors you can expect to see in infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-agers.

  • Solomon is a young infant. He cries on and off throughout the day.
  • Flora, a toddler, will sometimes smile and wave at you in the hallway. Other days she avoids looking at you and doesn’t say hi back.  
  • A staff member told Hilary it was time to get a diaper change. She yelled, “No!” and ran away.
  • Zoe, a preschooler, plays with her food during lunch and makes a big mess.
  • 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 pickup 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.

Are these scenarios familiar to you? Have you observed them in your program? These behaviors are all reflections of typical child development. Even though these behaviors are typical, some caregivers may be challenged by them and have less patience and harsher responses. You should not expect children to always be perfectly behaved, and behaviors that are typical but difficult are a normal part of children growing up.

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 National Institutes of Health (

Development Milestones


Social / Emotional

  • Begins to smile at people
  • Can briefly calm himself (may bring hands to mouth and suck on hand)
  • Tries to look at parent

Language / Communication

  • Coos, makes gurgling sounds
  • Turns head toward sounds

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Pays attention to faces
  • Begins to follow objects with eyes and recognizes people at a distance
  • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn't change

Movement / Physical

  • Can hold head up and begins to push up when lying on tummy
  • Makes smoother movements with arms and legs

Social / Emotional

  • Smiles spontaneously, especially at people
  • Likes to play with people and might cry when playing stops
  • Copies some movements and facial expressions, such as smiling or frowning

Language / Communication

  • Begins to babble
  • Babbles with expression and copies sounds he or she hears
  • Cries in different ways to show hunger, pain, or tiredness

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Lets you know if she or he is happy or sad
  • Responds to affection
  • Reaches for toy with one hand
  • Uses hands and eyes together, such as seeing a toy and reaching for it
  • Follows moving objects with eyes from side to side
  • Watches faces closely
  • Recognizes familiar people and objects at a distance

Movement / Physical

  • Holds head steady, unsupported
  • Pushes down on legs when feet are on a hard surface
  • May be able to roll over from tummy to back
  • Can hold a toy and shake it and swing at dangling toys
  • Brings hand to mouth
  • When lying on stomach, pushes up to elbows

Social / Emotional

  • Knows familiar faces and begins to know if someone is a stranger
  • Likes to play with others, especially parents
  • Responds to other people's emotions and often seems happy
  • Likes to look at self in mirror

Language / Communication

  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Strings vowels together when babbling and likes taking turns with parents while making sounds
  • Responds to own name
  • Makes sounds to show joy and displeasure
  • Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with "m," "b")

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Looks around at objects nearby
  • Brings objects to mouth
  • Shows curiosity about things and tries to get objects that are out of reach
  • Begins to pass objects from one hand to another

Movement / Physical

  • Rolls over in both directions (front to back, back to front)
  • Begins to sit with support
  • When standing, supports weight on legs and might bounce
  • Rocks back and forth, sometimes crawling backward before moving forward

Social / Emotional

  • May be afraid of strangers
  • May be clingy with familiar adults
  • Has favorite toys

Language / Communication

  • Understands "no"
  • Makes a lot of different sounds like "mamamama" and "bababababa"
  • Copies sounds and gestures of others
  • Uses fingers to point at objects

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Watches the path of something as it falls
  • Looks for objects you hide
  • Plays peek-a-boo
  • Puts objects in mouth
  • Moves objects smoothly from one hand to the other
  • Picks up objects like cereal o's between thumb and index finger

Movement / Physical

  • Stands, holding on
  • Can get into sitting position
  • Sits without support
  • Pulls to stand
  • Crawls

Social / Emotional

  • Is shy or nervous with strangers
  • Cries when mom or dad leaves
  • Has favorite things and people
  • Shows fear in some situations
  • Hands you a book when he or she wants to hear a story
  • Repeats sounds or actions to get attention
  • Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing
  • Plays games such as "peek-a-boo" and "pat-a-cake"

Language / Communication

  • Responds to simple spoken requests
  • Uses simple gestures, like shaking head "no" or waving "bye-bye"
  • Makes sounds with changes in tone (sounds more like speech)
  • Says "mama" and "dada" and exclaims "uh-oh!"
  • Tries to say words you say

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Explores objects in different ways, like shaking, banging, throwing
  • Finds hidden objects easily
  • Looks at the right picture or object when it's named
  • Copies gestures
  • Starts to use objects correctly; for example, drinks from a cup, brushes hair
  • Bangs two objects together
  • Puts objects in a container, takes objects out of a container
  • Lets objects go without help
  • Pokes with index finger
  • Follows simple directions like "pick up the toy"

Movement / Physical

  • Gets to a sitting position without help
  • Pulls up to stand, walks holding onto furniture
  • Make take a few steps without holding on
  • May stand alone

Social / Emotional

  • Likes to hand things to others as play
  • May have temper tantrums
  • May be afraid of strangers
  • Shows affection to familiar people
  • Plays simple pretend, such as feeding a doll
  • May cling to caregivers in new situations
  • Points to show others something interesting
  • Explores alone but with parent close by

Language / Communication

  • Says several single words
  • Says and shakes head "no"
  • Points to show someone what she or he wants

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Knows what ordinary objects are for; for example, telephone, brush, spoon
  • Points to get the attention of others
  • Shows interest in a doll or stuffed animal by pretending to feed
  • Points to one body part
  • Scribbles on own
  • Can follow one-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say "sit down"

Movement / Physical

  • Walks alone
  • May walk up steps and run
  • Pulls toys while walking
  • Can help undress
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Eats with a spoon

Social / Emotional

  • Copies others, especially adults and older children
  • Gets excited when with other children
  • Shows more and more independence
  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what he or she has been told not to do)
  • Plays mainly beside other children, but is beginning to include other children, such as in chase games

Language / Communication

  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Says sentences with two to four words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Points to things in a book

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Finds things even when hidden under two or three covers
  • Begins to sort shapes and colors
  • Completes sentences and rhymes in familiar books
  • Plays simple make-believe games
  • Builds towers of four or more blocks
  • Might use one hand more than the other
  • Follows two-step instructions such as "Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet"
  • Names items in a picture book such as a cat, bird, or dog

Movement / Physical

  • Stands on tiptoe
  • Kicks a ball
  • Begins to run
  • Climbs onto and down from furniture without help
  • Walks up and down stairs holding on
  • Throws ball overhand
  • Makes or copies straight lines and circles

Social / Emotional

  • Copies adults and friends
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Takes turns in games
  • Shows concern for a crying friend
  • Understands the idea of "mine" and "his" or "hers"
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Separates easily from mom and dad

Language / Communication

  • Follows instructions with two or three steps
  • Can name most familiar things
  • Understands words like "in," "on," and "under"
  • Says first name, age, and sex
  • Names a friend
  • Says words like "I," "me," "we," and "you" and some plurals ("cars," "dogs," "cats")
  • Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
  • Carries on a conversation using two to three sentences

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  •  Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Does puzzles with three or four pieces
  • Understands what "two" means
  • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
  • Turns book pages one at a time
  • Builds towers of more than six blocks
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handle

Movement / Physical

  • Climbs well
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step

Social / Emotional

  • Enjoys doing new things
  • Plays "Mom" and "Dad"
  • Is more and more creative with make-believe play
  • Would rather play with other children than alone
  • Cooperates with other children
  • Often can't tell what's real and what's make-believe
  • Talks about likes and interests
  • Shows increasing fears and imagination (monsters, fear of the dark)

Language / Communication

  • Knows some basic rules of grammar, such as correctly using "he" and "she"
  • Sings a song or says a poem from memory such as the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" or the "Wheels on the Bus"
  • Tells stories
  • Can say first and last name

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Names some colors and some numbers
  • Understands the idea of counting
  • Starts to understand time
  • Remembers parts of a story
  • Understands the idea of "same" and "different"
  • Draws a person with two to four body parts
  • Uses scissors
  • Starts to copy some capital letters
  • Names four colors
  • Plays board or card games
  • Tells you what he or she thinks is going to happen next in a book

Movement / Physical

  • Hops and stands on one foot up to 2 seconds
  • Catches a bounced ball most of the time
  • Pours, cuts with supervision, and mashes own food

Social / Emotional

  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be like friends
  • More likely to agree with rules
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Is aware of gender
  • Can tell what's real and what's make-believe
  • Shows more independence (for example, may go on a play date)
  • Is sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative

Language / Communication

  • Speaks very clearly
  • Tells a simple story using full sentences
  • Uses future tense; for example, "Grandma will be here"
  • Says name and address

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Counts 10 or more things
  • Can draw a person with at least six body parts
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
  • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

Movement / Physical

  • Stands on one foot for 10 seconds or longer
  • Hops; may be able to skip
  • Can do a somersault
  • Uses a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife
  • Can use the toilet on her or his own
  • Swings and climbs

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 objects, tantrums, not following directions, talking back to adults, occasionally lying, and making demands are all normal parts of development. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and in ways that guide children to grow. While this is primarily the responsibility of direct care staff, you should be prepared to provide this guidance in the event you find yourself in a situation that calls for you to respond. 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 they reach different milestones. If you have a concern about a child’s development, talk to your program administrator.

Unrealistic vs Realistic Expectations

Read the following statements made about children. On the left, you see unrealistic expectations that reflect limited knowledge of child development. On the right you see realistic expectations that show understanding of typical behaviors. Use the information on typical child development to guide your understanding.

Unrealistic Expectations

Realistic Expectations

Marchia, an infant, cries all the time. She is spoiled rotten and thinks she needs to be held all the time.

When Marchia cries, she’s communicating that she needs something from her caregiver.

Decklen, a young preschooler, 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 with simple directions. With consistent support, he’ll eventually learn more complex routines.

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.

Group times are 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 the best learning opportunities.

Caldwell is bossy. He needs to be put in his place.

Caldwell is learning to express his opinions and ideas. This shows he is confident and comfortable in this environment.

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.

It is common for school-age children to lie when they know they did something wrong. This shows they care about what you think of them.

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. Keep in mind that the families of these children and staff members who care for them may need additional support.

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? Think about the developmental milestones described above. Young children are least able to communicate their wants and needs. They are also not developmentally ready to solve complex social problems, regulate their behavior or emotions, and follow complicated directions. All of this leaves young children vulnerable to negative interactions with adults who do not understand development.

When a child has a delay or disability, their caregivers may experience more stress. Caregivers may not understand the child’s communication, making it more difficult to meet the child’s needs and requests. Some children may need a lot more time and practice to learn skills their peers learned long ago. This can leave caregivers feeling helpless, confused, and unsure of what to do. Caregiver stress puts children with developmental delays and disabilities at greater risk for child abuse or neglect.

Children with severe and persistent challenging behavior are also at an increased 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 and, in a moment of crisis, they may resort to harsh or punitive practices.

View children’s behavior through the lens of their development and abilities. Understand that difficult behavior is complex and usually has multiple causes. You should not blame families and staff when children have difficult behaviors, but instead know that due to these challenges they may need more support to meet children’s needs.

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 staff might experience prolonged periods of crying with infants in your program. This can be very frustrating, and it might make them doubt their ability to do their jobs well. It’s not unusual for infant caregivers to feel stressed and to need a break. Although this is a typical phase in infant development, infant caregivers may need more support from your program’s coach or administrator when caring for an infant who cries for prolonged periods of time. 


Now that you are familiar with typical behaviors of children of various ages, listen to experts discuss the importance of developmentally appropriate expectations. As you view this video, reflect on how this information applies to your role as a support staff member.

Understanding Development

Learn about realistic and unrealistic expectations for children


Keep these things in mind as you observe the children, staff, and families in your program.

  • Typical development varies. Although the milestone information in this lesson is a good baseline for what to expect, there is some difference for when typical children learn specific skills or develop behaviors. Children with disabilities and delays may reach milestones much later, and in some cases, not at all.
  • The direct care staff in your program have varying levels of knowledge and experience in child care. Some are more seasoned and others are just beginning to learn about child development.
  • Families also have varying levels of knowledge and diverse beliefs on child-rearing. While you must report abuse or neglect, there is a widerange of acceptable family practices.  
  • If you observe an interaction between a child and family member or staff member that appears to be punitive, harsh, or inconsiderate of the child’s development, speak to someone from program leadership. They should know when a family or staff member needs support.


Realistic expectations for children’s behavior based on their development and individual needs can help prevent child abuse and neglect. Although you may not directly care for children, a realistic frame of mind about children’s behavior creates a program community that is knowledgeable about child development and child abuse prevention. Complete the Reframing activity to guide your expectations for children’s behavior.


It is important to find resources that can help you understand child development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed excellent guides. These can be great resources to share with families, and 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 in your program. 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.


child development:
Changes that occur as children grow from birth through adolescence; the changes can be physical, mental, emotional, or social
Developmental milestone:
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age
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 teacher, 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 caregiver, Sydney screams and cries more loudly. Which of the thoughts show that Sydney’s caregiver has realistic expectations?
References & Resources

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

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

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Learn the signs, act early: Developmental milestones.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved from

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

The Family Advocacy Program. Retrieved from

National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (2013). Childhood Sexual Development. Retrieved from

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

National Institutes of Health (2013). Medline Plus: School-Age Development. Retrieved from

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

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

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2015). Child Maltreatment 2015. Retrieved from

Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2006). Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from