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Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

Social-emotional development refers to how children learn to express their feelings, develop relationships, and practice social skills. This lesson provides an introduction to social-emotional development during the infant and toddler years and its significance for children’s overall development and learning.     

  • Define social-emotional development and discuss its importance in our lives.
  • Reflect on your own experiences associated with social-emotional development.
  • Discuss adult social-emotional health and its impact on supporting infant and toddler social-emotional development.



Think back over the past couple of days. What are some emotions that you recall feeling? Do you recall feeling happy, sad, angry, fearful, or upset in response to receiving news or having a conversation or argument? Now consider how your feelings at the time might have affected your social interactions or relationships with others.

Emotions affect who we are and they impact our attention, memory, and learning; our ability to form relationships; and our physical and mental health. They also influence our behaviors, actions, and interactions with others. Think about times you were happy. How did those feelings affect your behavior and, in turn, your interactions? Now, consider times when you were sad, angry, or upset. How did those feelings influence your behaviors and interactions?

Labeling, identifying, and managing emotions are essential skills for meaningful and successful participation in life experiences, both in our professional and personal lives. Emotional intelligence is a term used to describe the ability to understand your own emotions and use them to guide your thinking and actions. Developing emotional intelligence allows you to manage your emotions effectively and avoid frustration and disappointment. Emotions can strongly influence our relationships with others and our overall quality of life.

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 to the brain are formed, which lead 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.

The early childhood years are a critical time for the formation of positive feelings toward oneself, others, and the larger world. Young children develop and learn in the context of relationships and when they 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 infants and toddlers is important because:

  • Early relationships set the stage for healthy or unhealthy brain development
  • Poor early social, emotional, and behavioral development predicts early school failure, which, in turn predicts later school failure
  • Early intervention can reduce the need for later, higher cost interventions

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 the families you support? The word “develop” originally meant “to unfold,” which can offer an understanding and a visual idea of what happens during a child’s earliest years. Developmental changes occur quickly during the first three years of life. New skills constantly emerge for infants and toddlers, changing the ways they relate to the world and their interactions with the people around them. Below, we highlight 5 key components of social and emotional development.  It is important to recognize that infants and toddlers are just beginning to establish these abilities.  We should not expect infants or toddlers to have advanced self-awareness or decision-making skills, but rather know that young children are on a path, with guidance from their families and caregivers, to gaining these skills.

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:


Self-awareness 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?

We can see evidence of self-awareness when toddlers state how they are feeling or when they express autonomy in wanting to do things for themselves.  For example, when a toddler wants to pour their own milk and says, “I do it!” this displays some early understanding of their individual capabilities. 

A staff member sits with two toddlers teaching buffet style family dining


Self-management 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 effectively as possible?

When an infant reaches for a caregiver when they are upset, this is an early sign of self-management. The child seeks an important person to help them calm down. We can also see the beginning of self-management in toddlers when they ask to use a toy rather than taking it out of a peer’s hand.

A staff member holds a crying toddler
A staff member holds a laughing toddler after consoling him when he was upset

Social awareness:

Social awareness 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?

When an infant looks concerned that another child is upset, or a toddler offers a comforting item to a friend who is sad, they are demonstrating the beginning of empathy and social awareness.

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 others?
  • What can I say or do better to understand the expectations others have for me?

Infants and toddlers demonstrate their early relationship skills by showing they are interested in being with others. This may include cooing back-and-forth with a caregiver or exchanging smiles or giggles with other children.  We can also see early cooperation skills when toddlers take turns going down the slide or passing a ball back-and-forth.

A staff member plays with a toddler with an inflatable beach ball

Responsible decision-making:

Responsible decision-making 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?

When a toddler wants to climb and moves to the classroom climber instead of pulling themselves up on the bookshelf, the child has displayed early responsible decision-making. 

The Role of Family in Social-Emotional Development

Children develop social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships with their primary caregivers and within their families and cultures. Consider how diverse our society is. You can imagine that this diversity is also expressed in the ways families from different cultures teach children to manage emotions, socialize, and engage with others. For example, in some cultures, children are taught to avoid eye contact. For other cultures, eye contact is an essential component of social interaction. Culture also affects parenting practices and how individuals are taught to 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 doing the opposite. As an infant or toddler caregiver, you must be sensitive and respectful of individual differences in social-emotional development when engaging with children in your care and their families.

Supporting Infant and Toddler Social-Emotional Development

Social interactions start early. Research shows that infants recognize and prefer the smell, touch, and sounds of their own mother. Infants can recognize familiar voices and even match tone of voice to facial expression which displays connections with others and their interest in relationships. Through imitation, infants show their awareness of important caregivers.

Rewarding early social experiences helps support the next level of social development. For example, secure relationships with trusted adults who provide a sense of safety and a base for the toddler’s exploration and discoveries, support toddlers’ interest of new objects and places. When encountering something unfamiliar, the toddler can look to a trusted adult and depend on the adult’s emotions for guidance about how to respond. The adult’s reaction influences the toddler’s feelings about the situation and provides information about how to move forward.

Within the context of trusting relationships, infants and toddlers also begin to develop self-regulation and initiative skills. When infants’ and toddlers’ needs are consistently met with help from adult caregivers, they learn they are cared about and loved.

A staff member gets a hug from a toddler

Lesson Two further describes social-emotional development and details the ways it unfolds in infants and toddlers. It is clear is that development is related to the traits a young child is born with (nature) and what he or she experiences (nurture).

The Impact of Caregivers' Social-Emotional Well-Being on Infant and Toddler Social-Emotional Development

Relationships are central to infant and toddler development. Early interactions with family and caregivers have lasting influences on development throughout life. Infants and toddlers are not just affected by their own relationships with adults, they are affected by the relationships adults have with one another.

Parents and other primary adult caregivers in the home, play a critical role in their child’s development. Each relationship has an influence on the infant’s and toddler’s social and emotional development. Infants and toddlers also form relationships with those who care for them on a consistent basis outside of the home. Infants and toddlers form relationships with their caregivers similarly to how their relationships develop with their families. Therefore, the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers is dependent upon the well-being of his or her family and adult caregivers. For example:

  • Infants and toddlers show specific relationship behaviors to caregivers when they feel stressed. So, adults that have positive relationships and life experiences are often better prepared to be responsive and emotionally available to an infant or toddler.
  • Infants and toddlers need caregivers to acknowledge them in a responsive and sensitive manner. When adults are emotionally available, they can more easily recognize infants’ or toddlers’ cues and respond appropriately to children’s needs.
  • Infants and toddlers learn how to trust others and regulate their emotions in the context of their relationships with caregivers. The level of responsiveness helps support a young child’s healthy development, including social-emotional development.


Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

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


Infants and toddlers need the support of nurturing and responsive adults to develop socially and emotionally. Below are ways you can promote social-emotional development in the infants and toddlers in your care:

  • Be affectionate and nurturing.
  • Gently hold, rock, and cuddle infants and toddlers often.
  • Share smiles with infants and toddlers during daily routines, such as feeding and eating.
  • Use facial expressions, gestures, and words to attentively respond to infants’ and toddlers’ attempts to communicate.
  • Provide specific, positive encouragement.
  • Offer opportunities for communication and help guide infants and toddlers through social situations.
  • Offer infants and toddlers opportunities to watch you as a kind and caring person.
  • Help infants and toddlers learn words to describe and express their emotions.
  • Help infants and toddlers feel safe and secure.

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 Infant & Toddler 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? Complete the Thinking About Social-Emotional Development handout. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Work with your trainer, coach, or administrator to review your program’s policies and procedures for references to (1) the program’s approach to the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers and (2) the ways you should learn about what is important to families in terms of social-emotional development.

Then, use the SEL Framework handout to review the core competence areas from the Social and Emotional Learning Framework developed by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Use this to guide your practice of supporting infant and toddler social-emotional development.


Emotional Intelligence:
The ability to understand your own emotions and use them to guide your thinking and actions
Social-Emotional Development:
The development of the ability to form secure relationships, identify, experience, and regulate emotions, explore the environment, and learn
Social Norms:
Acceptable group conduct


True or false? Social interactions begin in the toddler years.
Social-emotional development is the child’s capacity to…
You have been asked to present ideas on how to promote the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers at the next staff in-service. Which of the following ideas will you not include in your presentation?
References & Resources

BELIEVE, WATCH, ACT! Promoting prosocial behavior in infants and toddlers. (2010). Young Children, 65(1), 42-43.

Bohart, H. & Procopio, R. (2017). Spotlight on young children: Social and emotional development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Brackett, M.A., S.E. Rivers, & P. Salovey. (2011). Emotional intelligence: Implications for personal, social, academic, and workplace success. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5(1): 88–103.

Brazelton, T. B. & Greenspan, S. (2001). The irreducible needs of children: What every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Perseus Books.

Brazelton, T.B., Lally, J.R., Maguire-Fong, M.J., & Tronick, E. (2020). Teaching and learning with infant and toddlers: Where meaning-making begins. (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

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

Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council, Institute of Medicine. (2001). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Academy Press.

Head Start Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). Child mental health. Head Start Bulletin Issue No. 73.

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Research findings about the importance of social and emotional health.

Lieberman, A. (2017). The emotional life of the toddler. Simon and Schuster.

Parkian, R. & Seibel, N. (2002). Building strong foundations: Practical guidance for promoting the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers. Zero to Three.

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2017). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach. (4th ed.). Pearson Publishing.

Zero to Three. (2016, February 2). From feelings to friendships: Nurturing healthy social-emotional development in the early years.