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Promoting Social-Emotional Development: The Infant And Toddler Caregiver

This lesson highlights the significance of being a responsive infant and toddler caregiver and provides insights on how to promote social-emotional competence in your workplace when engaging with young children, families, and colleagues. A key learning point is the importance of self-reflection and collaborative, supportive relationships.

  • Reflect on what it means to be a responsive infant and toddler caregiver.
  • Identify how to support resiliency in infants and toddlers.
  • Brainstorm how to cultivate and nurture social-emotional competence in your early care and learning environment and program.



Think about the ways you nurture and sustain social-emotional health in your personal life. Are there rituals or activities you engage in that make you feel more connected to yourself or to others? Are there individuals who nurture you and who inspire you to be and feel your best?

Now consider your professional life. How do you foster your social-emotional health at work? What elements of your work environment sustain your social-emotional health? Is it relationships with coworkers, administrators, children, and families? Is it freedom to work independently, to plan experiences, and to use materials? Is it guidance and constructive feedback from others, or sharing concerns and ideas and brainstorming solutions when situations arise?

Throughout this course, you have learned the great impact of being a responsive caregiver on infants’ and toddlers’ social-emotional development and that caring, responsive, and attentive adults can foster children’s social-emotional competence and growth. In order to be a responsive caregiver, you need to think about your own social-emotional health as it often affects your relationship with others.

Responsive Infant and Toddler Caregiving

Responsive caregivers use every opportunity to ‘get in tune’ with the infant or toddler. To help identify what responsiveness with infants and toddlers looks like, Dunst and Kassow (2008) identified ten characteristics of responsiveness—when adults change the way they interact with a young child to match the child’s needs and development. Dunst and Kassow’s ten characteristics of responsiveness are:

  1. Positive attitude: The adult frequently smiles, laughs, and provides positive statements to infants and toddlers. A caregiver may smile at infants and toddlers as they arrive in the morning and say, “I am so happy to see you this morning!”
  2. Stimulation: The caregiver arranges the environment to provide multiple opportunities for play, learning, engagement, and encouragement of infants and toddlers. The caregiver includes a range of developmentally appropriate materials in the care setting and intentionally uses opportunities to help toddlers learn to take turns engaging and playing with the materials. Additionally, the caregiver acknowledges individual differences, preferences, and learning styles in infants and toddlers and is responsive to their needs.
  3. Support: The caregiver is available and helps each infant and toddler develop.
  4. Response quality: The caregiver responds immediately and appropriately to match the infant’s or toddler’s needs.
  5. Synchrony: The relationship between the caregiver and the child is reciprocal and rewarding for both parties. For example, the caregiver and a toddler laugh together as they read a silly book or they enjoy taking turns singing silly songs while washing hands before lunch.
  6. Responsiveness: The caregiver and infant or toddler frequently notice and talk about objects, events, and people in the environment. For example, while playing outside, the caregiver and infant both look at a bird flying over their heads.
  7. Cooperation: The caregiver respects the child’s freedom and avoids interrupting the child’s ideas except when necessary. The child is given the chance to be in control and direct play. For example, when a young toddler stacks soft blocks only to knock them down, the caregiver joins in this “demolition” play and comments on the child’s actions.
  8. Physical contact: The caregiver has frequent kind and soothing contact with the child. For example, rocking while feeding, snuggling while reading a story, or gentle pats when the child is upset.
  9. Mutuality: Both the caregiver and the child are attending to the same thing at the same time. This is achieved when the caregiver is sensitive to the child’s cues. For example, an infant is looking out the window at a nearby tree. The caregiver turns his or her head to follow the infant’s gaze and says, “Oh, do you see that tree there? Its branches are blowing in the wind, aren’t they?”
  10. Response contiguity: The caregiver quickly and frequently responds to each infant’s or toddler’s signals and needs.  This includes responding quickly when a child is upset, but also frequently commenting on children’s actions or engaging with them after a request. 

Responsive caregiving results in a relationship that is stable, enduring, and secure. It is within the security of this relationship that an infant or toddler feels safe, confident, and able to explore the world with curiosity.

Everyday stressors exist in childhood including deployment, depression, death of a family member, natural disasters, or poverty. While the ideal situation is removal of all stress, we know that scenario is impossible. However, children who develop resilience gain the ability to better cope with change and adversity. The strengths of the family, the environments in which the infant or toddler spends time, and the infant or toddler himself or herself can enhance resilience. These strengths are also referred to as protective factors and are closely linked to social-emotional well-being. Social-emotional well-being is the ability to form healthy relationships, regulate strong emotions, get needs and wants met, and explore the environment and learn. When children are supported by their parents or other caregivers, they begin to believe in themselves and realize that they are capable. When adults encourage children to participate in the family or classroom by giving them responsibilities and offering them choices about their environment, young children feel a sense of belonging and competence. Protective factors, and therefore, social-emotional development, are strengthened when nurturing adults remain responsive in all interactions and experiences with an infant or toddler.

The illustration below helps to explain the cyclical nature of how protective factors encourage resilience.

Cycle: protective factors, prevent toxic stress, improve health outcomes, children grow into healthy adults.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (n.d.) Promoting resilience.

Caregiver Practices to Support Infant-Toddler Social-Emotional Development

Nurturing, responsive relationships give infants and toddlers a sense of comfort, safety and confidence to explore the world around them. It is within the context of relationships and interactions that young children learn how to join play, form friendships, communicate emotions, and deal with life’s challenges. The section below details specific practices that caregivers can engage in to support infants’ and toddlers’ social and emotional development.

Responsive Communication

  • Talks frequently with children
  • Responds to child’s communication attempts
  • Comments on children’s interests, activities, or actions
  • Engages in back-and-forth interactions
  • Expands on children’s vocalizations by adding words
  • Waits, watches, and joins play by following the child’s lead and matching their focus of attention
  • Comments positively and descriptively to reinforce communication attempts 

Responsive Interactions

  • Uses a positive and supportive tone
  • Positions self at children’s level during interactions
  • Makes eye contact and smiles to connect with infants and toddlers
  • Shows physical affection
  • Demonstrates interest and provides positive attention
  • Responds in a timely manner when child experiences distress

Responding to Distress and Challenging Behaviors

  • Remains calm and supportive when a child experiences distress
  • Uses redirection in response to a toddler’s challenging behavior
  • Provides positive attention when a toddler has calmed down 
  • Helps toddlers that are angry or upset to identify and solve the problem
  • Provides opportunities for children to practice self-regulation skills

Supporting Social Interactions

  • Remains available and in close proximity during interactions with peers
  • Encourages children to initiate and respond during interactions with others
  • Models social skills (greetings, gentle touches, turn-taking)
  • Provides explanations to help children understand other’s intentions
  • Comforts children when negative interactions occur
  • Gives positive feedback when children engage in prosocial behaviors
  • Helps toddlers work cooperatively with others

Encouraging Engagement

  • Establishes predictable routines and activities
  • Engages children with materials and activities that are developmentally appropriate
  • Models language and interaction with materials
  • Provides opportunities for toddlers to make choices during activities, routines and transitions
  • Responsive to children’s individual needs within routines
  • Uses additional supports (visual schedule, timer) as needed to support transitions
  • Communicate what is happening before and during a routine or activity
  • Models expectations during routines and activities

Teaching Emotions

  • Uses emotion words
  • Labels feelings and expresses empathy
  • Matches affect to children’s affect during interactions
  • Models self-regulations strategies
  • Helps toddlers solve problems
  • Uses challenging situations to help toddlers recognize emotions and self-regulate

Source: National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (2020). Caregiver practices to support infant-toddler social emotional development.

Socially and Emotionally Competent Infant and Toddler Caregiving

Developing and maintaining social-emotional well-being is an ongoing process. Your social-emotional well-being and resilience must be promoted so you can better support infants and toddlers in acquiring social-emotional skills. Warm, responsive adults who model resilient behaviors in the face of daily stressors can help nurture infants and toddlers lifelong capacity for resilience and social-emotional health. Research highlights that around 2 years of age, children are able to imitate the styles and ways of responding to stressors of the caregivers around them.

Being a socially and emotionally competent caregiver can be expressed in a number of ways. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Take the time to work on establishing and maintaining relationships with infants, toddlers, and colleagues in your care setting and program
  • Try to work out and problem solve solutions to challenges or problems that arise
  • Demonstrate flexibility
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes
  • Be nurturing and responsive
  • Try new things out
  • Ask for help or support when facing difficulties
  • Lend a helping hand to others in need
  • Be willing to accept new or different perspectives
  • Embrace diversity
  • Be open-minded
  • Share your own emotions and thoughts

What are some of your views on being a socially and emotionally competent infant and toddler caregiver? Pause for a few moments to reflect on this.


A Caregiver’s Social and Emotional Well-Being

This video highlights the four protective factors for a caregiver


Cultivating and Nurturing Social-Emotional Competence in Your Early Care and Learning Program

Social-emotional competence helps you become part of a workplace community that feels welcoming, supportive, friendly, energetic and nurturing. It helps you engage infants, toddlers, families and colleagues in a range of meaningful experiences. Consider the following:

Engaging with children

  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion when working with infants and toddlers.
  • Demonstrate positive social skills with infants and toddlers throughout the day.
  • Use infants’ and toddlers’ backgrounds, experiences and interests as inspiration for ideas about experiences and activities in your care setting.
  • Cultivate a climate of respect and appreciation of individual differences in your care setting. 
  • Invite families to share their views and experiences with you.

Engaging with families

  • Families can be your program’s window into culturally responsive experiences. Invite families to share experiences that are meaningful to them.
  • Provide opportunities for families of infants and toddlers in your care and program to meet and get to know each other.
  • Invite families to observe and participate in some of your activities.
  • Send home books about emotions and social-emotional skills with infants and toddlers.
  • Encourage families to nurture social-emotional skills at home by extending some of your experiences in the home environment.

Engaging with colleagues

  • Make connections with your colleagues in your workplace. Share things about your interests and experiences with colleagues during staff meetings, lunch breaks or in-service days. Explain how these interests drive some of the experiences you create for infants and toddlers. Get to know the people who you work with on a personal level.
  • Exchange with colleagues ideas about experiences that foster social-emotional growth. Invite a colleague to come to your room, observe some of your activities and give you feedback. Offer to do the same for your colleagues.
  • Ask a trainer, coach, or administrator to observe your care setting so they can offer you feedback about your use of materials and experiences to promote infants’ and toddlers’ social-emotional growth. 
  • Acknowledge colleagues who are doing great things, who offer you guidance and constructive feedback, and who inspire you to strive for excellence and be a team player. 


What do resilience and social-emotional development mean to you? Use the Thinking About My Own Resilience activity to reflect on your social-emotional well-being.  Take a few minutes to read and respond to the questions on the handout. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Review the links included in the Learning More About Resilience handout to further explore and better understand resilience and ways to support your own social-emotional well-being.


An ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change
Protective Factors:
Conditions or attributes (skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies) in individuals, families, or communities that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and help to eliminate risk in families and communities.


Finish this statement: Responsive caregiving…
True or False? Allowing yourself to make mistakes is part of being a socially-emotionally competent infant and toddler caregiver.
Which of the following is a way to support social-emotional competence in your program?
References & Resources

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

Buell, M. J., Pfister, I., & Gamel-McCormick, M. (2002). Caring for the caregiver: Early Head Start/family child care partnerships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 23(1-2), 213-230. doi: 10.1002/imhj.10013

Dunst, C., & Kassow, D. (2008). Caregiver sensitivity, contingent social responsiveness, and secure infant attachment. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention 5, 40-56.

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2020). Responsive caregiving as an effective practice to support children’s social and emotional development.

Early Learning Coalition of Duval. (2013). The infant/toddler responsive caregiver checklist.

Erdman, S., Colker, L.J., & Winter, E.C. (2020). Trauma and young children: Teaching strategies to support and empower. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2004). Building positive relationships with young children. Young Exceptional Children 7, 21-29. 

Mulrooney, K. & Williams, D. (2012). Understanding the experiences of young children in military families in the context of deployment, reintegration, injury, or loss.

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (2020). Caregiver practices to support infant-toddler social emotional development.

Pizzolongo, P.J. & Hunter, A. (2011). I am safe and secure: Promoting resilience in young children. Young Children, 66(2), 67-69.

Ragen, T. (2019, May 28). Remember to take care of yourself: Six ideas for family child care providers.