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    • Identify ideas for providing opportunities to support social-emotional development.
    • Explore strategies that support the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers in your care.
    • Learn ways of supporting families as they promote the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers.




    As an infant and toddler caregiver, you play an important role in each infant’s and toddler’s social-emotional development. As you explored in Lesson Three, the environment impacts the ways infants and toddlers develop and learn new skills. This learning greatly depends on caregivers’ abilities to create responsive and engaging learning opportunities within the environment.

    Reflecting on Social-Emotional Development

    With the understanding that the environment greatly contributes to infant and toddler learning, reflect on the social-emotional development of the infants and toddlers in your care. Consider your observations, communication with families, and the developmental screening and assessment information you collect. Ask questions about each infant’s and toddler’s development and the interests and discoveries they make. For example:

    • A caregiver hugs a toddlerDoes the infant or toddler go to a primary caregiver for comfort? Does the infant or toddler allow the adult caregiver to help him or her calm down when upset?
    • What emotions does the infant or toddler express? In what ways does he or she express emotions?
    • Does the infant or toddler explore the environment with confidence knowing that his or her adult caregiver is nearby?
    • Does the infant or toddler respond to his or her name?
    • How is the infant or toddler comforted?

    By asking these questions, you have an opportunity to learn and document how each infant and toddler in your care develops social-emotional skills. These questions may also help you consider other areas of development, culture and temperament. This process can help you and families gather information to plan responsive environments as infants and toddlers develop social-emotional skills and learn new ways to communicate their needs and wants.

    Supporting Social-Emotional Development for Infants and Toddlers

    Each infant and toddler develops at his or her own rate. Social-emotional development is dependent upon ongoing, responsive relationships. In addition to the social-emotional milestones you reviewed in Lesson Two, basic elements of personality are seen early in infancy and appear to be fairly consistent throughout life. Elements that affect how individuals respond to the world are referred to as temperament traits. Researchers Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (1977) compiled a list of traits related to temperament that include:

    • Activity level – amount of movement and body activity
    • Regulatory or rhythmicity – regularity of basic functions such as eating and sleeping
    • Approach and withdrawal – how an individual responds to a new situation, person, place or thing
    • Adaptability – how quickly or slowly an individual adapts to change
    • Sensitivity – how sensitive an individual is to outside stimulation from touch, sounds, taste, etc.
    • Intensity – the energy level of the individual when expressing moods
    • Mood – the amount of pleasant and cheerful behavior contrasted to fussy, crying or negative behavior
    • Distractibility – how easily an individual can lose focus on an activity because of outside stimuli (e.g., television on, phone ringing, etc.)
    • Persistence – how long an individual will keep at an activity without giving up

    An infant crawls toward a caregiverYou should consider temperament traits and tailor your approach to each unique infant and toddler when identifying approaches and strategies of supporting social-emotional development. You are more likely to successfully help infants and toddlers adjust to activities and experiences that promote their social-emotional competence when you become more attuned to temperament. The ability to understand and relate to an infant’s or toddler’s needs and temperament, or the quality of the relationship between the caregiver and young child, is often referred to as “goodness of fit.” Just like infants and toddlers, you have a temperament style and general approach to the world. The way you and the infants and toddlers in your program interact has a strong effect on the early care and learning environment. Careful consideration of temperament can support appropriate planning for activities and experiences. Within the Explore section of this lesson, you will have an opportunity to reflect on and learn more about temperament. 

    Some infants and toddlers in your care may have conditions that affect their social-emotional development. Social-emotional development, during all stages, is a complex process involving other areas of development, such as cognitive skills, and it is enhanced by input from the environment (family, caregivers, peers, experiences, activities, etc.). For example, some infants and toddlers are unable to self-soothe or calm themselves, which may lead to the development of regulatory disorders. Other infants and toddlers may suffer from depression, especially if one or more of their family members are depressed. Depression in infants and toddlers can present as fussiness, withdrawal or lack of interest in eating or social interactions. 

    Strategy: Learning About Emotions and Emotional Expression

    Infants and toddlers learn about emotions and the expression of emotions through their interactions with others. Discussing interactions, activities, and experiences, as well as acknowledging and labeling emotions, are ways you can help infants and toddlers identify, understand, and express emotions in healthy ways. In addition, you can:

    • Understand that emotions expressed by infants and toddlers are true feelings seeking responsive care from responsive adults.
    • Mirror emotional expressions – if an infant or toddler is crying, you can offer a frown while saying, “You seem so upset. I’m going to help you.”
    • Add words to facial expressions to help infants and toddlers build a vocabulary of emotion words – “You are smiling; you seem so happy today!”
    • Use books, music, puppets, and finger plays highlighting emotions and emotional vocabulary.

    Four stuffed bear toys each have a different emotion printed on the belly and have corresponding facial expressionsA caregiver holds up facial expressions on a paper plate while explaining and demonstrating different emotions

    Strategy: Learning Play and Friendship Skills

    Infants and toddlers are learning how to interact and play with others. Understanding and expressing emotions in healthy ways can help support and contribute to the development of social skills, including playing, making and keeping friends, and getting along with others. Consider the following ideas as possible ways to encourage the development of play and friendship skills for the infants and toddlers in your care:

    • Place infants next to one another on a blanket on the floor – comment on what you notice the infants doing
    • Place a safe mirror low on the wall so that infants can look into the mirror and see themselves and others
    • Model and use words that older toddlers can use when they are playing together
    • Talk about how infants and toddlers feel to encourage perspective-taking
    • Read books about making and playing with friends

    A caregiver plays with a couple toddlers with connecting building block toys


    Responsive Interactions for Social Emotional Growth

    Watch as this video demonstrates responsive and engaging environments


    Responsive and engaging environments are characterized by intentional, frequent use of developmentally appropriate interactions and experiences, including opportunities for social-emotional growth. In your daily interactions with infants and toddlers, consider the following: 

    • A toddler claps her handsRemember that infants and toddlers are watching your expressions and learning ways to respond to strong emotions—use “I” statements and describe your feelings during interactions.
    • Encourage exploration in mobile infants by helping them continue to feel safe: “I see you! You are crawling and feeling proud!
    • Use infants’ and toddlers’ names frequently.
    • Think about tantrums in terms of self-regulation and help the toddler regain focus and attention.
    • While reading books to older infants and toddlers, make facial expression that compliments the character or portion of the story: “Yes, that cow is feeling very sleepy. Let’s make our sleepy face.
    • Notice and describe prosocial behaviors — “You offered her the other blue ball. You are being such a good friend.”
    • Help young children with peer conflicts — “You both want the truck and are pulling on it. What can we do together to solve this problem?”



    Download and print the Social Emotional Scenarios handout. Read through the scenarios and answer the questions. Think about the unique ways infants and toddlers express emotions and interact, and how you might respond as an infant and toddler caregiver. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor. You can also review the suggested Social Emotional Scenarios Responses



    Download and print the Strategies for Supporting Infant and Toddler Friendship Skills handout. Choose one of the strategies highlighted within the article to try with the infants or toddlers in your care. Observe how the infants and toddlers in your care react to the strategy and consider the ways you might respond to support their communication development. Then, share and discuss your observations with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.




    Finish this statement: “Goodness of fit” refers to…


    True or false? Infants and toddlers are too young to benefit from caregivers talking about interactions or labeling emotions.


    Which of the following is a stragegy caregivers can use to support the development of play and friendship skills for infants and toddlers?

    References & Resources

    Butterfield, P. M., Martin, C., Prairie, A., & Martin, C. A. (2004). Emotional connections: How relationships guide early learning. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

    Gillespie, L. G., & Seibel, N. L. (2006). Self-regulation: A cornerstone of early childhood development. Young Children (61)4, 34-39.

    Goleman, D. (2006) Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam Dell.

    Petersen, S. H., & Wittmer, D. S. (2008). Endless opportunities for infant and toddler curriculum: A relationship-based approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

    Thomas, A. & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and Development. New York: Brunner-Mazel.