Skip to main content

Understanding Development: Preschool

Understanding child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about typical development. You will also learn developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior.

  • Describe typical child developmental 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 understanding 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? If we don’t understand child development, we are likely to think a child should act older than he or she is. We might put children in situations that are too challenging for them, causing us and the child to get frustrated. The child doesn’t understand what we want, and we don’t understand why the child won’t “behave.”

Understanding child development is a protective factor because it helps us recognize when a child needs extra help. If we do not understand child development, we might become frustrated instead of recognizing an opportunity to scaffold or strengthen a child’s experiences. When we get frustrated, we do not use our best thinking. We are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. We may be less able to support the children who need our help the most. 

Let’s take look at how children typically develop from the ages of 3 to 5 years. The information in this table is compiled from various sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). You can find this information in an easy-to-use checklist form in the Apply section.

Preschool Development Chart


3 Years: Social/Emotional

  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting

3 Years: Language/Communication

  • Carries on conversation using at least two or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks Who, What, When, Where, or Why questions
  • Says what action is happening in a picture book when asked like “eating” or “running”
  • Says first name when asked
  • Talks well enough for others to understand most of the time

3 Years: Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Copies a circle with a pencil or crayon
  • Avoids touching hot objects after a warning
  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  • Builds towers of more than 6 blocks

3 Years: Movement/Physical Development

  • Strings items onto a string such as large beads or macaroni
  • Dresses self in loose clothing
  • Uses a fork
  • Pedals a tricycle

4 Years: Social/Emotional

  • Pretends to be something else during play (teacher, dog, superhero)
  • Would rather play with other children then by themself
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Avoids danger, like not jumping from tall heights on the playground
  • Likes to be a “helper”
  • Changes behavior based on where they are

4 Years: Language/Communication

  • Says sentences that are 4 or more words
  • Says some words from a familiar song or story or nursery rhyme
  • Talks about at least one thing that happened during their day like, “I played ball.”
  • Answers simple questions like, “What is a crayon for?”
  • Says first and last name when asked

4 Years: Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Identifies several colors
  • Tells you what comes next in a known story
  • Draws a person with three or more body parts
  • Can recall parts of the day

4 Years: Movement/Physical Development

  • Catches a large ball most of the time
  • Self serves food and able to pour liquid with supervision
  • Unbuttons items
  • Holds writing utensil between fingers not with a fist

5 Years: Social/Emotional

  • Follows rules when playing games with others
  • Takes turns when playing games with other children
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Does simple chores at home

5 Years: Language/Communication

  • Tells a story with at least two events that they’ve either heard about, or made up
  • Answers simple questions about a book or story read or told to them
  • Carries on conversation using at least three or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Uses or recognizes simple rhymes (bat, cat, ball, tall)

5 Years: Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)

  • Counts to 10
  • Names some numbers between 1 and 5 when you point to them
  • Uses words about time like yesterday, tomorrow, morning, or night
  • Pays attention for 5-10 minutes during activities
  • Can write some letters of their name
  • Names some letters when you point to them

5 Years: Movement/Physical Development

  • Buttons some buttons
  • Hops on one foot may be able to skip
  • Can print some letters or numbers

As you read the milestones, did you notice any behaviors that might frustrate or challenge adults? Here are a few real-world scenarios that help illustrate the developmental stages:

  • Carli and Claire only want to play with each other. They tell other children, “You can’t play with us.”
  • Calvin and Kelsy make a game out of running up the slide even though this is against the rules.
  • Desiree is still eating lunch even though all the other children finished and have cleared their plates.
  • Clark does not nap. He never falls asleep and is always moving when asked to lay down.
  • Dori begins sticking out her tongue and spitting on the little boy next to her.
  • Aylen comes running to you screaming, “He hit me!”

Based on what you have seen, heard, or experienced in the program or community, do these scenarios ring true? Have you seen them happen? Have you experienced them? If you've spent time in programs, you've likely seen some or all of these behaviors. They're reflections of typical child development. We all go through stages as we grow, and certain behaviors can be expected at certain stages. This does not mean that all behaviors are easy for us as adults to deal with. It does mean that we can be prepared to recognize behaviors as reflections of growth and help children develop and mature. You'll learn more about this in the Cognitive Development course.

The table above can help you remember that behaviors like tantrums, not following directions, and making demands can be normal parts of development. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and constructively. You’ll learn more about how to do that in the next two lessons.

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 and how they reach different milestones. If you have a concern about a child’s development, talk to your Training & Curriculum Specialist or administrator.

Understanding Temperament for Preschool Children

Temperament influences how each of us interacts with the world and the people around us. If you reflect on your own personality and preferences, it becomes clear that we all have certain ways we interact. Understanding our own temperament and the temperaments of the children around us can be very helpful. We are born with certain temperament traits or styles, and temperament is thought to be consistent across a life span. Here are nine temperament traits that you might see in yourself and the children around you (Thomas, Chess, & Birk, 1968):

  • Activity level: Is the child always moving or sometimes sitting still?
  • Regularity: Do children naturally have consistent schedules for eating and sleeping or are they more variable?
  • Distractibility: Does the child focus for periods of time or shift attention?
  • Approach to new things: Is the child cautious in new routines or experiences?
  • Adaptability: Can the child adjust to new people or situations?
  • Intensity of reactions: How does the child respond to situations?
  • Threshold of responsiveness: How much stimulation does it take for a child to respond?
  • Quality of mood: Is the child generally happy or sad?
  • Attention span and persistence: How much time does a child spend on something despite distractions?

Take a minute to reflect on your own temperament. How do you define your temperament traits? How does understanding temperament help you understand your own behaviors and the behaviors of children?

Temperament researchers also have identified three temperament types that summarize these traits (Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968). The three temperament types are:

  • Adaptable: These are “easy children.” They are open to new situations, have a moderate activity level, and are generally happy.
  • Feisty: These children have a high activity level and usually strong responses to new stimuli. They might be considered energetic, assertive, and full of emotion.
  • Cautious: These children need time and support to feel comfortable in new situations. They might be considered timid or serious.

Now take a minute to think about your own temperament type. Which of the three do you relate the most to? Do you find it easier to work with individuals (including children) who share your own temperament type? If you have a feisty temperament, you might find it harder to engage and connect with cautious children. You might think they move slow or take too long to adjust. You might not understand why they need so much help or space. If you have a cautious temperament, you might find yourself challenged by the energy level of feisty children. You might think they are always moving or yelling. Knowing your own temperament lets you step back and recognize these challenges or tensions as part of your personal interaction style. This lets you take steps to prevent stressful interactions between yourself and children.

How can you use an understanding of temperament in your work to prevent child abuse and neglect? First, understanding temperament helps you remain calm and see frustrating situations as potential personality differences. Second, you can use your understanding of a child’s temperament to come up with solutions to problems that work for them. Here are a few ways you can use temperament in your work:

Tips for Children with Cautious Temperaments:

  • Provide plenty of space and time for the child to get comfortable. Encourage families to stay as long as possible to help children transition into the room.
  • Avoid forcing eye contact or getting in the child’s face. Approach children slowly and give them time to warm up to you. When approaching their body to assist in self-care announce actions you are going to do to support children prior to taking actions. (“I see your nose is running, I’d like to help you blow your nose.”)
  • Minimize changes to schedules and routines.
  • Encourage children to bring comfort items such as a favorite blanket or teddy bear.
  • Comfort children when they become upset. Spend time sitting together and watching others play.
  • Tell children what can be expected and what the schedule is for the day.
  • Provide a prompt to initiate transition time. Discuss with the child when an upcoming transition will occur. (“In 5 minutes it will be time to clean up for lunch.”)
  • Create quiet space in the classroom where children can go if they need a space or are feeling over stimulated.

Tips for Children with Feisty Temperaments:

  • Provide lots of opportunities for movement. Let them help turn the pages of stories. Give them extra time to relax before a nap.
  • Provide opportunities for exploration. Stay close when introducing new or exciting objects. Help the child learn to explore safely.
  • Do not punish intense reactions. Rather comfort the child: give hugs and help him or her work through emotions.
  • Support children in recognizing their emotions so that they can identify their own emotions and learn cope when strong emotions are experienced. Validate children’s emotions by acknowledging without judgment which characteristics of their emotion they are expressing with their body and behavior.
  • Step in when needed to help a child work through difficult interactions with other children.
  • Provide sensory space where children can be directed when they have high amount of energy. Having a consistent space supports the child’s self-help skills. The child can go to sensory space when they have the need. They know that space is available to support 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 disabilities, 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. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.

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

When children do not meet the milestones described above in predictable ways and at predictable times, we can experience stress. We may not understand the child’s communication, we may not know how to meet the child’s physical needs, or we may doubt our competence. All of this can leave a person feeling helpless and confused. This stress puts children with developmental delays or disabilities at greater risk for child abuse or neglect.

Children with severe and persistent challenging behavior are also at a greater 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 might resort to unacceptable punishment practices.


Now let’s think about how knowledge of child development looks in a classroom or program. Often knowledge of child development comes across as realistic expectations for behavior. Having the right expectations for children of various ages ensures that we are providing appropriate interactions and responses based on their age and level. Watch this video to learn more about realistic expectations.

Understanding Development during Preschool

Learn about realistic expectations for preschool children

Read the following statements from staff members. On the left, you see unrealistic expectations. On the right you see realistic expectations. Which classrooms or programs do you think feel like better places to be for children? Which staff members do you think feel less stressed at the end of the day?

Unrealistic ExpectationsRealistic Expectations
  • Marchia never listens! All the kids are supposed to go inside, wash their hands, sit on the carpet, and pick a book. What does she do? She stops and plays with dolls.
  • Marchia does best when I give her directions one step at a time. It’s hard to keep a long list of things to do in your head!
  • Decklen is always moving. He cannot sit still.
  • Decklen has a lot of energy to burn off today. I think we’ll spend extra time in gross motor play outside.
  • 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.
  • We keep group times 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 major learning times.
  • Caldwell is bossy. I need to put him in his place.
  • Caldwell is learning to be a leader in the classroom. I need to find good channels for him to use those skills.


How can you make sure your expectations of children are appropriate?

  • Continue to learn all you can about child development throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School has courses that will help you learn more about cognitive, physical, and social development. You will also learn about how children develop communication skills and a healthy sense of self.
  • Gather information about child development to share with families. The handouts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Apply section are a good place to start, but your program or curriculum might have other resources you can share.
  • As a new employee, spend time observing children in the program where you work. This will help you begin to understand what is typical for your age range. Also visit classrooms or programs for children who are older or younger. This will help you take the long view on development. If you expect the same thing from 4-year-olds that you see happening in the school-age program, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
  • Remember what you have learned here when you get frustrated. It can be frustrating when a preschooler refuses to hang up his coat in his cubby, wash his hands, and sit on the carpet, but this is a part of growing up. Many of the behaviors that challenge adults are very typical parts of development. If you have a concern about a child’s behavior, talk to your trainer, coach, or administrator. They can help give you perspective on whether the behaviors are typical.
  • Ask for help when you need it. We all need new ideas and support. When you are feeling frustrated or unsure about what to do for a child, ask a trainer or co-worker for ideas. This is a great way to build your own social connections and professional knowledge.


Read the scenarios in the Reframing Activity: Understanding Development activity below. Indicate whether you think the scenario represents a realistic expectation for the child’s behavior or an unrealistic expectation. Then write what you think a staff member should say that reflects realistic expectations. After writing realistic expectations you’re encouraged to share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


It is important to find resources that can help you understand child development.

Talk to your Training & Curriculum Specialist or administrator about resources available in your curriculum. Many curricula, like Teaching Strategies Gold, provide a continuum of milestones. There are many resources on children's development available for you and families in your program. If you would like additional resources, there are many options for you to use within the VLS courses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed excellent guides. These can be great resources to share with families, but they are also a nice tool for you to keep in the classroom and refer to regularly. Use the Milestone Checklists below for the age group of children with whom you work. The simple, one-page checklists are available in English and Spanish at They can also be useful reminders for you about realistic expectations for development across early childhood.

Understanding child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. Help families learn developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior by having resources readily available. Use the Child Development Websites activity to create a list of resources to help families learn more about age-appropriate behavior and expectations. Staff working toward their CDA credential should use the activity titled CDA Family Resource Guide: Child Development Websites to complete this activity.


Child Development:
Changes that occur as children grow from birth through adolescence. The changes can be physical, mental, emotional, or social
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
Developmental Milestone:
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age
An educational term that likens the process of building a skill in a child to the temporary structures used in building a house; in teaching, it can involve giving hints or prompts and gradually reducing these supports over time


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?
3-year-old Sydney is crying when her mother brings her into the room. Her school-age sister is on spring break, and Sydney wanted to stay home with her. As Sydney’s mother tries to get out of the room, Sydney follows behind her mother screaming, “Want go home.” Read the following thoughts that Sydney’s teacher might have. Which of the thoughts shows Sydney’s teacher has realistic expectations for behavior?
The children begin a game of pretending to be monsters as the teachers prepare the room for rest time. One child gets scared and continues crying through nap time. The staff member says, “Stop crying and go to sleep.” Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
True or False? 5-year-old Jaydn is having a birthday party this weekend. She is busy inviting (and un-inviting) children at breakfast time. This is typical behavior for her age, so the teacher should just let it continue happening.
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones. Available from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Factsheet. 

Military One Source. (n.d.). Military Family Advocacy Programs.

National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2013). CHILDHOOD SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network in partnership with the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2009). Sexual Development and Behavior in Children. Institutes of Health. (2013). Medline Plus: School-Age Development. Available from

Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. (2022). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).

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

Thomas, Chess & Birch. (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York University Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Child Maltreatment 2020.

ZERO TO THREE: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2006). The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect.