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Social-Emotional Development: Preschool Children

This lesson will help you understand how children develop social-emotional skills during the preschool years. You will learn about social-emotional milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.

  • Recognize typical social-emotional milestones in preschool-age children.
  • Identify how adults can support the social-emotional skills of preschool-age children.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about the social-emotional development of a preschooler in your classroom.



Children’s emotional well-being during their early years has a powerful impact on their social relationships. Children who are emotionally healthy are better able to establish and maintain positive relationships with adults and peers (Trawick-Smith, 2014). Social-emotional development is essential to a young child’s sense of well-being. The relationships they form early on help shape who they are, who they become, and their understanding of the world. Think about some of the children in your own life and the different social-emotional skills they display.

Preschool-age children are learning to talk about their feelings and the feelings of others. Social-emotional development, however, involves more than just expressing emotions. It involves taking turns, becoming independent in following routines, interacting more with peers, engaging in meaningful relationships with others, controlling emotions, and developing a positive self-image. These skills are crucial for children’s successful participation in school and home experiences and for their overall growth.

Social-Emotional Milestones

Social and emotional development include behaviors that represent children’s emotional growth and their ability to successfully navigate their world through interactions with adults and peers. Since these skills develop together, this area of development is referred to as social-emotional development. Social-emotional milestones focus on children’s developing abilities to regulate their attention, emotions, and behavior, and to form positive relationships with adults and peers.

The chart below highlights social emotional development during the preschool years. Remember that individual differences exist when it comes to the exact age at which children may meet these milestones. As highlighted in the Cognitive, Physical, and Communication courses, milestones are not checklists with which to judge children’s development. Rather, they provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children, so you are prepared to meet their changing needs. Think of these milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development in preschoolers. Although the skills mentioned in the chart will develop in a predictable sequence over the preschool years, each child is unique in when they will master each skill. Your goal is to help all children grow and learn to their potential.

Social-Emotional Developmental Milestones in Preschool

Age 3
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Copies adults and friends
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Shows concern for crying friend
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
Age 4
  • Interested in new experiences
  • Pretends to be something else during play (teacher, dog, superhero)
  • Make-believe play is more creative and complex
  • Dresses and undresses self
  • Would rather play with other children than alone
  • Can name two or more friends
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Cooperates with other children
  • Often can’t tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
  • Talks about what they like and what they are interested in
  • Likes to be a “helper”
  • Changes behavior based on where they are
  • Avoids danger, like not jumping from tall heights on the playground
Age 5
  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be like friends
  • Follows rules when playing games with others
  • Takes turns when playing games with other children
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Is aware of gender
  • Can tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
  • Shows more independence
  • Does simple chores at home
  • Can tell you their first and last name and age
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Developmental milestones.

Remember that expectations about developmental milestones are driven by cultural values and preferences. For example, in some cultures, children are not expected to feed themselves independently until they are 3 or 4 years old. In other cultures, children are expected to start eating independently in early infancy and toddlerhood. Theorist Lev Vygotsky said that adults share their cultural values and beliefs with children through daily interactions. Ideas, beliefs, and expectations about child development are just some of the ways cultures are unique. Becoming aware of and respecting these differences can help you better understand how families’ experiences help shape the preschoolers in your classroom.

If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with your trainer, coach, or administrator first. Share your observations of the child’s behavior and the reasons you are concerned. Your trainer, coach, or administrator may choose to observe the child and set up a meeting with the child’s family. In some situations, families might be encouraged to contact their local school district, which can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development and can help the child get any needed help and services.

Preschoolers and Social-Emotional Development

It is important to notice that milestones are associated with different aspects of social-emotional development. Some are associated with children’s ability to engage in relationships with others and others are related to children’s abilities to regulate their emotions. Let’s take a closer look at these and how they relate to preschool development.

Relationships with others: Preschool-age children engage in pretend play with friends and use words and sentences to express their feelings and thoughts. Even though they may still need adult support to share toys and materials with friends, they improve on their own as time passes. Preschoolers also progress in their ability to understand and appropriately respond to their friends’ feelings. Children with healthy social-emotional development have a balance of all these components.

Self-awareness: Preschool-age children improve their ability to control their bodies during different activities throughout the day (e.g., sitting at circle time or playing in the gym). They learn to take turns and have conversations with peers, acknowledge and use their own names and the names of others, and self-evaluate and know when they made appropriate or inappropriate choices.

Emotional regulation: Preschool-age children display a variety of emotions in different ways. For example, they may use words to share their feelings such as “I am upset”, they may match facial expressions to happy, mad or sad, or they may laugh when excited. At the same time, they also improve their ability to manage their emotions to match the situation and environment and to control their emotions (e.g., separate easily from family members). Although preschoolers are better than toddlers at regulating emotions, they still need a great deal of help and practice with developing these appropriate behaviors.

Independence: Preschoolers with a healthy sense of independence will follow predictable daily routines and activities at school and at home. They may start identifying a favorite friend and ask that friend to play or independently play with toys and materials at home, school, or an outdoor playground. Additionally, preschoolers developing a sense of independence may complete many self-care tasks, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, eating snacks, feeding themselves, or getting ready for bed. Independent preschoolers will also tell caregivers about their day and learn and use new vocabulary.

Emotional Literacy

Emotional literacy is a child’s ability to label and talk about their own emotions or feelings, as well as the feelings and emotions of others. This is an essential component of social-emotional development because it helps children understand their own emotional experiences and, at the same time, helps them to acknowledge and understand the emotional experiences of others. Emotional literacy helps children solve problems and regulate their own emotions; these skills are essential for success in preschool and beyond. Children who label, talk about, and are aware of their emotions are more likely to focus on and engage in classroom routines and activities and less likely to become easily frustrated, have excessive tantrums, or act impulsively.

Many children learn to identify and discuss emotions through interactions or conversations with responsive adults in the context of positive relationships and supportive environments. In your work at a preschool program, you should embed opportunities for social skill development throughout the day. For example, you can share your emotions about events or experiences and encourage children to share their own emotions. You can also read books that discuss emotions or social interactions. In the Apply section of this lesson, you will find additional examples of resources and activities you can use to foster children’s emotional literacy.

Supporting the Social-Emotional Development of Children in Preschool

Children learn social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships by watching, imitating, and responding to the social behaviors of others. Children also learn from the way others respond to their emotions. Social-emotional skills are closely connected to a child’s family, cultural background, and early experiences. Children learn by interacting and forming relationships with members of their families, schools, and communities.

As highlighted in Lesson One (Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction), social-emotional learning begins in infancy and adults are the most influential models for young children. Caregivers who understand their infants’ emotional cues and respond immediately and sympathetically have infants who are less fussy and easier to soothe. The same happens with preschoolers; if caregivers validate children’s feelings, address their needs, and are responsive and supportive, preschoolers are better able to communicate their needs and emotions and are more likely to demonstrate healthy social-emotional development.

Healthy social-emotional development is highly associated with responsive caregiving. Responsive caregivers:

  • provide support and positive feedback
  • offer stimulating materials
  • play and engage with children
  • share events and experiences
  • follow children's lead
  • identify children's interests and facilitate their learning
  • plan meaningful opportunities throughout the day to help children practice and learn social skills.

As you read this section, think about the role you play in fostering healthy social-emotional development for the children in your care. In Lessons Three and Four, you will learn additional strategies to support the social-emotional development of all preschoolers.


Social-Emotional Skills for Preschoolers

Watch this video to learn about the range of social-emotional skills that are important for preschoolers.

Social-Emotional Development in Preschool

Watch this video to learn about social-emotional development across the preschool years.


Preschool-age children in your care need daily opportunities to participate in activities that help them learn new social-emotional skills or practice existing skills in fun, stimulating, and supportive environments. You should purposefully use strategies throughout your day to support young children’s social-emotional development. Understanding developmental milestones is an important aspect of working with young children. Learning and understanding how preschoolers develop social-emotional skills and competence will help you foster their social-emotional learning and determine what kinds of experiences to plan in your classroom and program. You will find additional resources to foster children’s social-emotional competence in the Apply section. Consider the following in your daily work with preschoolers:

  • Be responsive to children’s attempts at interaction and build on what children say.
  • Engage in frequent, developmentally appropriate social interactions with children and adults in your classroom throughout your daily experiences and routines.
  • Follow each child’s lead, cues, and preferences.
  • Include emotion words in conversations with children.
  • Make books available that discuss feelings and social interactions.
  • Ask children meaningful questions about their actions, interests, events, and feelings.
  • Encourage children to use their words and talk to their peers when conflicts arise. Use developmentally appropriate language and provide conversation models and cues for children to follow if they need help solving a problem.
  • Ensure you are sensitive to children’s unique needs, experiences, and backgrounds.
  • Reach out to children’s families and be responsive to their beliefs and preferences


Observing preschool children in their learning environment is the best way to see which children are developing strong social-emotional skills and which ones need support. While thinking about the preschoolers in your program, highlight the behaviors you notice and think about the ways you can support children’s social-emotional skills. Complete the Observing and Supporting Social-Emotional Skills activity and share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Use the resources in this section to learn more about young children’s social-emotional development and the ways you can support the preschoolers in your care. The resources include a support guide that may be useful for families.


Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children within a certain age range can complete
Developmental screening:
A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need support; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers or others who know both the child and the child’s development well
Emotional literacy:
Children’s ability to label and talk about their own emotions or feelings, and the emotions or feelings of others
Emotional self-regulation:
The ability to adjust emotional state to a comfortable level of intensity to accomplish goals
Social-emotional competence:
The achievement of healthy relationships with caregivers and friends, a positive self-awareness and ability to control emotions, and the ability to independently participate in daily routines and play across a variety of environments


Finish this statement: Emotional literacy…
Which of the following is not a social-emotional developmental milestone of a typically developing 4-year-old?
Which of the following does not promote preschool children’s social-emotional development?
References & Resources

Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ):

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

Brown, W. H., Odom, S. L., & McConnell, S. R. (Eds.) (2008). Social competence of young children: Risk, disability, & intervention. Paul H. Brookes.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Developmental milestones.

Daily, S., Burkhauser, M., and Halle, T. (2010). A review of school readiness practices in the states: Early learning guidelines and assessments. Child Trends, 1(3), 1-12.

Dunlap, G., & Powell, D. (2009). Promoting social behavior of young children in group settings: A summary of research. Roadmap to effective intervention practices #3. Tampa, Florida: University of South Florida, Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children. Cengage Learning.

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2018, May 11). Fostering emotional literacy in young children: Labeling emotions.

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed). Cengage Learning.

Ho, J. & Funk, S. (2018). Promoting young children’s social and emotional health. Young Children, 73(1).

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Yeary, J. (2013). Promoting mindfulness: Helping young children cope with separation. Young Children, November 2013, 110-112.