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    • Define social-emotional development and discuss its importance in our lives.
    • Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with social-emotional development.
    • Discuss how social-emotional learning promotes development and learning in young children. 




    Think back over the past couple of days. What are some emotions that you felt? 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 some of your social interactions or relationships with others.

    Emotions affect who we are and 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? 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 our meaningful and successful participation in life experiences, both in our professional and personal lives. Difficulty managing emotions can cause frustration and disappointment and can strongly influence our relationships with others and our overall quality of life.

    What is Social-Emotional Development?

    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:


    This 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?


    This 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 constructively as possible?

    Social awareness:

    This is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical 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?

    Relationship skills:

    This is the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

    Examples of questions someone who has good relationships skills may ask:

    • How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out well?
    • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
    • How can I communicate with other people to understand and manage their expectations of me?

    Responsible decision-making:

    This is the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on 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?

    Social-Emotional Development of Children

    According to Zero to Three, “within the context of one’s family, community and cultural background, social and emotional health is the child’s developing capacity to form secure relationships, experience and regulate emotions, and explore and learn.”

    Children begin developing social-emotional skills at birth. Infants begin turning their heads toward their caregivers’ voices, looking toward their caregivers and cooing, and crying to let their caregivers know they need something. Their 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 centered 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. When children 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.

    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 a preschool teacher, you must be sensitive and respectful of individual differences in social-emotional development when engaging with children in your care and their families.

    What Does Social-Emotional Development Look Like in Preschoolers?

    During the preschool years, children learn to take turns, share toys and materials, play near each other, talk with peers, and talk about their feelings and the feelings of others. They also begin to follow classroom and home routines independently. Children learn social skills from watching others interact and through conversations with adults and peers. As a preschool teacher, you can play a significant role in promoting children’s social-emotional skills if you engage them early on in meaningful experiences with peers and other adults in your classroom and program.

    The following are examples of social-emotional skills preschool children engage in daily:

    • Singing along with peers during circle, center or book time
    • Holding hands while walking down the hall during transitions
    • Hugging a friend who is sad
    • Sharing a snack with a friend, sibling or caregiver
    • Taking turns while building a tower with blocks with a friend
    • Passing out silverware to all children while preparing for lunch
    • Making statements such as “I made this all by myself!” when accomplishing tasks
    • Giving a friend a toy or object that he or she has asked for
    • Telling a teacher he or she misses Mom or Dad
    • Getting ready for bath time when Mom says it is time to take a bath
    • Talking on the phone with a family member who lives far away
    • Telling a family member or teacher that he or she is sad about something
    • Roleplaying experiences such as going grocery shopping, visiting the doctor, or family roles
    • Waiting in line for a turn at the drinking fountain
    • Putting a stuffed animal down for a nap and telling peers to “be quiet, because my pet is taking a nap”
    • Completing a difficult puzzle

    Social-Emotional Growth and Young Children’s Development

    Social-emotional development affects young children’s growth later in life, and therefore it is closely linked to the development of other skills. Social-emotional skills are central to children’s physical well-being, self-expression, learning, and development of relationships. Consider the following:

    • Learning to read involves regulating emotions and activity levels and requires the child to sit and attend to a task
    • Learning to walk, swim, run or ride a bike involves regulating activity level, attending to adult directions, focusing on muscle control, and controlling impulses.
    • Learning to communicate involves using socially appropriate strategies for interaction.
    • Learning self-help skills involves following directions, controlling emotions to complete challenging tasks, and knowing when and how to ask for help.
    • Being successful in school involves understanding classroom expectations and participating in large- and small-group activities with peers.

    Research supports that success in school is strongly linked to early positive social-emotional development, making it critical to foster social-emotional learning during the early childhood years.


    Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

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


    As a preschool teacher, it is your responsibility to provide developmentally appropriate experiences and activities that meet each child’s needs. As you plan and implement your program, you must remember you are setting the foundation for children’s growth and success. When fostering young children’s healthy social-emotional development, consider the following:

    Consider the following:

    Children playing with paint

    Plan meaningful, fun experiences for the children in your care while acknowledging their individual differences and backgrounds.

    Teacher showing globe to preschool students

    Embed opportunities for social-emotional learning throughout your school day and provide children with multiple opportunities to express themselves in various ways.

    Teacher explaining to child

    Acknowledge, validate and respond to children’s needs, emotions and concerns.

    Child playing with blocks

    Be sensitive to children’s unique life circumstances that may influence their social-emotional development.

    Child stacking blocks with teacher

    Arrange your environment in ways that promote children’s social interactions and relationship building with peers and adults in the room.

    Child in pain after accidently twisting arm

    Use natural classroom events and relationships and interactions with peers and adults as opportunities to talk with children about emotions.

    A diverse group of children

    Acknowledge that, like in any other area of development, individual differences exist in children’s social-emotional development.

    Teachers and children playing with a tea set

    Reach out to the families of children in your program and learn about their preferred methods of interaction with their children.

    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 Preschool 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 about your own abilities to build relationships? Download and print the Thinking About Social Emotional Development handout. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.



    A great deal of research suggests the importance of social-emotional learning for children’s development. Here you can find a resource from the Center for the Study of Social Policy Strengthening Families framework. Use this as a resource to learn more about the importance of social-emotional competence for children’s lives.


    Emotional literacyThe ability of children to label and talk about their own emotions or feelings or the emotions and feelings of others




    True or False? Social-emotional skills begin developing in the preschool years.


    A parent asks if social-emotional skills affect children’s development in other areas. What do you say?


    Which of the following is an example of a preschool child practicing her social-emotional skills?

    References & Resources

    Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Boyd, J., Barnett, W. S., Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., & Gomby, D. (2005). Promoting children’s social and emotional development through preschool education. NIEER Preschool Policy Brief, March 2005, 1-20.

    Denham, S. A., & Brown, C. (2010). “Plays nice with others”: social-emotional learning and academic success. Early Education and Development, 21, 652-680.

    National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2012). Early Childhood Generalist Standards for teachers of ages 3-8 (3rd ed.). Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

    Raver (2002). Emotions matter: making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. SRCD Social Policy Report, 16(3). Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development.

    Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M. L., Smith, B. S., & McLean, M. (2005). DEC recommended practices: A comprehensive guide. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

    Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc