- Identify typical social-emotional milestones in preschool-age children.
- Discuss the role adults play in supporting the social-emotional skills of preschool-age children.
- Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.
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). Consider some of the children in your own life and the different stages in their social-emotional development as they were growing up.
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 entails 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.
The chart below provides a closer look at how preschoolers develop social-emotional skills at different ages. Remember that individual differences exist when it comes to the precise age at which children meet these milestones. Milestones should not be seen as rigid checklists to judge children’s development, but rather as guides 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 children. You can use these milestones to meet the needs of the young children in your classroom. Although the skills highlighted in the chart develop in a predictable sequence over the preschool years, each child is unique. Your goal is to help all children grow and learn to their potential.
Social-Emotional Developmental Milestones in Preschool
- Copies adults and friends
- Shows affection for friends without prompting
- Takes turns in games
- Shows concern for a crying friend
- Dresses and undresses self
- Understands the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers”
- Shows a wide range of emotions
- Separates easily from family members
- May get upset with major changes in routine
- Enjoys doing new things
- Is more and more creative with make-believe play
- Would rather play with other children than alone
- Cooperates with other children
- Plays “Mom” or “Dad”
- Often can’t tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
- Talks about what he or she likes and is interested in
- Wants to please friends
- Wants to be like friends
- More likely to agree with rules
- Likes to sing, dance, and act
- Is aware of gender
- Can tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
- Shows more independence
- Is sometimes demanding and sometimes cooperative
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from: http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/actearly/pdf/checklists/All_Checklists.pdf
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. In your daily interactions with children and their families, you should remind yourself that culture and family priorities influence children’s social-emotional competence.
If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with your trainer, coach, or supervisor first. Share your observations of the child’s behavior and the reasons you are concerned. Your trainer, coach, or supervisor 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
As you study the chart, you may notice that the milestones are associated with different aspects of social-emotional development: Some are associated with children’s ability to engage in relationships with others, whereas others are associated with positive self-awareness. Some milestones relate to children’s ability to regulate or control emotions and others correspond with children’s ability to perform various tasks independently. Let’s take a closer look at these aspects of social-emotional 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 improve in their ability to understand and appropriately respond to their friends’ feelings. Children with healthy social-emotional development have a balance of all of 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), 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 say, “I’m 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 healthy independence will follow predictable daily routines and activities at school and at home, start identifying a favorite friend and ask that friend to play, independently play with toys and materials at home, school, or an outdoor playground, and 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 daily.
Emotional literacy is children’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 ways 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 are supportive and positive, provide stimulating materials, play and engage with children, share events and experiences, follow children’s lead, and support children’s interests and learning. Responsive caregivers plan meaningful opportunities throughout the day to help children practice and learn social skills. As you read this section, envision the role you play in fostering healthy social-emotional development for the children in your care.
In Lessons 3 and 4, you will learn additional strategies to support the social-emotional development of all preschoolers.
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 interaction attempts 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 children’s leads, 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 needs 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. Download, print and complete the Observing and Supporting Social-Emotional Skills handout attached. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
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. There is also a support guide that could be shared with 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 (Berk, 2013, p. 409)|
|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|
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Brown, W. H., Odom, S. L., & McConnell, S. R. (Eds.) (2008). Social Competence of Young Children: Risk, Disability, & Intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
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. https://www.childtrends.org/publications/a-review-of-school-readiness-practices-in-the-states-early-learning-guidelines-and-assessments
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.
McElwain, N., Halberstadt, A., & Volling, B. (2007). Mother- and Father-Reported Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to young children’s emotional understanding and friendship quality. Child Development, 78, 1407-1425.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2012). Teachers’ Lounge: Determining if behavior is bullying. Teaching Young Children, 5(5), 34.
Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. Helping Children with Challenging Behaviors Succeed in the Classroom. Excerpt from from S.R. Sandall & I.S. Schwartz with G.E. Joseph, H.-Y. Chou, E.M. Horn, J. Lieber, S.L. Odom, & R. Wolery, Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 2002), 49–50.
Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M., Smith, B., & McLean, M. (Eds.) (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: A Comprehensive Guide for Practical Application. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Publishing.
Soundy, C. S., & Stout, N. L. (2002). Fostering the Emotional and Language Needs of Young Learners. Young Children, March 2002, 20-24.
Yeary, J. (2013). Promoting Mindfulness: Helping young children cope with separation. Young Children, November 2013, 110-112.
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.