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Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

Social-emotional development refers to how children learn to express their feelings, develop relationships, and practice social skills. This lesson will introduce you to social-emotional development and its significance for children’s overall development and learning.

  • Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with social-emotional development.
  • Define social-emotional development and describe its importance in our lives.
  • Discuss how common social-emotional skills promote development and learning in school-age children.




Consider all the different people with which you have a relationship. At home, your relationships might include your spouse, parents, children, or other family members, and friends. You have relationships with the people you interact with at work: other staff members, families, and children in your program. You may also have a relationship with the person who delivers your mail, your doctor, and your neighbors. Think how important your relationships are to your daily life and well-being? What would your life be like without those relationships?

Relationships are what make up the foundation of social-emotional health. Without positive relationships, it would be difficult to achieve a sense of belonging and acceptance, or to feel like you are part of a community. Relationships are at the foundation of social-emotional health. Children spend the first years of their lives creating deep bonds within their families. As they mature, they are ready to begin developing strong relationships and bonds with their peers, teachers, and other individuals.

What is Social-Emotional Development?

Children begin developing social-emotional skills at birth. Research indicates that children are born ready to connect with other people in their environment. The infant’s brain matures as a result of these interactions. When a child’s emotional and physical needs are met, learning pathways to the brain are formed, which lead to learning in all developmental domains. 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 focused 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.

Take a moment to think about what social-emotional development means to you. What comes to mind? How do you explain social-emotional development to others? 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.

When a school-age child accepts criticism well, and applies the information to gain a new skill, they are demonstrating self-awareness. This may sound like, “I am unable to complete the puzzle by myself, but if you help me, I can do it.”

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.

An example of how school-age children display good self-management skills is when a child is noticeably upset with a peer and instead of reacting verbally or physically, they remove themselves from the situation to decompress.

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 effectively 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 norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school and community resources and supports.

A school-age child may show social awareness by including a new peer into their activity to make them feel appreciated and welcome. Additionally, when school-age children apologize for their actions with intentionality, they are demonstrating social-awareness.

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 clear communication, active listening, cooperation, avoiding social pressure, conflict resolution, and obtaining or providing help when needed.

School-age children who make cultural connections with their peers or stand up for the rights of others are building their relationship skills.

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

  • What actions can I take to improve my interactions with other people?
  • How can I communicate my expectations to other people?
  • What can I say or do better to understand the expectations others have of me?

Responsible decision-making:

This is the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions. This includes consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

When a school-age child takes time to collect and analyze data and facts rather than making assumptions about people or ideas, they are becoming responsible decision-makers.

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?

The Role of Family in Social-Emotional Development

Children develop social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships with their primary caregivers, families, and cultures. Considering how diverse our society is, you can imagine that this diversity is also expressed in how 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 when communicating with others. For other cultures, eye contact is an essential component of social interaction. Culture also affects parenting practices and ways individuals 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 the opposite. As a school-age staff member, you need to 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 School-Age Children?

School-age children are working hard to develop their social-emotional skills. They are learning the importance of expressing and managing their feelings. They will begin to understand their varied emotions, how to handle them, and how they apply to different experiences and situations. School-age children are also learning the value of positive healthy relationships. They are learning how to make and keep friends and how to develop relationships with mentors, teachers, and other adults in their lives. For school-age children, a strong emphasis is placed on cultivating common social skills.

School-Age Social Skills

Social skills pertain to the way we interact and communicate with others. They might also be called “social rules,” because many times, these skills are unspoken rules we use when interacting with others. When children develop common social skills, they are more likely to experience success in school and later in life. The list below will provide you with common social skills.


  • Following instructions
  • Accepting Criticism
  • Accepting "No" for an answer
  • Asking for help
  • Asking for permission
  • Staying on task and ignoring distractions
  • Making a good choice
  • Solving problems

Social Interactions

  • Greeting others
  • Seeking another’s attention
  • Disagreeing appropriately
  • Apologizing
  • Giving and accepting compliments
  • Having a conversation
  • Sharing with others
  • Working with others
  • Using appropriate voice tone
  • Accepting others
  • Showing respect
  • Showing appreciation

Emotions Management

  • Avoiding a fight or conflict
  • Using an anger control strategy
  • Solving problems
  • Accepting failures
  • Coping with the pressures of others’ expectations



Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

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


As a school-age staff member, there will be a variety of opportunities for you to promote social-emotional development in school-age children. You support the development of important social-emotional skills by:

  • Modeling social skills, relationship building techniques, and how to treat others with respect.
  • Planning activities and experiences that help children develop their social skills, feeling of empathy, respect for others, and sense of achievement.
  • Creating a learning environment that acts as a community and allows children to feel that they belong to a group.
  • Using supervision strategies, positive interactions, modeling, and social-emotional teaching strategies to prevent and address bullying.

Throughout this course on social-emotional development, there will be many references to being a positive role model for children. As a school-age staff member, children will look to you for cues on how to interact with others. Therefore, you should:

  • Always maintain a positive and respectful demeanor when interacting with children and adults.
  • Express your emotions in a positive way. Stay calm when under pressure and keep your emotions regulated.
  • Be aware of your body language and keep it positive.
  • Communicate regularly with all children and staff in your program.

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 School-Age 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.


As a school-age staff member, you need to understand your own social-emotional development so you can help promote it in children. View and complete the My Social-Emotional Development activity. Share your finished work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


As a school-age staff member, you will need to plan activities to help promote children’s social-emotional skills. Review the Emotional Intelligence for Children ages 8-10 and Emotional Intelligence for Pre-teens ages 11-12. Pick out an activity you would like to try in your program and use it to complete the Emotional Intelligence Activity Plan. Discuss how you would implement this activity with your trainer, coach, or administrator.

Print the SEL Framework handout to review the core competence areas from the Social and Emotional Learning Framework developed by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Use this to as a guide while planning activities to support social-emotional learning of school-age children.


The ability to understand and share feelings of another person
Social-emotional development:
An ability to form secure relationships, identify, experience and regulate emotions, explore the environment, and learn
Social Skills:
The skills necessary to communicate and interact with others in a way that is acceptable to one’s environment


Which of the following is not a common social skill of school-age children?
A colleague asks for ideas to nurture the social-emotional development of school-age children. What do you say?
True or False? School-age children are beginning to understand their emotions and how to handle them.
References & Resources

ACT for Youth: Center of Excellence. (n.d.). Social and emotional learning (SEL) toolkit.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Ages & stages: Grade school.

American Academy of Pediatrics & Vaziri Flais, S. (2018). Caring for your school age child: Ages 5-12. (3rd ed). Bantam.

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

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020). SEL: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted?

Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs.

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).

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