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Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

Social-emotional development is part of growing into a healthy, thriving adult. You and staff members play an important role in helping each child and youth develop strong relationships, understand their emotions, make healthy decisions, and navigate conflict.  This lesson will introduce you to social-emotional development and its significance for children’s overall development and learning.  

  • Define social-emotional development and discuss its importance in our lives.
  • Discuss the core components of social-emotional development.
  • Describe misconceptions associated with social-emotional development.



What Is Social-Emotional Development and Why Is It Important?

"Friendship is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything." – Muhammad Ali

Think about someone you enjoy spending time with, admire, or look up to. What characteristics stand out to you about this person? Is the person a good listener? Does the person reach out to others? Does the person have a great sense of humor? Does the person seem to always know the right things to say, or do they say what needs to be said when no one else will? Does the person admit when she’s wrong and try to take on the other person’s perspective? Does the person use their voice to stand up for what’s right? Does the person stay calm in tense situations? Whether you are picturing a family member, friend, or a staff member in your program, that person is likely socially aware, empathetic, and self-motivated. This person has trusting relationships, manages emotions, makes responsible social decisions, and gets along with others.

There is growing evidence that the path to emotional well-being in adulthood starts at the very beginning of life. As you read in the Cognitive course, infants, toddlers, and young children are actively building the architecture of their brains. Children’s brains develop largely through responsive interactions with people and environments. This means social relationships are key. Children of all ages thrive when they have trusting relationships, safe environments to explore, and opportunities to experience and examine their feelings. The effects of such experiences stretch into adulthood: healthy social-emotional development is associated with better educational outcomes, more stable employment, and less contact with the justice system. The work you and staff members do every day to build relationships


Social-emotional development (also called social-emotional learning or SEL) is a central part of human development. Throughout our lifetimes, we are each working to develop a healthy sense of our personal and cultural identities, build caring relationships with others, set meaningful goals, make healthy decisions, and express and manage the range of our emotions. Each of these parts of social-emotional development rely on development in other areas like language and cognition. As you work with staff to support child and youth development, you will likely see the many ways that social-emotional development connects to all aspects of a child’s experiences in a program. Challenging behavior is one of the most frequent concerns staff may bring to you, and this is deeply connected to the social and emotional environments children are in. Consider these examples:

We see …

What it tells us about social-emotional development & the social environment

Bobby throws a tantrum when an adult says it’s time to clean up.

Bobby is still learning how to manage his emotions in different settings. He knows ways to communicate his frustration, but he does not always do so in a way that brings positive responses from adults. 

Briley pounds on the table and storms away from the games table after losing to another youth.

Briley is expressing emotions but is responding in a way that may damage relationships with peers.

Claire hides in the classroom and avoids other children and adults.

Claire is expressing uncertainty and fear in a way that works for her right now. However, she may be missing opportunities to build relationships.

Madeline had a disagreement with her coworker and instead of asking for help or talking it out, Madeline calls in sick the rest of the week.

Madeline is making decisions that could jeopardize her employment and relationships. She is perhaps avoiding conflict and opportunities for growth.

Like the people in the examples above, we can all sometimes find ourselves in the middle of an unpleasant situation with emotional impulses, rather than rational thoughts, controlling the situation. Learning how to recognize, express, and regulate emotions is an important skill for everyone, regardless of age or ability level. An individual who is motivated to learn, able to relate to others, capable of calming him or herself, or be calmed by others, will be ready to learn and experience success in school and in life (Yates et. al, 2008).


Watch this video for an introduction to your role in supporting social-emotional development.

Social-Emotional Development: An Introduction

Learn about social-emotional development and your role in supporting it

As you reflect on social-emotional development, also remember that social-emotional development is cultural. It may seem that big feelings like anger and sadness are viewed the same all around the world, but that’s not true. Where and how you grow up shapes how you understand and express emotions. As you learn about social-emotional development, consider these questions about your own upbringing:

  • How do you feel when you experience or observe conflict?
  • What does “happiness” mean to you? Is it about excitement and energy? Is it about contentment and peace?
  • How does an experience like “shame” affect you? Does it make you want to hide away from others, or does it make you want to repair the relationship?
  • What makes someone seem “likeable” or “friendly” to you? Do you look for a big smile, an outgoing greeting? Do you look for respect and deferral to others?

How you perceive others has everything to do with your own upbringing. When groups of people from a wide range of cultures come together (such as in child and youth programs), misunderstandings can happen. As a trainer or coach, you can first learn to recognize your own social-emotional perspectives and then begin to recognize when they differ from others. Work with managers to build a culture in your program where everyone asks questions, seeks to understand different perspectives, and learns from mistakes.

Components of 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:


Self-awareness is the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and 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:

  • Who am I in relation to the communities I care about?
  • What are my thoughts, feelings, and values?
  • What causes those thoughts, feelings, and values?
  • How can I express my thoughts, feelings, and values with honesty and integrity?


Self-management is the ability to effectively regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and creating 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?
  • How can I manage stress?

Social awareness:

Social awareness 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?
  • What norms, histories, and experiences influence my own and others’ behaviors?

Relationship skills:

Relationship skills are 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?
  • What help do I need, and what help can I give?

Responsible decision-making:

Responsible decision-making is the ability to make constructive 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?

Stress and Social-Emotional Development

While children are enrolled in your program, families may experience a range of stressful events, such as separation of parents, deployment, death of a grandparent, illness of another child, etc. These events can affect a child’s social-emotional development. You must work with program staff to carefully observe, listen to, and support children who may react to family stress in a variety of ways, such as increased tantrums, refusal to play, and lack of focus during group activities or games. Caring and trusted adults can make a difference in children’s social-emotional outcomes and may be a stabilizing factor in successful lifelong development and learning.

Likewise, adverse experiences such as child abuse or neglect, household instability, or witnessing violence can negatively impact a child’s social-emotional development. Children may learn to be fearful, protective or controlling of their belongings or loved ones, withdraw, or act out. Patience and a team approach from adults can continue helping all children develop the skills and attitudes they need to thrive.

What Are Common Misconceptions About Social-Emotional Development?

There may be members of your staff who think it is not their job to promote social-emotional development. Here are some common concerns you might hear:

  • “Kids have all the social skills they need by the time they get to our program. It’s too late to help kids learn more.” You are most likely to hear this misconception in school-age programs, but the sentiment might also exist in early-childhood settings. Some people mistakenly believe that social-emotional development can only occur during a critical window in early childhood, but this is not true. While social-emotional development does occur with amazing speed during the early years, we never stop developing new skills and strategies. Staff members can help toddlers learn to play together, help preschoolers learn to solve problems, and help school-agers learn to resolve conflicts. Adults are also constantly learning. You might have an opportunity to help staff members learn to assert themselves in teams or help them learn to listen to others’ concerns.
  • “Social skills are something children should learn at home.” Families play a critical role in promoting social-emotional development. That does not mean that all learning takes place in the home. When children enter your program, they may be entering group care for the first time. This demands social-emotional skills they may have never needed before. Your program will have an opportunity to help children be successful and resilient in new environments.
  • “Social skills come naturally to children. Everyone knows how to play.” Although social skills might seem automatic for some children and adults, they are not necessarily natural for everyone. Some children do not know how to appropriately get a peer’s attention or how to join in play. Other children might not know how to ask for help or how to handle their anger. Social skills can be learned. It takes time and patience to help children learn and practice these critical skills. Your program provides a perfect context for this learning to occur.

What Does This Mean For You?

Staff members will enter your program with a range of skills and experiences related to promoting social-emotional development. Some staff members might believe the misconceptions above. Other staff members may struggle with their own social-emotional skills. As a trainer or coach, you are responsible for making sure staff members understand the range of social-emotional development. Then, you can help them develop programs that give children the opportunity to develop the confidence and competence they need. You must be attuned to the social and emotional needs of staff members. Be aware of staff members’ stress levels, friendships in the program, and social tensions. This will help you maintain a healthy workplace for yourself and your team.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Social & Emotional Development Course Guide

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


As a trainer or coach, you encounter situations on a daily basis that can lead to emotional distress. You also are a model for staff in how you cope with the daily stresses and unexpected events in your work life. It is important to reflect on your own coping strategies for regulating your emotions. Answer the questions in the How Do You Cope? activity and think about how you can incorporate the use of healthy coping strategies (e.g., deep breathing, walking, listening to music) to assist in dealing with difficult emotions.


A great deal of research suggests the importance of social-emotional learning for children’s development. Review the Social-Emotional Competence of Children from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP). Use this to learn more about the importance of social-emotional competence or to share with staff members and families.

Also consider sharing the SEL Framework with staff to review the core competence areas developed by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to help guide practices for supporting social-emotional development.


A characteristic of the relationship between an adult (usually a parent) and a child, it reflects the deep connection between individuals and provides the secure base for a child to develop.
Adverse experience:
Experiences in a child’s life that can lead to toxic stress.


True or False? Social-emotional development does not impact other domains of development.
Finish this statement: As a trainer, coach, or supervisor it is your responsibility to…
A staff members shares with you how frustrated she is that 18-month-old  Davion throws a tantrum every time they need to come inside from the playground.  What do you say?
References & Resources

Afterschool Alliance (2018). An ideal opportunity: The role of afterschool in social-emotional learning

Aguilar, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating emotional resilience in educators. Jossey-Bass.

American Institutes of Research (2015). Supporting social and emotional development through quality afterschool programs.

Bloom, P. J. (2010). A Great place to work: Creating a healthy organizational climate. The Director’s Toolbox Series. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Brazelton, T. B. (2006). Touchpoints: Birth to 3: Your child’s emotional and behavioral development (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL).

Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (n.d.). Finding social-emotional screening tools.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

De Leersnyder, J., Mesquita, B., & Boiger, M. (2021). What has culture got to do with emotions? (A lot). In M. J. Gelfand, C.-y. Chiu, & Y.-y. Hong (Eds.), Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology (pp. 62–119). Oxford University Press.

Dombro, A.L., Jablon, J. & Stetson, C. (2020). Powerful interactions: How to connect with children to extend their learning. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

 Derman-Sparks, L., & J Edwards. J.O., & Goins, C.M. (2020). Anti-Bias Education for Young children and ourselves.2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (2003). The teaching pyramid: A model for supporting social competence and preventing challenging behavior in young children. Young Children, 58(4), 48-52.

Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Gartrell, D. (2012). Education for a Civil Society: How guidance teaches young children democratic life skills. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Greater Good Science Center (n.d.). How do emotions and culture intersect?

Hemmeter, M.L., Ostrosky, M., & Fox, L. (2021). Unpacking the Pyramid Model: A practical guide for preschool teachers. Brookes Publishing.

Johnson, J., Rahn, N.L., & Bricker, D. (2015). An activity-based approach to early intervention. 4th ed. Baltimore: Brookes

Landy, S. (2009). Pathways to competence: Encouraging healthy social and emotional development in young children (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD, US: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Mind in the Making.

Morris, E., & Casey, J. (2006). Developing emotionally literate staff: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations. (n.d.).

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. Sage Publishing.

Raver, C. (2002). Emotions Matter: Making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. Social Policy Report of the Society for Research in Child Development, 16(3), 1-20.

Raver, C., & Knitzer, J. (2002). Ready to enter: What research tells policymakers about strategies to promote social and emotional school readiness among three- and four-year old children. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty.

Rowell, L., & Toland, N. (2021) 3 SEL practices that early childhood educators can use every day. Edutopia.

Shonkoff, J.; Phillips, D. A.; Council, N. R. (Eds.). 2000. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Smilkstein, R. (2011). We’re born to learn: Using the brain’s natural learning process to create today's curriculum (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Yates, T., Ostrosky, M. M., Cheatham, G. A., Fettig, A., Shaffer, L., & Santos, R. M. (2008). Research synthesis on screening and assessing social-emotional competence. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2003). Assuring school readiness by promoting healthy social and emotional development. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Policy Center.

Zins, J., Bloodworth, M., Weissberg, R., & Walberg, H. (2004). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. In J. Zins, R. Weissberg, M. Wang, & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What does the research say? (pp. 1-22). New York, NY: Teachers Press, Columbia University.