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Understanding Social-Emotional Development

Each child develops in the contexts of relationships with trusted adults. You play a key role in helping staff members understand the ways children develop across domains. This lesson focuses on how children develop social and emotional competence from birth to age 12.  This lesson will provide an overview of expected development, ideas on how to promote social-emotional development in your program, and guidance on talking to staff members about promoting children’s social-emotional growth.

  • Teach staff about typical development of social-emotional skills across childhood.
  • Model enriching social-emotional practices.
  • Observe and provide feedback on ways staff members promote children’s social-emotional growth. 



You probably recognize the amazing social and emotional development that occurs from infancy through the middle childhood years. In your professional role, you have a front row seat to observe children during key stages of development, and you have a chance to observe the adult staff members and families who support that development. As a trainer and coach, it is important that you recognize the wide varieties of ways children develop socially and emotionally in the early years. You must also be prepared to support staff when they have concerns about a child’s development. This lesson will provide you with an overview of the important social and emotional milestones children achieve from birth to 12 years of age. It will also provide you with strategies for modeling a deep understanding of development and prepare you to observe staff members’ understanding of development. Before you begin, watch this video to start thinking about your role in promoting development.

Your Role in Understanding Social-Emotional Development

Learn about the ways you can help staff understand development


The Role of Culture in Social-Emotional Development

As you work through this lesson, keep in mind that children develop social-emotional skills within the context of their relationships with their primary caregiver, family, and culture. There are also large individual differences in the ways children develop. Culture and development work together to shape the ways people of different ages, races, and genders understand one another. As you teach staff about developmental milestones, you also teach them to learn about families’ hopes and expectations for their child. Consider just a few of the many ways culture can influence how staff members think about a child’s development:

  • Eye contact can play a role in how confident or respectful a staff member thinks a child is, but eye contact is both cultural and biological (in the case of disabilities such as Autism).
  • Feeding and dressing a child can be considered an important act of love and connection between a child and adult. In other cultures, teaching a child to dress or feed themselves is an important act of love to build independence and self-reliance.
  • Chores can be seen as “adult work”, or children can be expected to participate fully. If chores are adult work, children may be expected to entertain themselves while an adult works. If chores are seen as communal, children may be expected to follow along and help one another.

Instead of judging whether a behavior is bad or good, Derman-Sparks and Edwards (2010) suggest that we:

  • Respect the cultures of others
  • Encourage others to appreciate the richness of cultures
  • Recognize our own assumptions about culture and challenge biased assumptions
  • Embrace, celebrate, and honestly discuss difference and similarity

Recognizing Social-Emotional Development of Infants & Toddlers

A tremendous amount of social and emotional growth occurs during the first two years of an infant’s life. Part of what makes an infant unique is the way he or she responds to the surrounding world. Infants are born with the ability to express basic emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust (Frydenberg, 2011). They have almost no ability to control these emotions. Children develop theories about the world around them and the way it works from an early age.

Toddlers, ages 12 months to 36 months, continue to make tremendous social and emotional growth. As their language develops, their interactions with the people around them become richer.

It’s important that you help staff members remember that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which children typically develop and achieve milestones. Milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. The tables in this lesson are comprehensive lists of typical social-emotional development adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Milestone Checklists. The CDC checklists can be found in the Apply section of this Lesson.

Social-Emotional Development of Infants & Toddlers

2 months

  • Smiles at people when they talk or smile
  • Can briefly calm self (may bring hands to mouth and suck on hand)
  • Looks at your face
  • Calms down when spoken to or picked up
  • Cries when hungry, wet, tired, or wants to be held

4 months

  • Smiles on own to get your attention
  • Likes to play with people and might cry when playing stops
  • Imitates some movements and facial expressions, like smiling or frowning
  • Looks at you, moves, or makes sounds to get or keep your attention
  • Becomes more expressive and communicative with face and body

6 months

  • Knows familiar faces
  • Likes to play with others, especially parents
  • Responds to other people’s emotions and often seems happy
  • Likes to look at self in a mirror
  • Laughs

9 months

  • Is shy, clingy, or fearful of strangers
  • May be clingy with familiar adults
  • Shows several facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, surprised
  • Reacts when you leave (looks, reaches for you, cries)
  • Smiles or laughs when you play peek-a-boo

12 months

  • May be shy or nervous with strangers
  • Cries when parent or guardian leaves
  • Shows fear in some situations
  • Repeats sounds or actions to get attention
  • Feeds self with hands and fingers
  • Plays games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake”

15 months

  • Copies other children while playing
  • Shows you an object they like
  • Claps when excited
  • Hugs a stuffed toy or doll
  • Shows you affection (hugs, cuddles, kisses)

18 months

  • May cling to caregivers in new situations
  • Points to show others something interesting
  • Explores alone but with parent close by
  • Puts hands out for you to wash them
  • Looks at a few pages in a book with you
  • Helps you dress them by pushing arm through sleeve or lifting a foot

24 months

  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what told not to do)
  • Imitates others, especially adults and older children
  • Gets excited when with other children
  • Shows more and more independence
  • Plays mainly beside other children, but is beginning to include other children, such as in chase games
  • Engages in simple pretend play (feeding a doll, rocking a stuffed animal)
  • Notices when others are hurt or upset
  • Looks at your face to see how to react in new situations
  • May demonstrate episodes of separation anxiety
  • Drinks from a lidless cup with little spilling
  • Feeds self using utensils with some spilling

30 months

  • Plays next to other children and sometimes with them
  • Shows you what they can do by saying “Look at me!”
  • Follows simple routines when told
  • Puts on jacket, coat, or shirt by self

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Developmental milestone checklists.

Keep in mind that some behaviors that staff members might find challenging are developmentally appropriate. For example, it is common for young infants to go through periods of fussiness and for them to have preferred caregivers. It is also common for older infants to develop “stranger anxiety” and to be nervous around unknown adults. These can be confusing and sometimes frustrating behaviors for adults if they do not understand development.

Just as with infants, some toddler social behaviors can challenge adults—but these behaviors are typical and to be expected. For example, adults should expect toddlers to enjoy the word “No!” It has a lot of power for young children and represents an important way for them to express themselves. Adults should also expect toddlers to demand a certain amount of independence. For example, “Me do!” or “I can do it all by myself!” are common phrases toddlers use as they develop. Adults should also be aware that toddlers do not yet have sophisticated play skills. They are not ready to share consistently or to take turns. These are skills they are still developing, and adults should be prepared to support children as they learn them.

Recognizing Social-Emotional Development of Preschoolers

Between the ages of 3 and 5, preschool children develop strong friendships, and their social skills begin to look more mature. The table below describes the typical social-emotional development that staff members may see in preschool children.

Social-Emotional Development of Preschoolers

Age 3

  • Copies adults and friends
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals and people
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • Shows concern for crying friend
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave
  • Maybe 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
  • Can name two or more friends
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Would rather play with other children than by themself
  • 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
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Takes turns when playing games with other children
  • 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 milestone checklists.

The preschool years are characterized by increases in social behavior, but some of these social behaviors might challenge adults if they do not understand development. For example, preschool children develop vivid imaginations. It is not uncommon for children to have new fears or to describe fantasies as if they are real. Children of this age also begin to understand and experiment with peer groups. They might have “best friends.” This can sometimes lead to feelings of exclusion which adults must support children through.

Recognizing Social-Emotional Development of School-Age Children

School-age children develop rapidly. This age group is characterized by intense friendships that can change quickly. You should be prepared to help staff members understand the ever-changing social world of school-age children. The chart below highlights social-emotional development during the school-age years.

Social-Emotional Development of School-Agers

Middle childhood (ages 5-7)

  • Develop greater empathy
  • Establish and maintain positive relationships and friendships
  • Start developing a sense of morality
  • Control impulsive behavior
  • Identify and manage emotions
  • Form a positive self-concept and self-esteem (identity formation has begun)
  • Become resilient
  • Begin to function more independently (from looking after own possessions to making decision without needing constant support)
  • Form opinions about moral values—right and wrong
  • Be able to express an opinion and negotiate
  • Develop greater empathy
  • Begin understanding different viewpoints
  • Start making more sense of who I am (Who am I like? Who likes me?)
  • Develop a sense of family history (identity)
  • Grapple with questions about death
  • Accept that parents are not all powerful

Early adolescence (ages 8-12)

  • Fit in and be accepted by peers (preoccupied with comparisons—do I fit in?)
  • Have a ‘best friend’
  • Strengthen cooperative skills
  • Adjust to a sexually developing body and handle the agonies of feeling awkward and self-conscious (What will I look like? Do I look normal?)
  • Continue refining a sense of self (fluid and constantly changing)
  • Work out values and beliefs—often passionately adopt an ethical stance
  • Establish independence and individuality (intensely private, wanting alone time, displays of noncompliance at school and home)
  • Behave appropriately in a variety of social situations
  • Refine communication skills
  • Resolve interpersonal conflicts—understand the difference between passive, assertive, and aggressive responses
  • Become more independent and responsible for actions
  • Value and respect rules and authority
  • Know how to act appropriately and safely in online social world
  • Manage emotional changes accompanying puberty (torn between needing the security of the familiar and craving the unknown)
  • Develop more positive self-esteem and resilience by building strengths and accepting limitations
  • Acknowledge “who I am” through an optimistic lens

Source: Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

Just as with the other stages, there can be challenges during the school-age years. School-agers are on a quest for independence. This can lead to conflicts with adults and authority figures. Children may begin to distance themselves from adults as they try building strong relationships with peers. It is also not uncommon for children to be embarrassed easily during this stage. Peer pressure is also very real during the school-age years. Children will sometimes make decisions adults don’t understand in a quest to fit in with peers.

Social-Emotional Development for Adults

Social-emotional development does not end with adolescence. We continue to develop socially throughout our adult lives. It is important for you to understand the social-emotional needs of the

adults on your staff. Psychologist Erik Erikson described three stages of adult development. The young adults, characterized by Erikson as ages 20-39, you work with may be continuing to develop their own identities. Friendships are of critical importance during the early part of this stage, and long-term relationships and child rearing are often important throughout this stage. Young adults are driven by the tension between isolation and intimacy; building relationships can be a scary process. The staff members you work with may be struggling with finding where they “fit” and with making major decisions. They might make risky decisions, or struggle with managing emotions as they move into adulthood. They may be juggling the responsibilities of relationships and raising young children.

During middle adulthood (ages 40-64), individuals tend to focus upon their productivity. This is the time during which many adults feel most comfortable in their careers and on nurturing the next generation. The major question is: “Can I make my life count?” During this stage, adults may focus on nurturing their children and helping them become responsible adults, contributing their knowledge to the workplace or community, and helping lead for the future. In your own workplace, adults during this stage may become formal or informal mentors. This can be an era of confidence and social comfort for adults as they share what they know with others.   

After age 65, the focus of development is on reflection and contemplation. During this stage, Erikson believed adults looked back on their accomplishments. This can lead to feelings of fulfillment and content or despair and disappointment. You might encounter individuals in the workplace who are contemplating retirement or who are returning as volunteers. These individuals might need a listening ear, or they might be looking for opportunities to do what they enjoy.

How Can Staff Members Support the Needs of All Learners?

Nurturing relationships and safe environments are important for each and every child you serve. When a child has a disability or developmental concerns, staff members may be unsure about how to support that child’s development. You can help staff members realize that they have the skills they need to build a strong, inclusive community. 

You can teach staff members specific strategies for supporting the needs of all learners. A variety of strategies are provided below:

Possible Supports for Children with Social-Emotional Concerns or Delays

  1. Make sure each child knows they belong. Each child should have a place to sit, a place to store their belongings, their name on the job board, their artwork and family photos displayed, etc.
  2. Greet each child by name every day.
  3. Have a conversation, play, and laugh with each and every child, each and every day. Learn to read a child’s body language, speak phrases in their home language, or use pictures or actions to communicate.
  4. Develop consistent and predictable schedules. Build in time for relaxation and physical activity.
  5. Encourage children to help one another. Make sure children with disabilities are also seen as “helpers.” Give them important and equal jobs that use their strengths in the classroom or program.
  6. Prevent bullying and respond quickly to end teasing.
  7. Help children notice one another and learn how to initiate and respond to peers. For example, “It looks like Chandra is really interested in what you’re building, Dante. Chandra, would you like to ask Dante if you can play, too?”
  8. Plan activities or games that require cooperation.
  9. Pair children for activities and routines. For example, children could work together to clean the tables after snack.
  10. Talk about fairness and engage children in problem-solving. For example, “We’ve got a problem. Jeremy’s wheelchair doesn’t fit at the water table. This isn’t fair. Who has ideas to solve the problem?”
  11. Help children learn to recognize and respond to signs of distress or overstimulation. For example, “Braley’s covering her ears. This tells me it’s getting too loud in here.” or “I feel like our bodies are moving really fast right now, and I’m overwhelmed. Let’s take a deep breath.”
  12. Communicate regularly with families and welcome them into the program. Ask what their child likes or enjoys. Ask how they help their child calm down and how their child expresses their wants and needs.
  13. Talk about disability with children and youth. Respond honestly and factually to questions. Read books that feature people with disabilities as the main characters.

In Lesson Three, we will highlight some other strategies you can help staff members learn to use..  In addition, you can review the attachments to learn more about developmental screening and different screening tools for social-emotional concerns.  


Understanding development enables you to be a role model for staff members. There are three main ways you can model an understanding of development: (a) through modeling age-appropriate expectations for children, (b) by modeling problem-solving processes for staff members, and (c) by modeling a healthy approach to your own social-emotional needs.

Modeling Age-Appropriate Expectations

A large part of your job involves talking to staff members about their work and interactions with children. Throughout these conversations, you can help staff members remember and understand development. For example, when staff members come to you with concerns about a toddler’s behavior, you can ask reflective questions that help them see the whole child: 

  • How does her behavior compare to other children’s behavior in the class? What are your expectations for the children?
  • What do you think she is trying to tell you through this behavior?
  • What would you like to see the child do instead?

You can also review activity plans and daily schedules. If staff members expect 3-year-olds to sit still during long group activities, you can remind them of the importance of movement and interactions. A staff member who does not understand why a school-age child does not want to speak up in front of the group, might need reminded about the importance of “fitting in” and embarrassment.

You should be prepared to talk to families about development. Some families might get upset about behaviors that are completely typical. Biting, for example, is a way some toddlers communicate their emotions or assert themselves. You must help families create a plan to stop or prevent biting while establishing that this behavior is also expected during this stage. Families of school-agers may need support, as well. It can be confusing when their child begins spending time in his room or out with peers and away from the family. You can model strategies for remaining calm when pre-teens talk back or get upset.

Modeling Problem-Solving

You are a resource for staff members. You can help them connect with the information they need when they encounter a problem. Communicate with staff members regularly and make sure they feel comfortable coming to you with questions. Get to know the children and families in your program, so you can have informed discussions with staff members when concerns arise. Take a problem-solving stance; help staff members see concerns as something you can work together to figure out.

Modeling Social-Emotional Health

Think about the importance of your own social-emotional health. Make it a priority to take care of yourself and the staff members. You can do this in several key ways, as suggested by leadership coach Elena Aguilar:

  • Recognize emotions. Start by recognizing that you have emotions, and that those emotions have names. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Just take a moment to say to yourself, “I’m frustrated,” “I’m disappointed,” or “I’m excited.” This can prepare you for supporting others’ emotions.
  • Be aware of your body. Once you’ve labeled the emotion, how does your body react? Are you tense in the jaw or shoulders? Are you relaxed? Notice how your body behaves.
  • Step back. Take some time to just observe how you feel and how you react to situations. Pretend you are an outside observer of your emotions. This can help you be more objective.
  • Notice your impact on others. What happens when you greet a teacher warmly? How do others’ behaviors change when you are feeling frustrated?


It is important for you to observe classrooms from a social-emotional perspective. The staff members you work with every day do their most important work during everyday interactions: conversations over breakfast, helping children solve a problem, or simply comforting an upset child. As you read the scenarios that follow, notice where children fall on the social-emotional milestones you read about in this lesson. Then, think about how you could help the adults promote social-emotional development. The table provides ideas about what you might say and do in each scenario to support staff members.

Promoting Social-Emotional Development: Scenarios




You hear Kasey talking about one of the new 9-month-old infants in the program: “She just doesn’t like anybody. That’s the grumpiest baby I’ve ever seen.”

You Say

Say to Kasey:

  • “Kasey, it’s pretty typical for infants that age to be wary of strangers. Since she just moved and is going through lots of changes, I bet she just needs some time and attention.”

You Do

Take Action:

Observe and model positive interactions with the baby. Coach the caregivers to notice when the baby is happy and connecting with adults. Watch how the baby interacts with her parents and help staff members learn how to interact with the baby.




James talks with you about his frustration during a planning meeting. He thinks a toddler, Clayton, is having toilet accidents just to be defiant. “He knows how to use the toilet, and he does it most of the time. He’s just being stubborn.”

You Say

Say to James:

  • “What makes you think Clayton is being defiant? Toddlers that age really crave independence, but they also still need lots of help.”

You Do

Take Action:

Ask James when the times are when he might need your support. Be present to help him remain calm during toileting routines. Work with the team to maintain consistency.



You hear Fiona shout across the room to a group of 3-year-olds, “Share. Now.”

You Say

Say to Fiona:

  • “It’s so important to help our 3-year-olds learn to share, Fiona. Let’s talk about ways your team can help.”

You Do

Take Action:

Provide a workshop or materials on promoting friendships in preschool settings (see Remind adults to help children understand how and when to share.



Timothy tells a 4-year-old to “stop being a baby” when he wakes up crying about a bad dream and thinks there are monsters in the room.

You Say

Say to Timothy:

  • “Timothy, 4-year-olds have vivid imaginations but can’t always tell reality from make-believe. Let’s talk about ways to help children when they’re scared.”

You Do

Take Action:

Help Timothy create a story for the child about what to do when he’s scared.



You hear Sharon tell a 10-year-old he cannot work alone during an in class activity and that he needs to find a partner.

You Say

Say to Sharon:

  • “It is important to be sensitive about children’s emotional changes as they go through puberty. Let’s share ideas about ways to acknowledge school-age children’s needs for independence.”

You Do

Take Action:

Remind adults to acknowledge children’s need for independence and to help children make responsible choices.



Jackson tells 12-year-old Marina to stop acting just like her friends and be her own person.

You Say

Say to Jackson:

  • “Jackson, teenagers have a growing need to feel accepted by their peers and often times do things and act just like their friends. Let’s talk about how we can support children with issues related to peer acceptance and peer pressure.

You Do

Take Action:

Remind adults to be sensitive to children’s need for acceptance by their peer group and to help children make responsible choices when it comes to peer pressure.



It is important to observe social-emotional exchanges. The staff members you work with do their most important work during everyday interactions: conversations over breakfast, helping children solve a problem, or simply comforting an upset child. As you watch the video within the Observing Social-Emotional Development activity, identify social-emotional behaviors and the ways to support development. Compare your observations to the suggested responses.


The Social-Emotional Development: Infant to School-Age handout is a quick guide that details the development of social-emotional skills across childhood. Share this resource with staff so that they can learn to recognize the wide variety of ways children develop socially and emotionally.   

The Milestone Moments handouts provide an overview of typical development from 2 months through age 5. These checklists (offered in English and Spanish) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are excellent tools to share with families. Additional milestone information for school-aged children can be viewed and downloaded from the CDC’s Positive Parenting Tips webpage.   

When a child has a disability or developmental concerns, staff members may be unsure about how to support that child’s development. Review and share with staff the  Development Screening and Social-Emotional Screening Tool handouts. 


Skills that are recognized as important markers of development like first steps or first smile


A staff member shares with you that Frankie, a 10-month-old girl, cries almost every day when her parents drop her off. The staff member is frustrated and says “I don’t know what the problem is. Frankie used to be such a happy baby.” What do you say?
True or False? It is important to model to staff members how you take care of your own social-emotional health.
Finish this statement: Social-emotional development…
References & Resources

Aguilar, E. (2014). Five simple lessons for social and emotional learning for adults.  George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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

Artman, K., Meiler, C., Quesenberry, A., & Hemmeter, M. L. (n.d.). Recognizing and supporting the social and emotional health of young children ages birth to five. Georgetown University: Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Learn the signs. Act early: developmental milestones.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Positive parenting tips.

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

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

Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards. J.O., & Goins, C.M. (2020). Anti-Bias education for young children and ourselves.3rded. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Head Start Center for Inclusion:

Hemmeter, M.L., Ostrosky, M., & Fox, L. (2021). Unpacking the pyramid model: A practical guide for preschool teachers. Brookes Publishing. Joseph, G. & Strain, P. S. You’ve Got to Have Friends.

Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

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.