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    • 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 know who is well-liked. What makes that person so likable? 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? Does the person admit when she’s wrong and try to take on the other person’s perspective? Does the person stay calm in tense situations? The person you are thinking of is socially skilled. 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 manages emotions, makes responsible social decisions, and gets along with others.

    There is growing evidence that social-emotional development is associated with better outcomes at home, at school, and in the community. It is also clear that there are severe negative repercussions for individuals who do not develop healthy social-emotional skills. Children who are rejected by peers or who are socially disengaged from schools and programs are more likely to experience delinquency, encounters with law enforcement, difficulties in school, and adversity as adults.

    Social-emotional development represents a child’s growing ability to interact with others, to form attachments and relationships, to identify and regulate emotions, and to feel confident exploring the environment. It both impacts and is impacted by development across other domains, including language and cognition; research by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child suggests that mental health and social-emotional development affect the wiring of the brain.

    What happens when children have poor social-emotional development? The answer is often challenging behavior. Consider these examples below and think about how they reflect social-emotional development:

    We see …

    What it tells us about social-emotional development

    Bobby throws a tantrum in the candy aisle of the supermarket.

    Bobby does not have the communication skills to ask for what he wants appropriately. He does not know how to handle disappointment.

    Jon pounds his fist in rage on the steering wheel and purposely cuts off the driver beside him. The two begin a dangerous game of cat and mouse on the highway.

    Jon does not know how to handle or express his anger appropriately.

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

    Claire does not know how to make and keep friends or how to initiate play.

    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 does not know how to solve common social problems.

    The people in these examples have learned bad habits for dealing with unpleasant situations and feelings. Fortunately, just as bad habits are learned, appropriate social skills can also be learned, resulting in safer and more responsive communities.

    As an outsider observing the challenging behaviors described above, it is easy to give examples of how we would have reacted differently had we been in the same situation. However, reacting appropriately in difficult situations is often easier said than done. Even those of us with the best intentions can 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

    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:


    This 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:

    • 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?

    How Do Social-Emotional Problems Develop?

    When children have confidence in themselves, they are more likely to handle situations assertively. If children have self-management, relationship-building, and problem-solving skills, they are more likely to make safe and healthy choices (Committee for Children, 2014). To be considered emotionally competent, children should develop a range of emotional responses. They must be able to adjust those emotions to satisfy themselves and to meet the needs of their social environments (Squires & Bricker, 2007). However, some factors get in the way of healthy development. Some children experience instability, trauma, or abuse. Instability in the home, school, or environment can affect the social and emotional development and regulation of children. When parents and caregivers dismiss children’s needs for comforting and nurturance, children are more likely to avoid interactions or become withdrawn. Children who are treated negatively begin to see themselves negatively.

    According to Dr. Rita Smilkstein, emotions, thinking, learning and remembering are inextricably bound together. People with positive emotional experiences learn that they are safe, valued and respected. They have self-esteem and self-confidence and behave accordingly. With negative experiences, people learn they are unsafe, not valued and not respected. They have low self-esteem, lack self-confidence, and behave accordingly. High arousal can also overshadow and interfere with other brain activities, such as curiosity, concentration, and motivation to learn (Davies, 2011). Although it is never too late to learn new skills, it will take time, patience and a team approach from all adults to continue helping all children develop the skills they need.

    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 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.” While social skills might seem automatic for some children and adults, this is not true for everyone. Some children do not know how to get a peer’s attention appropriately 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 typical 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:



    Sometimes people get upset, angry or elated because they react to a situation without really examining it or understanding it. Often, when someone is emotionally upset, it is difficult to hold onto the understanding that people are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and to remember positive things about every situation. The Finding the Gray Activity will help you see the gray areas between extremes of thought about labels.



    A great deal of research suggests the importance of social-emotional learning for children’s development. Below 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 or to share with staff members. 


    Attachment 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




    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 parent shares with you how frustrated she is that her eighteen-month-old son, Davion, throws a tantrum every time they go to the grocery store and she places him in the grocery cart. What do you say?

    References & Resources

    Bloom, P. J. (2010). A great place to work: Creating a healthy organizational climate. The Directors' Toolbox Series. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons. Available from 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).

    Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, (2013). The Missing Piece: A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Chicago: Author.

    Davies, D. (2011). Child Development: A practitioner's guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press

    Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    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.

    Hyson, M. (2008). Enthusiastic and Engaged Learners: Approaches to learning in the early childhood classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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

    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. (2010). Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

    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.

    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.

    Smith, B. J. (2010). Recommended Practices: Linking social development and behavior to school readiness. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for the Social on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

    Squires, J., & Bricker, D. (2007). An activity-based approach to developing young children’s social emotional competence. Baltimore: Brookes

    Webster-Stratton, C. (2000). How to Promote Children’s Social and Emotional Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    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