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    • 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. 


    Early experiences influence how infants, toddlers, and young children begin to understand, control, and master their world and how they form perceptions of self (Yates et al., 2008).


    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 typical and atypical social-emotional competence. 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

    Typical Social-Emotional Development (Figure 1)

    6 months
    • Knows familiar faces and begins to know if someone is a stranger
    • Likes to play with others, especially parents
    • Responds to other people’s emotions and often seems happy
    • Likes to look at self in mirror
    12 months
    • Is shy or nervous with strangers
    • Cries when Mom or Dad leaves
    • Has favorite things and people
    • Shows fear in some situation
    • Hands you a book when he or she wants to hear a story
    • Repeats sounds and actions to get attention
    • Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing
    • Plays games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake”
    18 months
    • Likes to hand things to others as play
    • May have temper tantrums
    • May be afraid of strangers
    • Shows affection to familiar people
    • Plays simple pretend, such as feeding a doll
    • May cling to caregivers in new situations
    • Points to show others something is interesting
    • Explores alone but with a parent close by
    • Copies others, especially adults and older children
    • Gets excited when with other children
    • Shows more and more independence
    24 months
    • Shows defiant behavior (doing what she or he has been told not to do)
    • Plays mainly beside other children, but is beginning to include other children, such as in chase games
    36 months
    • Copies adults and friends
    • Shows affection for friends without prompting
    • Takes turns in games
    • Shows concern for a crying friend
    • Understands the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers”
    • Shows a wide range of emotions
    • Separates easily from Mom and Dad
    • May get upset with major changes in routine
    • Dresses and undresses self
    3 Years
    • 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 Mom or Dad
    • May get upset with major changes in routine
    4 Years
    • 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
    5 Years
    • 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
    5-7 Years

    Adapted from Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What's happening? Ages, stages and milestones. What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

    • 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
    8-9 Years

    Adapted from Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What's happening? Ages, stages and milestones. What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

    • 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)
    10-11 Years

    Adapted from Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What's happening? Ages, stages and milestones. What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

    • 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
    12+ Years

    Adapted from Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What's happening? Ages, stages and milestones. What teachers need to know about social and emotional development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

    • Establish independence
    • Adjust to a bigger social world with greater expectations and demands
    • Overcome the awkward and clumsy stage
    • Find acceptance within a peer group
    • Becoming more self-assured and able to say “No!”
    • Move further away from family and closer to friends for support
    • Handle issues and growing concerns about sexuality and relationships
    • Manage confusing and unexpected feelings, such as anger and rebellion
    • Move towards self-acceptance

    Typical Social-Emotional Development of Infants

    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. The chart above in Figure 1 describes the milestones you should help staff to understand.

    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.

    Typical Social-Emotional Development of Toddlers

    Toddlers, ages 12 months to 36 months, continue to make tremendous social-emotional growth. As their language develops, their interactions with the people around them become richer. The chart above in Figure 1 describes the development staff members should expect during the toddler years.

    Just like 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 prepared 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.

    Typical 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 chart above in Figure 1 describes the development staff members should expect during the preschool years.

    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.

    Typical 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 above in Figure 1 describes the development staff members should expect during the school-age years.

    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 embarrass 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.

    The Role of Culture in Social-Emotional Development?

    Children develop social-emotional skills within the context of their relationships with their primary caregiver, family, and culture. Children learn socially appropriate ways of responding, develop a communication style, and become more independent from their caregivers, families, and communities. For example, some cultures teach children to avoid eye contact while communicating. However, in other cultures, eye contact is an essential component of a social interaction. Expectations about developmental milestones also are driven by cultural values and priorities. In some cultures, children are not expected to feed themselves until they are 3 or 4 years old. In other cultures, children are expected to start feeding themselves in late infancy and early toddlerhood. Culture also influences parenting practices and ways of dealing with emotions, including handling stress and coping with adversity. Family priorities also affect social-emotional competence. For example, some families might place a high value on talking about and expressing emotions as they happen. Children might learn to say exactly how they feel, when they feel it. Also, many African-American and Hispanic families may prioritize family and encourage their children to share and play with others at a very early age. Conversely, many white families are more likely to encourage their children to be independent; they might expect their children to independently eat, get dressed, and play. 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

    How Can Staff Members Support The Needs of All Learners?

    Many young children with disabilities have difficulty with peer interactions. Research shows children with disabilities are less likely to develop friendships than their typically developing peers. Delays in social interactions are characteristics of many developmental disabilities, including autism. Children may be at risk for social isolation, rejection, and social-emotional delays if social delays and friendships skills are not addressed when children are young.

    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. Set up “buddy” activities, and pre-arrange so that two children are intentionally paired up and go to an activity or center together. Pair a more socially competent peer with a peer who is working on social skills, or pair two children who are developing a friendship.
    2. Children with social delays often have delays in play skills as well. If the child has difficulty playing with toys or materials, focus on teaching the child to play with toys and materials.
    3. If a child is having difficulty completing a task, ask another child who has finished to help or give clues for finishing.
    4. If a child has difficulty with transitions or self-care routines (e.g., hand washing, getting dressed), pair the child with another child for help.
    5. If the child uses a daily picture schedule, embed social interactions by having a card for “Ask a peer to play” and support the child in asking the peer to play.
    6. Embed the child’s interests or preferences into social games or activities, and support the child in taking turns, sharing, and talking to other children. When appropriate, use the child’s interests as reinforcement for play (e.g., “The balls are for two children to play with. Let’s ask a friend to play with you!”).
    7. Give the child classroom jobs or roles that involve social interactions (e.g., passing out props during circle, asking children, “What are you going to play with” after circle time, and giving choices during snack: “Do you want a cookie or crackers?”).
    8. Some children might need specific verbal cues (“Ask your friend Molly for the red truck”) or suggestions for play (“Jane, you can be this baby’s mommy and Shannon, you can be the doctor”).
    9. Encourage parents to arrange play dates for their children with other children in the classroom.
    10. Have family days or invite parents to the classroom and support or encourage friendships between families.

    In Lesson Three, we will highlight some other strategies you can help staff members learn to use, for example, scripts for play or social behaviors and peer support strategies. 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 for you to begin 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 that follows, notice where children fall on the social-emotional milestones you read about in this lesson. Then notice how adults support development. Before watching the videos, use the Observing Social Emotional Development activity to guide you through the video as you provide responses for each clip.

    Observing Social Development

    Watch this video as you complete the Observing Social Development Activity



    The Milestone Charts provide an overview of typical social-emotional development from birth through age 12. Use them as a resource for yourself or for staff members.




    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. Retrieved from

    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. Retrieved from

    Chandler, L. (1998). Promoting Positive Interaction Between Preschool-Age Children Free Play: The PALS center. Young Exceptional Children, 1, 14-19.

    Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Hambers, C. R. & Horn, E. M. (2010). Strategies for Family Facilitation of Play Dates. Young Exceptional Children, 13, 2 – 14.

    Joseph, G. & Strain, P. S. You’ve Got to Have Friends.

    Frydenberg, E. (2011).Developing Everyday Coping Skills in the Early Years: Proactive strategies for supporting social and emotional development. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

    Leyden, R., & Shale, E. (2012). What Teachers Need to Know about Social and Emotional Development. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

    Taylor, A. S., Peterson, C. A., McMurray-Schwarz, P., & Guillou, T. S. (2002). Social Skills Interventions: Not just for children with special needs. Young Exceptional Children, 5, 19-26.

    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Learn the Signs. Act Early: Developmental Milestones. Retrieved from

    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. Retrieved from