Social and emotional development of children

The development of social and emotional competence is an important part of child’s early development and learning. Social and emotional competence means the ability to understand and manage emotions and behavior, to make decisions and achieve goals, and to establish and maintain positive relationships, including feeling and showing empathy for others. Developing these capacities is important for children’s learning and academic success. Social and emotional competence give children the capacity to engage in academic tasks by increasing their ability to interact constructively with teachers, work effectively with peers, and dedicate sustained attention to learning.

Aspects of social and emotional development

Relationships and emotional well-being.

The emotional support and security provided by positive relationships contributes in many different ways to young children’s learning success. For example, children who have secure relationships with their parents develop greater social skills with adults and peers and greater social and emotional understanding of others, show more advanced moral development, and have a more positive self-concept. Securely attached children also have been found to be more advanced in cognitive and language development and to show greater achievement in school. A smaller but significant body of research has looked at attachments between children and educators. As with their parents and other caregivers, children who receive strong emotional and instructional support from their educators can approach learning opportunities more positively and confidently, and the quality of those relationships has a significant and potentially enduring influence on their classroom success. In one study, preschoolers identified as academically at risk based on demographic characteristics and reports of problems by their kindergarten teachers were followed to the end of first grade. The children with first-grade teachers who provided high amounts of instructional and emotional support had achievement scores comparable to their low-risk peers.

Emotional regulation and self-management.

A child’s ability to regulate his or her emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations – managing stress, controlling impulses, and working toward goals – can affect learning and relationships with adults and peers. Children who lack effective self-regulation do not participate in a productive way in learning activities. They may act disruptively and aggressively; they then receive less support from their peers, which in turn may undermine their learning. Young children are better able to exercise self-regulation in the company of educators who have developmentally appropriate expectations for their self-control, provide predictable routines, and offer guidance that scaffolds their developing skills of self-management – especially in the context of carefully designed daily practices in a well-organized setting.

Social and emotional understanding.

Starting with a straightforward awareness that people act intentionally and are goal directed, have positive and negative feelings in response to things around them, and different feelings and goals, young children develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the mental experiences that cause people to act as they do. They realize, for example, that people’s beliefs about reality can be accurate or may be mistaken, and this leads to the understanding that people can be deceived and that not everybody can be believed. They also begin to appreciate how personality differences among people can cause different individuals to act in the same situation in very different ways. Children learn how people think and feel from directly observing, asking questions, and conversing about people’s mental states with parents and other trusted informants. These advances are also fostered by children’s classroom experiences. Educators can use children’s experiences as forums for developing social and emotional understanding – for example, when they explain why peers are feeling the way they do, suggest strategies for resolving conflict over resources or a point of view, or engage children in collective decision making that involves different opinions.

Self-awareness and early learning.

How young children think of themselves as learners influences their academic success. Young children become increasingly sensitive to positive and negative evaluations of their behavior, which serve as the basis for their self-evaluations. Research has revealed how parents’ and educators’ performance feedback affect children’s self-concept and motivation to succeed. In one study, 4-year-old children were represented by puppets whose performance was praised by a teacher using either feedback that implied trait-based, ability-centered success – “You are a good drawer.” – or feedback that implied situation-based, effort-centered success – “You did a good job drawing.” When their puppet subsequently made a mistake and was criticized for it, the 4-year-olds who had heard the ability-centered feedback evaluated their performance and the situation more negatively than children who had heard the effort-centered feedback, suggesting that they interpreted criticism as reflecting deficits in their ability. Similar results were reported in two other studies that found that situation-based, effort-centered performance feedback strengthened children’s task persistence and self-evaluation.

Chronic stress and adversity.

Chronic stress can affect children’s development. A substantial body of evidence now shows that adversity and stress in early life are associated with higher rates of childhood mental and physical problems, more frequent disturbances in development and educational achievement, and lifelong risks of chronic disorders that compromise health and well-being. Circumstances that contribute to this chronic stress include poverty and abuse, as well as less severe but persistent circumstances such as parents’ chronic marital conflict. Social support, however, can buffer the effects of stress. Individuals in adversity show less behavioral reactivity and better-regulated cortisol (a stress hormone) when in the company of people who provide them with emotional support. For children, these individuals can be figures in the family or outside the home.