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Social and Emotional
Development in Early Childhood

The Early Years Will Last a Lifetime

Positive social and emotional development in the early years provides a critical foundation for lifelong development and learning. 

When children feel safe in their relationships, they are able to explore, learn, play, and create friendships with peers. These important skills, all under the umbrella of “social and emotional development,” will last them throughout their lifetime—and it all starts now!

What is social and emotional development?

Social and emotional development is the change over time in children’s ability to react to and interact with their social environment.

Social and emotional development is complex and includes many different areas of growth. Each is described in more detail below:

  • temperament: the way a young child acts and responds to different situations, caregivers, and strangers

  • attachment: the emotional bond between a child and caregiver

  • social skills or social competence: the ability to get along with other people

  • emotion regulation: the ability of a child to control his or her emotions and reactions to the environment.

Early Learning Tools

Tip Sheets for Families, Caregivers and Early Learning Educators

Social and Emotional Toolkit! 

Fostering Healthy Social and Emotional Development in Young Children

Many parents and caregivers, as well as teachers and early learning providers, are eager for information and resources on how to connect with babies and toddlers, manage young children's behavior, and help children develop relationships, regulate their behavior and emotions, and talk about their feelings. When the adults in children's lives have appropriate expectations of children's development at different ages, they have greater success—and much less frustration—with young children.

Talk, Read, and Sing Together Every Day Toolkit!

Research has found that providing children from birth to five with consistent, language-rich experiences—such as talking, reading, and singing—can have important benefits on their brain development and future school success.

However, many families lack access to the types of resources that can help them make the most of these language building experiences. This creates a gap in the quantity and quality of words that children learn, which directly impacts their opportunities to succeed in school and later on in life. 

Social Interaction


Focuses on the relationships we share with others, including relationships with adults and peers. As children develop socially, they learn to take turns, help their friends, play together, and cooperate with others.

Emotional Awareness

Includes the ability to recognize and understand our own feelings and actions and those of other people, and how our own feelings and actions affect ourselves and others.


Is the ability to express thoughts, feelings and behaviors in socially appropriate ways. Learning to calm down when angry or excited and persisting at difficult tasks are examples of self-regulation.


When does social and emotional development begin?


Social and emotional development begins in the earliest moments. Infants learn through social interactions with the adults who care for them and most are born with the ability to read basic social cues.1 For example, in the first hours of life, infants turn their heads toward their parents voices.


Later in infancy, most babies learn to look to where adults are looking or pointing and then begin imitating simple actions and sounds during interactions with caregivers. For some children with developmental delays or disabilities, milestones may come a little later or children may need extra support to enhance their social and emotional development.

How do parents impact social emotional development?


Supporting all young children’s early social interactions helps them begin to understand their world and open the door for the earliest learning experiences. Children with a strong social and emotional foundation are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and fare better on measures of overall wellness. 9,10

Parents help to nurture social-emotional skills so kids develop healthy relationships with friends and family members. Even as a baby, your little one is picking up on how you respond to their social and emotional needs. They notice how safe they feel at home and in your presence. They learn how to feel empathy, recognize emotions and say “I’m sorry” by following your lead.

The ability to regulate one’s own responses, actions, and emotions is a critical aspect of emotional and social development that supports school readiness. Again, in early childhood, this process requires the constant support of a nurturing adult. Adults who care for infants and toddlers can support this emerging skill in the following ways:

Parents and family members should have expectations for how their child regulates and expresses his emotions. “How do you respond when he cries?” or “How do you remind him of rules?” These sorts of open questions will help you get a better idea of you and your family support self-regulation.


What the Research Tells Us

The relationship between children, their families, and other adults in their lives is critical to children’s healthy social and emotional development.1,2 Beginning from birth, parents and caregivers play a central role in fostering social and emotional development providing a critical foundation for lifelong development and learning by responding sensitively and consistently to the needs of their infants.


When families and caregivers provide consistent and warm care, read their infant’s cues, and engage in meaningful back-and-forth interactions, they show children that they are loved and secure. This security gives young children the confidence they need to explore the world around them, discover new concepts, and form positive relationships with others – like peers and teachers. As children grow, families, caregivers, and early childhood teachers can support children’s emerging social and emotional development. 


Social development refers to a child’s ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships with adults and other children. Emotional development is a child’s ability to express, recognize, and manage his or her emotions, as well as respond appropriately to others’ emotions. Both social and emotional development are important for young children’s mental health. In fact, early childhood mental health is the same as social and emotional development!

For infants and toddlers, social and emotional development is “the developing capacity to experience and regulate emotions, form secure relationships, and explore and learn—all in the context of the child’s family, community, and cultural background. Your program’s school readiness goals, likely reflected in the individual objectives you develop for each child, should focus on helping children develop these crucial social and emotional skills.

A large body of research shows that a strong social and emotional foundation helps boost children’s learning, academic performance and other positive long-term outcomes.


Frequent back-andforth interactions with caregivers in the earliest years form the foundation of social and emotional development and development in all areas. These interactions create neural connections in the brain that are the building blocks of later learning. 3, 4

When children are able to manage their emotions, get along well with others, and persevere through challenges, their minds are free to concentrate on learning new things from parents, teachers, peers, and through their own exploration. Children with a strong social and emotional base tend to be more engaged in learning and form relationships with others more easily. 5


For example, when children play collaboratively with peers, they can share what they know, learn from others, and advance their learning. Learning from peers is important for all children, but can be especially important for some children with developmental disabilities and delays. A robust body of research indicates that structured peer-mediated learning has strong effects on academic, interpersonal, and social development for children with developmental disabilities. 6,7,8

Effective Teaching Practices

To develop social and emotional skills, babies need adults who are tuned in to them and respond to them appropriately. These attuned relationships are sometimes referred to as serve and return, because the baby “serves” by making a sound, gesture, or expression, and the adult “returns” with a response. As we grow to understand more about how children learn, we find research continually demonstrating that “a secure, flexible, and trusting relationship with a primary caregiver prepares infants and toddlers for academic and social competence” throughout their lives. Early Head Start staff members who work directly with children and families are in unique positions to establish such attuned relationships and support children’s social and emotional development.


Head Start and Early Head Start programs promote children's development through services that support early learning, health, and family well-being.

1.Brazelton, T. B. & Cramer, B.G. (1991): The Earliest Relationship: Parents, Infants and the Drama of Early Attachment. Accessed at
2. Cassidy, J. (2008). The nature of the child’s ties. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Publications.

3. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2. Retrieved from

4. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Key Concepts of Brain Architecture. Available online: key-concepts/brain-architecture/

5. Payton, J., Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Schellinger, K. B., & Pachan, M. (2008). The Positive Impact of Social and Emotional Learning for Kindergarten to Eighth-Grade Students: Findings from Three Scientific Reviews. Technical Report. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (NJ1).

6.DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peermediated interventions to increase the social interaction of children with autism: Consideration of peer expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17, 198-207.

7. McMaster, K. L., Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (2006). Research on peer- assisted learning strategies: The promise and limitations of peer-mediated instruction. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 22, 5-25.3

8. Bass, J. D., & Mulick, J. A. (2007). Social play skill enhancement of children with autism using peers and siblings as therapists. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 727-735.

9. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2015). How Children’s Social Competence Impacts their Wellbeing in Adulthood. Available online: http://www.

10.. Jones, Damon E., Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal Public Health, 105(11), 2283–2290.

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