Social & Emotional Development in Early Childhood

By Nellie Day
childhood image by Indigo Fish from

When Social and Emotional Development Begins

Clearly, social and emotional development can begin as early as birth, but these developments tend to be primordial and limited until the child is no longer a toddler, according to This is the period when children begin to develop the abilities to interact with others. These interactions can range from social settings, such as a play date, to mundane settings, such as playing with mom or dad. During this phase--which is reached when the child stops "toddling" and starts walking, usually around the age of 3--the child will begin realizing that he is a separate entity from his parents, and will start testing both his and their limits by exploring his environment. This can naturally lead to emotions such as fright, nervousness, irritability, anger and frustration as the child determines that he cannot control everyone and everything--including himself--within his environment. It can also bring about joy, happiness, surprise, gleefulness, curiosity and a sense of accomplishment as the child realizes he is in control of some situations. These feelings will continue, become more intense and multiply as the child grows into an adult.

Social Development

According to the Eight Stages of Development, which was created by a psychiatrist named Erik Erikson, one of the biggest issues that small children grapple with is the idea of purpose. They, of course, do not know this, but their behaviors exemplify this issue as they learn how to play with others, how to accept certain roles or jobs within an activity, and how to lead, as well as how to follow. To support the child in his unconscious pursuit of purpose, Vanderbilt University's Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) created the Pyramid Model, which identifies what parents and other caregivers must do to keep a child's social and emotional developments on track. The pyramid notes that by providing children with everyday routines and explicit instructions parents can foster the child's ability to interact in a group setting and to take on many different roles.

Emotional Development

When people think of emotional development in young children, they often think only about how that specific child is doing. The Michigan Department of Community Health's guide to Social-Emotional Development in Young Children notes, however, that the child's natural development is only one piece of this equation. Equally important to the child's emotional development is the parents' emotional state. While all parents get stressed from time to time, their overall mental states and the way they react to everyday situations--from the mundane to the unexpected--can affect how a child develops emotionally. For example, a mother who fervently resists changes in plans is likely to pass this resistance on to her child, making him panicky when things are thrown off. These behaviors can develop in many different ways, as children take many life lessons from the home, including how to share, compromise, take turns and express emotions. Parents must also nurture young children, providing them the self-awareness, confidence and humility needed to navigate through every stage of life. The emotional development of young children is directly tied to the way the child sees the world and himself. He can only react based on his experience or interpretation of a situation, which is how he learns key emotions such as guilt, empathy, shame, pride and embarrassment, according to the guide.