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Stages of Social, Emotional & Behavioral Development of a Child

By Rosenya Faith ; Updated April 18, 2017
A happy toddler playing in the grass.

A child’s development seems to happen in a whirlwind; one moment he’s cooing in his car seat, and then you blink and he’s borrowing the keys to the car. While it seems to happen fast, his physical, emotional, cognitive and social development happen in an age-specific pattern through which the skills of one stage help to prepare him for the next.

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Physical Development

An infant triples her birth weight in just one year and grows in length by nearly 50 percent. She becomes mobile, rolling over from 3 to 6 months, crawling at 9 months and cruising and walking shortly after her first birthday. From here, physical development slows as she grows about 2 1/2 inches taller and gains 4 to 7 pounds each year until adolescence, according to KidsHealth.

By age 4, a child can hop while balancing on one foot, the National Institutes of Health explains. A 7-year-old's developing fine motor skills make her increasingly skilled at coloring, while her gross motor skills enable her to play ball games, dance and skip. In late childhood, strength, stamina and hand-eye coordination progress rapidly.

The teen years are characterized by puberty, where secondary sex characteristics develop and rapid musculoskeletal growth takes place, explains KidsHealth.

Cognitive Development

Piaget posited five stages of cognitive development throughout childhood. The sensorimotor period from birth to 2 years is characterized by the learning of object permanence -- you exist even when he can't see you -- and an understanding that he is separate from the things around him. He learns simple cause and effect. For example, hitting a drum causes it to make noise.

A child begins to think symbolically during the preoperational stage, from 2 to 7 years of age. A child in this stage is egocentric; early on he struggles to view things from another's perspective.

During the concrete operational stage, from the 7th through the 11th year, a child begins to think logically, but his thinking is still concrete. By the formal operational stage, beginning at age 12, a child starts to think abstractly. He can apply reason to a hypothetical problem and use deductive reasoning.

Language Acquisition

An infant cries to communicate her needs, but by 6 months she begins exploring language. At 9 months, she begins copying single sounds. An 18-month-old can communicate with one- or two-word sentences.

A 2-year-old can listen when spoken to, identify familiar objects and follow simple requests. By age 3 she can arrange words into complete sentences.

At 4 years old a child can tell stories, using compound sentences, prepositions and plurals, and a 5-year-old can start a conversation and give directions, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Language through middle childhood changes from egocentric to social speech. By adolescence, improved abstract thinking skills enable her to better understand syntax and make word associations.

Social and Emotional Development

It is obvious with the first responsive smile that infants are social creatures. By 9 to 12 months he copies facial expressions, becomes unfriendly with strangers and experiences separation anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By age 2, toddlers can play contentedly beside other children but don’t share well.

Four- and 5-year-olds begin learning to self-regulate, controlling urges and conforming to appropriate behavior standards. He understands his own feelings (can label himself as angry or sad) and empathy begins to emerge. Five-year-olds can play alone, but prefer to play with others, and can do so cooperatively by taking turns and sharing. Beginning at about age 6, a child can work increasingly effectively as part of a team.

Through childhood and preteen years, as a child’s sense of right and wrong intensifies, so does his need for independence from family. Close associations with friends becomes increasingly important. The key issues of adolescence are autonomy and identity. A teen seeks to define himself independent of his parents, explains the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthychildren.org website, but as peer relationships grow in importance, the need for conformity and acceptance are crucial, too.

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About the Author

Rosenya Faith has been working with children since the age of 16 as a swimming instructor and dance instructor. For more than 14 years she has worked as a recreation and skill development leader, an early childhood educator and a teaching assistant, working in elementary schools and with special needs children between 4 and 11 years of age.

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