Social and Emotional Development in Children (1-5 years)

Social and emotional development is defined as the emerging ability of young children (ages 0–5) to form secure relationships with adult and peer. SED means how children start to understand who they are, what they are feeling and what to expect when interacting with others. It is the development of being able to:
o  Form and sustain positive relationships
o  Experience, manage and express emotions
o  Explore and engage with the environment
The development of social and emotional skills start at birth. Early experiences of children effect how they begin to understand themselves and their surroundings. For instance, when the needs of infants are fully met by caregivers or other adults they can regulate their emotions in a better way, pay proper attention to their world and better able to form secure relationships.

Subdomains of Social and Emotional Development

There are four components of SED which are social competence, emotional competence, behaviour problems and self-regulation.

Social Competence

Social competence in early childhood is defined by the extent to which infants are successful in social interactions with other individuals. They develop and maintain social connections, demonstrate flexibility and adjust their behaviour in order to meet the needs of different social contexts. Specific constructs which are included in this domain manifest pro-social skills of children including ability to perceive social cues, interact with adults and peers through cooperation, taking turns, listening, starting and maintaining conversations, engage in problem-solving, treat other children equitably, understanding the rights of others, make a balance between one's own needs and the needs of others.

Emotional Competence

Emotional competence in the early childhood is defined as the ability to understand self and others emotions. Children having emotional competence are able to read emotional cues and show reactions to others’ emotions. They can regulation of their emotions and understand the consequences of emotional expressiveness. Examples of particular constructs that fall in this subcategory are emotion regulation and emotion understanding.

Behaviour Problems

Behaviours are considered problematic that are inappropriate developmentally or that disrupt the ability of a child to adapt and function in their families, educational settings and with peer group. Externalizing behaviours (e.g., noncompliance, disruptiveness, roughness, hostility or aggression) or internalizing behaviours or emotions (e.g., social withdrawal, anxiety, extreme shyness, worry or sadness) are included in this subdomain. The presence of social and
emotional competencies are not influenced by problematic behaviours.


Self-regulation also referred to as self-control or self-management is generally defined in the early childhood as the ability to manage emotions, focus attention and control behaviours. Self-regulation is highly inter-related to executive and social-emotional functioning. The skill classified in this subdomain is the ability to focus and shift attention in social situations.

Ways to encourage Social and Emotional Development

Parents or primary caregivers play an important role in SED because they offer the most consistent relationships for their child. To nurture the child’s social-emotional development it is very important for the parents to spend a quality time with the child or actively engage in activities mentioned below on a daily basis depending on the age of child.

Milestones of Social and Emotional Development (Birth to 5 years)

The activities which are mentioned below are encouraging signs which shows that whether your child is making progress in social-emotional development or not.

0-3 months

Babies spend a lot of time getting to know their own bodies. They:
o Suck their own fingers
o Observe their own hands
o Look at the place on the body that is being touched Infants are interested in other people and learn to recognize primary caregivers. Most infants:
o Can be comforted by a familiar adult

o Respond positively to touch
o Smile and show pleasure in response to social stimulation

3-6 months

Babies are more likely to initiate social interaction. They begin to:
o Play peek-a-boo
o Pay attention to own name
o Smile spontaneously
o Laugh aloud

6-9 months

Babies show a wider range of emotional expressions towards familiar people. Most can:
o Express several clearly differentiated emotions
o Distinguish friends from strangers
o Respond actively to language and gestures
o Show displeasure at the loss of a toy

9-12 months

At this stage imitation and self-regulation gain importance. Most babies can:
o Feed themselves finger foods
o Hold a cup with two hands and drink with assistance
o Hold out arms and legs while being dressed
o Mimic simple actions
o Show anxiety when separated from primary caregiver

1-2 years

o Recognize themselves in pictures or the mirror and smile or make faces at themselves
o Show intense feelings for parents
o Show affection for other familiar people
o Initiate their own play
o Express negative feelings
o Show pride and pleasure at new accomplishments

o Imitate adult behaviours in play
o Show a strong sense of self through assertiveness while directing others
o Begin to be helpful

2-3 years

Children begin to experience themselves as more powerful or creative doers. They explore everything, show a stronger sense of self and expand their range of self-help skills. Self- regulation is a big challenge. Two-year-olds are likely to:
o Show awareness of gender identity
o Indicate toileting needs
o Help to dress and undress themselves
o Be assertive about their preferences and say no to adult requests
o Begin self-evaluation. Develop notions of themselves as good, bad or attractive.
o Show awareness of their own feelings and those of others
o Experience rapid mood shifts.
o Show increased fearfulness (fear of the dark or certain objects)
o Display aggressive feelings and behaviours

3-4 years

Children are more aware of themselves as individuals. They:
o Show some understanding of moral reasoning such as exploring ideas about good or
bad behaviour
o Compare themselves with others
o Develop friendships Express more awareness of other people’s feelings
o Show interest in exploring sex differences
o Enjoy imaginative play with other children like dress up or house
o Bring dramatic play closer to reality by paying attention to detail, time and space

Measures used to assess Social and Emotional Development

To measure social-emotional development in infants is very difficult and challenging because in the first five years very dramatic changes occur in a child across all the developmental domains. So it becomes very difficult to distinguish between typical and deviant behaviour. Therefore, measuring SED in infants become a big question of evaluating whether problematic behaviours reduce the functioning of the child or not. There are no specific standardized measures to assess the SED in the children of 1-5 years. But literature suggests that four subdomains of SED can be measured separately by asking different questions at informal level.

Social competence can be assessed by using adult-report of a child’s ability or by observing the child. In order to assess it parents or primary caregivers can be asked whether the child greet people with an appropriate verbal salutation or not. Observation of a child can be done by seeing whether a child is interacting during group activities or respond to a question asked or not.

Emotional competence can be measured by asking the parents or teacher to report whether the child shows affection towards familiar adults, understand the happy or sad feelings of others or develop control after tearful episode or not.

Behaviour problems can be measured by asking whether the child is exceedingly bossy, argumentative, anxious or sensitive towards physical conflict or outbursts. These problems might be inquired by asking about the personality (shyness, introverted etc.) or feelings of inferiority. These are often asked from parents or teachers. It is very difficult to capture by direct observation because they are infrequent behaviours.

Self-regulation can be measured by asking parents or primary caregivers about whether a child refrain from interrupting others when they are speaking or despite minor distractions maintain eye contact with a person or not etc.

Ways to develop and improve Social-Emotional Skills

o Be a role model of behaviours and emotions which you want from your child. Parents are the child’s first teacher. At the first years of life child learn a lot through observation.
o Ask open-ended questions such as “What would you do?” to develop skills to solve problem.
o Use stories to talk your child about different social situations or feelings of others.
o Be responsive to the emotions and behaviours of your child. Responding will play a major role to develop trust between you and your child.
o Encourage kids to try innovative things and learn how much they are able to do. Ask questions when they are upset. Try to understand the root cause of their unhappiness.
o Play games to teach your child how to win or lose, take turns and negotiate.
o Sit with your child when he/she is using a screen (not recommended for the child under 18 months) or engaging in a social activity. Always spend quality time with your child. For example making puzzles or playing turn taking games.

Role of Parents in Social and Emotional Development

Parents are their child’s first teacher and should remain his/her best teacher throughout life. Functioning as a coach parents expose a child to age-appropriate challenges in order to encourage development. They allow the child to explore and learn through interaction with the environment.

Parents help to nurture social-emotional skills due to this infants develop healthy relationships with friends and family members. Even as a baby, the infant is picking up how his/her caregivers respond to their social and emotional needs. He notice how safe he feel at home in their presence. The infant learn how to feel empathy, recognize emotions and say sorry by following caregiver’s lead.

How long does it take to develop social-emotional skills?

Social-emotional growth requires time and even continues throughout life. Early experiences of a child with primary caregivers, family and peers highly influence SED. Through-out our lives our skills are shaped by our own early experiences. These experiences can include raising children, overcoming difficult situations or meeting new people.

Importance of Social and Emotional Development

Early experiences of infants impact the functioning of their brain, the way they show reaction towards stress and their ability to develop congenial relationships. During 1-5 years the brain passes through its most dramatic period in which growth occurs, language and basic motor abilities form and thinking becomes complex. Social and emotional experiences with primary caregivers and interactions with peer groups early in life are important for future personal or academic outcomes and other areas of development.
o As social and emotional skills develop children gain confidence which is required to develop relationships, solve problem and cope with different emotional changes.
o Social and emotional competencies evident early in life are the best predictors of later social and emotional competencies including academic achievement, managing behaviour, developing social connections and bearing frustration with peers.
o Children with greater self-regulation (self-control) are more likely to grow into adults with better physical and mental health. They are less likely to engage in disruptive behaviours i.e. substance abuse. They have fewer financial struggles, higher incomes and fewer chances of criminal history than those who have weaker self-regulatory skills.
o Children cannot perform well in school, family or other context if there will be deficit in social and emotional domain. They experience failure when try to develop strong attachments with primary caregivers. In later life they face difficulties when try to communicate, manage emotions or develop a healthy relationship with peers.
o Emotional or behavioural problems early in life are linked to behavioural and health related problems in adolescence phase including engaging in criminal acts and dropout from school.
o Persistent social-emotional skills deficit is the major risk factor in developing disorders including depression and anxiety.

What if your child have Social-Emotional Deficit?

As soon as you get to know that your child is not performing age appropriate tasks or have social-emotional deficit. You should consult to the healthcare professional. The sooner your child get help the better his/her psychological health will be. Your healthcare provider may be able to help you address the issue or refer you someone who can help. Here are a few examples of specialists who surely can help your child:
o Child psychologist
o Neuropsychologist
o Social worker
o Psychiatrist
o Developmental and behavioural paediatrician
o Speech-language pathologist


Most parents only focus on the physical health and wellbeing of their child. They do not know how much psychological or mental health is important. The psychological health more specifically social and emotional aspects are very important in early life. The psychological development in early life set the stage for development in later life. Those children who are psychologically fit, they become healthy and happy adults. They flourish in every stage of their life including academic, social, emotional, occupational and even marital. It is required from the parents that spend a quality time with your child. If you get to know that there is a deficit in any of psychological domain do consult to the healthcare professional.


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