10.5 Social and Emotional Development


What Is It?

Social and emotional development is at the core of school readiness—and it only develops well within a responsive, meaningful, ongoing relationship. A healthy prenatal environment and sensitive responsive relationships with adults help young children to:

  • pay attention and learn – because they were helped to manage or regulate their reactions to external and internal events as young children;

  • explore and learn – because they learned as young children through their attachment relationships that adults will keep them safe;

  • approach new tasks and information with competence and confidence – because they learned as young children that they were capable learners; and

  • work with their peers and teachers – because they learned as young children how to be in relationships.

Self-regulation, an attachment relationship, a positive sense of self, social skills, and interest in being in relationships are the emotional and social foundations of school and life success.

How To

You support parents as their child’s partner in social and emotional development by:

  • developing a warm, nurturing, respectful relationship with the parents. You are providing an experience of a trusting relationship in which the parents are honored for their knowledge.

  • noticing and admiring the parents’ acts of nurturance; for example, “NaKeisha really needed you to pick her up and hold her close. You knew just how to help her stop crying. She’s looking at you so lovingly now.”

  • sharing with parents how helpful it is when they respond sensitively to their child’s needs and soothe their child when she is upset. When young children’s needs are met by others, over time they eventually learn how to soothe and calm themselves when they become overwhelmed with emotion. Children who can manage their emotions are better able to concentrate on exploring, discovering and learning new skills.

  • explaining that infants and toddlers need to learn to regulate their reactions so that they are not too excited or too uninterested to interact or explore. For example, “Valeria seems to wander around. I’m not sure what would interest her. Is there something we could do with her and keep her interested for a while? We want to help her be excited about learning.”

  • supporting parents in making sure their child is safe and secure and feels safe, especially as he begins to move and explore; for example, “See how Gabriel turns to look at you after he crawls about halfway across the room? It makes him feel safe to explore when he knows you’re nearby, watching him.”

  • encouraging parents to show excitement and interest in their child’s experiences; for example, “Charlie is really enjoying having you calling to him from the other end of the tunnel. I can see how much fun he has when you’re playing with him.”

  • helping parents think of ways to tell their child that they see her as competent; for example, “You’re working hard on that puzzle. You’re good at putting puzzles together.”

  • helping parents think about how to provide just enough help to let the child stay engaged and be successful without solving problems for them; for example, “Try putting that big block on the bottom. The other ones might stack better.”

Learn More

This News You Can Use discusses the importance of relationships and how they support infants' and toddlers' emerging social and emotional development. Readers can explore what this development look like and how adults can support it using the sample goals from School Readiness Goals for Infants and Toddlers in Head Start and Early Head Start Programs.


Dr. Alison Gopnik, the keynote speaker at the 2010 Birth to Three Institute Conference: Opening Plenary, talks about how babies see the world and how they have learning abilities similar to those of scientists. Program staff, education coordinators, trainers, and parents will find this information useful in their daily work with young children.