Your Preschooler’s Social-Emotional Development - Part 1 - Four Basics

7 March 2018

preschool social emotional development 4 basics

Your child’s emotional well-being during their preschool years has a powerful impact on their social relationships now and in the future. The bond between you and your child is the primary basis of their ability to form relationships with others, express emotions and to face difficult challenges. So today we’ll dig deeper into the key areas that support your child’s social-emotional learning.

In our Child Development Guide’s Milestones, which are defined by age, you’ll see specific skills associated with different aspects of social-emotional development. For example, showing concern for a crying friend is a social milestone for a 3-year-old. And for 4-year-olds, a social-emotional milestone is the ability to cooperate with other children. Some of these skills are associated with your child’s ability to engage in relationships with others, while others are associated with positive self-awareness. Yet all of them are related to the four basic areas of your child’s social emotional development:

  1. Relationships with others. Through relationships, children discover who they are and learn to understand others. Starting from birth, relationship-building is the process of establishing emotional connections with others, based on trust and intimacy. Young children feel secure and protected when the adults in their life show that they care by demonstrating affection and understanding. Consider a 20-month-old who wants to cut his own fruit for snack. His grandmother says no. He stamps his feet and sobs. His grandmother tells him she has an idea. She gives him a dull, butter knife and guides his hand to help him cut some bananas. The adult in this situation is sensitive to her grandchild’s growing sense of independence. So she adjusts the situation so he can be independent in a safe way. Doing so, her grandson learns that his interests and needs are important, and what it feels like to be understood by another person. In ways such as these, when preschoolers experience people’s understanding, help and appreciation of their company, they learn to approach the world with openness and enthusiasm. In turn, they grow to be responsive and caring people. For another way to explore your preschooler's relationship building through a new, feline friend we recommend our Skilly-do Book Review, Cat on a Bus.
  2. Self-awareness. Self-awareness is the beginning of your child recognizing himself as a unique individual with his own abilities, characteristics, feelings and interests. Self-awareness for your preschooler at its most basic is the ability to use their own name and the names of others. At the same time, very young children are developing an awareness of what they can do, can’t do and need help with. Preschool children are growing in their ability to control and understand their bodies during different activities throughout every day. For example, in preschool, most 3-year olds know how to put on their coats and hats, but they ask for help in putting on and tying shoes. Notice how today they manage to sit down at the table and eat their whole snack. Or, they take turns when have conversations with peers. Learning to self-evaluate and know when they made appropriate or inappropriate choices is another example of self-awareness. For example, seeing that adding too much water to paint makes it runny and watery, a preschooler easily learns there is a choice to make when adding the water. Possibly next time, he’ll remember. Looking for a good book about early self-awareness and collaborating through play? We recommend our Skilly-do Book Review of Blocks right here.
  3. Emotional regulation. Early in infancy, children express their emotions through facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. Preschool children are learning even more about emotions-- their own as well as other's. Your preschooler’s ability to use words to express emotions gives your child another valuable tool in gaining the assistance of others. They are learning to put words with their feelings. The adults in their lives help them do this through example. So label your own feelings for them to hear, “I am sad that Grandma had to fly home.” This way your little one knows that you have feelings too. You can teach your young children that it’s important and ok to express emotions and that there are safe ways to do so. For example, it’s ok to vent anger, like drawing an angry picture or running in the yard. To support their emotional regulation, your child’s emotions must be accepted, and not ridiculed or minimized by statements like “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Acknowledge your little one’s emotions, even if you aren’t particularly happy about them. “I know you’re angry, but you have to give the toy back to your brother.” Knowing adults respect their feelings teaches a child empathy and respect for others. Knowing adults accept their emotions also helps a child manage powerful feelings and their ability to safely share their emotions with you as they grow. Speaking of, puppets are an easy and creative way to support your child’s emotional development through dramatic play. So make a few Envelope Puppets and see what they reveal about your child’s inner world.
  4. Accountability. This social skill involves your child’s ability to understand and follow routines and rules, and be accountable for them.  Your preschooler’s confidence will grow when she knows what happens next and what to do when it does. For example, from an early age, set up a sleep-time routine. It may start with dinner, followed by a bath and reading a book. Talk with your child through your daily routines. For example, say, “We are going to eat, then put on your jacket, and go to the park.” If the routine changes, let your child know. Routines and rules like these provide stability and predictability, which in turn, foster your child’s sense of security. Our blog, Conquering Clutter has more easy ideas for setting up rules and routines with your preschooler. And when things get out of kilter during busy times of year, our blog 11 Easy Ways to Have Happy Holidays with Young Children has more tips for maintaining stability and building your child's confidence through chaos.

Now that you’ve got the basic parts of social-emotional development in mind, in Part 2, we’ll cover individual temperament next. How did these concepts help with your child's emotional growth? Let us know your feedback right here.

+ Inspiration/Photo credit goes to Tambako the Jaguar’s image of snow leopard cubs playing.  You can learn more about how this endangered species grows and thrives here at the Snow Leopards Trust.