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Social-Emotional Development Domain

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.



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Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others (Cohen and others 2005). It encompasses both intra- and interpersonal processes.

The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain relationships. (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004, 2)

Infants experience, express, and perceive emotions before they fully understand them. In learning to recognize, label, manage, and communicate their emotions and to perceive and attempt to understand the emotions of others, children build skills that connect them with family, peers, teachers, and the community. These growing capacities help young children to become competent in negotiating increasingly complex social interactions, to participate effectively in relationships and group activities, and to reap the benefits of social support crucial to healthy human development and functioning.

Healthy social-emotional development for infants and toddlers unfolds in an interpersonal context, namely that of positive ongoing relationships with familiar, nurturing adults. Young children are particularly attuned to social and emotional stimulation. Even newborns appear to attend more to stimuli that resemble faces (Johnson and others 1991). They also prefer their mothers’ voices to the voices of other women (DeCasper and Fifer 1980). Through nurturance, adults support the infants’ earliest experiences of emotion regulation (Bronson 2000a; Thompson and Goodvin 2005).

Responsive caregiving supports infants in beginning to regulate their emotions and to develop a sense of predictability, safety, and responsiveness in their social environments. Early relationships are so important to developing infants that research experts have broadly concluded that, in the early years, “nurturing, stable and consistent relationships are the key to healthy growth, development and learning” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000, 412). In other words, high-quality relationships increase the likelihood of positive outcomes for young children (Shonkoff 2004). Experiences with family members and teachers provide an opportunity for young children to learn about social relationships and emotions through exploration and predictable interactions. Professionals working in child care settings can support the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers in various ways, including interacting directly with young children, communicating with families, arranging the physical space in the care environment, and planning and implementing curriculum.

Brain research indicates that emotion and cognition are profoundly interrelated processes. Specifically, “recent cognitive neuroscience findings suggest that the neural mechanisms underlying emotion regulation may be the same as those underlying cognitive processes” (Bell and Wolfe 2004, 366). Emotion and cognition work together, jointly informing the child’s impressions of situations and influencing behavior. Most learning in the early years occurs in the context of emotional supports (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000). “The rich interpenetrations of emotions and cognitions establish the major psychic scripts for each child’s life” (Panksepp 2001). Together, emotion and cognition contribute to attentional processes, decision making, and learning (Cacioppo and Berntson 1999). Furthermore, cognitive processes, such as decision making, are affected by emotion (Barrett and others 2007). Brain structures involved in the neural circuitry of cognition influence emotion and vice versa (Barrett and others 2007). Emotions and social behaviors affect the young child’s ability to persist in goal-oriented activity, to seek help when it is needed, and to participate in and benefit from relationships.

Young children who exhibit healthy social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment are more likely to have good academic performance in elementary school (Cohen and others 2005; Zero to Three 2004). The sharp distinction between cognition and emotion that has historically been made may be more of an artifact of scholarship than it is representative of the way these processes occur in the brain (Barrett and others 2007). This recent research strengthens the view that early childhood programs support later positive learning outcomes in all domains by maintaining a focus on the promotion of healthy social emotional development (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004; Raver 2002; Shonkoff 2004).

Interactions with Adults

Interactions with adults are a frequent and regular part of infants’ daily lives. Infants as young as three months of age have been shown to be able to discriminate between the faces of unfamiliar adults (Barrera and Maurer 1981). The foundations that describe Interactions with Adults and Relationships with Adults are interrelated. They jointly give a picture of healthy social-emotional development that is based in a supportive social environment established by adults. Children develop the ability to both respond to adults and engage with them first through predictable interactions in close relationships with parents or other caring adults at home and outside the home. Children use and build upon the skills learned through close relationships to interact with less familiar adults in their lives. In interacting with adults, children engage in a wide variety of social exchanges such as establishing contact with a relative or engaging in storytelling with an infant care teacher.  

Quality in early childhood programs is, in large part, a function of the interactions that take place between the adults and children in those programs. These interactions form the basis for the relationships that are established between teachers and children in the classroom or home and are related to children’s developmental status. How teachers interact with children is at the very heart of early childhood education (Kontos and Wilcox-Herzog 1997, 11).

Foundation: Interactions with Adults

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Relationships with Adults

Close relationships with adults who provide consistent nurturance strengthen children’s capacity to learn and develop. Moreover, relationships with parents, other family members, caregivers, and teachers provide the key context for infants’ social-emotional development. These special relationships influence the infant’s emerging sense of self and understanding of others. Infants use relationships with adults in many ways: for reassurance that they are safe, for assistance in alleviating distress, for help with emotion regulation, and for social approval or encouragement. Establishing close relationships with adults is related to children’s emotional security, sense of self, and evolving understanding of the world around them. Concepts from the literature on attachment may be applied to early childhood settings, in considering the infant care teacher’s role in separations and reunions during the day in care, facilitating the child’s exploration, providing comfort, meeting physical needs, modeling positive relationships, and providing support during stressful times (Raikes 1996).

Foundation: Relationships with Adults

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Interactions with Peers

In early infancy children interact with each other using simple behaviors such as looking at or touching another child. Infants’ social interactions with peers increase in complexity from engaging in repetitive or routine back-and-forth interactions with peers (for example, rolling a ball back and forth) to engaging in cooperative activities such as building a tower of blocks together or acting out different roles during pretend play. Through interactions with peers, infants explore their interest in others and learn about social behavior/social interaction. Interactions with peers provide the context for social learning and problem solving, including the experience of social exchanges, cooperation, turn-taking, and the demonstration of the beginning of empathy. Social interactions with peers also allow older infants to experiment with different roles in small groups and in different situations such as relating to familiar versus unfamiliar children. As noted, the foundations called Interactions with Adults, Relationships with Adults, Interactions with Peers, and Relationships with Peers are interrelated. Interactions are stepping-stones to relationships. Burk (1996, 285) writes:

We, as teachers, need to facilitate the development of a psychologically safe environment that promotes positive social interaction. As children interact openly with their peers, they learn more about each other as individuals, and they begin building a history of interactions.

Foundation: Interaction with Peers

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Relationships with Peers

Infants develop close relationships with children they know over a period of time, such as other children in the family child care setting or neighborhood. Relationships with peers provide young children with the opportunity to develop strong social connections. Infants often show a preference for playing and being with friends, as compared with peers with whom they do not have a relationship. Howes’ (1983) research suggests that there are distinctive patterns of friendship for the infant, toddler, and preschooler age groups. The three groups vary in the number of friendships, the stability of friendships, and the nature of interaction between friends (for example, the extent to which they involve object exchange or verbal communication).

Foundation: Relationships with Peers

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Identity of Self in Relation to Others

Infants’ social-emotional development includes an emerging awareness of self and others. Infants demonstrate this foundation in a number of ways. For example, they can respond to their names, point to their body parts when asked, or name members of their families. Through an emerging understanding of other people in their social environment, children gain an understanding of their roles within their families and communities. They also become aware of their own preferences and characteristics and those of others.

Foundation: Identity of Self in Relation to Others

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Recognition of Ability

Infants’ developing sense of self-efficacy includes an emerging understanding that they can make things happen and that they have particular abilities. Self-efficacy is related to a sense of competency, which has been identified as a basic human need (Connell 1990). The development of children’s sense of self-efficacy may be seen in play or exploratory behaviors when they act on an object to produce a result. For example, they pat a musical toy to make sounds come out. Older infants may demonstrate recognition of ability through “I” statements, such as “I did it” or “I’m good at drawing.”

Foundation: Recognition of Ability

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Expression of Emotion

Even early in infancy, children express their emotions through facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. The later ability to use words to express emotions gives young children a valuable tool in gaining the assistance or social support of others (Saarni and others 2006). Temperament may play a role in children’s expression of emotion. Tronick (1989, 112) described how expression of emotion is related to emotion regulation and communication between the mother and infant: “the emotional expressions of the infant and the caretaker function to allow them to mutually regulate their interactions . . . the infant and the adult are participants in an affective communication system.”

Both the understanding and expression of emotion are influenced by culture. Cultural factors affect children’s growing understanding of the meaning of emotions, the developing knowledge of which situations lead to which emotional outcomes, and their learning about which emotions are appropriate to display in which situations (Thompson and Goodvin 2005). Some cultural groups appear to express certain emotions more often than other cultural groups (Tsai, Levenson, and McCoy 2006). In addition, cultural groups vary by which particular emotions or emotional states they value (Tsai, Knutson, and Fung 2006). One study suggests that cultural differences in exposure to particular emotions through storybooks may contribute to young children’s preferences for particular emotional states (for example, excited or calm) (Tsai and others 2007).

Young children’s expression of positive and negative emotions may play a significant role in their development of social relationships. Positive emotions appeal to social partners and seem to enable relationships to form, while problematic management or expression of negative emotions leads to difficulty in social relationships (Denham and Weissberg 2004). The use of emotion-related words appears to be associated with how likable preschoolers are considered by their peers. Children who use emotion-related words were found to be better-liked by their classmates (Fabes and others 2001). Infants respond more positively to adult vocalizations that have a positive affective tone (Fernald 1993). Social smiling is a developmental process in which neurophysiology and cognitive, social, and emotional factors play a part, seen as a “reflection and constituent of an interactive relationship” (Messinger and Fogel 2007, 329). It appears likely that the experience of positive emotions is a particularly important contributor to emotional well-being and psychological health (Fredrickson 2000, 2003; Panksepp 2001).

Foundation: Expression of Emotion

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During the first three years of life, children begin to develop the capacity to experience the emotional or psychological state of another person (Zahn-Waxler and Radke-Yarrow 1990). The following definitions of empathy are found in the research literature: “knowing what another person is feeling,” “feeling what another person is feeling,” and “responding compassionately to another’s distress” (Levenson and Ruef 1992, 234). The concept of empathy reflects the social nature of emotion, as it links the feelings of two or more people (Levenson and Ruef 1992). Since human life is relationship-based, one vitally important function of empathy over the life span is to strengthen social bonds (Anderson and Keltner 2002). Research has shown a correlation between empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg 2000). In particular, prosocial behaviors, such as helping, sharing, and comforting or showing concern for others, illustrate the development of empathy (Zahn-Waxler and others 1992) and how the experience of empathy is thought to be related to the development of moral behavior (Eisenberg 2000). Adults model prosocial/empathic behaviors for infants in various ways. For example, those behaviors are modeled through caring interactions with others or through providing nurturance to the infant. Quann and Wien (2006, 28) suggest that one way to support the development of empathy in young children is to create a culture of caring in the early childhood environment: “Helping children understand the feelings of others is an integral aspect of the curriculum of living together. The relationships among teachers, between children and teachers, and among children are fostered with warm and caring interactions.”

Foundation: Empathy

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Emotion Regulation

The developing ability to regulate emotions has received increasing attention in the research literature (Eisenberg, Champion, and Ma 2004). Researchers have generated various definitions of emotion regulation, and debate continues as to the most useful and appropriate way to define this concept (Eisenberg and Spinrad 2004). As a construct, emotion regulation reflects the interrelationship of emotions, cognitions, and behaviors (Bell and Wolfe 2004). Young children’s increasing understanding and skill in the use of language is of vital importance in their emotional development, opening new avenues for communicating about and regulating emotions (Campos, Frankel, and Camras 2004) and helping children to negotiate acceptable outcomes to emotionally charged situations in more effective ways. Emotion regulation is influenced by culture and the historical era in which a person lives: cultural variability in regulation processes is significant (Mesquita and Frijda 1992). “Cultures vary in terms of what one is expected to feel, and when, where, and with whom one may express different feelings” (Cheah and Rubin 2003, 3). Adults can provide positive role models of emotion regulation through their behavior and through the verbal and emotional support they offer children in managing their emotions. Responsiveness to infants’ signals contributes to the development of emotion regulation. Adults support infants’ development of emotion regulation by minimizing exposure to excessive stress, chaotic environments, or over- or understimulation.

Emotion regulation skills are important in part because they play a role in how well children are liked by peers and teachers and how socially competent they are perceived to be (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004). Children’s ability to regulate their emotions appropriately can contribute to perceptions of their overall social skills as well as to the extent to which they are liked by peers (Eisenberg and others 1993). Poor emotion regulation can impair children’s thinking, thereby compromising their judgment and decision making (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004). At kindergarten entry, children demonstrate broad variability in their ability to self-regulate (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000).

Foundation: Emotion Regulation

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Impulse Control

Children’s developing capacity to control impulses helps them adapt to social situations and follow rules. As infants grow, they become increasingly able to exercise voluntary control over behavior such as waiting for needs to be met, inhibiting potentially hurtful behavior, and acting according to social expectations, including safety rules. Group care settings provide many opportunities for children to practice their impulse-control skills. Peer interactions often offer natural opportunities for young children to practice impulse control, as they make progress in learning about cooperative play and sharing. Young children’s understanding or lack of understanding of requests made of them may be one factor contributing to their responses (Kaler and Kopp 1990).

Foundation: Impulse Control

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Social Understanding

During the infant/toddler years, children begin to develop an understanding of the responses, communication, emotional expression, and actions of other people. This development includes infants’ understanding of what to expect from others, how to engage in back-and-forth social interactions, and which social scripts are to be used for which social situations. “At each age, social cognitive understanding contributes to social competence, interpersonal sensitivity, and an awareness of how the self relates to other individuals and groups in a complex social world” (Thompson 2006, 26). Social understanding is particularly important because of the social nature of humans and human life, even in early infancy (Wellman and Lagattuta 2000). Recent research suggests that infants’ and toddlers’ social understanding is related to how often they experience adult communication about the thoughts and emotions of others (Taumoepeau and Ruffman 2008).

Foundation: Social Understanding

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