Social and Emotional Development

Table of contents


As we grow older we change; these changes are most visible during infancy and childhood. From birth, babies grow larger and show noticeable development in both their social and intellectual competence. The study of age-related changes in human behaviour is referred to as developmental psychology. Child development refers to the psychological and biological changes that occur in individuals from birth to adolescence.

By understanding child development, psychologists know what to expect in infants and children at each developmental stage, and can therefore establish the limitations in infant’s and children’s growth and achievement. “It has been said that our emotions make us seem most human” (1). Everyone has emotions, even babies that are only a few days old. Although babies do not appear to have fully developed personalities in their first few days of life, observations show that they actually exhibit quite considerable differences in temperament during this period.

Some babies are calm and generally quiet, while others appear to be more ‘fussy’ and are quite active. They demonstrate remarkable emotional behaviours – for example they smile, laugh, cry, show fear, discomfort and excitement, and they form loving attachments. Emotions flood our existence and affect us all the time, and no study of human behaviour, including child behaviour, would be complete without also examining the power and value of our emotions. Social and emotional development defined:

Social development refers to the development of interaction between individuals and the surrounding human world, including relationships with others and also the social skills needed to fit into our culture and society. Social development can also be defined as the ability to behave in a manner that allows the individual to be accepted by both their peers and society as a whole. “Emotional development encompasses the feelings that we have about ourselves and others, as well as our capabilities to function well in the world from a social standpoint” (2).

In children, emotional development refers to the attainment of emotional capabilities and their expansion as the child grows. These capabilities enable children to have feelings about what they do and also about others. As babies and children mature, their emotional capabilities expand, allowing them to develop a variety of skills that they will need in their adult lives. There are many different stages in the development of a child’s emotions and the child learns a new type of emotion at each stage.

Social-emotional development is the combination of learning discretion, openness and honesty in interacting with individuals (or groups) in a way that contributes positively to members of society. The social aspect relates specifically to interactions with people, whereas the emotional aspect relates to understanding and appropriately controlling one’s emotions. “A proper combination and coordination of social and emotional development is critical to leading a purposeful, fulfilling life” (3).

The current and future social functioning of a child will be largely effected by their social and emotional development, as will their educational and career accomplishments. This is due to the fact that strong social and emotional development, when encouraged and promoted at a young age, will help children settle well in school, behave suitably, and work cooperatively and independently, showing high confidence.

Conversely, children whose social and emotional development is slow or stunted will sometimes exhibit difficulty in forming relationships, and are at risk of encountering academic difficulties or later developing physical or mental health problems. This is why it is so important for parents/guardians/caregivers to understand and fulfill children’s emotional needs at a young age. Processes of social and emotional development: By understanding the stages of infants’ and children’s social and emotional development we are able to make sense of their behaviour.

Additionally, it allows us to help infants and children deal with and work through any experiences that they have had, because we can understand and acknowledge how the infant/child is feeling. However, we are all individuals with individual personalities, and as such, we must remember that children will develop in different ways and at different rates from each other. Below I will portray the age-related development in infants and children both socially and emotionally.

The stages of social development in children

Infants (1 month)

Even newborn infants show social behaviours. They love to be touched, held, smiled at and cooed to. At as young an age as one month old, infants can be seen to experiment with their faces and expressions, and may even try to mimic adults’ facial gestures. Because their facial muscles are fully developed at birth, they can make many expressions – “Newborns can smile slightly, knit their brows, or appear to pout or cry, and if you give them something that tastes awful, they look disgusted” (4).

Infants (3 months)

At three months of age, infants will spend their time watching what is going on around them.

They will show their first real smile, perhaps accompanying it with some gurgling in an attempt to start interacting with others, especially parents/guardians.

Infants (4 months)

At this stage the infant has created a meaningful bond with parents/guardians. Although new people will often be greeted with squeals of glee and excitement, most of this enthusiasm is aimed at parents/guardians. Anxiety around strangers may begin to occur as the infant

Infants (7 months)

At this age the infant is generally more mobile, and may start to take notice of other infants around him/her.

However this interest will possibly only be exhibited as a quick glance or a grab. The infant may be too busy developing other skills to really take notice of another infant in the same room. Showing anxiety around strangers may start to occur because they really prefer their immediate family to anyone else, especially strangers.

Infants (12 months)

As the infant approaches the end of their first year of life, they may begin to appear more ‘needy’, crying when they are left alone and anxious when another person (excluding the father) lifts them up.

Separation anxiety can sometimes occur in children between 10 months and 18 months approximately, where the child will prefer the mother to the exclusion of all others.

Toddler (13 to 23 months)

During this period toddlers becomes interested in the world around them, particularly how it relates to them. They also become interested in other children, especially older children. As toddlers begin to talk, they start to communicate with others and can make friends. They may be seen to imitate their friends and spend a lot of time observing them. However they will be extremely protective of their toys.

By the age of two toddlers will play beside other children. Imitation becomes more likely and positive social interactions are often accompanied by appropriate emotional responses, such as laughing and smiling. They will also try to assert independence at this age, and may refuse to hold their parents’ hand or throw a tantrum when told to do something that they do not want to do.

Child (24 to 36 months)

Between the age of two and three, children can often become quite self-centered; they are still unable to comprehend that others have feelings and they cannot put themselves in other people’s shoes.

However, by the age of three, children begin to play cooperatively, and they may make one or two ‘special’ friends, i. e. show friendship preferences. They learn how to share and take turns, and the choice of game/activity is usually more important than who is playing with them.

Child (4-7 years)

During this time children can be seen to form their first stable friendships. Having a friend is important to them, and they will actively seek to spend time with their friends. They will also share with them willingly. Children at this age tend to start choosing same-sex friends.

Child (8-11 years)

Children between the ages of eight and eleven years tend to base friendships on shared common interests and compatibility with others. They form strong same-sex friendships, and gender differences begin to occur. For example, boys tend to meet each other in large groups and partake in activities such as sports, whereas girls meet in smaller groups, usually in pairs, and share secrets and confidences.

The stages of emotional development in children

Infants (0-1 month)

Infants at this age are trying to adjust to life outside the womb. They require a safe, calm environment and need to have a routine. Crying is quite common at this age.

Infants (2-3 months)

At this age, infants show many expressions through smiling, frowning, cooing, gurgling and body movements. They recognise familiar people and take comfort in feeding and being cuddled. They tend to be more settled at this age and get into a regular routine.

Infants (4-6 months)

Infants are able to laugh make other happy noises. They are calmed by hearing familiar voices and being picked up and cuddled. However they begin to exhibit fear and anxiety around strangers.

Infants (6-12 months)

Between the age of six and twelve months, infants show an even stronger reaction to strangers, and cling to their parents/guardians for comfort and reassurance. They often suck their thumb or cling to a favourite blanket to soothe themselves. Their emotional expressions expand to include both sadness and fear.

Toddlers (12-18 months)

Toddlers begin to show negative emotions such as throwing tantrums, refusal of food and resistance to sleeping and nap-times. They are scared when separated from their parents/guardians and often cry when they see them leave; toddlers at this age require reassurance and comfort from their parents/guardians.

Child (24 months)

Extreme emotion and behaviour is displayed by children at the age of approximately two years. They can be very dependent or interdependent, aggressive or calm, and helpful or stubborn. Tantrums are common at this age and children often cry, scream, kick, slap, and bite. They can get very angry when stopped from doing something, and they require the parent/guardian to tell them what is right and what is wrong. They do not fully understand the notion of sharing but they will play beside other children.

Changes can upset children at this age and they require routine, although they also become more independent. Fear and anxiety around strangers begins to decrease, but fear of separation from their parent/guardian at bedtime is still frightening. Children have a short attention p and are easily distracted from what they are doing. Other feelings that surface around this age are sympathy, pity and pride. Finally, children begin to cope with separation from parents/guardians by retaining an image of them in their minds; this can occur between eighteen months and three years of age.

Child (36 months)

Children continue to be self-centered at this age, but they are generally less angry and frustrated. In fact, they show a balance of happiness and satisfaction. They develop their identity and confidence through play, which is a main activity at this stage of development. Children may have a fear of being abandoned by their parents/guardians, and they may also show a fear of the dark. Additionally, children at the age of three have a vivid imagination, and they may create imaginary friends.

They have the ability to bargain with others, but they still cannot reason. Distraction techniques still tend to work on children at this age.

Child (4 years)

Play is still very important to children aged approximately four years, and they enjoy silly games, jokes, and generally ‘showing off’. However, they still exhibit anger, stubbornness, kicking, slapping, biting, and blaming others for their negative behaviour. They need their parents/guardians for support and reassurance. They begin to develop a sense of the past and the future.

Child (5 years)

At five years of age children are seen to become more independent, and can engage in conversation with strangers and be friendly to them rather than scared and anxious. In general these children start to become less angry and frustrated, and they can be protective, loving and kind towards parents/guardians, younger children, and pets. Their emotions have developed so that they can be serious and realistic at times, but they can also worry that something bad might happen to their parent/guardian when they are not there, leaving them alone and without the necessary support they require.

Child (5-6 years)

As children approach their sixth birthday or soon after it, their mood swings are more stable as they start to become comfortable with who they are. They start to want to do things for themselves such as bathing, brushing their hair and washing their teeth. They can understand when they have done something wrong, and that they may have to be punished for what they have done. They have a strong sense of family to whom they are loyal, and they show protective tendencies towards younger siblings and pets, and sometimes even their parents/guardians.

Child (7-12 years)

At seven to twelve years of age, children work through many emotional issues. They start to understand ‘self-concept’, which is partly created by their classroom ability. Their capability to socialise and to fit in with peers helps to determine the strength of the relationships they create with those peers. Family relationships are determined partly by the approval they receive from their parents/guardians and also by their siblings. This stage of emotional development is extremely active for children, who are keen to investigate new activities and are eager to learn new things.

Often children in this stage respond positively “…to advice about safety, healthy lifestyles, and avoidance of high-risk behaviors” (5). From the above descriptions of social and emotional developmental stages in children, it is clear that there are many overlaps between the two, and to examine one in the absence of the other would provide only a partial picture of child development. Strategies to promote social and emotional development: A primary goal of any creche is to promote healthy social and emotional development in all children in their care. …. Children’s social and emotional skills are vital for school readiness and are key building blocks for cognitive development and knowledge acquisition at very young ages” (6). Therefore, knowing what can be done to promote the social and emotional development of children is vital for their overall growth and development as a person. A positive environment is crucial in achieving this, specifically in the areas of love and affection, security and stability, and opportunities to socialise.

With regards to the former, love and affection, all children require unconditional love and affection, particularly from their parents/guardians and their carers, e. g. creche staff. It is vital for children to understand that they will be loved and valued because of who they are rather than what they do. In this way, children will be free to develop their personalities without fear of consequences such as anger, disgust or abandonment, and know that the love and support they require will remain constant.

This gives children a sense of life-long security, without which children often experience severe difficulty in forming meaningful relationships in later life. This is why it is vital for both parents/guardians and carers to provide this type of unconditional care for children, valuing them regardless of what they do. In this type of environment, children can grow and learn without the fear and worry of failure or doing something ‘wrong’; after-all making mistakes and learning from them is part of growing as an individual.

An environment that is conducive to children’s social and emotional development must be secure and stable; it must be a predictable one where children know that they are safe and cared for at all times. When a child feels secure they are often observed to be more independent and self-assured, whereas children who lack a secure stable environment often require more attention from parents/guardians and carers. This might be because children in the secure environment come to realise that there is always a caring adult there for them if they need anything, but children who do not have a secure environment to feel settled in have a fear that they ay be deserted and left to fend for themselves. It is possible to achieve this type of safe and secure environment by implementing routines and by setting boundaries and providing a sense of consistency for the child. In creating routine for a child, the child comes to learn and anticipate what will happen on a daily basis, such as washing and getting dressed, having breakfast, going to a child-minder/creche, returning home, eating dinner, and going to bed. They learn the pattern of events that take place and quickly become used to it.

In a creche situation, carers can help children understand the routine by explaining it to them, for example, letting the children know that they are going to have lunch in five minutes, or that soon it is nap-time. Additionally, keeping rules consistent helps prevent children from displaying challenging behaviours and avoids confusion in the child. By keeping expectations of behaviour constant, children realise what they can and cannot do and understand that these expectations do not change on a daily basis.

Finally, it is important to provide opportunities for children to socialise with others, especially other children. Children naturally use these interactions to develop their social and emotional skills, for example, by observing the social behaviours and emotional reactions of others to particular situations and experiences. Factors that may affect social and emotional development: Another important aspect of children’s successful social and emotional development relates to the factors that affect this type of development.

For example, any difficulties in another aspect of development can lead to fewer or no opportunities to socialise with others, and may also create low self-esteem and confidence in children. There have been numerous studies carried out on the possible factors impinging upon social and emotional development because an understanding of these factors can ultimately help us to either avoid the negative ones or try to obtain/retain the positive ones. To begin with, I will examine the effects of delays in other areas of children’s development on their social and emotional development, namely ognitive factors, linguistic factors and physical factors. Firstly, children’s cognitive ability and cognitive development will affect their social and emotional development; for example if a child does not have the required cognitive capacity to play a certain game with set rules with other children, they cannot take part in that game. These children will therefore miss this opportunity of developing both their social and emotional skills in this situation.

Human brains are continually developing and changing in response to experiences; “Our thinking brain evolved by building on parts that are involved in emotion and feelings, causing them to be intricately linked” (7). Emotions are created and identified by the brain, and they directly influence our behaviours and attitudes. For example, unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, anxiety or distress can impair thinking, whereas pleasant emotions (e. g. calmness, security, happiness, self-belief) tend to enhance thinking, and therefore emotional regulation is a key skill that children need to learn.

Similarly, delayed or impaired language development will affect social and emotional development. A study carried out by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2002 examined the social and emotional development of late-talking toddlers, and reported that late talkers were rated higher in depression/withdrawal and also lower in social relatedness and pretend play or imitation. The observations that were made indicated that late talkers were more serious, more depressed/withdrawn, and less interested in play.

Additionally, these late-talking toddlers were reported to be lower in their socialisation skills. It was concluded that toddlers who have delayed expressive language are associated with poorer social and emotional adjustment than toddlers who had no language difficulties. The results of this study may be due to the fact that if a child cannot properly communicate with others and express him/herself, he/she will find it harder to create relationships with adults, family members and other children.

As a result the child may not engage in role-play with other children, which is used by children (aged approximately two to six years) to explore social and emotional relationships. The child may not be able to communicate their message successfully to family members, adults or other children, and often become frustrated and even aggressive when this occurs. This negative social and emotional reaction can mean that other children do not want to play with the child, and this in turn worsens the problem.

Within a creche or other childcare facility, and indeed within the family environment, it is vital for carers/parents/guardians to help the child communicate effectively with others and actively support the child when expressing him/herself. Problems with the physical development of a child often cause difficulties for that child in joining in other children’s games, because most games require some level of physicality. For example, jigsaw puzzles require the use of children’s fine manipulative skills, as do other activities like drawing.

Fine motor skills are used by children when they, for example, engage in imaginative play such as ‘house’, where they might need to pretend to pour a drink or cut some food for their playmate. Gross motor skills might be utilised by children when they are throwing a ball or Frisbee, or playing soccer. Because children with physical difficulties may not be able to participate in these kinds of games, they again miss opportunities to interact with other children and their social and emotional development can suffer as a result.

For boys, this is especially relevant because as they become older they generally tend to value physical skills more than girls do, and this can mean that some boys may end up feeling inferior to their peers. Genetic disorders and learning difficulties can also effect the social and emotional development of children. Children who have either a genetic disorder or a learning difficulty can exhibit limits in their ability to develop appropriate social interactions and emotional responses, because often they have communication difficulties or problems comprehending the responses of others.

The development of poor attachments between children and parents/guardians is also a contributing factor to the poor social and emotional development of children. In the first few months of an infant’s life, a strong bond needs to be formed between that infant and their parents/guardians, so that the infant feels safe, secure, loved and protected. This need for a strong bond carries over into childhood when children continue to require unconditional love.

Unfortunately there are many reasons that a strong bond is not always formed, for example, post-natal depression, illness (of either the infant or the parent/guardian), premature birth, being orphaned, divorce/separation of parents/guardians and drug/alcohol abuse to name but a few. Without this strong bond and notion of unconditional love, children often fail to settle and can show unwanted social and emotional behaviours including anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration. Poverty is also a factor that can negatively affect the social and emotional development of a child.

When a child is living in poverty he or she may not have the social opportunities that other children have, and may not be able to attend activities including soccer, swimming, dancing, art class and so forth; money may be an issue for the child’s parent/guardian, or the necessary facilities may just not be available to the child. As the child gets older and becomes more aware of their peers, they often start to feel different due to the lack of opportunities available to them when compared to their peers, and can lack in confidence because of this.

In turn, they might start to refrain from joining in games and conversations with their peers, compounding the effect on their social and emotional development. If the cultural background of children’s families is different to that of their peers, the children often feel anxious and afraid that they may be rejected by peers, particularly older children. It is for this reason that these children will often hide differences in their culture from their peers, such as times when they are fasting or rules regarding the other gender that they have to follow.

Children need to be confident about their culture and background to reach their full potential, and therefore these children will most likely suffer socially and emotionally if they do not take pride in their cultural differences. Young children will often not have had opportunities to socialise with other young children, for example, children from travelling families may never have been to any kind of preschool. Finally, environmental factors can also play a role in the social and emotional development of children. For example, some children in rural areas are living in poverty, and additionally transport is often scarce.

Therefore opportunities to participate in activities like sports, visiting libraries and shows, and attending parent-toddler groups is often difficult and sometimes impossible. These children do not receive the necessary chances for social interactions with other children and adults, and subsequently often have social and emotional difficulties. To help avoid social and emotional difficulties in children, childcare workers must strive to identify any children who are being affected by any of the above factors, so that they can try to work through the issue with that child.

In doing this, childcare workers can help the child to overcome the particular issue and begin to develop their emotions and social competency to widely accepted and appropriate standards. If a child is seen to be delayed (for their age-group) in their social and emotional development, the childcare worker should observe that child (with permission) in an attempt to establish the cause of the delay. For example, in a creche there may be a child who has a stutter or stammer, and that child may find it difficult to communicate successfully with other children.

Similarly, a child who is learning two languages at home (because, for example, of different nationality parents/guardians) may find it difficult to remain speaking in only one language at a time. These situations often cause a child to become frustrated, angry or upset. Other children in that creche may observe this behaviour and decide that they do not want to play with the child, further decreasing the likelihood of the child forming friendships and learning the appropriate social and emotional behaviours in both themselves and in others.

However, if a childcare worker endeavors to identify these problems early on, they can then help the children. For example, by ensuring that they make eye-contact with the child who stammers/stutters, the child can become calm and speak more clearly because they know they are being listened to and that they are being given the child-carer’s full attention. In the case of the child learning two languages simultaneously, the childcare worker can ensure that there is a comfortable atmosphere where the child feels at ease.

They can also avoid speaking to the child in the language other than the one taught in that childcare facility. If the taught language is English they should only speak to the child in English to help stop him/her from mixing up their languages. These strategies should help children communicate more effectively with others, increasing their social interactions and ultimately improving their social and emotional development.


Since social and emotional psychology has been studied, many theorists have put forward theories about the development of social and emotional competence.

Some of these theorists include Gardner (theory of multiple intelligences), Erikson (stages of personality development theory), Piaget (cognitive development theory), Kohlberg (constructivist theory – stages of moral development), Maslow (hierarchy of needs theory), Bandura (social learning theory), Freud (psychoanalytical theory), Thorndike & Skinner (operant conditioning theory; devised by Thorndike and developed further by Skinner), Bruner (theory of cognitive development), Vygotsky (social learning theory), and Pavlov (classical conditioning theory).

Below I will examine the theories posited by five famous theorists, namely Howard Gardner, Abraham Maslow, Lev Vygotsky, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Erick Erikson. Howard Gardner: Howard Gardner is from the United States; he was born in 1943. With regards to educational institutes today, Gardner’s work and his ‘multiple intelligences’ theory has had a profound effect. Gardner’s theory is based on the belief that ‘intelligence’ (especially its traditional meaning) does not adequately account for the numerous abilities that individuals display.

Instead, he proposes that there are seven different kinds of intelligence, and his “…categories are quite broad in their definition of intelligence, including such aspects as social grace and athletic skill” (8). For example, a child who displays aptitude for numbers is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles with numbers. Gardner suggests that perhaps the child who struggles with numbers is intelligent in others areas, such as language, or simply needs to be taught the information in another way.

The seven intelligences identified by Gardner

  • Linguistic intelligence –the ability to learn languages and the capacity to employ language to reach particular goals or objectives
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence – the ability to think logically to solve problems, to complete mathematical procedures, and to explore scientific issues.
  • Musical intelligence – the capacity to recognise and compose musical rhythms, pitches and tones, and generally the skill in performing, composing and appreciating musical patterns
  • Bodily-kinesthetic ntelligence – the ability to use cognition to coordinate body movements, so that the body (or part of the body) can be employed to solve problems.
  • Spatial intelligence – the ability to recognise and use the patterns of wide space and more confined areas.
  • Interpersonal intelligence – the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, desires and emotions of other people in order to, for example, work effectively with others.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence – the capacity to understand oneself and to appreciate one’s emotions, fears and motivations, and to be able to use such information to regulate our lives.

With regards to social and emotional development in children specifically, I will focus on Gardner’s interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. However it must be remembered that Gardner believes that these seven intelligences are almost always inter-related and that they rarely operate in isolation. Gardner refers to social skills as ‘interpersonal intelligence’, the ability to liaise well with others and understand their emotional reactions, and to emotional competence as ‘intrapersonal intelligence’, the ability to understand oneself and one’s emotions.

Within a creche environment, Gardner’s theory can be utilised to implement new teaching methods for children. For example, if a child is finding it difficult to learn the letters of the alphabet when written down, the childcare worker could try to teach the child by singing the alphabet song. Similarly, if a child shows a lack of interest in a lesson, the teacher could try to use a positive and creative alternative to teach, such as relating the lesson to a favourite toy or TV show.

As previously observed, a child needs to feel confident and happy within him/herself to form meaningful relationships with others in order to develop their social and emotional skills. Therefore, finding new ways of teaching young children and explaining things to them will aid their learning, thus boosting their confidence, and ultimately supporting social and emotional development.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow was an American humanistic psychologist, famous for his ‘hierarchy of needs’ theory which was developed as part of his research into ‘self-actualisation’ – fulfilling one’s full potential.

Humanistic psychologists believe that all people have an innate desire to reach their full potential. Maslow posited that before people are free to engage in self-actualisation, (i. e. free to continue fulfilling his/her full potential), they must first meet certain human needs, both physical and psychological. Maslow created a visual aid to explain these needs, a pyramid that people must ‘climb’ in order to reach the top level of self-actualisation; he called this pyramid the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows a clear account of the needs of young children in order to be comfortable in their environment, and even within themselves. The bottom level of the pyramid represents the basic physiological needs of humans, examples of which are food, water, air, sleep, sex, and touch. Within a creche environment, these basic needs might include food, water, sleep, educated staff members and warmth. Without these needs being met in a creche a child may be in pain, or feel sick or discomfort.

Childcare workers must therefore ensure that the creche is providing the necessary things for children in order for them to be able to move to the next level – ‘security and stability’. Security and stability are imperative for the development of humans, and include things such as physical security, physiological security, family security, and health security for young children. A creche must strive to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for all children (e. g. ensuring outside areas are gated, poisonous substances are locked away, and stair-guards are in place).

Love and belonging is the third level in the pyramid; these are social needs that involve the forming of meaningful relationships and friendships. Within the creche environment, it is important for staff members to form a strong bond with all children so that they feel comfortable and supported whilst at that creche. Similarly, the children need to form friendships with other children in the creche to fulfill this level. “A child must feel loved, and feel like they can belong to a social group in order to feel comfortable within their surroundings” (9).

Children in a creche must also feel accepted and recognised by their group of friends in order to feel truly welcome and comfortable. If a child does not have their needs at this level met, he/she may show signs of loneliness, anxiety or depression, that is, their social and emotional development may suffer. After this stage, the individual continues on to the fourth stage of the pyramid – the esteem level. This level is achieved when people feel satisfied with what they have achieved and accomplished.

For children, this self-esteem is needed so that children are free to learn and absorb new information. Within the creche setting, it is important for young children to believe in themselves and their ability in order to be open to learning new information and skills, including social and emotional skills. How can a child achieve the self-esteem needed for learning when they, for example, are living in fear of abuse, know that their family is on the poverty line, or know that their parents are in trouble with the law?

Finally, the top of the pyramid represents self-actualisation, and for young children this means understanding who they are as a person. Children achieve this by knowing about themselves and learning about who they are. From this model, it is clear that in order for children to achieve social and emotional competencies and reach self-fulfillment, they must have nourishing food, a loving and secure home with heat, and the feeling of being safe before he/she is free to learn these skills at school.

Creche workers must therefore ensure that all children’s needs (in relation to the pyramid) are being met within the creche, and indeed within the home where possible, for example, by discussing any observed issues with parents/guardians. Each foundation level must be strong to reach the next level, and if one level is weak for a particular child, the needs higher up in the pyramid will be difficult to achieve because all needs are inter-related.

Within a creche, staff might fulfill children’s needs through “…activity, circle time, or individual attention” (10), so that each and every child will receive the best attention and experience possible. To aid the development of social and emotional skills in children, children need to form relationships with both staff and other children, and to do this they have to feel healthy (physiological needs met), secure (safety needs met), loved and accepted (social needs met), and confident and proud of themselves (esteem needs met).

They will then feel fulfilled according to Maslow, and become well-adjusted children and adults. Creche workers must therefore ensure that children climb this pyramid appropriately, creating strong foundations along the way, for social and emotional developmental success. Lev Vygotsky: Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) was born in Orsha (Belarus), and he carried out substantial work in the area of developmental psychology, child development, and education during his life, adopting a social learning view of development and building upon the theory proposed by Piaget.

Vygotsky believed that there is a strong relationship between language development and thought, a connection between speech (internal and external) and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. He claimed that internal speech grows from external speech through a method of internalisation, but that internal speech, in its mature form, would not be understood by anyone but the thinker. Children can, he claimed, only think out loud – that is, they say their thoughts out loud. Therefore, he claimed that “…thought itself develops socially” (11).

Vygotsky claims that initially language is used as an external instrument by children to socially interact with others. This instrument is also used by children to regulate their own behaviours in a sort of ‘self-talk’ way – the child talks aloud to steer their thoughts and behaviours. As the child practices and uses this ‘self-talk’, they continue not only to steer their behaviour but also to self-direct and self-regulate their behaviour. Eventually at approximately the age of five, the ‘self-talk’ usually disappears because it has become internalised and appropriated.

In this was, as children get older, self-talk develops into internal speech and is understood to be different from social speech by the child. It is in this way that emotional development occurs – the child learns to regulate their emotions by internal talk. Similarly, social skills develop as the child learns when to use social speech and when to use internal speech appropriately. “Inner speech is not comparable in form to external speech. External speech is the process of turning thought into words. Inner speech is the opposite; it is the conversion of speech into inward thought” (12).

Within a creche, a carer can help to develop the child’s social and emotional behaviours by, for example, by playing games where the child has to think of a day at the zoo. The child will have to turn the words of the carer into an internal thought and will therefore practice this skill. Similarly, the carer can ask the child to talk about something ‘fun’ that they did recently, so that the child has to verbalise their thoughts. Children will also learn how to control their emotions and behaviours when carrying out these activities, becoming more confident and self-assured.

Vygotsky also spoke about the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) – the range of tasks that the child cannot do alone, but can do with the help of an adult or older child. This technique of assisting children’s learning is referred to as ‘scaffolding’ by Vygotsky. Through scaffolding, he suggests that children’s current knowledge is built upon by new knowledge from the adult/older child, and as a result the child learns a new skill based on an existing one. An example of this might be when a carer in a creche helps a child to clap their hands to a song, until that child has learnt to clap by him/herself.

Vygotsky believed that children learn through interactions with their surrounding culture; he proposed that the cognitive development of children is enhanced when they work in their ZPD, and that to reach their ZPD, children need help from more competent individuals to support or ‘scaffold’ them as they learn the new skills. He argued that “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological. ” (13).

Carers working in creches can help children by adjusting the amount of help and guidance they give in accordance with the child’s current performance. Language is important within this process, as a child’s disorganised, spontaneous and sometimes illogical concepts are helped by the systematic and rational concepts of the more skilled carer. For example, if a child is doing a jigsaw puzzle and is having trouble completing it, the carer can explain to the child about the side pieces and the corner pieces, and help them to understand the correct method to finishing the puzzle.

With practice the child will eventually learn to complete the puzzle, that is, the carer will provide ‘scaffolding’ for the child in relation to doing the task. In conclusion, Vygotsky’s theory of development states that interactions with other people are critical for successful cognitive development in children. Lawrence Kohlberg: Kohlberg was born in 1927 in New York, and died in 1987. He was a constructivist psychologist who suggested that children learn because of the things that happen to them, including interaction with the surrounding environment and exploration of same.

Kohlberg also examined the development of children’s thoughts surrounding the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; he suggested that there are three main stages in children’s (and adult’s) moral development and each stage is divided into two parts. His stages of moral development are described in the following bullet points.

Pre-conventional Stage (6 – 13 years)

  • In this stage Kohlberg posits that children will obey rules to avoid being punished.
  • They will also obey rules to gain rewards.

Conventional Stage (13 – 16 years)

  • Between these ages Kohlberg suggests that children conform to behaviour so that they can both win approval from others and be accepted by others.
  • At this stage the children also believe that being ‘well-behaved’ means conforming to authority and doing one’s duty, for example, obeying the laws in place in one’s society.

Post-conventional (16 + years)

  • Finally, the post-conventional stage is explained by Kohlberg as the stage when adolescents and adults begin to question the things that they believe are either not fair or not true. For example, an adolescent may begin to question a figure of authority, such as a teacher, if they believe that the rules made by this authority figure are unfair. Similarly, a person may choose to ignore a certain law if that person believes that it is generally ignored by others due to a lack of fairness.
  • Within this stage of moral development, people start to act in accordance with their own personal moral judgments, and to use their own conscience to guide their decision-making with regards to obeying authority.

Although Kohlberg used predominantly male subjects in his first studies, similar research carried out by others, with samples of males and females from many countries, have found that the stages do occur in this way with few cultural differences observed. This suggests that young children do not understand the difference between right and wrong, but rather act in particular ways that might seem to be displaying moral reasoning, but which are actually thought to be aimed at avoiding punishment, gaining reward, or both.

Additionally, young children for this reason may not understand concepts such as ‘ownership’ because they will require an explanation as to why they cannot have everything they want. For example, young children are prone to temptation and may therefore take another child’s toys or food within a creche. What they require here is an explanation from the carer about having to ask to play with another child’s toy, or to be told the reason that they cannot take another child’s food.

They require help and assistance to develop their conscience and moral reasoning. In a childcare facility like a creche, carers can apply Kohlberg’s theory to teaching the children that they look after. Helping children in a creche to understand why certain actions are right and others are wrong should be a primary concern for carers. Supporting moral development in a child means that the child will know how to act appropriately in social situations, and how to control their emotions and resulting behaviours.

For example, if a young child has been observed hitting other children to get their toys, the carer should sit with that child and explain to him/her that it is not acceptable to hit others and take their toys. One method of doing this might be for the carer to ask the child to imagine that another child had hit him/her and took their toy, and to ask the child to explain how they would feel in this situation. If the child has trouble with this instruction, the carer could employ the use of puppets to use in a sort of role-play with the child; young children enjoy play using puppets, often believing that they are ‘real’.

The carer could prompt the child, for example, saying “would you feel happy or sad if you were hit and your toy was taken by someone”; the child (unless below the age of approximately 4 years) will most likely understand they would feel sad in this situation. In this way, children’s emotional intelligence is developed, which in turn will develop their social skills as they will begin to understand what is and is not acceptable when liaising with others. Therefore, Kohlberg’s theory is applicable within a creche and in my opinion, can add value to teaching techniques.

The main disagreement that I have with the theory is that I believe the ages he has assigned to each stage can actually be applied to children at younger ages. More recent researchers in the area of child development and education have suggested that young children can be helped to learn about morals, feelings and behaviour through particular activities. Some of these activities include sharing tools when playing with sand/water, learning to focus until the end of a story, and also recognising some of their own feelings and experiences in the books, and learning how to treat and act around any visitors to the creche.

Sigmund Freud and Erick Erikson

Sigmund Freud, a famous psychoanalytical theorist, put forward a five-stage theory of emotional development. Erich Erikson, also a psychoanalytical theorist and former student of Freud’s, later developed on Freud’s theory. Both believed that emotional development is based on the idea that

  1. behaviour is steered consciously and unconsciously by our mind,
  2. personality is formed during childhood,
  3. it is at particular points in childhood that children pass through these stages,
  4. how well a child copes with the stages determines how their personality develops.

In Freud’s theory, individuals have an unconscious mind that is split into three parts: the id, ego and superego. The ‘id’ represents our desires and needs, the ‘ego’ appears when the child starts to consider the ramifications of their actions, and the ‘superego’ recognises ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. Children will generally develop these three parts of their mind as they grow, allowing them to make moral decisions.

In each stage Freud believed that if ‘fixation’ occurred, that is that the child does not pass successfully through the stage, results can include undesirable behaviours. For example, in the oral stage fixation can result in smoking, thumb-sucking, and over-eating in later life. Freud posits that it is only in the latent stage that no emotional development occurs. Freud’s theory also suggests the existence of the ‘Oedipus Complex’; boys in the phallic stage are thought by Freud to be in love with their mothers, but to know that they cannot marry them because of the father’s presence.

Therefore boys decide to befriend their fathers, copying their behaviours and interests. The predominant difference between Freud’s theory and Erikson’s theory is that Erikson believed that developmental stages are linked to social and cognitive development rather than guided by physical needs. Another difference is that Erikson suggests that personality continues to develop into adulthood, and he therefore put forward his eight-stage psychosocial theory, which is described as follows.

From birth to 1 year, babies are in the ‘trust versus mistrust’ stage where they either develop trust in others and the world, or they develop suspicion and mistrust. From 2 – 3 years babies are in the ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’ stage; they either develop a sense of self-reliance or they feel shame about their capabilities. In the ‘initiative versus guilt’ stage when toddlers are aged 4 – 5 years, they either gain the ability to start activities even with the risk of failure, or they feel guilt – in this context it is the feeling that it is wrong or inappropriate to begin something on their own impulse.

At 6 – 12 years children enter the ‘industry versus inferiority’ stage where they feel either a sense of confidence in their ability to do things or inferiority due to reactions from others. The ‘identity versus role-confusion’ stage occurs through ages 13 – 18 years. A person either has a sense of self in relation to life and what lies ahead or has role confusion – the person cannot see clearly (or at all) who they are and how they can positively relate with their environment. The ‘intimacy versus isolation’ stage occurs between the ages of 19 and 25 years.

People either experience love and develop deep and meaningful relationships or experience isolation and only form shallow relationships. From 26 to 40 years of age people are in the ‘generativity versus stagnation’ stage, where people will either seek to be productive, particularly in terms of parenting and putting something back into life, or experience a lack of growth and have feelings of selfishness, self-indulgence, greed, lack of interest in youths and future generations, and also in the wider world.

Finally, from 41 years onwards, people experience satisfaction with their life or they regret previous missed opportunities – this is the ‘ego integrity versus despair stage. This theory can be linked to practice within a creche environment where carers work with young children on a daily basis. According to Erikson’s theory, children must gain the required amount of confidence to pass successfully through each stage. For carers within a creche, therefore, they need to ensure that they give all children opportunities to take initiative and explore, in addition to giving them a lot of praise for trying new things or succeeding with new tasks.

A carer can give a child a jigsaw puzzle to complete, allowing them to take initiative in how they are going to go about doing the jigsaw, and explore ways of fitting the pieces together correctly. The carer should also tell the child how well they are doing to develop confidence in the child. Regarding arts and crafts, a carer can allow children to paint a picture of whatever they want, thus inspiring initiative, creativity, and exploration of colours and shapes. When the children have completed their paintings the carer should look at each child’s picture and praise them all, telling them what a great job they have done.

These techniques will boost the confidence of the children, which is vital for their social and emotional skills. Development of social and emotional skills in turn develops their confidence, because they are capable of interacting with others in a calm and comfortable manner. Relevance and use of observations in social and emotional development: Within a childcare setting such as a creche, it is important for carers to record children’s development and behaviour. On a day-to-day basis, childcare workers generally observe and evaluate children informally to get an insight into the children they are caring for.

With the use of more formal observations, parents and carers alike can both learn accurate information about the children, and also about any developmental issues they are having, so that the appropriate professionals can be contacted when and if necessary. For example, if a child is observed to have difficulties in relation to reading and writing that are not normal for his/her age-group, the childcare worker can talk to the parent/guardian and decide upon suitable action, such as getting the child tested for dyslexia.

It is through the research on children’s development that observations can be carried out; by having a ‘pattern’ of development for all children relevant to their age, childcare workers can check to see if all children are following that pattern. Apart from informing parents and assessing children’s overall development, observation can be used to create a teaching plan or alter a current teaching method for either a whole class or for an individual child. For example, if a child is having difficulty with their fine manipulative skills, the carer might decide that the child would benefit from some drawing or painting activities.

Additionally, the use of observation can then assist in the evaluation of activities, strategies or routines that are used with the child/children. For example, if the childcare worker observes that the children as a group get very restless after break time, the worker could decide to implement a period outdoors for the children after their break, playing planned or optional games like ‘ring around the rosy’ or playing on swings or slides. Observations can then be used to assess the success of this outdoor time and evaluate whether or not it has the desired effect on children’s behaviour and emotional state.

Another advantage with the use of observation is that a creche worker can study a particular child whenever necessary. For example, if a parent/guardian has mentioned that they have concerns about the child having no friends, the worked can observe the child’s social skills and social interactions with other children over the course of a week to see if there is a problem, and if there is, why it might be occurring. In this way the worked can help the child develop their social skills by incorporating more group work into their lessons, such as imaginative play or play using puppets.

There are many formats in which observations can be carried out. Some of these methods are described in the bullet points below.

  • Written records or narratives usually record information about children over a short period of time. Information is noted as it occurs and is written in the present tense. The observer must be careful that the children are not affected by their presence as this can alter their natural behaviour.
  • Checklists can record information about an individual child or a group of children. Checklists have to be prepared prior to the observation and created in such a way as to obtain the desired information. They are often used to assess a child’s progress, and generally examine the achievements of a child.
  • Time sampling is another method of observation; it consists of written records detailing a series of particular periods of time, for example, a worker might record behaviours every half hour for a full day to ascertain how well a child is mixing with other children in the creche.
  • Tracking refers to recording information (either written or as a diagram) over a particular period of time. If a child is showing concentration difficulties, a worker could use the tracking method of observation to record the child’s movements over a period of the day like ‘free play time’. This might reveal whether the child focused on an activity for a significant period of time or jumper from one activity to the other.
  • Pie/bar-charts usually record the activities of an entire class; if a creche worker wants to examine how many children are able to master ‘throwing’ skills, he/she could play a game whereby children have to try to catch a ball from a particular distance.

The number of occasions that each child is successful in catching the ball is then recorded. If the results show that some of the children display difficulties with this skill, the worker can implement more games to help these children practice and develop the ‘catching’ skill, and use further observations to examine the success rates. Pie/bar-charts can also be used to assess the value of particular equipment in a creche by noting how often it is used by children.

Without the knowledge gained from observations within a creche situation, childcare workers can miss developmental issues in children, issues that can be avoided with timely intervention. It is a primary responsibility of any childcare worker to support children’s overall development, and this is why observations are crucial within a creche.

  • Discuss the interdependence with other areas of development: Social and emotional skills develop alongside the other types of development, namely physical, intellectual and linguistic development, and are interdependent with them.

If a child has physical difficulties or problems (e. g. cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, a spinal injury causing them to be in a wheelchair, or a genetic disorder), they may find it difficult to join in many games, as a lot of games require some sort of physical element. Therefore their opportunities for social interaction with other children are more limited, affecting their social development. Play is an important part of social and emotional development; when a child is involved in play they are in control of their environment, which helps foster positive self-esteem in children.

A child who cannot join in games and other forms of play may feel upset, lonely, angry, rejected, frustrated or left out, affecting their emotional development. Similarly, a physical issue such as a cleft palate or enlarged tongue, or a linguistic difficulty like a stutter/stammer, may cause the child to find it more difficult to liaise verbally with other children, in turn decreasing social interactions and affecting social and emotional development in the child.

Stutters and stammers have been found to be a result of characteristics such as shyness, anxiety, fear and low self-esteem, and consequently social and emotional development can affect linguistic development also. A child who has an intellectual difficulty may also suffer from confidence and self-esteem issues, believing that they are not as ‘good’ as other children. For this reason, the child may not feel comfortable interacting with the other children and may have problems forming meaningful friendships.

In the absence of these important relationships, the child lacks in opportunities to interact with other children and practice their social, emotional and behavioural skills. Conclusions: Assisting in the social and emotional development of children is vital within a childcare environment, and childcare workers are responsible for supporting and aiding children’s development. Therefore, it is imperative that workers understand the stages of a child’s development, and also the factors that can inhibit and encourage it.

In this way, childcare workers can ensure that they are providing the highest standards in care and support, and giving the children the best possible environment in which to develop successfully. It is especially significant for facilities like creches, Montessori’s, nurseries and playschools because the children are still at a very young age and their social and emotional development can be more easily adjusted at this age than at older ages.

By assisting in children’s social and emotional development, children are more likely to become well-adjusted adolescents and adults, and to be self-assured and confident in their later life, thus improving their quality of life. Therefore continued research and studies into children’s social and emotional development, and indeed into their other types of development, are essential, so that childcare workers can continue to strive to provide an environment of best practice for all children in their care.


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  2. http://www. kidsdevelopment. co. uk/EmotionalDevelopmentChildren. html
  3. http://www. ehow. com/about_5042688_definition-social-emotional-development. html
  4. Camras, L. A. (1988, April) Darwin revisited. An infant’s first emotional facial expressions. In Dworetzky, J. P. (1994) Psychology (Ch. 12, Pg. 416). West Publishing Company.
  5. http://www. merck. com/mmhe/sec23/ch268/ch268d. html
  6. http://www. strengtheningfamiliesillinois. org/downloads/Program_Element_Monograph s/Mono_02_Promoting_Children_Healthy_Socialemotional_REV4. df
  7. http://vels. vcaa. vic. edu. au/downloads/discusspapers/socialdeveloplearning. pdf
  8. Dworetzky, J. P. (1994) Psychology (Ch. 13, Pg. 447). West Publishing Company.
  9. http://www. montgomeryschoolsmd. org/schools/senecavalleyhs/childdev/maslow. htm
  10. http://www. montgomeryschoolsmd. org/schools/senecavalleyhs/childdev/maslow. htm
  11. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Lev_Vygotsky
  12. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Lev_Vygotsky
  13. http://www. child-development-guide. com/child-development-theorists. html#theorists1
  14. Tassoni, P & Beith, K. 2000) Diploma: Child Care and Education. Heinemann Educational Publishers
  15. Sharman, C. (1998) Observing Children: A Practical Guide. Cassell
  16. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Child_development
  17. http://www. blurtit. com/q590360. html
  18. http://www. kidsdevelopment. co. uk/EmotionalDevelopmentChildren. html
  19. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences
  20. http://www. dcsf. gov. uk/everychildmatters/healthandwellbeing/socialabdemotional/socialandemotional/
  21. http://www. healthvisitors. com/parents/stages_emotional_development. tm
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  24. http://www. merck. com/mmhe/sec23/ch268/ch268d. html

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