Domain 3: Social and Emotional Development

By nature, humans are social creatures. Throughout all phases of life, people interact with one another. Children learn to be around others as they construct knowledge about the world through social interaction.


Healthy children in all cultures form early attachments with significant adults. These relationships form the foundation for later emotional, social, language, and cognitive development.

Even though emotions are a universal human phenomenon and social behavior is observed constantly in the world around us, social and emotional development is challenging to define and measure. The challenges stem from:

  • The broad range of behaviors and concepts included within social and emotional development
  • The difficulty of assessing processes that are primarily internal, and therefore, not always visible processes
  • Social and emotional variability according to culture and situations

Social and emotional development serves as the foundation for relationships and interactions that give meaning to a child’s experiences in the home, at school, and in the larger community. Brain research consistently supports the importance of the first five years as the critical years for developing foundational social and emotional skills.

Critical Ages
Critical ages for developing social and emotional skills.
Children eating lunch at school

Social and emotional development is a predictor of a child’s overall success in school and in life. Relationships play a central role in:

  • Fostering a child’s social and emotional well-being
  • Providing a sense of stability and belonging
  • Allowing a child to make the most of learning opportunities

Successful social and emotional development requires secure, consistent, responsive, and physically and emotionally nurturing relationships. With guidance and through playful interactions, children develop skills to cooperate, negotiate, lead and follow, be a friend, and express their feelings in a socially and culturally acceptable manner. These skills include the ability to read body language, communicate non-verbally, and be sensitive to others’ feelings.

Forming warm, responsive bonds and intimacy with others offers security to children, as well as protecting them emotionally from negative effects associated with poverty, violence in the home or community, parental depression, and other stressors that endanger mental health and social adjustment.

General definition

Social and emotional development encompasses a child’s ability to interact effectively with adults and children. Social development and emotional development are closely interrelated skills in that each is acquired in a relatively predictable sequence. For example, a child establishes warm and responsive interactions with adults (social development) before he/she develops emotional skills such as self-control.  These skills typically precede the development of relationships with peers and groups.

Social Development: Young children’s ability to form and sustain social relationships with adults and other children is at the heart of their social development. A child’s social relationships with adults can be understood in terms of the child’s ability to trust and interact easily with adults, as well as the ability to recognize adult roles. A child looks to adults for guidance, cues, and information on how to act, think, and feel.

As children develop, the ability to establish relationships with peers influences how they view themselves and the world. Building friendships assists a child to cooperate, form and maintain relationships, and  negotiate. Meaningful play experiences offer the child key opportunities to practice social skills of cooperating, compromising, and taking turns. Cooperation with peers implies an understanding of others’ rights and the ability to balance one’s own needs with those of others.

A child can develop successful social relationships while recognizing and appreciating similarities and differences in other people, as well as learning to interact comfortably with children and adults who may have different characteristics, cultures, and life experiences. Positive social relationships are formed and maintained when a child develops adaptive social behavior. The effects of different behaviors are understood as he/she adapts to diverse settings and participates positively in group activities. Finally, social competence is demonstrated when a child shows empathy when understanding, respecting, and showing sensitivity toward other children.

Emotional Development: A child’s ability to recognize and express feelings and to understand and respond to the emotions of others provides him/her with important emotional skills. Central to the understanding of emotional development is the overall perception of self; including traits, feelings, abilities, motives, and social roles. As a child acquires a self-concept, he/she begins to answer the question: Who am I?” Another aspect of emotional development is self-efficacy, which is the belief that one can succeed in accomplishing what one sets out to do. Self-efficacy creates feelings of self-confidence, competence, and positive emotions that a child must have to be successful in learning tasks at home and at school.

Emotional development includes acknowledging emotions and the ability to manage or regulate them in both personal and social contexts. A child’s ability to identify and label his/her emotions and effectively express the range of feelings is another important aspect of emotional well-being. Emotional expression includes expressing primary emotions (joy, anger, fear), emotions linked to sensory stimulation (disgust, delight, horror), and self-appraisal emotions (pride, satisfaction, shame, guilt).

Supporting individual differences, language, and diversity

Children’s social identity is shaped by many factors including gender, race, cultural and family background and values, language, religion, abilities, life experiences and circumstances, and temperamental qualities and personality. Family and cultural stories help children build identities. The values and practices of each child’s family, peers, community, and culture shape the feelings, knowledge, and expectations that influence social and emotional development. 

Summary of 2019-20 revisions

Revisions: updated language and additional parent strategies

  • Caregiver strategies - Goal 28, 36-60 months:  Children develop friendships with peers
  • Caregiver strategies - Goal 38, 36-60 months:  Children regulate their feelings and impulses
  • Wording changes - Goal 38, 60 months through Kindergarten:  Children regulate their feelings
    and impulses