What Do We Know About Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood?

The first years last a lifetime.

Children's experiences in their earliest years affect how their brains work, the way they respond to stress, and their ability to form trusting relationships. During these years the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, setting the stage for social and emotional development. Language blossoms, basic motor abilities form, thinking becomes more complex, and children begin to understand their own feelings and those of others.

From the first day of life to the first day of school, a child grows at a phenomenal pace.

All aspects of child development are interconnected (Figure 1.1). For example, a child's ability to learn new information is influenced by his ability to interact appropriately with others and his ability to control his immediate impulses.

Thinking About the Whole Child: Domains of Development Figure 1.1
Emotional, cognitive, social, and physical development are interrelated and influence each other.

In Shelby County, the CANDLE Study has collected biological, physical, and behavioral data to help us better understand these connections and their collective influence on child well-being.

What is social and emotional development?

Social and emotional development is the change over time in children's ability to react to and interact with their social environment.

Social and emotional development is complex and includes many different areas of growth. Each is described in more detail below:

  • temperament: the way a young child acts and responds to different situations, caregivers, and strangers
  • attachment: the emotional bond between a child and caregiver
  • social skills or social competence: the ability to get along with other people
  • emotion regulation: the ability of a child to control his or her emotions and reactions to the environment.
Milestones of Social And Emotional Development from Birth Through Four Years Old Figure 1.2
Source: Adapted from http://www.pbs.org/wholechild/abc/social.html

Figure 1.2 provides examples of key social and emotional milestones for young children. Children develop in all of these areas of growth from birth through four years. These milestones help us know whether children are developing "on time." They also help us know what to expect children to understand and do at certain ages.

What is temperament?

Have you ever noticed how babies have personalities, even from the day they are born? Temperament is the beginning of personality. It typically refers to the way a young child acts and responds to different situations, and how he or she interacts with caregivers and strangers. Most children fall into one of three temperament categories: easy, slow-to-warm-up, and difficult. 5

Easy babies, for example, have regular sleeping times, are easily soothed when upset and are generally positive.

Slow-to-warm-up babies are more hesitant in new situations and with unfamiliar people.

Difficult babies are easily agitated and very sensitive to all sights and sounds.

Given that children have different temperaments, parents and other caregivers need to learn how to create environments that best support their children's temperaments. 6

Data fact:

Nationally, more than half (55 percent) of infants display at least one characteristic of a difficult temperament most of the time, suggesting that many of these characteristics are common (Figure 1.3). For instance, most infants want attention and company. However, when an infant demands attention through crying, fits, or whimpering most of the time, this may be a sign of a difficult temperament. And, together these behaviors make caring for difficult babies challenging for many parents. In fact, 22 percent of infants displayed two or more of these characteristics most of the time.

Source: Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), 9-month data wave (2001–2002), parent report of child displaying characteristic "most times."

Signs of Difficult Temperament: Percent of infants who display behavior most times Figure 1.3
Source: Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), 9-month data wave (2001-2002), parent report of child displaying characteristic "most times"

What is attachment?

Attachment is the emotional bond between a child and caregiver. 7, 8 The ability to form an attachment is present from birth and plays two important roles for young children. First, it motivates children to stay near a caregiver, which keeps them safe. Second, it allows children to depend on their caregiver as a source of support as they explore their surroundings. Children who do this successfully have what is often called "secure attachment."

The development of a secure attachment is important for many reasons:

  • Promotes a positive relationship between a child and caregiver
  • Decreases risk for social and emotional problems later in childhood and adulthood
  • Encourages healthy relationships outside the home (e.g., child-care providers, friends, other adults)
  • Fosters positive, trusting relationships in middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. 9, 10

Data fact:

  • Nationally, about two-thirds (62–66 percent) of infants and toddlers have secure attachment styles. 7, 8

Source: NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development: Phase I, 1991-1995

What is social competence?

Social competence refers to a person's ability to get along with others and adapt to new situations. 11 Children learn social skills very early in life that determine their social competence. For example, babies make eye contact, imitate facial expressions, and respond to voices. As children age, they interact more with other children and adults, which helps them to learn additional social skills.

Nationally, the percentage of high-risk infants in the Early Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (Baby FACES) that are socially competent at age one is 90 percent. 12 Using the same measure, in Shelby County, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of children age 12 months participating in the CANDLE study are considered socially competent by a parent.

Source: CANDLE Study (2009–2012) Parent report of social competence measured by the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (BITSEA)

Did you know?

  • Play gives children a chance to practice different social skills. They learn to acknowledge others' feelings, play "nicely," share, and resolve conflict.
  • As children get older, play becomes more interactive, further improving their social skills and preparing them for more active social interactions inside and outside the home.

What is emotion regulation?

Emotion regulation is the ability of a child to control his or her emotions and reactions to his or her environment. This does not mean that a child should be happy, brave, and calm all of the time. It is normal, for example, for babies to cry to communicate needs or for toddlers to throw temper tantrums and push boundaries. But some children have a harder time calming down.

Data fact:

  • Nationally, approximately 26 percent of children 12 months of age exhibited problem behaviors related to a lack of emotion regulation. 12 Using the same measure, approximately 25 percent of one-year-olds in Shelby County exhibited problem behaviors related to a lack of emotion regulation.

Source: CANDLE Study (2009–2012) Parent report of social competence measured by BITSEA

Why is it important to invest in social and emotional development?

One theory suggests that intervening with very young children at higher risk of social and emotional difficulties produces the largest gains in terms of skill development over time (Figure 1.4). 13 Additionally, this theory suggests that this approach ends up costing communities or the larger society less money in the long run. In essence, pay now or pay more later. Unfortunately, a number of children struggle with at least one area of social and emotional development. These children and society may benefit from investments to set them on the best path forward. But we need to know what works, for whom, and under what circumstances, as well as where and how much to invest.

The Impact of Investing in Early Childhood Figure 1.4
SOURCE: Adapted from http://heckmanequation.org/heckman-equation

How can this book help?

In the next chapters, Off to a Good Start explores the issue of social and emotional development in more detail and provides insights for how each of us can help.

There is no "one size fits all" approach. Off to a Good Start offers some quick tips to support child social and emotional development, but it is important to review the evidence when selecting a more comprehensive program or policy.

This book is designed to help improve understanding of the social and emotional development of children in Shelby County and help community members think about how they can make a difference.

To do this, the report pulls together data from both local sources of information and national sources. A list of these resources is available in Appendix A. The use of both local and national data highlights the knowledge available in Shelby County about social and emotional development, identifies differences and similarities between our local community and the overall United States, and emphasizes areas where additional information is needed to understand the local issues.

What is next in the book?

  • Chapter Two provides a snapshot of the children living in Shelby County and their families, with attention to factors that influence social and emotional development.
  • Chapter Three takes a closer look at factors in the home environment that could be addressed to support social and emotional development in young children.
  • Chapter Four examines factors related to caregivers and child-care settings that could be addressed to support social and emotional development in younger children.
  • Chapter Five summarizes the key findings from this book. This chapter also identifies action steps to promote and support healthy social and emotional development for the youngest residents of Shelby County.
  1. Gilmore, J.H., Lin, W., Prastawa, M.W., Looney, C.B., Sampath, Y., Vetsa, K., et al. (2007). Regional gray matter growth, sexual dimorphism, and cerebral asymmetry in the neonatal brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(6), 1255–1260.
  2. Nowakowski, R.S. (2006). Stable neuron numbers from cradle to grave. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(33), 12219–12220.
  3. Fox, S.E., Levitt, P., & Nelson, C.A., III. (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development, 81(1), 28–40.
  4. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2007). The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture. Working Paper No. 5.
  5. Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  6. Putnam, S.P., Sanson, A.V., & Rothbart, M.K. (2002). Child temperament and parenting. Handbook of Parenting, 1, 255–277.
  7. Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34(10), p. 932.
  8. Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: Assessed in the strange situation and at home. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  9. Sroufe, L.A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 7(4), pp. 349–367.
  10. Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W. A. (2005). Placing early attachment experiences in developmental context. In K. E. Grossmann, K. Grossmann, & E. Waters (Eds.), The power of longitudinal attachment research: From infancy and childhood to adulthood. New York: Guilford, pp. 48 – 70.
  11. Illinois Early Learning Project website. (2014). Retrieved September 2014, from: http://illinoisearlylearning.org/
  12. Vogel, C.A., Boller, K., Xue, Y., Blair, R., Aikens, N., Burwick, A., et al. (2011). Learning as we go: A first snapshot of Early Head Start programs, staff, families, and children. OPRE Report #2011-7, Washington, D.C.: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  13. Heckman, J.J. (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312(5782), 1900–1902