Social and Emotional Development in Children
Recognition of early social and emotional problems in toddlers and preschool children is necessary in
achieving the best developmental outcomes. Social and emotional difficulties persist over time and are very
resistant to change. If left untreated, early-onset conduct problems (aggression, rebellion, oppositional
behaviors and emotional disturbances) place children at high risk for frequent social and emotional
difficulties, under achievement, school drop out, finally delinquency, and later criminal offenses.

These children need help with academic skills, confidence, and social/emotional skills to succeed in school.
They must be able to understand the feelings of others, control their own feelings and behaviors, and get
along with their peers and teachers. Children need to be able to cooperate, follow directions, show self-
control, and able to “pay attention.” During brain development, early relationships and experiences can
positively affect healthy development of future behaviors and thought process.

Early detection and intervention of social and emotional problems can have a long-term impact on the
developing child in major areas. The development of emotional self-control and social ability in the early
years plays a significant role in determining the way children think, learn, react to obstacles, and develop
relationships throughout their lives. When children are young, the adults around them (parents, other adult
caregivers, preschool teachers) are the most important influences on their social and emotional development.

Problems with Social and Emotional Development

Your child will communicate with you in a variety of ways: talking, hugging, kissing, hitting, screaming, and
crying.  Each emotional expression tells you more about your child than the simple words he or she is
speaking (or yelling). Look for clues as to how your child is feeling, by paying attention to his or her
expressions. Children who show a lot of affection often feel that their needs are met and that you care for
them.  On the other hand, a child that hits or bites, for example, is having a difficult time expressing how he
or she feels and should be given a chance to cope with his or her feelings.  

Emotional behaviors begin with the relationships children build with the people around them, including
parents, caregivers, and peers. Persistent physical aggression, high-school dropout rates, adolescent
delinquency, and antisocial behavior have all been associated with early childhood conduct problems. The
preschool years are a susceptible age for learning to control anger. Children who display high levels of
physical aggression in elementary school are at the highest risk of engaging in violent behavior as

One of the most important skills that children develop is self-control the ability to manage one’s behavior
such as resist impulses, maintain focus, and make positive decisions even if there are other more tempting
options available. Self-control motivates the ability to take on every task, so that it has a linking for not just
how children get along with one another but also to be attentive and learn in the classroom. Social and
emotional development is important because it contributes to cognitive development.

School Readiness in Children with Emotional/Social Behaviors

Preschool education can promote early development with lasting social and emotional benefits. Children with
emotional and social problems enter kindergarten unable to learn because they cannot pay attention,
remember cause and effect, or interact socially in a school setting. As a result there are a number of children
who are hard to manage in the classroom. These children cannot get along with others, follow directions,
and are impulsive. They show hostility and aggression in the classroom and on the playground. The
problems begin before kindergarten in studies as many as 32 percent of preschoolers in Head Start programs
have behavioral problems.

Children struggling with social and emotional skills means that teachers spend too much of their time trying
to manage unruly children and spend too little time teaching. Early childhood teachers report that they are
extremely concerned about growing classroom management problems, and that they are unprepared to
handle them. Kindergarten teacher’s report that more than half of their students come to school unequipped
for learning academic subjects.

Furthermore, children may use problem behavior to get their needs met for a variety of reasons. For
example, the child may have language development problems, social/emotional delays, difficulties with peer
interactions, or developmental disabilities. If these problems are not addressed, the result can be increasing
aggression, and behavioral problems.

Most children do not suffer from mental health problems. Their development from birth through
adolescence is healthy. As they grow and develop, children typically become flexible in dealing with multiple
challenges. However, for some children and adolescents, mental illnesses are very real. A combination of
biological, behavioral, and environmental factors place certain children and youth at greater risk than others
for emotional and behavioral disorders that can range from mild to severe, some long lasting. Incidence
studies results that almost 21% of children, ages 9 to 17, meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis.

Social Rejection from Society

Social, emotional and behavioral health is an important part of a child’s health, well-being, and learning. For
young children, early childhood mental health is healthy social and emotional development. Researchers
believe that children with troublesome, disorderly behavior (poor social and emotional skills) are at risk for
these potential problems for at least three reasons:

•        Teachers find it harder to teach them, seeing them as less socially and academically capable, and
therefore provide them with less positive feedback.

•        Peers reject them, which cuts off an important opportunity for learning and emotional support.

•        Children faced with this rejection from peers and teachers tend to dislike school and learning, which
leads to lower school attendance and poorer outcomes.

Since difficult behavior shows itself early, before children begin kindergarten, the cycle of rejection and
negative experiences begins early, too. The early experience of rejection can have lasting emotional and
behavioral impressions beyond elementary school, creating a descending spiral that becomes difficult to

Schools play an essential role in promoting children’s social and emotional development because most
children ages 5-18 attend school, and because social and emotional well-being is essential to children’s ability
to learn and succeed in school. By integrating an emphasis on social-emotional learning in schools, students
are better able to resolve social interaction problems and prevent antisocial behavior, as well as to achieve
positive academic outcomes.

Parents and Families Influence Social/Emotional Behavior

Parents and families play an influential role in a child’s social and emotional development. Early relationships
with parents are the basis on which social ability and peer relationships are built. Parents who support
positive emotional development interact with their children affectionately; show consideration for their
feelings, desires and needs; express interest in their daily activities; respect their opinions; express pride in
their achievements; and provide encouragement and guidance during times of stress. This support
significantly increases the likelihood that children will develop early emotional confidence, will be better
prepared to enter school, and less likely to display behavior problems at home and at school. This is why
many preschool programs focus on parent involvement and parenting education.

Goals for improving social-emotional skills

•        Understand and talk about the child’s feelings.
•        Make the child aware of the views of others and realize that the other person’s feelings may be
different from his/her own feelings.
•        Teach the child to establish relationships with adults and maintain an ongoing friendship with at least
one other child.
•        Allow the child to enter a group successfully such as soft-ball team, soccer game, etc.
•        Instruct the child to maintain an activity for a reasonable period of time with minimum adult

Emotional problems include a wide variety of conditions such as fears, social or school phobia, separation
anxiety, and depression. Young children may not recognize these feelings or be able to talk about them with
others. Consequently their anxieties may be expressed in a variety of symptoms including crying, clinging
behavior, stomachaches, headaches, irritability, and withdrawal. Depressed children may misbehave or even
express their sadness in the form of aggression and rage in their interactions with others. The goal of the
treatment is help the parents understand how they can help their children control their distress by teaching
them social skills, problem solving and emotional terms so that their children can identify and successfully
manage their uncomfortable feelings.          Developmental Disorders          Autism          Parenting Issues