top of page

Social/Emotional Development

Social and emotional milestones are often harder to pinpoint than signs of physical development. This area emphasizes many skills that increase self-awareness and self-regulation. Research shows that social skills and emotional development (reflected in the ability to pay attention, make transitions from one activity to another, and cooperate with others) are a very important part of school readiness.  Three-, four-, and five-year-olds express a wide range of emotions and are able to use appropriate labels such as mad, sad, happy, and just okay to differentiate their feelings. During these preschool years, children’s emotional states are very situation-specific and can change as rapidly as they switch from one activity to another. As children develop from three-year-olds into five-year-olds, there is an increasing internalization and regulation over their emotions. As three-, four-, and five-year-olds acquire new cognitive and language skills, they learn to regulate their emotions and to use language to express how they and others feel.



Birth-3 Months

Babies spend a lot of time getting to know their own bodies. They:

  • Suck their own fingers
  • Observe their own hands
  • Look at the place on the body that is being touched
  • Begin to realize she is a separate person from others and learn how body parts, like arms and legs, are attached​
  • Can be comforted by a familiar adult
  • Respond positively to touch
  • Interact best when in an alert state or in an inactive and attentive state
  • Benefit from short, frequent interactions more than long, infrequent ones
  • Smile and show pleasure in response to social stimulation

3-6 Months

Infants are interested in other people and learn to recognize primary caregivers. Most infants:

  • Play peek-a-boo
  • Pay attention to own name
  • Smile spontaneously
  • Laugh aloud​

Babies are more likely to initiate social interaction. They begin to:

6-9 Months

Babies show a wider emotional range and stronger preferences for familiar people. Most can:

9-12 Months

  • Express several clearly differentiated emotions
  • Distinguish friends from strangers
  • Respond actively to language and gestures
  • Show displeasure at the loss of a toy

1-2 Years

As they near age one, imitation and self-regulation gain importance. Most babies can:

  • Feed themselves finger foods
  • Hold a cup with two hands and drink with assistance
  • Hold out arms and legs while being dressed
  • Mimic simple actions
  • Show anxiety when separated from primary caregiver​

Children become more aware of themselves and their ability to make things happen. They express a wider range of emotions and are more likely to initiate interaction with other people. At this stage, most children:

  • Recognize themselves in pictures or the mirror and smile or make faces at themselves
  • Show intense feelings for parents and show affection for other familiar people
  • Play by themselves and initiate their own play
  • Express negative feelings
  • Show pride and pleasure at new accomplishments
  • Imitate adult behaviors in play
  • Show a strong sense of self through assertiveness, directing others
  • Begin to be helpful, such as by helping to put things away​

Children begin to experience themselves as more powerful, creative "doers". They explore everything, show a stronger sense of self and expand their range of self-help skills. Self-regulation is a big challenge. Two-year-olds are likely to:

2-3 Years

  • Follow a series of simple directions
  • Complete simple tasks with food without assistance, such as spreading soft butter with a dull knife and pouring from a small pitcher
  • Wash hands unassisted and blow nose when reminded

As their dexterity and self-help skills improve, 3-year-olds become more independent. Most can:

3-4 Years

  • Share toys, taking turns with assistance
  • Initiate or join in play with other children and make up games
  • Begin dramatic play, acting out whole scenes (such as traveling, pretending to be animals)

Children become more interested in other children. They are now more likely to:

  • Show some understanding of moral reasoning (exploring ideas about fairness and good or bad behavior)
  • Compare themselves with other​

4-5 Years

  • Show awareness of gender identity
  • Indicate toileting needs
  • Help to dress and undress themselves
  • Be assertive about their preferences and say no to adult requests
  • Begin self-evaluation and develop notions of themselves as good, bad, attractive, etc.
  • Show awareness of their own feelings and those of others, and talk about feelings
  • Experience rapid mood shifts and show increased fearfulness (for example, fear of the dark, or certain objects)
  • Display aggressive feelings and behaviors

Children enjoy parallel play, engaging in solitary activities near other children. They are likely to:

  • Watch other children and briefly join in play
  • Defend their possessions
  • Begin to play house
  • Use objects symbolically in play
  • Participate in simple group activities, such as singing, clapping or dancing
  • Know gender identity

At this age, children are more aware of themselves as individuals. They:

  • Develop friendships
  • Express more awareness of other people's feelings
  • Show interest in exploring sex differences
  • Enjoy imaginative play with other children, like dress up or house
  • Bring dramatic play closer to reality by paying attention to detail, time, and space

4-year-olds are very interested in relationships with other children. They:

bottom of page