Social and Emotional Skills

Social and Emotional development is the ability to understand different feelings and emotions, recognising them in others and then responding to them in an appropriate way. Which is an awful lot to ask of a child!

Social and Emotional Skills – Understanding feelings

Through play, children learn these complex skills by watching others, listening to what is going on around them and expressing themselves. By sharing experiences with other children and adults, they will begin to explore their own feelings and comprehend social norms.

Social and emotional development can take many years to master as it also requires the development of the top part of the brain, which isn’t full formed till early adulthood. 

By modelling appropriate social behaviour and supporting them through understanding their emotions, these things will soon start to develop.

Social and emotional skills explained

What are social skills?

The development of social skills includes developing an understanding of who you are and of other people. Your child will learn that they are separate to other people and objects and that other people have different views and feelings.  

How important are social skills for children?

When your child understands themselves and others, they develop the skills that they need to get on with other people and to make friends. When they can see other people’s views might be different from their own, they can agree ways of doing things and learn from other people.  The development of social skills is linked with lots of other aspects of child development as your child learns from others through interactions and play.  

Fundamental social skills your child will develop

We don’t talk about ages and stages by giving a list of skills and an age when your child might master particular skills as we know children are individuals and develop at different rates. But often there is a sequence in the skills that your child will develop and although there are some children who skip a skill or do things in a different order, we think it helps to know the developments that we expect during your child’s first five years.   

During their first five years your child will develop social skills linked to their sense of self, interactions with other children and their understanding of other people.  Your baby will recognise that they are separate and that their actions can influence other people, you might notice them smiling, gurgling or moving to gain your attention. As they develop your child will watch others and copy what they are doing as they develop language and cognitive skills they will engage in cooperative play with other children.

Through watching how the people around them behave they will begin to understand what to do in different situations, they will wave goodbye and say please and thank-you. In their play you will see them copying the things that they have seen and as they develop beginning to explore different roles and points of view.   

Early years social interaction

Your child develops their social skills through interactions with you and other adults as well as with other children. In their relationships with other children there is a more equal balance of power which allows children to develop different skills 1. In their relationship with you your children will have security and protection that supports them to develop basic social skills.

Relationships with other children allow them to experience cooperation and competition and master more complex social skills.  Relationships with other children also support cognitive development as children experience different points of view and ideas that leads to a change in their understanding.  

Your interactions with your child can help them to develop their understanding of different points of view, you can comment on what someone might be thinking when playing with your child. Kirk et al found that children who had experienced what they describe as ‘mind minded’ comments, so comments about other people’s thoughts and ideas, when they were babies and toddlers were more able to recognise what someone was thinking when they were older.

What are emotional skills?

During their first five years your child will begin to develop the ability to recognise their emotions and the emotions of other people they begin to be able to control and manage their emotional state often needing support from you to do this.  

How important is emotional development in children?

Emotional development supports your child to respond to others and develop relationships. It is also important in supporting wellbeing and learning as your child begins to be able to regulate their emotions in order to think about what is happening and explore the world.   

When does emotional development begin?

We might say that emotional development begins during pregnancy as your baby responds to stimuli in the womb. Your newborn baby is already able to respond to familiar voices 3, recognise positive and negative facial expressions and move in response to something that they like 4  Your baby will copy facial expressions, movements and tones they will watch you and your responses to learn about their own and other people’s emotions. 

What are the stages of emotional development?

During their first five years your children learn to recognise their emotions and the emotions of others. They will begin to be able to self-regulate, so to control their emotions but will need support to do this for a while, even as adults we need help to regulate sometimes perhaps by talking to a close friend or having a hug.  

Babies cannot regulate their emotions and are dependent on adults to do this through actions such as holding, stroking or rocking. They might develop ways of comforting themselves such as sucking their thumb, but you continue to have an important role in recognising emotions and offering comfort and helping them to avoid becoming over stimulated. As your child develops their cognitive and language skills you can support their emotional development through ‘emotion coaching’. Emotion coaching involves you recognising and naming how your child is feeling, showing empathy and supporting them to problem solve.  

Other areas of child development link and support emotional development, so as your child develops their motor skills this allows them to use movement to regulate their emotions, you might notice that your child moves more if they are tired or unsure or that they move away from situations that they don’t like. As they develop their cognitive abilities your child is more able to think things through and will begin to be able to control their responses and regulate their emotions, as they develop their social understanding, they will be able to think about other people’s points of view which will support them in their problem solving. So rather than hitting the child who took the toy they were playing with they might be able to understand that the other child wants the toy too and use their problem-solving skills and language to suggest that they take turns, they might need you to help them with this especially if it is a favourite toy! 

What is social referencing?

Social referencing is used by people to judge the response to a situation that might be uncertain, we might use this in a situation where someone makes a comment that we are unsure about we look at the response of others in order to gauge the reaction of the people around us . Your children will use social referencing to judge if a new situation is safe, they will look to a familiar adult and observe their facial expression to see how the adult feels about what they are about to do.  

Experiments have been carried out with babies and toddlers to see children’s responses to a ‘visual cliff', a stranger and a new toy. In these situations, a parent or familiar adult responds either with fear or happiness to the situation and the child seems to respond more positively to the situation when they see a happy response rather than a fearful response.

You can support your child to feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations through your facial expressions and tone of voice, they will look to you to decide if a new situation is likely to be happy or frightening. 

How emotional development can affect learning?

We all know that it can be difficult to think when we are excited or stressed and learning to recognise how you feel and to control these emotions is an important aspect of emotional development that impacts on learning. Children who find it difficult to regulate their emotions might find it difficult to focus and to learn.  

How are social and emotional development linked?

Social and emotional development are closely linked as your children develop their understanding of social expectations and the thoughts of others, they link these to their understandings of how they and other people feel. In order to respond appropriately your children, need to be able to regulate their emotions and this is dependent on their experiences of adults helping them to regulate (co-regulation).

Children who can regulate are more able to think about the social expectations in a particular situation and respond appropriately giving them more opportunities to develop relationships.  

Social and Emotional

Streams of Development

At My First Five Years, we have divided your child’s unique learning journey into 6 streams of development focusing holistically on physical, emotional and cognitive development.

  • Gross Motor Skills – Bodies, arms and legs
  • Fine Motor Skills – Hands and fingers
  • Cognitive Skills – Thinking and processing
  • Language, Speech and Communication Skills – Making sounds and talking.
  • Social and Emotional Skills – Understanding feelings
  • Sensory Development – Senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, proprioception, interoception)

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