What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Childhood Development (ECD) – Social and Emotional Development
In this, part 3 of our 3 part series on Early Childhood Development, we’ll be looking at children’s ability to deal with emotions and suggest ways in which, as a parent or guardian, you can establish rules, routines and responsibilities to help children up to age five, navigate their feelings. We will also look at how children start to adhere to social norms and interact with the individuals around them.
Development in these two areas will vary due to cultural contexts and the child’s personal experience. For example, in collective societies, raising a child may be a joint effort where family and friends all contribute and take responsibility for guiding a child on accepted behaviors whereas individualistic cultures have a more independent outlook. There is value in both where caregivers should address children’s need for a sense of belonging balanced with a sense of self-sufficiency.
First-year of life
From the delicate age of three months, your baby will begin to watch faces with interest as they start to develop the social skill of being able to pick up on what other people are feeling. At six months old they’re already enjoying interactive games such as peek-a-boo.
You can develop these social skills by responding to your child’s actions using appropriate facial expressions. A fun technique is also to spend a little time in front of a mirror together, making different faces.
Infants are also able to respond to other people’s emotions from as young as six months old, where it is natural for them to mimic facial expressions, a human condition that allows us to both relate to and gain the empathy and sympathy of other people.
You can help your child develop in her emotional development by reading picture books where you can label facial expressions and emotions. This is the start of helping them to build vocabulary that will include words with which they can express themselves.
Age one to two
Your child has had their first birthday where, if you had a party for them, you will have noticed that they were able to discern that the celebration is for them. They are at an age where they are beginning to distinguish between ‘me’ and ‘them’.
During this time, they will also begin to imitate those around them. For example, they will pick up an object and hold it to their ear and start talking if they often see mom or dad on their phone. In addition to being able to combine words to form short two- or three-word phrases, they will also communicate in gestures where they will nod to say ‘yes’ or wave to greet someone.
You can encourage these skills in social development with pretend play where you create scenarios such as ‘at the shops’ or ‘at the hairdresser’ where you both take on roles and act them out.
Because children are highly interactive at this age and sociably sensitive, they will cry when their primary carer leaves them and where a different crowd will take getting used to. Separation anxiety will usually make changing caregivers or daycare a challenge. Although such instances are not always avoidable, you can encourage your young one to learn to cope by helping them label their emotions which in turn will help reduce its intensity.
To ease separation anxiety, you can also encourage free play which teaches children to be alone and independent. Being ‘out of sight’ for short amounts of time initially and slowing building up on how long you are away also helps your child learn to trust that even when you are out of sight, you will always return.
From between 12 to 18 months, your child may begin to express their unhappiness or distress in the form of temper tantrums. Although these episodes may happen because your child is sick, tired, or hungry, the underlying cause may also be because they are not able to express themselves as easily as they wish. At this age, children have not yet developed the linguistic or emotional skills to process their feelings nor put them into words.
Typical signs of a temper tantrum are kicking and screaming, hitting and biting, or even tensing and thrashing their body. This is a natural part of their growth and should typically ease by the time they’re four years old.
You can support your child through these moments by staying calm and if appropriate ignoring their outbursts (always make sure that they are safe) which may further fuel their outburst. If not, remove your child from the situation which may help to distract them. When things have calmed down, take the time to acknowledge their frustration.
Age two to three
By the age of two and three, children begin to recognise the names of familiar people, an essential social skill. They will also more readily imitate the behaviour of older children and adults too. They begin to learn to interact socially more directly. For example, they begin to first play along-side their peers and then learn to interact with each other, by offering or sharing toys with familiar friends.
Parents and caregivers can help develop these social skills by taking their kids to regular play group meetings or baby classes such as singing or rhyme time. Being around other children will also help encourage socially age-appropriate behaviour.
At this age, children are often excited by the company of other kids but they may also feel emotionally overwhelmed at times. This is when they need the help of their parent or guardian to label, sort out and help them to understand their own emotions. The idea of fairness, equity and equality often takes centre stage and they begin to be more aware of how people are different in physical appearance and in accepted behaviour as well.
You can help your child develop these skills by having regular family time where being in the presence of familiar faces creates a stable environment for positive interaction to take place, mealtimes, shared activities – reading, board and card games, such as go fish, snap, walking around in the park.
It is also worth noting that, although involuntary, children closely observe how adults express their emotions and because they learn mostly through imitation, parents, and caregivers need to be careful to behave in the way they wish their children too would behave.
That is not to say, that disagreements won’t happen or that arguments should be had in a different room because these are all a part of normal human social interaction. You can help your child navigate their own emotional development by handling disagreements constructively where they can also learn communication techniques to resolve conflict.
Age three to four
At this age, your child has probably started going to kindergarten where they will inevitably and ideally start to make friends. Being in a social environment such as this teaches them the necessary skill of being less egocentric where they learn to acknowledge other children’s experiences.
They will, at this stage, also develop a sense of what they like and dislike. Allow them to express themselves, discuss their choices and preferences, and begin to allow them limited choices such as ‘would you like to wear the blue or yellow dress today?’. You can develop them skills of decision making based on preference and encourage them to voice their opinions confidently. Through options, choices and opportunities for self-regulation you can also teach them to consider the needs of others, as well as their own.
Children more readily show affection at this age and they are able to express their feelings of liking or love in words and gestures. They are beginning to learn to express preferences, likes and dislikes – they may love a yellow t-shirt and insist on wearing it every day for a week only to drop it the next week when it no longer strikes their fancy.
Emotions very much continue to rule their actions and reactions and sometimes, much like the stage before, they find themselves overwhelmed with large emotions such as frustration, disappointment and displeasure. It is important to help them learn and identify these emotions and to help them realise that it is acceptable and normal to feel them, but over time and with help to learn how to manage and deal with these emotions.
You can them develop these skills by asking them about what happened at school and what their ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ were where you’ll then have the opportunity to help them articulate their feelings. When they have a tantrum, work hard at not taking it personally. However, as and when the tantrum passes, take some time to have a conversation to identify how they felt, why did they react in the way they did and discuss what may have been a better way to behave.
Age four to five
As your child now speaks in sentences, they are better able to communicate when sharing their experience. Their social skills have developed to the point where they are able to take turns with other children. They have also developed the ability to find things funny (jokes about poo and bodily functions come in to their own at this age) where they are able to appreciate and share their sense of humour.
If your child is still finding it challenging to control their impulses it can compromise their interaction with other children. You can help by teaching them delayed gratification techniques such as breathing or counting while they wait, for their turn for example, or learning to find something to distract themselves.
At this age, children begin to show empathy where they share in someone else’s feelings and imagine what it would be like to be in that person’s shoes. They learn to identify with caring and compassionate behaviour. Consideration and thought for others are also often seeded at this age.
It is important though that they also learn not to put the needs to others above their own in entirety. For example and very compassionate child might give away her lunch or snack to another child that does not have one. Instead it may be worth teaching a child like that this, that it is better to share a part of her own lunch than to give it away completely.
You can help them develop these skills by encouraging them to identify clothes or toys that they do not want or need anymore to donate to an orphanage where someone less fortunate than them may make use of them. Similarly as they clear out their own cupboards, your also doing so sets a perfect example of practicing what you preach.
It is also important for their own development and self esteem to allow them to help you in your day to day or even weekly chores. ‘Fun’ chores such as washing the car, or raking leaves in the garden are not viewed as boring jobs to be done, but rather small adventurous games. They help build confidence, a sense of purpose and most importantly, fun memories.
In this article, we examine broadly how infants develop socially and emotionally from infancy to the age of five.
We also looked at how parents can encourage their progress at each phase, from simply being able to recognise facial expressions to being able to feel empathy and act with compassion and consideration. Children especially at this young age, benefit significantly from kind, loving guidance.
It is also important to remember that little eyes are always watching. While we may tell, advise even scold and cajole, we have to remember to set examples of the behaviours that we wish to see in our own children.