Promoting Social and Emotional Development
By Kara Dukakis, Libby Doggett, and Shantel E. Meek
All children are born with the need and desire to connect with those around them. Neuroscience tells us that brain development unfolds rapidly in the first three years of life, and that social and emotional development begins in the earliest days of life. When children feel secure in their relationships and have their needs met in responsive and consistent ways, they begin forming a strong social and emotional foundation. They begin to learn to pay attention, regulate their emotions and behavior, express feelings, and overcome challenges successfully. All of these skills contribute to healthy social and emotional development.
The way in which children experience and manage their feelings and emotions depends a great deal on the relationship with their primary caregiver(s) and other important adults in their lives. The environments where children spend their time – whether at home or in an early learning setting – also affect children’s social and emotional development. Social and emotional development involves several inter-related areas, including social interaction, emotional awareness, and self-regulation.
Social and emotional and cognitive development are interwoven from birth and unfold together. Unsurprisingly, social and emotional development is also closely intertwined with academic success. Learning- especially in the earliest years of life- is inherently a social process. Children learn through and with the adults in their lives. A large body of research shows that children with a strong social and emotional foundation demonstrate stronger academic achievement, are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and fare better on overall wellness and other positive long-term outcomes. Positive social and emotional development carries important benefits for all children, including young children with developmental delays or disabilities.
Many parents and caregivers, as well as teachers and early learning providers, are eager for information and resources on how to connect with babies and toddlers, manage young children’s behavior, and help children develop relationships, regulate their behavior and emotions, and talk about their feelings. When the adults in children’s lives have appropriate expectations of children’s development at different ages, they have greater success – and much less frustration – with young children.
Building on prior successful partnerships to promote early brain and language development and early STEM education, today, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are joining with Too Small to Fail to release a Fostering Healthy Social and Emotional Development in Young Children Toolkit on social and emotional development. All of the resources feature examples of simple actions to take, some of which caregivers might be doing already, such as maintaining consistent routines for young children.
This set of resources on healthy social and emotional development includes:
- A tip sheet for parents and families of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
- A tip sheet for infant, toddler, and preschool providers and educators
- A milestones chart with key information on social and emotional development from birth to age 5
- A fact sheet on the research behind social and emotional development in early childhood and lifelong outcomes
- A “Let’s Talk About Feelings” poster
Every day, families and educators have opportunities to nurture children’s social and emotional, development through everyday interactions and easy-to-implement activities, such as those provided in the Toolkit. If we all provide supports for our children early in life, they will have the foundation needed to benefit for a lifetime.
Kara Dukakis is Director of Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute
Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education
Shantel E. Meek is Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
 Social interaction focuses on the relationships we share with others, including relationships with adults and peers; emotional awareness includes the ability to recognize and understand our own feelings and actions and those of other people, and how our own feelings and actions affect ourselves and others; and self-regulation is the ability to express thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in socially appropriate ways.
 Jones, Damon E., Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal Public Health, 105(11), 2283–2290.
 Zero to Three, “Tuning In National Parent Survey” (2016).