Early recognition of social and emotional problems in infants and preschool children is necessary for best developmental
outcomes. Social and emotional difficulties continue over time and are highly resistant to change. It is not surprising that a
strong relationship exists between childhood behavior problems, delinquency, and later criminality. If left impairment) place
children at high risk for persistent social and emotional problems, underachievement, school drop out and ultimately
delinquency. Research has demonstrated that a young child’s ability to learn is assured by a sense of security and stability,
and continuous relationships with adults, including their families and communities.
Early identification and intervention with social and emotional problems can have a significant impact on the developing child
in three major areas. First, brain development, important early relationships and experiences can positively affect gene role,
neural connections, and the organization of the mind, having a life-long positive effect. Positive early experiences lay the
necessary foundation for the healthy growth of future behaviors and thought development. The development of emotional self
being and social ability in the early years plays a critical part in shaping the way children think, learn, react to challenges, and
develop relationships throughout their lives.
Social and Emotional Facts
• Kindergarten teachers say that about 20 percent of children entering kindergarten do not yet have the necessary social and
emotional skills to be “ready” for school.
• Social and emotional development is important because it contributes to cognitive development.
• 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.
• Preschool education can support early development with long term social and emotional benefits.
Understanding Social and Emotional Behaviors
Evaluating social and emotional capability in very young children can be difficult. Accuracy of the child’s behavior often
depends upon certain variables including the age of the child, when the behavior occurs, the setting where it occurs, and
which adults are present at the time. Developmental and cultural variability, differences in adult and child temperament, and
changing behavioral expectations are some factors that make social and emotional assessment particularly challenging. For
example, one family may tolerate loud talking and throwing of play toys while another family may tolerate only quiet voices
and no throwing of objects indoors. A two-year-old who throws herself on the floor at the supermarket and screams because
she can’t have a chocolate donut will not be labeled “unusual” while an eight-year old who does the same would be.
Very young children, for example, have to learn to understand and recognize their own feelings, but then they increasingly
learn to associate verbal labels to those feelings, to learn that others have feelings too, and to begin to sympathize with others.
As children grow older, they learn to manage their emotions to block feelings of anxiety, sadness, or frustration, and to delay
gratification in order to achieve a goal.
Children need a combination of intellectual skills, motivational qualities, 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, demonstrate self-control, and “pay attention.” One of the
most important skills that children develop is self-control - the ability to manage one’s behavior so as to resist impulses,
maintain focus, and undertake tasks even if there are other more tempting options available. Self-control motivates the ability
to take on every task, so that the outcomes are not just how children get along with one another but also how they can focus
and learn in the classroom.
Social-emotional skills include the following:
• The child is able to understand and talk about his/her own feelings.
• The child understands the perspective of others and realizes that their feelings may be different from his/her own
• The child is able to establish relationships with adults and maintains an ongoing friendship with at least one other child.
• The child is able to enter a group successfully.
• The child is able to engage in and stay with an activity for a reasonable amount of time with minimal adult support.
Social and emotional development involves the achievement of a set of skills. Among them is the ability to:
• Identify and understand one’s own feelings.
• Accurately read and comprehend emotional reactions from others.
• Manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner.
• Control one’s own behavior.
• Develop compassion for others.
• Establish and maintain relationships.
Social and Emotional Behaviors in Preschool
Children with social and emotional problems enter kindergarten unable to learn because they cannot pay attention, remember
information on purpose, or act socially in a school environment. The result is growing numbers of children who are hard to
manage in the classroom. These children cannot get along with each other, follow directions, and are impulsive. They show
hostility and aggression in the classroom and on the playground. The problems begin before kindergarten. In some studies as
many as 32 percent of preschoolers in Head Start programs have behavioral problems.
Children lacking social and emotional skills suggest that teachers spend too much time trying to restrain unmanageable
children and less 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 teachers report that more than half of their
students come to school unprepared for learning academic subjects. If these problems are not dealt with, the result can be
growing aggression, behavioral problems and, for some, delinquency and crime through the school years and into
adolescence and adulthood.
Social and Emotional Aggression
Continual 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 vulnerable period for learning to control
development of aggression. Children who display high levels of physical aggression in elementary school are at the highest
risk for taking part in violent behaviors as adolescents.
Researchers believe that children with difficult, disruptive behavior (poor social and emotional skills) are at risk for these later
problems for at least three reasons: (1) teachers find it harder to teach them, seeing them as less socially and academically
capable, and therefore provide them with less positive feedback; (2) peers reject them, which obstructs an important
opportunity for learning and emotional support; and (3) children faced with this rejection from peers and teachers are likely to
dislike school and learning, which leads to lower school attendance and poorer outcomes.
Difficult behavior exhibits itself early, even before children begin kindergarten; the pattern of rejection and negative
experiences begins early, too. The early experience of rejection can have lasting emotional and behavioral impacts beyond
elementary school, creating the problem even more difficult to reverse.
Developing Social and Emotional Skills
Promoting social and emotional development and preventing problems caused by inadequate development is clearly important
to individuals and to society. They begin with the relationships children form with the people around them, including parents,
caregivers, and peers. One characteristic of a successful person is his or her ability to live and work peacefully and
productively with others. Social capacity is the ability to interact positively within personal and family relationships, as well as
the ability to demonstrate positive concern and consideration. Emotionally healthy children engage in positive behaviors,
develop mutual friendships, and are more likely to find acceptance from their peers.
Through play, children learn how to work in teams and cooperate with others. Their behavior and interactions influence the
way in which teachers perceive them and the way they are treated by their peers. As early as preschool, the relationships
children develop with one another can have a lasting impact on academic achievement, because they can contribute to more
positive feelings about school and eagerness to engage in classroom activities, which can, in turn, lead to higher levels of
Social Emotional Problems and Peer Relationships
Social interaction with peers builds upon and improves the rules and customs of social interaction that children first
encounter in their families. Although many adults assume that the influence of peers on adolescents is negative, the
repercussions of peer relationships are often more positive than negative. Peer relationships can provide cognitive, social, and
physical stimulation through mutual activities and conversations. Friendships in particular can provide emotional security and
compassion and can often serve as an additional source of support outside of the family, especially in times of crisis.
Children must be provided an emotionally secure and safe environment that prevents any form of bullying or violence, where
they can be effective learners and integrate the development of social and emotional skills within all aspects of school life.
These skills include problem-solving, coping, conflict management/resolution and understanding and managing feelings.
Gaining social and emotional skills enables children to learn from teachers, make friends, express thoughts and feelings, and
cope with frustration. These kinds of skills, in turn, directly influence cognitive learning such as early literacy, numeracy and
Early rejection by peers has been associated with persistent academic and social difficulties in elementary school. That is why
it is important to have skilled preschool teachers who can intervene when they see children having difficulties with peers and
help the children learn how to resolve conflicts, control emotions, and respond to the feelings of others.
Social Emotional Problems in the Family
Parents and families play a huge part in determining a child’s social and emotional development. Early relationships with
parents lay the foundation 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 support during times
of anxiety. This encouragement significantly raises the probability that children will develop early emotional capability, 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 include a focus on parent involvement and parenting education.
Interactions with siblings are an important part of child development. These interactions influence the course of a child’s
social and moral development, including the development of good citizenship and good character. In general, having an
encouraging relationship with parents and siblings is important to positive adolescent development. Children who disconnect
from parental influence are at particular risk for delinquent activities and psychological problems.
Social and Emotional Support
The results of early childhood social-emotional problems may be a response from child distress and suffering, difficulty with
learning, trouble with play, poor peer interactions and sibling relationships, are all warnings of future mental health problems.
Nationally, fewer than 25% of children with clinical mental health problems receive treatment. Promoting children’s social
and emotional wellbeing can help improve their physical and mental health, performance at school and assist with behavioral
problems. A range of factors impact on how children feel, including their individual family background and the community
they live in, everyone needs to work together to agree effective strategies as part of a team.
Children might need more focused instruction on skills such as: identifying and expressing emotions; self-control; social
problem solving; initiating and maintaining interactions; cooperative responding; strategies for handling disappointment and
anger; and friendship skills. Families of infants and young toddlers might need guidance and support for helping the very
young child regulate emotions or stress and understand the emotions of others.
Parents should consult with school staff regarding the social and emotional behavioral needs of their children. Once you have
contacted the school about concerns the following steps should be taken.
• A consultation with school staff regarding classroom and/or school approaches to behavior and to develop positive behavior
supports and interventions.
• Screening, evaluation, identification and referral for children displaying emotional disturbances.
• Planning and implementing appropriate academic and other educational supports.
• Measuring progress and improvement both for individuals and also for programs.
• Interventions for students with chronic behavior and emotional needs.
• Small group and/or individual counseling for such issues as social skills, anger control, etc.
• Development of expectations such as positive behavior and intervention, prevention of violence, crisis planning and
• Coordination and referral of children and families to community service agencies, related to mental health needs.
When children have persistent challenging behavior that is not responsive to interventions, comprehensive interventions are
developed to resolve problem behavior and support the development of new skills. The process begins with arranging the
school staff that will develop and implement the child’s individualized education plan. At the center of the team is the family
and child’s teacher or other primary caregivers. The next step is to conduct a functional assessment to gain a better
understanding of the factors that are related to the child’s engagement in challenging behavior. The individualized educational
plan includes prevention strategies to address the triggers of challenging behavior; replacement skills that alternatives to the
challenging behavior; and strategies that ensure challenging behavior is not reinforced or maintained. The individualized
education plan is designed to address home, community, and classroom routines where challenging behavior is occurring.
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