Social and Emotional Disorders
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 untreated, “early-onset” conduct problems (high rates of aggression, disobedience, oppositional
behaviors and emotional 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 feelings.
•        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 achievement.

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 language skills.

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 intervention, etc.
• 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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