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How to Promote Social-Emotional Development in Young Children

Learn about the important milestones young children should reach.

How to Promote Social-Emotional Development in Young Children

How to Promote Social-Emotional Development in Young Children

The first five years of a child’s life are significant for all areas of their development. It’s a time when they need constant care, monitoring, and attention—especially when they may have a delay and need extra support. One of the most complex developmental domains is social-emotional development, and it’s the foundation for how we relate to ourselves and others.

What is social-emotional development?

Infants aren’t born with an inherent sense of self and awareness of others—it’s a social-emotional skill developed over time. This is related to how a child begins to experience, express, and manage their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Social-emotional development is how we understand who we are, what we feel, and how we interact with those around us. It’s nurtured with intentional social and emotional stimulation.

Why is social and emotional development important?

When building a childcare curriculum plan for children, there should be a focus on each developmental domain, including social and emotional development. This one is especially important because school is a major social setting to adjust to, where children learn how to interact and connect with their peers and adults. Children who’ve developed good social-emotional health are more able to develop healthy friendships, display empathy, manage and express their emotions, succeed in school, and develop a sense of self-love and confidence.

young boy and young girl dressed in bright yellow play on the floor with a toy train and tracks in a room with a lot of plantsSource

What are the major social development milestones?

Each age group has certain social-emotional milestones they should be reaching. While each child’s development is unique and they may reach milestones at different times, these provide some guidance on what to expect at each age.

Social-emotional milestones in infancy (0-2 years old)

  • Calms down when spoken to or picked up
  • Smiles
  • Looks at you, moves, or makes sounds to get attention 
  • Self-soothes
  • Shows several facial expressions like happy, sad, and surprised
  • Looks at themselves in a mirror
  • Laughs
  • Differentiates between strangers and familiar faces
  • Reacts when you leave, such as looking or reaching for you 
  • Plays games with you like peek-a-boo
  • Copies other children playing
  • Claps when excited
  • Shows you affection such as hugging or cuddling
  • Points to show something interesting 
  • Notices when others are hurt or upset

Social-emotional milestones in toddlers (2-3 years old)

  • Looks at your face to see how you react in a new situation
  • Plays next to other children and sometimes plays with them
  • Shows off what they can do, such as saying, “Look at me!”
  • Follows simple routines when told, like cleaning up toys
  • Notices other children and joins them to play
  • Notices the emotions of others
  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave them

Social-emotional milestones in preschoolers (4-5 years old)

  • Engages in pretend play
  • Comforts others who are sad
  • Enjoys being a “helper”
  • Understands appropriate behaviors in different places
  • Avoids danger, like not jumping from tall heights at the playground
  • Asks to go play with other children if none are around

Social-emotional skills checklist for kindergarten readiness (5-6 years old)

  • Follows rule or takes turns when playing games with other children
  • Sings, dances, or acts for you
  • Does simple chores at home, like clearing dishes after eating
  • Expresses their feelings
  • Prefers to play with others rather than alone
  • Plays with other to achieve a common goal

Four young children sit around a circle table with a teacher making paintingsSource

How to promote social-emotional development in the classroom

The classroom is a major social setting for children to gain experience in their social-emotional skills. So naturally, teachers play a significant role in helping foster those skills. Promoting social-emotional development can be worked into every part of the school day, from how they’re greeted at the door to the room's overall atmosphere.

Here are some ways to promote social-emotional development in the classroom:


  • Daily greetings
  • Partner and group activities
  • Practice sharing and taking turns
  • Active listening exercises
  • Discussions about managing emotions


  • Culture of kindness and supportiveness
  • Encourage positive self-talk and self-reflection
  • Be present, observant, and respectful of each child
  • Share your own experiences and set an example
  • Praise prosocial behaviors like sharing


  • Calm-down corner
  • Emotional check-in boards
  • Responsibility or job charts
  • Personal and class goal charts
  • Children’s books focused on social-emotional topics

Social-emotional development and play-based learning

For adults, play might seem like an opportunity for mindless fun. For children, however, play is learning. Play is development. Through play-based learning, children can develop and strengthen their social-emotional skills. Teachers use play-based learning to guide children through self-initiated activities and interactions designed to help them manage their emotions, engage their imagination, and learn to problem-solve.

While there are several theories on stages of play, Mildred Parten’s social behavior theory is an ideal framework that outlines how children progress through play and how their progression through developmental milestones impacts their social-emotional skills. Parten’s six stages of play are:

  • Unoccupied play: From birth to three months, children exhibit erratic, involuntary movement of their limbs as they start to discover their body parts and what they can do with them and learn more about their surroundings. 
  • Solitary play: As children have not yet learned how to socialize at this stage, they entertain themselves through solitary play, where they play alone and are free to explore and master new skills. 
  • Onlooker play: During onlooker play, children observe their surroundings and watch their peers without actively engaging with them, helping them learn social skills and how to play with toys. 
  • Parallel play: Children are physically close while playing but don’t interact with each other.
  • Associative play: Considered the first stage of social interaction, during this stage a child’s interest shifts from a toy or activity to playing with others, where they begin using the social skills they observed during onlooker and parallel play.
  • Cooperative play: Children play together to reach a common goal and show interest in both the other children involved and the toy or activity.

As children progress through these stages, educators can ensure that play-based learning is self-directed by allowing children to choose how, when, and how long they play. It’s important that activities are enjoyable, unstructured, and process-oriented. Instead of outlining a procedure or giving children an objective, give them the freedom to explore as they learn their likes and dislikes. Play-based learning also promotes children's imagination and creativity as they play pretend.

When children engage in play-based learning, it has a lasting impact on their social-emotional development. Play equips children with the skills to exhibit good social behavior, including self-control, cooperation, negotiation, problem-solving, and more. As children transition from playing by themselves to playing with others, play-based learning helps them achieve the social-emotional skills they need in the classroom and beyond.

Signs of delays and when to seek professional help

As children begin to develop, it’s essential to track their progress. Each child’s development will be slightly different, so how do you know when it’s time to seek professional help? The first step is making sure you’re keeping track of the child’s progress against what is typically expected at each age. So, maintain a checklist that includes information on when to seek professional help. It’s important to stay on top of any possible developmental delays because early intervention is the key to getting them back on track.

A father helps his young son walk on top of a large fallen treeSource

Doing the balancing act

Children’s growth is a delicate balance between all developmental domains. Social-emotional skills might not be as tangible as motor skills, but they’re just as important to a child’s overall development. Promote social-emotional development in your classroom by incorporating plenty of activities that encourage social interaction, taking turns, and discussions about emotions.

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