Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood

How Kids Learn to Share and Care

Happy toddler girl with mother at a playground
Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

A tremendous amount of social and emotional development takes place during early childhood. As kids experience temper tantrums, mood swings, and an expanding social world, they must learn more about their emotions as well as those of other people.

Social-Emotional Experiences of Early Childhood

Throughout the toddler years, temper tantrums are quite common. There's a good reason why people often refer to this stage as the "terrible twos"!

Toddlers tend to have rapid mood swings. While their emotions can be very intense, these feelings also tend to be quite short-lived. You might be stunned at how your child can go from screaming hysterically about a toy at one moment to sitting in front of the television quietly watching a favorite show just moments later.

Children at this age can be very possessive and have difficulty sharing. Learning to get along with other children is an essential skill, however. In just a few short years, your child will go from spending most of their time with family and close friends to spending a large chunk of the day interacting, learning, and playing with other kids at school.

Emotional development and social skills are essential for school readiness. Examples of such abilities include paying attention to adult figures, transitioning easily from one activity to the next, and cooperating with other kids.

Help Kids Develop Social and Emotional Skills

So how can you help your child learn how to play well with others? Social competence not only involves the ability to cooperate with peers; it also includes such things as the ability to show empathy, express feelings, and share generously. Fortunately, there are plenty of things that you can do to help your kids develop these all-important social and emotional skills.

Model Appropriate Behaviors

Observation plays a vital role in how young children learn new things. If your child sees you sharing, expressing gratitude, being helpful, and sharing feelings, your child will have a good solid understanding of how to interact with other people outside the home.

You can model these responses in your own household with both your child and other members of the family. Every time you say "please" or "thank you," you are demonstrating how you would like your children to behave.

Reinforce Good Behavior

Most importantly, be sure to offer praise when your children demonstrate good social behaviors. Helping your children feel good about themselves also plays an important role in developing a sense of empathy and emotional competence. By creating a positive climate where children are allowed to share their feelings, children will naturally begin to become more generous and thoughtful.

Reinforcement not only makes young children feel good about themselves, but it also helps them understand why certain behaviors are desirable and worthy of praise.

Teach Empathy

Parents can also boost empathy and build emotional intelligence by encouraging their children to think about how other people feel. Start by inquiring about your child's own feelings, asking about events in your child's life. "How did you feel when you lost your toy?" "How did that story make you feel?"

Once children become skilled at expressing their own emotional reactions, begin asking questions about how other people may feel. "How do you think Nadia felt when you took away the toy she was playing with?"

By responding to questions about emotions, children can begin to think about how their own actions might impact the emotions of those around them.

Teach Cooperation

Cooperation is one skill that benefits tremendously from direct experience. Giving your child the opportunity to interact and play with other kids is one of the best ways to teach them how to relate to others. While your toddler may find playing with peers frustrating at times, since kids often lack patience and the ability to share, things will gradually begin to improve with age and experience.

As children play and interact, they also begin to develop social problem-solving skills. Early attempts might involve plenty of arguments and conflict with siblings and peers, but eventually, kids learn how to negotiate and compromise with other children.

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.