Social and emotional competence
Infancy and Toddlerhood
The first thing babies do to communicate with us is cry, because that is all they can do. They start a “baby language” where different kinds of crying mean different things. It is our job as parents to figure out what they need. They send signals like “I am hungry”; “I hurt”; “I am uncomfortable.” The faster adults learn these signals, the clearer the baby becomes in “talking” to the people around it. The baby’s mind and spirit grow from this early way of communicating with us. These are the first lessons and behaviors the baby learns at the baby university (i.e., its universe-city).
Progress in the university comes quickly in the first year. For example, between one and two months, the baby may look longer at faces than at things, and will start to make “ah” and “ooh” sounds besides crying. In month three, a baby starts to grab and shake hand toys, and smiles back and forth. The baby will try to copy others. In month four, a baby can follow a close object from side to side. In five months, the baby notices things across a room. At six months, a baby can make some vowel sounds. By the end of the first year, young children can respond to their own names by looking or turning when someone calls them. Also around this time, young children can use gestures as they begin to communicate back and forth with others. This can involve looking at an object an adult points out, or looking first at an object, then at an adult, then back to the object. This tells us that they are interested in that object.
In their second year, children start to put together words for what they want. They also will start to know when someone or something is not present, and this gives them delight in playing “peek-a-boo.” They also experiment in making messes, putting things together, and taking them apart. They are now actively starting to learn what is “OK” and “not OK.” Two-year-olds love to see their photos, mastering sense of self and others.
In the third year, toddlers now begin to get the idea of how to manage their own feelings and sensations. The child is ready to graduate from the universe-city, which can be measured in many ways to mark future success and wellbeing. At age three, children begin to “get” the idea of manners, such as “please and thank you.”
For very young children, social skills include looking at, and responding to, adult caregivers (the “social smile”), establishing the simplest of back-and-forth interactions (eating, playing “peek-a-boo”), and sticking with interactions and activities that include other adults (and, to a lesser extent, other children). Infants and toddlers also initiate interactions with others using words, sounds or gestures.
Social competence is a child’s ability to get along with others. It is critical to successful development. Children who don’t make friends or don’t get along with adults won’t learn as much as they might. To get along with others, children need to learn to control their emotions. If they lose their temper, act impulsively, or refuse to do what others ask, they will find it hard to get along with others. On the other hand, children who have fun with other children, and notice and respond sympathetically to others’ emotions are able to make and keep friends and get the support they need from adults.
Children’s social and emotional competence directly affects their development of other skills, such as vocabulary, motor skills, and thinking skills. And, it sets the foundation for later social and emotional competence. Indeed, social and emotional skills acquired through the preschool years provide the foundation for the child’s later social and emotional functioning.
For preschoolers, social skills include knowing how to start and sustain social activities. It also includes responding positively to bids for interaction from others, as well as keeping interactions going by introducing new topics for play or conversation and respond to such efforts from others. Preschool social skills also involving solving social problems, for instance, not having desired toys, or being ignored or hurt. Skilled preschoolers learn how to deal with these situations in ways that don’t create future problems and re-establish a positive interaction.
Emotional competence is a bit more subtle, but also very important. Three- and four-year-old children must be able to notice the “emotional tone” of others around them and respond appropriately; it’s not surprising to see a preschooler “help” or provide comfort to someone upset, or laugh with someone who is happy.
Social-emotional competence also includes a child’s skill for “self-regulation.” As life unfolds, every child encounters stressful situations that might lead to emotional upset (crying or anger), as well as situations that are enlivening and lead to emotional excitement (laughter or elation). Self-regulation is a child’s capacity for experiencing these emotions and their behavioral effects, and then returning to deal effectively with the demands of the current situation.
Early childhood social-emotional competence has been carefully and extensively researched. Some researchers have explored children’s behavior, both in interaction with adults and parents and in interaction with other children.
A second, long-standing line of research has examined children’s interactions with other children. Harking back to Parton’s research in the 1930s, for some time researchers described children’s interactions from solitary play to parallel play (little interaction, but proximity and similar activities to others) to associative and cooperative play (engaged, ongoing, and reciprocal interaction with others).
By age 11, children need to have the social and emotional skills to make and keep friends, work well in groups, and handle well a range of emotions. To make and keep friends, children need to learn and use good friendship skills, such as being nice and sharing ideas and roles during playtime. Learning to listen to the ideas of other children, even when these ideas do not match their own, will help young people as they begin to work in groups in school and take part in social and sports teams in the neighborhood. Building the social confidence to meet and be inclusive of other children in their neighborhood also will help across a variety of social situations. In order to handle well a range of different emotions, children need to develop the knowledge and language to accurately identify and communicate their feelings. Being able to accept and work through the normal course of difficult feelings, such as sadness or worry, instead of avoiding or hiding these emotions is also an important skill that will help children as they prepare for early adolescence.
By age 14, young people need the social and emotional skills to establish strong, stable friendships with others—including people of the opposite sex. To do this they need to be able to manage strong emotions so that they don’t get in the way of maintaining good relationships with others or continuing to pursue their chosen course in life. Poor social relations can harm young people’s further development . Those who have few friends are more prone to depression and are less able to get the support that everyone needs from others when they are having problems in life, as we all do from time to time. People can have an especially hard time making and keeping friends if they are prone to anger easily or become mean. Young people who are pro-social are skilled and motivated to help others, are sensitive to the needs of others, and strive to resolve conflicts without anyone being hurt (Wilson & O’Brien, 2009).
By age 18, young people need the social and emotional skills to establish strong, stable friendships with others—including people of the opposite sex. To do this they must be able to manage strong emotions so that they don’t get in the way of maintaining good relationships with others or continuing to pursue their chosen course in life. Poor social relations can harm young people’s further development. Those who have few friends are more prone to depression and are less able to get the support that everyone needs from others when they are having problems in life, as we all do from time to time. People can have an especially hard time making and keeping friends if they are prone to anger easily or become mean. Young people who are pro-social are skilled and motivated to help others, are sensitive to the needs of others, and strive to resolve conflicts without anyone being hurt (Wilson, 2009).
- Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Good Behavior Game
- Guiding Good Choices
- Life Skills Training
- PATHS Preschool
- Play and Learning Strategies
- Positive Action
- Raising Healthy Children
- Strengthening Families 10-14
- The Incredible Years
- Triple P – Positive Parenting Program