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10.4: Social and emotional connections to behavior

  • Page ID
    • Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen
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    Two girls standing close together. Image 10.4 is licensed under CC by 1.0

    As children grow and learn to be in the world, they learn the skills needed to take turns, help their friends, play together, and cooperate with others. Generally, around the same time, children are learning about their own feelings and emotions.

    Children are born with the need and desire to connect with those around them (social development). When teachers and providers establish positive relationships with children from birth through the early years, and value their diverse cultures and languages, children feel safe and secure, laying the foundation for healthy social and emotional development.

    This process affects how children experience the world, express themselves, manage their emotions, and establish positive relationships with others (emotional development). Emotional awareness is the ability to recognize and identify our own feelings and actions along with the feelings and actions of other people and understand how our own feelings and actions affect ourselves and others. Review this example of how a Venn Diagram can be used to show some of the discreet social development milestones and emotional development milestones, as well as the intersection (overlap) between the two:


    Here are some examples of social and emotional developmental milestones as they relate to behavior:

    Age Examples of social and emotional developmental milestones
    Birth to 2 Months May briefly calm himself (may bring hands to mouth and suck on hand). Tries to make eye contact with caregiver. Begins to smile at people.
    4 Months May smile spontaneously, especially at people. Likes interacting with people and might cry when the interaction stops. Copies some movements and facial expressions, like smiling or frowning.
    6 Months Reacts positively to familiar faces and begins to be wary of strangers. Likes to play with others, especially parents and other caregivers. Responds to own name.
    9 Months May show early signs of separation anxiety and may cry more often when separated from caregiver and be clingy with familiar adults. May become attached to specific toys or other comfort items. Understands “no.” Copies sounds and gestures of others.
    Age Examples of social and emotional milestones
    12 Months May show fear in new situations. Repeats sounds or actions to get attention. May show signs of independence and resist a caregiver’s attempt to help. Begins to follow simple directions.
    18 Months May need help coping with temper tantrums. May begin to explore alone but with parent close by. Engages in simple pretend or modeling behavior, such as feeding a doll or talking on the phone. Demonstrates joint attention; for example, the child points to an airplane in the sky and looks at caregiver to make sure the caregiver sees it too.
    2 Years Copies others, especially adults and older children. Shows more and more independence and may show defiant behavior. Mainly plays alongside other children (parallel play) but is beginning to include other children in play. Follows simple instructions.
    3 Years May start to understand the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers.” May feel uneasy or anxious with major changes in routine. May begin to learn how to take turns in games and follows directions with 2-3 steps. Names a friend and may show concern for a friend who is sad or upset.
    4 Years Cooperates with other children and may prefer to play with other children than by herself. Often cannot tell what is real and what is make-believe. Enjoys new things and activities.
    5 Years May want to please caregivers and peers. Is aware of gender. May start recognizing what is real and what is make-believe.
    6-7 Years Measure his performance against others. Continue to develop her social skills by playing with other children in a variety of situations. Be able to communicate with others without adult help. Start to feel sensitive about how other children feel about him.

    Social and emotional development involve several interrelated areas of development, including social interaction, emotional awareness, and self-regulation. Below are examples of important aspects of social and emotional development for young children.

    Social interaction focuses on the relationships we share with others, including relationships with adults and peers. As children develop socially, they learn to take turns, help their friends, play together, and cooperate with others. Emotional awareness includes the ability to recognize and understand our own feelings and actions and those of other people, and how our own feelings and actions affect ourselves and others. Self-regulation is the ability to express thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in socially appropriate ways. Learning to calm down when angry or excited and persisting at difficult tasks are examples of self-regulation.

    Children who are socially and emotionally healthy tend to demonstrate, and continue to develop, several important behaviors and skills (adapted from McClellan & Katz 2001 and Bilmes 2012). According to these three authors, children

    • Are usually in a positive mood
    • Listen and follow directions
    • Have close relationships with caregivers and peers
    • Recognize, label, and manage their own emotions
    • Understand others’ emotions and show empathy
    • Express wishes and preferences clearly
    • Gain access to ongoing play and group activities
    • Ability to play, negotiate, and compromise with others

    Social and emotional development are both related to behavior, and include the areas of social interaction, emotional awareness, and self-regulation. Social interaction spotlights the relationships children share with others and includes relationships with adults and other children. As children develop socially, they learn the skills needed to take turns, help their classmates, play together, and cooperate with others.

    Connecting to behavior in the classroom and real life supports

    With behavior at the core of this chapter, we will use this section to look at teaching social and emotional skills intentionally to support positive behaviors. When we teach intentionally, we have a plan and a purpose, and our outcome (result) will be observable. We are approaching this from a teaching perspective, as that matches with our strengths-based focus and moves away from a negative or punishing approach.

    Review and reflect on these intentional teaching strategies. This work is adapted from NAEYC (The Intentional Teacher):

    1. Coaching on the spot: This practice will help you to describe behaviors and actions as they are happening in the classroom and help children recognize what they are doing in real time. This helps the children to understand the effect of their actions on others and helps them to select a different and appropriate replacement action (Riley et al. 2008). For example, when Taylor grabs a toy from Nicole, you would kneel at the child’s level and calmly interject that “Nicole is using that right now. Next time, if you want to use this toy please ask if you can have a turn when she’s finished.” You can then provide positive feedback to Taylor when you observe her desirable behavior.
    2. Effective praise. Effective praise is meaningful feedback to the child that is related to what the child is doing in the moment. Giving effective praise is a powerful strategy for fostering children’s social and emotional development (Kostelnik et al. 2015). An example of making praise effective would include you describing exactly and specifically what you see. This must be in objective terms and without generalizing, evaluating, or comparing. An example of this is related to a child painting at the easel. In giving effective praise you would share that “I see a very colorful rainbow. You used red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Just like in our rainbow song at circle time.” This example provides detailed and positive comments.

    Effective praise can also be used with the first coaching example as desirable behavior is observed. You could say “Taylor, you used your magic word please may I have a turn when you’re finished to ask Nicole for the toy. Great job working together!

    1. Modeling appropriate behavior. We know that all children learn by observing other people. They learn from their observations and find ideas about behaviors and use these new ideas to manage their actions (Bandura 1977).

    When we implement non-invasive strategies in the classroom we are promoting socially and emotionally healthy behaviors.

    Here are some points to remember:
    • A gentle touch to a child’s hand can be used to redirect attention or behavior.
    • Acknowledge “in the moment” when you observe acts of kindness between children, or a group effort for working together to finish a job.
    • Model appropriate warm and respectful behavior throughout the day with children and with your colleagues. Add modeling at specific times when a child needs a gentle reminder of the desired behavior or action.
    • Move closer to a child and provide a non-verbal cue to redirect unwanted behavior.
    • Use nonverbal gestures and cues (such as a nod of your head, a thumbs-up, or a gentle touch to the shoulder) to send a reminder message and acknowledge that you are there and aware.
    • Use simple language like “walking feet”, and “hands to self”, or “inside voice” to give reminders of expectations.

    When children see teachers and other adults model these strategies that are non-threatening and do not invade their space, the child’s response is typically a smile, they in turn use their gentle hands, they say please and thank you, give hugs and high fives, and use appropriate words to label their feelings.

    As adults, we are not only the role models for the children, but we also use the child’s appropriate behaviors to model social and emotional skills for them. You might choose to use puppets during circle time to demonstrate children’s appropriate behaviors to help them use those skills in a meaningful way. You might also use a strategy called “social stories” to teach important social and emotional skills. Social stories are a tool created to help children learn routines, expectations, and appropriate behaviors, and presented in a story format. These stories help children learn in another way while at the same time reinforcing the behaviors that we as adults want to see.


    Create your reflection in a Venn Diagram Define social development in your own words, and then some indicators or examples of social development. Now define emotional development and again think of emotional development examples or indicators. List your social examples in one circle of your diagram, and emotional examples in the other. List the indicators that are shared between the two areas in the oval where the two circles overlap:


    This page titled 10.4: Social and emotional connections to behavior is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen.

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