Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Social-Emotional Development (25-36 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Michaela Jelen and Veronica Smith, University of Alberta

Introduction to Emotional and Social Development

Young children’s social and emotional understanding continues to develop during their third year of life. At this stage of development, they are able to understand simple emotions and are becoming aware of the emotions of others. Older toddlers also become more responsive to their peers and begin to develop an understanding of gender differences. Social and play skills develop and first friendships begin. Between their second and third birthdays, children’s communication and cognitive development plays a large role in the growth of their social and emotional abilities.

Older Toddlers’ Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotions

Two- to three-year-old children continue to show an understanding of a range of emotions. By the time children are two, they are also able to identify, label and spontaneously talk about simple emotions and feelings such as happiness and sadness, although they have difficulty labeling more complex emotions such as fear and anger. Through experience, 28-month-old Mahdi has learned many activities that make her mother happy. When she has completed a task she knows will make her mother happy such as putting her cup on the counter by the sink, she will turn to her mother and say “yay!” while clapping in anticipation of her mother’s pleased response. Older toddlers continue to be able to identify positive emotions with greater ease than negative emotions.

Simple emotions.Younger toddlers often imitate the simple emotions of others, such as sadness and happiness, but are unaware that emotions are personal reflections of an individual’s thoughts, feelings and desires. Around age two, children begin to individualize emotions and begin to understand that emotions represent people’s desires. It is at this time that they realize that their emotional states are different from others. At daycare, when Mahdi’s friend Devon is crying after his dad leaves in the morning, she will often find his favorite dump truck and bring it over to him. Older toddlers can identify that another child may be feeling happy or sad, even when those feelings are not consistent with their own emotions. By noticing these differences older toddlers start to identify reasons why another child may be feeling happy or sad.

Older toddlers’ use emotion to convey anticipation of events about to occur as when they show signs of happiness or excitement if they expect to be rewarded and show signs of sadness if they want something they know they cannot have. Thirty-month-old Mahdi loves the dirt around the plants in the living room, she loves to run her fingers through the dirt and she loves to throw the dirt on the floor and stomp around in it with her bare feet. Mahdi also knows that she is not allowed to touch the plants or the dirt around them. If her mother walks into the room when she is in the process of playing with the dirt, she will often bow her head in shame and say “Mahdi bad” long before her mother says or does anything in reaction to catching her in the plant. Another example is seen in the behavior of 25-month-old Chayton. He knows exactly where the cookies are in the kitchen and will often wander into the kitchen as his mother is making dinner and say, “Cookie?” His mother will typically respond by saying “Chayton, it is almost dinner time”, Chayton will usually pout and then answer himself by saying “no cookie, no cookie” in a sad voice.

Self-consciousness emotions. Around two years of age, toddlers develop self-conscious emotions such as pride, guilt and embarrassment. This development happens at the same time as their emerging awareness of the emotions of others and new understanding of social rules and expectations. Older toddlers have now become aware of how other people perceive them. For example, thirty-four-month-old Chayton has learned how to put on his shoes and close the velcro all by himself. When his aunt was visiting and they were going to the park, Chayton said, “Look Auntie! Shoes on!” as he proceeded to proudly show her his newly acquired skill.

When older toddlers learn societal rules they begin to evaluate their behaviors against their understanding of other people’s perceptions. Older toddlers experience pride when they are encouraged or praised for their behaviours and embarrassment or shame when they experience negative reactions or punishment from authority figures. For example, Chayton was playing by himself at the kitchen table while his father was having a shower. He knew that his crayons are kept in a drawer next to the baking ingredients. In searching for his crayons, Chayton discovered the baking cupboard and he found the bin where the flour is kept. As he was enjoying taking handfuls of the flour out of the bin and throwing it onto the floor, his father came into the kitchen and yelled “Chayon! No!! What are you doing?!” Chayton stared at his father for a second and then burst into tears. He hung his head down towards the ground and said “Sowy (sorry) dada” through his tears.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Regulating or controlling one’s emotions involves stalling a reaction, ignoring outside sources and continuing with tasks that are not enjoyable. The ability to regulate one’s emotions is not present at birth they develop over time. Skills in this area largely determine our ability to cope with conflicts that might otherwise negatively affect our physical and mental wellbeing. Toddlers have a few coping skills to help them regulate emotions and control the self but they still need a great deal of support from others to successfully regulate their emotions in many situations. Parents and caregivers often help their toddlers with coping skills to help them to regulate their behavior. Mahdi’s mother uses language and models appropriate behaviour to help Mahdi calm down when she is upset. For example, when Mahdi is upset because she is not allowed to go somewhere she really wants to be, she often starts crying and buries her face in a pillow. Her mother will come and sit beside her and say “Mahdi, let’s sit up tall”, she will then model and encourage Mahdi to take a “big breath” while handing her a tissue and instructing her to wipe her nose and blow. Her mother will then talk about when she can go where she wants to go, and tries to explain why it is not something she can do at this time.

Older toddlers do show independent efforts at emotional regulation such as removing their attention from aversive or overwhelming stimuli and self-soothing behaviors such as sucking of the thumb. Chayton has an uncle who is a very large man. Chayton is quite afraid of him as he has a large booming voice and often picks Chayton up and swings him high in the air. Chayton came up with a way to manage his fear on his own. When Chayton’s uncle is at the front door, Chayton will often run to his room and close the door. It can take him over fifteen minutes but he eventually comes out slowly when he knows that his uncle is sitting on the couch quietly.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

By age two, children are able to understand if a person’s emotional state is positive or negative and whether a caregiver’s signals are encouraging or discouraging. Mahdi’s mother can just give 30-month-old Mahdi a certain look and say her name in a stern voice and Mahdi knows that she should not be doing something. For example, when they went out for dinner with some friends, Mahdi clinked her glass with her spoon and scooped the water out of her water glass with her fingers. Mahdi’s mother simply said her name and glared at her with a disapproving look, and Mahdi immediately knew to stop.

An important change in the response to the emotions of others that takes place between 24 and 36 months of age is that older toddlers begin to try to change the emotions of others. They begin to comfort others who are in distress and they also try and provoke others by teasing or hurting them. When Chayton’s father became upset after receiving a distressing letter from his workplace, he threw the letter on the floor and cursed loudly. In an effort to comfort him, Chayton picked up his own favorite stuffed zebra and brought it to his father, saying, “zeba"?

It is important to recognize that these responses to others’ emotions are highly variable, some children engage in them and others do not. When some young children provide comfort, they can do so with a range of strategies including words of comfort, physical closeness, and the retrieval of a favoured toy. Caregivers who provide their young children with more words for emotion and convey a greater sense of warmth toward their children have children who tend to display a greater amount of emotional understanding toward others. Conversely, caregiver reactions that are primarily disciplinary or dismissing may hinder children’s ability to regulate emotions and to understand information about emotional events. Young children who experience these negative caregiver reactions on a regular basis tend to avoid emotionally challenging situations and therefore miss opportunities to learn to cope with negative emotions, which further affects relations with others and opportunities for language development.

Interpersonal Social Behaviors

Older toddlers’ egocentric (self-centered) view of the world dominates much of their behavior. Between 25 and 36 months of age, children are usually more concerned with themselves than those around them, although their ability to see the world from another person’s perspective is emerging. During this time period, the building blocks for understanding how others think, or what is known as ‘theory of mind,’ become more developed. Older toddlers now have a basic understanding of the emotions of others and they show an increasing awareness that others have thoughts and feelings that are separate from their own. Around three years of age, children are able to identify the cause of emotions such as happy, sad and scared in others. Chayton’s father likes to sneak up on his mother and tickle her from behind. His mother often yelps and hops up out of surprise. When he is watching them, Chayton will sometimes say, “Mama scared!”

Around 28 months of age, older toddlers begin to use words such as ‘know’, ‘think’, and ‘remember’ which describe internal states. These words are only used for conversational purposes at first. However, by the end of the third year, around 32 months of age, children begin to use these words to describe mental states. Now Mahdi will sometimes come home from daycare and say to her mother “I fink (think) mom happy”. When asked why, she will respond, “Because Mahdi and mom together!” Older toddlers’ use of terms such as ‘believe’, expect’, and ‘wonder’ increase around 30 months of age. For example, thirty-three-month-old Chayton will sometimes say to his mother, “I wonder when I have cookie.”

Older toddlers also show an understanding of what can be done to regulate the mental states of others. They begin to develop the ability to empathize with others. Around 24 months, children will sometimes attempt to comfort and show concern for others who are showing feelings of distress or sadness. Although older toddlers show awareness that others have different perspectives from their own, they still have a difficulty understanding that the beliefs of others can be false. Mahdi has an uncle who loves to play tricks on her. He will often tell her things that are not true. He will say things like “Mahdi, look! The dog is flying!” Mahdi will peer up into the sky with a look of amazed anticipation on her face. Older toddlers like Mahdi do not understand that others can have beliefs that differ from reality.

Around 2 years of age, children have difficulty sticking to many rules. Because of their self-centered view of life, wish fulfillment and impulsive behaviors are many times more powerful to older toddlers than following the rules. For example, even though he knows he is not supposed to, 25-month-old Chayton will often sneak into the cookie jar when his parents are out of the kitchen. He has gotten in trouble for the same thing over and over again, yet he continues to try and sneak cookies almost daily. Later in the third year of life, older toddlers demonstrate an ability to internalize rules, demonstrate self-control and learn the basics of prosocial behavior. They engage in behaviors that help others without any expectations of being rewarded in return, such as sharing, helping others and kindness. Now when Mahdi’s mother is getting dinner ready Mahdi will often bring her random items from a drawer she can reach such as a cheese grater or a wooden spoon. She says, “I help!” as she hands her mother the items.

Gender Identity

By the time they are 30 months of age, children typically have a sense of gender identity and are able to label themselves and others accurately as a girl or boy. Older toddlers use physical characteristics, such as length of hair and clothing to categorize boys and girls. Chayton has a book about preschool that he loves to read. He loves to point at all the kids in the pictures and label them as “boy” or “girl”. He often mislabels some girls that are shown with short hair and pants on.

Older toddlers show an understanding of gender stereotypes. They begin to identify toys, objects and games as either male or female and begin to prefer toys that match their gender. Mahdi calls the car and truck corner at daycare the “boy place.” Once when her mother asked if she played with any cars today, Mahdi quickly responded, “No! That boys’ play.” They also often begin to demonstrate a clear preference for playing with children of the same gender. Girls begin to show a preference for interacting with other girls, and boys begin to show a preference for interacting with other boys.


The last phase in the development of attachment occurs between 2 and 3 years of age. Please refer to earlier developmental stages to review the previous stages of attachment (insert link to attachment 0-12 and 13-24 months). In addition to attachment, older toddlers also deal with separation. Transition objects are a mechanism that older toddlers use to help them deal with separation.

Formation of reciprocal relationships (18 months- 2 years and on).By the end of the second year, rapid growth in their language skill allows children to understand some of the reasons that contribute to a caregiver’s coming and going. Older toddlers are able to rely on their experiences to predict the return of absent caregivers. For this reason, protests to separation decrease. Mahdi used to get very upset when her mother left her in the mornings; she used to scream and cry and clutch her mother’s leg in protest of her leaving. Her mother has, however, recently noticed that 27-month-old Mahdi no longer gets so upset when she leaves. Instead, she will usually say something like, “I see mom later!” as she skips off to play with her friends. In an effort to control comings and goings of parents and caregivers some older toddlers begin to use language to negotiate with the caregivers, and use requests and persuasion to change the caregiver’s goals and meet their own. Chayton has discovered that if he is hurt, his parents often take much longer to leave when the babysitter has arrived. He has now started to pretend cry and act like his leg/arm/tummy hurts as soon as his parents go to put their coats on.

Transition objects (24-36 months). Older toddlers develop some self-soothing and self-protective strategies to help them cope with separation. They use ‘transition objects’ such as blankets or stuffed animals to help them deal with separation. These objects are often used to comfort themselves in the absence of their caregivers or at nighttime when they are left on their own to go to sleep. Mahdi cannot go to sleep unless she has her favorite blanket. If she has been playing with it during the day and it is out of her bed, she will often wail and scream, “I blankie!” at bedtime. Mahdi’s mother then helps her look for it and helps her calm down by assuring her that they will find it before she goes to sleep.

The Development of a Sense of Self

During the third year of life, between 24 and 36 months, personal identity begins to develop. Older toddlers begin to show an understanding of the self and are increasingly able to differentiate between the self and others. Around the age of 2, children begin to develop what psychologists term the ‘me’ self. This sense of self can be described as a toddler’s objective understanding of their personality, physical characteristics and cognitive abilities. At this age they are able to recognize themselves in the mirror and in photographs. Older toddlers begin to use descriptive terms to describe themselves, such as ‘big’ or ‘small’, and use the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’. Two-and-a-half-year-old Mahdi loves to look at pictures of herself when she was a baby and a young 16-to 20-month-old toddler. She loves to point out, “Me small!” She also likes to note that her hair was shorter but that she still had brown eyes. Between two and three years of age, children’s sense of self is concrete. It is made up of observable characteristics such as possessions, behaviors and physical attributes. Older toddlers are also able to identify themselves and others by name. Chayton likes to look through the family photograph and point to familiar family members. He stares at the group photos and labels each family member by name one by one.

At this age, children also begin to become aware of their own capabilities. Older toddlers sometimes react negatively when they are asked to do something that appears difficult. This is because they are now more aware that they are unable to easily or independently complete the task. Thirty-four-month-old Chayton loves to help his father with construction tasks in the garage. He likes to hand him tools from the toolbox when his father asks for each one. But when his father asked him to do something new - putting the screwdriver in the screw and screwing it into a piece of wood - Chayton vigorously shook his head and said, “I no know how!”

By the end of toddlerhood, around 34- 36 months of age, children have a clear sense of the self and can demonstrate the ability to discriminate between the self and others. They begin to describe and label their actions, desires and intentions with the pronoun ‘I’ and describe the actions and desires of others using the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’ and hers’.

The development of a ‘sense of self’ influences how children behave. Older toddlers see themselves as autonomous beings and begin to want to do things independently and assert some control over their actions. Many researchers have suggested that the popular term, ‘terrible twos’ refers to older toddlers’ need for independence. Older toddlers struggle with the competing concepts of prosocial behavior and their desire to be in control and independent. Twenty-eight-month-old Mahdi’s new favorite saying is “I do it!” She is always getting upset at her mother if she does something for her. If possible, she will undo her mother’s help and redo the task herself. For example, once during dinnertime, Mahdi’s mother got a glass, filled it with water from the kitchen tap, and handed it to her. Mahdi replied, “No! I do it!” and poured the glass of water out into the sink, put it back in the cupboard, and repeated the exact same steps by herself. Older toddlers are also developing an understanding of the concepts ‘mine’ and ‘yours.’ Because of this, they begin to show possessive behaviors. Sharing is very difficult for children between the ages of 2 and 3 as they become possessive of their toys. Chayton has a cousin who is a year older than him and often comes over to play. Two-and-a-half-year-old Chayton is happy playing with him as long as he is in control of the activities and he is in charge of deciding what his cousin plays with. When his cousin tries to take one of Chayton’s favorite toys such as his green car, he gets extremely upset and grabs it from him immediately saying, “No! Mine!” When his mother intervenes and encourages him to share, he often grabs his car and runs out the room crying.

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

Beginning in toddlerhood, children solicit information about the world from adults and those with more advanced language. They request information to increase their understanding of both simple emotions and the emerging self-conscious emotions (e.g., shame, pride, guilt). For example, one day Mahdi’s mother received a large parcel in the mail that she was not expecting. Mahdi ‘helped’ her open the door and Mahdi’s mother’s reaction to the delivery man was, “Oh! I was not expecting you!” Once he left, Mahdi asked her mother, “Mom happy?” When her mother explained that she was surprised but also happy to receive the parcel, Mahdi repeated, “Mom happy! Mom present!”

Caregiver-child attachment, emotional understanding, and children’s conversational experiences work together to contribute to social-emotional development. Children’s daily interactions with caregivers, including play, sharing humour, cooperation, learning rules, and conversations with others provide children with opportunities to learn about the social world. Older toddlers’ emerging language skills allow them to participate in social activities in a more involved way. They are now able to guide and direct some of the conversation, steering their caregivers to provide information that is most important to their attention at that point in time. When Chayton’s father comes home from work, he often chats with Chayton’s mother about their day. On one occasion, Chayton’s mother mentioned to him that she and Chayton had gone to the mall to pick up a few things. Chayton immediately found the new stuffed lion his mother had purchased for him that day and interjected in the conversation saying, “Look Dada! My new wion!” With his enthusiasm, Chayton captured the attention of both of his parents and they talked about where they had bought the lion and what he was going to name it.

Peer Support for Social and Emotional Development

Play becomes a large part of socialization during older toddlerhood. Around age 2, children begin to focus less of their attention on toys and more of their attention toward their peers. They begin to engage in more social interactions with peers. Younger toddlers chose to play with peers largely due to convenience. However, older toddlers begin to choose to play with peers because they are truly interested. The selection of play partners is now mutual and voluntary. Differing types of play are described below.

Imaginative and Symbolic Play

Between 25 and 30 months, children begin to engage in pretend or imaginative play. They enjoy imitating adult behaviors, for example, girls often imitate their mothers by pretending to cook or by pretending to feed their dolls. Twenty-eight-month-old Mahdi has developed a friendship with a similarly aged boy at her daycare, Devon. Their favorite place to play together is at the kitchen corner and they often pretend to wash and stack dishes together side-by-side. Both Devon and Mahdi can be heard imitating their parents saying things like, “Plate dirty” or “No! Put up.”

Older toddlers begin to use objects in an unintended way and pretend that one object represents another, such as pretending that a banana is a telephone. This is called symbolic play because the child is using one object as a symbol for another. Older toddlers may also pretend to be different animals or characters.

As they near three years of age, children typically start to engage in joint pretend and symbolic play. Chayton and his cousin often play ‘zoo’ together. Chayton loves to pretend he is a zebra and wears his black and white coat while crawling around the room. His cousin usually pretends he is a wolf and he can be heard howling loudly as Chayton whinnies like a zebra in response. Around 30 months of age children begin to take on complementary roles while engaged in pretend play. For example, one playmate takes on the role of ‘baby’ while the other takes on the role of ‘parent.’ Older toddlers begin to communicate their play ideas with friends and are able to plan and coordinate actions necessary for their play. They also demonstrate an ability to solve joint problems. During these interactions older toddlers demonstrate an understanding of their playmate’s intent and act accordingly. Sometimes 30-month-old Mahdi and her daycare friend Devon pretend to go to the grocery store. Some of their dialogue involves solving grocery store problems. For example, on one occasion, Devon said to Mahdi, “Oh oh! No apples!” Mahdi replied, “We get pears, I wike (like) pears too.”

Play With Others

At two years of age, the majority of a child’s play consists of solitary and parallel play. Parallel play is play that occurs when two or more toddlers play side-by-side engaging in the same activity but not interacting with one another. Their interactions consist mainly of imitation, repetition, shared interests and common goals. Twenty-five-month-old Chayton and his parents sometimes went to the playground on Saturday mornings. On one occasion, Chayton and another little boy ended up playing side-by-side with their own sand buckets. Though they did not speak much to each other, they both ended up building castle-type structures with sticks on top of them.

At 2 years of age, toddlers also begin to engage in coordinated imitation. They take turns imitating each other and are aware that they are being imitated. Between two and three years of age, children begin to demonstrate cooperative play and their turn-taking skills improve especially while playing with their friends. At daycare, two-and-a-half-year-old Mahdi’s favorite game is now ‘Simon says’. At the suggestion of one of the care providers, Mahdi and a group of two other children have started to play the game during free time. They try and take turns being ‘Simon’ though sometimes the child who is ‘Simon’ has a hard time giving up his or her turn. Although the children can play the game quite well they sometimes get in disputes about what ‘Simon didn’t say”. The amount of cooperative play and pretend play that older toddlers engage in is dependent on whether the children playing together are friends. Researchers have found that during this period of development, friends tend to engage in more shared pretend play as well as more cooperative play.

Jelen, M. & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development (25-36 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development