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

children image

parent narrative

Social-Emotional Development (37-60 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Introduction to Emotional and Social Development

The preschool period, between 3 and 5 years of age, is a time of significant transition in a child’s life. A preschooler develops from a self-centered young child to a more complex social individual, able to take another’s point of view. Preschoolers begin to understand their personal feelings and the feelings of others. During this period of social emotional development, children have a better understanding of emotions and show the ability to understand, predict and change emotions. Between 3 and 5 years of age, preschoolers’ skills for interacting and communicating with others improve dramatically. They interact more with same age peers and their play becomes more involved and imaginative.

Preschoolers’ Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotions

cognitive and language growth between 3 and 5 years of age helps preschoolers further develop understanding of their own feelings and the feelings of others. In the preschool years, children begin to realize the link between thinking and feeling. For example, four-year-old Mahdi is constantly talking about emotions. She has quickly learned to describe how she and others are feeling based on thoughts about the situation at hand. When another child is crying because his/her parents have left in the morning, Mahdi may say, “You’re sad because daddy left.” When a child is crying Mahdi sometimes says, “You fell down and hurt. I kiss it better.” Finally, when her mother picks her up at the end of the day Mahdi often says, “I’m happy because mommy is here!”

During the preschool period, young children’s vocabulary for describing emotions quickly grows. Their improved ability to talk about emotions leads to a better understanding of emotions although mastery continues to elude them in some areas.

Negative emotions. At 3 years of age, children are able to understand and identify typical facial expressions such as happiness. At this age, however, many young children still struggle with the ability to label and understand negative emotions such as anger and sadness. Research has suggested that it is not until preschoolers are between 4 and 5 years of age that they demonstrate an ability to accurately explain the cause of negative emotions. By the end of the preschool period, children typically demonstrate the ability to identify emotions such as fear, surprise and disgust. Four-and-a-half year-old Chayton has now learned the meaning of ‘scared.’ For his father’s 30th birthday, his mother decided to throw a surprise birthday party. Chayton was very excited about all of the steps involved and happily helped his mother plan along the way. However, when his father came home that night and all 20 people jumped from their hiding spots and yelled, “Surprise!!” Chayton became extremely scared and started screaming. His parents consoled him and explained to him that he was feeling scared. Since that occasion, his favorite game has become jumping out from behind a hiding place and ‘scaring’ people by yelling “Boo!” He loves it when others pretend to be afraid and he often says, “You are scared! I scared you!”

Real versus false emotions. Around age 3, children begin to show an understanding for real and false emotions. Three-year-olds typically have a rudimentary ability to hide their emotions. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Mahdi has learned that if she cries with one particular babysitter she is often offered a cookie to make her feel better. She has started to pretend to be sad whenever this babysitter arrives. She often “cries” despite not feeling sad about anything. Mahdi’s acting is quite poor, however, and the babysitter has quickly learned the difference between her real cry and her pretend cry. She tends to get a cookie either way! As they mature, preschoolers become better able to hide their emotions and understand that other people’s facial expressions and actions do not always mirror what they are feeling. By age 5, children are often able to understand that other people’s facial expressions can be false indicators of how they are really feeling.

Multiple emotions. Between 3 and 5 years of age, children have difficulty understanding that more than one emotion can be experienced at the same time. Preschoolers also have trouble interpreting situations with seemingly conflicting cues about how someone is feeling. Four-year-old Chayton’s parents took him to a wedding of very close family friends. Chayton has grown up calling them aunty and uncle, and his mother was very happy that they were finally getting married. During the ceremony, Chayton’s mother started crying. When Chayton tried to console her, saying, “It’s okay mommy, don’t be sad,” she turned to him and said, “No Chayton. Mommy is happy because aunty and uncle are getting married” and smiled at him through her tears. Chayton sat very quietly for the remainder of the ceremony with a confused expression on his face.

Self-conscious emotions. By the age of 3, feelings such as guilt, embarrassment, shame, failure, and pride are linked to self-evaluation. Because preschoolers are still developing their understanding of social or behavioral expectations, they often rely on parent and caregiver reactions to know when to feel and express self-conscious emotions. During a wedding reception, Chayton became very hyper with the rest of the children and they were all running around screaming and playing hide-and-seek. During one of the speeches, Chayton was the ‘seeker’ and found his cousin hiding under the table. In a very quiet room he yelled at the top of his lungs, “I found you!!” He then caught his mother’s disapproving gaze along with those of the other guests. His face quickly turned red and he ran to hide at his mother’s feet. Chayton was quiet for a long time after the incident.    

These complex emotions are particularly tricky to interpret because they depend on a combination of external and internal factors. Although they are able to understand and label many emotions, three- to five-year-olds often attribute the cause of emotions to external factors and often ignore possible internal sources of emotion. For example, when a person Chayton jumps out at and ‘scares’ does not exaggerate his or her facial expression and act afraid, Chayton often wonders out loud, “Why are you not scared?”

Emotional Self-Regulation

Impulse control improves between the ages of 3 and 4 and as a result, these young preschoolers begin to show an ability to regulate, or control and adjust, their own emotions during exciting or uncertain situations. These preschoolers become less dependent on parents and caregivers for comfort as they demonstrate a new ability to independently adjust their emotional arousal to a comfortable level.

Like many young children, Mahdi is shy with new people. Her mother is very social and constantly has new people over in the evenings or on weekends. When she was younger, Mahdi used to cry and make a huge fuss when others came over. This frustrated her mother who had to console her in her bedroom until she calmed down and was able to play by herself or come and join the company. Recently, however, the now 4-year-old Mahdi has started to retreat to her room when new people come over and colour in her favourite colouring book. She usually stays alone in her room for up to 30 minutes and then quietly creeps down the stairs, first listening to her mother and guests chatting and then eventually joining in. She has found a strategy that she can independently use to help regulate her emotions when faced with a potentially stressful event.

Another example of this independent emotional regulation can be seen in Chayton’s development. His parents love taking him to the movies but he is a very jumpy child who gets scared quite easily when movie scenes change quickly, when someone jumps out from a hiding place, or when scary music sets a scene. When he was younger and smaller, he used to leap into mom’s or dad’s lap and often started screaming so loudly that his parents had to remove him from the theater to allow him to calm down. Recently however, the now four-and-a-half-year-old Chayton has started to try different things to calm down. He will often close his eyes or plug his ears or scrunch down far in his seat to only peaking above the seat in front of him during a scary scene in a movie.

During the preschool years, children become better able to talk about their feelings and discuss ways to resolve them. Such talking strategies help preschoolers regulate their emotions and lead to fewer emotional outbursts. At this age, preschoolers are also able to appropriately gain support from others when needed. For example, when she was 3 years old, Mahdi went to a Rainforest Café restaurant when she was on vacation with her parents. She found the darkened restaurant with its animated jungle animals and jungle noises quite terrifying at first. Her parents had to move the family to a table that was better lit and near a large aquarium. The colourful fish caught Mahdi’s attention and allowed her parents to explain from a safe distance that the other animals were only toys and that the noises were only like the soundtrack in a movie. Now that she is 4 years old, Mahdi’s family is planning another trip to the same city. When her parents discussed visiting the Rainforest Café again, Mahdi first said that she would be scared and asked her mother if she would be scared too, seeking support. When her mother explained that she would not be scared because the animals are only toys and can be kind of funny to look at, Mahdi focused on the idea of the animals as “funny” saying to herself, “Yes they are just funny. So silly!” and noting that the gorillas were “just big monkeys.” This type of self-talk really seemed to work to calm Mahdi’s fears and give her a sense of control over a potentially stressful situation.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Between 3 and 5 years of age, young children are able to respond to simple emotions and demonstrate an ability to take another person’s perspective. Preschoolers are typically able to understand what others are feelings and respond accordingly. Around age 4, a child’s developing understanding of emotions allows him or her to predict the actions of others based on their emotional state. For example, four-year-old Mahdi attends a preschool with many children. There is a boy in her preschool, Thomas, who often engages in some mild aggression when he gets angry. Mahdi has taken it upon herself to warn others when Thomas seems to be getting angry. For example, Thomas was building a ‘HUGE’ tower with every block he could find in the room. A younger peer, Bill, accidentally knocked it over about 5 blocks before completion. Thomas got quite red in the face and started crying. Mahdi said to the friend that she was playing dress up with, “Thomas is mad. He is gonna hit Bill.” A preschooler’s ability to understand the emotions of others also leads the child to try to relieve negative emotions and encourage positive emotions in other people. During the same situation, Mahdi went over to Thomas and said, “It’s okay Thomas. I will help you build a new one” and gave him a big hug. This type of behavior is an early sign of empathy – the ability to sympathize with someone else’s feelings. Empathy often leads to feelings of concern and attempts to comfort another person who is in distress.

Interpersonal Social Behaviors

During the preschool years, children become increasingly aware of the mental states of others. At age 3 children still have many egocentric tendencies and often see the world from their perspective and have trouble realizing other people have different points of view. Most three-year-olds are not able to predict what another person may be thinking or believing. Though many three-year-olds have some understanding that other people have different thoughts and beliefs, they are not able to use this knowledge to understand the exact thoughts of others.

Between the ages of 4 and 5 children begin to understand another person’s perspective, even when it differs from their own. These older preschoolers begin to not only show an understanding that others have different beliefs but also demonstrate an ability to predict what others might be thinking. It is at this point in development that children are able to appreciate false beliefs. They begin to realize that what they believe to be true is not necessarily what others believe to be true.  For example, four-and-a-half-year-old Chayton is usually in the kitchen with his mother when she starts making dinner. He has learned over time that what he wants for dinner is not necessarily what his mother is going to make. Chayton’s mother often says to him, “Hmmm, what should I make for dinner today?” Chayton usually replies, “Chips!” or “Nachos!” Though his mother used to have to explain to him that chips or nachos were not the best choice for dinner, recently Chayton has started to follow his request with, “Mommy wants make something else. Mommy thinks chips are not healthy for dinner but I think chips are best for dinner!” The ability to understand false beliefs and understand that people’s beliefs do not always represent reality is an important aspect of a child’s social understanding. The development of social skills, prosocial behaviors, understanding of emotions, self-consciousness, and moral development all depend on a child’s understanding of false beliefs.

Gender Identity

By the age of 3 children know which gender group they belong to and are able to correctly use the labels ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. Around this same time, children develop an understanding that gender is stable and does not change over time. Around age 4 or 5, preschoolers’ behaviors and interests become differentiated by gender and they associate toys and activities with specific genders. They also begin to associate colours, occupations and clothing with gender. Four-year-old Mahdi has a book about community helpers she loves to read before bed. She likes to point to all of the different pictures of community helpers on each page and label the job as well as the gender of the community helpers. The picture of the firefighter is a woman with short black hair in a fire-fighter suit. Mahdi often mislabels her as a ‘boy’ and her mother corrects her by pointing out the facial and body features that indicate that she is a woman.

Preschoolers’ gender-specific play increases and they begin to make negative judgments about boys who continue to play with girls and girls who continue to play with boys. They often show a preference for peers who adhere to gender-typed play and reject those who do not maintain this play. For example, Mahdi loves to be the ‘mother’ at the house corner at preschool. Her best friend Devon is usually the ‘dad’ and another friend Jessica is often the ‘daughter.’ When another boy, Jesse, wanted to join the group as the ‘motorcycle driver’ Mahdi became quite stern and informed him that motorcycles belonged in the car play area at the other end of the room. She let him know that the only way he could join the play was if he wanted to be the ‘son.’ The gender stereotypes and beliefs that preschoolers develop during this period are rigid and remain constant for the most of their childhood.

The Development of a Sense of Self

Between the ages of 3 and 5, children continue to demonstrate an external and concrete self concept, made up of observable characteristics such as possessions, behaviours and physical attributes. Preschoolers’ descriptions of themselves are usually unrealistically positive and inflated. They typically have an optimistic sense of self and often believe they are more capable then they are. For example, four-year-old Chayton wants to be just like his dad. His father has a work shed behind the house and Chayton loves to ‘help’ his father build and fix things. One afternoon, his mother thought he was playing in the backyard on his swing set while he was actually in the shed building his mother the ‘chair’ that she had mentioned she wanted his father to build at dinner the night before. His mother discovered where Chayton really was when he ran into the house screaming and clutching his finger in pain. His mother quickly tended to his cut finger and asked him what happened. He explained that he was in the shed making a chair for her because, “Daddy said he was too busy so I make you one.” He had tried to nail two pieces of wood together and hit his finger with the hammer. Luckily he didn’t hit it too hard and only needed a band-aid. Confidence in one’s abilities such as that shown by Chayton in this situation can be partially attributed to the fact that preschoolers do not engage in social comparison and do not consider prior failures or successes when describing themselves to others.

Cognitive and language advances between 3 and 5 years of age, lead to advances in self-concept. These developments lead to the initial stages of understanding and communicating about individual experiences.

A preschoolers’ sense of self is often related to possessions and actions. Research has suggested that the more possessive a child is, the stronger their sense of self. Declaring ‘mine’ while playing with another child is not a sign of selfishness at this age but rather a sign that a sense of self is developing. Chayton loves to have his cousin Bruce over to play. Since his 3rd birthday however, he has become quite particular in what Bruce is actually ‘permitted’ to play with. On one occasion when Chayton was 3½ years of age they were playing with his cars and Bruce took the green car, saying, “I be this one.” Chayton quickly grabbed the car back from him and replied, “No! That’s mine! You have this one” as he handed him a less favorite yellow car.

Around 42 months, young children begin to show some understanding of their psychological characteristics. They begin to describe themselves using typical emotions and attitudes. For example, when three-and-a-half-year-old Mahdi’s uncle came to visit her, he asked her to tell him about some things that made her happy or sad. Mahdi thought for a minute and eventually replied, “I am happy when Mommy reads me the bug book and I am happy when Mommy picks me up from school. I am sad when I have to go to bed.”

Around the age of 4, children begin to understand motives and feelings for personality trait labels such as ‘shy’ or ‘mean.’ During this developmental period, they demonstrate an understanding for what these terms mean in relation to other people, but do not use these traits to describe themselves. When Mahdi was four years old, a friend of her mother’s brought her 2-year-old daughter, Aimee, for a visit. When Aimee’s mother put her down, Aimee started whining and buried her face in her mother’s legs. Mahdi looked up at her mother and said, “Ohhh. She is shy.” Despite being able to appropriately label ‘shy’ in another child, Mahdi refused to accept that label on her own behaviour when she did not want to leave her mother’s side the next morning at a new community play group. When her mother asked her, “Are you feeling shy?” Mahdi replied “No I’m not!”

Self-esteem emerges between 3 and 5 years of age. Preschoolers begin to develop feelings surrounding the judgements of their abilities and self-worth. Around age 4, young children have a variety of self-perceptions based on their abilities in different areas, such as school, socializing (making friends), and sports. However, as previously noted, at this period in development, children are not yet able to discriminate between their strengths and weaknesses and usually have high perceptions of their abilities and underestimate the difficulties they have.

High self-esteem actually contributes to four-year-olds’ ability to develop and discover many skills. Three-year-old Chayton is constantly telling his mother, “I do it!” Whenever she tries to help him, he will push her away and say “No! I do it”. During dinner one evening, Chayton wanted more milk. When his mother got up to get a new, large jug out of the fridge, Chayton said, “I open it mom. I do it”. She allowed him to pull the seal off the jug and then, trying to avoid an inevitable spill, said, “Chayton, it is heavy. I will pour it for you.” He became quite upset and insisted that he could pour it himself. When his frustrated mother finally let him try to do it himself, he dropped the heavy jug of milk and it cracked and milk splashed all over the floor. Chayton said quietly, “Oh it was too heavy.” The development of self-esteem is an important aspect of development. The feelings young children have of themselves affect their self-concept, behaviour, emotional experiences, and psychological adjustment in the present and in the future. It is important for parents and caregivers to be supportive of children’s attempts to master new skills and abilities.

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

Three-year-olds’ understanding of emotions is related to a number of factors. Family communication about feelings, the quality of the relationships among family members, the amount of observed emotional expression, and children’s language ability all contribute to the range found in emotional development of children at this age. Preschool children continue to seek information about the world from adults and older siblings with more advanced language. Mahdi is constantly checking in with her mother about certain social situations. For example, while at a children’s festival they went to see a clown who was very interactive with the small crowd. He managed to pull Mahdi on stage and proceeded to have her carry all sorts of things as part of his act. Mahdi frequently checked with her mother when the crowd laughed or when the clown asked her to do something different. She required a head nod or a smile from her mother for encouragement and approval before she would continue with the task requested of her.

During the preschool years, family discussions about the causes of people’s behaviours contribute to how well preschoolers understand conflicting or upsetting emotions in later childhood. Young preschoolers who experience discussions about feelings and a variety of explanations regarding why individuals feel a certain way are often better able to understand emotions in the later preschool years. These early experiences acknowledging and talking about feelings are important for emotional development.

We know now that high levels of stress in the early years can undermine brain development and impact emotional development. Thus, children who do not experience warm and nurturing relationships early in life may experience lifelong difficulties understanding and regulating their own emotions. These inabilities may result in poor attention, management of strong emotions, and have consequences for learning in school and beyond. A positive and open emotional environment is critical to the full blossoming of many aspects of a child’s development.

Peer Support for Social and Emotional Development

Preschoolers’ social and emotional development is greatly influenced by their interactions with peers. This influence can be seen in how preschoolers play together and in how they build relationships with one another.

Play with Others

During the preschool years play becomes more imaginative and complex. Three-year-olds gradually move away from parallel play and spend more of their play time engaged in cooperative play with peers. During this transition period, conversations between peers evolve from basic individual monologues to two-way conversations. Between 3 and 4 years of age, young children are learning the rules, forms and rituals of cooperative play by watching other peers engaged in this type of play. At 3½ years of age, Chayton loved going to the playground. He especially loved going when the elementary school that the playground was attached to was on recess break. When that happened, he loved to just sit and watch the older kids play. A group of children often play a big game of tag and Chayton loved to sit on the swing and watch them. He was busy learning a great deal about peer interaction.

By the age of 4 or 5, children spend the majority of their play time in cooperative play, many times engaging in fantasy or pretend play with their peers. During this period, the length of their play sequences increases dramatically. Preschoolers begin to assign and take on specific roles during pretend play and negotiate, plan and create scenarios or plot lines for their fantasy with their peers. Four- and five-year-olds begin to agree on roles and themes of their pretend play and more frequently engage in joint problem solving. Role reversal continues to be a major part of preschool play. At 4½ years of age, Mahdi’s new favorite game at preschool is dress-up. She loves to put on the detailed costumes available at her preschool and work with her playmates to put on a ‘play’ for the other students and teachers. Together, the children come up with a story and make up a play, which they like to perform for others at the end of the day. Mahdi’s favorite thing is when her mother makes it to the ‘performance’ when picking her up at the end of the day. 

Preschool play serves two main purposes. First, preschoolers engage in play to explore reality and social roles. Second, preschoolers use play to work out anxieties or stressors and express wishes and fears. Play provides preschoolers with the opportunity to develop and expand many cognitive and social skills such as turn-taking, perspective taking as well as planning and problem solving skills. While playing, preschoolers often exercise independence and learn to take initiative. Play during the preschool years is an important building block of cognitive and social development!

Peer Relationships/Friendships

Preschoolers build on the basic relationships that they developed in toddlerhood and begin to engage in more complex social interactions. The developmental decrease in egocentrism, or self-centredness, plays a large role in the increase of peer sociability during this period of development.

Beginning around the age of 3, peer relationships begin to become an important part of a preschooler’s socialization. Between 3 and 4 years of age there is a clear change around which children preschoolers choose to interact and play with. Relationships begin to focus more on their peers and less on secure relationships with familiar adults such as parents and teachers. These young preschoolers begin to identify with peers and are motivated to engage in positive social interactions with them. For example, from the age of 3 and beyond, Mahdi has developed particular friends at preschool. She often comes home and lists what she did with her ‘best friends’ when her mother asks about her day. If her best friend was not at school, Mahdi will often say to her mother, “I was sad because Devon was not at school today.”

Between the ages of 3 and 5, preschoolers begin to label their peers as friends and show a preference for playing with certain children. Preschoolers see friends as people they enjoy playing and sharing toys with. Four-year-old Chayton loved his weekly playdates with his cousin Bruce. He looked forward to the playdate day marked on the calendar and he often planned out the games they would play together. Recently, his mother has noticed that during the play, he has started allowing Bruce to use his ‘favourite’ toys such as his green car for parts of the play. He likes to very specifically draw Bruce’s and his mother’s attention to this, “See, I’m sharing with Bruce.” Preschoolers begin to show an understanding that friendship is a lasting bond that includes mutual trust. As friendships emerge, skills such as sharing, cooperating, turn-taking, and dealing with conflict begin to develop and take shape. Researchers have found that during the preschool years, a higher rate of cooperation and positive interaction is seen while preschoolers are interacting with their friends when compared to interactions with non-friends. The complexity of play also appears to be the greatest amongst preschoolers who are friends.

During the preschool years, children also begin to share basic thoughts and feelings with their friends. These shared emotions often take an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach. Preschoolers can often be heard talking about other peers and discussing their thoughts and feelings about them. These conversations are a preschooler’s attempt at self-disclosure. He or she is sharing positive feelings as well as possible fears or anxieties with their playmate. For example, Mahdi likes to make her peers laugh when she and her friends are putting on a ‘play’ at preschool. When she is with her friends, they can be overheard planning ways to make the other children laugh. Mahdi was overheard telling her friends that, “If we do the dance, it’s funny. They will laugh!”

Conflict among friends is high when children are between 3 and 4 years of age. Young preschoolers often express more anger and hostility towards their friends than other peers and sometimes use aggressive actions or verbal assaults. This increase in conflict can be attributed to the fact that friends spend more time together. Even though they are engaged in more conflict, the conflict is usually resolved in a controlled fashion, with less aggression than conflicts among non-friends. Conflicts are also resolved with more equal outcomes among friends. For example, when three-year-old Chayton was playing at the park with his sand bucket and dump truck, another peer who he sometimes played with in the community came and started playing beside him. They started building a road together without any verbal communication. After about 30 minutes, the other child took Chayton’s truck and started pushing it on the newly built road, Chayton pushed the boy, grabbed his truck and said “No! That’s mine!” The other boy started crying and the parents of both children immediately intervened.

Around age 5, preschoolers’ increasing awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings leads to more mature problem solving skills. These skills help older preschoolers resolve conflict with more frequent uses of compromise and in some cases conciliation. Five-year-olds also begin to engage in behaviours and actions characteristic of mature friendships such demonstrating concern for their friend’s feelings, displaying affection and the need for approval. These older preschoolers are also able to understand that their point of view may be different from their peer’s.

It is important to note that not all preschoolers have close intimate friends at this time in their lives. Many preschoolers are content being sociable with a large group of peers and have not yet developed individual friendships. Still others have not yet been exposed to multiple children and therefore have not had the opportunity to develop the bounds of friendship.

Jelen, M. & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development (37-60 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 9. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development