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Time With Your Kids
Social and Emotional Well-Being

Parents of preschool children are focused on “school readiness,” which is a measure of how prepared a child is to succeed in school. This measure of readiness involves children’s social and emotional skills as well as their early literacy and math skills. Research (PDF 133KB) has shown that preschoolers have a vital need to learn and practice social and emotional skills as a key part of learning. However, parents need to keep in mind that each child develops skills at his or her own pace and changes very rapidly.

The key for parents of preschoolers is to recognize their children’s negative or positive social and emotional behavior during the “critical” years of ages 0 through 5. Some (PDF 4.39MB) children may start to display difficult social and emotional behavior that could need attention. Although there are many different types of problem behavior, all cause parents and even children some degree of stress. Identifying social and emotional issues early is essential to parents’ ability to seek age-appropriate services and prevent problems from growing and harming their child’s ability to do well in school.

Social and Emotional Signs of School Readiness
Social and emotional skills (PDF 4.39MB) allow a child to know and control his or her emotions, exhibit care and concern for others, make good choices, and build positive relationships. Depending on the child’s developmental stage and temperament, a child can:

  • Follow structured daily routines;
  • Get along with and cooperate with others;
  • Listen, pay attention, and follow directions;
  • Identify and control emotions;
  • Solve problems;
  • Communicate appropriately in social interactions; and
  • Engage in cooperative play.

Preschoolers with these skills can enter school with the ability to meet the expected goals; for example, they can follow a teacher’s instructions and play well with others.

When Children Lack Positive Social and Emotional Skills
During the critical years, children show a wide range of positive and negative social and emotional skills. Children (PDF 4.39MB) who are not practicing positive social and emotional skills at home or at school may:

  • Be disruptive;
  • Disobey instructions;
  • Have difficulty managing their emotions;
  • Have difficulty engaging in positive peer interactions; and
  • Have difficulty communicating appropriately.

It is normal for these behaviors to be present among young children. With a little attention, parents can redirect negative behaviors into positive behaviors. However, when a child’s negative behaviors continue over time and become more challenging to manage, an underlying developmental delay or set of stressors may be present. Seeking outside support may be necessary.

Possible Factors Affecting Social and Emotional Behavior
Below are two possible factors that may affect the development of a child’s social and emotional behaviors. Parents can use the general milestones in these two areas as guidelines to monitor their children if developmental issues arise.

  • Speech and Language Development

Speech and language development greatly influences a child’s life. In fact, it directly affects their ability to socialize and play with peers, to listen and follow directions, and to understand their world. In essence, speech and language development has two main sides. First, auditory comprehension refers to how a child understands words, commands, and question forms. Second, expressive language refers to a child’s ability to communicate using words and sentence lengths and structure and to form speech sounds. Signs to monitor are:

  • Trouble distinguishing between two similar sounds in a word, which affects children’s ability to read and to understand instructions.
  • Problems recalling numbers, words, or instructions, which affect their ability to produce a specific word or phrase.
  • Poor attention skills, which are seen with some children who respond inconsistently to instruction and sometimes answer questions incorrectly. Over time, children will have negative feelings about learning.

What to do: Parents who are concerned that their child might be experiencing speech and language difficulties should consult a speech–language pathologist. The child can be tested to see if his or her abilities fall within the range of age expectations or if the child may require additional support to strengthen these set of skills.

  • Aggression and Anger

Aggressive behavior in young children is normal and can take several forms. Girls as well as boys can be aggressive. They may pinch, bite, or yell—or they may just hit another child. Children act aggressively for different reasons: feeling angry, frustrated, tired, or fearful; as an attempt to solve problems; or feeling neglected.

What to do: Set a good example and control yourself; do not give in to verbal or physical aggression. Instead, teach your children to know and control their anger. In doing so, you need to explain that feeling angry is normal, especially if someone has hurt their feelings. Be clear that hitting or fighting doesn’t solve a problem and can make it worse. Teach your children the skills of how to think and talk through the issue, and assure them that it’s okay to tell someone or to get help. These skills will allow your children to think through the process and manage their occasional anger. Teaching these skills requires time and guidance.

For children to grow into emotionally and socially healthy teens and adults, they have to learn to handle frustration, disappointment, and sadness. However, if you recognize that you may need added support, act early (PDF 795KB) to ensure that your children develop a strong sense of social and emotional balance in order to be ready for school.

Family activity: Building Positive Behaviors

Educator activity: Meeting the Challenge in the Classroom

Quiz for parents: Challenging Behavior

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families
“Acknowledging Positive Behaviors” explores how to reward positive behaviors of children and provides practical strategies for early childhood settings and home environments.

Program-Wide Positive Behavior Support: Supporting Young Children’s Social-Emotional Development and Addressing Challenging Behavior (PDF 4.39MB) provides information about creating a nurturing environment to promote children’s social competence and address challenging behaviors.

Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (PDF 795KB) describes early childhood mental health consultation and the existing evidence to foster healthy social and emotional development in young children.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
The web page for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day provides materials and resources for families, educators, and communities supporting a comprehensive system of care approach to children's mental health services.

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Young Children and Their Families (PDF 3.08MB) provides information data and resources on socioemotional, behavioral, or mental disorders of young children and adolescents.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (Vanderbilt University) gives parents and educators resources and tools about how to promote successful environments that foster the positive social and emotional well-being of young children:

Teachers College, Columbia University
Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? (PDF 133KB) provides information on how social and emotional learning is an integral part of education.

Baby Center
“Aggression: Why it happens and what to do about it” gives parents information on why preschoolers get aggressive.

“Going to a Speech Therapist” provides tips for parents about different speech and language disorders.

National Association of Educators of Young Children
“Real Life Calls for Real Books: Literature to Help Children Cope with Family Stressors” is an informative article about reading to children and provides an excellent list of books.

Center for Evidence-Based Practices: Young Children with Challenging Behavior
Preventing Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Effective Practices (PDF 139KB) provides effective classroom strategies for preventing challenging behavior.

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Updated on 5/7/2013