Social-Emotional Development

Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others (Cohen and others 2005).

The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain relationships. (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004, 2)

Infants experience, express, and perceive emotions before they fully understand them. In learning to recognize, label, manage, and communicate their emotions and to perceive and attempt to understand the emotions of others, children build skills that connect them with family, peers, teachers, and the community. These growing capacities help young children to become competent in negotiating increasingly complex social interactions, to participate effectively in relationships and group activities, and to reap the benefits of social support crucial to healthy human development and functioning.

Healthy social-emotional development for infants and toddlers unfolds in the context of positive ongoing relationships with familiar, nurturing adults. Young children are particularly attuned to social and emotional stimulation. 

Social and emotional health is a child’s growing ability to: 

  • Form strong relationships with others 
  • Express and manage emotions 
  • Explore the world around them and problem-solve 

Social and emotional skills are as important as knowing numbers, letters, and shapes.  Infants and toddlers  need relationships with loving adults to learn these skills. When children have this healthy foundation, they are more likely to:

  • make friends 
  • follow directions 
  • express emotions 
  • solve problems 
  • focus on tasks 

Please feel free to contact your team's School Social Worker and Infant Mental Health Specialist - with any questions or concerns about your child's social-emotional development. 

East Region - Beverly Davidson, LMSW and IMH-E (III)

West Region - Rebecca Espitia, LMSW and IMH-E (III)

Information excerpted from:

Social Emotional Health Fact Sheet  

Social-Emotional Milestones Explained

Social & Emotional Development

This area of development involves learning to interact with other people and to understand and control your own emotions. Babies start to develop relationships with the people around them right from birth, but the process of learning to communicate, share, and interact with others takes many years to develop. Developing the ability to control your emotions and behavior also referred to as self-regulation, is a developmental process.  Children continue to develop their social-emotional skills well into their teenage years and even into young adulthood.

Social-Emotional Developmental Milestones

Between the ages of 0-3 months, your baby will:

  • See clearly within 13 inches from her face and she will most enjoy her caregiver's face!
  • Be comforted by a familiar adult when held, talked to, or sung to
  • Respond positively to touch and quiet when picked up - being held regulates the nervous system and helps the baby calm
  • Listen and look towards voices
  • Smile and show pleasure in response to social stimulation such as being smiled at, sung to, and snuggled

Between the ages of 3-6 months, your baby will:

  • Give warm smiles and laughs
  • Recognize faces of familiar people and start noticing the difference among caregivers
  • Cry when upset and seek comfort - crying is a signal that baby needs something 
  • Show excitement by waving arms and legs - often referred to as "anticipatory excitement" 
  • Smile at herself in the mirror
  • Enjoy looking at other babies
  • Pay attention to her own name
  • Laugh out loud 

Between the ages of 6-9 months, your baby will:

  • Express several different clear emotions such as joy, fear, frustration
  • Play games like Peek-a-boo, "so big," and other familiar games
  • Show displeasure at the loss of a toy by crying, frowning, showing frustration with her body
  • Respond to you when you talk to her or make gestures
  • Start to understand your different emotions (for example, your baby might frown when you speak in an angry tone of voice)
  • Show more comfort around familiar people, and anxiety around strangers - commonly known as "stranger anxiety" - this shows that baby is most comforted by a known caregiver and is attached to the caregiver
  • Possibly comfort herself by sucking thumb, or holding a special toy or blanket

Between the ages of 9-12 months, your baby will:

  • Show happiness to see her parents’ face, her toys, or a mirror
  • Know strangers from his family, and cry when his parent goes away
  • Give affection and love by hugging, wrapping arms around caregiver when held, smiles, kisses
  • Pay attention to simple commands such as "no" and "give it to me"
  • Respond by turning to look when you call her name
  • Imitate some of your actions (e.g. waving, pretending to talk on the phone)
  • Have fear with new situations
  • Understand the word “no”, but will not always obey

Between the ages of 1-2 years, your child will:

  • Recognize herself in the mirror or photograph and smile or make faces at herself
  • Begin to say ‘no’ to caregiver requests - a sign of emerging independence 
  • Imitate adults’ actions and words (e.g. chores)
  • Understand words and commands, and respond to them
  • Hug and kiss parents, familiar people and pets
  • Bring things to “show” other people
  • Begin to be helpful around the house
  • Begin to feel jealousy when she is not the center of attention
  • Show frustration easily
  • May play next to another child, but will not really share until 3 or 4 years of age
  • Be able to play alone for a few minutes
  • React to changes in daily routines
  • Develop a range of emotions (may have tantrums, show aggression by biting, etc)
  • Start to assert independence by preferring to try do things “by myself”, without help

Between the ages of 2-3 years, your child will:

  • Be assertive about what he wants, and say no to adult requests
  • Start to show awareness of her own feelings and others’ feelings
  • Show more fear in certain situations (e.g the dark)
  • Possibly become frustrated easily
  • Want independence, but still need security of parents
  • Need an ordered, predictable routine (i.e.: when saying good-bye to parents) and can begin to follow social norms and routines
  • Watch other children in play, and join them briefly
  • Defend his possessions
  • Begin to engage in more complicated play with themes of daily  living - playing “house"
  • Begin to separate more easily from parents
  • Begin to show empathy to other children (respond to their feelings)


Social-Emotional Development in the Early Years - Resources

Promoting Social-Emotional Development At-Home

Explore how to promote social-emotional health in your child's everyday routines!

  • From birth, babies learn about the world through the relationships they develop with their primary caregivers - parents, grandparents, care providers.  These relationships build the foundation and teach babies and young children that the world is a safe place and adults will respond to their needs.  
  • Caregiving relationships give infants and toddlers a sense of comfort and safety and builds their trust in the world.  The caregiver becomes the child's safe place from which to explore the world.  Safety promotes exploration.  And when exploring becomes scary, the child can return to his caregiver for comfort and reassurance.
  • Strong, positive relationships also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, and a sense of right and wrong.  "How you are with your child is how your child will be with others."
  • Reading your infant or toddler's cues, understand what their behavior is communicating and respond appropriately as best as you can.  
  • Sometimes we get it wrong! We may not always know what our child needs or wants, and we can get it wrong - but we can always let them know we are sorry we couldn't figure it out and we will try again!
  • Humans need and want routines and predictability, especially in early childhood.  Predictable routines act as a warm security blanket and help children feel safe.   
  • Try to have regular awake times, play times, meal times, nap times, play, and bedtime routines each day
  • Involve your child in your routines - toddlers love to be "helpers" and so giving them "jobs" when you cook, clean, shop, etc. will foster independence in them and help them feel a part of your world.  
    • Teaching your child through daily routines how to "wait," "take turns," "help" and "stop" and giving them praise for their efforts and help during these routines can be powerful ways to teach social skills 
      • For instance, when you are making a meal, have your toddler stand next to you at the countertop and have him "take turns" stirring the water with you - this  teaches turn-taking and independence 
      • Tell him to "stop" with a word and hand signal when it you are done stirring and tell him what happens next
  • Name and narrate feelings, even for babies as it gives you practice and also you convey understanding and babies can feel that validation - When a person has his feelings validated, it calms the nervous system down and can help your child feel safe and heard.  
  • When baby cries, "Oh, I see you are crying and upset, let me help you" (feed you, hold you, change you)....
  • When your toddler is upset someone took a toy, "You are so mad right now that he took your toy, aren't you?" and match your face with his feeling
  • Praise your child's efforts and positive behaviors - not just successes
    • "You get more of what you focus on" - if we focus on what our children are doing well and reinforce that we will get more of it!
  • Help your toddler make sense of her feelings by using pictures and words to describe emotions 
  • Draw "feeling faces" and show your toddler what she is feeling and name it - this gives her a stairstep into being able to eventually tell you independently how she's feeling next time 
  • Explore feelings and emotions through play
    • Use puppets, dolls, stuffed animals - anything your toddler likes to play with - to create a story about his frustrations or fears
    • You can draw pictures of "sad or mad" faces and ask your toddler how he feels by pointing to the pictures - if he is able to draw suggest that he draws a "feeling face"  
    • Pretend play with toy figurines, stuffed animals, or puppets and have them use “feeling words.” 
    • Read books about feelings and talk about the people or animals and what they might be feeling
  • Let your child know what they CAN do, not what they CAN'T do 
  • Focus on predicting for your child what happens next throughout the day
  • Try to let your child know what he can do and avoid using the word "No" unless it is around risk or safety
    • For instance, instead of saying "don't take your sister's cup" try saying "that is sister's cup, here is your cup"  or instead of saying "share with your brother" try saying "it's brother's turn with the truck, when I count to five it will be your turn with the truck"  
  • List out on paper all the "Don'ts" you tend to say and write out the "Do's!" 
    • "Don't touch that!" ...... could be "Do be safe, so touch this!"
  • Regular sleep promotes healthy social emotional development.  Sleep can be challenging especially in the first year.  Ensuring babies can get regular naps and have established nighttime routines are important.  Check out the Sensory Strategies page on this site for suggestions!  
  • Greeting your child when they awake helps them start the day and let’s them know you are ready for them!
  • Narrate what is going to happen next - “it’s time to wake up and get dressed and have breakfast!

Eating is a social routine as well as necessary for nutrition!  Try and sit together with your child and eat along with them.  You can work on adaptive feeding skills and language skills during mealtimes which all promotes social skills.  

  • Taking Turns - building in turn-taking at meal times - for instance, have your toddler “take turns” pouring cereal into a bowl with you, or take turns putting items on the plate, etc. 
    • Have your older baby “take turns” feeding you then you feed them for fun and turn-taking practice
    • Patience 
      • When baby is crying for her bottle, tell her “I know you are hungry, it’s coming” - this helps you let baby know what is happening next and she will learn by your voice and rhythm that even though she is hungry she can wait for a bit and will be fed!
    • To help your toddler learn how to “wait” tell him that “lunch is coming” and/or "when I count to 10 it will be there" 
  • Making Choices and Requests - this builds in language and independence 
    • give your toddler a small amount of food so he can request for more either with gestures or words 
  • Give your toddler a choice between “2 items” such as an apple or banana so he can make a request 
  • Clean-Up Time - ending a meal and having your toddler help put the dishes in the sink and “clean up” teaches family cooperation and gives them a “cue” for the next transition

For babies - 

  • When dressing them give them some gentle massages on their legs and feet - this calms the body down and builds bonding  
  • Label their body parts - "here's your arm, put your arm through!" - this helps them develop a sense of self
  • Have a mirror nearby so they can see themselves 

For toddlers - 

  • Give them 2 choices on what pants, socks or shirt to put on to give them a sense of independence and also it will build gestural communication into the routine - make sure they are “helping” to get dressed.  
  • Toddlers have emerging needs to be independent so the more "control" they have over their environment, that is safe and reasonable, helps them develop autonomy and may reduce power struggles

Bathtime is a wonderful opportunity to have structured face-to-face playtime with you infant or toddler.  Ensure the child is safe and supervised at all times.  During bathtime you can sing together, engage in turn-taking with bath toys, and work on labeling body parts.  Allow them to learn some independent skills and let them "wash" themselves and use cups or bowls so they can "pour" water over their head.  

  • Play, play play! 
  • Play is how children learn and can be as simple as narrating what you are doing to your child as you go through your day.  
  • Encourage your child to imitate what you do during your daily routines and make it fun and silly!
  •  Get face-to-face throughout the day with your child and have short "play" sessions where you are completely focused on what your child is doing.
  • Allow your child to "play with" household items such as pots, pans, spoons, bowls and help them use these objects the way they are intended or make them be something else - such as banging a spoon on a bowl for a drum set!  This builds "representational thinking" and helps with learning and it is a novel experience for your child.

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