Towards a Strong Foundation: Social and Emotional Development in Young Children

Author: Stephanie Jones, Professor in Child Development and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education | Joan Lombardi, Senior Fellow, Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, Georgetown University

Nurturing relationships provide the context for human development and are an essential source of resilience for children and adults (e.g., Luthar, 2006; Rutter, 1987). Resilience refers to the capacity to weather and bounce back from both everyday challenges and significant adversity and trauma -- like that we’ve all experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is influenced by foundational social and emotional skills and competencies (e.g., Masten, 2009).

In this short essay we describe children’s early social and emotional skills, show how they are linked to early caregiving and are influenced by stress and vulnerability, and highlight some programs, practices, and strategies that foster them. 

Social and Emotional Development and Foundational Relationships

Social and emotional development refers to the processes whereby children learn to identify and express emotions, focus attention and manage impulses, successfully navigate relationships with peers and adults, develop a positive self-concept, make responsible decisions, and solve problems (e.g., Jones, McGarrah, & Kahn, 2019). 

Over many decades researchers from an array of disciplines, e.g. human development and psychology, neuroscience, education and economics, have described how these essential skills are deeply intertwined with other areas of development, such as cognitive and physical. These developments in the brain and in behavior all work together to influence school and life outcomes, including higher education, physical and mental health, economic well-being, and civic engagement (Jones & Kahn, 2018). 

During development, social and emotional skills grow and change like building blocks. Early skills lay the foundation for more complex skills that emerge later in life. For example, during early childhood, children learn and grow in the context of relationships with parents and other caregivers at home and in childcare and preschool settings. Through responsive, nurturing interactions these relationships shape the growth of basic executive functions, self-regulation and emotional competencies, which are the salient social and emotional skills of early childhood. 

These skills encompass young children’s emerging capacity to:

  1. Understand their emotions, communicate about them, and read those of others around them. For example, use feeling words when frustrated, angry, or excited. 

  2. Be aware of and begin to manage impulses and behavior. For example, wait for a snack or dinner when hungry or for the chance to share news in the classroom, or remember and follow the routines of bedtime. 

  3. Focus and shift attention in explicit ways and imagine the perspectives of another person. For example, move from one activity to another in the classroom, or engage in basic social back and forth and play. 

Basic skills like these set the stage for more complex skills later in life such as planning and problem solving, critical thinking and decision making, forming and maintaining sophisticated friendships, and coping skills, among others (Bailey & Jones, 2019). 

The Role of Experience and Context Including Stress and Vulnerability

Importantly, these early skills are highly susceptible to stress and vulnerability. Research shows that the prefrontal cortex – which is responsible for executive function and self-regulation -- is closely linked to other brain regions that signal emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety. 

These brain regions are connected through the stress response system, which alerts the body to react in times of danger (e.g., Arnsten, 1998). But responding and adapting to stress can come at a cost. When stress is chronic or takes over, it can inhibit children’s early social and emotional skills, resulting in dysregulated, reactive, and sometimes withdrawn behavior, and this is true for young children and adults (e.g., Arnsten, Mazure & Sinha, 2012). 

Critical to this dynamic is that predictable, nurturing relationships are protective. They operate as a buffer between stress and strain on the one hand, and children’s healthy development on the other (Center on the Developing Child, 2014). 

Research on children’s wellbeing during the pandemic illustrates how these processes can play out. For example, Harvard education researcher Emily Hanno (2021) examined data about a sample of young children and families before and after COVID-19 shut down U.S. childcare centers and preschools in 2020. They found that as parents experienced more stress, households grew more chaotic, and parent-child conflict increased, children displayed more challenging behaviors and fewer adaptive ones. 

Another large-scale study, the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development–Early Childhood (RAPID)https://rapidsurveyproject.com/), documented that high levels of material hardship that families experienced in the first year of the pandemic, coupled with ongoing week-to-week unpredictability, had detrimental effects on both caregivers’ and children’s well-being (Liu, et al 2022). Studies on how poverty, disasters, bereavement, armed conflict, and displacement affect children and adults have produced similar findings.

Supporting Family Well-Being and Social and Emotional Development

Supporting children’s social and emotional development demands coordinated child, family, and education-based efforts. Some examples of these are described here.

As noted above, social and emotional development, indeed successful early childhood development more generally, requires nurturing care. This has been defined as health, nutrition, security and safety, responsive caregiving, and opportunities for early learning (Black, et al, 2016). 

Globally, this concept has been advanced through The Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development (https://nurturing-care.org/).

Components of nurturing care

The Nurturing Care Framework was developed by WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank Group, in collaboration with the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, the Early Childhood Development Action Network and many other partners, and launched alongside the 71st World Health Assembly in May, 2018. It takes a comprehensive approach by outlining important strategies to address the integrated needs of the developing child.

The wellbeing of caregivers is the enabling environment for responsive care. The promotion of social emotional development depends on policies and practices that take a whole family approach, assuring that those who care for young children have the support they need to be successful as caregivers, including adequate housing, income, childcare, education, health, and mental health supports.

A relevant and recently launched innovation focused on parents is the Global Initiative to Support Parents (https://ecdan.org/global-initiative-to-support-parents/). This unique partnership launched by the Early Childhood Development Action Network, WHO, UNICEF, End Violence Against Children, and Parenting for Lifelong Health includes the ultimate vision that all families worldwide have universal access to evidence-based parenting support.

Early childhood services designed for parents and children have for decades been understood to play an important role in offsetting the impact of vulnerability and adversity on healthy growth and development and to be an important setting for cultivating emerging social and emotional skills. A hallmark of these efforts is that they provide families with information, resources, and support that enables those nurturing, connected interactions, and helps all parents navigate the stress that inevitably comes with raising young children (Jones, Bailey & Partee, 2017). 

In the early classroom context, there are a large number of curricular and strategy-based approaches that educators can embed in their instructional and caregiving routines. The most effective of these programs typically combine direct teaching of social and emotional skills with structures and routines that provide young children with lots of opportunities to practice emerging skills, as well as support for adult caregivers to proactively manage young children’s behavior (e.g., Jones, Bailey & Jacob, 2014).

As noted above, children across the world have been impacted by the uncertainty, isolation and stress caused by the pandemic. In response, The LEGO Foundation teamed up with HundredED, to identify education innovations from across the world focused on improving social and emotional learning. In 2021, they published Spotlight Social and Emotional Learning which presented 13 innovations from 10 countries. These inspiring examples provide promising solutions that can help respond to the needs of children and offer ideas about how to foster caring and nurturing relationships. Some of these innovations can be found here: https://hundred.org/en/collections/social-emotional-learning-sel.

In summary, research and practice focused on children’s early social and emotional development tells us that these skills: 

  1. Develop in the context of primary relationships and interactions. 

  2. Are foundational to early learning, as well as important developmental milestones throughout life. 

  3. Are optimized when children feel safe, secure, and supported.

  4. Are influenced and shaped by experience, culture, and beliefs. 

Effective approaches to fostering and supporting these important skills are situated in families, leverage nurturing relationships and interactions at home and in early learning settings, and are rooted in community and family support.

Stephanie Jones

Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Child Development and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Co-Director, Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative

Joan Lombardi

Senior Fellow, Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, Georgetown University

Senior Advisor, Graduate School of Education, Stanford Center on Early Childhood


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