Understanding Social and Emotional Development in Preschoolers

By Kristin Stanberry

It’s easy to monitor your preschooler’s physical development as he or she grows taller, bigger, and stronger. But how can you measure your child’s development in other areas? For example, can you tell if his social and emotional development is on track for his age?

As your child’s parent and first teacher, you’re in a good position to observe and assess whether he’s developing skills appropriate for a 3- to 4-year-old child. The milestones and tips that follow will help you understand what your child should be doing and learning – and how you can support his or her development.

Is your child developing age-appropriate social and emotional skills?

It’s helpful to know what social and emotional skills your child should be developing by age 3 or 4. Review the following milestones for a child’s social and emotional skills, and note how your child is doing in each area. My child:

  • Can correctly state his gender and age.
  • Can recite her first and last names, and the names of parents.
  • Takes care of his own needs, such as washing hands and dressing.
  • Enjoys helping with household tasks.
  • Adjusts to new situations without an adult being present.
  • Is starting to notice other people’s moods and feelings.
  • Is beginning to recognize his limits and ask others for help.
  • Is starting to learn to take turns, share, and cooperate.
  • Expresses anger with words rather than acting out physically.

Encouraging social and emotional development at home

Now that you understand some of the social and emotional skills your child should have, you can reinforce those skills and help him develop further where necessary. It’s natural (and fun!) to practice these skills with your child throughout the day. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Provide structure and daily routines at home; this creates a secure environment for your child.
  • Encourage your child’s independence. As he practices and masters skills such as getting dressed, brushing his teeth, or feeding a pet, be sure to praise him.
  • Teach your child to recite his first and last names, his parents’ names, his gender and age, and his home address.
  • Make sure your child has regular social contact with other children his age, both one-on-one and in a group. Observe him playing with others, and listen to what he says about his friends. This is an opportunity for you to teach him to cooperate with peers, resolve conflicts, and build and maintain friendships.
  • Play games that require your child to cooperate with others, wait his turn, and learn to be a gracious winner or loser.

Note: If your child has a regular babysitter or daycare provider, be sure to pass these tips along to the caregiver.

Promoting social and emotional growth at preschool

In preschool your child will enter into the world filled with structured and informal learning, and one that places high value on good behavior and cooperation. To keep track of your child’s social and emotional progress, you’ll want to:

  • Ask the teacher what opportunities your child has to learn and practice social and emotional skills in the classroom and at play. Also ask how well your child is doing in the area of social and emotional development
  • Find out what social skills and behaviors your child will need to demonstrate in order to make the best transition to kindergarten.
  • Encourage your child to talk about school, and try to gauge how he feels about, his classmates, and any situations or activities he finds especially interesting (or challenging).

Cause for concern? Where to turn for advice and assistance

“Normal” social and emotional skills and awareness don’t develop in exactly the same way for all preschoolers. However, you may want to seek help if your child:

  • Has difficulty joining in and maintaining positive social status in a peer group.
  • Has a hard time maintaining self-control when frustrated.
  • Throws long, drawn-out, or frequent tantrums, or bullies other children.
  • Is unusually withdrawn or seems sad. (Be sure to look for this behavior in group activities as well as solo play and artwork.)
  • Suffers from extreme anxiety when separated from you, even in a familiar setting.

Discuss your concerns with your child’s preschool teacher, pediatrician, and, if necessary, a specialist (such as a child psychologist). If you’re concerned that your child may have a learning disability or delay, you should contact your public school system and request (in writing) that a diagnostic screening (at no cost to you) be conducted. This is available to you under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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