What Are Social-Emotional Skills?

Social-emotional skills are essential for connecting with others! They help us manage our emotions, build healthy relationships, and feel empathy.

Some examples of social-emotional skills in use are:

  • Recognizing if someone is sad, and asking if they’re ok
  • Expressing yourself with your friends in a different way than with your parents
  • Understanding your thoughts and feelings, and being able to relate to others

While these skills may sound complex, social and emotional development begins at a very young age.

Social-Emotional Basics

When does social and emotional development begin?

Babies start learning these skills from birth! As soon as they begin interacting with the people who care for them, they begin to understand and recognize thoughts and feelings.

How do parents impact social emotional development?

Parents help to nurture social-emotional skills so kids develop healthy relationships with friends and family members. Even as a baby, your little one is picking up on how you respond to their social and emotional needs. They notice how safe they feel at home and in your presence. They learn how to feel empathy, recognize emotions and say “I’m sorry” by following your lead.

What do social-emotional skills help kids do?

Kids with healthy social-emotional skills are more likely succeed in school, work, and life. Social-emotional skills help kids:

  • Make friends and keep friendships
  • Gain confidence
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Manage stress and anxiety
  • Learn social norms
  • Make appropriate decisions
  • Resist negative social pressure
  • Learn strengths and weaknesses
  • Gain awareness of what others are feeling

How long does it take to develop social-emotional skills?

Social-emotional growth takes time and even continues throughout adulthood. Early experiences with family, caregivers, and peers greatly impact social and emotional development, but throughout our lives we will continue to be shaped by our experiences! These experiences can include meeting new people who have a great impact on your life, overcoming difficult situations, or even raising children.


Ways to Work on Social-Emotional Development Every Day

  • Be a model of the emotions and behaviors you want your child to show. You are your child’s first teacher and they look up to you as a role model.
  • Be responsive to your child’s emotions and behaviors. Responding will help to develop trust between you and your child.
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What would you do?” to help develop problem-solving skills.
  • Use stories to talk to your child about different social situations and how each person might be feeling.
  • Encourage kids to try new things and learn how much they can do.
  • Play games to teach kids how to take turns, win and lose, share, and negotiate.
  • Ask your child questions when they are upset. These questions can be about why they are upset, or offering alternatives to understand the root of their unhappiness. For example, “Would you like to brush your teeth or take a bath first?”
  • Sit with your child when using a screen (not recommended before 18 months) and make it a social activity, e.g. asking them questions or playing turn-taking games.

How to Help Your Child in Social Situations

It’s not uncommon for children to experience anxiety or fear in new situations! Help them understand and work through their emotions.

Learn More

Is Your Child Meeting their Social-Emotional Abilities?

Be on the lookout for these abilities as your child grows. They are encouraging signs that your child is making progress in their social and emotional development.

0-3 Monthsmom_smiling_at_baby

  • Begins to smile in response to their caregivers (this is also known as a "social smile")
  • Develops more facial and body expressions
  • Can briefly calm themselves, e.g. sucking on thumb
  • Recognizes they are having fun and may cry when playing stops
  • Makes eye contact and looks at people while interacting

4-6 Months

  • Is usually happy when surrounded by cheerful caregivers
  • Responds to and copies some movements and facial expressions
  • Develops an awareness of their surroundings and expresses a desire to engage, e.g. banging objects or toys

7-9 MonthsBaby Looking at Self in Mirror

  • May show anxiety around strangers
  • Plays social games, e.g. peek-a-boo
  • Learns the meaning of words when they’re used consistently
  • Enjoys looking at self in a mirror
  • Becomes more “clingy” when leaving caregiver, e.g. reaches for caregiver when being held by someone else

10-12 Monthshappy boy and girl playing together

  • Attempts to display independence, e.g. crawling for exploration or refusing food
  • May show fear around unfamiliar people and objects
  • Tries to get attention by repeating sounds and gestures
  • Enjoys imitating people in play

1-2 Yearsswinging_at_park

  • Shows defiant behavior to establish independence, e.g. having tantrums
  • Does not understand what others think or feel and believes everyone thinks as he does, e.g. gets upset when no longer the center of attention
  • Enjoys being around other children, but not yet able to share easily
  • Can play independently for brief periods of time

2-3 Yearsclapping-and-singing-songs

  • Copies others in more complex tasks, e.g. cleaning, cooking, self-care
  • Shows affection towards friends
  • Shows an increasing variety of emotions
  • Upset when there are major changes in routine
  • Seems concerned about personal needs and may even act “selfishly”

3-4 Years

  • Starts cooperating more with others during play, e.g. sharing toys
  • Can sometimes work out conflicts with other children, e.g. taking turns in small groups
  • Uses words to communicate needs instead of screaming, grabbing, or whining
  • Becomes more independent in daily activities, e.g. may choose own clothes to wear

4-5 Yearspreschoolers_sitting_during_storytime

  • Has more developed friendships and maybe even a “best friend”
  • More cooperative with rules
  • Understands and is sensitive to others’ feelings
  • Understands the difference between real life and make believe
  • Has changes in attitude, e.g. is demanding at times and cooperative at times

Developing social-emotional skills can boost your child’s confidence and help them succeed in school, work, and life.

Getting Preschoolers to Share…How Do You Do It?

Here are some social-emotional activities for preschoolers so they can learn more about an essential skill—sharing!

Learn More

What If My Child is Struggling?

The sooner your child receives help in developing their social-emotional skills, the better off their health and well-being will be. Your healthcare provider may be able to help you address the issue or refer you someone who can help. Here are a few examples of specialists who may be able to help your child:

  • Child psychologistbaby_being_held_up_my_mom
  • Social worker
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Speech-language pathologist
  • Developmental and behavioral pediatrician

Visit Understood.org or Child Mind Institute for more information and resources on social-emotional development.