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Social & Emotional Development in Preschoolers

Preschoolers are a whirlwind of energy and imagination. One minute she can impress you with her cooperative behavior only to frustrate you the next by having a meltdown at the mall. The social and emotional development of 3- and 4-year-olds transitioning from toddlers into school-age children is as important as her cognitive and physical development. According to a survey of kindergarten teachers by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the most important factors in school readiness are health, communication skills, enthusiasm/curiosity, turn-taking and attention span. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states that the core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and express his own feelings properly as well as empathize with others. The tendency for parents and preschool teachers to push the basics (ABC’s, counting, shapes, colors) can sometimes cause socio-emotional skills to be overlooked.

Social and Emotional Milestones for Children Ages 3 to 4

Preschool-age children are interested in new experiences both real and fantastic. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that between ages 3 and 4, most children undergo the following developmental milestones: sharing, playing “Mom” or “Dad,” dressing and undressing, negotiating solutions to conflicts, expressing the desire for independence, viewing self as a whole person (body, mind, feelings) and blurring the line between fantasy and reality. You may find him making up stories or fearing “monsters.”

Social and Emotional Milestones for Children Ages 4 to 5

As your child prepares for kindergarten, she will become much more conscious of relationships. Some milestones the AAP suggests to look for include: showing similarity with friends, wanting to please friends, rule following, singing/dancing/acting, performing tasks on own, alternating between cooperative and demanding behavior and distinguishing fantasy from reality. She also loves praise since she wants to feel important and worthwhile. Awareness of sexual differences and sexuality often begins at this age.

Learning Through Experience

During the toddler years, your child relied on you for just about everything. Now, he realizes that he is capable of performing certain tasks and making some decisions on his own. The new independence provides opportunities for direct learning and builds self confidence in his skills. Although some of his behavior might look like child’s play, it is actually setting the foundation for valuable social and emotional skills later in life.

Problems in Social and Emotional Development

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), problems occurring socially and emotionally during early childhood have been associated with problems later in life, including persistent physical aggression, high-school dropout rates, adolescent delinquency and antisocial behavior. Researchers believe that development of poor social and emotional skills can lead to negative interactions with teachers and rejection by peers, which causes the child to dislike school and learning in general. Encouraging appropriate social and emotional development during the preschool years can help prevent this downward spiral from forming.

The Role of Parents and Caregivers

Children learn through experience and imitation. Interactions between you and your child teach her how relationships work. Showing affection, expressing interest in daily activities, celebrating accomplishments and providing encouragement are some of the ways you can foster your child’s emotional competence.

The Role of Preschool

The NIEER reports that across hundreds of studies, early education has a significant positive impact on self-esteem, motivation and social behavior as well as decreased future crime and delinquency. While comparing preschool programs, consider group sizes, adult-to-child ratios, low staff turnover, professional development, parent involvement and a curriculum that encompasses the cognitive, physical, emotional and social needs of your child.

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