How do children learn about themselves and others? How and when do they develop a sense of independence? Empathy? The ability to express their feelings and control their anger?

Early childhood educators are constantly reminded of the many important milestones that take place in the first six years of life. Here's a look at how social-emotional growth, which begins as children simply and wonderfully respond to your smiles and gestures, develops, over the years, to a time when children truly become independent, confident individuals.

0 to 2 years

Children May:

  • be increasingly alert to sights and sounds.
  • follow you with eager eyes and warm to the sight of your face.
  • smile joyfully and vocalize happily as they move their arms and legs to the rhythm of your voice.
  • smile in response to your expressions.
  • engage, disengage, then reengage with you for short periods of time.
  • begin to respond to your gestures with gestures of their own.
  • imitate interactions and look expectantly for your response.
  • express desires and wants by pointing.

What You Can Do:

With children who are working on these skills:

  • Find out which senses they favor, the types of movements they enjoy best, how they like to be held, and what sights, sounds, or types of touch sustain their attention.
  • Build on this interest and elaborate with words and gestures.
  • Follow their eyes, looking to the left or right as they do, and make interesting facial expressions and sounds as you move.

With children who are practicing these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Acknowledge their coos by looking directly into their eyes and responding with a warm, soft coo of your own.
  • Respond appropriately to gestures of intentional communication, helping them to appreciate the joy of cause-and-effect relationships.

With children with mastery of these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Respect and admire (in words and gestures) their accomplishments or what they're expressing.
  • Encourage their creativity and originality.

2 to 3 years

Children May:

  • engage in pretend play with others.
  • use your help to play pretend dramas dealing with closeness, nurturing, and care, such as taking care of a favorite stuffed animal
  • initiate dramas of assertiveness, such as cars crashing or monsters chasing
  • enjoy pretend play alone.
  • use words or combine gestures to express feelings.
  • communicate their desire for closeness by gesturing.
  • develop the ability to recover from anger.

What You Can Do:

With children who are working on these skills:

  • Become a partner in pretend play without taking control.
  • Expand on play with your own gestures, such as making your arms available as a cradle for dolls.
  • Show your pride in and admiration for children's ideas and creativity.

With children who are practicing these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Find ways to help children enjoy their successes by encouraging them to talk about their block buildings or drawings.
  • Make suggestions for cooperative play, but don't demand it.

With children with mastery of these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Help children solve disputes.
  • Help children learn to explore emotional issues, such as separation, through play.

3 to 4 years

Children May:

  • begin to distinguish between what is real and what isn't
  • exercise logical thinking.
  • make pretend play more complex so that one theme leads to another.
  • follow rules and respond to limits
  • feel optimistic and confident
  • begin to reason about feelings and connect them to behaviors (for example, behaving nicely pleases you)
  • try hard to learn to do something.
  • know what to do or say in order to feel close to another person.

What You Can Do:

With children who are working on these skills:

  • Help them practice connecting ideas by responding to their attempts to communicate through words and gestures.
  • Collaborate with children to broaden their interests and play themes.
  • Balance empathy and compassion with setting firm limits.

With children who are practicing these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Help children talk about and play out strong feelings and emotions.
  • Collaborate on ways to negotiate and compromise.
  • Encourage children to learn from one another and solve problems together.
  • Suggest that children name the structures they build; this helps them determine their own play themes.

With children with mastery of these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Show your acceptance of and joy in the fact that there are many ways to do the same thing; this encourages children to do the same with each other.

4 to 5 years

Children May:

  • enhance pretend play by adding complexity and depth to themes and roles.
  • enjoy participating in rule making and talking about what is fair and what is not.
  • talk about their own feelings and begin to understand the feelings of others.
  • express and show empathy.

What You Can Do:

With children who are working on these skills:

  • Involve children in discussing and establishing basic group rules.
  • Discuss why people feel and react in certain ways.
  • Encourage dramatic play by placing props in the dramatic-play area that relate to children's current interests and recent topics of group discussions.

With children who are practicing these skills all of the above, plus:

  • Act as a facilitator to help children learn to solve their own problems.
  • Help children find appropriate ways and places to express their feelings.
  • Talk about the reasons for specific limits and rules.

With children with mastery of these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Involve children in problem-solving situations.
  • Make sure there are activities and materials children can work on independently.
  • Set up situations that encourage cooperative interaction.
  • Talk about and explore issues of personal rights and responsibilities.
  • Continue to encourage children to be sensitive to the feelings of others.

5 to 6

Children May:

  • enjoy playing and working independently.
  • enjoy taking care of their own needs.
  • engage in cooperative play.
  • react to normal frustrations in constructive ways.
  • understand and accept limits and routines.
  • show an understanding of personal rights and responsibilities.
  • be able to distinguish between deliberate and accidental interference and cope appropriately.
  • respect others' rights and property.
  • empathize with others.

What You Can Do:

With children who are working on these skills:

  • Provide activities and materials that children can use independently.
  • Encourage children to take care of their own needs.
  • Involve children in creating rules and routines. Discuss reasons for limits.

With children who are practicing these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Problem-solve issues of sharing, turn-taking, cooperative play, and so on.
  • Help children find appropriate methods to express frustration and anger.
  • Discuss personal rights and responsibilities.
  • Talk about the difference between accidental and intentional hurt.

With children with mastery of these skills, all of the above, plus:

  • Provide opportunities for children to experience the roles of leader and follower.
  • Read books that inspire children to empathize with the characters.

This article originally appeared in the November, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.