Early Childhood Education

Development, Social


Fostering children’s social development has traditionally been a high priority in early childhood programs. When children enter toddler, preschool, or kindergarten programs, they have to learn to navigate new and complex social situations with both children and adults. Thus, early childhood teachers typically spend a great deal of time and energy helping children learn how to regulate their emotions, understand others’ perspectives, and initiate and maintain social contacts and relationships. This emphasis is not misplaced; a number of studies have shown that children with poor peer relationships in early childhood are at risk for later social and emotional problems and academic alienation and failure (Ladd, 1990). Over the past three decades research has identified specific skills and experiences that contribute to the outcomes of children’s social development. These factors are associated with numerous implications for early childhood educational practice.

The quality of relationships between children and their teachers and parents plays a crucial role in children’s social and emotional development. Those with a secure attachment to primary caregivers have the space and support to experience the full range of emotions, to learn culturally appropriate ways to express and regulate them, and to become aware of how other people feel and how relationships work (Sroufe et al., 1984). Conversely, children who are insecurely or ambivalently attached do not have a trusting relationship in which they can freely explore their emotions and fully develop their social awareness and skills. Most research related to attachment has focused on parent-child relationships, but Howes and Ritchie (2002) have shown how young children’s attachments with their teachers affect their functioning in school and describe and advocate ways that teachers can foster secure attachments between themselves and their children.

Adults also consciously and unconsciously influence children’s views of the social world by engaging in their own social relationships and modeling specific social behaviors (e.g., initiating contacts, resolving conflicts). Children absorb their families’ social orientations (e.g., families with very active social lives versus those who are more independent or isolated) and their style of social functioning (e.g., different levels of emotional expressiveness in relationships). Parenting styles—sometimes conceptualized as authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive— may also be a factor. Authoritative parenting styles, which provide warmth, reasoning, and clear expectations and firm parental control, appear to be associated with higher levels of social competence. However, this link may not show up in all groups because economic pressures and specific cultural goals also influence parenting styles and their outcomes.

Aside from personal styles, family demographics, particularly socioeconomic status and racial and ethnic privilege or disadvantage, may also influence children’s social development. Living in poverty and/or feeling marginalized, in and of itself, does not necessarily impair development, but resulting economic stress sometimes causes parental depression and family tensions which can spill over into conflicts with children and in turn make children more vulnerable to depression, low self-confidence, and poor relationships with peers and friends (McLoyd, 1998; Yeung, Linver, Brooks-Gunn, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, racially privileged children from affluent families may develop attitudes of racial superiority and/or become caught up in competitive consumption, both of which potentially impair their social development. Rather than personal contentment and strong connections with others, privilege and material wealth often lead to a “hankering for more; envy of people with the most perceived successes; and intense emotional isolation spawned by resolute pursuit of personal ambitions” (Luthar and Becker, 2002, p. 1593).

In short, social development occurs in a many-layered context of family, school, community, and larger social and economic values and dynamics. However, within all groups and across many situations, children need to acquire a range of cognitive, emotional, and social skills in order to become socially competent in their particular context. They need to learn to express and regulate their emotions, empathize with others and understand their perspectives, initiate and maintain social interactions, and develop relationships with peers.

In terms of emotional competence, researchers have identified several components linked to social competence. First, children who are generally happy and enthusiastic tend have more positive social encounters and are seen as more likeable by their peers. Second, those who understand emotions, both their own and those of others, are able to respond more appropriately and sensitively to peers and adults. Third, children who have a wide range of emotional expressions and are able to modulate them to fit the current situation can both generate excitement among their peers out on the playground (e.g., “help! help! the robbers are coming!!”) and conform to classroom expectations (e.g., sit quietly at circle time or focus on academic work). In contrast, children who are emotionally “flat” have a difficult time engaging peers; those who are emotionally volatile and unpredictable may frighten their peers and sabotage their interactions (Sroufe et al., 1984).

Fourth, children who understand others’ perspectives and empathize with their feelings are also more competent socially. Children go through several phases of empathy development during the early childhood years, although the sequence and timing may vary across social and cultural contexts (Hoffman, 2000). Newborns typically cry reactively when they hear other babies cry, suggesting that humans are born with some innate ability to resonate with others’ emotional states. This ability is reflected in toddlers’ self-referenced empathy, responsiveness to others’ emotions based on the assumption that others feel the same way that they themselves do. As they get older, children learn to differentiate themselves from others and to read more subtle emotions. Preschoolers begin to understand that people may have their own information and ideas and react differently to the same event. Preschoolers also start to see how their own actions affect others (e.g., grabbing a toy makes the other child mad) and begin to learn how to resolve conflicts. As children enter and go through elementary school, they realize that they themselves are the objects of others’ ideas and feelings. This development enables children to be more considerate of others and better able to collaborate with other individuals and groups. However, this awareness can also make children self-conscious about what peers think of them, which may lead to rigid conformity to group norms and antagonism toward out-group members.

Teachers can support children’s emotional competence by developing practices and activities that emotionally engage children, by encouraging honest and direct emotional expressions, and promoting awareness of others. These practices are sometimes associated with an emotional curriculum. Teachers can foster children’s developing capacity to empathize and to understand and care about others’ ideas and experiences by engaging them in discussions about how others feel or think whenever the opportunity arises (e.g., watching people engaged in different activities, reading stories that show people reacting to various situations, negotiating with peers about dramatic play roles, materials, and turn taking).

Beyond emotional development, social-skill development also plays into the development of social competence. Learning how to initiate and maintain social interactions and relationships can be a challenge in early childhood classrooms for a number of reasons. Young children tend to have short-term peer interactions and fluid friendships. A child may change “best friends” from day to day and even minute by minute. Early friendships are more likely to orient around shared activities or proximity and only later become contexts for support, intimacy and long-term loyalty and self-disclosure (Schneider, Wiener, and Murphy, 1994). Therefore, young children often have a wide range of casual friendships, particularly at the beginning of the school year.

The fluidity of relationships and the brevity of most interactions mean that children are frequently trying to make contact with peers. A number of studies have examined the effectiveness of different strategies that young children use to enter play situations (e.g., Ramsey, 1996). Collectively, these studies show that children are more successful entering groups if they observe and then fit into the ongoing play than if they explicitly ask to play, demand materials, or try to dominate the scene. Children’s entry attempts are also affected by the current situation (e.g., how engrossed the host children are in their play) and the ongoing relationships among the children involved.

After children begin playing together, then they often struggle with maintaining the social interaction. Within the context of an ongoing interaction, children may move up and down among different levels of social participation (defined by Mildred Parten [1933] as unoccupied, solitary, parallel, associative, and cooperative). For example, parallel play may evolve into associative play and then shift back to parallel. Toddlers and young preschool children are more likely to engage in solitary or parallel play. Older preschoolers and kindergarteners have the skills to engage in complex and cooperative games and fantasies.

Teachers can support children’s attempts to initiate and maintain social interactions through a social curriculum. They can help them start conversations with peers and “coach” them on how to initiate and continue interactions. They can also support peer interactions by designing space and selecting materials that are conducive to cooperative play (e.g., group vs. individual projects). Cooperative activities promote children’s sense of interdependence, their awareness of others, and their flexibility. Moreover, they potentially foster friendships among children of diverse groups and different abilities (Kemple, 2004). Young children may be limited in their ability to understand others’ cognitive perspectives, but they can learn how to coordinate their actions with each other in cooperative games. As they mature, children are able to collaborate on puppet shows, plays, art projects, and stories, which require more conscious and sustained coordinated efforts. Many classroom routines can be done cooperatively, such as setting and clearing the snack tables, putting away toys, and putting on outdoor clothes.

Often interactions and relationships are disrupted by conflicts, which are an inevitable part of classroom life. Although often regarded as annoying interruptions, they force children to recognize different perspectives; balance their own wishes with those of others; manage anger and aggression; assess their actions’ effects on others; be both assertive and respectful at the same time; and know when and how to compromise. Instead of trying to avoid or quickly resolve conflicts, teachers can use them to help children focus on others’ feelings and needs and to work out joint solutions that (at least minimally) satisfy all parties.

Despite all of the efforts to support the development of their social awareness and skills, individual children’s social competence varies considerably. Children are born with different characteristics that may affect the course of their social development (e.g., temperamental shyness, poor impulse control). The environment also influences children’s social behavior (e.g., contentious vs. harmonious families, high/low levels of community violence). Thus, for a variety of reasons, children develop patterns of behaviors that are exhibited over many situations that in turn influence their social roles and how they are viewed by their peers.

A number of researchers (e.g., Asher and Hymel, 1981) identified four distinct social status groups in classrooms: popular: attractive, socially, academically, and physically skilled children, who are sought after by their peers; rejected: socially awkward or aggressive children who are avoided by their peers; controversial: lively high-impact children, who tend to test the limits and are liked by some children and disliked by others; neglected: self-contained children, who are content to be by themselves and have very little impact on the social life of the classroom. These categories have been useful for identifying dynamics in groups and individual children’s needs. However, they should be used cautiously, because many children do not fit these categories, and all children vary across time and situation.

As these categories illustrate, some children have more successful social lives than others. These disparities often become apparent and entrenched, as social groups become more solidified over time and age. Many children also develop close long-term friendships that provide rich contexts to learn how to manage the ups and downs of peer relationships. However, playing with only one or two children is limiting and puts a lot of pressure on relationships that often fall apart, leaving both parties bereft. Moreover, children’s friendships are sometimes exclusionary and often reflect divisions by gender, race, social class, culture and language, and abilities (Ramsey, 2004). Thus, a balance of close friends and a wider range of good friends is optimal. Vivian Paley’s book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is a wonderful resource for talking with children about exclusionary behavior, why it happens and how it affects everyone. In particular teachers need to encourage children to learn how to play and work with peers who, at first, may seem different (e.g., racially, culturally) from them. By observing these patterns and engaging children in conversations, teachers can encourage children to articulate and challenge the feelings and assumptions that are driving exclusionary and avoidant behaviors.

In sum, social development is a complex process that reflects children’s developing cognitive and emotional capabilities and the personal and societal contexts of their lives. To foster this aspect of children’s growth, teachers need to carefully observe individual children and the group dynamics in their classrooms and to develop activities and routines that support the capacities and needs of their particular group. Teachers also need to keep in mind how the larger social and economic contexts are influencing this important facet of children’s development. See also Curriculum, Emotional Development; Development, Emotional; Development, Social; Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Language Diversity; Parenting Education; Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education; Violence and Young Children.

Further Readings: Asher S. R., and S. Hymel (1981). Children’s social competence in peer relations: Sociometric and behavioral assessment. In J. D. Wine and D. Smye, eds. Social competence. New York: Guilford, pp. 125-157; Hoffman, M. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Howes, C., and S. Ritchie (2002). A matter of trust: Connecting teachers and learners in early childhood classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press; Kemple, K. M. (2004). Let’s be friends: Peer competence and social inclusion in early childhood classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press; Ladd, G. W. (1990). Having friends, keeping friends, making friends, and being liked by peers in the classroom: Predictors of children’s early school adjustment? Child Development 61, 1081-1100; Ladd, G. W., J. M. Price, and C. H. Hart (1990). Preschoolers’ behavioral orientations and patterns of peer contact: Predictive of peer status? In S. R. Asher and J. D. Coie, eds. Peer rejection in childhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 90-115; Luthar, S. S., and B. E. Becker (2002). Privileged but pressured? A study of affluent youth. Child Development 73(5): 1593-1610; McLoyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic hardship on black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development 61, 311-346; Ramsey, P. G. (1996). Successful and unsuccessful entries in preschools. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 17, 135-150; Ramsey, P. G. (2004). Teaching and learning in a diverse world, 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press; Schneider, B. H., J. Wiener, and K. Murphy (1994). Children’s friendships: The great step beyond acceptance. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11, 323-340; Sroufe, L. A., E. Schork, F. Motti, N. Lawroski, and P. LaFreniere (1984). The role of affect in social competence. In C. E. Izzard, J. Kagan, and R. B. Zajonc, eds. Emotions, cognition, and behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press; Yeung, W. J., M. R. Linver, and J. Brooks-Gunn (2002). How money matters for young children’s development: Parental investment and family processes. Child Development 73(6), 1861-1879.

Patricia G. Ramsey