Children learn social-emotional skills from infancy and into adulthood. In a supportive environment, children are more likely to develop positive interpersonal relationships, a healthy sense of self, and successful academic life.
By understanding when and how social-emotional skills develop, parents and teachers can create a conducive environment for learning these fundamental capabilities.
What are Social-Emotional Skills?
Social-emotional skills refer to connecting with others through self-expression, empathy, and understanding one’s thoughts and feelings. Also known as soft skills, some examples of social-emotional skills include:
When children develop healthy social-emotional skills, they are more likely to succeed academically, develop lasting relationships, make appropriate decisions, resist negative social pressures, and become confident in themselves.
Social Skills Components
Children use social skills to communicate with peers and adults verbally and non-verbally. Developing healthy social skills encourages naturally egocentric children to learn to share, work together, and achieve success.
Early communication occurs through gestures, facial expressions, cries, and coos, eventually developing into speech. Children first learn to communicate through their parents, then their friends. The better a child learns to communicate, the more receptive and expressive they become in adulthood.
Tips at Home: Practice reflective listening. Mirror what your child says with different words to encourage them to reflect. For example, when your child says, “I don’t want to walk the dog anymore,” respond with, “Oh! You don’t want to enjoy a nice day out with your best friend?” Doing so may offer perspective.
Beyond sharing their toys and favorite objects, children will eventually learn to share ideas. When they learn to cooperate, they function better in groups and achieve more desirable outcomes.
Tips at Home: Assign shared tasks among siblings, such as setting the table or putting toys away.
Early on, children may struggle to understand and share someone else’s feelings. However, appreciating these similarities and differences will teach them to extend grace whenever necessary.
Tips at Home: Use “I” sentences to express your feelings about your child’s behavior. For example, “I don’t like when you yell at me. It hurts my feelings.”
Respect fosters patience and politeness and discourages negative characteristics like entitlement and judgment. When children show positive regard for one’s intrinsic worth, they can build lasting, meaningful relationships.
Tips at Home: Encourage decision-making. For instance, assign a day of the week when your child can suggest what they want for dinner. Doing so communicates that you value their opinion.
Emotional Skills Components
Emotionally intelligent children know to think before they react, have greater self-awareness, a well-formed sense of empathy, good listening skills, and the ability to accept criticism without judgment.
It can take a while for children to learn to identify what they feel and understand why that is the case. Developing self-awareness provides a strong foundation for good intuition, allowing children to make positive decisions that foster desirable outcomes.
Tips at Home: Use a feelings thermometer to help your child develop a better gauge of their emotions.
Identifying how you feel is one thing—managing those feelings is another, and it can be notoriously hard for children to master. However, learning to stay calm and true to one’s values can teach children to accept their mistakes with grace.
Tips at Home: Practice deep breathing with your child. Start small, counting to ten and eventually up to 20 to help them return to calmness before acting on their feelings.
Empathy refers to the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. When children know others’ feelings, they can quickly learn to respond appropriately, even when they disagree.
Tips at Home: Read bedtime stories about feelings. Self-esteem books can equip children with the tools to build empathy and emotional development.
Children who develop high resilience adapt well to adversity and change. Of course, this doesn’t mean a child won’t experience emotional pain or sadness. Still, resilience can encourage adolescents to treat themselves with kindness and patience—essential skills for dealing with traumatic experiences.
Tips at Home: Encourage your child to take a break. It isn’t uncommon for children to struggle with school-related and social pressures, so providing a safe space to rest and relax can help them challenge stress.
When Does Social-Emotional Skills Development Start?
Social-emotional skills development is a gradual and lifelong process that begins early in life and continues throughout a person's lifespan. Here is a general look at how a child’s social-emotional skills develop:
- Infancy (0 - 2 years): Infants develop trust and security with their caregivers, recognizing basic emotions like happiness and distress.
- Early childhood (2 - 5 years): Young children can engage in simple social interactions, developing self-awareness and self-identity. They start to recognize emotions in others.
- Middle childhood (6 - 12 years): Kids in middle childhood develop their first friendships and their senses of esteem and confidence. They start learning to manage troublesome emotions like anger and frustration.
- Adolescence (13 - 18 years): Teenagers explore their values and identity, navigating more complex relationships. At this age, they can regulate emotions better and learn impulse control.
The Importance of SES in Child Development
Social-emotional skills are essential to a child's development timeline because they enable them to recognize their own thoughts and feelings, respond appropriately, and learn to overcome challenging emotions. Here are some ways SES can impact various aspects of a child’s life.
Cognitive development refers to how children think and explore problem-solving processes. The more independent a child feels about discovering different ways to solve problems, the more confident they will become in their skills and abilities. Studies show that positive SES promotes better literacy and numeracy in preschool-age children [*].
Behavior and Relationships
Well-developed social-emotional skills enable children to relate to others. When children learn to empathize and regulate their behavior concerning others, they can develop good peer groups, positive romantic relationships, and productive work relationships as they age [*].
Mastering SES fosters excellent decision-making and problem-solving skills applicable to academic settings [*]. Emotionally intelligent students analyze situations better and can apply what they observe productively.
Interpersonal relationships are a critical part of a child’s school years. When they learn to collaborate, respect the opinions of others, and understand why their peers may feel a certain way under various circumstances, they can function well in group settings.
Signs a Child May Be Lacking in Social-Emotional Skills
Depending on their age, some children may demonstrate the following signs of underdeveloped social-emotional skills:
- Talking too much and with no desire to stop
- Sharing inappropriate details
- Not being able to listen to and retain details from conversations
- Not being able to gauge others’ emotions
- Becoming withdrawn from conversations
- Not waiting for their turn to talk
Tips for Nurturing Social-Emotional Skills in Children
Children hone their social-emotional skills every time they witness the social world. Here are a few strategies for helping them improve:
- Don’t categorize certain emotions as “bad.” Telling a child to calm down or to stop feeling sad connotes that they shouldn’t express negative emotions. Instead, talk them through what they’re feeling. For instance, you could say, “I noticed you were upset when your sister took your toy from you. It must’ve been hard to share. How are you feeling now?”
- Let your children solve problems independently. Children must work through their challenges independently to build confidence—step in only when the situation becomes unsafe.
- Praise your child for their effort — not the outcome. Praising your child for positive results will set unrealistic expectations for success. Children need to feel comfortable making mistakes and encouraged to improve each time.
Social-Emotional Skills Worksheets and Handouts
Worksheets and handouts can serve as valuable learning tools for children developing their social-emotional skills. Here are a few of our worksheets parents and teachers can use in home and classroom settings:
- Respecting Boundaries and Personal Space: Teach your child to voice when they are uncomfortable or making others feel uncomfortable.
- Conflict Resolution Poster: Reinforce that it’s normal for children to get into disagreements with others, but they can resolve conflicts without letting their emotions get the best of them.
- Conversation Skills: Use this handout to help kids and teens confidently form friendships.
- All About Sharing: Does your toddler have trouble sharing? Use this handout to practice kinder sharing habits with your child.
Discover our other worksheets and handouts for social skills!
The Bottom Line
Social-emotional skills in children don’t appear overnight. As your child ages, they encounter unique situations, enabling them to become better communicators, collaborators, and decision-makers.
A little help goes a long way. We’ve curated a collection of worksheets that aim to give parents, caretakers, and teachers a helping hand for every learning opportunity.
- Domitrovich et al. “Social‐Emotional Competence: An Essential Factor for Promoting Positive Adjustment and Reducing Risk in School Children.” Child Development, 2017.
- Miyamoto et al. “Fostering Social and Emotional Skills for Well‐Being and Social Progress.” European Journal of Education, 2015.
- Wolf S, Dana Charles McCoy. “The role of executive function and social‐emotional skills in the development of literacy and numeracy during preschool: a cross‐lagged longitudinal study.” Developmental Science, 2019.