What are social emotional skills for preschoolers

On the importance of social-emotional development in early childhood

Susanna Roux


The topic of social-emotional development in early childhood is currently given little attention in favor of cognitive development areas. Here we can look back on a long tradition of early childhood educational efforts (Roux / Fried / Kammermeyer 2008).

The importance of the topic in the educational curricula

If you look through the educational programs of the federal states for early childhood education, they all show a more or less differentiated part that is directed towards social-emotional development in early years.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, children are to be supported in children's facilities: "... to perceive and accept their own feelings and needs, (or, for example, SR) to put themselves in the shoes of others" (cf. Ministry for Education, Women and Youth 2004, p . 55). The point here is to enable the creation of community and relationships. Children should learn Make friends or Accepting limits. You should also learn To take responsibility for yourself and others, but also solve your own conflicts independently. Ultimately, the aim is communicate in social terms to be able to.

In comparison, there is a separate field of education and development under the name in the Baden-Württemberg education plan Feeling and compassion (Ministry for Culture, Youth and Sport, Baden-Württemberg 2006, p. 108 ff .; emphasis there): The aim is that children in the facilities "(...) develop an awareness of their own emotions" or something like " (...) a feeling for positive idleness, dawdling and 'letting your mind wander' ".

Such catalogs of objectives are, however, kept very general, hardly ever concrete and therefore not transferable to practice. In addition, they only address sub-areas of the social-emotional development spectrum, as will be shown below. It is not enough to "develop an awareness of your own emotions". This is an important task among others.

What is missing in the programs of the federal states is a more differentiated conception of social and emotional development at a young age. There is also a lack of sufficient justification for the importance of social-emotional competencies for other areas of development and education. And even early educational support aspects that can be derived from this cannot be inferred.

What can be done in practice to support child development in these areas? So that the child learns, for example, to organize his everyday life independently, to negotiate conflicts with others in a socially acceptable manner or to take other people's feelings and moods into consideration.

If it is to be dealt with in a pedagogical and professional manner, it must be possible to fall back on sound basic knowledge. This can help to become aware of one's own social and emotional tasks and behaviors as well as social and emotional behaviors of children and their mutual influence. Ultimately, it is a matter of finding ways of support that are appropriate to the situation and suitable for children. The following (non-fictional!) Example shows that this does not always succeed.

The topic of "My Family" is currently being discussed in kindergarten. Five-year-old Max works on his family house. Each window represents a family member. Max is allowed to stick or paint a picture of a family member in each window. When he wants to insert his father into one of the windows, his teacher says: "No, Max, Dad won't come in here, he doesn't live with you anymore!"

Looking at this scene soberly, the following can be stated:

  • The social order of "family", as it is realized by little Max (his own perspective), is not congruent with that of his educator (her external perspective).
  • With his image design, Max expressed emotional closeness that his teacher did not, and probably could not, either.

In order for professionals to be able to act in a child-friendly manner, they have to become aware of such inequalities and develop a strategy to deal with them.

What do we know about social-emotional development in early childhood? What challenges do children face during this time?

The easiest way to approach this question is to look back at your own story. In which situations, in which activities or in contact with which people did feelings play a role? Which memories are particularly present? Is it positive, is it negative? Are they connected to people (siblings, friends) or rather social situations (quarrels), but maybe also activities? How were feelings expressed in the past? Perhaps through words ("you are nice" / "go away, you idiot"), behaviors (stroking / beating), physical reactions (trembling / palpitations) or ideas and thoughts ("they are all so angry with me"). It becomes clear that social-emotional experiences cannot be reduced to special events in earlier years.

People experience such examples every day. This applies to children as well as adults. Differences between the two can be seen, for example, in the frequency, duration and intensity of the sensations. Emotions lose their importance with age, but new emotional qualities can also be recognized in adulthood that children do not yet know, such as gratitude, deep compassion or love for a partner.

The development task for children in their first years of life is to acquire skills that enable them to become independent and capable of acting in social relationships and to deal appropriately with their feelings and the feelings of others. Children can only cope with these developmental tasks in a stable socio-emotional environment.

The newborn child already has the fundamental prerequisites for this: it is already geared towards social exchange, it is a social and socially active being from birth (Schmidt-Denter 2005, p. 1) and itself has an active effect on its social environment a - for example by turning the head, sucking harder or kicking with the legs. If his mother responds to such first social signals, the child soon answers with a smile or a cooing sound. Interestingly, newborns seem to have a particular preference for social stimuli. This can be seen, for example, in the way a child reacts to the human face compared to a mask.

The role of his social environment becomes particularly clear when an infant begins to strangle. This strangeness, this fear of separation - generally around the eighth month of life - is an important milestone in human social development. It is now evident that the child can confidently differentiate between strangers and known people.

The discovery of the self and the realization that other people can have different thoughts, desires, and sensations are tasks from the second to third year of life, accompanied by the linguistic development. This can be seen in social words (everyone, me, we,) or emotional words (dear, angry, laughs, cries ...) in the young child's increasing vocabulary.

After entering kindergarten, changes in relationships become apparent (cf. Mähler 2007, p. 170). These result from the partial detachment from the primary caregivers (mother, father ...). The children now have the task of expanding their social relationships. You need to

  • adapt to other social systems and their rules, such as the kindergarten group, and no longer in the protected environment of people who are particularly inclined to them;
  • enter into new relationships with other children and adults (this begins with initial contact, negotiating shared meanings together);
  • to that extent learn to cooperate with others, to assert oneself in a group, to share with others.

There are also tasks in the emotional area: the child must learn to deal with the family separation and any frustrations that may arise from it.

In the transition between toddler and preschool age, the expansion of social skills can be seen primarily in the following milestones (cf. Mähler 2007, p. 171):

  1. the increasing ability to cooperate in the game,
  2. the prosocial behavior and the growing ability to empathize as well
  3. building friendships.

With Cooperation in the game What is meant is the coordination of activities to achieve a common goal. Research indicates that more than 50% of children show cooperative social fantasy play before their third birthday and almost 50% use complex fantasy play before the age of four (Howes / Tonyan 1999; quoted in Mähler 2007, p. 171).

Pro-social game - that is, a game that is aimed at social exchange - is only possible because children of this age detach themselves from "their own person as the center of interest" - the egocentric view- (Mähler 2007, p. 171) and the perspective on expand the opposite. Only now is it possible for the child to empathize with the other.

As for earlier Child friendships It is noteworthy that younger children first develop friendships through play partners with whom they share possessions or play something together. Slightly older children indicate that a child likes them. Such friends can be recognized by the fact that they show more cooperation in the game and more reciprocity. Gender is also gaining in importance, with peer pressure already existing or high. One often hears the sentence: "Do you still play with girls?" You can recognize friends by the fact that they are intensely socially active, seek more frequent and more constructive conflict solutions, work on tasks more effectively and maintain a mutual and intimate togetherness on the basis of closeness and mutual sympathy (Mähler 2007, p. 172).

Incidentally, various studies have shown that, contrary to earlier assumptions, friendships are already relative in toddler age and also in preschool age stable (e.g. Mähler 2007, p. 171): They can last for two to three years and also extend beyond preschool age. In this respect, friendship relationships are more than ordinary peer relationships.

Whether a child's social development is adequately developed can be determined from the following questions (examples from Mayr / Oberhuemer 2007): Does the child easily come into contact with other children? Does his opinion count with other children? Does it respect other children's boundaries? Can it defend itself? Does it seem balanced?

With regard to emotional development, in close connection with social development, it is a matter of first learning to perceive the emotions and reactions of the primary caregivers, so that children learn that they too have emotions. In this development phase, the child is completely at the mercy of its social environment. These developmental experiences do not come to the fore automatically, they are communicated socially (interpsychic emotion regulation). The aim is ultimately to perceive and express one's own sensitivities independently of those who are caregivers and to use them in a socially acceptable manner (intrapsychic emotion regulation) (Janke 2007). And social-emotional development does not end in early childhood either: knowledge of emotions and how to deal with them, for example, develop well into adolescence.

The following example clearly shows that the influence of the social environment should not be underestimated: Children who tend to interpret friendly facial expressions of friendly children as angry often have unsatisfactory relationships with their peers and tend to be hostile-dependent themselves assessed by educators (cf. Saarni 2002, p. 16).

Taken together, it can be stated that already at the age of three the emotional and social life of a young child has become extremely differentiated (with regard to emotional development, see Lewis 2000, p. 278): The children bring a basic set of social and emotional sensations with (satisfaction, interest, dissatisfaction). From these the so-called first emotions, the basic emotions (joy, surprise and sadness as well as fear) develop in the second half of the first year of life. In the third year of life, so-called social emotions, such as pride, shame and guilt, develop parallel to social development. One learns to know and apply one's own sensations in their social meaning.

It's not that easy at all. There are many misunderstandings and development tasks hidden here: It must be clarified together how social situations can be defined emotionally. For example, one six-year-old child is happy when it is allowed to go shopping alone, but another one cries because the situation is alien to them and they are afraid of it.

In addition, the child learns that previous positive or negative social experiences (e.g. with older people) shape their emotions.

It's also about getting to know and interpret the emotionally charged, non-verbal expression. According to Saarni (2002, p. 11), this represents the most pervasive form of communicative behavior. Here one can imagine the raised eyebrows of a mother when her child uses a forbidden word, or think about that obvious rejection can also be caused by turning the Back can be expressed. In this respect, there is a well-developed language system in addition to verbal language.

The child must also learn and experience that the disclosure of feelings depends on the type of relationship people are in (Saarni 2002, p. 11): In close relationships there are different patterns of emotional self-disclosure than in less close relationships. These are all important developmental tasks in early childhood.

At the same time, social-emotional development is very closely linked to other areas of development very early on (see, among others, Lüdtke / Kallmeyer 2007, p. 261): for example, emotional and cognitive processes. Early childhood emotions also influence the functional differentiation of the brain and thus the development of cognitive abilities. These affect the willingness to learn and the learning processes (cf. Lütke 2006, p. 161). For example, we know that the emotion interest is ascribed considerable expressiveness as a motor for learning to read and write (long before school entry) (Brinkmann 2008).

On the other hand, many current elementary as well as primary didactic learning concepts fall back on social-emotional elements. The following are considered to be basic human needs that are fundamental to learning processes across all ages (cf. Deci / Ryan 2000; Krapp / Ryan 2002): competence experience - self-determination (autonomy) - social integration

The need for Competence experience corresponds to the desire to be able to cope with given or self-chosen requirements and to be able to expand one's own abilities if necessary with tolerable effort (self-efficacy).

The need for social inclusion describes the striving to be inwardly connected with other people or to belong to a group of people who accept you. You want to be recognized by "significant others" (parents, educators, teachers, peers), also with regard to your own attitudes, value orientations, action goals, etc., and to be included in their circle.

The need for Self-determination or autonomy refers to the tendency to want to experience oneself as the primary cause of action. Even a young child would like to decide for themselves what to do within the scope of their possibilities and not feel constantly controlled and tamed by others. The need for autonomy does not mean that every kind of external influence is rejected and that complete independence is sought. In connection with the other two basic needs, it rather includes the desire to be able to act independently and responsibly, as far as sufficiently developed skills and knowledge are available for the set requirements and thus there is the opportunity to successfully demonstrate the skills that have been acquired.

If a child feels socially accepted and valued by the teacher and the other children, it will be more willing to open up to the big issues of the world. Socially and emotionally insecure "bound" children can hardly be enthusiastic about educational topics.

On the basis of research results it could be established that emotionally warm and empathetic interactions are positively connected with cognitive growth (cf. e.g. Bornstein 1989; quoted from Nagel 2008, p. 103).

In plain language this means that children who have developed an age-appropriate emotional competence are more likely to make satisfactory social contacts (e.g.Wertfein 2006, p.8), are more popular with others (including Petermann / Wiedebusch 2003), they find it easier to start school (including Denham 2006), they are more successful in school (including Raver 2002) and that these children have a lower risk of have the development of behavioral disorders (inter alia Izard 2002). In all of this, it should be remembered that these developments are not uniform and that there are individual differences: e.g. between shy vs. aggressive children; fearful vs. brave children.

Which educational requirements can be summed up from these considerations?

In order to be able to recognize and express emotions, to enrich emotional knowledge, to be able to regulate one's own emotions - emotionally rich spaces of experience and caregivers in family and kindergarten, who support children in learning to deal appropriately with their own emotions and those of others, help (e.g. Denham 1998 ; Graf 2004; Petermann / Wiedebusch 2003; Saarni 2002; Wertfein 2006, p. 78):

Indirectly, one could also say everyday or intuitive this is done a) by dealing positively with one's own emotions and those of children. Here, adults act as models for children. This also explicitly includes showing the children that even adults dealing with their emotions is not always easy!

Also helpful is b) a positive family or group climate, which can serve as a fruitful cultivation of relationships.

Finally, c) emotion-centered curricula in children's institutions also indirectly strengthen the theme of emotions.

On the other hand, the development of emotions can also directly are supported - so to speak in the emotionally charged situation - by a) sensitive reactions to positive ones and negative childish expressions of emotions, by b) offering help to regulate emotions in the specific situation up to so-called emotion coaching, which means frequent and open conversations about emotions.

This is supported by the following findings: The frequency with which preschool children are involved in family conversations about emotions and their reasons is significantly related to their later ability to identify how someone feels (cf. Harris 2000, p. 283).

"The emotional communication between adults and with their children creates a framework that children use to ascribe meanings and affective tones to their experiences" (Saarni 2002, p. 6). Interestingly, it also seems to be very promising to take part in disputes: there are also indications that "(...) children made the greatest progress in social understanding when they participated in the 'family dramas' of emotionally charged siblings and parents. Child conflicts were involved "(Saarni 2002, p. 6; emphasis there). A hasty protection of the children from conflicts could therefore deny them important opportunities for experience.

In any case, the reactions of adults are extremely important for the development of emotions. "For example, if a child feels hurt but has a parent who in the past often belittled or even ridiculed the child's hurt feelings, then that child is more likely to see 'hurt' as a condition that is suppressed, avoided or should be denied "(Saarni 2002, p. 8; emphasis there). There are also plenty of examples from everyday life in children's facilities.

The indirect and direct strategies just mentioned to promote social-emotional development are increasingly being supplemented by methods and concepts for training social or emotional abilities and skills - even in kindergarten. This includes, for example, training courses to promote social-emotional competence in kindergarten (Koglin / Petermann, 2006). One approach to promoting socially insecure children is called, for example, "Be brave with Til Tiger" (Ahrens-Eipper / Leplow 2004a, b). It is aimed at socially insecure children from the age of five. Over two individual and nine group lessons of 60 minutes each, self-confident behavior is practiced with the children by discussing everyday situations and "imparting" practical strategies for action (muscle relaxation, rules of conversation, socializing, rejecting something, going shopping alone). There are also relaxation exercises and recommendations to parents.

It can be assumed that in a socially and emotionally rich and enriched context such training programs can generally be dispensed with in early childhood practice.

All in all, it can be said that social-emotional development is actually a classic early childhood educational topic - currently since the beginnings of institutionalized kindergarten pedagogy around Friedrich Fröbel. This topicality stems from the fact that early childhood is of crucial importance for social and emotional development.

Through the exchange with the social environment, the child gains the necessary emotional skills. On the other hand, these emotional competencies facilitate social interaction (this fact is often equated with resilience in modern times). Both competencies are closely related to development in other areas: e.g. language development or cognitive development. In this respect, the promotion of socio-emotional development in early childhood education must also be given special attention.


The article is based on a lecture that was given on May 16, 2008 on the occasion of the fourth day of study for educators on the subject of "Social-emotional development in early childhood" at the University of Koblenz-Landau, Landau campus.


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Dr. Susanna Roux
University of Koblenz-Landau, Landau campus
Institute for Education in Children and Adolescents
August-Croissant-Str. 5
76829 Landau
Tel .: 06341 / 990-205
Fax: 06341 / 990-131
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.uni-landau.eu/instbild/