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Self-Identity in Relation to Others

Infants’ social-emotional development includes an emerging awareness of self and others. Infants demonstrate this foundation in a number of ways. For example, they can respond to their names, point to their body parts when asked, or name members of their families. Through an emerging understanding of other people in their social environment, children gain an understanding of their roles within their families and communities. They also become aware of their own preferences and characteristics and those of others.

Foundation: Identity of Self in Relation to Others

Ability Recognition

Infants’ developing sense of self-efficacy includes an emerging understanding that they can make things happen and that they have particular abilities. Self-efficacy is related to a sense of competency, which has been identified as a basic human need (Connell 1990). The development of children’s sense of self-efficacy may be seen in play or exploratory behaviors when they act on an object to produce a result. For example, they pat a musical toy to make sounds come out. Older infants may demonstrate recognition of ability through “I” statements, such as “I did it” or “I’m good at drawing.”

Foundation: Recognition of Ability

Expression of Emotion

Even early in infancy, children express their emotions through facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. The later ability to use words to express emotions gives young children a valuable tool in gaining the assistance or social support of others (Saarni and others 2006). Temperament may play a role in children’s expression of emotion. Tronick (1989, 112) described how expression of emotion is related to emotion regulation and communication between the mother and infant: “the emotional expressions of the infant and the caretaker function to allow them to mutually regulate their interactions . . . the infant and the adult are participants in an effective communication system.”

Young children’s expression of positive and negative emotions may play a significant role in their development of social relationships. Positive emotions appeal to social partners and seem to enable relationships to form, while problematic management or expression of negative emotions leads to difficulty in social relationships (Denham and Weissberg 2004).

Foundation: Expression of Emotion


During the first three years of life, children begin to develop the capacity to experience the emotional or psychological state of another person (Zahn-Waxler and Radke-Yarrow 1990). The following definitions of empathy are found in the research literature: “knowing what another person is feeling,” “feeling what another person is feeling,” and “responding compassionately to another’s distress” (Levenson and Ruef 1992, 234). The concept of empathy reflects the social nature of emotion, as it links the feelings of two or more people (Levenson and Ruef 1992). Since human life is relationship-based, one vitally important function of empathy over the life span is to strengthen social bonds (Anderson and Keltner 2002).

Foundation: Empathy

Emotion Regulation

The developing ability to regulate emotions has received increasing attention in the research literature (Eisenberg, Champion, and Ma 2004). Researchers have generated various definitions of emotion regulation, and debate continues as to the most useful and appropriate way to define this concept (Eisenberg and Spinrad 2004). As a construct, emotion regulation reflects the interrelationship of emotions, cognitions, and behaviors (Bell and Wolfe 2004). Young children’s increasing understanding and skill in the use of language is of vital importance in their emotional development, opening new avenues for communicating about and regulating emotions (Campos, Frankel, and Camras 2004) and helping children to negotiate acceptable outcomes to emotionally charged situations in more effective ways.
Emotion regulation skills are important in part because they play a role in how well children are liked by peers and teachers and how socially competent they are perceived to be (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004). Children’s ability to regulate their emotions appropriately can contribute to perceptions of their overall social skills as well as to the extent to which they are liked by peers (Eisenberg and others 1993). Poor emotion regulation can impair children’s thinking, thereby compromising their judgment and decision making (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004). At kindergarten entry, children demonstrate broad variability in their ability to self-regulate (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000).

Foundation: Emotion Regulation

Impulse Control

Children’s developing capacity to control impulses helps them adapt to social situations and follow rules. As infants grow, they become increasingly able to exercise voluntary control over behavior such as waiting for needs to be met, inhibiting potentially hurtful behavior, and acting according to social expectations, including safety rules. Group care settings provide many opportunities for children to practice their impulse-control skills. Peer interactions often offer natural opportunities for young children to practice impulse control, as they make progress in learning about cooperative play and sharing. Young children’s understanding or lack of understanding of requests made of them may be one factor contributing to their responses (Kaler and Kopp 1990).

Foundation: Impulse Control

Social Understanding

During the infant/toddler years, children begin to develop an understanding of the responses, communication, emotional expression, and actions of other people. This development includes infants’ understanding of what to expect from others, how to engage in back-and-forth social interactions, and which social scripts are to be used for which social situations. “At each age, social cognitive understanding contributes to social competence, interpersonal sensitivity, and an awareness of how the self relates to other individuals and groups in a complex social world” (Thompson 2006, 26). Social understanding is particularly important because of the social nature of humans and human life, even in early infancy (Wellman and Lagattuta 2000). Recent research suggests that infants’ and toddlers’ social understanding is related to how often they experience adult communication about the thoughts and emotions of others (Taumoepeau and Ruffman 2008).
Foundation: Social Understanding

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Social-Emotional Development

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