Social, Emotional and behavioural development in children

There is a lot of growing and learning that happens in the first three years of a child’s life. Young children are rapidly developing in all areas, socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively and linguistically. Children go from being completely reliant on adults to meet their needs to learning that they are a person and that they exist separately from their primary caregiver.

There are many different theories that relate to children at this early age. I find most of them useful for providing me with a better understanding of what a child is going through and this understanding guides my practices and helps to manage my expectations. I’ll attempt to explain one theory that I refer to the most often when I’m working with children in their first five years and I will also provide some practical tips to help you get the most out of your child during each stage.

Erickson – psycho-social theory

I refer to Erickson’s theory probably more than any other theory especially when I am working with young children, particularly under 3 years old’s. It just makes sense to me. Erickson believes that every stage of our life we are faced with a psycho-social conflict and that we either come out of the stage with a positive or a negative outcome. Erickson believes that the outcome from each stage will affect how we deal with the next life stage. If we come out of the stage with a positive outcome then we develop a positive virtue.

Birth to 12 months

In the first 12 months Erickson believes that we are faced with the conflict of trust vs mistrust and we spend our first 12 months learning whether we can trust the world around us or not. If we grow up in a caring, warm environment where our basic needs are met responsively then we learn to trust the world around us and we develop the positive virtue of hope.

12 months to 2 years

The next stage that Ericson defines is when a child is aged approximately between 12 months to 2 years. Erickson calls this stage autonomy v’s shame / doubt. It is during this stage that a young child is learning that they are their own person and they have some level of control over themselves and their surroundings. It is during this stage that children start to express their preference over food and clothes for example. If a child during this stage is given some control and opportunities to develop their sense of autonomy then Erickson believes the child will develop a positive virtue of will.

2 years to 5 years

The stage that Erickson believes we progress through during our preschool years, 2 to 5 years of age is called Initiative vs guilt. It is during this stage that children are learning how to do things for themselves and start to assert their independence. If children are provided opportunities to do try and complete tasks for themselves and their intentions are recognised as positive then Erickson believes they will come out of the stage with a sense of initiative and a positive virtue of purpose.

Practical tips to help you foster your child’s development during each of these stages.

Infant development

During the first 12 months babies are learning how to trust. They are reliant on their caregivers to meet all their needs and each time this is done in a responsive caring way the child learns that they can rely on the world around them. Around the 9-month mark babies begin to develop what another theorist, Piaget calls object permanence. Prior to developing this concept, Piaget believes the baby would not understand that objects still exist if they can’t see them. So, with this new developing concept babies are becoming aware that even when you leave the room you still exist. Therefore, if we combine the idea that children are learning to trust their world and they are making sense of the fact that objects and people still exist when they are out of eye sight, I do not believe that babies can be spoiled if you are responding to their cries with love, attention and care. Don’t we want our children to continue to communicate their needs trusting that the adults in their life will provide for them responsively?

Toddler development

To foster your child’s development while they are striving for autonomy can be challenging especially if you have tight time frames and deadlines. During this stage providing your child with choices and pre- warnings will give your child a sense of control and power which is what they are seeking.

It is useful to put yourself in your child’s shoes in different situations to see how things feel. For example, we often give our child a direction to do something and expect them to drop everything and do it straight away. Imagine you were at a party and you were having an enjoyable time and your partner suddenly says it’s time to go. You probably wouldn’t appreciate that but if they said let’s go in half an hour you would be more likely to agree. Treating toddlers with this same respect helps encourage participation. Whenever you are about to do something or take the child to new place or you need your child to complete a task give them a 5-minute warning. Let them know the change is about to happen prior to it happening. For example, in 5 minutes we will need to get into the car so we can go shopping. This allows your child to predict what is coming up next and gives them a sense of power over their life.

One of the biggest mistakes adults make with children during this stage is to give the child an option when there really isn’t an opt out option. The trick is to only provide choices when there are choices. For example, saying to a child ‘would you like to have a bath now? The answer to that question will 99% of the time be ‘no’. If you want your child to have a bath then you can still provide a choice but both choices need to get you the result you need. So, try saying ‘would you like to hop to the bath or crawl’? The result still gets your child to the bath tub but they feel a sense of power and control over the situation.

A couple of other strategies during this stage are;

  • Try to keep the directions or instructions fun. 2-year old children don’t often like to be told what to do but they love playing and having fun. So, if you need them to do something try making it into a game.
  • If they are doing something inappropriate try distracting them and directing them into something more desirable and you can return to the undesirable later to provide a simple reason why it was inappropriate. For example, if your child is throwing toys around the room, you could give them a bucket to catch the toys and to provide a focus to where they are throwing rather than simply telling them not to throw their toys indoors.
  • Try to verbalise what you want them to do rather than naming the thing they are doing wrong. For example, if they are pulling the cats tail rather that saying don’t pull the cats tail you could say be gentle with the cat’s tail. You want your child to hear the positive being reinforced rather than the negative.
  • Understand that young children are still developing their ability to control themselves. It isn’t uncommon to watch a two-year-old walk towards something they know they shouldn’t touch, arm outstretched while saying ‘no’ ‘no’ ‘no’ to themselves but they can’t stop themselves from touching it. Their self-regulation and self-control will develop over time but we need to allow them to make mistakes and be prepared for them to get it wrong during this stage. Even as adults we sometimes struggle to demonstrate our own self-control so imagine how hard it is for a child who has been in this life for approx. 24 months.

Preschool years

Children during 2 to 5 years of age are still seeking power and control and are also enjoying a sense of new found independence. They want to do things for themselves, by themselves usually without any assistance from their caregiver. During this stage it is best to allow ample time for the child to attempt, fail, and try again until they master the task. Their intentions should be your focus rather than whether they succeed. It is helpful if you can stand close by and label what they are doing and recognise their efforts. For example, if it is time to put your shoes on, give your child extra time to try it for themselves and while standing beside them you could acknowledge their efforts and if they are struggling, just before they reach the level of frustration you could offer some verbal support. For example, ‘Wow, those shoes are tricky to get on your feet but you are doing a wonderful job. How about you try to stand and push your heels down’. You can let your child know that you are available if they think they need a hand. If they do seek assistance, scaffold the task by getting them over that one small particular hurdle but avoid finishing it off for them. Let them have the joy in completing and accomplishing the task if possible. Reinforce that it’s always okay to ask for help. Let’s face it in our society we do not exist independently from other people. Encourage your child to try but at the same time make sure they know not to be shy to ask for help, this teaches them that we live in an interdependent society and seeking help is always an option.

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