Social-emotional development in the first three years

By R. A. Thompson

The first three years of a child’s life are one of the most critical phases of brain development. In these early years, infants’ brains are developing more than one million neural connections every second. Parents and caregivers play a key role in creating the foundation for a young child’s social and emotional development.

The Issue

In the first three years of life, children achieve remarkable advances in social and emotional development (SED) that establish a foundation for later competencies. Yet even in the first three years, these achievements can be threatened by exposure to elevated stresses of many kinds. Family poverty, marital conflict, parental emotional problems, experiences of trauma, neglect, or abuse and other adversities cause some infants and toddlers to experience anxious fearfulness, overwhelming sadness, disorganized attachment, or serious problems managing behavior and impulses. This brief surveys a range of strategies to strengthen adult caregiving and improve young children’s socioemotional development, with the goal of supporting the latter by strengthening the former.  

Key Findings

  • Early social and emotional development establishes a psychological foundation for emerging competence across developmental domains and is based on children’s relationships with those who care for them.

  • Social and emotional health is vulnerable to adversity, which affects many young children.

  • High-quality, evidence-based home visitation programs can strengthen early social and emotional development by improving the quality of parental care and adult functioning.

  • Parent skills training programs can significantly improve the quality of parental care and strengthen young children’s SED.

  • Two-generation programs like Early Head Start offer promise for strengthening early childhood SED and parental quality of care through interventions designed for each partner.

Conclusion

Careful research has documented several evidence-based programs that have produced modest but meaningful gains in strengthening early social-emotional competencies by improving caregiving practices and adult-child relationships. These achievements are noteworthy because the intervention strategy is indirect—young children’s security, behavioral adjustment, and other outcomes are improved by changing adult behavior—illustrating the intimate connection between a young child’s social-emotional adjustment and the well-being of those who are intimately involved in the child’s care.


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