Emotional development

Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps us understand and manage our emotions, set and achieve goals and feel good about ourselves.
Three smiling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the schoolyard.

Emotional development

Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are, understanding how and why they occur, recognising your own feelings and those of others, and developing effective ways of managing them.

As children and young people grow and are exposed to different situations, their emotional lives also become more complex. Developing skills for managing a range of emotions is therefore very important for their emotional wellbeing and ability to interact successfully with others. Children and young people who can understand and manage their feelings are more likely to develop a positive sense of self and be confident and curious learners.

Emotional development begins at birth

Emotional development is a complex task that begins in infancy and continues into adulthood. The first emotions that can be recognised in babies include joy, anger, sadness and fear. As children’s sense of self develops, more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, elation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride and empathy emerge. School aged children and young people are still learning to identify emotions, to understand why they happen and how to manage them appropriately. 

Emotional expression includes several components:
  • physical responses (like heart rate, breathing and hormone levels)
  • feelings that children and young people recognise and learn to name
  • thoughts and judgments associated with feelings
  • action signals (for example, a desire to approach, escape or fight).

Many things influence the ways that children and young people express emotions, both through words and behaviour. 

These influences include: 
  • values and beliefs about appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing emotions that children and young people learn from families and educators
  • how effectively children and young people’s emotional needs are usually met
  • children and young people’s temperaments
  • cultural norms
  • emotional behaviours that children and young people have learned through observation or experience
  • the extent to which families are under various kinds of stress.

The rate of emotional development in children and young people can vary from person to person. Some children may show a high level of emotional skill development while quite young, whereas others take longer to develop the capacity to manage their emotions well into adolescence. Learning to regulate emotions is more difficult for some children and young people than for others.

  • Emotional development and sense of self

    A person’s sense of self is strongly influenced by their perception of themselves. Knowing that they can be successful at what they do allows children to feel competent and confident – which in turn affects their emotional development.

    Children who don’t have many experiences of success, more often have to cope with disappointment, which can lead to development of a negative sense of self. By learning to value their own strengths and efforts, as well as those of others, children and young people develop resilience to bounce back from challenges and hardship.

    You can support children and young people’s emotional development by showing understanding of their feelings and by offering encouragement and specific praise for their efforts.

  • How can you support emotional development in children and young people?

    Providing effective support for children and young people’s emotional development starts with paying attention to their feelings and noticing how they manage them. Many schools and early learning services incorporate specific programs to teach social and emotional skills. These skills can also be taught and learned through everyday interactions.

    Tune in to children and young people’s feelings and emotions 

    Some emotions are easily identified, while others are less obvious. Tuning into children and young people’s emotions involves looking at their body language, listening to what they are saying and how they are saying it, and observing their behaviour. This allows you to respond more effectively to children and young people’s needs and to offer more specific guidance to help them manage their emotions. 

    Help children and young people recognise and understand emotions

    Talking to children and young people and teaching them about emotions helps them to become more aware of their own emotions as well as those of others.

    Set limits on inappropriate expression of emotions

    Let children and young people to know that it’s normal and OK to have a range of emotions and feelings. While acknowledging children and young people’s emotions, it’s also important to set limits on aggressive, unsafe or inappropriate behaviours. 

    Be a role model

    Children and young people learn about emotions and how to express and manage them through their interactions and observations of watching others – especially family members and school staff. Showing children and young people the ways you understand and manage emotions helps them learn from your example. If you lose your temper, apologise and show how you might make amends.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Check out content on social and emotional learning (SEL) and teaching for resilience in the Learning Resilience domain. 

  • References

    National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Boston: Harvard University. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/wp1/.

    Shonkoff, J.P., & Phillips, D.A. (2000). From neurons to neighbourhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington: National Academy Press.