Social development

Social development is about children and young people learning the values, knowledge and skills that enable them to relate to others.
Primary school children sitting together on classroom floor

What is social development?

Children are born social

Social skills develop as children interact with supportive, stimulating, safe people and places. Social development is about the ability to recognise, interpret and respond to social situations in ways that society sees as appropriate. It’s a known protective factor for children and young people's mental health and wellbeing. 

This kind of learning is passed on to children and young people by those who care for and teach them, through social relationships within the family or with friends, and through participation in the culture around them. Through their relationships with others and their growing awareness of social values and expectations, children and young people build a sense of who they are and of the social roles available to them. As they develop socially, individuals both respond to the influences around them and play an active part in shaping their relationships.

  • Social development in young children

    From birth, children delight in positive social interactions with people

    Babies spend almost every waking minute developing their first relationships with family. Through these first relationships, children learn that they can trust others to care for them, get their needs met and enjoy life with others.  

    Friendships and relationships with other children become more important to children as they grow. Developing social skills helps children enjoy getting along with others and manage life’s ups and downs, which is important for their lifelong mental health and wellbeing. 

    Children learn social skills through their interactions with others

    They benefit from having lots of opportunities to interact and play with people of a variety of ages to develop and practise their social skills. 

  • Social development as children and young people grow

    Social understandings and behaviours are closely interwoven with emotions, temperament, values, attitudes, knowledge and skills. Through ongoing interactions with the important people in their lives (such as family members and educators), children refine social skills such as turn-taking, listening, cooperation and respect to help them build positive relationships and friendships. 

    As children and young people grow older, they become more aware of peer group values and of the behaviours of role models such as sporting heroes or media personalities.

    They learn to think through and discuss the values they observe, as well as consider whether decisions are fair or whether someone is being ‘mean’ to them or to others.

    When adults are fair, caring and respectful, children and young people feel a greater sense of trust and belonging.

    Children and young people are more likely to cooperate with adult guidance when they feel valued and respected. By contrast, when feel they’ve been treated unfairly, they’re less likely to listen and more likely to avoid or resist discipline. 

  • Learning social values

    Children and young people’s ability to understand others and take their needs and views into account develops over time.

    Young children are naturally self-focused

    They often play beside, rather than with, other children and tend to think that everyone sees things the same way that they do. In early primary school, children learn that others may see things differently from them. Then, as their thinking skills develop, children and young people are more able to understand another person’s point of view and, finally, to appreciate multiple ways of looking at the same event or situation. 

    Teaching children how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes helps them to relate better to others and manage conflict more effectively. It promotes caring, respect and fairness. Research shows that children and young people who’ve learnt to value others are more likely to include and appreciate people who are different from them or who are viewed negatively by others.

  • How can I support social development?

    Some children and young people seem to get along with others easily

    They bound in and out of groups effortlessly without a care in the world. For others, joining in or getting along with others doesn’t seem to come so naturally. This may be because they’ve not yet learnt the social and emotional skills they need to get along with others.

    When you’re in tune with what’s going on for the individual, you can help them develop these skills and enjoy the company of others. Having good social relationships benefits children and young people in all aspects of their development.

    Set the tone for positive, supportive relationships

    Establish trusting relationships with children and young people. Build a welcoming and warm learning environment by demonstrating respect, listening and positive expectations about respectful and caring behaviour.

    Use everyday interactions as learning opportunities

    Provide coaching and teaching to think through and solve the day-to-day social difficulties children and young people encounter. Where possible support problem-solving without taking over. Ask questions in a supportive way to help children and young people think through situations and encourage them to take others’ feelings and perspectives into account.

    Promote deeper thinking

    Discuss moral issues with children and young people. Encourage them to state their opinions and reasons.

    Communicate effectively

    Encourage children and young people to use effective verbal and non-verbal communication skills while interacting with you and others in the learning environment. Demonstrate the use of appropriate body language and posture, eye contact and tone of voice. Provide children and young people with practice opportunities to try out the skills for themselves. 

    Appreciate social and cultural diversity

    Find out about the social and cultural backgrounds and values of children, young people and their families. Look for ways you may be able to accommodate their needs and perspectives. Be open to adjusting your style of teaching and communication, and ensure common classroom practices are clear and appropriate for everyone. Create opportunities to include different perspectives – encourage children and young people to explore and appreciate the differences. 

    Deal promptly with discrimination and harassment

    Teach children and young people about stereotyping and discrimination. Make it clear that these are unacceptable behaviours. When discrimination, harassment or bullying occur ensure you act based on your service or school’s policies.

    Be You Professional Learning

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

  • References

    Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2018). Core SEL competencies. Chicago: CASEL. Retrieved from 

    Garvis, S., & Pendergast, D. (2014). Health and wellbeing in childhood. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

    Humphrey, N. (2013). Social and emotional learning: A critical appraisal. London, UK: SAGE Publications Limited.

    Wilks, T., Gerber, R.J., & Erdie-Lalena, C. (2010). Developmental milestones: Cognitive development. Pediatrics in Review, 31(9), 364-367.