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 primary caregivers and other members of the family. When these first relationships are based on secure attachment, children learn that they can trust others to care for them, get their needs met and enjoy life with others. This is the start of give and take in relationships.
Friendships and relationships with other children become more important to children as they grow. Social development strategies in learning communities and the broader community help children learn and enjoy getting along with others.
Social development as children and young people grow
To achieve healthy social development, children and young people need to form social bonds with others who can model and encourage positive social values and behaviours.
To create these bonds, children and young people need:
- opportunities for social interaction
- active participation and meaningful engagement with others including family members, educators and peers
- to learn social skills through guidance and modelling in daily informal interactions and incidental opportunities, as well as planned teaching which might include participation in social skills programs
- recognition and reinforcement when positive social interaction occurs.
Opportunities, skill development and recognition need to be appropriately matched to children and young people’s age and stage, as well as individual characteristics.
Children’s understandings and behaviours are closely interwoven with emotions and temperament and the values and attitudes of those around them. 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.
Prior to the school years, families have the greatest influence on social development. As children and young people grow older, they become increasingly influenced by peer group values and the behaviours of community role models such as sporting heroes or media personalities.
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 they 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.
Be You Professional Learning
Check out content on social and emotional learning (SEL) and teaching for resilience in the Learning Resilience domain.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2018). Core SEL competencies. Chicago: CASEL. Retrieved from https://casel.org/core-competencies/.
Garvis, S., & Pendergast, D. (2014). Health and wellbeing in childhood. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Haggerty, K.P., & McCowan, K.J. (2018) Using the social development strategy to unleash the power of prevention. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research. 9(4), 741 - 763. https://doi.org/10.1086/700274.
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.
Social development is about children and young people learning the values, knowledge and skills that enable them to relate to others.
Last updated: April, 2021