Activities to Boost Social-Emotional Development: An Age-by-Age Approach (Birth to 5)

Social-emotional development in children is crucial. It includes the child’s ability to understand the feelings of others, manage his emotions, and build relationships with both children and adults.

The following activities are simple ways to help boost your child’s social-emotional development from birth to age 5.

Birth to 12 Months

  • Be responsive to your baby’s needs to give your baby a sense of comfort, safety, and trust.
  • Demonstrate delight in your baby, sending the message that your baby is loved and admired, which will develop his self-esteem.
  • Give your baby plenty of hugs, kisses, and affection.
  • Be patient with your baby even at his most difficult, showing that he can trust you and depend on you.
  • Establish routines for your baby to help him feel safe and confident.
  • In the first year with your baby, establish a secure attachment by showing your baby that he is loved and that he can trust you to care for him and meet his needs.

12 Months to 24 Months

  • Try to nurture your child’s independence by giving him time to figure out a problem on his own.
  • Praise your child’s effort even when he’s not successful, sending the message that you’re proud of your child for trying and being persistent.
  • Play games with your child that require turn-taking to teach self-control and sharing.
  • When your child has trouble waiting for a turn or gets upset, try distracting or redirecting your child. He likely won’t be able to resolve conflict through talking it out just yet.
  • Continue using routines with your child and providing him with a sense of safety and security.

24 Months to 36 Months

  • Use play to explore your child’s feelings. Act out emotions with puppets or other toys. Read books about feelings, and discuss them.
  • Help your child understand that even negative emotions are okay, but there are healthy ways to express them. For example, toddlers can draw an “angry” picture with red crayon.
  • Help your child imagine how his behavior might affect others. Begin to teach your child empathy. (“Lindsey looks sad because her mom just left. Let’s see if she wants to play with us.”)
  • Identify and acknowledge your child’s emotions. (“I know you’re feeling frustrated because it’s not your turn yet.”)
  • Express rules in words that your child can understand. Explain the reasoning behind your rules and requests.
  • When your child does something wrong, brainstorm better ways to handle the situation next time.
  • Continue supporting your child’s developing skills and praising effort, not just outcomes.

4 Years to 5 Years

  • Continue teaching empathy by asking your child how people might feel in a variety of scenarios.
  • Begin explaining the concept of personal space to your child.
  • Brainstorm ways to start conversations, get someone’s attention, and handle other social scenarios.
  • Help your child express emotions through art, singing, dancing, and drama.
  • Talk to your child about his emotions, and work on brainstorming solutions when something goes wrong.

Trying even a few of the items on this list can help boost your child’s social-emotional development, preparing him to manage emotions and interact appropriately with others.

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