Social-Emotional Development

Social development involves the way that children relate to their social world and their ability to understand and express emotions, both their own and those of other individuals, such as their parents, teachers and other children. Social development involves learning to form and value relationships with others, feelings about self, and social adjustment to a variety of interactions over time.

Emotional development is the child's feelings about themselves, the people in their lives and the environment in which they live and play. It includes the child's ability to be aware of, express, and manage feelings, and to understand and respond to the feeling of others.

Social-emotional development in infancy and early childhood is considered to provide the foundation for good mental health and well-being throughout life. Social-emotional characteristics such as self-regulation, motivation and interpersonal skills, play a big part in success at school and in the workplace.

Please refer to pages 9-11 of the below guidance document on social-emotional development for further information.

Relationships are key in young children's development. Healthy social and emotional development begins at birth and is crucial during the first three years of life. Your child's social-emotional skills and abilities are formed by interactions with people, such as parents and caregivers. This means that your relationship and interactions with your child are very important.

Positive interactions with your child provides the greatest influence on their development, and nurtures strong relationships between your child and family members.

Please refer to pages 12-15 of the below guidance document on social-emotional development for further information.

There are many ways you and the professionals that work with your child can promote social-emotional development in your child. Loving, positive relationships give young children a sense of comfort, safety, confidence, and encouragement. They teach young children how to form friendships, express emotions, and to deal with challenges. They also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, confidence and a sense of right and wrong.

Supporting your child's developing skills, being affectionate and nurturing, helping your child to solve problems in healthy ways, helping your child understand his or her feelings, and encouraging early friendships all help promote social-emotional development.

Please refer to pages 17-21 of the below guidance document on social emotional development for further information.

As a parent, you know your child best. It's important to remember that children grow and learn at different rates. The chart below shows some things to look for to see how your child is doing. It also has suggested activities that you can do to promote your child's social-emotional development.

Infants/Toddlers Recommended Actions
From birth to age 3 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Looks at faces
  • Listens to voices
  • Quiets when picked up (the majority of the time)
  • Cries, smiles and coos
  • Looks lovingly at baby
  • Listens to baby
  • Talks and sings to baby
  • Picks up and soothes crying baby
  • Offers a warm smile
  • Touches baby gently
  • Holds and cuddles baby
  • Reads with baby
From 3 to 6 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Gives warm smiles and laughs
  • Cries when upset, and seeks comfort
  • Can be comforted (the majority of the time)
  • Shows excitement by waving arms and legs
  • Likes to look at and be near special person(s)
  • Holds baby when feeding
  • Shares baby's smiles and laughter
  • Notices and pays attention to baby
  • Responds to baby's cries and coos
  • Holds and reads to baby
  • Plays lovingly with baby
From 6 to 9 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Plays games like "patty cake"
  • Responds to own name
  • Enjoys a daily routine and transitions from situation to situation with relative ease
  • May get upset when separated from familiar person(s)
  • Unsure of strangers to baby
  • May comfort self by sucking thumb or holding special toy or blanket
  • Takes pleasure in games with baby
  • Talks to baby in gentle voice
  • Is predictable and consistent
  • Watches and knows what baby wants and needs
  • Reads with baby
  • Sings songs and says nursery rhymes
From 9 to 12 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Able to be happy, mad and sad
  • Shows feelings by smiling, crying, pointing
  • Has a special relationship with parents and caregivers
  • Is curious about playthings
  • Imitates others
  • Enjoys books
  • Trusts that needs will be met
  • Names feelings like happy, mad, sad
  • Is available, responsive, gentle and protective of baby
  • Encourages baby to explore
  • Reads books with baby
  • Talks, sings songs and says rhymes to baby
From 12 to 18 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Safe and secure in loving relationships
  • Curious about people
  • Explores with enthusiasm
  • Bold and confident
  • Says "mama," "dada," and up to eight additional words (and some two-word sentences) by 18 months
  • Offers safe and trusting relationship
  • Shows interest in toddler
  • Is loving and patient toward toddler
  • Talks, listens and responds to toddler
  • Reads, sings songs and plays with toddler
  • Uses words for feelings: happy, sad, mad
  • Uses words to tell toddler "what comes next"
From 18 to 24 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Laughs out loud
  • Loving toward others
  • Curious and likes to explore people, places
    and things

  • Plays beside other children
  • Enthusiastic
  • Protests and says "No!"
  • Enjoys books, stories and songs
  • Shares in toddler's laughter
  • Loving and patient toward toddler
  • Encourages curiosity
  • Celebrates what toddler does
  • Sets limits that are firm, fair
  • Responds evenly and respectfully
  • Reads, talks, listens, plays and sings with toddler
From 24 to 30 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Uses words to communicate
  • Playful with others
  • May be shy in unfamiliar place
  • Likes people
  • Uses pretend play
  • Smiles and laughs
  • Enjoys lots of different books and simple games
  • Talks to toddler and uses words for feelings
  • Supports toddler's play
  • Helps toddler feel comfortable
  • Enjoys toddler and plays simple games
  • Encourages imaginary play
  • Praises and encourages toddler
  • Reads to toddler every day
From 30 to 36 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Able to play independently
  • Easily separates from primary caregivers in
    familiar places

  • Begins to share with others
  • Shows feelings for others
  • Expresses many feelings: sad, happy,
    frightened, angry

  • Enjoys books and games
  • Encourages toddler to play independently
  • Helps toddler to separate without difficulty
  • Helps toddler to share with others
  • Helps toddler to use words for feelings
  • Listens and responds to toddler's feelings
  • Disciplines positively and consistently
  • Tells stories, reads and encourages pretend play

Each child is unique and will develop in his or her own way. Developmental milestones give a general idea of the changes you can expect children to experience as they grow.

Although all infants and toddlers may experience fussiness, sleep problems or behavioral challenges they may be due a developmental stage or environmental factor that is temporary. Some of these challenges are age appropriate and will resolve in time.

The charts on page 31-33 describe behaviors that may be a sign that your child may have a problem in social-emotional development, or that these social-emotional concerns may be playing a part in a delay or delays in other developmental domains.

These behaviors or "red flags" include the areas of:

  • sleep, eating
  • comfort
  • relating to people
  • children's mood, emotions and feelings
  • self-harm
  • behavior
  • possible exposure to excessive/toxic stress
  • developmental regression

It is concerning if your child is experiencing behaviors that are persistent, do not resolve, occur over a long time, or are extreme. These behaviors could negatively impact your child and family, and should be evaluated through a multidisciplinary evaluation.

For a child who is already eligible for the Early Intervention Program, such behaviors may indicate that a supplemental social-emotional development evaluation is necessary.

To find more information about social-emotional developmental delays and disabilities, please see the chart below, which can be viewed on pages 31-33 of the below guidance document on social emotional development.

Early help makes a difference!

If you have concerns about your child's social-emotional development, you can refer your child to the NYS Early Intervention Program in your county. All children referred with a suspected delay or disability are entitled to receive, at no charge to families, a multidisciplinary evaluation to determine their eligibility for Early Intervention services.

For the phone number of your county's Early Intervention Program, call the New York State "Growing up Healthy" 24-hour hotline at: 800-522-5006. In New York City, dial 311.

To locate your county's Early Intervention Program contact information online, you can use the following link:

If your child is already receiving Early Intervention services, you can reach out to your Service Coordinator for next steps.

Please refer to this guidance document on social-emotional development: Meeting the Social-Emotional Development Needs of Infants and Toddlers: Guidance for Early Intervention Program Providers and Other Early Childhood Professionals

Social Emotional Developmental Milestones

Infants/Toddlers Recommended Actions
From birth to age 3 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Looks at faces
  • Listens to voices
  • Quiets when picked up (the majority of the time)
  • Cries, smiles and coos
  • Looks lovingly at baby
  • Listens to baby
  • Talks and sings to baby
  • Picks up and soothes crying baby
  • Offers a warm smile
  • Touches baby gently
  • Holds and cuddles baby
  • Reads with baby
From 3 to 6 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Gives warm smiles and laughs
  • Cries when upset, and seeks comfort
  • Can be comforted (the majority of the time)
  • Shows excitement by waving arms and legs
  • Likes to look at and be near special person(s)
  • Holds baby when feeding
  • Shares baby's smiles and laughter
  • Notices and pays attention to baby
  • Responds to baby's cries and coos
  • Holds and reads to baby
  • Plays lovingly with baby
From 6 to 9 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Plays games like "patty cake"
  • Responds to own name
  • Enjoys a daily routine and transitions from situation to situation with relative ease
  • May get upset when separated from familiar person(s)
  • Unsure of strangers to baby
  • May comfort self by sucking thumb or holding special toy or blanket
  • Takes pleasure in games with baby
  • Talks to baby in gentle voice
  • Is predictable and consistent
  • Watches and knows what baby wants and needs
  • Reads with baby
  • Sings songs and says nursery rhymes
From 9 to 12 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Able to be happy, mad and sad
  • Shows feelings by smiling, crying, pointing
  • Has a special relationship with parents and caregivers
  • Is curious about playthings
  • Imitates others
  • Enjoys books
  • Trusts that needs will be met
  • Names feelings like happy, mad, sad
  • Is available, responsive, gentle and protective of baby
  • Encourages baby to explore
  • Reads books with baby
  • Talks, sings songs and says rhymes to baby
From 12 to 18 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Safe and secure in loving relationships
  • Curious about people
  • Explores with enthusiasm
  • Bold and confident
  • Says "mama," "dada," and up to eight additional words (and some two-word sentences) by 18 months
  • Offers safe and trusting relationship
  • Shows interest in toddler
  • Is loving and patient toward toddler
  • Talks, listens and responds to toddler
  • Reads, sings songs and plays with toddler
  • Uses words for feelings: happy, sad, mad
  • Uses words to tell toddler "what comes next"
From 18 to 24 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Laughs out loud
  • Loving toward others
  • Curious and likes to explore people, places
    and things

  • Plays beside other children
  • Enthusiastic
  • Protests and says "No!"
  • Enjoys books, stories and songs
  • Shares in toddler's laughter
  • Loving and patient toward toddler
  • Encourages curiosity
  • Celebrates what toddler does
  • Sets limits that are firm, fair
  • Responds evenly and respectfully
  • Reads, talks, listens, plays and sings with toddler
From 24 to 30 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Uses words to communicate
  • Playful with others
  • May be shy in unfamiliar place
  • Likes people
  • Uses pretend play
  • Smiles and laughs
  • Enjoys lots of different books and simple games
  • Talks to toddler and uses words for feelings
  • Supports toddler's play
  • Helps toddler feel comfortable
  • Enjoys toddler and plays simple games
  • Encourages imaginary play
  • Praises and encourages toddler
  • Reads to toddler every day
From 30 to 36 months Parent or Caregiver
  • Able to play independently
  • Easily separates from primary caregivers in
    familiar places

  • Begins to share with others
  • Shows feelings for others
  • Expresses many feelings: sad, happy,
    frightened, angry

  • Enjoys books and games
  • Encourages toddler to play independently
  • Helps toddler to separate without difficulty
  • Helps toddler to share with others
  • Helps toddler to use words for feelings
  • Listens and responds to toddler's feelings
  • Disciplines positively and consistently
  • Tells stories, reads and encourages pretend play

Who do I call with concerns?

Early help makes a difference!

For the phone number of your county's Early Intervention Program, call the New York State "Growing up Healthy" 24-hour hotline at: 800-522-5006. In New York City, dial 311.

To locate your county's Early Intervention Program contact information online, you can use the following link:

If your child is already receiving Early Intervention services, you can reach out to your Service Coordinator for next steps.

Resource links