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Back to basics
Social development


Social competence—the increasing ability to interact productively with others—is an essential tool for a person’s success in school, the workplace, and personal relationships. As children learn to build social skills, they require the support of nurturing environments and responsive adults to model and guide behaviors. Consider the developmental traits below and adjust to the specific needs of the children in your care.


Need to be held and cuddled.
Have distinct vocal patterns to communicate pain, hunger, discomfort, boredom, or frustration, and need you to interpret and respond quickly.
Build brain connections through positive social interactions.
Babble and coo—and need you to respond to continue the conversation.
Like to imitate actions like nodding, waving, and reaching before they have the skills to communicate their intentions with words.
Respond enthusiastically to people they know and trust. They are likely to turn away from, ignore, or cry in response to people and sounds that are unfamiliar.


Want you to be in sight—always.
Frequently turn away from and get upset by unfamiliar noises, animals, and people.
Often repeat behaviors to gain attention and look to you for clues about the appropriateness of an activity like throwing food from the highchair, rocking a doll, or jabbering on a toy cellphone, for example.
May offer toys or objects to another and quickly take them back again. Social competence doesn’t yet include the skill to share. Instead, toddlers use the word mine and may tussle to protect what they perceive to be their own—even you.
Frequently develop an attachment to a toy or blanket—a concrete and temporary replacement for the security and intimacy of an important social relationship.
Respond to simple (2-step) requests and directions. They understand the meaning of the word no but will often test limits and your ability to respond consistently in words and action.
Sometimes resort to extreme frustration (including feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or ignored) by screaming and thrashing.


Want to be included—in everything. The need for social connection sometimes interferes with the ability to focus on a specific activity.
Begin to understand concepts like taking turns and sharing but are often unwilling to act on that understanding.
Test their social competence and language skills by arguing. Though sometimes unpleasant, arguing gives children important feedback on self-regulation and perseverance—essential developmental skills.
Need daily opportunities for dramatic play activities that allow explorations of gender roles and problem-solving skills.
Respond well to offered choices rather than demands. Meaningful choices give children a sense of self-control and social responsibility.
Still need help distinguishing real from imaginary—especially among television, movie, and video characters and events.
Generally have special friends that change frequently. They might also have imaginary companions against whom they can test social problems, assumptions, and decisions.


Take part in group activities and are generally able to share materials, equipment, and attention.
Help with chores cheerfully and especially like working with a buddy.
Continue to need adult support and comfort but are sometimes embarrassed to ask for help.
Are sometimes too eager or too resistant to expressions of affection.
Like group games and understand that competition in a game—the desire to win—doesn’t need to transfer to all interactions with others.
Tend to be rigid in defining what’s right and wrong; compromise is difficult.
Often defend gender-role stereotypes and usually prefer to play with children of the same sex.
May resort to clingy, whiny, or aggressive behaviors during stressful times.
Like to tell jokes and make rhymes to show off increasing verbal dexterity and cognitive ability.
Generally have the verbal and physical skills that can hurt others—with teasing, bullying, or fighting—and need your guidance in accepting the consequences of social transgressions and challenging behaviors.