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Back to basics
Emotional development


Teachers, parents, and other caregivers have profound impact on children’s emotional development. How children learn to label, express, understand, and regulate their feelings isn’t a result of extrinsic rewards like praise and prizes. Instead, emotional competence—and the ability to feel good about oneself—reflects a child’s internal evaluation, control, and sense of self as a competent human being. Consider these typical developmental milestones as you help children build and sustain their positive self-regard.


Establish emotional attachments, called bonding relationships, with parents and primary caregivers based on trust, security, and consistency.
Develop a sense of security and trust through familiar routines like feeding, diapering, bathing, and cuddling, for example.
Begin to understand that parents and primary caregivers can interpret and respond differently to cries of hunger, fear, pain, or boredom.
Look to parents and primary caregivers for reassurance when feeling frightened or distressed.
Develop an attachment to transitional comfort objects like blankets, pacifiers, or plush toys. These transitional objects offer security and comfort in unfamiliar or stressful situations and transition times.
Show a fear of strangers, called stranger anxiety.
Begin to understand that they are unique individuals, separate from their parents, caregivers, and other children.


Learn to say “No!” They use this powerful word to test and establish their independence.
Recognize and respond to themselves in mirrors.
Play alone for short periods when parents or primary caregivers are nearby.
Demand independence in activities like pulling off socks, pouring water, eating with a spoon, and turning the pages of a book with a phrase like, “Me do it.”
Let off steam by screaming or thrashing when frustrated, frightened, ignored, or overly tired.
Develop a sense of ownership and use the word mine often.


Continue to explore independence, often doing things for themselves but needing the reassurance of a nearby and trusted adult.
Demonstrate their autonomy by expressing opinions and ideas—sometimes forcefully.
Delay gratification—for a short time—by waiting to have a need met.
Show concern for others, called empathy, especially for younger children who are hurt or afraid.
Feel emotional pain—when a pet dies, parents divorce, or a friend moves away, for example—but need help labeling, understanding, and controlling their feelings of injustice, abandonment, and sadness.
Feel stress—a mental or physical response to strains or daily hassles that result from injury, illness, fear of failure, disaster, new family structure, abuse, or simply feeling overwhelmed by too many expectations.
Sometimes reflect emotional stress by reverting to earlier developmental behaviors like biting, hitting, interrupted sleep, and toileting mishaps.
Continue to rely on adult consistency (the rules are the same on Thursday with Mr. Nate as they were on Tuesday with Ms. Elizabeth, for example) to monitor and evaluate their emotional responses to social interactions with adults and peers.


Have sudden and unpredictable mood swings.
Respond to stress with a range of behaviors including tantrums, moodiness, despondence, depression, over-activity, and sleep.
Feel deep pain when excluded from an activity, but usually forgive quickly and easily.
Help with chores like setting the table, taking out garbage, washing paint pots, and feeding a pet to demonstrate independence and ability.
Choose friends who mirror their tastes, interests, and skill levels.