The importance of teaching social and emotional skills in early learning

Not everyone knows that social and emotional skills are fundamental to educational success. Parents are concerned if their children are anxious or have behaviour problems but they don’t often link this to educational success.

Social and emotional capability is crucial to school success. Without this children are at risk of being unable to transition successfully to school, of behaviour problems, of academic failure and of social problems, problems that often remain in adolescence and even adulthood.

A child who is socially and emotionally ready for school has achieved most of the following abilities in their early childhood years:  

  • They are friendly and relate well to other children.
  • They are willing to take on new challenges and persist with them.
  • They can speak clearly and be understood by adults who do not know them.
  • They can listen to and understand information they are given and what they are asked to do.
  • They are learning to manage their feelings and behaviour in most situations.  
  • They can stand up, within reason, for their own rights and respect the rights of others and they can give and take in relationships.

These skills weave together to make a strong rope of social/emotional skill that supports children’s learning and relationships throughout their lives.

Social and emotional skills are at the heart of the Early Years Learning Framework: Being, Belonging and Becoming.

Emotions (feelings) are complex and often multi-layered

We must understand the underlying feeling in order to learn to manage it.
A two–year-old who is frustrated from being unable to make a tower stand up may be angrywith a parent or caregiver or the tower. Anger may also be tied to loss, to jealousy, to shame, to fear and to many other feelings. We help children to learn that it is not wrong to feel any of these feelings—they are part of living. We help them learn to express feelings in ways that will be safe and helpful.

Children (and others) show feelings through behaviour

We all know that for children, especially young children, behaviour expresses feelings. But we don’t always remember it and often just respond to the behaviour, such as perhaps when a child hits or pushes another child for no obvious reason. Look for the feeling behind the behaviour and try to track the cause—when it happens, what happened before and with whom. Respond to the feeling as well as the behaviour.

Attention seeking (behaviour) is likely to be connection needing (feeling). How we label behaviour and how we feel about it ourselves affects both what the child does and our response.

Social and emotional development starts from birth and is embedded in early relationships. The earliest conversations start teaching the to and fro of communication (see Smiling is learning and Communicating with toddlers[TC1] ).

Managing feelings (emotional self-regulation) is important. It means being able to manage strong feelings so that they are not harmful to us or others and don’t damage good relationships with others. Feelings underlie actions. If we don’t manage our feelings, the actions may not be what we want. We all know adults who do not manage their temper (lose their self control) and become abusive if, for example, another driver accidentally cuts them off on the road. What is less well known is how learning to manage our feelings and responses can effectively be learnt in the early years.

Managing feelings is a process. We expect lots of setbacks and we are not disappointed because managing feelings takes a long time and it is hard.

Managing feelings—the first step

Babies don’t know what they are feeling, they just feel. They can easily be overcome by their feelings and panic. Adults ‘hold’ babies’ feelings as they hold and calm the baby. We may rock gently or pat rhythmically, talk softly and give feelings names. ‘You are feeling frightened. I will stay with you and hold you until you feel better’. We show babies they are safe. We do not try to match or overcome the baby’s feelings by becoming louder or rocking harder. We continue to be gentle and soothing even if at first the baby does not respond.

Learning to wait for gratification

When the babies are a little older we start to help them to manage feelings gradually. A hungry older baby is not going to panic like a newborn if he has to wait a short time. We might say, ‘I know you are hungry and I am a bit late. But see I am cooking your dinner and it will soon be done’. Maybe we sing a song or do something else to help him if it is too hard for him to wait.

 Or we say, ‘I know you are sad because your daddy is not here yet. He is coming soon.  I will wait with you. Shall we play a game while we wait?’

Naming feelings helps to control them. Suppose we are walking with a young child and meet a strange animal. If we say calmly, ‘I know it is very big, but it is just a dog. He won’t hurt you. I will be with you’. Giving the dog a name, rather than it being an unknown monster helps to quell the child’s fears. The adult being calm and not tense also helps the child to know that there is nothing to fear we also teach children to respect dogs and not rush up to them). In the same way we label feelings, as they are just part of life.

Putting feelings into words

As children learn to use language we can help them to put feelings into words instead of action. We might say, ‘I can see that you feel sad and cross that someone took your toy but we don’t hit. Tell Kim how you felt when she took your toy and that you don’t like it’. We may have to give them the words at first and monitor the telling.

Making reparation—healing

We tell children that when we do something that hurts others, even if we don’t mean to, we try to make it up to them in some way. This may be saying, ‘Sorry’ but it is more than sorry, which can become just a rote reply.

It is about making the other person feel better.

Looking forward—problem solving

Both children need a chance to say how they felt and then we might say, ‘Let’s see if we can work out a way that you can both have a turn’, and invite the children to think of ways they could both have something they want. For younger children the adult needs to come up with a solution, talking through the process so the children are learning how listen to each other and to problem solve.

When the process doesn’t work

Sometimes children are so distressed or unwilling that this process doesn’t work. Then we need to help them to feel understood and more calm before they can start managing their feelings. We say, ‘I can see you aren’t ready to manage this right now. I will stay with you until you feel better’. Even if the child rejects our offer, we stay near because it is important for them to see that feelings don’t drive people apart. Sometimes taking a short walk outside helps, or doing something constructive such as making a building or drawing. If children learn that when they have strong feelings it drives other people away it can lead to growing up to be people who withdraw (e.g. go to the pub) after an argument rather than problem solve. 

Teaching about feelings

In groups children can learn:

  • that feelings are natural, we all have them and they are not ‘bad’
  • that we must not express feelings in ways that hurt others
  • the names for feelings and to tell someone how they feel
  • that other people have feelings too and to think about them as well (this takes time to understand as young children find it hard to focus on someone else as well as their own problem).

These things are learned through the way we handle day to day expression of feelings. They can be normalised by talking about feelings in stories, telling stories with puppets where the puppets guess how characters might feel.

Some other ways to help children with feelings

  • Teach realistic optimism. Looking at problems from an optimistic point of view helps children develop a positive view of life. When they say, ‘I can’t’. We say, ‘You can’t YET. But you are learning’. When they say, ‘I am always last in the line’ we say, ‘Yesterday you were right at the front’. When they say, ‘My friend neverwants to play with me’. We say, ‘Don’t you remember when you were building a house together?’ We help children get things into perspective.
  • Rituals. Rituals are special things we can do to help at emotional times. Big rituals are weddings and funerals. Little rituals can be used at times of change or stress. Children might have ritual words or actions to say goodbye to mum in the morning. We might have ritual when children move up to another room or leave, or a welcome ritual when new children come. They help manage feelings.
  • Get help. If children have ongoing feeling or behaviour problems we need to track down what it is in their lives that they can’t deal with. Talk with parents and if necessary, together, get some support from a health professional. 
  • Don’t forget that the way we manage our own feelings is the biggest teacher.


Social development

Children learn many of their social skills from play, first with adults and then with other children. They learn the rhythm of give and take, taking turns, listening and talking and problem solving and predicting how other children will respond to what they do or say.

Very young children mostly play near, rather than with other children. Friends become important from about three years of age and they need other children of their own age to socialise with.

Friendships of three and four-year-olds are often, but not always, about having similar interests at the time. A friend may be the child who plays ball with you today and a different child who brings a dinosaur tomorrow.

Helping children with friendships

We give children opportunities to play with other children of the same age, just twosomes at first so no-one is left out. This can be done by a suggestion to a parent. When a new child comes over to play parents provide activities that make the time enjoyable for both children and keep an eye on play to make sure it is successful.

Where a child appears to be neglected by the group, being chosen and given some status by the educator can help.

Pairing a child who is missing out on being chosen with a popular child for tasks and activities also helps.

Being in the group

The process of joining a group involves steps such as watching, going up and smiling, and then making a non-self-referential comment, e.g. not, ‘Can I play?’ but, ‘I could be the train driver’.

Some children get stuck at the stage of watching and may need some coaching to take the next step. Some children miss the steps and push into the group. These children may be resented or rejected. Again some coaching will often help them to think about the response they get and try another way.

When we work in this way to weave together the different social and emotional skills, we are making a strong rope to support them through school and life.


Hammer, M., & Linke, P. (2004). Everyday learning about friendship. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia.

Hartup, W. (1992). Having friends, making friends, and keeping friends: Relationships as educational contexts. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Rolfe, S., & Linke, P. (2011). Everyday learning about responding to the emotional needs of children. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia.