Sitio en español

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

IEL FAQ: What Do I Need to Know about Social and Emotional Development in Young Children? About

How does a child develop emotionally and socially from birth to 5?

The First Year

Although most babies go through similar stages as they develop emotionally and socially during the first 5 years, adults will also see their children’s individual personalities begin to unfold.

During the first 6 months of life, babies begin to smile at people. They enjoy being talked to and played with. They may imitate some of the facial expressions and movements they see, and they may show a preference for some people, usually their parents, over others.

During the next 6 months, babies often become shy and fearful of strangers. They may cry when a parent leaves and may show a preference for one parent or caretaker over anyone else. Many will try out behaviors with a parent, such as dropping a toy or refusing to eat a certain food. Infants imitate not only sounds but also gestures, and they clearly enjoy the attention this behavior may bring. Many babies from 6 months to a year will begin to cooperate with feeding or dressing by picking up finger foods or holding out an arm for a sleeve.

The Second Year

A 1-year-old is still the center of her own world. She may enjoy playing beside another child, but she doesn’t really understand sharing. A toddler pokes an eye or pulls hair without realizing that this behavior hurts another child. By about 18 months, she may learn her own name and recognize her own reflection in a mirror. She may try to help a parent by imitating the parent’s actions in picking up toys or sweeping the floor. As children approach 2 years of age, they may start to pull away from their parent, becoming less dependent. For good reason, people call this the “NO” stage!

Two-year-olds often become insistently independent. They seem self-centered as they slowly learn about the world outside themselves. Many will not share or take turns and may not play easily with others. Aggressive behavior is more frequent and deliberate than it was when they were younger. A child may seem to refuse to listen but imitate his parent’s tone and words exactly when speaking to another child or his teddy bear. Emotional highs and lows are common. A 2-year-old may be on his worst behavior with the person he trusts the most. The limits he needs for his own safety, as well as for the rights of others, may bring on tantrums. However, he may also be an openly affectionate and enthusiastic companion.

The Third Year

Three-year-old children often are more willing than when they were younger to be apart from parents and to enjoy playing with others. With encouragement, a child may develop the ability to take turns and share. She may pretend to be a character from a television show or a story. Many 3-year-olds show definite gender differences in activities. They begin to learn to work out minor disagreements with playmates so the game can continue. At this age, many children have make-believe friends. At times, they need help knowing what is real and what is fantasy.

The Fourth Year

Between 3 and 5 years of age, children often enjoy friends enough to want to please them and be like them. They may agree more readily to rules as they get older. They may seem to care more about what their friends say and do than about their parents’ standards. They need to be taught the difference between accidents and deliberate misbehavior, between a bad action and a bad person. They usually understand what is real and what is make-believe. Many will show some empathy for others. Children may begin to show an interest in basic sexuality, both their own and that of the opposite sex.

What should parents do if they are concerned about their child’s development?

Parents who wonder whether their child’s development is “normal” may want to compare their child’s progress to the milestones for typical children in books or in the Web resources listed below. If you think there may be a problem or if there is a substantial difference in your child’s development from what is suggested in these lists of milestones, contact the child’s pediatrician or other health provider and ask for an appointment. It may help to remember that, at times, a physical problem such as frequent ear infections or an eye problem may slow development.

Concerned parents can also call their local Child and Family Connections office to arrange for a visit by a service coordinator. He or she will schedule free evaluations of the child’s development. If the evaluation determines that the child is eligible for Illinois Early Intervention Program services, the service coordinator will act as the family’s personal contact during the time the child receives these services. (For more information, visit the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse.)

What resources are available in Illinois for children who may have special developmental needs?

  • IEL FAQ: Where Can Parents Find Help for Young Children with Special Needs? About


Illinois Early Learning Tip Sheets

Additional Illinois Early Learning Resources

  • IEL Interactive Chat: Handling Challenging Behaviors in Child Care: Aggression and Anger in Young Children About
    Mary Louise Hemmeter, February 2003
  • Ask an Expert: Bullying in Early Childhood About
    Dorothy L. Espelage, November 2007
  • Ask an Expert: Supporting Resilience in Children Exposed to Domestic Violence About
    Karen Stephens, February 2009
  • Ask an Expert: Helping Young Children Resolve Conflicts About
    Karen Stephens, May 2006
  • IEL Interactive Chat: Saying 'No' to Your Child About
    Lilian Katz, May 2005 (Revised 2015)
  • IEL Interactive Chat: Young Children's Mental Health About
    Samantha Wulfsohn, April 2005
  • Ask an Expert: Helping Young Children Develop Friendships About
    Karen Stephens, April 2007
  • Ask an Expert: Sibling Relationships About
    Amanda Kolburn, September 2007
  • IEL Interactive Chat: Supporting Children's Social Development: Strategies for Parents and Caregivers About
    Lilian Katz, April 2002 (Revised 2015)
  • IEL Interactive Chat: Using Words and Emotions to Avoid Two's Commotions About
    Deb Medlyn, September 2003
  • IEL FAQ: How Can I Help a Shy Child? About
  • IEL FAQ: What Do I Need to Know About Young Children’s Social Competence? About
  • IEL FAQ: What Is the Role of Teachers in Young Children’s Mental Health? About

Web Resources

Other Resources

  • Caring for Your Baby and Young Child Birth to Age 5
    Author(s): Steven P. Shelov & Tanya Remer Altmann, Eds.
    Publication Date: 2009
    Availability: American Academy of Pediatrics, Chicago
  • Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development
    Author(s): T. Berry Brazelton
    Publication Date: 1992
    Availability: Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA
  • Touchpoints: Three to Six: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development
    Author(s): T. Berry Brazelton
    Publication Date: 2001
    Availability: Perseus, Cambridge, MA
  • The Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence
    Author(s): Jerome Kagan & Susan B. Gall, Eds.
    Publication Date: 1998
    Availability: Gale Research, Detroit

Quick Search

Search for resources on the following topic(s):

or perform your own search.


The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.

The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.