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Social and emotional development

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Social and emotional skills include the ability to:

  • experience, express and manage emotions
  • establish positive and rewarding relationships with others
  • cope with difficult experiences (sometimes known as resilience).

Social and emotional development begins at birth. It is influenced by the environment in which children live and are brought up, and by genetic factors. Babies’ worlds are mostly made up of their parents or carers and as such, the relationship between a baby and their parent, and the quality of care that a baby receives, heavily influences their social and emotional development. Social and emotional development in the first years of life is sometimes called ‘infant mental health’.

Early social and emotional development provides the essential bedrock for children’s later learning, health and behaviour. Positive early social and emotional development is important in order to:

  • form successful relationships throughout life, including lasting friendships, intimate relationships and relationships with our own children
  • prevent emotional and behavioural problems
  • cope with and achieve at school
  • cope with and succeed in jobs, and
  • be a contributing member of a community.

In particular, the skills of self-control and self-regulation are linked to adult mental health, life satisfaction, education attainment and related economic outcomes, as well as various dimensions of physical health. Self-esteem is also linked to adult mental and physical health.

As well as promoting healthy social and emotional development, attuned and sensitive interactions between caregivers and babies can support babies’ speech and language development. A child’s ability to communicate well is also important for voicing and expressing emotions as they grow older, helping them to manage difficult feelings and communicate to get their needs met.

A Better Start aims to improve general social and emotional development in babies and young children, and provide support at the earliest signs of problems or when families are struggling to cope.

View the social and emotional development matters infographic

Watch Harvard University's film Serve and Return

Scale of the issue

According to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile results, around 15.1 per cent of children in England did not achieve a good level of personal, social and emotional development for the 2015 to 2016 academic year.

Scale of parental risk factors

Because babies’ worlds are mostly made up of their parents or carers, the relationship between a baby and their parent, and the quality of care that a baby receives, heavily influences their social and emotional development. There are a number of factors that can impact on their capacity to provide the sensitive, attuned and responsive care babies need. With the right help at the right time, these risks can be mitigated.

It is estimated that around 1 in 5 women have experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse.

Perinatal mental health problems are very common for women, affecting between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of women at some point during the perinatal period. Fathers can also be affected by depression in the postnatal period, with estimated prevalence rates between 3–10 per cent.

Around 79,000 babies under one in England are living with a parent who is classified as a ‘harmful’ or ‘hazardous’ drinker.

Around 33,000 babies under 1 in England live with a parent who reports domestic abuse.

Around 43,000 babies under one in England are living with a parent who has used an illegal drug in 2013.

Scale of mental health and behavioural difficulties in children

Epidemiological studies suggest a 16–18% prevalence of mental disorders among children aged 1 to 5 years, with more than half being severely affected. The ONS estimates that 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

What promotes early social and emotional development?

Warm, consistent and responsive parent-infant interaction and parental sensitivity. This includes ‘serve and return’ interactions - when an infant or young child babbles, gestures or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words or a hug.

Positive parenting practices for young children, including warmth and love, and appropriate supervision.

‘Positive stress’ - like a baby’s first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunisation, can help children to develop healthy stress response systems. What is crucial for healthy development is that a baby or young child experiences that stress within an environment of supportive relationships with adults.

Parents who are consistently responsive to their child’s distress help their children to become ‘securely’ attached, and these children learn how to regulate their emotions. In contrast, children who experience parenting during the first few years of life that frightens rather than comforts them, are at significant risk of developing a ‘disorganised’ attachment, which severely compromises their long-term well-being.

What increases the risk of poorer outcomes?

‘Toxic stress’ is deeply damaging, leading to changed brain architecture and reduced thresholds for stress, with potential long-term harmful consequences for behaviour, learning and health.

Most parents want the best for their children, but there are a number of factors that can impact on their capacity to provide the sensitive, attuned and responsive care babies need. With the right help at the right time, these risks can be mitigated.

  • Parents’ unresolved trauma
    • One in five women has a history of childhood maltreatment;
    • One in five women has been sexually assaulted as an adult;
    • One in five has experienced severe physical violence in an intimate partner relationship;
    • 6 per cent of women develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms following childbirth.
  • Birth trauma
  • Intergenerational transmission of parenting. Longitudinal studies consistently show that early parenting experiences are linked to the way that adults parent the next generation. Whilst by means the case for everyone, experiencing abuse or neglect during childhood can have particularly strong implications for parenting later in life.
  • Parental mental health difficulties
  • Parental misuse of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy
  • Domestic abuse during pregnancy and in the early years
  • The quality of the inter-parental relationship, in particular how parents communicate and relate to each other. Parents/couples who engage in frequent, intense and poorly resolved inter-parental conflicts put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk.

Examples of innovative practice in the A Better Start partnerships include:

Case study: Baby Buddy

Case study: Survivor Mums Companion

Case study: Parents Under Pressure

Case study: EPEC

Case study: Baby Steps (Blackpool)

Case study: PAIRS (LEAP)

Case study: Bump, Birth and Baby (SSBC)

Key reading:

About social and emotional development

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004) Children’s emotional development is built into the architecture of their brain. Working paper 2.

Van der Voort, A. Juffer, F., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2014) Sensitive parenting is the foundation for secure attachment relationships and positive social-emotional development of children. Journal of Children’s Services, 9(2), 165 - 176.

Goodman, A. et al. (2015) Social and emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life: a review for the Early Intervention Foundation. London: Institute of Education.

Lindsay, G. & Dockrell, J. (2010) The relationship between speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). London: Department for Education.

Click here for resources from A Better Start event on Social and Emotional Development

Scale of the issue

Bauer, A., Parsonage, M., Knapp, M., Lemmi, V. & Adelaja, B. (2014) The costs of perinatal mental health problems. London: Centre for Mental Health and London School of Economics.

Von Klitzing, K., Dohnert, M., Kroll, M. & Grube, M. (2015). Mental disorders in early childhood. Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 112(21-22), 375-386.

Cuthbert, C., Rayns, G. & Stanley, K. (2011). All Babies Count: Prevention and protection for vulnerable babies. London: NSPCC.

Factors that promote early social and emotional development

Centre for the Developing Child. Serve and return

Murray, L. (2014) The psychology of babies: how relationships support development from birth to two. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

Slade, A. (2005) Parental reflective functioning: an introduction. Attachment & Human Development. 7(3), 269-281.

Sroufe, L.A. (2005) Attachment and development: a prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment and Human Development. 7(4), 349-67.

Risk factors for poorer outcomes

Lieberman, A. Chu. A., Van Horn, P. et al. (2011) Trauma in early childhood: empirical evidence and clinical implications. Development and Psychopathology. 23(2), 397-410.

Stein, A., Pearson, R.M., Goodman, S.H. et al. (2014). Effects of perinatal mental disorders on the fetus and child. The Lancet. 384(9956), 1800–1819.

Berthelot, N., Ensink, K., Bernazzani, O., Normandin, L., Luyten, P., & Fonagy, P. (2015). Intergenerational transmission of attachment in abused and neglected mothers: The role of trauma-specific reflective functioning. Infant Mental Health Journal, 36, 200–212.

Talge, N.M, Neal, C., & Glover, V. (2007) Antenatal maternal stress and long-term effects on child neurodevelopment: how and why? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 48(3-4), 245-61.

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