Defining emotional and social milestones in the first 6 years

Selective Mutism
October 29, 2020
GRAVITY – an underestimated influence in child development
November 9, 2020

By Dr Melodie de Jager

Emotions have the ability to mobilise a person, they create action and movement – they propel one forward. Emotions don’t only propel forward, they are also crucial ingredients in the creation of memories. If there is no emotional reaction – good or bad, positive or negative – the brain thinks: “Oh, this is not important, I do not need to store the experience in memory”. On the other hand, if an experience evokes an intense emotion, the brain reads the heart’s message as, “High priority! Experience needs to be saved for later use”. The moment a memory has been saved for later use, learning has taken place.

Babies are not born with a range of emotions – they need to develop their emotional repertoire. The roots of mature, adult relationships are found in the emotional development of the baby.


The first year:

A baby is born inquisitive and for the first year he is focused on exploring his environment, which includes himself and those around him.

Birth – 3 months:

The baby investigates and recognises his own body, which allows him to differentiate between himself and others, especially his primary caregiver. It also gives him an early sense of body awareness. This is achieved through activities such as:

  • Sucking his fingers.
  • Looking at his own hands and feet.
  • Identifying which part of his body is being touched.

The baby has an innate interest in other people and will learn to recognise his primary caregiver from early on. At this stage of his development he should:

  • Be able to be comforted by a familiar adult.
  • Respond positively to touch.
  • At this age he will benefit far more from short, frequent interactions than long, infrequent ones.
  • He should also start smiling to show his pleasure in response to social stimulation.

3 – 6 months:

This is that magical time where the baby will start to initiate social interaction with his caregivers or those familiar to him through behaviour such as:

  • Playing games such as peek-a-boo.
  • Recognising his own name and responding to it.
  • Smiling spontaneously.
  • Laughing aloud.

6 – 9 months:

By this time the baby’s emotional range has expanded radically and he starts to show a variety of feelings. He may also show stronger preferences for familiar people. He should:

  • Express a variety of different emotions.
  • Be able to tell the difference between friends and strangers.
  • Respond appropriately to verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Make his displeasure known, especially when he loses something he treasures.

9 – 12 months:

As the baby moves toward the 1-year milestone, his emotional and social behavior is categorised by imitation and self-regulation. He should also be competent at:

  • Feeding himself finger food (he may not have mastered the spoon, knife or fork yet).
  • Holding a cup with two hands and drinking with assistance.
  • Putting up his arms when you put on his sweater or stepping into his trousers.
  • Imitating easy and uncomplicated actions.
  • Showing concern when separated from his primary caregiver.

1 – 2 years:

As the child becomes more independent and aware of his body as well as his position in space, he learns that he can take control of certain situations. His emotional spectrum is enormously expanded and he initiates interaction with people other than just those familiar to him. At this stage he is likely to:

  • Recognise himself in a photograph or mirror. If he sees his face reflected in a window or mirror, he could smile at himself or make different faces.
  • Show a range of very intense feelings towards his parents and lots of affection towards those familiar to him.
  • Play by himself and use his imagination to entertain himself.
  • Express negative feelings openly and at times with enormous force.
  • Show pride and pleasure when he accomplishes something new.
  • Imitate adult behavior when playing, e.g. his teacher.
  • Express himself through assertiveness or even bossiness.
  • Start to take responsibility by doing small chores or carrying out helpful tasks.

2 – 3 years:

This is a wonderful phase of self-discovery for the child. He learns that he has a will of his own and that he can do things for himself. He will more than likely explore everything, increase his range of self-help skills and assert himself more. However, impulse control could be an issue at this time. The 2-year-old child will:

  • Show awareness of his gender as well as that of his peers.
  • Have more control over his toilet needs.
  • Help his caregiver to dress and undress him.
  • Know his likes and dislikes and express them.
  • Say “no” to an instruction or request from an adult.
  • Realise that he has feelings, just like others do, and learn to express them.
  • Have rapid mood swings, sometimes resulting in temper tantrums. He could also develop sudden irrational fears such as a fear of the dark or of certain objects or animals.
  • Exhibit feelings of aggression, with behavior to match.
  • Enjoy parallel play by engaging in solitary activities near other children. He may watch other children and then briefly join them, only to return to his own activities.
  • Defend his position among his peers.
  • Begin to play games such as playing house.
  • Use objects symbolically while playing.
  • Participate in simple group games.

3 – 4 years:

From the age of 3 years the child masters certain skills and his confidence grows, contributing to increased independence. The child:

  • Can follow a series of simple directions.
  • Will complete simple tasks without assistance, e.g. spreading soft butter on bread.
  • Is able to wash his hands without assistance and should blow his nose when reminded.
  • Should become more interested in other children.
  • Will share toys and with guidance will start learning to wait his turn.
  • Should start to make up games and initiate play with other children.
  • May begin to role-play or act out dramatic scenes.

4 – 5 years:

By this age the child has developed his own unique personality. He is likely to:

  • Have a basic understanding of moral reasoning (fairness or good and bad behavior).
  • Start comparing himself to others.
  • Become exceptionally focused on his relationships and interactions with his peers.
  • Make friends.
  • Show a certain degree of sensitivity to the feelings of others.
  • Develop an interest in investigating gender differences, e.g. playing doctor.
  • Enjoy imaginative play with others.
  • Close the gap between dramatic play and reality.

5 – 6 years:

At this age the child starts to mature and consolidates all the learning that has taken place throughout the previous years. The child:

  • Is generally more stable and emotionally restrained.
  • Brims with self-confidence.
  • Readily boasts.
  • Is very proud of what he has achieved and created.
  • Enjoys limitations set for him by rules.
  • Can look after himself in his parents’ absence.
  • Can make small decisions on his own.
  • Is content to play alone for longer periods of time, but also plays with other children.
  • Enjoys fantasy games.
  • Enjoys competitive games more than team games.
  • Group games need an adult to arbitrate.
  • Is basically dependent on adult approval.

Emotional and social development is often the most underrated developmental phase, because it is more difficult to monitor or assess than physical or intellectual growth. However, this phase is extremely important as it emphasises the skills necessary for self-awareness and impulse control. Emotional and social skills are vital for school readiness as they contribute to the child’s ability to pay attention, make transitions from one activity to another, and cooperate with others. Have fun stimulating emotional and social development!

Did you know BabyGym Instructors offer an Advanced Class in Emotional and Social Development? Inquire with an Instructor near you!


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