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Supporting the social emotional competence of infants and toddlers

By Vicki Hargraves 

Our webinar with Dr Karyn Aspden and Linda Clarke from Massey University examined the importance of intentional teaching practices that support the social emotional competence of infants and toddlers. They provided practical strategies and advice for teachers on how to build responsive relationships that nurture resilience and provide the foundation for strong social and emotional development, as well as specific strategies for supporting toddlers in relation to managing emotions, social skills and peer conflicts. Here are some of their key insights: 

Social and emotional competence is a foundation for lifelong skills 

Social and emotional competencies enable children to share a world with others, to understand and be able to regulate emotion, and to be resilient and cope with the challenges that life brings. In the earliest years teachers should be looking to lay down foundations for social and emotional skills that are lifelong rather than looking for short and immediate answers to social problems. Teachers can play a key role in intentionally supporting children’s social and emotional skills through the relationships they develop with children and the social and emotional environment that they create, rather than assuming that these will develop naturally. 

Relationships are key 

Warm, attuned responsive and sensitive connections between teachers and infants or toddlers are essential for social and emotional development. Early relationships provide a model for interactions and relationships throughout children’s lifetimes, as well as being a buffer for stress. Children develop an ability to cope when they have teachers who are tuned into and care about them. Developing quality relationships with infants requires that teachers connect with children in deeply meaningful ways, get to know them really well, and become attuned to their verbal and nonverbal communication. Serve and return interactions can help to build strong relationships with infants and toddlers.  

Attachment is a tool to support social and emotional skill development 

Children need a deep emotional connection to someone they can trust and who keeps them safe. Without this security the child is much less likely to explore, engage in interactions and practise social and emotional skills. Attachments are also important for three- and four-year-olds, and can be a useful starting point for interventions for children with challenging behaviour. A child’s main attachment is the foundation from which all the other relationships are built: children without a secure relationship find it harder to make further attachments. If there are difficulties for the child when their attachment figure leaves the room, a good strategy is for another teacher to work alongside them first, working towards a transfer of trust. Teachers can often serve as a mediator in interactions with other children. 

Primary caregiving practices support social emotional competence and resilience 

Primary caregiving practices for infants and toddlers require a high level of flexibility as well as good team work and communication. This can be really challenging if teachers are focused on tasks, as practices can become quite rigid. Instead, teachers should see tasks or routines as embedded within relationships and prioritise the children’s needs where they can. When children’s needs cannot be easily met, then teachers can try and work sensitively in ways that support children’s resilience. Resilience is built through little moments of needing to trust: for example, a teacher might explain where they are going and when they will be back (offering a marker such as ‘when you’ve finished morning tea’ so that the child can understand the length of time) and make a point of reconnecting when they get back. This gives children the assurance that they can trust what is going to happen. Part of the teacher’s job is to create that predictability and trustworthiness that builds resilience.  

Effective teachers use a range of intentional strategies tailored for each child 

Planned and purposeful strategies are important. This doesn’t mean that teachers always lead or direct interactions with children (although it is fine to do that sometimes). Useful strategies might include using descriptive praise and feedback, commenting, modelling, and scaffolding. For example, commenting enables teachers to bring words and language to children’s feelings and emotions, to offer feedback about their strategies for exploring and interacting, and to scaffold children to join each other in play.  

Books, puppets and posters can also be used to support children’s learning, both within mat-times but also in everyday spontaneous moments. These can help children to develop the oral language they need to express their feelings with words rather than with their bodies. Mirrors are great for infants and toddlers to see and talk about the expressions associated with different emotions. Active engagement is very important, so it is helpful to ask questions, encourage participation and develop serve and return interactions when using these resources. 

Children need to be supported through big feelings and difficult behaviours 

Young children have big emotions and need to be supported to deal with them. Even a child who is pushing adults away needs attachment. When children are emotional, it is important that the attachment figure teachers remains close by, reassuring the child with statements such as ‘I can see you want some time, but I’m right here. I want you to know it’s okay and I’m right here’. The teacher’s calm manner, reassuring voice and physical reassurance (when the child is ready to be held) convey this message of safety. Children’s emotions take the form of a bell curve, and it is not the time for teaching or using lots of words when they are at their peak. Once the child is settled and calm, teachers can revisit the problem, talk about what happened and provide guidance on the strategies, skills and knowledge they might need for future events.  

Toddlers’ peer conflicts are an opportunity for learning 

Teachers can choose to use toddlers’ peer conflicts as an opportunity to scaffold children’s learning. A first step is to move closer, as the teacher’s calm presence can sometimes be enough for toddlers to solve conflicts independently, as well as ensuring children’s physical and emotional safety. It can be helpful to name the problem and validate children’s emotions: ‘Oh, there’s only one red truck and you both want it’ or ‘I would feel frustrated if I wanted a turn and I had to wait for a long time as well’. You can invite children’s ideas about what to do (depending on the child’s verbal skills). While moments of high emotion are not the appropriate time to talk about social problem-solving, it is really important to give feedback about what toddlers do well during their conflicts: ‘Wow, you waited and you kept your arms by your sides’. Be careful to uphold children’s mana, esteem and dignity and not judge children. It also can be important for teachers to stay with children after a conflict is resolved and help them resume and sustain play.