Kids Connection – Social and Emotional Development in Three to Five Year Olds

Kids Connection
April 2014

Social and Emotional Development in Three to Five Year Olds

How do young children learn to handle their emotions in a healthy, effective way?

They learn through adult coaching and through modeling adult behavior. Between the ages of three and five, children can begin to recognize, name, and talk about their feelings. Helping children learn about feelings is an important part of parenting. Healthy, social and emotional development is associated with a wide array of life-long positive outcomes. Recent studies show that an adult’s emotional awareness and sensitivity, more than IQ, help determine future success and happiness. Further, children typically grow up to parent their children the way they were taught.

Teaching children the words for emotions is important because it gives them the ability to talk abut their feelings, instead of acting them out. The best time to teach about dealing with feelings is when they occur. That means it’s best to acknowledge a child’s feelings at the moment, though sometimes inconvenient, messy, or loud. Ignoring a child’s feelings misses a teachable moment, and telling the child by word or action their feelings are invalid is potentially harmful to their emotional health. Experts say children fare best when adults focus on managing a child’s behavior, without criticizing or judging how the child feels.

In interactions with little ones, pay close attention to their feelings, and see feelings as opportunities to talk about emotions. Share your emotions, let them know their feelings are okay, and offer guidance in sorting out feelings. Mom or dad might explain, “You look angry. Is that how you feel? I get angry too sometimes, but it is not OK to hit anyone.” Such an exchange tells a youngster that adults get angry and it is okay to admit the feeling.​

Some suggestions for helping your child learn healthy, appropriate ways to manage conflicts include: explain what happened in simple language in an un-angry voice; go over what happened to be sure the child understands; point out consequences of the child’s behavior; and brainstorm better choices to resolve conflict.

Children learn to share and take turns by playing together in early friendships. Such encounters offer instructive opportunities. “I heard you tell Janie she can’t play on the swings. She looks Sad. Do you think she is sad?” Such conversation helps the child understand another’s feelings and develop empathy. Remind the child of expected behavior. “When we play on the swings, we take turns. Can you tell Janie she can have a turn?”

​Support older toddler’s developing skills by patiently empathizing with frustrations, offer observations, and ask him for ideas to better handle his frustration. “I see you are working hard to get your mittens on. Maybe if you put your thumb in first, and then your hand, it would work better.” Praise the process, not the result.

​Learning such basic rules of the emotional and social road at three-to-five years old can make later relationships immeasurably more successful.

Sandy Farrell writes for Chaffee County Early Childhood Council. For more information go to, or call 719.221.5114.