During the preschool years, children increasingly understand themselves as individuals; in addition, they understand themselves as part of a social world. They are becoming more autonomous, and their cognitive abilities permit them to understand how they fit into their family and a group of friends. Important characterizations of social and emotional development are self-concept, self-esteem, and self-regulation of emotions. Relationships with others are exhibited through the development of empathy and social competence. The nature and direction of social-emotional development are affected by relationships with their parents, siblings, and peers. They are in Erikson’s stage of initiative versus guilt. If they can become secure about separating from their parents and feel competent in their abilities, they can develop autonomy and eagerly participate in new tasks and experiences.

Self-Concept  A major social accomplishment between the ages of 3 and 6 is the development of self-concept. Young children develop a firm awareness that they are separate from others and have individual characteristics. Their self-concept is partially defined by physical characteristics but more significantly by mastery of skills and competencies (Berger, 2000; Berk, 2002).

Self-Esteem  Preschoolers begin the task of making judgments about their own worth and competencies, their self-esteem. They tend to overestimate their mastery of new skills and underestimate how hard new tasks are. They feel that they are liked or disliked depending on how well they can do things and are easily influenced by parental approval or disapproval. They are rapidly acquiring new skills and translating these accomplishments into positive or negative feelings about themselves (Harter, 1990).

Self-Regulation of Emotions  Children develop an awareness and understanding of their feelings in the preschool years, the self-regulation of emotions. As a result of their greater understanding of the causes of emotions in themselves and others, they are able to initiate behaviors that permit them to cope. Children pick up strategies for coping with emotions from their parents. Those whose parents have difficulty controlling anger and hostility have similar problems (Gottman & Katz, 1989). Children who have difficulties in controlling negative emotions also tend to get along poorly with peers (Berk, 2002; Eisenberg et al., 1993).

Empathy  A significant characteristic of the preschool years is the development of empathy, the ability to understand and respond to the feelings of others. Preschoolers can provide comfort and support for a peer, sibling, or parent. Expanding language development enables them to use words as well as gestures to console another. They can explain another child’s emotions as well as the causes. Children who exhibit empathy are more likely to be able to use positive social behavior (Berger, 2000; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987).

Parent–Child Relationships  Social-emotional development is affected by the relationships children have with their parents and other adults as well as with other children. Perhaps the most significant relationship is the one with parents and caregivers because of their influence in guiding the child’s development. Factors that affect the parent–child relationship include parenting style, the child’s temperament, and the type of discipline that is used. The dynamic nature of the interaction of these three factors is complex, and social development occurs within the tension among them. Parents can have authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive parenting styles, with many variations. The child’s temperament in turn influences the parenting style the parent adopts. A child who is compliant makes it easy for a parent to be authoritative, whereas a difficult child’s behaviors make it more likely that authoritarian parenting strategies will be deemed necessary (Dix, 1991). A positive fit between the parenting style and the child’s personality have more positive results on the child’s social and emotional development than a poor fit between the two (Kochanska, 1993).

Sibling Relationships  A preschool child’s social-emotional development is also impacted by the relationship with siblings in the family. Siblings have a strong but different relationship than parents and children. There is a wide variation in sibling relationships that is affected by the personalities of the children, birth order, and parent–child relationships. In addition, parent–child relationships are different for each child. The influence that siblings have on a preschool child’s social and emotional development can be nurturing and supporting or full of conflict (Berger, 2000).

Peer Relationships  Peer relationships also affect the social-emotional development of preschool children. Social development is affected by the opportunities the child has to engage in activities with other children. Preschool children who attend day care or a preschool program have more opportunity to interact socially; however, the quality of the program can affect whether the child becomes more socially competent or, instead, more assertive and aggressive (Hayes, Palmer, & Zaslow, 1990; Zigler & Lang, 1990).

Social Competence  Progress in the characteristics of social development in the preschool years leads to social competence. Indeed, it is the overarching characteristic of positive social development.

A definition of social competence is difficult to describe because researchers understand it differently. Creasey, Jarvis, and Berk (1998, p. 118) have synthesized diverse descriptors and definitions to the following: “socially competent children exhibit a positive demeanor around or toward others, have accurate social information processing abilities, and display social behaviors that lead them to be well liked by others.”

Various factors can affect the child’s development of social competence. Infants with insecure attachment can be predicted to be more dependent and less curious and have less positive affect during social interactions, leading to less optimal relationships with peers during the preschool years (Creasey et al., 1998). Later interactions with parents and siblings affect social competence. The child’s social network of parents and siblings provides opportunities to observe and practice social skills that can be introduced into emerging peer relationships (MacDonald & Parke, 1984). Parents and caregivers also influence social competence by arranging social interactions and coaching young children on how to interact appropriately in social interactions.

Quality of attachment to preschool teachers and quality of caregiving settings has an impact on social competence. Children who are enrolled in poor-quality day care have more problems with social competence than children enrolled in high-quality day care (Howes & Matheson, 1992; Howes & Stewart, 1987). As a result, factors external to family influences can “support, compensate for, or even undermine the influence of the family context” (Creasey et al., 1998, p. 120).