Along with physical and cognitive development, every child progresses through phases of emotional development. Arguably, all children differ in their individual development. Studies have shown that parents admit to having little information on emotional development, even though they also admit that their actions have great influence on their children's emotional development.

Emotions are not as easy to study or recognize as cognition, and for many decades the study of emotional development lagged behind study in other areas of child development. However, by the early twenty-first century researchers had developed several theories on emotional development.


Emotional development is the emergence of a child's experience, expression, understanding, and regulation of emotions from birth through late adolescence. It also comprises how growth and changes in these processes concerning emotions occur. Emotional development does not occur in isolation; neural, cognitive, and behavioral development interact with emotional development and social and cultural influences, and context also play a role. Various emotional development theories are proposed, but there is general agreement on age-related milestones in emotional development.

Social and emotional development are strongly linked and sometimes studied or reported in tandem. Parents and other caregivers play an important role in emotional development, but as a child's world expands, other people in the social context also play a part in emotional development.

Debate continues as to exactly when emotions appear in infants. For example, smiles occur early, but the earliest ones are more likely reflexive than social. A smile may express emotion as early as 6 weeks of age but it is not until about age 6 months that a smile can be considered more emotional and social in nature. Crying is a powerful emotion for infants and may be used as a communication tool. Distress, pleasure, anger, fear, and interest are among the earliest emotions that infants express. Laughter begins at about 3 to 4 months of age. Eliciting laughter in babies at this age often involves an action that deviates from the norm, such as peek-a-boo games provoke. Development of negative emotions probably follows soon after, with anger still winning over sadness to express negative feelings. Fear begins to emerge, and infants often follow the emotions of their caregivers and form strong attachment to them.

By toddlerhood and early childhood, children begin to develop more of a sense of self. Emotions such as pride, shame, and self-recognition begin to emerge. These developments are facilitated partly by the rapid maturation of a toddler's frontal lobes and limbic circuit in the brain. These emotional developments lead to the strong sense of independence and defiance that often characterize the toddler years. Of course, toddlers also are becoming more independent physically, having developed skills such as walking. They may begin to play independently too. The self-recognition brings new levels of emotional development. For example, toddlers will begin to respond to negative signals from caregivers and others. It is at the toddler stage, or at least by age 2, that children also begin showing empathy, which is a complex emotional response to a situation. Feeling empathy requires that a child not only read emotional clues from others but understand the distinction between self and others. Actually putting one's self in the other's position also is required for empathy.

Emotional expression is still largely nonverbal, although some emotional language may develop by age 20 months. For the most part, facial expressions, crying or other vocal expressions, and gestures still express many of toddlers' emotions. In early childhood, verbal skills develop and with them, verbal reasoning. Children also are able to talk about their feelings as they learn how to express themselves verbally. As young children enter preschool, they may be able to label their emotions and learn about them by understanding family discussions and actions concerning emotions. For example, a child may be able to say, “I am mad,” or “I am sad,” instead of simply expressing the emotion through actions such as crying, stomping, or yelling. This is not to say that tantrums do not occur; between toddlerhood and school age, children still express anger in the form of tantrums. Because emotions have become important to young children, they talk about them often in conversation.

Preschoolers begin to understand the rules of family, school, and society concerning how they express some of their emotions. They also can recognize nonverbal cues of emotion from one another. Preschoolers begin to distinguish between negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear. Although these young children have empathy, their knowledge of others' feelings generally is limited to people and situations with which they are familiar. Development of this emotional capacity also depends on positive, culturally acceptable emotional exchanges with peers. Negative emotional influences of family life that are common and harsh, particularly in the child's discipline model, can lead to problems with emotional development and even psychopathology.


As children enter school, they gain a greater sense of self and an understanding of how specific situations can lead them to experience emotions. Children may experience shame, even in reaction to emotions expressed. They also can begin to understand how an event can lead to mixed emotions. Research has shown that by about age 6, children may appreciate that people can experience one emotion, then a completely different emotion immediately after the first. The understanding of simultaneous and even conflicting emotions soon follows.

As children move into later childhood, they learn the “rules” of displaying emotion, which is a form of social and emotional development. For example, if children have been taught to do so, they may, out of politeness or respect, be able to avoid showing disappointment in a gift or the failure of an adult to fulfill a promise. As they understand the emotional states of those around them, children realize that these states are not as simple as they might have once imagined.

School-aged children begin developing emotional coping skills, even if those skills are at very basic levels. For example, children may rationalize situations and behaviors or reconstruct scenarios to make them seem less upsetting emotionally. The ability to suppress negative emotions is a factor of normal development, as well as other influences, such as gender, the specific situation, cultural influences, and the person likely to receive the expressed emotion.

In adolescence emotions still are developing. In face, the adolescent years often are considered an emotional period of development. Although adolescents begin to develop independence from their parents and begin to display social signs of independence by gaining employment, driving, and other activities, their emotional autonomy is represented by conflict and often negative emotions. One reason for the negative emotions may be cognitive development of abstract thinking abilities. Because adolescents can imagine all sorts of complex and theoretical scenarios for romance or in response to other relationships, they may suffer resulting emotional distress. In turn, social problems become more complex, and adolescents look to their peers to help provide a basis for how to manage the emotions they feel.

Family issues and struggles over becoming independent, with curfews, academic pressure, and romantic and other peer interactions, all place a great deal of pressure on adolescent emotions. Strong self-perceptions from earlier childhood may give way to self-doubt or feelings of worthlessness. As adolescents realize that their emotions are separate from their parents' emotions, a process called “emotional autonomy” begins. Adolescents may feel pulled between the close emotional ties they have with their parents and a need to develop independent emotional responses. If depression is going to occur, it generally begins during adolescence and is more common in girls than in boys.


A major part of emotional development in children and adolescents is how children recognize, label, and control the expression of their emotions in ways that generally are consistent with cultural expectations. This is called emotional regulation. In short, development of an emotion almost is dependent on regulation. The exact definition and models of emotional regulation have been debated. But what is apparent in the study of child and adolescent development and the development of positive instructional strategies is the complex interaction of emotional regulation and development of emotions.

Self-regulation of emotions includes recognition and delineation of emotions. Once a child can articulate an emotion, the articulation already has a somewhat regulatory effect. Children may be able to use various techniques to self-regulate as they develop and mature. Children begin learning at a young age to control certain negative emotions when in the presence of adults, but not to control them as much around peers. By about age 4, children begin to learn how to alter how they express emotions to suit what they feel others expect them to express. The ability to do so is what psychologists call emotional display rules.

By about age 7 to 11 years, children are better able to regulate their emotions and to use a variety of self-regulation skills. They have likely developed expectations concerning the outcome that expressing a particular emotion to others might produce and have developed a menu of behavioral skills to control how they express their emotions. By adolescence, they adapt these skills to specific social relationships. For example, older children may express negative emotions more often to their mothers than to their fathers because they assume their fathers will react negatively to displays of emotion. Adolescents also have heightened sensitivity to how others evaluate them. Their self-consciousness and the culture-specific nature of guidelines concerning the appropriateness of emotional expression make this a particularly difficult time to learn when and how to express or regulate many emotions.

Several emotional development models and perspectives present views on emotional regulation. The functionalist perspective emphasizes that emotions serve a function of focusing action to achieve personal goals. Self-regulation is critical to emotional development because it marks a progressive ability to regulate emotions according to demands of the physical and social worlds. Actions match the demands of the situation and each family of emotions provides a range of behavior-regulatory, social-regulatory, and internal-regulatory functions for an individual.

The perspective of emotions as discrete states is based on understanding emotions as patterns of configurations in the brain, as demonstrated in cognitive neuro-scientific studies. Neurochemical processes result in subjective feeling states, with accompanying automatic changes in bodily function and behavior. These give rise to basic emotions. Specific sections of the brain are associated with particular emotions. For example, the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative affect and withdrawal. Theorists propose a maturational timetable for emergence of these basic emotions, beginning in infancy. Emotional development and regulation are dependent on cognition for the most part; cognitive development leads to new abilities to understand and self-regulate basic emotions.

Process viewpoints, also known as systems perspectives, do not disclaim the functional utility of emotions or their grounding in discrete feeling states. But the perspectives focus on how emotions emerge from one's tendency to self-organize various interacting components. These components include felt experiences, cognitive appraisals, motivations, functions, and control elements. This perspective leaves emotional regulation dynamic and open to transformation, as emotions are complex and specific to situations. They also help form the basis of one's self and personality. Like functional and discrete state perspectives, systems theories maintain that emotions can serve adaptive functions for a child, especially in social situations.


The interplay of emotional development, social development, and academic performance is complex. C. Cybele Raver's 2002 research has established a strong link between social/emotional development and behavior and school success, particularly in the first few years of schooling. If a child's academic tasks are interrupted by problems with peers, following directions, or controlling negative emotions, the child will have trouble learning to read or staying on task in other educational activities. Research also has linked antisocial behavior with decreased academic performance.

Emotional understanding can positively relate to adaptive social behavior, yet it can negatively relate to internalizing behavior. This may lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Knowledge of emotion can affect verbal ability, and in turn, academic competence. Verbal and prosocial skills are critical to academic achievement. For example, a child must be able to communicate with his or her teacher, which includes reading emotional cues. Children who do not learn to regulate emotions and who display disruptive behavior in school spend less time on tasks and receive less instruction and less positive feedback.


Taking a preventive approach to challenging behaviors by designing programs that engage students and teach them new social skills may ward off some challenging behaviors. Others may continue in spite of quality programming. Although the emotional-related behaviors may be obvious, it is important to gather some data to assess the child's emotional development or atypical development and to aid in developing a plan to improve the behavior.

Assessment begins with deciding which behavior is the most challenging and needs immediate intervention. Considerations include whether or not the behavior is harmful to the child or others, how the behavior might interfere with learning or participation in learning activities, and if the behavior will hinder development of positive social relationships. Detailed explanations of behaviors are most helpful at this stage. The second step is to conduct a functional assessment. This involves conducting interviews with parents and others to determine what precipitates the behavior and what the consequences of the behavior are. An ABC chart of columns can help with observation.

Next is the step of developing hypothesis statements based on behavioral patterns that emerge from the functional assessment information. A support plan follows, with proposed changes to the antecedent events that lead to the behaviors and inappropriate emotional expressions. Finally, professionals can implement, evaluate, and modify the plan. Baseline rates of challenging behaviors and appropriate replacement skills should be noted and later compared.


Dr. Carolyn Saarni, professor of counseling at Sonoma State University (California) has discussed two rules of emotional display, prosocial and self-protective. With prosocial rules, a child alters his or her displays of emotion to protect another's feelings. In self-protective display, the child masks emotions to avoid embarrassment or to protect himself or herself from potentially negative consequences. Research on which of these self-regulation strategies emerges first is mixed. Throughout a child's life, however, the risks of displaying emotion persist, probably most blatantly in adolescence, when peer pressure works on emotional regulation. Gender also plays a role in the types of emotions children, and adolescents, in particular, feel comfortable displaying. Boys are less likely than girls to express fear in times of stress, for example, for fear of belittlement. For the most part, self-protection and prosocial rules aid in positive emotional development.


A framework that promotes positive relationships in the classroom helps prevent and address challenging behaviors. The pyramid model developed by Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph, and Strain in 2003 begins with positive, supportive relationships from parents, teachers, and other professionals. Many professionals agree that students with an emotional disturbance need a structured leaning environment and inclusive schooling. However, data from the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (SEELS) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), reported in 2006, showed that elementary and middle school students with emotional disturbances tended to spend more time in special education classes than other students with disabilities. The study also showed that 75% of students with emotional disturbances were receiving extra time to complete academic tests. A low percentage were receiving mental health services.

The issue of violence has taken an elevated importance in schools. Concern has been expressed that discipline provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), such as the “stay-put” rule and cumulative 10-school-day limit on suspensions would promote school violence by unfairly protecting students with disabilities who exhibit disruptive or violent behaviors. In 2001, the General Accounting Office reported that students with and without disabilities generally were disciplined in the same manner and that IDEA played a limited role in affecting schools' ability to properly discipline students.


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