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Exploring Cognitive and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers

Exploring Cognitive and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers
Jean Barbre, EdD
October 12, 2021

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Exploring Cognitive and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers, presented by Jean Barbre, EdD.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the key cognitive competencies for infants and toddlers.
  • Identify the key social-emotional competencies for infants and toddlers.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate play-based curricular activities to support cognitive and social-emotional development.

Welcome, Introduction, and Agenda

I believe that it's important for us to recognize what our beliefs are as early childhood educators. I believe that our belief system frames the work that we do and influences how we interact with children and families. As I welcome you, I want to briefly go over a few of these that are instrumental in how I look at children and families and how I look at social-emotional relationships and cognitive development.

  • I believe all children deserve to be cared for in both a physically and emotionally safe and secure environment.
  • I believe all children deserve to be cared for in a nurturing, stable, and predictable early learning environment.
  • I believe that responsive caregivers play an important role in setting the foundation for children’s overall development.
  • I believe that relationships are central to children’s learning.
  • I believe that we learn about others from those who first cared for us.
  • I believe that learning is integrated across the learning domains.
  • I believe that cognitive skills develop over time as children learn, explore, and build relationships.
  • I believe that social-emotional skills are the foundation of mental health and well-being.

To start with, I believe that every child deserves to be cared for in a physically and emotionally safe and secure environment. I believe they deserve to be cared for in a nurturing, stable, and predictable environment where caregivers are responsive to their needs and nurturing of their development. I feel that a caregiver's role is extremely important in children's overall development and that relationships are central. You'll hear me talk a lot about relationships and attachments as I talk about social-emotional development as well cognitive development. Relationships children have with their parents and with caregivers, and as they develop with their peers, sets the stage for a lifelong opportunity to learn and grow productively. Learning is integrated across the curriculum and I believe that cognitive skills are learned over time as the brain develops and matures. Children's skills and abilities become more sophisticated. Social-emotional skills are the foundation for mental health and wellbeing. 

Here is our agenda for this course. 

  • Explore how children’s brains develop and how nurturing relationships and developmentally appropriate activities promote well-being in young children.
  • Discuss developmentally appropriate practices for infants and toddlers.
  • Explore the importance of young children forming secure attachments with caring adults.
  • Define cognitive competencies for infants and toddlers.
  • Define social-emotional competencies for infants and toddlers.
  • Examine strategies on how to foster cognitive and social-emotional development in young children.
  • Explore curricular activities, materials, and resources to support cognitive and social-emotional development in an early learning environment.

We're going to spend some time looking at brain development. In order to look at social-emotional development and cognitive development, we have to spend a little time looking at the brain and how curricular activities will weave into brain development. We will look at the right and left sides of the brain, developmentally appropriate practices, secure attachments and their role in children's development, competencies, and how to encourage that through curricular activities.

Our Amazing Brain

As we talk about the brain, I'd like for you to look at your hands and face your palms towards each other, then place your fingers in between your palms. Now, pull your thumbs together. This is about the size of a human brain. A human brain weighs about 3 1/2 pounds. It's not very large or heavy, but it's a very powerful organ in our body. 

Thinking about your hands representing your brain, where your thumbs are is your frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is very important because it helps us with our complex thinking skills and problem-solving skills, which we would call executive functioning. It helps us make emotional judgments and expressions. It also helps us with language, memory, and judgment. Sometimes when we can't remember things such as, "Where did I leave my car keys? Where did I put that book?" we might tap our frontal cortex, where our forehead is, thinking we're going to activate a memory. You may see people holding their foreheads and shaking their heads saying, "What was I thinking? Where did I put that?" It's kind of our unconscious way of tapping into that frontal cortex.

If you wiggle your fingers, that's your limbic system. The limbic system regulates our emotions and holds memories. The memories that are held in the limbic system are those that are tied to emotion or senses. If I was to ask you, "Think about a time when you felt really excited or really happy," those memories are held in the limbic system.

The back of your hand where your wrists come together is the brain stem. The brain stem is the first part of the body that develops when the egg and the sperm come together. Right at conception, the first week or so, the brain stem is beginning to develop. That's the part of our body that deals with breathing, swallowing, sleeping, and eating. It's a very high-functioning part and a very important part of the brain. Lots of things are happening in the brain. As a child goes from birth to age three, that brain is rapidly firing and building new synaptic connections.

When we think about curriculum, we want to think about how we can stimulate curriculum on both the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. Our right hemisphere is our intuition, emotional thinking, and nonverbal communication, or being able to read facial cues which are nonverbal. It also includes creativity, writing, and perceptions. Our left hemisphere is our logic, planning, rational thinking, and sequencing. Following step-by-step directions happens on the left side of the brain. As caregivers, how do we toggle back and forth from different activities that are stimulating both sides of the brain and all parts of the brain? Remember, all parts of the brain are beginning to develop and create more neural pathways.

A right hemisphere activity might be a sensory table where a child is playing and experiencing a new sensory activity. They might be playing with items or manipulating sensory materials. For the left hemisphere, you might have things such as puzzles or sensory blocks that have different sensory materials or edges on them. It might be something where you ask a child, "Let's put on your shoes, let's count them, one, two." Bring in those more logical, systematic kinds of thinking and balancing it. When you look at the curriculum, you want to balance the back and forth between different activities that stimulate different parts of the brain.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

As you know, developmentally appropriate practice is really important. We know the brain and the child are both rapidly changing. The child goes from a baby that's fully dependent on adults for care, feeding, and diapering to a three-year-old who is now feeding themself, walking, and starting to talk. One of the big pieces to remember is that during this period, their brains are developing in a way that needs the presence of stimuli. It needs activities that stimulate, or fire, those neurons that are developing in the brain. Young brains are profoundly affected by the presence or absence of experiences. Unfortunately, now and then I'll go into a center to do an observation or I'll look at a student's observation, and I'll see caregivers sitting quietly in a classroom, but they're not engaged with the children. They're sitting there. They may be talking now and then to a child or talking to another colleague, but they're not actively engaging with a young child.

Introduce new materials and play experiences to children to stimulate their brains so it is constantly getting new information. The brain loves novelty, and so for a young child, the world is novel and everything is new. It's really important that we continue to change up materials in a classroom. Sometimes we see the same play materials at the beginning of the school year towards the end like May or June. We want to begin to take things away and add new things and rotate through as we go along. Again, it's important that we balance the curriculum on both sides of the hemisphere. Activities such as reading, singing, talking, and hands-on activities in a nurturing environment have the potential to strengthen the developing brain. 

Play and Exploration

Play is central to children's learning as well because children are naturally curious and love to explore and discover their world. Play and exploration are the jobs of young children. Everyday play stimulates cognitive and social-emotional development. Provide indoor and outdoor opportunities for play throughout the day. I'm a strong proponent of children being outdoors because nature provides such a beautiful way of learning, and it's a slower pace. I think that the more opportunities you can have for children to be outdoors and plan activities for them is best. Listen and observe children and actively engage in their play and exploration. I talked about teachers sitting there and being present, but not fully engaged. I really encourage you to be involved in their play and engaged in children's exploration.


Another foundational piece for cognitive and social-emotional development is attachment. We used to call it bonding, but now we know it's really about attachment. One of the tasks of childhood is building secure attachments. Forming secure attachments to primary caregivers is critical during the first three years of life and sets the foundation for the development of mental health and wellbeing. Secure attachments help children build a sense of trust that the world is a safe, trusting place which allows them the freedom and the confidence to go out and explore, discover, and learn new things. Think about when you plan activities. What are some ways that you can help children feel secure in your early learning environment? How can you help promote that attachment between parent and child or whoever their other primary caregiver is?

There is a wonderful video called the Circle of Security that shows you how children will go out for exploration, come back and sit next to you or on your lap, then go off to explore again. It's as if they need to touch base with you to give them the security to go back and explore.

Formation of Trust

If you remember Erik Erikson's eight stages, trust versus mistrust was the foundational piece in that paradigm. Secure attachments and secure relationships provide the foundation for all learning, especially cognitive and social-emotional development. Secure attachments are important when we look at building relationships because in trusting relationships, children feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe to explore their world, which helps with cognitive development. Responsive caregivers consistently meet the physical and emotional needs of the child which supports feelings of attachment and trust. This attachment and trust set the trajectory for future cognitive and social-emotional development.

Characteristics of Secure Attachment in Infants and Toddlers

How do you form trust and what do these secure relationships look like? Here are some examples. A baby would show delight by smiling, cooing, and wiggling their arms and legs when they see a parent or familiar adult. We see that they get excited. When you hold them or feed them, they'll relax and respond with ease, and don't tense up. This lets you know there that the child has feelings of safety and comfort from their caregivers. They'll gaze into your eyes or sit and cuddle with you. They'll coo with you and make efforts to communicate through sounds and gestures. They smile, giggle, and show joyful enthusiasm. They'll engage in reciprocal play with adults. They might fiddle with or touch your face, or might touch your mouth as you're singing or talking to them. This is the beginning of reciprocity, the serve and return that happens when children feel attached and secure with adults around them.

In older infants and certainly toddlers, they'll begin to observe and show concern for other infants and toddlers in distress through facial expressions and crying. It's not unusual that when one baby cries, you'll hear another baby, and all of a sudden you've got three or four babies crying. This is because they're sensing concern and showing really early stages of empathy. You may see a toddler who's crying and another one looking and observing. They're beginning to understand themselves as different and separate from other children, which is part of both cognitive and social-emotional development. Secure children begin to play independently. They're observing that solitary play moving to parallel play. They're observing the children nearby. But they also can be soothed and comforted by familiar adults when they're upset. They explore and show curiosity about new things. They might have some frustrations now and then, but they can be soothed, calmed, and comforted. They're happy to say hello and goodbye and are beginning to be more social.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development begins at birth as children begin to explore and learn about the world. Children explore the world because they're naturally curious and want to construct their own meaning from their exploration. They learn through hands-on play, exploration, discovery, trial and error, and repetition. We see that a lot. They will play with a toy for a long time, trying to make sense of it and learning the properties of a toy. But cognitive development is not a simple step-by-step process. It develops as a process of underlying skills including maturation. Each child is going to go through the cognitive stages of development uniquely, although there are general pieces that are similar for all children. 

As the brain becomes more sophisticated, it's able to not only have receptive language but expressive language as well. Part of that maturation is when babies begin to roll over, sit up, crawl, and scoot, and begin walking and then running. All those are part of physical development which is also part of the maturation that's going on in the brain. As their cognitive skills increase, children's understanding of the properties of objects increases. In addition, motor and sensory abilities begin to form early on in life.


Take a moment to make a list of the cognitive skills you think young children need to develop. At what age do you first see those skills develop in a child? At what age do you expect children to have mastered these skills? 

Cognitive and social-emotional development are competencies that responsive caregivers support. These are competencies for cognitive development.

  • Object permanence
  • Mental representations
  • Cause and effect
  • Memory
  • Imitation
  • Spatial awareness
  • Mathematical awareness
  • Connecting experiences together
  • Following simple instructions

The competencies we look for and work on for birth to age three are object permanence, mental representations, cause and effect, memory, and imitation, which we begin to see right at birth. Other competencies include spatial awareness, mathematical awareness, connecting experiences together, and following simple instructions. Some people are surprised to hear about mathematical awareness because it seems like an advanced skill.  I'll talk about that in a moment. Following simple directions is something more advanced that we would see from our twos and our threes.

Object Permanence

Object permanence is when infants start to understand that people and objects exist independently of them. They have grasped the cognitive concept that because something or someone is out of sight it doesn't mean that they don't exist. This is a maturation skill that naturally happens, but you can help by doing certain activities with them. Games like peekaboo or taking a familiar object and covering it with a small cloth or a towel then pulling it away helps children begin to see that an object is still there. You'll know when children are beginning to master that because they'll begin to pull that fabric or move, giggle, and laugh because they're waiting in anticipation for you to pull the toy out from underneath or see you behind your hands. 

Mental Representation

Mental representation is the ability for children to begin to collect mental pictures or schema, and symbols to represent objects. This happens after children have mastered object permanence. Mental representation schemas help children develop their thinking, reasoning, problem-solving skills, and follow simple directions. These are those left-brain kinds of skills that we want. When children can hold on to ideas and representations in their head, they can begin to build new objects, expand exploration, join in pretend play, learn to sort, and draw.

Here's an example of what mental representation is. If I asked you to think about a dog, you instantly pulled from your images a mental picture of a dog. Now picture that dog as a white dog with curly hair. Now let's call that a black dog with long, shaggy hair, with a long, long tail and two soft, fuzzy little ears. Hopefully, you've been able to shift those mental images that you have because you have a lot of schema around dogs. It's the same for cats to dogs. Think about what it looks like to have that dog wag his tail, what a dog's bark sounds like, and is that different than what a cat's meow sounds like? There you have images that are tied to your senses because you've heard a dog bark and you've heard a cat meow. Almost everybody has. Then think about what it might feel like to touch the tip of the dog's nose. It's usually wet, or their tongue's kind of wet if it licks the side of your face.

Those are all mental representations, and they're grouped around an idea or a schema. The more opportunities we provide to expand children's schemas and mental representation, the richer their thinking is and the more language they have later as they learn the words to explain or describe that. Mental representation is a very important piece of curricular planning where you provide those novel new ideas, give words and explanation, or provide hands-on, centric experiences to draw from.

Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness is another competency. It is the ability to understand the position of objects in relation to other objects. Young children learn early about how people and objects move in space. As they begin to roll, crawl, and walk, they begin to learn their own spatial awareness and how their bodies move in space. As they throw and drop things, often food from a high chair, they are beginning to understand some spatial awareness. This is an important part too as they learn to separate themselves from others.

Mathematical Awareness

Mathematical awareness begins as children learn about the properties of objects and can identify, group, and categorize objects. Learning to categorize objects by attributes is mastered over time along with concepts such as more, less, big, little, or some. These are called subsets and concepts that the child’s cognitive skills are developing. They're beginning to learn about amounts even though they don't have the words for it. You might give them directions and say, "Can you bring me the red truck?" A toddler certainly would be able to follow those simple directions. Mathematical awareness ties into mental representation as children are developing these skills.

Social-Emotional Development

Social-emotional development is also a competency that we want children to develop. It sets the stage and is essential to young children's sense of mental health and wellbeing. These competencies are developed out of trusting, nurturing, and responsive relationships, the attachments that we have early on. We know that social interactions and emotional development are closely related and that they are part of building this competency. Infant-toddler competencies are foundational to preschool and older children’s social-emotional competencies. Cognitive and social-emotional skills develop hand-in-hand as children learn who they are in the world.


Now, take a moment and make a list of the social-emotional competencies or skills young children need to develop. When do you first see these skills develop in young children? At what age do you expect to see them mastered? 

Here are the infant-toddler social-emotional competencies.

  • Healthy sense of self
  • Personal identity
  • Positive relationships with adults and peers
  • Self-regulation
  • Empathy
  • Ability to care for others
  • Ability to share

A healthy sense of self is very important, especially if we're looking at resiliency and a child's ability to figure out who they are in the world and their place in the world. Personal identity, as well as positive relationships with adults and peers, is part of that attachment. Self-regulation is seen again and again in terms of social-emotional development. Self-regulation is probably the most requested lecture that I'm asked to do. Empathy is a really important competency that we want children to begin to develop. We do see empathy in very young children along with the ability to care for others and the ability to share. Many people expect children to have mastered sharing and self-regulation. However, I think you would agree that there are lots of adults who have trouble with self-regulation and lots of adults don't share very well. It's important to remember that these are things people work on over the span of their life.

Healthy Sense of Self

Secure attachment is essential to a healthy sense of self. Children who connect, sympathize, and show concern for each other demonstrate a healthy sense of self. Thinking back to Erikson, after trust versus mistrust is autonomy versus doubt. Children with a healthy sense of self also demonstrate autonomy, flexibility, confidence, curiosity, and resourcefulness. They are able to take some risks and use their imagination because they have a good sense of self.

Personal Identify

Children are trying to answer the questions, "Who am I in the world? Who am I as a person? How do I differ from other people? How am I separate as a unique individual that's loved and valued as a child?" They are learning to differentiate themselves from others by recognizing and exploring themselves. Provide a mirror so children can look at themselves. Also, post pictures of their faces and the faces of family members in your classroom to help children see who they are and how unique they are as individuals. They're learning what they like and they don't like, especially two-year-olds. They're also learning about gender, what it means to be a boy or a girl, and what cultural messages are being sent to them as well. All of this is part of their personal identity.

Activities to Promote Social-Emotional Development

Conversations with parents will help you plan activities to promote social-emotional development. Have mirrors around and point out facial features with children. Have child and family photos as well as classroom photos available. Build vocabulary around social-emotional topics and include books about families. At the end of the course is a list of recommended books. Include cultural representations for children and families. Think about art where children do handprints or footprints to help build these competencies. Play games like peekaboo and pat-a-cake. Encourage children to help. Following simple directions and helping children learn to help put away toys and clean up is part of that sense of being that we want children to have.

When we're looking at the competencies, we know that infants and toddlers are developing their skills into preschool, school age, and to adults. Remember that children master these skills at different stages. Below is a comparison of infant-toddler and preschool social-emotional competencies.

Infant-Toddler CompetenciesPreschool Competencies
Healthy sense of selfSelf-awareness
Personal identitySelf-regulation
Positive relationships with adults and peersSocial and emotional understanding
Self-regulationEmpathy and caring
EmpathyInitiative in learning
Ability to care for othersInteractions with adults
Ability to shareInteractions with peers
 Group participation
 Cooperation and responsibility


You can see that the infant-toddler competencies set the foundation for more expansion of these social-emotional skills in preschool. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and social and emotional understanding are expanded. Preschoolers have a better grasp of expressing their emotions and their needs. Empathy and caring, initiative in learning, interactions with peers and adults, group participation, cooperation, responsibility, and friendships are growing. Working on the infant-toddler competencies really sets children up for success in preschool and on.

If you are interested in how children develop more empathic skills or what that looks like, Dr. Ross Thompson from the University of California, Davis has done research for 20 odd years on empathy in infant-toddler care. He has videos of children 18 months to three truly showing empathy and care. I've actually seen that in toddler classrooms myself. I've seen a toddler go hug a child that's been hurt or is upset or put an arm around a child as a caring, empathic gesture. We used to not think that empathy was shown at such a young age, but we definitely have research to support that now.

Now let's look at the competencies for both cognitive and social-emotional. You can see there's a lot of overlap as one builds on the other. That's the integrative nature in which children learn. 

Cognitive CompetenciesSocial-Emotional Competencies
Object permanenceHealthy sense of self
Mental representationsPersonal identity
Cause and effectPositive relationships with adults and peers
Spatial awarenessAbility to care for others
Mathematical awarenessAbility to share
Connecting experiences together 
Following simple instructions 

Promoting Cognitive and Social-Emotional Skills


Take a moment to make a list of your classroom routines. How do these routines support the child's cognitive and social-emotional development? Think about how your routines provide a stable, nurturing environment and predictability. Routines really are important because we are creatures of habit. When you remember back in being in school, you probably always sat in the same seat or close to the same seat. Somehow, that sort of that predictability and those routines help the brain stay in a resting state.

Think about rolling hills, where you go up a slope and then go slowly back down, then go back up and slowly go down. We want the brain to stay in that stable smooth ups and downs. That allows the children to have some learning and then let the brain relax into a state of what we would call homeostasis of relaxation. Then it goes up with some new novel learning, and then it goes down. This allows the brain to become hardwired into what we call smooth patterns. Children rely on routines. They allow the brain to stay in that calm state. Think about if you're in a situation where you're meeting someone new and you are kind of anxious or uncertain. Your anxiety goes up and the brain goes up a higher, steeper peak, and then maybe you see someone you know and it comes down. We want the brain to stay in this calm state and not do these really high peaks of chaos or toxicity.

Routines are enjoyable and provide security to children. Young children assume routines and they provide structure and ease in the transition between home and group care. Routines for infants should consistently occur at arrival, eating, diapering, napping, hand washing, teeth brushing, outdoor time, and departure. Routines for toddlers should occur at arrival, circle time or storytime, free choice time, cleanup, snack or mealtime, outdoor time, diapering or toileting, napping, hand washing, teeth brushing, and departure. Routines diminish feelings of anxiety and help children feel calm and relaxed which is optimal for children's social-emotional and cognitive development.

Building Resiliency

Building resiliency is part of a secondary gain from social-emotional skills. Resiliency is the ability to adapt to and survive difficult circumstances. It's a blend of many social-emotional skills. Resiliency develops during a child's lifetime as they learn to adapt to changes and challenges in their life. Remember, the routines you have in place help the child get back to that calm state. Resiliency is an important social-emotional skill for children to develop. The more securely attached a child is, the more apt they are going to be resilient to changes. Predictability, stable environments, and consistent caregiving all help children form that resiliency.

Secure attachment and feelings of trust established in infancy and toddlerhood help to foster resiliency throughout life. Signs of resiliency include autonomy, the skill that we've talked about, self-esteem, confidence, flexibility, increased ability to communicate their needs, resourcefulness, imagination, caring, and empathy. When we build these social-emotional skills in children we are building resilient children who don't crumble and are able to adapt and modify during change. They've got confidence. That's what we're really looking at because those are the kind of children who develop good preschool skills and young adult skills that last a lifetime.

Social Rules

Social rules are an important part of promoting cognitive and social-emotional skills. Some social rules are universally accepted such as please and thank you. Others are seen as common courtesies or politeness such as sharing, not harming other children's work, and not hitting or biting. What are your classroom rules, sometimes called expectations? The class expectations should be limited for our toddlers to no more than three, and they should be positive and developmentally appropriate. That's important to remember. Some expectations or rules can be used in a two-year-old classroom because children have acquired receptive language, but infants are too young for these. I would keep them simple and use pictures to support children. Real pictures are more valuable to children's learning than cartoon or line drawings of the gesture or expectation.

Thinking forward to when children get older, preschool expectations that are positive and developmentally appropriate include be kind to others, keep your hands and feet to yourself, and ask the teacher for help. As their language develops they are able to ask teachers for help which helps increase their sense of self and self-identity. This helps them become more attuned to who they are as individuals.

Curricular Ideas for Caregivers

Curricular ideas for caregivers include promoting language through reading, singing, and talking. This helps children develop their social-emotional vocabulary, mental representation, spatial awareness, and mathematical awareness. Promote concept building through intentional planning and interactions. For concept building, you might have a table or area of your classroom focusing on one thing.  For example, you might have children look at containers or boxes that have tops on them. The concept here is that there's a bottom and a top. The next week you might change it so there are all really small objects and the next week have big objects.  Then children can learn big and little. The next week you might combine big and small objects together. I have seen classrooms that have an area that has a small, plastic zebra and a big zebra as well as a little baby cow and a bigger momma cow. All of these help to promote the concept of big and little.

Another concept table that you might have is of things that are rough. Find and collect things that have a rough, tactile surface. Then the next week, you might have some things that are shiny. Another example is things that fit inside another box or things that stack. These activities help children really conceptualize different ideas. You're there following up with vocabulary and scaffolding their learning. Then they'll take these things back into their own play, but you're beginning to help them develop those big concepts. You can support them by tieing the concepts to books and singing and adding language to help them with the hands-on play experiences. When planning ideas for the classroom, follow children's natural curiosity and interests. Engage in the play experience with children.

Integrate social-emotional skills as you read, sing, and talk to children throughout the day. Let children sit in your lap while reading, singing, or talking. This provides warmth and comfort that helps stimulate the brain as well.

Suggested Classroom Books

Here are some books that I recommend to read to infants and toddlers.

  • ABC I Like Me! by Nancy Carlson
  • Baby Faces by Margaret Miller
  • Baby Playtime by DK Publishing
  • Boom Boom, Beep Beep, Roar! My Sounds Book by David Diehl
  • Catch the Ball! By Eric Carle
  • The Cleanup Surprise by Christine Loomis
  • Counting in the Garden by Kim Parker
  • Eyes, Nose, Fingers, and Toes: A First Book All About You by Judy Hindley
  • Friends at School by Rochelle Bunnett
  • On Monday When It Rained by Cherryl Kachenmeister
  • Playtime Peekaboo! by DK Publishing
  • Sharing Time by Elizabeth Verdick
  • What’s in the Box? By Richard Powell

ABC I Like Me! and Baby Faces are great for understanding the sense of self and identity. Counting in the Garden helps the left brain and mathematical awareness. One of my favorite books is On Monday When It Rained. If you haven't seen that book, take a peek at it if you can. Each picture shows a boy with a different kind of expression on his face. First, he drinks some milk and burps, and he's embarrassed so the picture shows him looking embarrassed. Then something happens and he laughs and it shows him smiling. There's another page where he's disappointed and it shows disappointment. These are the kind of books that really help children begin to understand the depth of the wording, but also how to begin to read those nonverbal cues and the facial expressions of others. Reading those nonverbal cues is how we begin to learn about showing empathy and concern.


As we come to the end, think about really observing and looking for those developing skills. I asked you to look at cognitive and social-emotional competencies. You may have known all of the ones I listed or you may have others that you see or feel are important, and that's fine. Look at those competencies and be intentional in your planning to help promote those cognitive as well as social-emotional competencies. Look back at my list and the list that you made and think about what age you begin to see those and recognize if they are age-appropriate. Sometimes we ask children to demonstrate self-regulation or to use their words when they're frustrated. They often don't have the depth of knowledge or maturity to do that, yet we make that expectation of young children. Think about it and ask yourself, "Is this developmentally appropriate?"

Recognize, honor, and respect their efforts to explore and learn about the world and their place in it. Let children have opportunities to explore, make messes, and investigate. Don't always rescue them if they get caught in their frustration. Instead, be there alongside them and encourage them, asking if they want help. Help to scaffold the development of those skills and let children know you're there, present, available to them, and that you believe in them. We learn through trial and error as well as cause and effect. That's how we strengthen that resolve of our own to build our confidence.

Remember your relationship and the relationships you support between the child and their parents is key to the child's development and wellbeing. To connect with parents, ask them how they think their child's doing and what could you do to support that. If parents have concerns, you might target some of your activities to scaffold more opportunities for the child to develop some of those skills. If you see children are having trouble interacting with peers, design some activities that allow them to partner or buddy up with another child, even if it's just for a walk and two children are holding each other's hands. Set those structures up for children's success.

Understand that relationships are central to children's learning, whether it's your relationship with them or the child's relationship with their primary caregiver, parent, grandparent, or someone else. Help them develop those skills that they'll need in preschool including beginning to develop friendships. Friendship-building skills are very important and we know lots of children struggle with having friends and knowing what being a friend is. In the first three years, we have opportunities for children to really develop those skills.  


Barbre, J. (2012). Activities for responsive caregiving: Infants, toddlers, and twos. St. Paul, Minnesota: Redleaf Press.
Barbre, J. (2012). Foundations of responsive caregiving: Infants, toddlers, and twos. St. Paul, Minnesota: Redleaf Press.
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundation for Early Learning,
Nelsen, J., Erwin, C., & Duffy, R.A. (2007). Positive discipline: The first three years: From infant to toddler – Laying the foundation for raising a capable, confident child. New York City: Harmony.
Summers, S.J., Chazan-Cohen, R., Fitzgerald, J. (2011). Understanding early childhood mental health: A practical guide for professionals. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.


Barbre, J. (2020). Exploring cognitive and social-emotional development of infants and toddlers. - Early Childhood Education, Article 23747. Available at


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jean barbre

Jean Barbre, EdD

Jean Barbre, EdD has worked in the field of early child care and education for over 30 years, where she has managed preschool programs, coached administrators, and trained early child care providers. Jean has taught early childhood courses at both the community college and California State University. She trains and consults on many topics on children birth to age six and has presented at NAEYC, California Association for the Education of Young Children, Orange County STEM Conference, internationally at Shanghai Normal University, Asian Pacific Educational Research Association in Singapore, and has been spotlighted on local television. She holds a Doctorate degree from Pepperdine University in Educational Leadership, an MS degree in Counseling, and an MA degree in Consumer and Family Studies. She is an author of three books published by Redleaf Press: Foundations of Responsive Caregiving Infants, Toddlers, and Twos; Activities for Responsive Caregiving Infants, Toddlers, and Two; and Baby Steps to STEM Infants, Toddlers and Twos.

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