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Social-Emotional Development Theories and the Early Childhood Classroom

Social-Emotional Development Theories and the Early Childhood Classroom
Miriam Eckstein-Koas, MS, SpEd
March 4, 2021

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Social-Emotional Development Theories and the Early Childhood Classroom, presented by Miriam Eckstein-Koas.


As we begin, please grab paper and a pen or pencil. Sometimes I will ask you to stop for a moment to jot down your thoughts.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the first three stages of Erik Erikson’s theory of development.
  • Identify and describe Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Describe examples of how these theories can be applied in the early childhood classroom.

Learning and Development

As people who work with children, we often come across the terms, development and learning. Sometimes they are even used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two. Since we are going to be talking about theories of development, I wanted to open with a discussion about the differences between learning and development.


What is learning? Take a minute now and think about if you have learned something new lately. Jot down any skills that you have learned in adulthood. Also, jot down how you learned the skill and who you learned it from, and anything else you might want to add to that.

I recently learned to play a few chords on the guitar. A few years ago, I learned how to knit. The last thing that I made was a scarf and I learned how to make pom poms. Most likely someone taught you something new. It could have been a teacher, a friend, or even YouTube. My friend has a daughter who is an amazing juggler. She can juggle five balls at once. She learned it all from watching YouTube videos. I learned guitar through an online program and my son helped me. I learned to knit from a woman in my neighborhood. We tend to think of learning as being something that we learned from a teacher, but we also can learn things just through experience.

Your grandmother may have a special dish she makes or made, but she likely never sat down with you and gave you instructions on how to make it. But by being in the kitchen with her and watching her, you learned how to do it. Since I have a fire pit, I learned how to build a fire properly. I watched someone I know who really knows how to do it, and just through watching and that experience, I picked up on how to do it.

One definition of learning is a change in skill or knowledge that is the result of instruction or experience. Learning from a teacher formally is the instruction example. The experience could be just learning by watching someone or experiencing something.


One definition of development is an age-related change that results from an interaction between biological maturation and physical social experience. That is quite a mouthful so let’s break it down a little bit. Development is age-related. We tend to think of development more in terms of children. It occurs as children grow and adapt in response to different experiences. Development mainly occurs in the same sequence for babies and young children. Usually, we sit before we crawl and we crawl before we walk. Of course, there are exceptions, everybody knows someone who says, "My mom said I walked, I never crawled." Usually, there is a progression.

Babies will make sounds before they can make words, for example. The rate of development, of course, is different from person to person and every baby and child develops in a different way at a different time. There are children who walk at nine months and others who walk at 19 months, but they did all develop the ability to walk. Note that this definition talks about maturation and physical/social experience. The definition of learning had an “or”, but the definition of development has an “and.” We need maturation and physical and social experiences.

In addition to biology, we also need exposure and experience for development to occur. For example, regarding language, babies all around the world at around the same time might be saying ba-ba-ba-ba and making similar sounds. But for speech to develop, they also need the experience of social interactions with others to start talking. There is a close connection between development and learning, especially in the early years of life.

Sometimes development leads to learning. For example, a baby who develops the ability to grasp something and put it in her mouth then can learn a lot about the. Some objects are soft, some are hard, some taste good, and some taste yucky. That is learning, but none of that could happen without the actual development of being able to take the object with their hand and bring it to their mouths.

Domains of Development

There are four different domains of development. One is physical development, which includes motor skills and biological growth. Cognitive refers to thinking, intelligence, and language abilities. Social refers to interpersonal relationships and making friends. Emotional is the ability to appropriately express and regulate feelings. These domains will often overlap. There are theories about each of these domains of development. In this course, we will discuss theories of social development and how the theories of Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow can be applied in our work with young children.

Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994)

Erik Erikson was born in 1902 and died in 1994. He was a German-American psychologist who introduced an eight-stage theory of development, sometimes referred to as the stages of man. He believed that every person goes through each of these stages going from birth through death. At every stage, a person confronts some sort of challenge or crisis to be resolved. Erikson believed that if this crisis is not resolved successfully, there would be some problems that would develop later related to that crisis. He does not believe that you do not move on or that you get stuck at a stage. Everybody will progress through all of these stages. Some may not resolve the crisis so well, and those things will crop up later in life.

You may know people with trust issues, feelings of inferiority, or perhaps they struggle with a lot of self-doubts, guilt, and/or shame. Erikson would trace these back to some unsuccessful resolution of one of these stages. He did believe that you can always go back and try to resolve issues. But it is much easier and simpler to progress, hopefully positively, through these stages.

What does this mean for us as teachers? Why do we need to know this? I feel we need to know this in order to understand what the primary challenge is that the children we are working with are dealing with, so we can better work with the child. Although there are eight stages, we will be discussing just the first three, which cover the early childhood years.

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust (0 – 18 months)

The first stage begins at birth and continues to about a year and a half, or 18 months. During this time, the infant is uncertain about the world in which they live. They are looking to their primary caregiver for stability and consistency of care. The conflict that Erikson says occurs at this stage is trust versus mistrust. All people at different times deal with trust and mistrust, but to Erikson, this is the time when it is most prominent. The task during this stage is accomplished when babies develop a healthy sense of trust in other people, in themselves, and in general, the world around them. As you know, babies depend on others completely for nurturing, food, love, and warmth. We want children to develop the feeling that they can rely on the consistency and security of the world around them.

According to Erikson, if care is inconsistent and unreliable, then trust will fail at this stage. For example, if a caregiver rejects a baby, fails to meet their needs consistently, or is very emotionally detached from the infant, that infant is going to conclude that they cannot rely on adults. There will be a mistrust, which he believes can lead in general to the development of fear, anxiety, suspicion, and the belief that the world is unpredictable and we have no influence on the world around us. As an adult, this person might be someone who has struggled with trust in relationships. A good balance between trust and mistrust is the healthy way to go. We do not want to be completely trusting of every single person in the world that we do not know. We want to find that middle ground.

According to Erikson, if this stage’s challenges are met and the crisis is overcome and resolved, the result is the virtue of hope and the sense that whatever challenge we meet, there will be someone around that can help us and support us. So how do we do this? According to Erikson, at this stage, there are two ways that a caregiver can help babies develop a sense of trust. One is responding to cries and the other has to do with feeding.

               Response to crying. Imagine for a minute that you are in a foreign country and you cannot speak the language. You are in a hotel lobby or a restaurant or a big department store, somewhere big with a lot of people, and suddenly the power goes out. You are stuck in the dark during a blackout and you desperately need to find the bathroom. Nobody around you speaks English and you cannot use hand gestures to communicate, because it is pitch black and you cannot see other people's hand gestures if you wanted to ask them something. You cannot move around because you cannot see where you are going. You left your phone somewhere else so you cannot even the flashlight on it. You are feeling physically uncomfortable because you need to go to the bathroom. You are scared, you are in need of help, and you do not know how to tell anyone what you need. How do you feel? What would you do?

This is the situation an infant is in. They cannot communicate their needs, whether they are hungry or wet. They cannot move around independently yet. So what does the baby do? They cry and hope that an adult will respond. Does that sound familiar? If any of you have young children or work with young children, you know that sound.

Now imagine that you fall in the kitchen and twist your ankle. You call out to your significant other and they immediately come. What have you learned from that? That you can trust them to be there when you need them. How do you feel? I know I would feel secure and good.

The same scenario, but after calling out you hear, "I will be there in a minute." You call again and are told, "I am almost done with this email," and then they come. What have you learned? What do you feel? You are learning that you cannot count on them and you cannot trust them. That is how an infant feels when they are not responded to quickly when they are in need.

You might be thinking does it really matter how quickly we come and how we respond to the baby? We all make a baby wait sometimes. I am talking about never coming on time. According to Erikson, there are real effects of that and there are real benefits to responding to a baby's cries quickly. It is the only way to communicate and if we respond quickly, the message that the baby internalizes is, "My grownup responds to me. I can count on him."

Some parents, caregivers, and teachers think that if you respond to a baby every time they cry, it will spoil them. The opposite has been found to be true. Research has shown that when parents respond quickly and consistently to cries during the first months, babies cry less often and for less time. Babies who have been ignored and have not been responded to are the ones who fuss and cry a really long time and are difficult to control when it comes to responding to cries.

               Feeding. The second thing Erikson points out that we need to do has to do with feeding. Think about a meal you have eaten when you are on the go. I know I have eaten in my car between appointments. It is never relaxing. Maybe you have gobbled down your breakfast before running to catch the bus. Compare that with eating the exact same sandwich on a blanket having a picnic at a park or at the beach. Now compare that with eating the same sandwich in a restaurant, relaxed while talking with a friend. It is the same food and the same nutrition going into your body, but your experience is very different.

For Erikson, how babies are fed is really critical at this age. Babies that are held closely and have warm physical contact as they are being fed a bottle learn to trust their need for food will be met. When adults set a comfortable mood and talk to the baby and respond gently, they learn to trust as well. Compare this to when a baby is consistently propped up with their bottle without human contact or gentle talk or being held. It is important to realize that there is a difference. Also, when we are feeding babies we can see the cues about when they have had enough. When you speak to the baby, make eye contact, and are not force-feeding, sometimes the baby will turn the head one way or the other, showing they have had enough.

Not all crying indicates hunger. Babies that are kept to a strict schedule rather than following their own cues are also going to have mistrust because they are feeling, "I am not hungry, but you are feeding me. I just need a diaper change." Think about the message babies receive when a caregiver talks to them while feeding. Compare this to a group of babies that are lined up in a row, in highchairs at daycare with a caregiver feeding the children round-robin, putting food in each baby's mouth, and going to the next child.

               How can we apply this to our work with children? Take a second and jot down some ideas.

Here are a few ideas. We can hold a baby when we are feeding. Feed on cue, not on a fixed schedule. Learn the meanings behind a baby's cries, because there is usually a different meaning to each cry. Respond to cries quickly. Talk about primary caregiving.

Primary caregiving is when each baby in a childcare setting interacts primarily with one or two adults, rather than going from adult to adult for different activities throughout the day. In this way, a relationship of attachment and nurturing would be with one primary or two primary adults. That adult would be the person in charge of most of the feeding, diapering, and the different daily routines. That person will also get to really know the baby and understand their cries and cues. We want to limit that to one or two people. I know sometimes parents are concerned, because what happens when that caregiver is not there one day. That is not a reason not to do this. If the child is upset because that caregiver is not there, that shows that a strong attachment has developed and that is a good thing. The baby learns that they can count on someone.

I encourage you to read up on attachment theory. It is really fascinating to read about some of the experiments and things that have been done and ideas about different types of attachment between caregivers and children.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt (18 months – 3 years)

The next stage is stage two, roughly 18 months to three years. This is characterized by a conflict called autonomy versus shame and doubt. For those of you who are parents or have worked with children at this age, toddlers are not called terrible twos for nothing. It is a challenging time because this is when the child is becoming more aware of all the things they can do. They can do a lot more now, including move around, jump and play with toys, and put on clothes and shoes. They are feeling a growing sense of independence. This stage is a time about independence and personal control.

As you know the number one word at this age is No. They want to do things on their own in their own way. Other favorites include, me do it, and give me, and myself. The main skill that is tackled at this time is toilet training. This is the age when we will see a child really trying to do things on their own, and they want many opportunities for this.

According to Erikson, if a toddler is harshly criticized for doing things on his or her own, they are going to start having doubts about their abilities. We need to have an encouraging environment where failure can be tolerated. Erikson believed that too much doubt at this stage would cause a person to have a general lack of confidence later in life. Parents need to encourage their children to become more independent while also protecting them. In addition, you do not want to do everything for the child, but if the child fails, do not criticize them. This is especially important with toilet training when there will be accidents. It is a challenging time for both children and caregivers, but it is also a very exciting time when toddlers get an idea of all the things they can do.

               How can we apply this to our work with children? Think for a moment about how we can apply this to our work with children and specifically with toddlers. Jot down some thoughts and I will share some of mine.

Since we want children to explore and feel confident, there are many things we can do to help them. Encourage children to feed themselves, even if it is messy. This gives them a feeling of autonomy. Do not reprimand a child when they fail at a task, we want them to keep trying. Patiently let a child try something new until they succeed or ask for help. Sometimes it is easier to just do it yourself or do it for them, but we need to be patient. Let them try, but when they start getting frustrated or if they cannot complete the task, then you can step in. We want to ensure a safe environment so that toddlers can explore. We want them to be able to do as much as possible. Make sure everything is secured in place and that everything is safe for them to explore. Lastly, provide many opportunities for making choices.

Making choices and decisions is one of the best ways to develop a sense of autonomy. When children make choices, they feel a sense of control. Look for opportunities to provide choices throughout the day. There are always ways to give choices, even if it is for small things. Here are some examples of choices children can easily make.

  • Which book would you like to look at?
  • Do you want to use a blanket during nap time?
  • Would you like a cheese sandwich or a peanut butter sandwich?

While giving choices, it is important to give only choices that you can agree to. For example, if you ask a toddler, “Do you want to take a nap?” do they really have a choice? If the child says, "No, I want to play," what are you going to do? Do not give them that choice. There are times when choices will not be given and should not be given. Only offer choices when the child can actually choose. You might ask, “Would you like crayons or paint today?” or, “Do you want the blue shirt or the red shirt?” Those are choices that you can live with either way.

Lastly, offer options about when to do something. Sometimes I think we tend to forget about this option. Children can be offered options about when or in which order to do certain activities. When there is no option about what to do, you can give them an option about when to do it. Examples include, “Do you want to hear the story now or after lunch?” or, “Do you want to play outside before nap or after nap?” Those are ways to give toddlers the opportunity to make a choice that you can live with.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt (3 – 5 years)

Stage three covers roughly three to five years and is initiative versus guilt. Erikson called this age the play ages. It is a time when children first get a chance to really take initiative through play because now they have interpersonal skills that they can really play with other children. Previously, they might play alongside them, but they did not really play together.

Hopefully, trust and autonomy have been developed in the earliest stages and now they have the desire to take initiative. Children at this age really want to plan activities and initiate ideas. If you have worked with this age, you know that it is an age of a lot of questions as well. Why? Why this? Why that? How come? They will ask a lot of questions because they are trying to make sense of the world. It is a time when you will hear things like, "Let’s build a castle!” or “You be the mommy, I will be the daddy,” or “We are making a restaurant." They have a lot of ideas. They are initiating all kinds of great creative play, whether it is making a zoo out of stuffed animals or building a fort out of pillows.

Caregivers who reinforce this initiative and praise it without being critical of the mess or whatever else is involved, are going to help nurture and foster the quality of initiative. Those children will feel that they have the capacity to initiate confidently. If we squelch this by criticizing or trying to control, children will develop a sense of guilt. They might feel like they are being a nuisance. They will just be followers. They will not initiate on their own. According to Erikson, the child at this age will also feel guilt if there is a negative reaction to the initiative.

If the child asks a lot of questions about things and the parent or the teacher says, "Stop asking so many questions. You are driving me crazy." The child is not going to feel very good. If a child made a mud pie and brings it to mom and she is happy to see it, they might say, "I made a mud pie for mom and it made her happy. I think I will make her another one." Whereas if there is a different reaction the same child could think, "I made a mud pie for mom and she lost her temper because I got mud on my pants. I am not going to make her another one." We want to keep that in mind when we work with children and foster a sense of initiative.

               How can we apply this to our work with children? Take a moment now and think about how we can apply this to our work with young children.

As I said before, we should praise the child's efforts when he or she initiates. You might say, “Oh, what a great idea to make a zoo out of all the farm animals.” Avoid criticism of the mess or of the mistakes. Do not let all of their questions annoy you. I know it can be annoying sometimes, but we want children to know that we are happy that they are interested in learning and that they are wondering about things. Provide lots of time for indoor and outdoor free play. Free play is when initiative can really grow. It is a chance for them to come up with all kinds of games and activities. In addition, have many open-ended activities available.

What is open-ended play? Open-ended play is play with materials that do not have a way that they are supposed to be used. Puzzles are great, but there is a certain way that you can do the puzzle and that is it. Open-ended materials do not have one way they can be used. Those encourage a lot of creativity and a lot of taking initiative. Items that are open-ended include:

  • Any sort of blocks or Legos
  • Tiles
  • Sand play
  • Water play
  • Nature items like seashells or pine cones
  • Pieces of fabric and materials
  • Blankets
  • Art supplies (paper, paint, markers, tape, popsicle sticks, ribbon scraps, etc.)

Many classroom teachers do projects where everyone makes the same snowman, flower, or something else. They are all very cookie cutter and everything is the same. With open-ended materials, children's creativity and their initiative of what they are going to make with these items come into play. They can make something that has never been done before. It is the same with many toys. A firetruck can be a firetruck, but a block could be a telephone, a truck, or many other things, allowing children to initiate all kinds of creative play.

Erikson’s Eight Stages

  • Trust versus Mistrust (birth to 18 months)
  • Autonomy versus Shame/Doubt (18 months to 3 years)
  • Initiative versus Guilt (3 - 5 years)
  • Industry versus Inferiority (5 - 12 years)
  • Identity versus Role Confusion (12 - 18 years)
  • Intimacy versus Isolation (18 - 40 years)
  • Generativity versus Stagnation (40 - 65 years)
  • Integrity versus Despair (over 65 years)

We went over the first three stages in detail, but I want you to see the others that we did not talk about. The other stages go from age five through the senior years. Each has its own crisis to overcome. I encourage you to read more about Erikson and the different stages. Theories of Childhood, Second Edition: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky by C.G. Mooney is a good book that includes Erikson’s theory.

Let’s Play

We are going to play a quick game before we move on to Abraham Maslow. These are the three stages we talked about in chronological order. You are going to read a type of experience and I want you to think about and write down the number of the stage you think it matches with. Choose the stage:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt

Here are the six items to choose the stage.

  1. When a baby is hungry and cries, her mother feeds her.
  2. When a student wants to pour water on her own, the teacher lets her because she tries to let students carry out their own ideas.
  3. A mom buys sneakers with Velcro for her toddler because she knows that she wants to take on and put off her shoes by herself.            

Next will be some experiences where things were not handled the way we would like, but we are going to choose the stage.

  1. The childcare provider hates when Talia makes a mess, so she insists on feeding the child herself.  
  2. The babysitter loudly bangs pots and pans together, and the baby cries. She does this so the baby will not be afraid of loud noises.
  3. When Daniel asks his teacher a lot of questions about the moon, she responds, "You are driving me crazy with all your questions."

Now that you have identified Erikson’s stage for each of the above situations, we will look at the answers.

  1. Trust.
  2. Taking initiative.
  3. Autonomy. She does not buy laces that she could not do but did buy Velcro which the child can do.
  4. Autonomy or lack of autonomy.
  5. I hope you never have thought of doing that, as it will definitely result in mistrust.
  6. Initiative. He is taking initiative by wondering about things and her response will not have helped foster that initiative.

Before we move on to Abraham Maslow, what do you think about this theory? Does it match your experiences as a teacher or parent? Do you agree or disagree with Erikson?

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)

Abraham Maslow was alive around the same time as Erikson, but he died younger in 1970. He was an American psychologist who identified what we call the hierarchy of needs. These needs motivate our behavior and our goals. Maslow believed that a person cannot proceed up this pyramid of needs until the needs below have been met. That is different than Erikson. Maslow said, "You cannot move on until you have met these needs."

Before we look at the pyramid of needs, I want you to stop and think about the following questions. You can jot down your answers if you like because they do relate to Maslow and what we will be talking about.

  • Do I have a home to live in?
  • Do I have enough food to eat?
  • Do I get enough sleep each night?

These are the physiological needs that Maslow addresses.

  • Do I feel physically and emotionally safe?
  • Do I have a job that pays the bills?
  • Do I have health insurance?

These are all related to feelings of safety and security.

  • Do I have any loving relationships in my life?
  • Where do I feel the strongest sense of belonging?
  • Am I able to understand others and feel understood by them?
  • What have I achieved that I am proud of?
  • Do I feel respected and appreciated by others?
  • Do I have confidence in my abilities and myself?

These are all esteem-related.

  • Do I have a sense of living with purpose?
  • Do I have a desire to live to my highest potential?
  • Do I ever lose myself – get “in the zone” when doing something I love?

These are all important questions and Maslow addresses these needs in the pyramid that he calls the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Figure 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

As you can see in figure 1, there are five levels in this pyramid. Maslow felt that all people, no matter what their age, go through this hierarchy of needs that motivates our behavior. We want to fulfill and meet these needs before moving on to more advanced needs.

Psychological Needs

The basic physiological needs make up the foundation of the pyramid. These are the strongest human needs. Without food, water, shelter, and clothing we cannot survive. They are the foundation. Without them, everything crumbles and falls. If you have ever been hungry, you know that you cannot think about anything else. If you have ever been homeless, you know you are not thinking about the meaning of life, you are thinking about where you are going to sleep tonight. When all of these basic physiological needs are met, only then can we proceed to the next stage, which is the stage of safety.

Safety Needs

We all have a need to feel safe in our lives. Some of the basic safety needs that Maslow identifies are those for personal security, having a job, having a home that is yours, feeling secure, having health insurance, and having your health. Together, the safety needs and the physiological needs make up what he calls the basic needs. Only when those two levels are satisfied can we move up to the next level of needs, which is the need for love and belonging.

Love and Belonging

We all want to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation through giving and receiving love and affection and a sense of belonging. This can be achieved through friendships, romantic attachments, family, community groups, churches, and religious organizations. All of those help you gain a sense of being part of something. When the needs of these bottom three levels are met and satisfied, then we can get to the esteem level.


We all have a need to accomplish things and have those accomplishments be recognized. We need to sense that we are valued by other people. Maslow talked about the need for respect from others and also self-esteem. This includes a sense of dignity and a sense of achievement and mastery within ourselves. These needs can be met through our professional jobs, through our studies, by being on a team, or through hobbies. People who can satisfy these needs of esteem by getting recognition from others and achieving good self-esteem tend to feel confident in their abilities. Those who lack self-esteem and who lack respect from others can develop feelings of inferiority.


This brings us to the top of our pyramid, which Maslow says most people do not reach. When all these other levels have been met, only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow described self-actualization as a person's need to be and do what they were born to do. For example, a musician must make music and an artist must paint. The person feels on edge and restless, but not really sure why. When we know we are hungry, we know what it is. When we are restless because we want a loving, romantic relationship, we know what we want. With self-actualization, we may not be sure what it is that we need yet, but it is that desire to feel fulfilled. This is the highest level of the hierarchy and involves seeking personal growth. Maslow said this is the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.

Why do we need to know about this? I think it is because we often tend to look at a child's behavior and not think about what is happening in the background. Are they hungry? Is their home safe? We need to really think about whether all the basic needs of the child are being met. If a child is hungry and comes to preschool and is misbehaving or is not focused and on task, it may not be that this is a problem child, this might be a really hungry child. We do not know. That is sadly a scenario that may be more common than we like to think.

               How can we apply this to our work with children? You have to take into account all of these needs including physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. How do we do that?

Thinking about physiological needs, we have to think about whether the children are getting all of their basic physical needs met. Make sure to give them water breaks and have nutritious snacks available. The room has to have good ventilation, lighting, and the room temperature must be comfortable. A tired child might need a quiet spot to take a nap. Do we give enough bathroom breaks? Do we change diapers in a timely manner? Those are all the physiological basic needs that must be met.

For safety needs, ask yourself, “How safe do the children feel in my classroom?” This does not have to mean just physically safe. It also includes feeling emotionally safe. Things such as a consistent schedule and a neat and orderly room will help a child feel secure. We need a teacher who is accepting, pleasant, nonjudgmental, and who praises all of those things that make a child feel they are in a safe place. The teacher should praise good choices rather than reprimand poor choices. They may not have a safe home, so at least we can give them that safe place.

When considering love and belonging, make sure children feel welcome and that they are beloved members of their classroom community. Welcome the child with a smile and a hug when they come. We can do all kinds of things during morning meetings, including activities that can help build community and provide support for children that we know are in need. Class helpers are a great way to help foster a sense of belonging in a community. I am the plant waterer, I am the line leader, I am part of something, I am part of a classroom community, a family. If a child is sick or if they had a baby sister or brother, have the children make them a card.

Many things can help a child feel they are valued and build their self-esteem. Examples include being the star of the week and having show and tell. If we have to discipline a child, try to do it privately. Think about how your classroom looks. Make sure it looks attractive and there are no ripped books or worn-out toys. What message are we are giving a child if things are not cared for? It could send the message that they are not a value and not worth taking care of, just like the materials. It is also important for a teacher to put the focus on the child's strengths and assets.

Lastly is self-actualization, where we help children reach their potential. It is important to give students the freedom to explore and give them a lot of creative activities and projects. This lets them express themselves. Ask yourself, “Do we expect them to do their best, even when they are in need of support in lower stages?” When we support all of the stages, then they can perform at their fullest potential. If they need that support in lower stages, we need to give that to them.

Let’s Play

This time we are going to play a game to identify which of Maslow’s needs is being met. Below are the different needs that we spoke about. You will read you a situation and identify which need is being met.

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Love and Belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-Actualization

Below are the ten situations where you will identify which need is being met.

  1. A child takes a stuffed animal everywhere.
  2. Putting on shoes independently.
  3. Sleeping.
  4. Playing with a friend.
  5. Moving to the music really happily.
  6. A child that draws a picture and shows it to the teacher and the teacher says, "Wow, I love the colors you chose for your flower."
  7. Sitting on a caregiver's lap after feeling scared from a thunderstorm.
  8. Drinking water.
  9. Being welcomed at the door with a hug from a teacher.
  10. Spending a long time painting at the easel, creating some piece of art.

Here are the answers to the situations above.

  1. Safety and security.
  2. Esteem.
  3. Physiological need.
  4. Love and belonging.
  5. That could be self-actualization for the child.
  6. Esteem.
  7. Safety.
  8. Physiological.
  9. Love and belonging.
  10. Self-actualization.

What do you think of this theory? How do you feel comparing Maslow to Erikson? Does one of them speak to you more? I encourage you to read more about Erikson and Maslow.



Bredekamp, S. (2020). Effective practices in early childhood education: Building a foundation. New York: Pearson

Faris, M., & McCarroll, E. (Fall 2010). Crying babies - Answering the call of infant cries. Texas Childcare, 14-21. Retrieved from

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood, Second Edition An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky. St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.


Eckstein-Koas, M. (2021). Social-emotional development theories and the early childhood classroom. - Early Childhood Education, Article 23713. Available at

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miriam eckstein koas

Miriam Eckstein-Koas, MS, SpEd

Miriam Eckstein-Koas has years of experience in the field of early childhood education, whether in the classroom or working as a special education early intervention provider with families and caregivers. She currently is an adjunct professor at Touro College Graduate School of Education, where she teaches classes on the Philosophy of Education and Early Childhood Development. She also serves as a Field Experience Supervisor, providing guidance and instruction to future early childhood teachers who are doing their student teaching practicum work. Miriam enjoys hiking, reading, and traveling to new places.

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