social emotional learning development preschool
Sep 14 2023

Social-Emotional Development: Preschool Students

Positive Action Staff
When a child goes to the doctor's office, the pediatrician can use health metrics to assess whether the child's development is progressing normally, at least, in terms of their physical growth.

But as a parent or teacher, how do you know whether a preschool child's emotional growth is on track? For that assessment, we typically rely on social-emotional learning (SEL), also known as social-emotional development.

What is Social-Emotional Development in Preschoolers?

Social-emotional development resources focus on evidence-based strategies to help a child (or adult):

Preschool children undergo significant emotional development. The social skills children learn at this age pave the way for them to understand friendship, develop routines, and interpret various situations. Encouragement of this kind of learning sets children up for academic success and healthy social interactions later on in life.

Practically speaking, what does age-appropriate SEL look like in a Pre-K child? It might mean that children can begin to:

  • Care for their bodies (i.e., wash their faces and brush their teeth)
  • Understand the differences between 'mine' and 'yours'

What Are Two Examples of a Preschooler's Social and Emotional Development?

Cultivation of social and emotional skills can influence Pre-K child development in many ways, but we'll discuss the two most common (and significant) examples here: impulse control and awareness of the feelings of others.

Impulse control

Preschool children recognize their emotional expressions (like anger) and begin to grasp impulse control. At this age, students with SEL guidance learn how to:

  • Share a toy during playtime
  • Pay attention when the teacher reads a story
  • Take turns with a classmate when playing with a toy

By developing a baseline for impulse control, students can acquire the discipline necessary to study a lesson, read a book, and, eventually, achieve good grades.

Awareness of the feelings of other people

As children develop a greater understanding of their own feelings, their awareness of other people's feelings increases. Pre-K students at this age can:

  • Develop affection and form friendships
  • Observe how people's actions can indicate their mood
  • Recognize when a friend is feeling sad (e.g., crying) and respond with kindness

SEL encourages students to foster a greater sense of empathy, which helps them play and learn in groups.

How Do Preschools Support Social and Emotional Development?

Research has long since established the benefits of social and emotional development in preschool education. One study in Melbourne, Australia, found that social-emotional development positively affected child development in preparatory (preschool and kindergarten) and grade-one children.

Moreover, another study found that teachers who do not adequately utilize SEL tend to experience more stress and are more likely to expel children. Therefore, we can see how SEL benefits both the teacher and the child.

Equipped with this knowledge, Pre-K schools must do everything possible to support social-emotional learning in children both at school and in the home. Through their observations and guidance, Pre-K educators can take the following actions:

  • Provide structures and routines for children
  • Nurture students' sense of play in school environments
  • Encourage appropriate interaction among students
  • Set expectations for reasonable behavior and expression of emotions

What Is an Example of a Preschool Child's Social-Emotional Development Milestone?

A child will develop varied social-emotional skills at different ages (milestones) throughout early childhood. Babies and infants might learn how to play with toys, while toddlers learn how to convey needs through words.

However, preschool age (years 3-5) marks the period when children begin to question their environment and cultivate a sense of independence. During this stage:

  • Separation from family members (reduced attachment) for school becomes routine
  • Children develop the ability to dress themselves and take on their own identity
  • Children engage in more creative activities on the playground and in the classroom, such as singing, dancing, and detailed play-acting

However, the most common emotional milestone for the preschooler is the self-regulation of one's temperament. Children of this age will still throw tantrums, but they have a greater understanding of their moods (e.g., happiness or sadness), depending on the context.

SEL sets up preschool students to better manage their anxiety by asking for help and using language — not physical acts — to convey emotion and communicate essential information.

That does not necessarily mean that Pre-K children will always follow commands and be agreeable. However, they are more likely to:

  • Understand the value of cooperation (especially in group experiences with classmates)
  • Want to play with a friend rather than alone

Each child is different, so educators and parents should try to avoid frustration if a particular child is not meeting every single milestone. Still, if a child hasn't been expressing many or all of the behaviors mentioned in this article, the caregiver should reach out to a qualified child psychologist for screening. The child may be experiencing developmental delays.


Positive Action supports the well-being of young children in communities across the U.S. through our Pre-K - 12 SEL curriculum. We help children process and regulate their social-emotional skills, giving them opportunities to form healthy relationships from childhood to adulthood.

If you have any further questions about the basics of SEL, feel free to:

We would be happy to schedule a webinar to address your concerns and provide reassurance about our program.