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Supporting the Social/Emotional
Development of 2 & 3 Year Olds

What do we love about 2 and 3 year olds? They’re busy, inquisitive, and full of life!

What drives us crazy about 2 and 3 year olds? They’re busy, inquisitive, and full of life!

Part of the reason that these little ones have such a high energy level is that they are beginning to develop a sense of autonomy. This keeps them on the go constantly. And into everything. At the same time they are only just starting to develop a sense of self and emotional regulation. This is a very exciting time developmentally for children, but it can also be quite frustrating for them. And for us. Toddlers and young preschoolers are not developmentally wired to wait, take turns, share, or understand how others feel. They are very egocentric beings who are concrete thinkers. And these social/emotional skills are very sociocentric and abstract.

Does this mean we abandon hope? Absolutely not; after all we are Early Childhood Educators and our role is to support a child’s development. We must adjust our expectations so they are realistic. Our approach must be more about the development of these skills, rather than disappointment in the child’s “failures”. Because they’re not really failures at all. The young child who “still takes other’s toys, can’t wait for turns, and cries when upset” is developmentally right on target. And ready to grow!

So how do we get them to the next level of development? By being proactive and responsive to the child’s individual needs and development, instead of being reactive. Rather than disciplining a 2 or 3 year old for a lack of self and emotional regulation, which is like disciplining a young infant for not being able to walk, consider how you can teach, facilitate, and support the child’s skill development.


Show children the skill/behaviour that is expected. We know children are paying close attention to the adults in their world. Be the model they need to learn the skills you want them to have. Remember that children need time to develop and master any skill, so model desired behaviour consistently; all day, every day.

Label & Narrate

Describe your actions and the actions of others when appropriate prosocial skills are being demonstrated. Sometimes children need you to bring their attention to something so they can observe. Labeling and narrating is not the same as directing a child to look at something or to “pay attention”. It is the process of day to day conversation and discussion in the program with the children and with your colleagues.

Concrete Instruction

Young children need very concrete instructions to help them to be successful. And these instructions should be clear and concise. Too often the adult “over-talks” an instruction. This usually results in the young child forgetting what the instruction was. And then the adult is frustrated and upset because the child “isn’t listening”.

Use short, one-step instructions that include follow through. You must also insure the instruction is concrete so the child can understand the expectation. “Wait” is a very abstract term for a young, egocentric child. Try using the labeling and narration strategy to help a child understand what waiting is and what it looks like; i.e. “Waiting. Sheila is on the bike and you’re watching. You’re waiting. When Sheila is done it will be your turn on the bike. You’re watching. Sheila is coming around the climber. You’re waiting. Sheila is done with the bike, her turn is finished. You’re done waiting, it’s your turn on the bike. Thank you for waiting.”

Acknowledge Needs, Feelings, & Wants

Sometimes children just need to know that you “get it”. They need a chance to tell their story. And receive confirmation about their needs, feelings, and wants; “You’re sad because you want to play with the blocks.” Sometimes the adult’s fear with this strategy is that they might be giving in. Not to worry. Acknowledgement is just another method of narrating. It’s not about giving the child what they want in response to their inappropriate behaviours. Instead the purpose is to help children calm so you can support them in planning a better way to achieve their desires. The best way to do all of this just to listen and narrate.


Help the child to learn how to socially engage their peers by facilitating their experiences. The focus of this should be first on facilitating social experiences between the child and yourself. All children need to master social skills with adults before they can competently utilize them with peers. So be a play and social partner with the children in your program. Have conversations with them about their interests while playing. One of the best methods for learning waiting and turn taking is conversation. It is the ultimate turn taking experience; the child says something, then the adult says something, then the child responds, etc. In the case of promoting social interactions with peers, provide scripts of words and actions for both children when necessary; i.e. “Charlie, Maria is going to tell you something. Stop and look at her.” “Maria, Charlie is looking now, ask him ‘Can I play?’”

Praise through Acknowledgement and Evaluation

Children need lots of practice of correct behaviours to master them. They need adult feedback to know which behaviours to repeat. This means we need to encourage children when they do well. This goes beyond the standard, “Good job!” We must be specific in our praise; “You gave the car to Simon. That’s great sharing!” Even more important is acknowledgement of a behaviour through general commenting and discussion; “I see you’re taking a turn with the dinosaur. When you’re finished it will be Javier’s turn.” General commenting also allows us to help children to evaluate the experience they have just had; “You waited for a turn with the ball. Now it’s your turn!”

Be Patient

Learning anything, especially something as complex as self and emotional regulation, takes time. Once is not enough. Saying it once will not help a child learn. Reminding a child of the rules once during group time in the morning will not help them remember in the moment. When a child happens to remember to use a skill during snack it does not necessarily mean they have mastered it and will be able to use the skill again at the creative table. And a child being able to tell you the rules or describe waiting, sharing, and turn taking is not the same as being able to access the skill and use it effectively in times of stress or upset. So be patient, support the child’s learning process, because it is a process, and celebrate all the small successes on the way to mastery!

Robin Lister, RECE, ECE.C, Special Needs Consultant ~ Boys & Girls Club of East Scarborough