Social-emotional health in young children means successfully developing the capacity to:

  • Form secure relationships
  • Experience and regulate emotions
  • Explore and learn1

Social-emotional health and regulation of emotions are critical building blocks for children’s learning. Emotional health and social skills allow children to engage in school and form good relationships with teachers and friends.

Compared to their peers, children who are socially and emotionally healthy and exhibit self-control:

  • Have better oral language development and skills2
  • Have better interpersonal skills3
  • Have fewer behavioral problems4
  • Are more successful in elementary school and beyond5
  • Have better physical health6
  • Have better lifetime employment outcomes and higher income7

Boys and children living in low-income families are more likely than their peers to been seen as having low self-regulation skills.8

Show 8 footnotes

  1.  Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Tutorial 6: Recognizing and Supporting the Social and Emotional Health of Young Children Birth to Age Five. Retrieved from:
  2.  Cohen, N. J. (2010). The Impact of Language Development on the Psychosocial and Emotional Development of Young Children. Retrieved from
  3.  Schorr, L. & Marchand, V. (2007). Pathway to Children Ready for School and Succeeding at Third Grade. Retrieved from and Rhode Island Kids Count. (2005). Getting Ready: Findings from the National School Readiness Indicators Initiative, A 17 State Partnership. Retrieved from
  4.  Annie E Casey Foundation, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, 2013.
  5.  Zero to Three. (2009). Early Experiences Matter: A Guide to Improved Policies for Infants and Toddlers. Retrieved from
  6.  National Research Council (US) & The Institute of Medicine (US). (2004). Children’s Health, The Nation’s Wealth. Washington D.C.: National Academics Press (US). Retrieved from
  7.  Child Trends. (2013). The Research Base for a Birth through Age Eight State Policy Framework. Retrieved from
  8.  Bettencourt, A., Gross, D., & Ho, G. (2016). The Costly Consequences of Not Being Socially and Behaviorally Ready by Kindergarten: Associations with Grade Retention, Receipt of Academic Support Services, and Suspensions/Expulsions. Retrieved from

Read More About This Issue

There is no statewide data available in NC on young children’s overall social emotional health
of US children five and under experience emotional, relational, or behavioral disturbances

Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two Generation Mechanisms. (2014). The Future of Children, Princeton and Brookings.

up to 35%
of children living in low-income families may experience social-emotional challenges.

Joseph, G. E. & Strain, P. S. (2003). Comprehensive Evidence-Based Social-Emotional Curricula for Young Children: An Analysis of Efficacious Adoption Potential. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23(2), 65-76.


What Can We Do About It?

What supports children’s social-emotional health?

  • Caring, supportive relationships with parents, caregivers, and other adults they encounter on a daily basis
  • Early and regular screenings, assessments and intervention, as warranted
  • School-based Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) practices and programs

Caring, Supportive Relationships

The relationships that children have with their parents and other primary caregivers builds the foundation for developing social-emotional health. These relationships begin at birth. Positive back-and-forth parent-child interactions (sometimes called serve and return) are how young children learn social norms, learn to regulate their emotions, and develop empathy, trust in others, and interpersonal skills. Non-nurturing, non-responsive or abusive relationships between parents and their young children can disrupt children’s social and emotional health and development.1

Screenings, Assessments and Interventions

To ensure the early detection and treatment of social-emotional health needs, young children need:

  • Early and regular social-emotional health screenings. This is simple checklist or parent questionnaire that identifies infants and young children who may be at risk for social-emotional health problems.
  • Comprehensive assessments. This is a more in-depth process of gathering information about a child from multiple sources and settings (parents, teachers, etc), over a period of time.2 Children identified as being at risk by a screening should receive a comprehensive assessment.
  • Effective treatment. If warranted by an assessment, treatment can often mitigate or eliminate future social-emotional health conditions, like depression, attention problems, or conduct disorders.3

Without intervention, behavioral and social-emotional challenges in young children may be less easy to overcome after age eight.4

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Practices and Programs

Young children’s social-emotional health can be supported and strengthened by child care, preschool, and elementary classrooms that promote the continued development of children’s social skills, emotional competence, empathy and self-regulation, also called Social-Emotional Learning.5 A recent meta-analysis of 213 studies reveals an 11 percent gain in academic achievement for students who participated in evidence-based Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs over those who did not. SEL students improved their classroom behavior and their ability to manage stress and depression, and had better attitudes about themselves, others and school.6

Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Design Teams co-created the Pathways Action Framework, focusing in on three areas that directly impact third grade reading proficiency:

  • Social-emotional health
  • High quality birth through age eight care and education
  • Regular school attendance

Read the Pathways Action Framework here.

Research-based based policies, practices and programs that providers, communities and North Carolina can take to improve children’s social-emotional health.

Show 6 footnotes

  1.  Hamoudi, A., Murray, D. W., Sorensen, L., & Fontaine, A. (2015). Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: A Review of Ecological, Biological, and Developmental Studies of Self-Regulation and Stress. Retrieved from
  2.  Child Trends, The Research Base for a Birth through Age Eight, op cit.
  3.  Child Trends, The Research Base for a Birth through Age Eight, op cit.
  4.  Joseph, Comprehensive Evidence-Based Social–Emotional Curricula for Young Children, op cit.
  5.  U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Fostering Healthy Social and Emotional Development in Young Children: Tips for Early Childhood Teachers and Providers. Retrieved from and Jennings, P. A. & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491-525. Retrieved from
  6.  Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432. Retrieved from

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