Not Just “Soft Skills”: How Young Children’s Learning & Health Benefit from Strong Social-Emotional Development

Very young children rely on parents and caregivers to help them understand our world, and to provide them with the experiences and information that help their brains grow. This is true whether a child is learning how to read and write, or how to get along with others and manage their feelings. When parents and caregivers respond to their children’s needs from birth with sensitivity and nurturing, they strengthen children’s early learning and provide a strong foundation for better health and well-being throughout life.

One aspect of early learning that is less understood than other types of learning—but equally important—is social-emotional development. Children with strong social-emotional skills are more interested in all types of learning, form healthier relationships with others, persist longer at difficult tasks, and can better control their emotions. Social-emotional development is an aspect of typical brain development that depends both on genetics and children’s early experiences, including support from parents and caregivers. The more nurturing and loving support a child receives from a parent or caregiver during activities like talking, reading, and singing, the better developed that child’s social-emotional skills.

Learn more about the strong evidence base on social-emotional development and why it's critical to young children's learning and lifelong success in Too Small to Fail's new report.

Stable and nurturing relationships with parents and caregivers can also help protect children during stressful experiences, too. It's typical for children to experience some stress growing up. But when young children experience severe, repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), their bodies and brains go on permanent high alert, releasing stress hormones that affect their learning and development. This “toxic stress” can negatively impact not only how a child learns, but also how she builds relationships, manages emotions, fights off infections, and develops physically. Caring interventions from a parent or caregiver can prevent these experiences from becoming toxic stress, and even reverse the effects of stress after it has occured. Learn more about ACEs, toxic stress and the importance of relationships in supporting children's development in this two-page companion piece.