How to keep preschoolers’ social and emotional development on track while stuck at home

  • Preschoolers learn social-emotional development through interaction with peers and family members. 
  • Many families are opting to keep their young children home more, which could inhibit opportunities to learn essential skills. 
  • However, parents can step in to help encourage development.
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Preschoolers can be hard to handle, whether you're talking about "threenagers" or the "flipping fours." But all of the attitude, stubbornness and frustrations that parents face during the preschool years are part of important social development.

"The overall theme of developmental milestones for [a] 3- and 4-year-old child is the mastery of social-emotional competency," said Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

To learn social and emotional norms, preschoolers need to interact with others — something that has been curtailed during the pandemic. However, Mendez says that parents can step in to keep their preschoolers developing on track.

Here's what you should know about preschool development, and keeping it on track right now. 

There are three categories of development

While preschoolers can seem totally unpredictable, that's just because they're still learning important skills, including how to regulate their own emotions, and how to understand social cues and expectations. 

With those broad goals in mind, Mendez says preschool development can be broken down into three categories: individuation, identity, and self-confidence.

  • Individuation development includes learning self-control, managing feelings and emotions, and learning to cooperate with others. "These tasks are important developmental tasks because the children increase in their capacity of awareness of self, as well as others, and become more organized in the ability to gain internal control rather than relying exclusively on external controls," Mendez said.
  • Identity development includes understanding that the self is different from others, and that different people have different rules, beliefs, and expectations. "These skills are important in supporting a child's sense of self, acceptance of differences, and increase understanding and acceptance of self within the family, peer group and community," Mendez said. 
  • Self-confidence development includes having a sense of self-esteem, initiating social interactions and resolving conflicts. "These skills are important in supporting the child's social cognition of problem solving, managing new experiences, and building tolerance to explore and discover," Mendez said. 

As preschoolers develop these skills, they practice with the parents, followed by other immediate family members. As they perfect them, they branch out to practicing these skills with peers and adults outside the family. 

How to keep a secure parent-child relationship even during stressful times

The pandemic could change how kids develop, starting with the first key interactions with their parents. In order to explore new skills, a child needs to feel safe with their parents. If parents are under a lot of stress or showing anxiety, a child might not feel that sense of security. 

"Unknown factors that intensify feelings of stress and anxiety have the potential of negatively impacting the parent-child relationship," Mendez said. "If a child is exposed to persistent fear and anxiety such as seeing parents in distress, confused, and in despair, the child will pick-up on the parent's negative emotions and experience high stress and despair also."

In order to avoid this, parents should provide their preschoolers with an environment that is safe, positive and secure, according to Mendez. 

"How a parent manages their reactions to the pandemic is critical to the impact the pandemic can have on development," she said.

She encourages parents to talk to their young kids about the pandemic, in a way that makes kids feel like they understand what's happening without adding to their anxiety.

Modeling resilient and adaptive behaviors — like cheerily wearing a mask and discussing its safety impact — can help kids adapt to changes. It also promotes problem-solving and social understanding, both important parts of preschool development. 

Encourage social interactions

Many preschoolers are spending more time at home right now, so they don't have the typical opportunities to interact with other kids their age. 

"Parents can encourage development by doing activities with the preschooler," Mendez said. 

Cooking, playing games, building, doing crafts, and especially pretend play all allow your preschooler the chance to learn about social norms like following directions, sharing, and losing gracefully, even when they're stuck at home. 

As you introduce new skills, it's important to have a predictable routine to the days, just like you would find at most preschools. 

"Structure and routine allow for predictability but also provides a chance for the preschooler to try new skills in a safe and familiar environment," Mendez said. 

While preschoolers don't have a huge attention span for digital interactions, online socialization is still an important tool for parents.

"Negative impacts can be mitigated by parents being creative with helping the preschooler keep exposure with peers, family, and community via social media, telephone calls, video conferencing," she said. 

When to seek help

The CDC publishes milestones and ranges for typical development. If your child doesn't reach a milestone by the older end of the typical range, it's time to seek professional assessment.

"The important thing is to seek help early. With young children, a wait and see attitude is not helpful," she said. 

In most cases, preschoolers will get through the pandemic just fine, especially if they have engaged parents. 

"Young children are by nature resilient, but the effectiveness of their resiliency and ability to meet developmental milestones are only as good as the parents' capabilities of modeling and setting examples of resiliency and adaptive coping," Mendez said. 

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