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From The Experts

Social-Emotional Learning in the Early Years 

Dr. Roberta Schomburg is an advisor on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and has been a consultant with The Fred Rogers Company for more than three decades. She is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Early Childhood at Carlow University.  

I first became familiar with the work of Fred Rogers when I was a graduate student in child development at the University of Pittsburgh.  I noticed how Fred’s songs reflected many of the concepts that I was studying and how well grounded his work was in child development principles.  But it was when I became a parent and had young children of my own that I began to really appreciate the way that Fred Rogers was able to link child development theories to the everyday experiences of young children. I found that his emphasis on emotional development and positive social interactions touched a chord with my children and opened the door for many very frank discussions about feelings, fears, curiosity, play, and creativity.   This focus on emotional development and social interactions continues to be the central theme of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Most kindergarten teachers will tell us that the things they look for when children start school are the “getting along” skills.  Social-emotional development and readiness for school are much more related than many people think.  Social-emotional skills include two different but related areas of development.  The emotional area includes being able to deal with feelings and developing a healthy sense of “self.”  The social aspect includes the ways that children interact with family members and friends.  Below are some of the important social-emotional abilities that contribute to children’s success in school…and in life.

Emotional Development  

Social Development    

Emotional Development

Keeping Behavior Within Limits

During the early years, children develop the ability to manage their behavior and to stop themselves from doing things they should not do.  They often need the support of grownups as they learn to control their behavior, especially when they feel angry or are very tired.

Learning to Manage Feelings

Controlling their behavior when they have strong feelings depends quite a bit on children’s ability to recognize the feeling and name it.  When we sing, “If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet” we are helping children learn to name the feelings they have and show others in acceptable ways how they feel.   Naming feelings is the first step in learning to manage them.  Fred Rogers often said, “Anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”  He also went on to say that  “when we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” That focus continues in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood where parents and children work on identifying and talking about feelings.

Feeling Good About Themselves

The self-esteem discussion has become somewhat controversial because it is often misunderstood as entitlement or being spoiled.  But for young children, feeling good about themselves is essential.  Children who feel good about themselves believe that they can “do” things.  They are able to finish something that they start.  They are able to show persistence and stick with a task until completion. They show initiative and creativity in their play and may often surprise parents with what they can do and what they understand. Learning to do something well takes practice. When children feel good about themselves, they have the self-confidence to keep on trying until they succeed. And children who have self-confidence are much more likely to become eager learners.

Being Willing to Try Something New

We want children to be curious about learning and willing to try new things … maybe tasting new food or meeting a new friend.  For some children, trying something new involves a little bit of risk.  Yet we know that “risk-taking” is associated with innovation, creativity, and self-confidence.

Learning to Do Things Independently

Emotional development grows in the context of warm and caring relationships.  When children trust that adults will help them and take care of them, they develop the ability to become independent in their actions and confident in their abilities.  This combination of strong attachments and confident independence sets the stage for them to be independent learners as well as cooperative learners. When children feel good about their own abilities, they are more likely to be able to work well with others.

Asking for Help When Needed

As children become independent, they learn that they can do many things on their own. They also learn that there are times when they need help.  Knowing when to ask for help and how to get what they need is an important skill.

Caring About Others

Children learn to care about others when they feel that someone cares about them.  We often think that young children don’t have the ability to care about others because they may lack the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view.  Yet we know that even toddlers have strong feelings toward family members, show affection, and can develop beginning “friendships” that look very similar to those of older children. These caring emotions lead to the development of positive social interactions with others.

Social Development

Learning to Play Well with Others

During the preschool years, children learn the social skills that are the basis of their interactions well into the school-age years. As preschoolers, they have to learn to ask for toys rather than just taking them; they develop strategies for settling conflicts and solving problems; and they begin to learn ways to cooperate with family members and friends.

Learning to Take Turns

Taking turns with toys and materials involves two social-emotional skills that can be challenging for young children: turn-taking and waiting.  For some children, the harder task is to give up a toy and let someone else play with it. They might find it hard to trust that they will even get it back. For others, it is the “waiting” that is hard.  Children often have a difficult time finding something else to do while they are waiting for a turn and may need help from a grown-up or older sibling to find something to do while they are waiting.

Using Words to Say How You Feel

Most children are quick to respond physically when they feel angry, afraid, or frustrated.  They might bite, push, shove, hit, or throw things.  Learning to use words to manage these feelings begins as soon as children are able to talk. Being able to say “no” is one of the ways that toddlers begin to manage and express their feelings. As children move through the preschool years, they become better able to tell others what they are feeling rather than reacting in physically inappropriate ways. It takes patience and quite a bit of practice, but conversations with caring adults can help children master this skill.

Solving Problems Without Hurting

Helping children deal with conflicts is an important skill for school and for life. When children are fighting over a toy, it sometimes seems easy to take away the toy and say to children, “You can’t play with this until you learn how to get along.” Yet we find that taking away the toy does not really help children learn how to solve the problem or begin to see how others feel. It is much more time-consuming to give each child a chance to say how they feel and to say, “Let’s see how we can work this out” but in the long term, we are teaching children the problem solving skills that they will need throughout life.

Learning to Care About Others

Helping children learn to care is not something that can be “taught” in the traditional sense.  Children learn to care in the context of relationships and through caring interactions with family members and caregivers.  Yet there are many ways that we can lay the foundation and set the stage for children to develop caring attitudes about others.  Talking with children about all the ways we show that we care for each other helps children see that our actions and words let others know that we care.

Fred Rogers said, “It’s the people you love the most that can make you feel the maddest.”  Learning to handle the up and down feelings of caring and being angry can be quite frustrating to children.  We often hear children say, “I’m not your friend anymore” when they are angry with each other.  Most of the time, the anger is fleeting and children learn how to make up after a squabble. Sometimes they need adult help to do so.  And they certainly need to know that parents and caregivers will love them no matter what… even when they make mistakes.


Social emotional skills take time to develop, but children pick up these skills little by little when they are in caring and loving families. That doesn’t mean “perfect” families, but rather families who work on dealing with feelings in healthy ways and who work on getting along with others. I know that the themes in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood will give families many opportunities to talk about feelings, problem solving, curiosity, and caring for others. Please write and tell us how you have used Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to further the dialogue about social-emotional learning in your family.

Produced by: Support from:
Fred Rogers Productions logo Corporation for Public Broadcasting logo Rite Aid Foundation “529 “Vroom”

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