5.2 The social-emotional needs of the young child

As introduced in detail in the previous chapter on attachment, the first formation of relationships is critical to future experiences and the social-emotional wellbeing of the child. The development of safe and secure relationships within which children learn how to manage emotions and self-regulate form the blueprint for successful future regulation of emotions and social competence.

Two kids - a boy and girl - in school uniform
Two kids in school uniform by Cyberscooty used under CC0.

There are quite a few evidenced-based programs that promote social-emotional learning for young children and at the same time reduce disruptive behaviour.

Take a look at the Teaching Pyramid. The teaching pyramid originally developed by Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph and Strain (2003) is a positive behaviour support framework that outlines practices to prevent challenging behaviour and promote social-emotional competence in children. The foundation is relationships. Quality relationships with children, families, colleagues and other practitioners, are the base from which evidence-based strategies can be implemented to cater for social emotional needs of children.

The teaching pyramid is an example of a multi-tiered framework particularly designed for supporting social emotional learning in early childhood contexts. Multi-tiered frameworks consist of the following three tiers of intervention and support: Universal or tier one, targeted or tier two and intensive or tier three. The tiers of the teaching pyramid reflect the same focus areas: promotion (universal), prevention (targeted) and intervention (intensive). The goal of a multi-tiered framework is to endeavour to provide support to all children across social, emotional, behavioural and academic domains of development, to promoting positive behaviour and reduce the occurrence of disruptive behaviour (Bayat, 2015; Hemmeter et al., 2012). Promotion (universal tier one) is targeted at all children, prevention (targeted tier two) at smaller groups of children and intervention (intensive tier three) at individual children with more intensive needs. For most children, the universal level will probably be enough, however for children with trauma, the secondary prevention and tertiary intervention tiers are more likely to better address their needs. Let us have a closer look at the key features of each tier of the teaching pyramid.

Promotion (Universal tier 1): Building relationships between teachers and children, teachers and caregivers and children and children. It is also important to include here those adults who are significant in the child’s life beyond the school and home such as practitioners from government and community agencies, if applicable.

Prevention (targeted tier 2): Focused teaching of social and emotional skills needed to solve problems, demonstrate feelings and develop friendships. The ‘teachable moments’ throughout the day are the perfect opportunities for this teaching.

Intervention (intensive tier 3): For those individual children needing targeted support. Functional behavioural assessment to ascertain the function of behaviour and develop an intervention plan, is the focus of this tier. Teaching new appropriate behaviours to replace the inappropriate behaviours – new behaviours that serve the same function but are acceptable in the environment. The evidence-based practices of the teaching pyramid are equally important to consider for the primary aged child and the adolescent.

Strategies to help

Bailey, Denham, Curby and Bassett (2016) found that emotional and organisational supports were significant factors in guiding social-emotional learning and self-regulation in pre-schoolers (four to five-year-olds). The authors found that a classroom that was emotionally supportive reduced behaviour problems and increased social competence. Plenty of opportunity was given for children to self-regulate within an environment of safety where expression and learning were valued, and close relationships were formed. These classrooms were well-organised promoting high levels of learning engagement with clear expectations taught and understood (this would equate to the universal promotion area of the teaching pyramid).

Meeting the child where they are emotionally and socially is a key underpinning strategy for developing social-emotional competence in children. Whatever the strategy, research has shown that it is important for children to learn, practise, view and talk about the new skill with examples to illustrate what it looks like, sounds like and feels like (Corso, 2007). For those children who have experienced complex trauma the following strategies have been shown to be very helpful in assisting them to regulate emotions:

  • Name your emotions. Talk aloud so there is connection between feeling and words.
  • Make clear links between the emotion and the event.
  • Use a feeling die (use at carpet time for children to tell about the time they felt…).
  • Dance to different kinds of music and talk about how it feels.
  • Explicitly teach children how to read the nonverbal cues of others. Why do people frown, grimace, look upset?
  • Read picture books that discuss emotions. An article by Harper (2016) discusses how picture books can be useful in developing social-emotional competence.

When you live a life of mistrust and hurt, your internal workings tell you that relationships with others are not a good idea because they are unsafe and to protect yourself it is easier to just avoid them all together. How does this child know how to form and ‘be in’ friendships with others? They don’t. They need to be taught. Sorrels (2015) details the following social skills:

  • Empathy – Children from chaotic backgrounds often arrive at school ‘not ready to learn’. Providing time to check in nurtures empathy, encourages regulation and shows care and concern.
  • Turn-taking – my turn, your turn (This is not sharing. Sharing is different. We share collage materials and food; we take turns going through the tunnel and down the slippery dip). Children with trauma have lost so much, they do not want to give-up anything so find turn-taking difficult. Use timers, visuals and solve problems aloud.
  • Sharing – children with trauma ‘accumulate stuff’ whenever they can because they fear the opportunity may never arise again. They are fearful of not having. They are not greedy. Plan activities where they can practice sharing and ensure they know what it looks like and sounds like to share.
  • Joining in – join the game with the child and stay and play for a moment by guiding them in and helping them engage.
  • Conflict resolution – talk through situations of conflict. The child with trauma is often overwhelmed by these situations. Remember Elliott from the true story at the beginning of the chapter? He used to climb into a cupboard and slide the door almost shut (the track was fixed so that the door could not be fully closed). Many children with trauma will hide in times of conflict.
Please note that the above material from Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma by Barbara Sorrels, EdD, ISBN
9780876593509, is used with permission from Gryphon House, Inc., P. O. Box 10, Lewisville, NC 27023 (800) 638-
0928 www.gryphonhouse.com. No further reproduction of this content is permitted without prior permission from the copyright holder.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning 

Read the following resources from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

 Promoting Social Emotional Competence

[27 min 40 sec]

Watch this video on social and emotional competence. A transcript and Closed Captions are also available within the video.


Bailey, C. S., Denham, S. A., Curby, T. W., & Bassett, H. H. (2016). Emotional and organizational supports for preschoolers’ emotion regulation: Relations with school adjustment. Emotion, 16(2), 263-279.

Bayat, M. (2015). Addressing challenging behaviors and mental health issues in early childhood. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Corso, R. M. (2007). Practices for enhancing children’s social-emotional development and preventing challenging behavior. Gifted Child Today, 30(3), 51-56.

Fox, L., Hemmeter, M., Snyder, P., Binder, D. P., & Clarke, S. (2011). Coaching early childhood special educators to implement a comprehensive model for promoting young children’s social competence. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 31(3), 178-192. doi: 10.1177/0271121411404440.

Harper, L. J. (2016). Using picture books to promote social-emotional literacy. Young Children, 17(3), 80-86

Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M. M., & Corso, R. M. (2012). Preventing and addressing challenging behavior: Common questions and practical strategies. Young Exceptional Children, 15, 32-46.

Sorrels, B. (2015). Reaching and teaching children exposed to trauma. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.


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Trauma Informed Behaviour Support: A Practical Guide to Developing Resilient Learners Copyright © 2020 by University of Southern Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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