Social, emotional and behavioural

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Original Author(s): Dr Louise Ingram and Hannah Murray
Last updated: 19th July 2018
Revisions: 12

Original Author(s): Dr Louise Ingram and Hannah Murray
Last updated: 19th July 2018
Revisions: 12

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Child development is the process by which the dependent infant matures into the independent adult, functioning within society. It is a complex interweaving of biology, psychology and environment where each skill builds on the ones that have come before and provides a foundation for those skills yet to develop.

Development in humans follows a predictable pattern and a rough schedule but no individual develops in exactly the same manner as any other. It follows an orderly pattern (unlike almost everything else regarding children); from top to bottom, central to outer and simple to complex. What is important, when considering normal development, is progress and parity; that children are moving forward in the different areas of development at roughly the same rate.

Disparity in progress between areas of the body (e.g. the right side and the left or the lower limbs and the upper limbs) or between domains of development (see below) is concerning, as is regression (i.e. loss of previously attained skills).

This article will outline the typical stages of development that children go through. The features typically seen at each age are described below.

Social, emotional and behavioural

Social development deals with the growth in relationships with others, within the construct of their culture and society. Socialisation is the process of learning the skills and attitudes peculiar to the community in which the child lives. The social world is incredibly complex and it is mind-boggling how quickly most infants start to pick up on the cues of those around them. They must develop an understanding of the actions, intentions and feelings of others in order to build and maintain healthy relationships with adults and children.


Age Feature
Newborn Respond to being picked up

Enjoys feeding and cuddling

6 weeks Gazes at adult faces

Social smile

3 months Smiles at familiar faces and at strangers
6 months Feeds self with fingers

Shows stranger fear

9 months Waves bye

Plays peek-a-boo

Shows likes and dislikes

12 months Drinks from a cup with 2 hands

Has separation anxiety

18 months Uses a spoon

Plays contentedly alone, near a familiar adult

Eager to be independent

24 months (2 years) Displays frustration (temper tantrums)

Dresses self

Begins to express feelings

30 months Eats skilfully with spoon, may use a fork

May use the toilet independently

Plays alone and alongside other children (parallel play)

Enjoys pretend play

36 months (3 years) Shows affection for younger siblings

Probably toilet-trained, though may still be wet at night

Enjoys helping adults, imitating household tasks

Has friends

48 months (4 years) Eats skilfully with fork and spoon

Brushes own teeth

Shows sensitivity to others

Takes turns

60 months (5 years) Very definite likes and dislikes

Shows sympathy and comforts friends

Dresses without help, except laces

Engages in co-operative and imaginative play, observing rules



(1) Kapoor, Barnes, “Developmental Assessment”, Paediatrics, Edition 4, 2013
(2) Lissauer, W. Carroll, “Normal Child Development, Hearing and Vision”, Illustrated Textbook of Paediatrics, Edition 5, 2017
(3) Sheridan, M. D., From birth to five years; children’s developmental progress, 3rd edition revised and updated by A. Sharma and H. Cockerill, Routledge 2007
(6) Meggitt, C., Child development, an illustrated guide, 2nd edition, Heinemann 2006




1st draft: Trainee doctor Hannah Murray

Senior review: Dr Louise Ingram (Paediatric specialist registrar)