We all want our children to thrive, but it can be challenging – especially for first-time parents – to know what exactly qualifies as normal when it comes to developmental milestones.
To find out more about important social development milestones, how to foster good social skills and how to spot if your child may be falling behind, we spoke with Leanne Sherred, MS, CCC-SLP, the president, CCO and co-founder of online speech therapy platform, Expressable.
Momtastic: What are important social development milestones parents should watch out for?
Leanne Sherred: Humans are incredibly social creatures! Our ability to affect change in our environments is reliant on our ability to communicate an idea to another individual. Social and emotional development play an incredibly crucial role in a child’s well-being, and it is so much more than just making good friends – though that is very important, as well.
Social development begins from the very moment our little ones arrive. As parents witness their children grow into their own person, there are early milestones that can be monitored to gauge if they are on the expected track:
Birth to twelve months
- Shows interest in adult interaction
- Cries to get attention
- Maintains eye contact
- Imitates facial expressions
- Vocalizes in response to vocalizations
- Has established joint, or shared, attention to objects
- Vocalizes to call to others
- Indicates a desire to change activities, or to protest
- Imitates the gestures and play actions of others
1 – 2 years
- Imitates other children
- Engages in turn-taking activities
- Gives, shows, or points to objects
- Engages in vocal turn-taking with adults and children
- Uses words to interact with adults and children
3 – 5 years
- Plays with other children, as opposed to just alongside them
- Begins naming simple emotions (happy, sad, mad) but demonstrates more complex emotions (frustration, shyness, jealousy)
- Engages in pretend play
- Demonstrates concern for others without prompting
- Enjoys telling jokes, acting silly, and doing things (even things they know they shouldn’t) to see what the reaction of others will be
- May still throw tantrums, repeat preferred activities often, or begin telling “little lies” to get out of trouble
- Enjoys showing off, may feel jealous of others spending time with their friends, and begin acting like their peers
- Follows rules the majority of the time, and seeks the approval of others
- Able to discuss why it’s important to get along with others, help others, share, etc.
- Becomes more aware of other people’s feelings, and more aware of how others may see them
- May have their own feelings hurt more easily
- Has growing independence
Momtastic: What are some strategies that parents should keep in mind to foster good social development?
Leanne Sherred: Families can start on the right foot by engaging often with their young infants and toddlers. Children learn how to socialize by observing the actions of those around them, so modeling positive interactions goes a long way to promote healthy social-emotional development. Similarly, allowing children to witness adult emotions and how we handle them helps to develop empathy and coping skills.
Here are some key pointers to foster good social development in young children:
- Show your child affection – engage in reading, play activities, meal times, and daily routines together
- Support and encourage your child to try new things – praise them often when they engage in a new activity, but try to avoid forcing activities when they demonstrate fear or anxiety
- Provide opportunities for them to engage with their peers – playtime at the park or playground, play dates, daycare, and other activities present new chances to make friends and learn from others
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions – help them identify and label their emotions, and provide support and comfort when those feelings have been calmly discussed
- Help them understand the consequences of behavior – following through on consequences helps children learn the connection between their actions and how others respond
- Get on their level – when discussing emotions and behavior, it helps to physically get to their level, engage in eye contact, be an active listener, and teach new ways to help them manage their big emotions
Momtastic: What are some warning signs that a child may be falling behind?
Leanne Sherred: Social communication difficulties may often be noticeable before age 2. Noticing these early signs may help families make positive decisions to seek the support of their pediatrician, who may refer to a certified speech-language pathologist, developmental therapist, behavior therapist, or another professional.
Some early signs that a child may be falling behind include:
- Inconsistently responding when their name is called
- Avoiding interactions with adults, children, or both
- Preferring independent play, or becoming easily frustrated by the interruption of others in their activity
- Difficulty maintaining eye contact
- Limited imitation of gestures, actions, or vocalizations
For later-developing social skills, some warning signs that may be observed include difficulty with the following:
- Regulating or expressing their own emotions
- Using language for a variety or purposes, like asking or responding to questions, greeting others, or commenting
- Remaining on one conversational topic or taking turns in conversation
- Making new friends or maintaining friendships
- Demonstrating concern or empathy for others around them
Momtastic: At what point should a parent consider seeing a specialist?
Leanne Sherred: As with most things, the earlier the intervention – the better the outcome. Development comes in steps and stages, and if one particular area falls behind, it can have consequences for not only the further growth in that skill, but many other areas that are developing in parallel. Social skills grow with communication development as a whole, and both have an impact on the other as kids learn to engage with those around them.
If you have concerns about your child’s social development milestones, it’s best to raise those concerns with their pediatrician who may recommend an evaluation with a specialist. Those professionals will be able to gauge your child’s strengths and needs relative to their age and expected developmental levels. If support is needed, a personalized treatment plan designed specifically for your child will be the best way to help them progress to the next level and beyond. With that growth, your child can continue to blossom into their personality and independence!