Affective Development

Affective Development - baby with father

Affective development is the development of emotions as well as their outward expression that begins in infancy and progresses throughout adolescence. It encompasses the awareness and discernment of one’s emotions as well as those of others, the ability to connect emotions to those of others, to display emotion, and to manage one’s own emotions. Emotions involve three components: feeling, cognition, and behavior. Feeling is the physiological sensation experienced; cognition relates subjective thoughts to accompany the sensation; and behavior includes a variety of actions, such as facial display and body positioning that relate to the feelings and thoughts.

The underlying result of acquiring social-emotional learning skills could be described as learning to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships, and avoid negative behavior.1 Eight skills of emotional competence have been defined:

  1. The awareness of one’s own emotions
  2. The ability to discern and understand other’s emotions
  3. The ability to use the vocabulary of emotion and expression
  4. The capacity for empathic and sympathetic involvement in others’ emotional experiences
  5. The ability to differentiate subjective emotional experience from external emotion expression
  6. The adaptive coping with aversive emotions and distressing circumstances
  7. The awareness of the nature and structure of emotional communication within relationships
  8. The capacity for emotional self-efficacy2

Just as children’s language and cognitive development is accomplished as a result of maturation and experience, so is their affective development. As a newborn’s senses are inundated by stimulation, his first emotional milestone is to feel peaceful despite the stimulation. Within a short time the infant takes an interest in what is happening around him with the sights and sounds. A third emotional milestone is met when the child realizes that the world operates as cause and effect and that his actions produce corresponding actions. This progresses to the realization that feelings and social behavior are connected. They learn their first social games like peek-a-boo and also express “fake” crying to get attention.

Toddlers express a wide variety of emotions, such as affection, jealousy, fear, frustration, anger, guilt, and joy, and often demonstrate extreme emotional shifts.3 Their vocabulary for communicating their feelings begins to develop, and they are growing in their ability to distinguish others’ emotions and the meanings behind them. As toddlers become more aware of their own emotional responses, they are able to express early forms of empathy as well.4 Empathy has been defined as knowing what another is feeling, feeling what another is feeling, and responding compassionately to another’s distress. Prosocial behaviors, such as helping, sharing, and comforting others illustrate the development of empathy.5

During the preschool years, young children are constantly trying to understand their own and others’ behavior. They use the information conveyed by others’ behavior, emotions, and perceived intentions to guide their own responses and behavior.6 Children begin to enjoy pretend play and learn to discern teasing behavior during these years.7

To build successful relationships children need to have developed skills in self-regulation to be able to avoid conflict and not hurt others’ feelings. Children less skilled will be more self-centered and react in less adaptive ways to promote a successful relationship.8 Children’s ability to regulate their emotions appropriately affects how well they are liked by their peers. Developing the capacity to control impulses helps children adapt to social situations and follow rules.9

During the early elementary school years, children begin to learn to regulate their self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment. While they tend to still lean on support from caregivers to help them cope in difficult situations, they are beginning to be more self-reliant on problem-solving solutions to some conflicts. By middle childhood years, children prefer to solve their own problems if not too difficult or they learn to distance themselves from the problems if necessary. Preadolescent children aged 10-13 years are capable of generating multiple solutions and strategies for dealing with stress. They are more aware of expected behavior to sustain relationships. Adolescent teens become more aware of their emotions and develop better coping skills to deal with them.10

There are four main components for contributing to affective development in young children: secure attachment, modeling, positive guidance, and coaching. Consistent, sensitive caregiving, especially in the first years of life, can foster a secure attachment with caring adults. This helps children have a positive world view that their world is a safe place, that others are predictable and readable, and that children are important and worthy of care.11 This secure attachment allows children to be free to explore the world and engage with peers. It also helps children learn to self-regulate and develop positive emotional responses. In contrast, children who experience the world as unpredictable and hostile may experience anxiety, fear, and other negative emotional responses. They may display aggressive or submissive behaviors, which may set them up to become bullies or victims in future situations. Their ability to engage successfully with peers may be negatively impacted.12

Adults who model adaptive and appropriate emotional responses for children can help guide their learning of emotional regulation. Children discern what is and is not acceptable or appropriate behavior in various contexts by observing the behavior modeled by others. Guidance by early caregivers helps children learn appropriate emotional and social skills through teaching appropriate rules for behavior and providing a positive environment that is conducive to exhibiting positive emotions and behavior. Coaching about emotions entails discussing with children their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Explaining and correcting inappropriate behavior and helping children consider the viewpoint of others help them in the development of self-management as well as empathy.

Developing emotional and social competence is essential for success at home, at school, and eventually at the workplace. Children’s self-awareness and the ability to control their own moods and feelings are essential to achieving success. Those who lack social and emotional competence tend to have more discipline problems and are less successful in their academic pursuits as well as in their social situations.13

  • 1. Brett, A., Smith, M., Price, E., and Huitt, W. “Overview of the Affective Domain.” Educational Psychology Interactive. Voldosta, GA: Valdosta State University. 2003. < http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/papers/affectdev.pdf > 19 Sep. 2016.
  • 2. Saarni, Carolyn. “Emotional Development in Childhood.” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. < http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/emotions/according-experts/emotional-development-childhood > 20 Sep. 2016.
  • 3. Op. cit., Brett et al.
  • 4. Op. cit., Saarni.
  • 5. “Social-Emotional Development Domain.” California Department of Education. < http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/itf09socemodev.asp > 20 Sep. 2016.
  • 6. Op. cit., Brett et al.
  • 7. Op. cit., Saarni.
  • 8. Op. cit., Brett et al.
  • 9. Op. cit., “Social-Emotional Development Domain.”
  • 10. Op. cit., Saarni.
  • 11. Op. cit., Brett et al.
  • 12. Op. cit., Saarni.
  • 13. Op. cit., Brett et al.