Play It Forward Therapy

The 2 Crucial Roles That Social-Emotional Development and Executive Functioning Play in Child Mental Health

Are you absolutely smitten with babies? Do the toddler years fill you with wonder and excitement? If your answer is a resounding yes, then continue reading to learn how you can help infants, toddler and their families lay the foundation for future, healthy mental health.

The truth is, oftentimes pediatric therapists focus their therapy treatment on the concrete, more obvious skills such as teaching young children how to walk or talk, for example.  However, it’s absolutely essential to include the “hidden skills” of social emotional milestones and executive functioning which are equally important to address during your therapy sessions.

Let’s explore the two most important skill areas that will support a young child’s future mental health:  Social Emotional Development and Executive Functioning.

Building Blocks for Social-Emotional Development

Imagine this: 4 month old Molly cuddled up in her parent’s arms, a tiny furrow forming on her forehead. That furrow? It’s a sneak peek into the world of social-emotional development

Here’s a quick rundown of the developmental skills under the social-emotional umbrella.

Skill Area #1: Social-Emotional Development

The child’s ability to: 

  • Identify and understand their own feelings;
  • Accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others
  • Manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner
  • Regulate their own behavior
  • Develop empathy for others
  • Establish and maintain relationships. 

Keep on reading for 6 examples of social-emotional milestones in action…

1. Grasping Those Feelings

From those initial gurgles to the first words, kids have a rainbow of emotions they’re feeling for the first time. The magic starts when they learn to identify and understand their own emotions. When Henry pouts, he’s taking the first steps in understanding that pout equals feeling a “tad unhappy”.  Caregivers and parents can help their child understand these emotions early on by simply commenting and labeling the emotion, lending them the words for the feeling.  “You’re sad.”

2. Emotion Detectives in Training

Little ones are learning how to become social detectives, deciphering emotional mysteries in the people around them. If Molly can tell that her friend’s laughter is different from her friend’s tears, she’s on her way to mastering the art of understanding others’ emotions.

3. Wrestling with Emotion Dragons

Ever witnessed a toddler’s epic meltdown? That’s them grappling with big, fiery emotions. The more they learn to manage these emotions, the better they become at self regulation and expressing themselves constructively which brings us to #4.

4. The Fine Art of Self-Regulation

Picture this: Liam is with his mom and starting to feel unsure in a new social situation at the park.  Instead of acting out and throwing a tantrum when he feels uncomfortable, he simply says “Hug please”. That’s self-regulation at its finest.  He understands that when he is feeling scared he can turn to his mom and request a hug.  

In the meantime, his mother is modeling calm and helping Liam label his feelings. Children learn to pause, think, and then make choices—a crucial life skill that’s in the making!

5. Empathy: The Heartbeat of Connection

When Mia gives a comforting hug to her sobbing friend, she’s slipping into someone else’s shoes. That’s empathy in action! 

Building this empathy skill helps children to better relate, connect, and form early friendships. 

6. Friendship Building 101

Playdates, giggles, and the sharing of secrets—these are the stepping stones of relationship building. When Noah makes a new friend, he’s putting his social-emotional skills into play.

Fun fact: Did you know that social-emotional skills start to bloom from the very beginning? Early relationships shape the intricate architecture of a child’s brain, offering a blueprint of opportunities for future growth.

The next essential building block for early mental health development is executive functioning.

As children evolve into inquisitive explorers, another set of skills takes center stage, molding their decision-making abilities. Cognitive development includes executive functioning.  

Here’s a quick rundown of the developmental skills under the executive functioning umbrella.

Skill Area #2: Unlocking Cognitive Potential:  Executive Functioning in Early Childhood Development

The child’s ability to:

  • Control impulses
  • Filter out distractions
  • Focus his/her attention
  • Organize information and put a plan into action
  • Problem solve alternative solutions

Let’s talk more about what this looks like in action.

1. Quelling Impulses Like a Pro

Imagine Sophie resisting the urge to grab a toy from her playmate’s hands. That’s her executive functioning stepping up. It’s all about taming impulses and thinking before taking action.

2. Banishing the Distractions 

When Ethan focuses on building a tower amid a bustling room, he’s conquering distractions. Filtering out the background noise? Absolutely!  When his mom asks him to retrieve something from his room, he returns with the requested item like a champ… without getting distracted along the way.

3. A Laser-Like Focus

Meet Olivia, the picture book extraordinaire. When she dedicates her attention to a task, her executive functioning skills are in full bloom. Think of a young child’s focus as the “mind’s spotlight”.

4. Crafting Plans with Finesse

Who would’ve thought that creating a masterpiece from building blocks requires a plan? Well, Henry did. Executive functioning helps kids organize their thoughts and intentions into actions and coordinated plans.

5. Little Solvers of Big Problems

When Maddie can’t reach her favorite cookies on the high shelf, she doesn’t give up. She explores different ways to reach them—a sign of a budding problem solver.  “What if I moved a chair over to the pantry to reach the shelf? Or What if I asked a grown up for help?” 

Cognitive functioning isn’t just about knowing ABCs; it’s about every day problem solving during typical activities.

Now, don’t get me wrong, understanding what’s typical for physical skills like walking or talking might be more straightforward for many therapists, but if you can understand the developmental timeline for social-emotional and executive functioning skills, you will have a fuller picture of a child’ overall development. 

 When you have specialized knowledge of pediatric mental health, it will truly elevate your clinical level of care and have a lasting impact on your work with young children and their families.

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