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    Social-emotional Development in Early Childhood

    What Every Policymaker Should Know


    The early years of life present a unique opportunity to lay the foundation for healthy development. It is a time of great growth and of vulnerability. Research on early childhood has underscored the impact of the first five years of a child's life on his/her social-emotional development. Negative early experiences can impair children's mental health and effect their cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional development.2

    The Needs of Young Children

    Social-emotional problems among young children* are common.

    ♦ Between 9.5 and 14.2 percent of children between birth and five years old experience social-emotional problems that negatively impact their functioning, development and school-readiness.3

    ♦ Approximately 9 percent of children who receive specialty mental health services in the United States are younger than 6 years old.4


    Mental health disorders in young children
    ♦ Boys show a greater prevalence of behavior problems than girls.5


    Prevalence rates of behavioral problems in pediatric primary care sample of preschool children by age and by gender (N=3,860)

    * Young children are defined as birth through age 5 for the purpose of this brief unless otherwise noted.

    Some young children have more severe mental health disorders. 6

    Family and Environmental risk Factors

    Specific family and environmental factors can make a child more vulnerable to social, emotional and behavioral problems.

    Neighborhood characteristics and family income can be risk factors that impact young children's social-emotional health and development.

    ♦ Young children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to experience behavioral problems than children living in moderate or affluent neighborhoods.7

    ♦ Young children from households with lower levels of family income are more likely to experience behavioral problems that negatively impact their development.8

    Research suggests that up to 50 percent of the impact of income on children's development can be mediated by interventions that target parenting.9

    Parents and caregivers play an important role in supporting children's healthy development. Research shows that family risk factors, particularly maternal risk factors such as substance use, mental health conditions and domestic violence exposure, can impact parents' ability to support children's development, and may contribute to behavioral problems among young children as early as age 3.10

    ♦ Young children with these family risks factors have been found to be two to three times more likely than children without these family risk factors to experience problems with aggression (19% vs. 7%) anxiety and depression (27% vs. 9%) and hyperactivity (19% vs. 7%).11

    Attachment is an important marker for social-emotional development. Poor attachment, especially maternal attachment, can negatively impact children's social-emotional health, and development.

    ♦ Almost two-fifths of two-year-olds in early care and learning settings had insecure attachment relationships with their mothers. In particular, research shows that African-American and Latino young children experience lower levels of secure attachment than Asian-American and White children.12

    Children of parents with mental illness are at a greater risk for psychosocial problems.

    ♦ More than two-thirds of adults with mental illness are parents.13

    ♦ Between 30 and 50 percent of children with parents who are mentally ill have a psychiatric diagnosis, compared to 20 percent of children in the general population.14

    ♦ Children of parents with a mental illness may also show higher rates of difficulties with regulating their emotions, relationship problems and developmental delays.15

    Even the mental health problems of non-relative caregivers affect the quality of children's early experiences in their care.

    ♦ Adults who work in childcare centers have higher rates of depression than found in the general population. 16 Caregivers who report depressive symptoms are more likely to be detached, insensitive and interact less with children in their care than non-familial caregivers who are not depressed.17