Play, Social-Emotional Development and Theory of Mind: Three Imprtans Aspects in Child Development

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As social beings one of the most important tasks during childhood is to develop adequate social and communicative skills, to enable successful interaction with the wide variety of people and situations encountered throughout life (Moore, 2010). Social cognition refers to the understanding of our own behaviour and that of others, and is at the heart of an individual’s ability to get along with other people (Astington & Olson, 2010). The foundations of social competence that are developed in the first few years of life have been closely linked to a child’s later ability to functionally adapt in school and to form successful relationships throughout life (Cohen, 2005). The No Child Left Behind Act brought in in 2001 in the US, requires that all children attending state funded schools sit a standardised test to measure basic literacy, language and mathematical ability. Cognitive ability is an important aspect of a child’s development, but this essay puts forward that play, social-emotional understanding and theory of mind are more important aspects in a child’s development, each impacting on a child’s cognitive and social development in some way.

Social-emotional development refers to a child’s experience, management and expression of emotions as well as their ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others (Cohen, 2005). Functionalists view emotion as an individual’s attempt to adapt to specific contextual demands (Lindon, 2012) and from this perspective emotions are seen as relational, intrapsychic phenomena linked to an individual’s goals, rather than purely internal. Emotions are influenced by an individual’s biological foundations and lived experience (Brownell, Kopp, & Kopp, 2010). For example, children who are born blind, and so have never seen a smile or frown, still exhibit these facial expressions themselves (Lindon, 2012). These expressions are the same across cultures, what differs are the social rules surrounding the emotional display and associated behaviours (Kastanakis & Voyer, 2013). As such emotional development is interlinked with social development, encompassing both intra- and interpersonal processes.

As children develop, maturation of the cerebral cortex allows for a decrease in unpredictable expressions of emotion and an increase in the ability to self-regulate emotions (Wolfe & Bell, 2007). Self-regulation consists of the ability to effectively manage and control states of arousal in order to reach a goal. Well regulated individuals are expected to be able to respond in a spontaneous manner, as well as exhibit effortful control to inhibit their approach or avoidant tendencies as appropriate (Eisenberg et al., 2001). The development of effortful control and self-regulation are closely associated with each other and are vital in the child’s ability to control their behaviour and direct their attention in a school environment (Raver, 2003). Research into early attention regulation, has found negative affect to be associated with a child’s ability to direct their attention. A study, which compared frustrated and non-frustrated infants at 6 months of age, found that those deemed as frustrated, through laboratory tests and reports from the mother, exhibited less focused attention during an attention task. They were also less likely to shift their attention away from the frustrating task of their own accord (Calkins, Hungerford, & Dedmon, 2004). Another study (Eisenberg et al., 1999), found that pre-schoolers who scored high on effortful control, were relatively unlikely to experience strong negative emotional arousal in response to peer interactions of moderate to high intensity. A criticism of this however, is that the intensity of the interaction is subjective and potentially dependent upon the child’s temperament, not their level of effortful control.

Once children become aware that they are distinct and separate from others, they begin to experience self-conscious emotions...
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