5. The components of child development

Scientists describe child development as cognitive, social, emotional, and physical.

While children’s development is commonly described in these categories, in reality it is more complicated than that. For example, we know that when children learn to walk (physical development), their language takes a leap forward as assessed by the number of words they know (cognitive development). Or consider how forming strong attachments (social emotional development) can make children feel safe to explore their world and learn more about it (cognitive development). We make the divisions for convenience, not because they are truly separate domains.

  • Cognitive development

Cognitive development involves how children think, explore, understand new information, learn language, and figure things out.

Researchers have looked at different aspects of cognitive development. Clearly, the human mind has innate abilities and grows like a tree from a seed. But how it grows is hugely influenced by what happens around it as it grows.

However, it’s even more complicated than that. Modern cognitive development theory emphasizes a “relational” approach and views social interaction as the vehicle through which children’s cognitive development occurs. Stated differently, the mind forms through the process of being part of and also contributing to social interaction. Children growing up are not just being influenced by the people and situations around them, but are themselves influencing what happens around them and how people act toward them. Growing up in families provides a long period of intense social interaction and is the foundation for how children think and learn language.

  • Social emotional development

Social emotional development includes building self-awareness, self-management of emotions (also known as self-regulation), social awareness, relationship skills, executive function, and responsible decision making. Emotional learning also involves the development of empathy, morality, and identity. Controlling one’s emotions and understanding that experiencing an emotion differs from expressing it are at the heart of social emotional development.

Researchers have identified stages of social emotional development: The first stages are gaze, attachment, attention, and gestures. The next stage is the emergence of an understanding of others’ perspectives, including that different people may have and act on different beliefs about the same thing. The development of empathy comes next, followed by relationship skills (or being nice to others).

As is the case for cognitive development, social emotional development is a gradual process of learning through relationships, and families are the most important influence. Parents who actively encourage social emotional learning in their children, helping them see others’ perspectives, have children who have more empathic skills. Similarly, parents’ encouragement of helping in the home is associated with greater social understanding in children later in life. Parents who are authoritarian—who shout, mete out physical punishment, and be very controlling—have children who are less adept at social learning.

Daily interactions with caregivers influence babies’ brain development directly. When expectations for care, nurturing, and protection are met, infant brains respond positively, making babies more likely to relate to those caregivers easily and confidently. For babies whose expectations are not met or are met less adequately, social and emotional development is more likely to suffer, as is language and intellectual development.

Among the factors that influence children’s social emotional development are the cultures in which they are raised, whether they have siblings and the quality of their interactions, how much they pretend in play, their relationships with peers, their temperaments, and the level of their language skills.

For more on the key issue of social emotional development read our overview, Social Emotional Development.

  • Physical development

Children go through stages of motor development during which they learn gross motor skills (e.g., riding a tricycle) and fine motor skills (e.g., drawing). To understand how rapidly children’s motor skills develop, picture a one-year-old who is just starting to learn to walk and handle a spoon, and then picture a five-year-old who is learning to ride a scooter and tie her shoes.

The milestones of physical development range from actions most children do in early infancy (e.g., holding up their heads with support) to actions most 9-month-olds do (e.g., crawling), on into toddlerhood (e.g., standing on tiptoes) and beyond.

Cardiovascular, immune, neuroendocrine, and metabolic systems also play a role in shaping a child’s capacities for the future.

Children’s development is supported when their basic needs are met. Children develop more strongly when they have nutritious food, adequate shelter, good health care, enough sleep, and warm, supportive relationships with their carers.