Four kids hanging out together in the garden

Developmental Milestones of Social Skills for Children

Social skills are a way of communicating with others that creates healthy and positive interactions. Children with age-appropriate social skills can communicate clearly, calmly, and respectfully with adults and their peers. They also show consideration for the feelings and interests of others.  

It’s important that social skills for children are built on and developed from early childhood. Of course, they’re not learned at once but refined throughout child development milestones.

The importance of social skills

Good social skills provide many benefits to young children in many social situations and interactions. Additionally, such skills can often lead to success in many areas from school settings to personal lives.

Social skills help children: 

  • Form positive relationships 
  • Have conversations 
  • Develop body language 
  • Cooperate 
  • Share 
  • Play together 

Having well-developed social skills also leads to improved mental capacity, cognitive abilities, and overall mental health.   

Basic social skills start to develop in a newborn between birth and four weeks old when a child is learning how to interact with their caregivers and environment. Social communication for a young child at this age may look like: 

  • Smiling 
  • Making eye contact 
  • Imitating 
  • Crying 

How family members react to their child’s social skills will teach them how to respond in the future to meet their wants and needs. Social milestones may be affected or enforced by how a parent reacts to a situation because children will observe others to learn behaviors. How adults model behaviors when responding to fear, surprises, other adults, children, and more will be processed by a child and influence the child’s responses.  

Social emotional learning in child development 

These basic social skills learned early on are also related to a child’s emotional development as they learn how to respond to:

  • Conflict resolution 
  • Active listening 
  • Empathy 
  • Relationship management 
  • Self-control 
  • Basic etiquette like when to say “please” or “thank you” 
  • Making eye contact 
  • Learning the names of casual acquaintances 
  • Apology 
  • Asking questions during a conversation 
  • Reading body language 
  • And more 

Social and emotional development are connected by a child’s experience, reaction to the experience, and how to regulate their response depending on their experience. This is important for building relationships with their peers as they enter school-age and into adolescence.  

If a child does not express age-appropriate social interaction or emotional regulation, it may affect their relationships with others and their ability to self-regulate.  

All children are unique and may not reach these milestones at the same time as other children; however, if you are concerned about your child’s social and emotional development, please consider how Occupational Therapy could benefit your child.  

What are the milestones of social development during childhood?  

Social development in childhood often looks like play. It considers how a child interacts with their caregivers and later their peers. A child is also developing emotionally while developing their social skills.  

You may notice some emotional responses present in social settings that are new to your child or possibly overwhelming for your child. You can encourage social development by talking to your child and facilitating socializing with other children as soon as you feel comfortable. Here’s what social behavior can look like for different milestones:


Toddlers begin to learn how to interact with others. As they develop and perceive their individuality within their community, they also gain skills to communicate with others and process their actions.  


Preschool-aged children begin regulating emotions, sharing with others, and following directions. These skills in early childhood lay the foundation for developing literacy, numeracy, and other cognitive abilities critical for success in school and life for a young child.  


School-age children are advancing toward adolescence, and peer friendships become very important in their social and emotional development. Their sense of independence increases, along with their confidence to solve problems and perhaps take risks. In adolescence, healthy emotional development is marked by a gradually increasing ability to perceive, assess and manage emotions. This biological process is driven by physical and cognitive changes and is heavily influenced by context and environment.  

Examples of places you can take your child to socialize include: 

  • Play Groups 
  • Sports or Tumble Classes  
  • Library 
  • Camp 
  • Local Activities  
  • Parks or Playgrounds 
  • Children’s Museum  
  • Relative’s house or family gatherings   

This will build up their social behavior skills in an age-appropriate setting and increase their confidence in their ability to communicate and play with others. By encouraging these interactions when age-appropriate, you can also promote positive experiences and model behaviors appropriate in these settings.  

This may look like:  

  • Teaching a child how to introduce themselves 
  • Interacting with appropriate manners 
  • Following instructions 
  • Asking for help  

As a child ages, these social interactions and settings will look different, but encouraging an independence-seeking child to join clubs or school programs they are interested in will continue to form their social skill development.   

Social Skills Development Delays  

Social interactions and skills can be categorized by different milestones reached throughout childhood. Many factors can impact your child and the development of their social skills, and others should be considered before addressing any potential delay.  

Some factors that impact social skill development include: 

  • Trouble understanding social cues 
  • Communication with others  
  • Carrying on a two-way conversation 
  • Difficulty with self-control 
  • Language barriers 
  • Mental health issues 
  • Genetic or hereditary condition  
  • Learning disabilities  
  • Intellectual disabilities  
  • Stressful situations 
  • Sensory processing  
  • Sensory regulation  

These factors can be addressed through Occupational Therapy. The therapist can understand what may be impacting a child’s ability to socialize appropriately and can help implement the appropriate strategies to help. Getting a head start on this will help down the line with other important language developmental milestones.

It is also crucial to understand that your child may not be experiencing a delay in social skills. They may be using other methods of socialization and communication due to how their brain processes information in their environment. This will also be considered when providing strategies to encourage social skills outside of Occupational Therapy.  

What social milestones should my child have?

Some social milestones, and related emotional milestones, by age, include: 

Infants and Babies

Birth to 2 months 

  • Smiling 
  • Looking at caregiver 
  • Crying to have their needs met 
  • Self-soothes by sucking on hand or fingers

4 months 

  • Begins to imitate facial expressions 
  • Smiles more spontaneously 
  • Develops awareness of surroundings 

6 months 

  • Crying, laughing, or smiling in response to the caregiver’s emotions 
  • Can differentiate familiar faces and strangers 
  • Likes to look at their face in a mirror 

9 months 

  • Shows stranger danger 
  • May cry if their caregiver leaves the room 
  • Learns the meaning of a few words 

12 months 

  • Shows preference of people they want to be with 
  • Enjoys games like “peek-a-boo” 
  • May show fear in new environments or anxiety to new people 
  • Imitates sounds or actions 

Toddler and Preschool age

18 months to 2 years 

  • May become upset when trying to communicate 
  • May assert independence 
  • Engages in pretend play, will imitate what adults or other children do during this play 
  • Engages in side-by-side, or parallel, play with other children 
  • More frequent temper tantrums 
  • Does not understand what others think or feel (empathy) 

3 to 4 years 

  • Can be spontaneously kind or caring 
  • Engage in cooperative play (child playing with others and showing interest in the other children and the activity) 
  • Uses words to communicate needs 
  • May still have tantrums if there is a change in routine or not getting what they want 
  • Begins to express a broader range of emotions 
  • Separate from caregiver more easily 
  • Begins to share toys with others 

Elementary school-age

5 to 6 years 

  • More aware of following rules 
  • Enjoys cooperative play 
  • More conversational and independent 
  • Can understand embarrassment 
  • Understands other’s feelings 
  • May test boundaries 

7 to 8 years 

  • Tries to fit in  
  • Expands their vocabulary, including emotional vocabulary 
  • May complain about other children’s reactions 
  • Greater awareness of their surroundings 
  • More aware of the perceptions of others 
  • Wants to behave appropriately but may not attend to directions 
  • They try to express feelings with words, but if they are unable to they may resort to aggression or tantrums 

9 to 10 years 

  • Concerned about rules and could lead to bossiness 
  • Cooperative play in group games or settings 
  • Uses problem-solving, negotiating, and compromising skills with their peers 
  • Begins demonstrating sportsmanship  
  • Begins to develop their own identity 
  • May narrow their peer group to close friends 
  • Are more affectionate 
  • May change emotions quickly 

Ivy Rehab for Kids Can Help  

Early Intervention is key to getting your child the support they may need. If you notice your child is behind with some of these social skills, it may be due to a developmental disability. At Ivy Rehab for Kids, we offer pediatric Occupational Therapy, where our Occupational Therapists will listen to your needs as a parent and the child’s needs to create a unique plan of care for your child.  

At the time of your evaluation and throughout your time with Ivy, your therapist will offer strategies to help your child reach the goals you have discussed. They are experts in approaching challenging social skills activities and working through any social or emotional situation they may experience during their treatment session. 

Our therapists will also provide you with information and resources, so you can advocate for your child and use their recommended strategies at home.

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s social or emotional skill development, do not hesitate to contact your nearest Ivy Rehab for Kids clinic for more information. Visit our website to request an appointment online or contact the location nearest you for additional information. 

Article By: Hannah Ardelean, PTA 

Hannah began her Physical Therapist Assistant career just over one year ago. Hannah loves working with the Pediatric population and believes in the importance of providing evidence-based, quality, direct care to her patients. She currently holds certification to provide Serial Casting at her clinic. Hannah enjoys working with children of all ages and watching them achieve their goals and educating their parents on how to be an advocate for their children. She currently treats patients at Ivy Rehab for Kids in Davison, MI. 

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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