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Red Flag Behaviors and Social/Emotional Development

It is in the early childhood classroom where children begin to learn to work cooperatively with other children and adults, assume various social roles, and to deal with their full range of emotions and how to express these feelings in age-appropriate ways.

Increased evidence illustrates young children who have challenging social and emotional behavior are more likely to experience early and persistent peer rejection, increased disciplinary contacts with teachers, negative family interaction patterns that are difficult for all family members, and school failure. On the other hand, children who are emotionally and socially well-adjusted have a greater chance of early school success.

This evidence suggests social and behavioral competence in young children may have a primary effect on academic performance in the early grades, over and above cognitive skills and family background. For this reason it is important that early childhood teachers are aware of the range of behaviors exhibited by children who may be at risk for challenging social and emotional behaviors. The earlier these behaviors are identified the sooner children and families are able to benefit from appropriate intervention.

What is healthy social and emotional development?

Healthy social development is measured by the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with others, along with knowledge of social rules and standards. The ability to communicate appropriately with others, engage in fantasy and interactive play, and the acquisition of toileting and dressing behaviors are all part of healthy social development.

The feelings an individual has about their self and others, is the focal point of healthy emotional development. These feelings span the range of positive and negative emotions, as well as the ability to monitor and control feelings in culturally appropriate ways. The development of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-regulation are all important aspects of healthy emotional development. Emotional health also encompasses areas such as successful separation from the family and learning to follow routines and home and at school.

What does “red flag” behavior mean?

According to Scott G. Allen, Executive Director, Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Red flags should serve as a warning for potential delays and disabilities where developmental milestones focus on what a child can do by a specific age.” A red flag is any behavior, or changes in behavior, that alerts teachers, parents, or caregivers there might be atypical development in a particular child.

While red flags indicate there is developmental delay they are a not a cause for panic, or a definitive sign of a more pervasive diagnosis. Instead, a red flag simply signals a need for careful observation of the child. It is important to look for either triggers that might lead to observed behavior, or patterns of behavior in the child’s development; one missed milestone does not indicate that the child is developmentally delayed.

How to Communicate Observations with Parents

Once a red flag behavior is identified it is important to discuss any observations with parents and other professionals as needed. Dr. Alexandra Klein Rafaeli, a clinical psychologist specializing in social and emotional development, believes the key to working with parents in addressing atypical development in their children is best approached by open and honest communication. “My experience has been the more communication with parents the better. If parents are helped to understand specific reasons of concern and are provided close continual follow-up they almost always appreciate it and feel they are learning along the way.” Dr. Klein Rafaeli also warns that it is critical to stay away from any labels or prognosis concerning the child. Instead, focus on concrete observations of behavior. It is important to be very specific when describing the behaviors you observe in the classroom.

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