Early Childhood Development: Understanding the Milestones
If you’ve ever spent time with young children, you already know they are amazing learners. Those little people scamper around, chattering and learning at what seems to be a hundred miles per hour. Young children absorb information and learn in many different ways all at once.
For example, while a toddler is learning important physical skills and coordination—they’re also developing speech, studying social cues and learning emotional expression. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time with three or four other important elements thrown in!
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about some of these developmental milestones already. Doctors, teachers and all sorts of professionals who interact with kids keep an eye out for important changes as children grow. But even if you’ve studied up on early childhood development, keeping track of important milestones can seem overwhelming.
To make things easier, we asked experts in early childhood to share some of the most important things to know about early childhood development. Keep reading to get an idea of what childhood development is like, as well as the important milestones along the way!
Why is early childhood development important?
You can probably guess why children need to develop and grow as they go along. Obviously they can’t stay infants forever, no matter how cute they are. But professionals who work with children are much better equipped to help them learn if they understand how they grow.
“By being aware of development, teachers can understand what types of environments children need,” says Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes, PhD, LMHC, LPC-MHSP, EIP and host of Counselor Toolbox Podcast.
Fostering the right environment can help children develop self-esteem as well as explain some of their behaviors, Snipes explains. “Understanding early childhood development helps teachers more effectively manage their classroom, but more importantly, it helps children develop a strong sense of confidence and determination.”
When you have a strong foundation for what is going on in those little minds—you’ll have a much better idea of what they need to flourish. There is also a benefit to catching any development trouble early on.
“Early childhood education professionals need to know how to use screening tools when they suspect a delay may be present, and how to support parents in seeking help,” says Dr. Ari Yares, PhD, NCSP and psychologist.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that significant delays in development can be indicators of a medical or psychological condition. Catching potential underlying causes early can allow parents and caregivers to get support for their child and better understand how to adjust to their needs. According to the CDC, certain therapies and interventions will be much more effective early in a child’s life, when their brain is most adaptable. This makes early education an ideal stage for keeping an eye on what those little ones are learning.
Important areas of early childhood development
Early childhood development is a little easier to understand when you break it into categories of learning. The CDC separates early learning into four main areas:
- Social and emotional
- Movement/physical development
- Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
In healthy children, these areas are all important in growth and development. When you consider a learning environment, these growth areas intersect. For example, social and emotional awareness often rises through language and communication in the preschool years. Or toddlers might problem-solve and make cognitive discoveries through movement and physical growth.
But when you understand development as a whole, you see that educating children goes way beyond letters and numbers. “We often focus on creating a language-rich environment using colors, numbers and shapes, but leave out building a child’s emotional vocabulary,” says Yares.
Leaving an important element—like emotional expression—out of the picture can make learning more difficult for young students. “ECE professionals need to understand the full gamut of early childhood development, since emotional expression is often tied to behavioral difficulties we see in young children,” Yares says.
While there are definitely milestones to look for as children get older (e.g., beginning to make sentences or learning to walk), experts in childhood development warn against measuring all children against a checklist.
“Understand that development does not happen in a neat, linear fashion like textbooks or charts describe,” Yares says. “It is uneven and varies from child to child, even within the same family.” Yares advises early childhood professionals to understand important time frames and milestones, while learning about how development works at a more holistic level.
Development milestones in early childhood
The CDC lists common developmental milestones in young children along with the age range where these changes typically occur. If you have a rough idea of what to expect from children as they reach these milestones, you will be better equipped to work with children and keep an eye out for healthy growth.
At 2–4 months old, children:*
At 6–9 months old, children:*
- Recognize faces
- Sit without support
- Have favorite toys
- Can pick up objects between thumb and index finger
- Pull themselves to stand while holding on to objects
At one-year old, children:*
- Are often shy or nervous with strangers
- Use simple gestures; say “mama” and “dada”
- Follow simple directions like, “Pick up that toy.”
- Find hidden items easily
- May stand or take a few steps without support
At 18-months old, children:*
- Initiate play by handing things to others
- Point at what they want
- Say several single words
- Know how ordinary objects (telephone, spoon) are used
- Eat with spoons and drink with cups
At two-years old, children:*
- Show excitement around other kids
- Repeat words or sentences often overheard
- Begin to sort shapes and colors
- Begin to run, climb, throw and stand on tiptoe
At three-years old, children:*
- Exhibit a wide range of emotions
- Show concern for others
- Follow instructions with two or three steps
- Play make-believe
- Dress and undress themselves
At four-years old, children:*
- Enjoy trying new things and talking about interests
- Know some basic grammar rules
- Start to understand time and the idea of counting
- Pour, cut and mash their food with supervision
At five-years old, children:*
- Like to sing, dance and playact
- Speak clearly in full sentences
- Can print some letters or numbers
- Can use the toilet on their own
Applying early childhood development to the care environment
Whether you are teaching young ones, keeping them safe and busy in a care center, or even raising one of your own, understanding childhood development can make a great impact on how you relate with little ones.
“ECE professionals are uniquely positioned to help children develop an emotional vocabulary through activities like reading and by describing behavior and feelings happening in the classroom,” Yares says. “This is directly linked to the support that young children need in expressing their wants and needs and dealing with the emotional reactions.”
“Children at a preschool age tend to think very egocentrically and in all-or-nothing terms,” Snipes says. “It is vital to communicate in concrete terms so children do not feel responsible for something that may not be their fault.” When teachers understand how children develop, they’ll know to separate the child from the behavior to prevent children from internalizing harmful messages.
Looking at how children grow and what they need at different phases of development will also help teachers see a bigger picture of education. Snipes emphasizes that needs like sleep and nutrition have a huge impact on a child’s ability to learn and manage their emotions. When teachers partner with parents and caregivers, these aspects of early childhood development will be helpful to provide the best support possible for every child.
Becoming part of the village
Truly, it takes a village to raise a child. When you see all the early childhood development milestones and changes unfolding, you can see why support networks matter so much. Since every child is different, the most effective teachers know how to look for patterns and milestones while working with families.
If the thought of helping children grow and learn gives you excitement, then doing exactly that every workday might be the perfect career move for you. Check out our article, “5 Signs You Have What It Takes to Become a Child Care Provider,” to see if the nuances of this role appeal to you.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, Learn the Signs. Act Early. Developmental Milestones. [Information accessed September 17, 2018] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html