Socioemotional Development

Citation: Huitt, W. (2008). Socioemotional development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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Erik Erikson was a follower of Sigmund Freud who broke with his teacher over the fundamental point of what motivates or drives human behavior. For Freud it was biology, or more specifically, the biological instincts of life and aggression. For Erikson, who was not trained in biology and/or the medical sciences (unlike Freud and many of his contemporaries), the most important force driving human behavior and the development of personality was social interaction.

Erikson left his native Germany in the 1930's and immigrated to America where he studied Native American traditions of human development and continued his work as a psychoanalyst. His developmental theory of the Eight Stages of Man (Erikson, 1950) was unique in that it covered the entire lifespan rather than childhood and adolescent development.

Erikson's view is that the social environment combined with biological maturation provides each individual with a set of "crises" that must be resolved. The individual is provided with a "sensitive period" in which to successfully resolve each crisis before a new crisis is presented. The results of the resolution, whether successful or not, are carried forward to the next crisis and provide the foundation for its resolution. This is different from other theories such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development or Maslow's theory of human needs where the level must be satisfactorily addressed before one can move on to the next level.

Erikson's Theory of Socioemotional Development
Stage Age Expected Resolution
Infancy Child develops a belief that the environment can be counted on to meet his or her basic physiological and social needs
Shame and Doubt
Toddlerhood Child learns what he/she can control and develops a sense of free will and corresponding sense of regret and sorrow for inappropriate use of self-control.
Early Childhood Child learns to begin action, to explore, to imagine as well as feeling remorse for actions
Middle Childhood/
Child learns to do things well or correctly in comparison to a standard or to others
Role Confusion
Adolescence Develops a sense of self in relationship to others and to own internal thoughts and desires (Later work has shown two substages: a social identity focusing on which group a person will identify with and a personal identity focusing on abilities, goals, possibilities, etc.)
Young Adult Develops ability to give and receive love; begins to make long-term commitment to relationships
Middle Adulthood Develops interest in guiding the development of the next generation
Ego Integrity
Older Adulthood Develops a sense of acceptance of life as it was lived and the importance of the people and relationships that individual developed over the lifespan

Bingham and Stryker (1995) suggest that the socioemotional crises of personality development may receive different emphases for boys and girls as well as for men and women. They propose five stages of socioemotional development for girls and women that parallels those proposed by Erikson.

Stages of Socioemotional Development for Girls
Stage Age Expected Resolution
Developing the
Hardy Personality
Through age 8 Feel in control of own life, committed to specific activities, look forward to challenge and opportunity for growth
Forming an Identity
as an Achiever
Age 9-12 Develop steady, durable core of self as person who is capable of accomplishment in a variety of areas (e.g., intellectual, physical, social, potential career)
Skill Building for Self-Esteem Age 13-16 Feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert needs and wants; confidence in ability to cope with life
Strategies for Self-Sufficiency (Emotional-Financial) Age 17-22 Sense of responsibility for taking care of herself and, perhaps, a family; based on a sense of autonomy
Satisfaction in
Work and Love
Adulthood Contentedness in personal accomplishments and social/personal relationships

The basis for the foundation of the development of a hardy personality is based on the work of Suzanne Kobasa Ouellette, a professor at the City University of New York. The three C's of hardiness--control, commitment, challenge--can be developed through the acquisition of eight specific skills:

These seem to be very similar to the outcomes of a satisfactory resolution of the first three crises proposed by Erikson. What may be different is that these are not the normal desired outcomes of infancy and early childhood for girls. Rather there may be a tendency to socialize girls to be more acquiescent and dependent, which is to their detriment in terms of further development. In any case, the two perspectives address very similar issues for infancy, toddlerhood, and early childhood.

The importance of forming an identity as an achiever during middle childhood is the same in both the Erikson and Bingham-Styker models. The difference may lie in the importance. As girls reach puberty, their attention naturally turns to relationships in ways that may be different from boys. To the extent that girls have not successfully developed a sense of accomplishment during middle and late childhood, it may be a decade or more before there is an opportunity to again tackle this issue. However, for boys, there may be more of an opportunity to address the issue of any deficiencies in a sense of accomplishment within the Eriksonian stage of identity formation.

The importance of self-esteem for girls in the adolescent years cannot be overemphasized. A study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW, 1991) showed that girls had a precipitous drop in self-esteem between elementary and high school. While boys also showed a decline it was not nearly as dramatic.

Percentage of Boys and Girls Responding Positively
to the Statement "I am happy the way I am"
  Elementary High School Decrease
Boys 67 46 19
White Girls 60 29 31
African-American Girls 65 58 7
Hispanic Girls 68 30 38

A major difference between the Erikson and Bingham-Stryker models occurs in the stage of early adulthood. In Erikson's model the crisis is intimacy versus isolation. In the Bingham-Stryker model the crisis is emotional and financial self-sufficiency. The difference may lie in gender expectations. Boys are expected to become self-sufficient; the male crisis is one of establishing intimacy. Girls are expected to establish relationships; the female crisis is autonomy in terms of taking care of themselves emotionally and financially. A related observation made by those studying trends in modern society (Huitt, 2007) is that everyone, both men and women, need to pay special attention to financial independence. The movement from the agricultural/industrial economy of 20th century to the information/service economy of the 21st is demanding the development of a new set of skills. Included in those skills is both a need to manage personal resources such as finances as well as develop the social and emotional skills that will allow one towork in groups and adapt to a rapidly changing environment. In this respect both Erikson and Bingham-Stryker are correct.

For Erikson, the crises of adulthood revolve around the issues of generativity and ego identity. For Bingham and Stryker, the crises revolve around the contentment one has with life in terms of accomplishment in the workplace and relationships. I believe Covey, Merrill and Merrill (1994) have best expressed the issues of adulthood with their list--to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. This expresses the issues of intimacy (to love) and generativity (to leave a legacy) proposed by Erikson as well as the issues of to live (emotional, financial) and to learn (achievement in the world of work) proposed by Bingham and Stryker.

A variety of other books provide a discussion of girls' and women's development (e.g., Borysenko, 1997; Dale, 1995; see Huitt, 1997). It is vitally important that we pay special attention to what works for girls as well as for boys. This is certainly an area in need of further exploration.


Suggestions for Encouraging Socioemotional Development*

The Preschool Child/Developing a Hardy Personality

1. Encourage initiative in many aspects of classroom work.

  • Develop student-run projects
  • Reinforce choices that students may make for themselves.
  • Have a free-choice time in which a child may select an educational game or activity.
  • As much as possible, avoid interrupting a child who is very involved and concentrated on what he is doing.

2. Avoid scolding or devaluating a child because he tries something on his own.

  • Be flexible. Incorporate children's ideas, suggestions, and comments into class activities and discussions.
  • If a child initiates an inappropriate or dangerous activity, restructure his efforts within acceptable limits rather than completely squelching his ideas.

3. Encourage make-believe with a wide variety of roles.

  • Play pretend games focusing on roles children are already familiar with.
  • During these games have children switch roles so that all children are given a chance to lead.

Elementary School/
Achievement and Peer Relationships

.1. Make sure that each child has a chance experience success.

  • Provide tasks and assignments on student's level of difficulty.
  • Provide opportunity for child to engage in activities that match their temperaments, learning styles, abilities, etc.

2. Provide students with opportunities to set and work toward realistic goals.

  • Provide many relatively short projects that offer true gains.
  • Allow student involvement in choice of projects.

3. Let students have a chance to show their independence and responsibility.

  • Show tolerance for student mistakes.
  • Give students opportunities to participate in classroom duties.

4. Know something about the friendship structure of your classroom and try to find ways to encourage isolates to get involved.

  • Give isolates responsibilities that they can handle.
  • Help students learn game skills needed to take part in peer activities.

5. Give students a chance to think about fairness and justice.

  • Use the Golden Rule as a basis for discussions of conflict. ("How would you feel if someone did that to you?")
  • Discuss class rules as a group.
  • Give students a clear statement of class rules and their rationale.

6. Provide encouragement to students who seem discouraged.

  • Use individual contracts and charts that show student's progress.
  • Recognize students for their accomplishments.

Encouraging Identity Formation and Development of Self-Esteem

1. Give students many models for career choices and other adult roles.

  • Provide models from literature and history.
  • Invite guest speakers to share their occupations.

2. Encourage students to develop interest in many activities.

  • Provide a variety of extra-curricular clubs and activities.
  • Encourage worthwhile hobbies.

3. Help students find assistance in working out personal problems.

  • Provide school counseling services.
  • Refer students to outside services when necessary.

4. Give students a chance to examine some of the choices they must make.

  • Choose lessons which center on career choices.
  • Provide units on changing family life.

5. Check to see if the textbooks and other materials you are using are presenting an honest view of the options open to both females and males and make adjustments when necessary.

  • Are both males and females portrayed in traditional and nontraditional roles at work, at leisure, and at home?
  • What effects are the materials likely to have on the self-images and aspirations of the female students? of the male students?
  • Discuss your findings with the students and ask them to help you find similar biases in other materials.
  • Locate additional materials to fill gaps noticed in the regular materials.

7. Watch for any unintended biases in your own classroom practices.

  • Do you group students by gender for certain activities?
  • Do you tend to call on one gender or the other for certain answers (boys for math and girls for poetry, for example?)

8. Look for ways in which your school may be limiting the options open to male or female students.

  • What advice is given by guidance counselors to students in course selection and career decisions?
  • Is there a good sports program for both boys and girls?

9. Give students realistic feedback about themselves.

  • Point out how students' behavior produces certain consequences.
  • In addition to grading, comment on the strengths and weaknesses in their work.

* Adapted from: Woolfolk & McCune-Nicolich. (1984). Educational psychology for teachers. (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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