How do children learn about themselves and form relationships with those around them?


Children’s ability to learn is determined by much more than their cognitive capabilities. Social and emotional issues play a significant role, as students’ relationships to themselves and the people around them shape their learning process.[i] Research shows that social and emotional factors are connected to later success in school, starting as early as preschool.[ii]

In early childhood, children begin to develop their identity or self-concept, the abilities, attitudes, attributes, and values that they believe define them.[iii] During this period they also develop the capacity to understand and manage their own emotions and behaviors, which is an important foundation for success both in school and in life. Studies show, for example, that educational outcomes are better among children who are able to delay gratification by passing up a reward now for a larger reward later.[iv] Research has identified other academic behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes — such as self-esteem, self-regulation, and “grit” — that affect learning outcomes.[v]

Children also learn from social interactions and relationships. Learning involves communication, imitation, cooperation, and other forms of social engagement that require interacting with and understanding the perspectives of other people.[vi] Research has found that relationships with parents, teachers, and peers all play a role in the learning process.[vii] These individuals transmit knowledge to students, as well as ideas about the value of education and achievement.

The sections below highlight key findings from the research on social development and relationships and social and emotional learning interventions.

Key Findings

Social Development and Relationships

Understanding their relationship to others is foundational to a child’s development.

Early in life, children begin to understand the social world around them and their relationship to others. They develop theory of mind, the understanding that other people are separate from them and have their own thoughts and feelings.[viii] This is one element of social cognition, the ways in which we understand people and social interactions, which form the foundation for empathy, relationships, and prosocial behavior.[ix] The strength of children’s understanding of social concepts like theory of mind is connected to the broader development of their executive functions, the higher-order mental processes that allow them to consciously control their thoughts and actions.[x] Educators may be able to improve children’s theory of mind through activities that examine people’s interior lives, such as reading literary fiction.[xi]

Positive relationships between children and their parents are vital for motivation and engagement. 

While it is important for learners to develop autonomy, interpersonal relationships are also fundamental to student motivation and self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a situation or accomplish a task.[xii] Parents and caregivers are children’s first relationships; beliefs about the importance of schooling and learning are passed to children socially, starting with their caregivers.[xiii] These close relationships also lay the foundation for what children believe about their own abilities and self-worth. Children’s feelings of connectedness and relatedness to their parents, as well as teachers and peers, have been shown to play a role in academic motivation and engagement.[xiv]

Teacher-student relationships have a significant impact on academic performance and social behavior.

Research shows that relationships with teachers impact students’ academic engagement, social interactions with peers and adults, and behavior, both in that particular teacher’s classroom and in other classes.[xv] Warm teacher-student relationships yield benefits, particularly for students with learning difficulties or disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds,[xv] while conflicts with teachers generate negative outcomes such as academic underachievement.[xvi] While many individual and interpersonal factors contribute to teacher-student relationships, certain strategies can help foster constructive interactions. For example, teachers can provide positive reinforcement through encouragement and recognition for desired behaviors, as opposed to negative or aggressive forms of discipline for undesired behaviors.[xvii]In addition, Search Institute has identified elements and actions that lead to positive relationships between adults and young people, including teachers and their students; their framework emphasizes the importance of adults treating young people with care and respect, challenging them to persist and improve, and inspiring them to take on new ideas and see possibilities for their futures.[xviii]

Social and Emotional Learning Interventions

The social and emotional climate in schools affects learning outcomes.

Emotions play an important role in many aspects of the learning process, including memory, decision making, and creativity, as well as reasoning and rational thinking.[xix] Designing schools and other learning environments to foster positive emotions can help students make meaning of what they are learning, and apply their skills and knowledge in useful ways in real­-world situations.[xix] Schools’ social climates are another key factor in learning. cognition3Students’ relationships with their peers affect how they learn; the more comfortable and connected students feel in a classroom, the more they can focus on learning. For example, one study found that strong and positive emotional interactions between students are associated with higher grades.[xx]

Schools’ social climates are another key factor. Students’ relationships with their peers affect how they learn; the more comfortable and connected students feel in a classroom, the more they can focus on learning. For example, one study found that strong and positive emotional interactions between students are associated with higher grades.[xii]

Programs that teach social and emotional skills can improve students’ behavior and academic performance.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs help to enhance students’ social and emotional competence explicitly, for instance by teaching students to regulate their emotions, develop positive social relationships, engage in cooperative learning, and practicing responsible decision making.[xxi] A large body of research suggests that SEL interventions can improve children’s social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as significantly increase their academic achievement.[xxii] A cost-benefit analysis found that for every dollar schools spend on six common SEL programs, those interventions return an average $11 worth of benefits.[xxiii] Studies suggest that SEL programs work in a variety of school settings and with students of all ages.[xxii] Some research indicates that programs are more effective if they follow a set of best practices known as SAFE: a sequenced, step-by-step approach; opportunities for active learning; a focus on skills development; and the use of explicit learning goals.[xxiv] Because SEL programs target social skills, they may work best when implemented throughout an entire school. For instance, a review of research on anti-bullying programs found that school-wide programs are more effective than individual level interventions, likely because they influence the social and emotional climate of the school as a whole.[xxv]


Gender, Race & Ethnic Identity
The Gender, Race & Ethnic Identity subtopic explores various ways students’ racial and/or ethnic identity, and experiences of discrimination affect their academic outcomes and psychological, social, and emotional health.

The Self-Regulation subtopic explores children’s developing ability to regulate their behavior, including related school readiness and academic outcomes.

Family Resources and Relationships
The Family Resources and Relationships subtopic explores research on the effects of parenting, socio-economic status, and stress on children’s wellbeing and achievement. This subtopic also includes studies on parent-child attachment at infancy and in childhood, and how attachment is related to children’s development.

Parent Involvement
The Parent Involvement subtopic includes research studies on the connection between parent or family involvement and student academic achievement.

Teacher/Student Relationships
The Teacher/Student Relationships subtopic includes research on the characteristics of positive teacher-student relationships and on the effect of these relationships on student behavior and academic outcomes.

Quality Early Education
The Quality Early Education subtopic includes research measuring the quality of programs for young children as well as the impact of such programs on children’s social and cognitive development, and later academic trajectories.

Early Intervention Programs
The Early Intervention Programs subtopic includes research on the outcomes of different early intervention program models, with a focus on home visiting programs. Studies in this subtopic also discuss therapists/provider professional preparation and recommendations for building relationships with families.

Behavior Interventions
The Behavior Interventions subtopic includes research on school-based strategies to prevent or address challenging student behaviors.

Bullying, Aggression & Harassment
The Bullying, Aggression & Harassment subtopic describes bullying, aggression and harassment in educational settings, and their effects on students. It also includes evaluations of programs designed to prevent these acts.

Grade Retention
The Grade Retention subtopic includes studies on the effects of grade retention (repeating/”holding back” students, particularly in the early grades) on different student outcomes, such as social/emotional development and academic achievement.

Explore this topic in the Network View or Chord View of the Research Map.


[i] Elias, M. J. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. ASCD.
[ii] Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., Zinsser, K., & Wyatt, T. M. (2014). How preschoolers’ social–emotional learning predicts their early school success: Developing theorypromoting, competencybased assessments. Infant and Child Development23(4), 426-454.
Valiente, C., Eisenberg, N., Haugen, R.G., Spinrad, T.L., Hofer, C., Liew, J. and Kupfer, A. (2011). Children’s effortful control and academic achievement: Mediation through social functioning. Early Education & Development, 22(3): 411-433.
Montroy, J.J., Bowles, R.P., Skibbe, L.E. and Foster, T.D. (2014). Social skills and problem behaviors as mediators of the relationship between behavioral self-regulation and academic achievement. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(3): 298-309.
[iii] Oswalt, A. (2017) Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Identity and Self-Esteem. Gulf Bend Center.
[iv] Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. Random House.

[v] Swann Jr., W. B.; Chang-Schneider, C.; Larsen McClarty, K. (2007). Do people’s self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62(2): 84-94.
Ferkany, M. (2008). The Educational Importance of Self-Esteem. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42: 119–132.
Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(2): 64-70.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.

[vi] Tomasello, M., Kruger, A., and Ratner, H. “Cultural learning.Behavioral and brain sciences 16.03 (1993): 495-511.
[vii] Castro, M., Expósito-Casas, E., López-Martín, E., Lizasoain, L., Navarro-Asencio, E., & Gaviria, J. L. (2015). Parental involvement on student academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 14: 33-46.
Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher–student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.
Urdan, T., & Schoenfelder, E. (2006). Classroom effects on student motivation: Goal structures, social relationships, and competence beliefs. Journal of School Psychology, 44(5): 331-349.
Rubin, K. H., Bukowski, W. M., & Parker, J. G. (1998). Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. Handbook of Child Psychology.

[viii] Flavell, J. H. (2004). Theory-of-mind development: Retrospect and Prospect. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50(3): 274-290.
[ix] Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). ‘Like me’: A foundation for social cognition. Developmental Science, 10(1): 126-134.
[x] Hughes, C., & Ensor, R. (2007). Executive function and theory of mind: Predictive relations from ages 2 to 4. Developmental Psychology, 43(6): 1447-1459.
[xi] Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156): 377-380.
[xii]Martin AJ, Dowson M (2009). Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice. Review of Educational Research, 79 (1). 327-365.
[xiii]Fan, W., Williams, C., & Wolters,C. (2012). Parental Involvement in Predicting School Motivation: Similar and Differential Effects Across Ethnic Groups, Journal of Education Research.
[xiv] Furrer, C., and Skinner, E.. “Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance.Journal of Educational Psychology 95.1 (2003): 148.
[xv] Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher–student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.
[xvi] Spilt, J. L., Hughes, J. N., Wu, J. Y., & Kwok, O. M. (2012). Dynamics of teacher–student relationships: Stability and change across elementary school and the influence on children’s academic success. Child Development, 83(4), 1180-1195.
[xvii] Jong, R., Mainhard, T., Tartwijk, J., Veldman, I., Verloop, N., & Wubbels, T. (2014). How pre‐service teachers’ personality traits, self‐efficacy, and discipline strategies contribute to the teacher–student relationship. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(2), 294-310.
[xviii] Search Institute (2017). The Developmental Relationships Framework.
[xix] Immordino Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3­10.
[xx] Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom Emotional Climate, Student Engagement, and Academic Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology.
[xxi] The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2012).Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs.
[xxii] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405-432.
[xxiii] Belfield, C., Bowden, A. B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(03): 508-544.
[xxiv] Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2011). Afterschool programs that follow evidence-based practices to promote social and emotional development are effective. In Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success, Eds. White, W. S., & Peterson, T.K., pp 24-28.
[xxv] Pearce, N., Cross, D., Monks, H., Waters, S., & Falconer, S. (2011). Current Evidence of Best Practice in Whole-School Bullying Intervention and Its Potential to Inform Cyberbullying Interventions. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling, 21(01): 1-21.