Definitions of development, behavior, mental health, and social-emotional skills
First let’s start by defining our terms. Development is usually viewed as a series of domains. Each domain typically has several subdomains (which are underlined below). These include:
  • Cognitive (also called intellectual )– covers rate of learning; short and long-term memory (for what a child has seen, heard and learned including sequences required to complete tasks); and problem-solving
  • Language – includes: expressive skills, i.e., the ability to communicate and be understood by others including facility with articulation of sounds and the pragmatic skills of maintaining a conversation that embraces the listener’s perspective and interests; and finally receptive skills, meaning the ability to understand words, sentences, and passages when heard
  • Motor includes gross motor: The use of large muscles in the neck, arms, legs, back and torso to move around effectively; and fine motor—the use of hands, fingers, and wrists to execute refined tasks such as using utensils to eat, ability to draw, write, and eventually use tools like scissors, knives, screwdrivers, typewriters and keyboards, etc.
  • Preacademic/academic –addresses knowledge of shapes, colors, and eventually letter names, words in print, comprehension of written words and passages; ability to spell and write words on his/her own; and eventually to create with “talk written down”, i.e., express himself/herself in writing
  • Self Help (sometimes called adaptive behavior or personal-social)—covers acquisition of basic skills with hygiene, dressing, and eventually household maintenance, cooking, cleaning, home repair, running errands, etc.
  • Behavior includes two broad domains:   


1.  Willingness to comply with rules when asked, and with time, to remember rules, understand why rules are needed, and... conform to rules (even when no one is watching)!  

2.  Ability to be still long enough to attend to the tasks at hand;

3.  An age-appropriate attention span to facilitate taking in new information.


Social-Emotional/Mental Health:

1.  Sense of well-being and self-esteem (e.g., a positive outlook on life with an increasingly realistic sense of strengths and weaknesses)Relating to siblings, parents and close relatives, ideally with joy and affection;

2.  Interest in less familiar people (including animals and new objects) including age-appropriate wariness of strangers, novelty, and dangers; an emerging respect for others including their well-being and property;  awareness of and overall compliance with social conventions (e.g., empathy for others, noticing and imitating how others behave, dress, what they are interested in, etc.)

3.  Adjusting to life’s challenges-- learning to regulate and cope with difficult emotions, like anger, disappointment, fatigue, etc. and to bring these skills back into the conduct domain so as to behave in increasingly mature  ways (e.g., fewer temper tantrums);

4.  Acquiring a perspective on life and the world, i.e., reality, that is, in general, shared by others (e.g.,fewer nightmares or night-terrors, and no hallucinations)!  

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    Now…If you’ve noticed an enormous overlap among the above domains, you are so right! And skills across domains have to work together. Several examples are described below.

    How Domains Work Together
    Example 1
    If you ask a child to pick up toys, it requires that she understand the request (receptive language), remember what was asked (the cognitive skill of short-term memory), have the ability to move to where the mess is (gross motor), locate the appropriate container where toys should be stored (cognitive, i.e., long-term memory), pick up and then release the toys (fine motor), and the attention span and the willingness to comply with requests (behavior). And… she also needs to be able to hear and see well enough, and to have the necessary energy that good health provides (we’ll talk more about health and sensory issues later on).
    Example 2
    When we ask a child to get dressed by himself without prompting, this requires a willingness to comply (behavior), an ability to recall routines such as time of day, and memory for the necessary sequences in which tasks need to be executed, such as knowing that he has to put his pants on before his shoes and socks (various kinds of cognitive skills). Next the child has to be physically able to pull on his short, pants, coat, etc. (gross motor). Then he has to deal with many kinds of fasteners like buttons, zippers, and shoe laces (fine motor). And, we hope that he also notices what other people wear and cares, at least a little, about his or her appearance, and so figures out that plaids and polka dots don’t go together and that it isn’t desirable to wear stained and dirty clothes (the social-emotional skill of interest in others). So success with this task requires skills across myriad domains, and as usual, visual and auditory acuity, and overall good health and energy.
    Example 3
    Domains and subdomains overlap even more when it comes to infants. For example, when a baby is fussing in her crib and then hears her dad’s voice in another room, she will most likely quiet a bit because she remembers his voice, associates his voice with a soothing and pleasant experience, and anticipates his coming to play with her (cognitive, i.e., memory+receptive language+the social-emotional skill of relating to family).

    But if a stranger appeared instead, the baby would probably stop smiling for a bit and just stare (cognitive, i.e., memory for what is familiar and what is not),+the social-emotional skill of interest in others, but also wariness about the unfamiliar.

    In contrast, if her dad walks in she will likely smile in recognition (cognitive, i.e., memory + the social-emotional skill of relating to family). Next, she will probably coo or make other sounds (expressive language + memory [for prior sound-play]+social-emotional skills).

    She will surely wriggle, reach out her arms, and if he picks her up she’ll try to grab his glasses or his hair (gross motor+social-emotional+fine motor).  He’ll wince and gently say “No” as he tries to extract his glasses and hair from her fist.  She’ll notice that and with time will learn that people aren’t too crazy about having their hair and glasses pulled, and so she’ll eventually stop doing it (memory+ social-emotional+behavior).

    Hopefully, her dad will talk to her and ask her about her day (even though she can’t understand his words quite yet) and he’ll also imitate the sounds she is making in response. She’ll repeat her own sounds after her dad imitates her and she’ll smile at this game (memory+receptive language+expressive language+social-emotional).

    Then, he’ll make a new sound for her such as “da-da-da-da” and he’ll smile and point to himself. She’ll start to associate that sound with him (memory+social-emotional).

    Day after day, he’ll keep playing enthusiastically with that sound and offer her ones that sound more like “da-da-da-DY”. She’ll imitate that with excitement. Her dad will get excited too. As they repeat this game over time, she’ll eventually say, “Daddy!” when he is around and encouraging her (expressive language+receptive language+memory+social-emotional) and she’ll receive even more enthusiastic responses from her dad. So his excitement at her efforts helps her learn that some sounds have unique meaning that gets a unique and positive response.
    Eventually, whenever she sees him, she’ll say “Daddy” which has now become almost a real word, although for a while, she’ll surely call other adult males “Daddy” until she figures out that isn’t quite right and just doesn’t get quite the same happy response as it gets from her dad (memory+receptive+expressive+social-emotional). With experience, and as her memory skills improve with age, she’ll only say “Daddy” to her dad, and later she will be able to hold onto a mental image of him that she associates only with the sound “Daddy”.
    “Daddy” is now a real word!   And very soon, she will call for him even when she can’t see him; most especially if her Mom isn’t giving her exactly what she wants (conduct+social-emotional+self-help+memory+problem-solving)!
    So, the interplay of various domains is critical for new learning. In infancy, indeed throughout childhood and adolescence, social-emotional engagement, together with communication opportunities (meaning chances to listen and chances to be heard) drive most of a child’s learning.  The association between positive, warm interactions with adults, adults who notice and respond to a child’s interests, point out new things, and communicate lots, is often referred to as a “mediated learning experience”  (sometimes also called the “transactional nature of learning”, “cultural mediation”, or “social reciprocity”). These terms all mean that the child’s behaviors and interests shape the parents’ responses, and that the parents’ responses, interests and activities shape the child’s behaviors. Such interchanges are the stuff of new learning.