Young Children: Typical Development

Below you will find a brief review of typical development, divided into four sections, each describing a different aspect of development.

  • The next page describes the impact of trauma on each of these aspects of development.
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Physical Development

Brain maturation and increased muscle strength allows toddlers to move from their first unsteady steps to activities such as running, hopping, jumping, or skipping, that require much more coordination. Growth of fine motor skills allows them to manipulate puzzle pieces and, later, to dress themselves. With increased muscle control, accompanied by enormous growth in expressive language skills, adults begin to expect children to exhibit and ever increasing capacity for physical self-control. Toilet training often begins around the age of two, as does the expectation that children will use words to communicate their feelings and wishes. Learning to share toys and to refrain from hitting, kicking, or biting others when upset are all part of the socialization process of the toddler and pre-school years.


Cognitive Development

Toddlers use their bodies to actively explore the world. They roll balls, push strollers, and jump from steps.  Learning at this stage often begins with imitation—for example, mixing all manner of things to “cook” because that’s what adults seem to do.  Pre-schoolers are more able to use language to try to understand their world. Both receptive and expressive language—that is, understanding what others are saying, and using words to make themselves understood by others–increase with neurological and muscle maturation. Toddlers often begin speaking in single words, moving to two- and three-word sentences. By the time they reach school age, most children can string together several sentences to describe an event, or tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.


Social Development

The sense of trust developed during infancy launches toddlers toward more independence and a developing sense of autonomy. With guidance from adults, they learn to have positive interactions with peers, although their developmentally appropriate focus on themselves places “me” and “mine” front and center in their worldview and vocabulary. During the pre-school years children start to have an easier time with sharing, taking turns, and give-and-take. They begin to engage in imaginative, interactive play with peers, and develop confidence in their capacity to take the initiative in exploring of their world and new relationships. Gender is an important component of identity, and the awareness of gender develops very early. Toddlers recognize and name “boys” and “girls,” and most assign themselves to the gender consistent with their anatomy. In the pre-school years, most children will choose to play with children of the same gender, often gravitating to toys stereotypically thought to appeal to either boys or girls. However, gender non-conforming children may express their different sense of gender identity as early as toddlerhood.


Emotional Development

The emotional world of toddlers and young children continues to center around the relationship with their primary caregivers, even as they show increasing interest in peers and enjoy the company of other adults. Toddlers who have formed a secure attachment during infancy will have an emotional sturdiness that helps them manage the inevitable ups and downs of daily life. Crawling and walking allow toddlers to move away from the caregiver; they return frequently in order to gain the caregiver’s reassurance that it’s safe to leave and to come back, that the caregiver is going to be there no matter what.  This “check-in” also helps them internalize the comforting presence of the caregiver. By the time they enter school, securely attached children carry the relationship with their caregiver with them mentally, and can draw on it for comfort and guidance, even when physically separated from that person.


Young Children: The Impact of Trauma on Development »