Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7)
Basic Information

Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7)

This topic center covers parenting and child development of preschool children (early childhood aged 3 to 7. For a complete review of the theories of child development upon which this article is based, please visit our Child and Adolescent Development topic center. For coverage of child development and parenting topics applicable to infant children (ages 0-2) please visit our Infant Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of middle childhood children (ages 8 to 11), please visit our Middle Childhood Parenting and Development center. For information on parenting adolescents (ages 12-24), please visit our Child Development Theory: Adolescence topic center.

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Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What physical development takes place in early childhood?

  • During this period, children's bodies change proportions and they start to look more like adults than babies.
  • On average, young children can expect to grow 2 to 3 inches in height per year.
  • Teaching children about healthy lifestyles and promoting a positive body image is vitally important at this age.
  • Between ages 2 and 3 years, young children stop "toddling," or using the awkward, wide-legged robot-like stance that is the hallmark of new walkers.
  • Children who are 3 to 4 years old can climb up stairs using a method of bringing both feet together on each step before proceeding to the next step, and by ages 4 to 5, children can go up and down the stairs alone in the adult fashion (i.e., taking one step at a time).
  • During ages 5 to 6, young children continue to refine earlier skills. They're running even faster and can start to ride bicycles with training wheels for added stability.
  • By ages 2 to 3 years, children can create things with their hands, such as build towers out of blocks, mold clay into rough shapes, and scribble with a crayon or pen.
  • Around ages 3 to 4 years, children start to manipulate clothing fasteners, like zippers and snaps, and continue to gain independence in dressing and undressing themselves.
  • 3 to 4 year-olds continue to refine their eating skills and can use utensils like forks and spoons.
  • 5-7 year-olds begin to show the skills necessary for starting or succeeding in school, such as printing letters and numbers and creating shapes such as triangles.
  • During early childhood, children learn another self-care skill that gives them more independence than any other skill they will learn during this phase of life - toilet training.
  • Most often, the best way to tell that a young child is ready to start toilet training is to watch for signs of readiness.
  • Just because children are physically ready to toilet train does not mean that they are mentally or emotionally ready to do so. Successful toilet training depends on having all three factors (physical, cognitive and emotional readiness) in place.

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What cognitive development takes place in early childhood?

  • Between the ages of 2 and 4, children can create mental images of objects and store them in their minds for later use. For example, children can talk about people who are traveling, or who live somewhere else, like Grandma in Florida.
  • Children in this stage of development learn by asking questions such as, "Why?" and "How come?"
  • Children now understand that something can be both an object itself as well as a symbol for something else. For example, a stuffed toy dog is a fun, furry toy as well as a representation of living and toy dogs in general.
  • By ages 2 to 5 years, most children have developed the skills to focus attention for extended periods, recognize previously encountered information, recall old information, and reconstruct it in the present.
  • Between the ages of 5 and 7, children learn how to focus and use their cognitive abilities for specific purposes. For example, children can learn to pay attention to and memorize lists of words or facts.
  • Between ages 2 and 5 years, young children realize that they use their brains to think and by ages 5 to 7 years, children realize they can actively control their brains, and influence their ability to process and to accomplish mental tasks.
  • Young children experience a language explosion between the ages of 3 and 6. At age 3, their spoken vocabularies consist of roughly 900 words. By age 6, spoken vocabularies expand dramatically to anywhere between 8,000 and 14,000 words.
  • As children move beyond using two word sentences, they start to learn and understand grammar rules.
  • Children become increasingly skilled at remembering and practicing the language modeled around them, as well as modifying word use based on other people's reactions.
  • By ages 5 to 7, young children can also understand and learn to use a word by being told its definition (rather than experiencing that word directly).
  • In addition, children start to understand that words often have multiple meanings, opening up a whole new realm of humor and jokes that they will find amazingly funny.

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What emotional/social development takes place in early childhood?

  • As children's abstract thinking and language skills increase, they become better able to label and discuss their emotions with others.
  • Language can also allow children to better regulate their feelings, self-soothe in response to negative feelings, and exert some control over emotion-provoking situations.
  • During early childhood, children typically start to develop self-conscious emotions as they start evaluating themselves, instead of purely reacting to caregivers' or other adults' evaluations.
  • Children in the early childhood stage become skilled at modifying and expressing their emotions to fit different social situations.
  • Children in this stage also learn Reflective Empathy, which is the ability to take another person's perspective in order to understand what they're feeling.
  • Learning in early childhood how to appropriately express and deal with anger, aggression, and fear is a valuable life and social skill.
  • Aggression can also be problematic for some children during the early preschool years, peaking around age 4.
  • Because children at this age often have very active imaginations and are still learning the difference between reality and make-believe, they are very susceptible to strong fears.
  • During early childhood, children start to develop a "self-concept," the attributes, abilities, attitudes and values that they believe define them.
  • As young children leave toddlerhood behind, they also begin to mature in their ability to interact with others socially.
  • The most important factor for young children is not the structure of the family itself, but the presence of caregivers who are dedicated to caring for their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs by providing a loving and nurturing home.

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What moral development takes place in early childhood?

  • Morality is our ability to learn the difference between right or wrong and understand how to make the right choices.
  • Between the ages of 2 and 5, many children start to show morally-based behaviors and beliefs.
  • Children between the ages 5 and 6 typically think in terms of distributive justice, or the idea that material goods or "stuff" should be fairly shared.
  • During early childhood, children also grow in their ability to tell the difference between moral rules, social norms, and personal choices.
  • By around age 5, children see that moral rules are intended to prevent "really wrong" behavior that could potentially hurt or take away from others.
  • By ages 6 and 7, the ability to differentiate between moral rules, social norms, and personal choices matures, and children can take more circumstances and possibilities into account when thinking about the ramifications of different behavior.
  • Parenting practices and daily discipline have a huge effect on a child's developing sense of morality.
  • Children who receive fair consequences every time they break a rule will learn to connect their choices with consequences.

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What gender identity and sexuality takes place in early childhood?

  • Young children can tell the difference between boys and girls, and will label people accordingly. However, these very young children still believe that gender can change and is not permanent.
  • Children of this age also have trouble understanding that males and females have different body shapes, but also share characteristics.
  • By the early school years (ages 6 to 7), most children understand gender consistency, the idea that they are one gender and will remain that gender for life. However, a small number of young children struggle with their gender identity, and continue to struggle with their true identity through adulthood.
  • By age 5, children tend to play with "gender-specific" toys and around this age, children become aware of stereotypical gender-related activities and behaviors.
  • Gender-based beliefs, attitudes and behaviors come from a combination of biological/ internal reasons and external/environmental reasons.
  • Multiple environmental factors, such as a child's family, teachers, peers, and the media, also influence gender-based beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
  • Beyond just exploring their gender and what it means to be a boy or a girl, young children also begin exploring their sexuality.
  • Young children often ask lots of questions about their bodies. Many questions focus on reproductive and elimination organs, as well as how babies are made.
  • Children of this age are also interested in examining their own genitals and may also become interested in their caregivers' bathroom and bedroom behavior.
  • Generally speaking, it's best if caregivers can avoid reacting in a highly emotional manner, so that children can learn that sexuality is normal behavior rather than something that's "dirty" or shameful.

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How can I successfully parent in the early childhood years?

  • Children need a balanced and healthy diet to fuel the amazing rate of growth and development that occurs during early childhood.
  • Parents should also monitor how much their children eat, and watch portion sizes.
  • Children also need adequate amounts of sleep in order to allow their bodies time to recharge for each new day.
  • Mastery of toilet functions is an essential milestone in child development. It is impossible to become an independently-functioning adult without mastering this skill set.
  • Children's personal hygiene needs change dramatically during this early childhood stage, from something caregivers do for their children to something children learn to do for themselves.
  • Young children also need plenty of emotional and cognitive support, love, and nurturing. Adult caregivers should make it a point to express love and affection for their children every day.
  • One of the most lasting ways caregivers can impact their children's overall success and joy is by instilling in them a love and passion for reading.
  • It's important for young children to have routine well-child check-ups and scheduled immunizations.
  • Children, just like adolescents and adults, can have disorders that affect their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Common childhood mental illnesses and developmental disorders include Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders, Autism and similar Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Adjustment Disorders, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Conduct Disorder.
  • Even though preschool children are now older, more physically capable, and more mentally mature than infants, they still need quite a bit of safety precautions taken by caregivers.
  • Many children get a new sibling during their preschool years, either through birth or adoption. The addition of a new sibling can be a huge transition for young children to go through, as they must start to share attention, affection, and space with another young person for the first time.
  • Many families will use some form of routine daycare while parents fulfill other work and personal needs outside the home.
  • At some point during these early childhood years, most young children (in the United States, at least) will transition into their academic career starting with preschool, or kindergarten.

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How can I toilet train/potty train my toddler/preschooler?

  • No matter how much parents beg, plead, bribe, or scold, kids will not use the potty in lieu of their diaper until they are ready and willing.
  • Potty training has to be a team effort between children and parents, and not a unilateral decision on the part of the parents, or it will tend to fail.
  • Toilet training requires maturity across many developmental (physical, cognitive, and emotional) realms.
  • Each child is unique and will become ready to start the toilet training process at his or her own "right" moment. On average, most children in the United States start toilet training between 18 and 32 months old.
  • While it's extremely important for young children to be ready cognitively, emotionally and physically prior to their potty training, it's also important for parents to be ready to undertake this large step.
  • There are various ways parents can work with children who are not yet ready so as to provide them with a solid foundation for future toilet training.
  • Preparation of the actual toilet training space will make the training process go much more smoothly when it becomes time to begin actual toilet training.
  • Many parents choose to invest in disposable training pants or underwear that absorbs waste like a diaper, but which are put on and taken off much like "big kid" underwear.
  • Parents also need to pay attention to their children's reactions throughout the toilet training process.
  • Teaching little boys to use the toilet comes with an extra layer of complication.
  • Rather than forcing children to use the toilet, parents should offer children plenty of reinforcements (i.e., rewards) so as to encourage their toilet use whether that use results in actual elimination or not.
  • Even when young children totally master toileting within their own homes, it can remain challenging for them to maintain their progress in different environments.
  • Another challenge to consistent potty training is constipation, or a reluctance to have a bowel movement.
  • Some children will be afraid of the toilet itself (afraid of the toilet's size and shape and the rushing noise that occurs when it flushes), and the possibility that they might get flushed away themselves.
  • Successfully managing nighttime urination is the hardest task for young children to master, and as such, this step may take them the longest amount of time to achieve. Bedwetting is common challenge for families with preschool-aged children.

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How can I appropriately discipline during the early childhood years?

  • A crucial part of the parent's task is to teach children how to take care of their own needs and how to develop judgment skills so they can make good choices as they move toward adulthood. Parents teach these important skills by providing discipline.
  • Often, parents use the words, "discipline" and "punishment" interchangeably. Some people don't think there's a difference. However, these words do not really have the same meaning.
  • In order for children to learn how to make successful decisions on their own, they must be granted both the proper amount of freedom and the proper amount of limitation.
  • Parents need to help children to understand appropriate family rules and what is expected of them and to encourage children's positive behavior and conformity with the rules.
  • Another way to create harmony and obedience in children is by using the "choice" technique. In this technique, parents present children with a limited number of choices from which they must choose.
  • Communication is the key form of discipline to administer when particular forms of misbehavior are new, or when rules have been newly set and are not yet well understood.
  • Creating fair, age-appropriate consequences that actually teach a lesson rather than just causing discomfort can take some creativity and thought.
  • Parents should come up with consequences in advance of misbehavior whenever possible. Parents who try to come up with consequences in the heat of the moment often end up blurting out unworkable, unreasonable or unenforceable consequences with limited deterrent effect.
  • Parents can combine discipline techniques in order to better teach their children how to behave appropriately. A particularly good combination of discipline techniques occurs when the choice technique is combined with the process of setting consequences on children's behavior.
  • Another discipline technique that can be effective with young children and that can help preserve parents' sanity is the time-out.
  • Spanking and similar corporal punishments are often effective in the short-term. However, spanking tends to lose its effectiveness as time goes by and children become more experienced and the child can engage in other unwanted behaviors, such as lying or sneaking around, in order to avoid the punishment.
  • It's important that all primary caregivers get together at some point to share with one another their attitudes and beliefs about parenting and discipline.
  • The best way for parents and caregivers to discourage lying is to firmly, calmly, and patiently talk to their preschoolers about it.
  • Parents can also develop a relationship with their children in which open honest communication flourishes.

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How can I nurture my preschooler/young child?

  • Nurturing is vital to children's development, a secret ingredient that enables children to grow physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, culturally, and spiritually.
  • Creating nurturing spaces includes not only the physical area and objects for playing and learning, but also encompasses the time, attitude, and energy necessary for creating nurturing child-parent interactions.
  • Parents can help encourage children's physical growth and development by promoting activities that require children to display increasing levels of physical strength and skill.
  • When parents nurture young children's fine motor skills, they are encouraging activities that develop hand-eye coordination and other smaller hand skills such as drawing, cutting, and crafting.
  • Parents can encourage activities that enhance young children's mental development.
  • Early childhood years are a perfect time for adults to nurture children's musical and creative interests.
  • Homework offers parents a wonderful opportunity to spend time nurturing their children, encourage their love of learning, and reinforce concepts that children are learning in the classroom.
  • Activities designed to foster children's social development requires their involvement with other people, both children and adults. Parents can help encourage socialization by planning opportunities for children to interact with their peers.
  • Parents encourage children's emotional development by expressing their unconditional love and affection, by helping children to feel special and valued, and by helping them learn to understand their emotions and feelings.
  • Children are more likely to become adults who identify with their cultural and spiritual heritage if they grow up feeling included in cultural and spiritual communities.
  • Venturing out of the home into the surrounding community on "field trips" can also provide wonderful learning opportunities for young children.

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Development During Early Childhood, Toddler, and Preschool Stages Parenting Your Todder, Preschooler, and Young ChildToilet TrainingDisciplining Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young ChildNurturing Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young Child
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Child & Adolescent Development: Overview
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