Basic aspects of behavioural development (2-6 years)

Behavioral development after the age of 2 expands on the earlier foundations of sensory discovery during infancy. By now, children have fully integrated all five of their senses, and have begun to master their physical dexterity and coordination. They are now full equipped to engage their natural curiosity with outside world and other human beings for the first time, outside the safety of their family environment.

When do children develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence relates to the innate ability of children to recognize their own and other’s emotions and to respond in a balanced way. This requires both self-awareness and openness, beyond the more selfish “I want it’s” of infancy.

Children from 2-6 yr become aware of their own selves for the first time, and become aware of how things make them feel and how others feel, which are the first stages of empathy. They become aware of gender around 10 months [1] including recognizing faces of male/female adults and objects that belong to males and females. Understanding gender differences is build into them from birth, with their first experiences being entirely with a female (through mum).

They also become aware of wanting things and being able to obtain what they want in more creative  ways, becoming able to visualize in their mind different situations and play imaginary games, like dressing up and imitating someone. They gradually become less impulsive and learn more self-control as they get older, which we commonly call “maturity”.

How to children engage their cognitive and communication skills?

The short answer is… by using them. Children begin to interact and make conversation with words around 2 yrs, using verbal speech to describe events, objects and concepts, and start to ask lots of questions. This is an indication that they are able to using logic to connect concepts, and start trying to understand the reason why things are there and what they do.

They become fascinated with how words sound and develop an ability to form a visual memory of objects, symbols, colors, numbers, etc. By age three, they are able to easily separate objects and identify them. They have a comprehensive memory for words and numbers but this their spoken vocabulary is not as well developed. They also become better at forming sentences to create stories and to describe sequences of events, which also enables them to solve problems on their own

What are some key movement milestones?

Motor skills are combination of automatically skills (e.g. reflexes and balance) and consciously controlled processes (e.g. aiming and throwing, or jumping). It is very important to understand that movement, cognition and behaviour are all seamlessly connected and work together, along with all the senses that provide information about the environment. A simple activity such as catching a ball actually requires the integrated activity of all of the brain’s functional areas [2].

By 2 years, children are able to run and spin in circles, throw and kick balls, and pick up objects with their thumb and index finger. They are also able to perform quite detailed tasks, such as hold a crayon to draw, or make objects out of blocks.

By 3-4 years, children can walk up and down stairs but need help balancing; are able to climb; ride a scooter or tricycle and hop on one foot. They are able to make things out of paper (eg shapes), do jigsaw puzzles, and operate electrical devices like flat screens and phones.

By 5-6 years, they are able to balance on a line, jump over objects, jump rope and do a somersault or cartwheel. Some of the finer skills they can accomplish include doing a shoelace or a button when taught how, and to make art out of different types of materials.

This progression shows an increase in the complexity of the motor skills that children are able to perform, once they understand how. This directly related to their genetic programming, and being providing a positive, encouraging emotional environment and opportunities.

Can poor nutrition affect these developmental changes?

Yes. Undernutrition is detrimental to this progression, because it may cause delays in the processes underlying physical and cognitive development. While undernutrition refers to all nutrients, lacking specific macronutrients such as protein, and micronutrients such as omega-3’s, B-vitamins, zinc, iron and choline, may impact on brain maturation, energy production and growth rates. Undernutrition also increases the risk of childhood illness, which results in lack of responsiveness and loss of motivation [3]. Prolonged delays in receiving optimal nutrition may also cause irreversible alterations to the structure of the brain, which can impact on future cognitive and behavioural development [4].