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Volume 13 Number 1
©The Author(s) 2011
Introduction to the Special Section on Social-Emotional Issues in the Lives of Young Children

Lilian G. Katz & Jean A. Mendoza

The sense of “having a place,” of “having significance,” of “belonging” to a group—whether it is the family, a friendship, the school peer group, or larger society—appears to be essential for human mental health and social-emotional well-being. In a variety of ways, the four articles in this special section of this issue of ECRP examine aspects of that sense of belonging—what is possible when it is present, what the adults in the lives of children might do to foster it, and what can happen when it is missing or challenged.

The evidence is fairly clear that children should achieve at least a minimal level of social competence by about the age of 6. It is understandable that most parents of young children are concerned about their young children’s social relationships. They want their children to make and keep friends, and they are faced with decisions about how much direct involvement to have in promoting those peer relationships. Yu, Ostrosky, and Fowler report on a U.S. study of ways that mothers of preschool-age children with and without special needs described their involvement in their children’s formation and maintenance of peer friendships. The researchers found that the two groups of parents reported similar types and degrees of involvement in supporting their children’s friendship development, but they noted some key differences as well.

Infants and toddlers are often kept apart from each other in early childhood settings because of concerns about the safety of the infants. In a report on practitioner research undertaken at Appalachian State University’s child development lab program, McGaha, Cummings, Lippard, and Dallas describe how infant-toddler teachers responded to the intense interest that babies and toddlers showed in each other in their classroom spaces, which were separated by a transparent barrier. The teachers planned and instituted several changes and observed that several strategies they employed minimized safety concerns and allowed strong bonds to develop among the children in the two age groups. Photographs illustrate important moments of child-to-child interaction in the classroom.

Concerns about pretend play that involves violence and danger have led many educators and administrators in the United States to discourage such play in preschool classrooms. As a result, some play themes may be marginalized that might seem to be typical of play outside of preschool. “Bad guy play” is one example. Logue and Detour describe a practitioner research project during which unexpectedly rich “adventurous play” evolved in a preschool classroom when a teacher decided to take on new roles in play involving (imaginary) danger. A set of photographs depict the evolution of the children’s play that focused on “saving babies.”

In a “Notes from the Field” paper, Thomas and Ostrosky report on efforts in one Head Start classroom to implement a popular commercial approach to promoting social-emotional development. The teaching team there encountered a number of challenges when attempting to use this approach. The challenges included gaps in communication from administrators, a cultural “disconnect” that led to dissatisfaction on the part of some parents, tension between the children’s needs for help dealing with social-emotional issues and Head Start mandates to focus on academic preparation, and the fact that the approach seemed not to be helpful to a particular child with disturbing behaviors.

We hope that these four articles, in addition to the other five in this issue, will provide much food for thought. What do young children—especially those who have special needs or who are labeled “at risk”—really need from the adults who care for them to help them feel that they “have a place” at home, at school, and in the wider world? What is possible, and what is reasonable, for parents, caregivers, and teachers to do to help all children feel emotionally connected and secure? What are some areas where adults might move beyond typical ways of thinking about young children’s social and emotional development, to welcome novel or perhaps “risky” approaches to fostering the sense of belonging?

Should you wish to share your ideas or concerns with the editors or with other readers, please use the Comment Box.