When do children become socially aware?

When do children start caring what other people think – about how their hair looks, how their accent sounds or what their clothes say about them? And what impact should this have on the way you teach? Chris Parr reports
20th March 2020, 12:04am
How Can We Make Children More Socially Aware?


When do children become socially aware?


There is a reason most people don’t go to work in their underwear, tell people exactly what they think of them or belch loudly in the face of a colleague: by adulthood, the vast majority of us have developed some sense of social awareness. We care what others think which, in turn, is reflected in the way we dress, how we talk to other people and how we carry ourselves (exceptions do, of course, apply).

But at what age does this social awareness start to develop? When does a child typically begin to care about how their hair looks, how their accent sounds or what their clothes say about them? And why might this matter to teachers?

Sara Valencia Botto, a doctoral candidate on the cognition and development programme at Emory University in the US, has been looking into it.

In 2018, she co-authored a paper that found that, even by the time toddlers are forming two-word sentences, they are aware that they may be judged by others.

Botto and her colleagues carried out experiments with 144 children between the ages of 14 months and 24 months. In one experiment, the researchers demonstrated how to operate a toy robot and then either watched the child do it, or turned the other way and pretended to read a magazine. The children being observed displayed more embarrassment and more inhibition when pressing the buttons than when they were not being looked at.

Another experiment involved two researchers sitting next to each other, using one remote control for the toy. One experimenter pressed a remote, smiled and said “Yay! The toy moved!” while the second experimenter pressed the same remote, frowned and said “Yuck! The toy moved!”. When handed the controls, the children were far more inclined to press the remote when the positive researcher was watching.

This suggests a perception that those arriving in early years provision at around the age of 2 are blissfully unaware of society’s cynicism and judgement is inaccurate. It also shows the importance of teacher modelling at this stage.

Defining characteristics

But does a change in behaviour in such situations really mean that these children are “socially aware”? It depends what you mean by ‘socially aware’,” concedes Botto.

Under one interpretation, she explains that the signs of social awareness come even earlier in development.

“From two months of age, infants begin to engage in social interactions - smiling, and even showing distress if a social partner is unresponsive or becomes unengaged. By nine months, children begin to be intentional about sharing their experiences with others, eliciting another’s attention to objects or experiences through pointing,” she says.

It is also around nine months that children begin to adopt “social referencing” - using others’ emotional responses to new situations to guide their own behaviour, she argues.

At around 18-21 months, Botto says, children begin to recognise themselves in the mirror and begin to understand that they are “an entity that can be observed and evaluated by others”. With the emergence of mirror self-recognition come self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, and the development of evaluative audience perception - the ability to perceive others as potential evaluators and a desire to “garner positive as opposed to negative evaluations”.

Botto is clear, though, that this does not mean that toddlers care about their reputation - that comes later.

“It simply means that, by the age of 2, children begin to be more attuned to the responses of others, and use this information to guide their behaviour, particularly when they are being observed,” she explains. “We believe that this ability is foundational to children’s concern for reputation, which emerges at around 3 to 5 years old.”

So, while your group of two-year-olds in preschool will not be worried about how other people will perceive their unicorn jumper, by the time these same children arrive in school, they are likely to have an emerging recognition of how judgemental the world can be. And that will manifest in certain behaviours. The research suggests that children around this age are “more likely to be generous if others are watching, more likely to conform to a majority opinion - even if that opinion is wrong - and are even sensitive to reputational cues,” according to Botto.

The point at which this fledgling concern for the views of others converts into anxiety over fashion choices and hairstyles is contentious. Studies into body image concerns in young girls suggests that they have an awareness of a society’s “preferred” body image at around age 6. Other researchers have found that while an ability for social comparison develops throughout childhood, it only becomes noticeable from about age 7.

Botto believes some children will develop this sense even earlier. She tells the tale of her nephew, who had a “silly sock” day at school. When Botto picked him up to go out to lunch, he wanted to change his “silly” socks as he thought people would laugh at him. This is just anecdotal, Botto says, but early evidence from a study she is in the process of working on supports the idea that, by as young as 5, some children are concerned about their image.

“However, there is more evidence suggesting that children begin to care more about their competence - how smart they are or how athletic, for example - and that they begin to compare themselves to their peers around age 5 or 6,” she says.

There is a similar debate around what age children will start to adapt their language and the content of what they say in response to how they believe it might be viewed by other people.

“There is a lot of research suggesting that six- to 10-year-olds are strategic with how they present themselves to others,” Botto says. “For example, when asked how [someone] should describe themselves to peers or to an adult, children are more likely to say [they] should describe themselves in terms of academic achievement to adults but athleticism to a peer.”

Finally, what about performance? When do the nerves start kicking in if an audience is watching? “We know that children are less likely to perform in front of an audience [from] around age 5, and they show embarrassment when they do,” says Botto.

One reason for this manifesting at around age 5 relates to “theory of mind”, or our ability to understand other people’s beliefs, opinions and desires, which research suggests becomes more sophisticated at this time.

“This increased awareness and understanding about mental states, especially how another person might perceive you, might lead to this apprehension to perform and not look cool,” Botto says, citing 2015 research that explored the relationship between performance in a series of theory-of-mind tasks and children’s propensity to perform in front of others.

“They [the researchers] hypothesised that because theory of mind involves being sensitive to others’ beliefs and adopting their perspectives, children performing better at theory-of-mind tasks might also be less likely to perform in the presence of an audience to avoid social evaluations.”

The experiment’s results indeed showed that the better the child performed in theory-of-mind tasks, the less likely they were to perform.

Praise be

So, what should teachers do with all this information? The knowledge of these shifts in social awareness are important to inform how tasks are presented and how behaviour is understood and managed. If we can better understand why a child may be reluctant to do a task, or perform, or why they might be speaking in a particular way, we can avoid - in theory - escalating behaviour situations.

The importance of teacher modelling and praise is also key, adds Botto. How a teacher behaves can, because of reputational anxiety, impact a student’s behaviour.

“When children are overpraised...their self-esteem either worsens or it contributes to them becoming more self-centred,” she explains. “Therefore, focusing on the type of praise that children receive is important.”

Knowing the social awareness trajectory of young children, then, can bring both pastoral and academic benefits for pupils. However, the usual caveats apply that development is not linear and different children will develop at different speeds.

With the latter taken into consideration, the information above should give us a more complete picture of the anxieties and concerns that young people may have. Better understanding usually leads to better relationships - and relationships, as we all know, are the foundation stone of teaching.

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Social awareness”

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.