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Understanding Your Young Child's Stages of Development

Understanding developmental stages is essential to good parenting. Children have different timetables for their development. Although each child has his or her own individual growth timetable, all children go through stages.

Here are checklists of traits of the different stages. Looking them over will give you a sneak preview of what is to come if your child is still a baby; if your child is older, it should help give you some idea of normal development. Remember, though, that children do have many individual differences in the way they develop.


Children around the age of one year grow and change so rapidly that it is somewhat difficult to describe them. But by the first birthday, most children:

  • Identify and react to the emotions of others
  • Play games like patty cake and peek-a-boo
  • Sit up without support
  • Say mama and dada; imitate sounds
  • Recognize their own name
  • Wave bye-bye
  • Crawl, may walk
  • Have no sense of caution
  • Pull themselves up to standing position
  • Feed themselves small pieces of food or crackers
  • Show interest in other children


While two-year-olds are at one of the very cutest stages, they can be a real trial to live with. This is the age of transition between infancy and childhood. Twos are struggling to be independent, yet they are still very dependent. They may appear to understand things that they really don't, thus seeming defiant. There is no good or bad two-year-old. They are "good" when they happen to feel like doing what we want them to do and "bad" when they don't.

Parents must learn to maneuver skillfully around children this age. The trick is to get them to want to do what we want. When they balk at doing something, try to turn into a game.

General traits of two-year-olds are:

  • Assert independence
  • Demand attention
  • Favorite word is "No!"
  • Prone to tantrums, hitting, and biting
  • Easily distracted
  • Self-centered and possessive
  • Still do not really play with other children for long periods
  • Need help dressing and undressing
  • Affectionate
  • May develop fears
  • Walk well, constantly on the go
  • Can jump
  • Can throw a ball
  • Appetite may fall off sharply
  • Learn many new words
  • Adorable, although for some this may be only when they are asleep


Children are learning to do more things for themselves. This helps them feel independent. Children want to please their parents, particularly from around age three and a half through puberty. It is critical that they be able to please you. If you are too difficult to please, they give up and become rebellious or withdrawn.

General traits of three-year-olds are:

  • Still say no a lot, but are becoming a bit more cooperative (Some children, however, hit their most obstinate stage at three or three and a half.)
  • Favorite word now is "Why?"
  • Attention span is increasing
  • Begin to play with other children
  • Active imagination; may enjoy imaginary playmate
  • Can repeat short nursery rhymes and understand simple stories
  • Speak in short sentences
  • Learning to share and wait for their turn
  • Imitate others
  • Want to please parents if relationship is good
  • Very active; large motor skills developing rapidly
  • Small motor skills (such as using a pencil or crayons) begin to improve
  • Can build a tower of blocks
  • Getting neater at mealtime, but still lots of spills
  • Need help in dressing
  • Can wash and dry hands and face
  • May develop a slight stutter


In general, four-year-olds are easier to manage than are twos and threes unless you have become locked into a power struggle. Although many fours will not use the defiant "NO" to every directive, they will often find other ways to resist parental authority. Dawdling and "deafness" are simply passive ways to assert their independence.

General traits of four-year-olds are:

  • Quite verbal; able to express themselves in words, complete sentences, and conversations
  • Ask constant questions
  • Attention span is longer than at age three
  • Still very imaginative
  • Recognize colors (Caution: Some children are color-blind.)
  • Can match sizes, shapes, and colors
  • Play well with other children
  • Boss and criticize others
  • May be afraid of the dark, thunder, animals, etc.
  • Enjoy dramatic play-puppets, dolls, dress-up, cars, etc.
  • Learning right from left
  • Love physical activity
  • Can go up and down a short ladder
  • Throw balls overhand
  • Balance is good
  • Can dress alone, manage buttons and shoelaces, and may be able to zip and snap
  • Able to cut with scissors
  • Begin to form letters, sometimes backwards


General traits of five-year-olds are:

  • Can speak clearly
  • Memory improving
  • Attention span longer than at age four
  • Generally cooperative and reliable
  • Want to help
  • Count well
  • Can learn own phone number and address
  • Play cooperatively with friends
  • Want to fit in and feel accepted
  • Very curious
  • Gaining in self-control
  • Sensitivity to others is increasing
  • Still have fears
  • Can print own name
  • Can retell stories and make up stories
  • Have good balance and physical coordination
  • Able to work with tools (learn to use hammer, garden tools, etc.)
  • Beginning to tie shoelaces

REMEMBER: These are just guidelines. Children develop at their own pace. If you are concerned that your child is having problems, you should talk to your pediatrician or contact your local school district. There is nothing to be ashamed of if a child helps special help in order to progress at his or her own best rate.


Content provided with permission from the Child Welfare League of America.


For more information or to discuss parenting concerns please contact Partners Employee Assistance Program at 1-866-724-4EAP.

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This content was last modified on: 09/08/2008

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