6 Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities


Six basic developmental capacities (also known as stages, milestones, or levels) lay a foundation for all our learning and development. Children without special needs often master these skills relatively easily. Children with challenges often don’t, not necessarily because they can’t, but because their biological challenges make the mastery more difficult. By understanding these skills and the factors that influence them and by working direction on them, caregivers, educators, and therapists often can help even those children with what are thought to be chronic disorders master many of them. Appropriate emotional experiences during each of the six developmental capacities help develop critical cognitive, social, emotional, language, and motor skills, as well as a sense of self.


In the earliest days of a child’s life, she knows herself primarily through her response to her physical world: gas, bubbles, movements, sights and sounds, textures, and other sensations. Soon she responds particularly to her parents, their voice, smiles, and special smells. Patterns of movement create states of shared joy. By 4 to 8 months she begins to take a rattle and may even give it back, or throw it back in frustration. She smiles and makes sounds, expecting to get a smile, a frown, or a sound in return. For the first time, she knows herself in part as distinct from others, as a person of volition, as someone who can initiate an action and have an impact on the world. As the year progresses, emotional gestures grow in complexity. By 12 or 16 months she doesn’t merely reach when Daddy offers a toy, but she can take Daddy to the shelf to get the toy she really wants. She knows herself as someone who can string together a series of actions to communicate her intentions to another person. Months pass, and her actions grow more complex again. By 18 to 20 months she feeds her dolls instead of merely cuddling them and explains her actions, saying, “Dolly eat.” Now she knows herself in terms of ideas. She can picture herself and others in her mind. She can generate ideas and tell the world about them with her words. More months pass, and she grows more complex again. By 36 months she can tell you, “Let’s ride bikes!” Pausing at the door to see whether it’s cold out, she might then say, “Better put our coats on first.” Now she is a logical, cohesive, thinking person.


Through all these stages the child’s emotional, social, and cognitive skills grow and her sense of self grows increasingly complex. This sense of self will continue to expand as the child grows older and as new experiences stir her interests and capabilities in a new direction. But her functional sense of self, that core emotional sense that forms the foundation for further learning, is in place. It was nurtured through millions of daily interactions, primarily with her parents, as every glance, every smile, every tickle, every question built her sense of who she was. Thanks to these interactions, she can layer on additional cognitive, intellectual, and social skills to serve her throughout her life. She is prepared for the further challenges of her own development, and for the world.


These six basic steps form a developmental ladder; each layers new abilities onto those of prior stages. We identify each of these steps because each one marks a major turning point in the life of a child.


Children who receive warm nurturing and do not have developmental challenges often master these milestones "automatically" by the age of four or five. But children with challenges need help from parents and therapists and often take longer to achieve mastery. Instead of reaching out to be picked up at 8 or 9 months, a child with motor challenges may do so at 14 or 15 months. Instead of imitating his mother’s vocal tone and babbling reciprocally at 10 months, a baby with auditory-processing challenges may do so at 17 or 18 months. Instead of linking abstract ideas at the age of 3, a child with multiple challenges may do so at age 5, 6, or 7. That’s fine. When your child is 45, it may not matter whether he learned to babble reciprocally at 8 or at 17 months or learned to write at age 6 or at age 10. It matters less at what age a particular skill is learned than how well it is learned and whether progress continues. As these basic skills are learned early in life, extra time is usually available to master them. These basic capacities are vital because they are the foundation for all future learning and development in your child’s life. They are like the foundation of an 80-story building: to hold the building up, they must be very solid.


In the following links, we outline each capacity and describe how parents have helped their children work around challenges to climb the developmental ladder.

Capacity 1: Self-Regulation and Interest in the World

Capacity 2: Engaging and Relating

Capacity 3: Purposeful Two-Way Communication

Capacity 4: Complex Communication and Shared Problem Solving

Capacity 5: Using Symbols and Creating Emotional Ideas

Capacity 6: Logical Thinking and Building Bridges between Ideas

For older children, Dr. Greenspan added three additional levels.

Capacity 7: Multiple Perspectives – In this stage, children move beyond simple causes for reasoning and move to multi-causal thinking.  (Maybe Alex doesn’t want to play with me because he doesn’t like me, or because he’s already playing with Breanna, or because he’s afraid I’ll break his tower.)  This capacity allows the child to compare and contrast two things.  Also, if one friend can’t play, he can ask another to play.  To learn mufti-causal thinking, children must be able to invest emotion into more than one possibility.  At this stage, children can understand family dynamics in terms of relationships among different people, rather than just in terms of whether they get their own needs met.

Capacity 8: Gray Area Thinking – This kind of thinking enables children to begin understanding varying degrees or relative influence of things.  This is important for school since children often must weigh factors and relative influences.  This is also helpful with peers, as  this kind of thinking offers new ways to solve problems and children can now compromise.

Capacity 9:  Reflective Thinking and an Internal Standard of Self - By puberty and early adolescence, more complex emotional interactions help children progress to thinking in relationship to an internal standard and a growing sense of self.  Children can now judge experience and they can say things like “Boy, I was really mad – more than usual.”   Or, they can look at a peer’s behavior and say, “That is OK for them, but not OK for me. ”  Children can now make inferences and can think in more than one frame of reference at a time.  They can create new ideas from existing ones, they can consider both the past and the future.  This allows for a higher level of intelligence and more mature thinking.

After the ninth level is reached, people continue to develop throughout life.  There are as many as seven more stages.  Human development doesn’t stop, even for those on the autism spectrum.  Those later stages include:

10.  An expanded sense of self that includes family and community relationships
11.  The ability to reflect on one’s future
12.  A stable, separate sense of self (which allows young adults to remain secure when separating from their nuclear families)
13.  Intimacy and commitment (including long-term commitments such as marriage, home ownership and a career)
14.  Parenthood and other nurturing roles
15.  Broadening perspectives on time, space, the life cycle and the larger world
16.  A sense of responsibility to the environment and future generations, along with a sense of perspective on ones’ place in the grand scheme of things.

Read about all 16 capacities in the First Idea by Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker