Functional Emotional Development

The Foundation of Human Development

Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDCs)

The first six functional emotional developmental capacities (formally known as stages, milestones, or levels) lay a core foundation for all our learning and development. Children often develop these capacities relatively easily. However, children with neurodevelopmental differences may struggle, not necessarily because they can’t develop these capacities, but because their neurodevelopmental and other biological differences make it more difficult. By understanding these capacities and the factors that influence them, and by working directly on them, caregivers, educators, and therapists can promote the development of these FEDCs.   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, they know themselves primarily through their responses to their physical world: gas, bubbles, movements, sights and sounds, textures, and other sensations. Soon they respond particularly to their parents, including the voices, smiles, and special smells of their parents. Patterns of movement create states of shared joy. By 4 to 8 months they begin to take a rattle and may give it back or even throw it back in frustration. They smile and makes sounds, expecting to get a smile, a frown, or a sound in return. For the first time, they know themselves in part as distinct from others, as a person with their own 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 they don't merely reach when Daddy offers a toy, but they can take Daddy to the shelf to get the toy they really want. They know themselves as someone who can string together a series of actions to communicate their intentions to another person. Months pass, and their actions grow more complex again. By 18 to 20 months they feed their dolls instead of merely cuddling them and explaining their actions, saying, “Dolly eat.” Now they know themselves in terms of ideas. They can picture themselves and others in their mind. They can generate ideas and tell the world about them with their words. More months pass, and they grow more complex again. By 36 months they can tell you, “Let’s ride bikes!” Pausing at the door to see whether it’s cold out, they might then say, “Better put our coats on first.” Now they are a logical, cohesive, thinking person.

Through all these capacities, the child’s emotional, social, and cognitive skills grow, and their sense of self grows increasingly complex. This sense of self will continue to expand as the child grows older and new experiences stir her interests and capabilities in a new direction. But their 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 their parents, as every glance, every smile, every tickle, every question built their sense of who they were. Thanks to these interactions, they can layer on additional cognitive, intellectual, and social skills to serve them throughout their life. They are prepared for the further challenges of their own development, and for the world.

These six basic steps form a developmental progression; each layers new abilities onto those of prior developed capacities. We identify each of these developmental 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 capacities "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 they learned to babble reciprocally at 8 or at 17 months or learned to write at age 6 or 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 six core developmental capacities are vital because they are the foundation for all future learning and development in a 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 of the core six functional emotional developmental capacities (FEDCs) and describe how parents have helped their children work around challenges to develop to their fullest potential.  Please note the ages of earliest emergence are for typically developing children.  This can vary dramatically depending on the child's biology and unique developmental process. 

Capacity 1: Self-Regulation and Interest in the World (earliest emergence 0 to 3 months)

Capacity 2: Engaging and Relating (earliest emergence 2 to 7 months)

Capacity 3: Intentionality and Two-Way Communication (earliest emergence 3 to 10 months)

Capacity 4: Complex Communication and Shared Problem Solving (earliest emergence 9 to 18 months)

Capacity 5: Using Symbols and Creating Emotional Ideas (earliest emergence 18 to 48 months)

Capacity 6: Logical Thinking and Building Bridges between Ideas (earliest emergence 3 to 4 1/2 years)

Even though the above six core developmental capacities often receive the most attention, functional emotional development continues through the lifespan.  Here is a brief overview of capacities 7 - 16.  

Capacity 7: Multiple Perspectives (earliest emergence 4 to 6 years of age): 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 muti-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 (earliest emergence 6 to 10 years of age): 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 (earliest emergence around age 9): By puberty and early adolescence, more complex emotional interactions help children progress to thinking about 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.

Capacity 10.  An Expanded Sense of Self (earliest emergence is early to middle adolescence): This expanded sense of self includes family and/or community relationships: Greater appreciation of the world and new levels of reflection are emerging, culture and society are incorporated into thinking, and appreciation of experience expands. 

Capacity 11.  Reflecting on a Personal Future (earliest emergence is late adolescence or early adulthood):  Becoming emotionally invested in one’s future, thus we see the full development of probabilistic thinking. Appreciation for and engagement in social, political, economic, and cultural ecologies increases. The personal narrative of past, present, and future emerges and becomes increasingly cohesive.  The range of tolerable emotional experience thus increases.

Capacity 12.  A Stable and Separate Sense of Self (earliest emergence is early adulthood):  This capacity allows a person to remain secure when separating from their nuclear families as often seen in young adulthood.  The capacity to carry a stable sense of self internally as the individual moves towards adulthood looks different in different cultures. Personal beliefs may be different from those of childhood and heritage.  The personal narrative of past, present, and future become more independent and reflective.

Capacity 13.  Intimacy and Commitment (adulthood):  This includes long-term commitments such as marriage, home ownership, and a career. The capacity to engage in relationships with increasing intimacy and deepening respect for unique differences. Emotional immediacy is replaced by a longer-term investment in goals and commitments. Longer-term political and religious values may begin to consolidate.

Capacity 14.  Creating a Family and/or Developing Other Nurturing Roles (adulthood): The increasing capacity to view events and feelings from other perspectives, even when emotions are heightened and intense. Caring for others increases, commonly through the process of raising children, and new dimensions of feelings develop. This responsiveness to others generalizes to views of the local and broader systems and cultures and these can now be appreciated without threatening our own internal standards and beliefs.

Capacity 15.  Broadening Perspectives on Time, Space, the Life Cycle, and the Larger World (typically middle aged adulthood): Often times during this stage relationships with a life partner and children have deepened and this further increases the appreciation for differences in perspective and experience. One’s perspective of time is changing – as the lifetime becomes measurable and finite – and reality-based experience and wisdom are increasingly appreciated over fantastical goals or aspirations.  Reflective range and levels of consciousness increase and thus the tolerable range of emotional experience. This includes thinking about the cycle of life and death in a new emotional manner.

Capacity 16.  Wisdom of the Ages (later adulthood):  This includes a sense of perspective on ones’ place in the grand scheme of things.  Broadening wisdom, freedom from self-centered thinking, and practical concerns associated with earlier life stages can mean that this stage brings with it a richer and fuller comprehension of the cycle of life. An individual might achieve new dimensions of insight, wisdom and with these an entirely new level of reflective awareness regarding the self, family, relationships, and the world.

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

For assessment and to track progress, you can use the FEDC Basic Chart as a guide.