Picture Linford Christie in his glory days at the start of a race, totally focused on winning.

Poised at the starting point, he was in another world, one in which there was no alternative but to succeed.

Any parent will tell you that sort of self-belief is something babies are born with and it is a major determiner of educational success. Take that away from a child and you will dramatically reduce his or her chances. Encourage it and you will turn natural curiosity into a love of learning.

That is why the first of the early learning goals, which form the basis for the early years curriculum now followed in pre-schools, focuses on social and emotional development.

The question is how do we help under-fives to develop in this way? With other early learning goals, for example mathematical development, you can judge progress by such skills as a child's ability to grasp the connection between a numeral and a number of objects.

Effectively, we're talking about intellectual, emotional and social survival skills. Isn't progress of this sort by its nature haphazard?

In a way yes, because children learn by doing, copying and exploring opportunities, but a skilled nursery, playgroup or pre-school will structure activities to encourage such development.

As a parent you can check that this is happening and at the same time pick up tips by observing the experts in action and looking for the rationale behind what they do.

It's generally accepted that there are three aspects to learning attitude, knowledge and understanding. You're looking for an environment that builds on natural enthusiasm.

From that point, they will learn by experience to empathise with others.

The next stage is to develop the social skills that lead to friendship. Intellectual and emotional development follow similar lines. A good pre-school will offer ample scope for such development. Look for the signs and try the same approach at home.

Don't deduce from a child's obvious enjoyment that there is no education education should be stimulating and fulfiling and smiling alert children are a good sign that that is happening.