Vol. 20, No. 15

May 3, 2001

Understanding emotions helps children's development

Children's understanding of emotions contributes significantly to their social and academic competence, according to Carroll Izard, Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UD. His new research indicates that this emotion knowledge, which can predict social and academic competence in later years, can be enhanced during a child's early years.

Leading a team of UD researchers, Izard spent the last seven years studying the emotional development of children from economically disadvantaged families at Delaware Head Start centers and public schools. Now, Izard and graduate students Sarah Fine, Alison Mostow and Chris Trentacosta have begun transforming the findings from their basic research into an emotion-centered prevention program.

Teachers use the program, called "The Emotions Course," to help young children develop emotion knowledge and emotion regulation, and the skills to make good use of the energy and motivation generated by emotional experiences.

A paper on the groundbreaking research was featured in the January issue of Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Society. The paper reveals that children's emotion knowledge in Head Start predicted their social adjustment and academic competence in third grade.

"The findings on emotion knowledge excite me for a number of reasons," Izard said. "They are a climax to a long period of basic research on the emotional development of children from economically disadvantaged families."

The findings also could have profound implications for the role teachers and schools can play in facilitating facets of emotional development that appear to help children academically.

Research like that reported in the Psychological Science article lays the foundation for transforming science to practice, Izard said. "The principles and techniques derived from our emotion theory and research can help children, particularly those whose circumstances have left them without effective social skills."

The recent research of Izard and his graduate students has centered on emotion knowledge. In their studies, they define emotion knowledge in terms of a person's ability to detect signals of emotion in people's expressive behavior and in emotion-eliciting situations described by vignettes. Their research also concerns the functions and regulation of emotions and their causes and consequences.

"Perhaps the greatest challenge for our future research," Izard said, "is finding ways to help children to use emotions constructively, even the negative ones. For example, a little sadness can turn us toward family and friends, and social support can prevent the deep sadness and withdrawal of depression."

Izard began conducting research on the development of emotion knowledge 34 years ago in Paris, and discovered that the ability to detect signals in facial expressions depicting the basic emotions crosses cultural boundaries. He generally got the same answer when he asked people in many different cultures to identify the emotions in a set of photographs.

He then found that children's ability to match emotions expression and the names of emotions grows regularly from about age 2 to 9 or 10 years. The ability to label emotions enables children to talk about their feelings. The UD research that followed children from Head Start programs through fifth grade was completed in cooperation with Izard's psychology department colleague, Brian P. Ackerman, whose work has focused on identifying risk factors and their role in the development of aggression and externalizing behavior.

Izard also has collaborated with George Bear, School of Education, to develop the emotion-centered prevention program for elementary school children.

To adapt the prevention program for preschool children, Izard has worked with Frank Boxwill and Sam Blumberg of the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families, UD faculty in the Department of Individual and Family Studies, consultant Pamela Garner of Washington, D.C., his graduate students and staff of Head Start programs.

The Emotions Course uses puppet play, emotion storybooks and interactive games such as "tell me a time when you were happy or sad" to increase children's ability to understand and manage their emotions.

The Emotions Course has been taught at The College School and in elementary schools in the Smyrna School District. Izard said there are negotiations underway with the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families to establish the prevention program in the Head Start centers and in the state equivalent, the Early Childhood Assistance Programs.

"Although we have some evidence that the program works, we need more," Izard said, "so we'll continue to evaluate its effectiveness.

"If you can increase emotion knowledge and emotion regulation early in a children's development, that will speed up the development of social skills and influence how well they get along with their peers and even how well they do academically," Izard said.

He added, "Children's understanding of their emotions, their ability to talk about them, and their ability to read the emotion signals of others provide them with some very valuable skills that not only affect their personal and social adjustment but their academic performance, as well."

–Neil Thomas