Caution: Emotions at Play; Researchers Are Looking at How Emotions Affect the Ways in Which Children Think and Interact with Others
Bower, Bruce, Science News
Five-year-old Vera has a lot going for her. She is a strikingly beautiful child with strong intellectual potential and IQ points to burn. But Vera is tragically unhappy and angry. Many days she punctuates aggressive outbursts at her preschool peers and teachers with shouts of "Shut up! You shut up or I'm gonna smash you." When social interaction is required, her intellectual gifts wither under the force of her tremendous anger.
Unlike Vera, her classmate John is not physically attractive and has a below-average IQ and intellectual potential. But he is so emotionally strong that he squeezes everything he can out of each availabe IQ point. Few of the children in the preschool enjoy his level of social success, because he is uniformly kind and caring to others while never allowing himself to be bullied or abused.
Although Vera and John are extreme examples, they are drawn from a study of 39 preschool students that illuminates several important connections between styles of emotional expression and social behavior. The investigation, known as the Minnesota Preschool Project, goes against the grain of much recent psychological research that focuses primarily on cognition--how adults and children organize their thoughts, process information and understand their surroundings.
"It sometimes seems as though affect [the expresseion of emotion] is considered almost superfluous," says project director L. Alan Sroufe of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Several decades ago, before the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud lost favor among psychologists, emotions were considered to be motivators and organizers of behavior. In the past few years, several investigators have again emphasized emotions play a major role in shaping the way people think and perceive events in the world. The Minnesota project is described in a book that reflects this growing research trend, Emotions, Cognition & Behavior (eds.: Izard, Kagan, Zajonc, Cambridge University Press, 1984). Still, empirical studies of "affect in action," to use Sroufe's terminology, are few and far between.
Sroufe and his colleagues have developed observational measures for general types of positive, negative and inappropriate emotional expression in preschool children. In two consecutive preschool classes, one spanning 10 weeks, the other 20 weeks, children were observed daily in the class room, in the van that took them to and from school, on the playground, in large and small groups and in structured and unstructured activities. Most of the children came from poor, inner-city families. For each child the researchers completed a checklist that includes items describing displays of positive and negative emotions, involvement with others and reactions to conflict and frustration.
Over the two school terms, the frequency of a child's positive emotional expressions in social interactions minus the frequency of negative emotional expressions was highly related to his her "social competence." This was assessed by the four preschool teachers, who ranked children according to their social and emotional skills. Also, each child was ranked by the rest of the youngsters according to whether they especially liked, disliked or felt neutral about him or her.
The researchers find that the tendency to initiate a social encounter with positive emotional signals, such as a smile and a friendly greeting, and to respond positively to the overtures of others was strongly related to teacher and peer rankings of social competence. They also note that the control and regulation of emotion, an area of particular weakness for Vera, is related to teacher and classmate ratings.
Weekly videotapes of class room activities provide even more compelling evidence for the critical role of emotion in each child's social competence, says Sroufe. Highly ranked children, such as John, consistently share their good feelings and ideas with others and reward those who approach them with a positive response. …