Control Yourself!

By Emanoil, Pamela | Human Ecology, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Control Yourself!


Emanoil, Pamela, Human Ecology


SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT IN PRESCHOOLERS

Out of the corner of her eye, a preschooler spies puppets, jets, games, electronic keyboards, and other toys that make children's hearts race. The playthings beckon from the shelves of a bookcase, but for twelve minutes, the child has been asked by a researcher not to touch even one. Instead, she's to sit still and perform the comparatively uninteresting task of sorting, one by one, plastic knives, forks, and spoons into a cutlery dish.

How does the child resist the "wall of temptation" presented by the toys on the shelves as each minute ticks away?

She uses emotional control and regulation, says C. Cybele Raver, an assistant professor of human development who studies the social and emotional development of children. Since 1994, with a grant from the National Science Foundation and a William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award, Raver has been researching Head Start children in similar situations to find out how they control their emotions when they face challenges, when they're upset, and when they're under stress.

"These are a series of delay tasks that attempt experimentally to place children in a regulatory challenge," Raver says. "The benefit is to tap what the children's skills are and to understand basic social and emotional processes, such as how children regulate their emotions. The other goal is to understand how regulation happens in a context where kids are facing high environmental risk."

In 1998 Head Start--a child development program for low-income children and families--served 822,316 children; 45,608 of those children were enrolled in New York State. Fifty-five percent of the Head Start families nationwide had an income of less than $9,000 per year, and more than 72 percent had yearly incomes of less than $12,000. Compared with their middle-income peers, the stereotype goes, these poor children have difficulties not only with being poor but with controlling their emotions and actions.

More recently, however, Raver says that researchers are not stacking "at risk" children up against middle-income children. Instead, they are focusing on the successes Head Start children have by comparing low-income families who are doing well emotionally and socially with low-income families who are not. Raver has found that many of the children she studies buck the stereotype; they show a remarkable ability to keep their emotions in check despite the sometimes dire circumstances of their home environment.

"Researchers already know that loss of income and loss of jobs have a negative effect, so the emphasis has shifted to trying to understand how some families manage to cope well despite economic adversity," Raver says.

The question is central to Raver's work, and the answer could lead to a model of the social and emotional development of young children. But one model may not be enough. Raver, who has spent the past five years looking at Head Start children from both rural and urban areas in upstate New York, has discovered that a one-size-fits-all model of social and emotional development isn't always valid. This is because the sociocultural context-- the community a child lives in, for example-- can affect the way the children react and regulate themselves.

Raver expects the parents of Head Start children also may play an essential role in the children's development and subsequent ability to control their emotions. To determine the family's part, Raver plans to tie her own research on children's social and emotional development to the body of research on the family emotional climate. She has videotaped families together to assess their interactions and answer some of her questions: How well do they express emotions? Do they set clear and firm limits on their children? How do they respond to emotional expressions of their children?

"The central question is, What family factors help some children develop emotional skills? …

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