Beginning in the preschool years and continuing through the
elementary years, successful and positive interactions with peers have
been shown to be a central predictor of ongoing mental health and school
success (Denham, 2001, 2006). As children become more skilled in
interacting with others and managing emotions during interactions, they
are better able to negotiate their ever-expanding social worlds. In
recent years, the development of emotional competence also has received
extensive attention in the literature on early childhood development and
school readiness (Bracken & Fischel, 2007; Hyson, 2002; Knitzer
& Lefkowitz, 2005; Raver & Knitzer, 2002).
Components of Emotional Competence
Emotional competence has been defined as having three specific
components: emotional expressiveness, emotional knowledge, and emotion
regulation (Denham et al., 2003). Each plays a key role in determining
young children's ability to interact and form relationships with
others (Denham, 2006).
Emotional expressiveness is central to emotional competence.
Patterns of positive expression of emotion, such as happiness, aid in
friendship development, while negative expressions of emotion, such as
anger, interfere with peer relationships (Denham et al., 2003). Children
often develop characteristic emotional responses, and these patterns of
expressiveness either lead to positive interactions with age-mates or
serve as barriers to successful interactions.
Emotional knowledge involves identifying emotional expressions in
others and responding to the emotional displays of others in acceptable
ways. Children who comprehend the expressions of others or the emotions
typically associated with social situations are more likely to respond
in pro-social ways, and are regarded as more likeable by peers and
teachers (Denham et al., 2003).
Emotional regulation, also a critical element of emotional
competence, involves the ability to manage arousal and behavior during
social interaction (Denham, 2006). Young children have limited resources
for emotional regulation; both negative and positive emotions can
overwhelm the child, often leading to disorganized thinking and
problematic behavior (Ashiabi, 2000). For children who demonstrate
difficulty in regulating emotion, their expression of emotion often
seems aggressive or intense. This has the potential to interfere with
these children's ability to interact with others in socially
acceptable ways. Peers and adults are likely to have negative
perceptions to such emotional responses.
The Importance of Emotional Competence
Research suggests that a child's state of emotional
development impacts development in all domains. According to the
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2004),
development in physical, social cognitive, and emotional domains all
contribute to a young child's ability to adapt to school life.
Emotional competence, especially, has been shown to link to social
competence in profound ways (Denham et al., 2003).
Social emotional and cognitive learning are interconnected to a
greater extent in younger children. Studies indicate that many young
children struggle to develop the emotional and behavioral strategies
necessary to succeed in school (Knitzer & Lefkowitz, 2005).
Consequently, building emotional competence helps children form positive
social relationships and positive self-esteem, and is critical for
school readiness and ongoing academic success.
Children's ongoing emotional health is influenced by their
growing ability to express, understand, and regulate various emotions
(Denham et al., 2003). Researchers found that children who enter
kindergarten lacking curiosity, persistence in learning situations, and
an eagerness to learn are less successful, academically, at the end of
the 1st grade (Hemmeter & Ostrosky, 2006). Thus, children's
relationships with teachers and peers, their interest and motivation to
participate in learning experiences, and their ability to learn can be
influenced, negatively or positively, by their emotional development
(Peth-Pierce, 2001; Raver & Knitzer, 2002).
Beyond children's home environments and interactions with
parents and caregivers, the classroom context provides endless
opportunities to foster emotional health and competence. Every encounter
with a child provides an opportunity to support the development of
emotional skills that will allow children to experience success within
the classroom and other contexts. Throughout the day, children are
involved in a variety of routine, planned, and spontaneous contexts. As
they participate in classroom life, they both experience and express a
variety of emotions--some in ways that suggest a positive course of
development and others that may indicate deleterious effects on a child
over time. Teachers play an important role in fostering healthy
development through identification of behaviors that may interfere with
emotionally healthy response patterns (Ashiabi, 2000). However, teachers
are rarely trained in the assessment and promotion of emotional
competence. This lack of educational preparation often causes teachers
to overlook or minimize the implications of emotional competence.
Promoting Emotional Competence
Nurturing and individualized teacher-child relationships provide
important contexts for the promotion of children's emotional health
(Bagdi & Vacca, 2005). As they interact with children, teachers have
opportunities to coach children regarding appropriate responses during
peer interactions and classroom activities, and serve as role models of
appropriate expression of emotions (Hyson, 2004). When teachers organize
child-centered classroom environments, they are preparing an emotional
climate that is positive and conducive to learning. Finally, as
educators create learning communities in which children are valued,
children experience psychological safety and security (Keogh, 2003) (see
The Teacher as Relationship Builder
According to theory rooted in principles of attachment,
teacher-child relationships contribute in significant ways to a
child's growing emotional competence (Howes, Hamilton, &
Matheson, 1994). Nurturing relationships with teachers who are
responsive to children's unique needs are necessary to foster
healthy development in many areas, including empathy, self-regulation,
and peer relationships (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2001). Children who are
able to form secure relationships with their teachers are often able to
use that relationship as a secure base from which to explore the
classroom and participate in activities with others (Howes, Hamilton,
& Matheson, 1994). Dependent and conflicting teacher-child
relationships, however, may interfere with children's ability to
participate positively in the school experience and negatively influence
their learning and academic achievement (Coplan & Prakash, 2003).
Individualized relationships with children create an arena in which
teachers model healthy emotional expression, as well as informally
assess a child's emotional well-being. In the context of a trusting
relationship, teachers begin to recognize children's characteristic
emotional responses and ability to regulate these responses in various
classroom scenarios. Teachers can ascertain children's knowledge
about emotions, and plan for support as necessary.
Children's individual differences necessitate that the
relationships teachers form with each child be specific and unique.
Tailoring one's style of interaction to the characteristics,
interests, and needs of each child will provide the context in which a
relationship supportive of development can evolve. A child who is
characteristically cautious, for example, may be best suited to a style
of interaction that provides time for adapting and developing a level of
comfort before engaging in interaction or activity. Such a child may
enter the classroom each day standing in the doorway, cautiously
observing the activity in the classroom. To match the child's
style, the teacher could calmly approach the child and quietly greet
him. Quiet conversation with the child might ensue, and the child could
explore the arrival activities when he is ready. Pressuring the child to
enter the classroom and participate may cause this child to experience
discomfort and thus withdraw, as the child may feel psychologically
threatened. Careful observations of children during arrival time, as
they interact with peers and adults, and as they participate in
classroom activities and routines, provide useful information to help
teachers tailor their interactions to be respectful of children's
individual behavioral styles.
As a child encounters new experiences or changes, the teacher
should observe the child's responses and determine the extent to
which the experiences cause stress. These observations allow the teacher
to determine the level and forms of support the child may require to
feel secure. A change in schedule, for instance, may be a source of
stress for some children, as the element of predictability has been
removed. Such a child may exhibit signs of distress, withdraw, or even
display aggression. The trusted teacher can offer support as the child
tries to adapt to the change, possibly by remaining near and providing a
simple, age-appropriate explanation of the change. Helping the child
reestablish a sense of predictability by describing what will happen
next also may be stabilizing. Furthermore, with this knowledge about the
child in mind, the teacher can now plan for supports that may benefit
this child in coping with future changes and unfamiliar experiences.
Acknowledging the child's feelings, making advance preparation for
change, encountering a new experience alongside the child, or modeling
means for adapting to or approaching a new experience are effective
strategies for bolstering children's emotional health. Anticipating
children's needs and being responsive to those needs demonstrates
that the child is valued, promotes a sense of psychological safety, and
ultimately fosters children's emotional competence and well-being.
Teacher as Coach and Role Model
Much of emotional competence promotion is something that cannot be
planned for; opportunities simply present themselves throughout the day
(Hemmeter & Ostrosky, 2006). During daily routines and activities,
one of the teacher's important roles is to carefully observe and
reflect upon children's specific behaviors and responses. These
observations help the teacher create an emotional profile of the child
and serve to guide the practitioner in coaching children's behavior
and responses, applying supportive strategies, and role-modeling.
When a child faces an upsetting or perplexing situation (e.g., a
block structure that keeps falling) and gets angry (e.g., by kicking the
blocks), the teacher has the opportunity to coach the child in
problem-solving skills. By helping the child identify the problem,
guiding the child in generating possible solutions, and co-playing with
the child in trying out the new idea, a teacher serves as both a coach
and a role model of appropriate behavior and emotional expression and
Other developmental challenges might present themselves throughout
the day. Challenges can be small, like a stuck zipper that frustrates a
child trying to fix it. In this situation, the teacher can work with the
child to fix the zipper. At the end of the episode, the two can
celebrate overcoming the challenge.
The challenge could be more complex, such as two children wanting
to use the same item at the water table. A lack of communication skills
often creates challenges for young children when they are in social
encounters with peers. Children struggle to find the words to
communicate their ideas and feelings in ways that are clearly
Working through potential negative social situations requires
expression of emotions in an acceptable manner. When children get into
conflict, the helpful teacher assists them in becoming constructive
problem solvers (Hyson, 2004). Ahn (2005a) states that teachers need to
verbally guide children to express their feelings clearly and
constructively. When the child approaches a peer, such statements as
"use your words" are of limited value. Often, it is clear that
children do not know what words to use. Coaching is necessary so that
children will have confidence to use language to solve problems, and
appropriately assert their rights. Children then will begin to realize
that conflicts can be resolved verbally, rather than through aggression.
Teacher as Creator of Healthy Environments
The creation of emotionally healthy, nurturing classrooms requires
careful organization of the physical environment, predictable routines,
appropriate play activities, and a positive emotional climate (Hemmeter
& Ostrosky, 2006). Thomas and Chess (1977) suggest that to support
emotional competence, environmental expectations and demands should
reflect the unique nature of the children in the classroom and establish
a "good fit" with each child. The characteristics and
behavioral style of each child must be respected and should be
considered in planning both the physical and social environment within
the classroom (Keogh, 2003). Attention to creating a "match"
between the child's style and the environment ensures that children
can interact with the environment in a positive and growth-promoting
manner. For example, the choices that are available to the children
affect the development of emotional regulation. By providing choices
that match the needs of the children within the group, the teacher
supports their emotional regulation. Environments that are either too
stimulating or not stimulating enough can provide too much stress for a
child. The child may respond to excessive stress by withdrawing, or, on
the opposite end of the spectrum, by displaying aggression. In such a
scenario, the mismatch between the child and the environment creates an
obstacle to healthy peer interaction and learning-focused exploration.
In addition to appropriate choices, comfortable and soft spaces
within classrooms also support children's emotional health. Such a
place serves as a safe zone or a quiet area to which children can
retreat from stress. This space is not to be associated with punishment,
but rather should be considered a place to go when children seek some
privacy, quiet, and comfort. It might be a quiet spot away from
classroom traffic, furnished with pillows, a rug, and other soft
Children often require a teacher's help to recognize when they
need to go to this quiet place. Acknowledging and reflecting to the
child a sense of what the child is experiencing and feeling bolsters
knowledge about emotions and emotional expression. With practice,
children learn to tune into their inner self-control and thus regain
internal equilibrium and balance. The sensitive teacher remains nearby
to observe and guide the process of emotional regulation as needed. When
appropriate, the children return to the group and explore constructively
Effective teachers establish routines throughout the classroom day
(LaParo, Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2004). During carefully planned
routines, and through organization of a child-centered environment,
children learn what to expect, as well as what is expected of them. The
predictability that results is psychologically stabilizing and
preventive of difficult behavior (Hemmeter & Ostrosky, 2006). For
example, a child learns through practice as he enters the classroom that
he needs to store his belongings in his personalized cubby. If select
activities have been organized in advance, the child comes to know that
after he finishes hanging his coat, he may choose an available activity
until the time for clean-up is signaled. Through thoughtfully
constructed routines, children build a sense of responsibility and
participate autonomously and positively in the classroom community.
The nature of the curriculum also has a significant impact on
children's emotional competence. Children should have ample time
for free play in which to experiment with appropriate releases of
frustration and stress. During these times, children participate in
activities that support emotional regulation and understanding. Lindsey
and Colwell (2003) found that high levels of pretend play were
associated with high emotional understanding in girls and boys, and with
high emotional regulation and emotional competence in girls. Physical
play was associated with boys' emotional competence with peers.
Classrooms that support healthy emotional development are
characterized by a positive emotional climate and genuine respect for
children's developmental characteristics, interests, and needs.
Teachers hold developmentally appropriate expectations that guide the
organization of the environment, the curriculum, and interactions with
children. Effective teachers believe that children can succeed, provide
opportunities for children to experience success, and recognize both
their efforts and successes. In caring, child-centered classrooms such
as these, children gain a sense of belonging, and learn about emotions.
Teachers influence children's knowledge of emotion by discussing
emotions during everyday interactions (Blair, Denham, Kochanoff, &
Whipple, 2004). Building understanding of emotion-related words occurs
through intentionally teaching children to label both negative and
positive emotions, as well as understand the causes of emotion. Books
are useful tools as teachers strive to help children identify
emotion-related words, understand the causes of emotion, and manage
emotions positively (Ahn, 2005b).
Early emotional competence--encompassing emotional regulation,
expression, and knowledge--is strongly linked to children's mental
health, influences children's social interactions and
relationships, and affects school success. Teachers have critical roles
in promoting emotional competence through forming nurturing and specific
relationships with individual children, coaching children's
emotional responses during social interactions and during activities and
routines, modeling healthy emotional expression, building an
understanding of emotions, and creating environments in which children
feel valued and can thrive. Careful observation of children in classroom
contexts allows educators to analyze current levels of emotional
competence and plan for promotion of mental health. Such efforts are key
to ensuring that children have the skills necessary to function
effectively in a range of social and school contexts.
Ahn, H. (2005a). Child care teachers' strategies in
children's socialization of emotion. Early Childhood Development
and Care, 175, 49-61.
Ahn, H. (2005b). Teachers' discussions of emotion in child
care centers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32, 237-242.
Ashiabi, G. (2000). Promoting the emotional development of
preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 28, 79-84.
Bagdi, A., & Vacca, J. (2005). Supporting early childhood
social-emotional well being: The building blocks for early learning and
school success. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 145-150.
Blair, K. A., Denham, S. A., Kochanoff, A., & Whipple, B.
(2004). Playing it cool: Temperament, emotional regulation, and social
behavior in preschoolers. Journal of School Psychology, 42, 419-443.
Bracken, St. S., & Fischel, J. E. (2007). Relationships between
social skills, behavioral problems, and school readiness for Head Start
children. NHSA Dialog, 10, 109-126.
Coplan, R. J., & Prakash, K. (2003). Spending time with
teacher: Characteristics of preschoolers who frequently elicit versus
initiate interactions with teachers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly,
Denham, S. A. (2001). Dealing with feelings: Foundations and
consequences of young children's emotional competence. Early
Education and Development, 12, 5-10.
Denham, S. A. (2006). Social-emotional competence as support for
school readiness: What is it and how do we assess it? Early Education
and Development, 17, 57-89.
Denham, S. A., Blair, K. A., DeMulder, E., Levitas, J., Sawyer, K.,
Auerbach-Major, S., & Queenan, P. (2003). Preschool emotional
competence: Pathway to social competence? Child Development. 74,
Hemmeter, M. L., & Ostrosky, M. (2006). Social and emotional
foundations for early learning: A conceptual model for intervention.
School Psychology Review, 35, 583-601.
Howes, C., Hamilton, C. E., & Matheson, C. C. (1994).
Children's relationships with peers: Differential associations with
aspects of the teacher-child relationship. Child Development, 65,
Hyson, M. (2002). Emotional development and school readiness. Young
Children, 57, 76-78.
Hyson, M. (2004). The emotional development of young children. New
York: Teachers College Press.
Keogh, B. K. (2003). Temperament in the classroom. Baltimore:
Knitzer, J., & Lefkowitz, J. (2005). Resources to promote
social and emotional health and school readiness in young children and
families. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.
LaParo, K., Pianta, R., & Stuhlman, M. (2004). The classroom
assessment scoring system: Findings from the prekindergarten year. The
Elementary School Journal, 104, 409-426.
Lindsey, E., & Colwell, M. (2003). Preschoolers' emotional
competence: Links to pretend and physical play. Child Study Journal, 33,
National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2004).
Where we stand on school readiness. Washington, DC: Author.
Peth-Pierce, R. (2001). A good beginning: Sending America's
children to school with the social and emotional competence they need to
succeed. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
Raver, C. C., & Knitzer, J. (2002). Ready to enter: What
research tells policymakers about strategies to promote social and
emotional school readiness among three- and four-year-olds. New York:
National Center for Children in Poverty.
Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2001). From neurons to
neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC:
National Academy Press.
Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development.
New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Hannah Nissen is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education,
Ohio University Zanesville. Carol J, Hawkins is Associate Professor,
Human Ecology, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.
Promoting Emotional Competence
Teacher As Relationship Builder
Observe children's abilities to regulate emotional responses
Establish nurturing, individualized relationships with children
Respond in ways that demonstrate the child is valued
Tailor interactions to the characteristics and needs of each child
Teacher As Coach and Role Model
Coach children in problem solving during activities and peer
Help children verbalize their frustrations and use language in
Coach children in recognizing and naming their feelings
Model appropriate expression of emotions
Teacher As Creator of Healthy Environments
Establish a "good fit" between children's needs and characteristics
and the expectations of the learning environment
Provide appropriate choices and challenges
Create soft spaces to serve as a retreat from stress
Establish predictable routines
Organize an environment that encourages autonomy and responsibility
Provide blocks of time for free play
Build understanding of emotions through intentional teaching
Establish a climate of respect
Believe that each child can succeed