Promoting emotional competence in the preschool classroom.
Mental health (Educational aspects)
Early childhood education (Psychological aspects)
Emotional development (Study and teaching)
Preschool children (Education)
Preschool children (Psychological aspects)
Nissen, Hannah
Hawkins, Carol J.
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 4
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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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 Figure 1).

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 regulation.

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 understood.

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 surfaces.

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 once again.

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.


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Hannah Nissen is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, Ohio University Zanesville. Carol J, Hawkins is Associate Professor, Human Ecology, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.
Figure 1

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
 solving problems
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
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