Study: Teachers may need training to respond to children's emotions

June 7, 2012

Teachers learn a lot about how to teach curriculum in college, but they don't get much training in helping very young children learn to handle frustration, anger, and excitement, skills that kids need for kindergarten readiness, said Nancy McElwain, a University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies who conducted a study on the topic.

"When teachers aren't trained to respond to emotional outbursts in supportive ways, they often fall back on responses that reflect the way they were raised and whether they feel comfortable with their own emotions," said Rebecca Swartz, a doctoral candidate and the study's first author.

For the study, 24 student teachers in the U of I Child Development Laboratory (CDL) filled out self-assessments, rating their responses to hypothetical emotional situations and reporting their beliefs about the best ways to handle children's emotions.

These student teachers were then each observed several times interacting with children in the CDL classrooms over the course of a semester. From these observations, the researchers rated how the student teachers responded to the children's positive and negative emotional displays.

As expected, student teachers who reported more effective strategies for regulating their own emotions—for instance, thinking about a stressful situation in a different light—and who also reported more accepting beliefs about children's emotions were more supportive of children when they had emotional outbursts.

The most common non-supportive response was not responding. "Perhaps teachers were busy and didn't notice an emotional display or they needed a strategy to work through that difficult moment," she said.

Swartz wants teachers to learn emotional regulation strategies as part of their professional development so they can model them for children and manage challenging emotional moments in the classroom. "It might be effective to bring in a mentor who could coach, consult, and reflect with teachers as occasions arise," she said.

In the typical preschool classroom, it wouldn't take long for a mentor to find a teachable moment, she predicted. "In a classroom for two-year-olds, sometimes it's just emotion, emotion, emotion."

Instead of saying "Don't cry" or "That's not important," Swartz would like to see the teacher label the child's emotion and help him learn to cope with his or frustration.

"If a child is crying because a classmate has taken a toy, a better response would be, "I know you're sad. You really want to play with that." Then the teacher could use a problem-solving strategy: "Maybe you could take turns, or you could play with another toy for now."

According to Swartz, "These everyday moments are golden opportunities for children to learn how to manage their emotions. Too often, teachers want to make negative emotions go away. Instead we need to use them as learning opportunities."

Although it's important to support positive emotions—"we like to see teachers smile when children are smiling, and to give them pats on the back or high-fives"—the student teachers only sought the support of a master teacher in dealing with a child's negative emotion, she said.

But kids need help handling happiness and excitement, too, she noted. In those instances, teachers could say, "We can't throw blocks in the air to show we're excited, but we can clap or cheer instead."

Swartz emphasized that emotional self-regulation is important not only for kindergarten readiness, but for long-term success as children move into the higher grades.

"When you're sitting with a long-division problem, it's not just understanding long division that's important but being able to stick with it long enough to understand it. When are building a block tower and managing their , those skills will help them later," she said.

The study was published in a recent issue of Early Education and Development.

Explore further: Pre-K students benefit when teachers are supportive

Related Stories

Pre-K students benefit when teachers are supportive

May 15, 2008

States are investing considerable amounts of money in pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. A new study finds that the quality of interactions between teachers and children plays a key role in accounting for gains in ...

Recommended for you

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Rare braincase provides insight into dinosaur brain

October 8, 2015

Experts have described one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur braincases ever found in Europe. The find could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries of how dinosaur brains operated, including their intellectual ...

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.