Developmental Science

Diana Divecha, Ph.D., writes about her favorite research on parenting and children's development


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Many Words for Snow and Few for Emotion

Teachers from a school near the Arctic circle who work with children of mostly Inuit families find that this unique cultural group has a “limited vocabulary for talking about emotions as well as limited strategies for managing their emotions effectively.”

Recently these teachers travelled to Yale where researchers have developed a comprehensive emotion skills curriculum for children that trains the entire school community (“everybody with a face,” they say) how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions (acronym RULER).

Teachers from the Arctic share their Yale training experience in this video:

See full article in Yale News here.

“The RULER approach to social-emotional learning is an evidence-based program that is rooted in the original scientific theory of emotional intelligence developed here at Yale University,” says director Dr. Marc Brackett.

The Inuit children are on their way to learning a rich vocabulary for understanding and managing their feelings.

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Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21st century skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

There is promising research to show that meditation and yoga can have profound effects on certain groups of children. Among children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, or behavior problems in school, both meditation and yoga have been shown to improve anxiety, attention, behavior, and academic performance. Two studies found that yoga practice helped children who suffer from asthma and respiratory problems to breathe better. A study of teens who had high blood pressure showed that practicing transcendental meditation improved their cardiovascular health and even some negative school behaviors like hostility, breaking rules, and absenteeism.

As for research on children in a general school population, a handful of studies on yoga with middle and high school kids hints at some favorable results. In a study where the yoga practice was modified to be developmentally appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders, the students in the yoga condition had lower stress and better emotional health—less rumination, fewer intrusive thoughts, and lower emotional arousal—than students in the control group. A study with high school students found that the control group who received a physical education training actually got worse over the period of the study, while yoga participants stayed the same on measures of emotional health. In that case, yoga seemed to at least prevent deterioration. But these are small, pilot studies and more work needs to be done.

The few studies on meditation in school children are also hopeful – showing some improvement in social skills – but again contain too few children or too many design and measurement problems to be conclusive. In fact the authors point out that there are no studies of meditationamong children in a general school population that are designed well enough to meet the standards of the gatekeeping organizations—like CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), the Department of Education, or the Society for Prevention Research—that would endorse program changes in schools.

Children are not simply small adults, and they may be affected differently by a contemplative practice. For example, preschool children are just beginning to learn to control their impulses so it would be inappropriate to expect them to be still and focus for extended periods of time. Children’s power to direct their attention in purposeful ways gradually improves over the middle school years well into the late teens, and we don’t yet know how contemplative practices might interact with that arc. Older children, because of cognitive and neurological growth, can be excessively self-conscious and inwardly-focused, and in one study, fourth and fifth grade girls who learned a yoga-based mindfulness program said they experienced more stress as a result of the program. In another study, self-concept improved in fourth and fifth graders who received training in attention and mindful breathing but not among sixth and seventh graders.

We’re a long way from understanding what kinds of practices might benefit children at different ages. Are there unique windows of opportunity, and how long might the benefits last? What are the best adaptations for different ages, how often should the practice occur, and for how long? What is the cost-benefit analysis of program implementation? Greenberg and Harris conclude that well-designed studies that are grounded in developmental theory must answer these questions before such programs can be enthusiastically promoted for school adoption.

Contemplative practices bestow great benefits on adults who practice regularly. It is understandable that enthusiasts wish to offer children the same benefits in hopes of preventing poor mental and emotional habits from developing later and perhaps optimizing well being over their lives.

But let’s all pause—take a breath—and let the evidence come in.


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Is Empathy Learned–or Are We Born with It?

Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I were strolling with our toddler on the steamy streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we were taking a time-out before diving into our careers. At eighteen months, Zai was toddling ahead of us, and I watched as an elderly woman approached her, cupped hands outstretched, in the universal request for food or money. I held my breath as Zai offered the woman her most precious possession: her stuffed kitty. I did not want to interfere with Zai’s gesture of compassion—but the kitty was her security object.

Empathy—a concern for others—is present in children from the beginning but not much has been known about how it unfolds early in life. Studies of newborn babies show that they cry more to the sounds of other babies’ cries of distress than they do to equally loud sounds of other types or even to recordings of their own crying. Psychologists believed that while this reaction foreshadows later empathy and suggests a hard-wired orienting to other people’s feelings, empathic distress throughout the first year of life was a more contagious, reactive, egocentric kind of response. Upset in others simply triggered, or got merged with, a baby’s own feelings of anxiety or fear.

Empathy in Children: The New Research

Until recently, researchers believed that true empathy doesn’t emerge in children until the second year of life, after 12 months of age, when a more separate sense of self begins to be consolidated. Psychologists believed that to accurately appraise how another person feels required greater cognitive complexity. Children needed to be able to separate what others might be feeling from their own internal experience. But three researchers were interested to see whether true empathy might actually be evident earlier, in the first year of life: Israelis Ronit Roth-Hanania at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and Maayan Davidov at The Hebrew University, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Roth-Hanania, Davidov, and Zahn-Waxler went into the homes of 37 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class infants from eight to 16 months and set up three distressing situations:

  1. The mother pretended to hit her finger with a toy hammer and be upset for one minute (and she avoided eye contact with her child in this minute so as to not bias the child’s response).
  2. The mother walked toward the baby and pretended to bump her knee, again showing distress for one minute (and again without making eye contact).
  3. The baby was shown a video of another baby crying for one minute.

All of the infants showed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways. The younger babies’ feelings of concern for their mothers’ pain registered on their faces, from a fleetingly furrowed brow to sustained looks of sadness. Many cooed or made other sympathetic sounds. As the babies tried to figure out what had happened, their glances bounced from the hurt body part up to the mother’s face and back.  Some made questioning sounds, or they looked to the face of another adult for interpretation.

In the first two scenarios, the older babies, who were more mobile and physically coordinated, added behavioral attempts to comfort and help, softly patting their mothers and making soothing sounds. The 16-month-olds made the most physical attempts to help, by far.  In comparison, the video evoked very few responses in all of the babies, showing that they no longer have the reflexive, contagious upset of the newborn, and that they are beginning to tell the difference between situations they can do something about and those they cannot.

Empathy and Gender: Is There a Difference?

Of course, some babies were more empathic than others, and those personality differences were fairly stable from ten months through 16 months. In this study, there were no sex differences in expressions of empathy. Other studies have found mixed results in babyhood, and more consistent differences seem to show up later in middle childhood when more girls than boys express their concern for others.

Parenting for Empathy: What Is Our Role?

Zahn-Waxler, who has studied children’s emotional lives for decades, says that parents often miss expressions of kindness in their babies, even in the presence of the experimenters who are recording the child’s empathic expressions at that very moment. In the flow of everyday life, tantrums, conflicts and other demands can obscure more gentle behaviors, and adults may start reinforcing achievement-related skills over helping behaviors in the preschool years.

Teaching empathy and compassion has become a big focus among progressive schools. These studies suggest that perhaps kindness doesn’t need to be taught anew as much as supported more continuously from an early age. Children’s empathy seems inborn, a gift that is ours as a society to lose depending on how we react to these earliest overtures.

As for Zai and her kitty, the old woman responded by gently guiding Zai’s laden hands back to her chest as if to say, “Thank you. I appreciate your offer, and I see that you are just a child. You keep your treasure.” Children’s kindness often brings out the best in adults.