An extensive body of literature indicates that children's school success is critical to their development. Students must overcome numerous challenges to perform well in school, and it is clear that many do not. Educational researchers initially focused heavily on curricula, classroom structure, teacher-child ratios, whereas more recently, investigators have begun to focus on children's social and emotional functioning as important contributors to school success. Many teachers believe that social skills are the most important characteristic necessary for school readiness and success and that many children lack these skills (Lewit & Baker, 1995). This situation is problematic because there is evidence that emotion regulation is a better predictor of school readiness than IQ (Blair & Razza, 2007).
This entry describes (1) key theoretical issues involved in the study of children's emotion regulation and especially effortful control (EC), an index of regulatory abilities, (2) methods of measuring EC, (3) what is known about if, and why, EC is related to students' academic competence, (4) socialization correlates of EC and how educators might work to improve children's EC, and (5) strategies for classroom management.
Emotion-related regulation is defined as “processes used to manage and change if, when, and how (e.g., how intensely) one experiences emotions and emotion-related motivational and physiological states, as well as how emotions are expressed behaviorally” (Eisenberg, Hofer, & Vaughan, 2007, p. 288). This definition is purposively broad to accommodate the assumption that emotion regulation can occur before, during, and after the onset of emotion.
Often researchers use effortful control (EC), defined as “the efficiency of executive attention—including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors” (Rothbart & Bates, 2006, p. 129), as an index of children's regulatory abilities. Individuals high in EC can control their attention and are able to avoid or engage in behavior to accomplish a goal, even if the individual would prefer to engage in another set of behaviors. Although EC is willful, it often may be executed automatically without much thought, and children are not always aware that their thoughts or actions are regulating emotion or behavior. Key to the study of academic competence, EC is hypothesized to regulate attention, emotion, and behavior (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). The authors of a National Academy of Sciences report noted that “self-regulation is a cornerstone of early childhood development that cuts across all domains of behavior” (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000, p. 3).
Basic regulatory processes begin early in life and become more complex as children age. Infants mostly rely on caregivers to soothe their distress and are not able to actively engage the caregiver until approximately six months of age. In general, self-soothing and looking away from a stress inducing stimulus are quite common methods of regulation among 5- to 18-month-olds, and by 20 months toddlers' use of avoidance and self-distractions become more common (see Eisenberg et al., 2007). By 48 months of age, children often use more complex regulatory strategies and are more proficient at willfully inhibiting behavior and focusing and shifting attention, and there is a marked decline in external forms of regulation. In addition to undergoing rapid development early in life, there is evidence that components of effortful control improve, albeit more slowly, throughout childhood and even into adulthood (Williams, Ponesse, Schachar, Logan, & Tannock, 1999).
Investigators typically measure EC and related regulatory capacities with questionnaires and structured laboratory tasks. As with all methods of assessment, each approach has both advantages and disadvantages. The focus here is on measurement issues that seem most important to the advancement of the study of EC and academic competence (see Rothbart & Bates, 2006 for a review of issues related to the measurement of EC).
A benefit of assessing EC and related constructs via questionnaires is that one can obtain information from the child and parents and teachers who witness the child's behavior in multiple contexts; however, such information is subject to self-presentation biases and error due to inaccurate perceptions and problems created by the difficulty of describing complex interactions or behaviors with relatively simple wording. The Child Behavior Questionnaire is a commonly used questionnaire for assessing children's attention focusing, attention shifting, and inhibitory control—all aspects of EC (Rothbart, Ahadi, Hersey, & Fisher, 2001). Less commonly used is the Brief, but it has the advantage of assessing components of behavioral regulation such as inhibition, attention shifting, and emotional control, as well as working memory and organization of materials (Gioia, Espy, & Isquith, 2003). When behavioral measures are considered, it is common to assess inhibitory control—and to some extent attention—using measures such as the peg task (Diamond & Taylor, 1996). To complete this task, children are directed to tap a peg once on a table when an experimenter taps twice and to tap twice when experimenter taps once. In doing so, participants must inhibit the desire to mimic the experimenter and use attentional skills to remember the rule of responding. Kochanska and colleagues have contributed several tasks that are appropriate for assessing the ability to delay. For example, in a M&M task, children must wait for the experimenter to ring a bell prior to eating the candy that is placed under a clear cup (see Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001). Investigators interested in assessing attention and memory would find the forward and backward Digit Span tasks quite useful. In the backward Digit Span, the experimenter lists numerical digits, for example 4, 9, 3 and the participant responds in reverse: 3, 9, 4. A paper by Carlson contains a more complete summary of frequently used measures of EC and related constructs (Carlson, 2005).
Theory and data suggest that cognitive and emotional systems are interconnected and that promoting emotion-related skills, including effortful control, can promote academic achievement. Findings indicating that attentional regulation is positively related to measures of school readiness support this conclusion (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003). Evidence indicates that the measures of regulation predict later levels of academic competence, even when the effects of cognitive variables are controlled (Blair & Razza, 2007), and long-term evidence suggests that preschoolers' ability to delay gratification, a component of EC, predicts their verbal and quantitative SAT scores (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).
Children's EC probably is linked to their academic competence both directly and indirectly. More specifically, the attentional and planning components of EC may be directly related to academic competence, whereas the delay and inhibitory control components of EC relate to children's social and motivational processes, which in turn relate to academic competence. Indeed, many of the explanations offered for why relations exist implicate the role of students' relationships with their peers and teachers. Findings from the developmental, social, and clinical psychological literatures suggest that students high in self-regulation are likely to build relationships with teachers and peers that foster academic competencies, whereas less-regulated children are at risk for more turbulent relationships (Rothbart & Bates, 2006; Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, Swanson, & Reiser, in press). Developing a supportive teacher-child relationship may buffer children from some risk factors associated with poor performance, perhaps because teachers are more likely to provide extra assistance to children with whom they have a positive relationship. Maintaining a good relationship with the teacher is important because declines in the nur-turant teacher-child relationship precede declines in achievement, and evidence indicates that teacher-reported negativity in the teacher-child relationship is related to achievement test scores even when controlling for verbal IQ (Hamre & Pianta, 2001).
As children age, a crucial developmental task is to become integrated into peer groups and to maintain friendships. Poor-quality friendships or a lack of friendships is hypothesized to interfere with academic competence as early as preschool and kindergarten, but it likely becomes more important with age because social competence and peer acceptance are posited to promote social inclusion and resources that promote academic success. For example, Welsh, Parke, Widaman, and O'Neil (2001) found children's prosocial behaviors were reciprocally related to academic competence. Initial findings indicate that the quality of the teacher-child relationship and children's social competence partially mediate relations between children's EC and grade point average (Valiente et al., in press).
Given the importance of emotion-related regulation to the formation of relationships and academic skills, it is somewhat surprising that only since 1995 has the development of EC been a focus of study. Although EC is a component of temperament and it is hypothesized to have a biological basis, many believe it is influenced by the environment (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). A number of scholars have argued that regulatory abilities are developed in relationships and can be learned. Consistent with these ideas, Eisenberg, Spinrad, and Cumberland (1998) argued that parents socialize their children's emotion regulation by (1) their reactions to children's emotions, (2) their discussion of emotion, (3) their expression of emotion, and (4) their selection or modification of situations. According to Eisenberg and colleagues, when socializing behaviors are positive and supportive they promote learning about emotions and their regulation, but when parental actions are harsh and punitive, children are likely to experience overarousal, which undermines opportunities to learn about emotions and their regulation.
Numerous cross-sectional studies demonstrate associations between parenting and EC, but longitudinal studies that are sensitive to change and that contain rich measures of both constructs are needed to determine if parenting influences children's EC. As of 2007, there were few studies of this type. For example, parents who are high in warmth and positive, as opposed to negative, have children who are rated by parents and teachers as high in EC (Valiente et al., 2006). Data from other research laboratories are consistent with the premise that positive parenting predicts growth in children's persistence across four years (Halverson & Deal, 2001). Evidence that Indonesian parents' expressions of negative emotion and Chinese parents' style of parenting predict measures of children's EC in the theoretically expected ways suggests that relations are somewhat similar in other cultures (see Eisenberg et al., 2007).
Significantly, most theories predict reciprocal relations between parenting and children's EC. Although not all findings are consistent (Valiente et al., 2006), Eisenberg and colleagues (1999) found that 6- to 8-year-olds' regulation predicted their parents' punitive responses two years later, which, in turn, predicted 10- to 12-year-olds' regulation. This area of research needs additional theoretical and empirical attention.
Regarding relations between EC and academic competence, experimental evidence shows that teachers can improve children's inhibitory control, attentional control, and delay of gratification. In the Tools of the Mind Preschool Program, teachers embed social, emotional, and cognitive self-regulation throughout all aspects of the curricula. In a pilot evaluation where children were randomly assigned to either the Tools condition or a control condition, those in Tools performed significantly better than controls in two different EC tasks. In addition, children in Tools either met or exceed state and national standards in literacy and math (Diamond, Leong, & Bodrova, 2006). These results are consistent with Greenberg and colleagues' findings that participation in PATHS, a intervention designed to promote self-control, emotional awareness, and interpersonal problem-solving skills, leads to improvements in self-control, emotional understanding, and the ability to plan (Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995).
Every teacher is likely to have at least one child in the classroom who is relatively dysregulated. To facilitate learning for all students in the class, teachers and students need to have a positive and reassuring relationship. For the classroom to run efficiently, a limited number of rules, typically less than eight, must be set by the end of the first week by both the teacher and the students (Lindberg & Swick, 2002). When the rules are violated, teachers should use discipline that is related to the violation. For example, if a student writes on the desk, that student should clean the desks. For more disruptive situations, teachers may find exchanging time-outs with colleagues effective so that they can send a child to another room to calm down for 15 to 20 minutes. It is important to note that rewards are often more effective than punishments, and the implementation of activities such as having lunch with the teacher, calling the child's parents to praise specific activities, or a token system where students earn play money that allows them to purchase desirable gifts/activities often prevents many undesirable behaviors, even for children prone toward dysregulation (see Lindberg & Swick, 2002).
Helping children succeed in school is critical for individual students and for society. This entry touches on some of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying EC and academic competence. The existing body of research supports the hypothesis that EC is positively related to young children's academic competence; however, the majority of data are correlational, and there are only a handful of studies involving students beyond fifth grade. Clearly, additional longitudinal findings and data from interventions are needed before drawing firm conclusions. A promising avenue for future research involves obtaining a variety of assessments of the components of EC utilizing a variety of methodologies. By assessing EC in a variety of ways, one would be in a good position to test the hypothesis that relational processes mediate the associations between the inhibitory components of EC, but the attentional- and memory-related components of EC are both directly and indirectly related to academic competence.
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