Violence prevention

Teaching children about managing their emotions

A team from the Tufts University Center for Children (TUCC) has begun working with a local company to develop a violence prevention program for kindergarteners aimed at teaching young children how to recognize and manage their emotions.

"Most violence prevention programs are aimed at middle school and high school populations, " said Donald Wertlieb, professor of child development, who is working on the project. "Researchers have been pointing to the need for earlier intervention if we're going to succeed."

Wertlieb said research shows that when children are perpetrators of violence—the extreme being the shootings at Columbine High School—"it became clear that these issues could have been identified earlier. Simultaneously, research was pointing out that if we equip children with social competence, emotional intelligence and good problem-solving skills, they are likely to show better self-regulation and better mental health even into adulthood, and they are less likely to show up in the ranks of those who are perpetrators of violence."

Joining Wertlieb on the project are TUCC associates Dr. Robert Sege, associate professor of pediatrics at Tufts School of Medicine and part of the Pediatric and Adolescent Health Research Center at Tufts-New England Medical Center (T-NEMC); Sue Steinseck of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and Dante Spetter, a former member of the child psychiatry department at T-NEMC. The team is working with Inflexxion, a Newton, Mass.-based health care research organization that received a grant for the project from the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Michael Davis, the principal investigator from Inflexxion, said that emotional intelligence is the biggest predictor of success later in life in terms of both relationships and work. He defined emotional intelligence or competence as "the fund of information about emotion and emotional experience in the self and others that is used to understand and interpret events in the environment."

Davis said children can be taught to identify and label feelings, to express them and assess their intensity and finally how to manage them. In addition, children can learn how to reduce stress, control impulses, understand the perspective of others and learn how to read non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice.

"A broad way to think about emotional intelligence," he said, "is that it's the ability to accurately send emotional signals to other people and read other peoples' signals and experience your own emotion."

Davis said emotional intelligence can be taught, "but as with all things, there is probably innate capacity. There could be neurological or temperamental issues that make it easier or harder." He said the primary way children learn these skills is from their parents, so part of the program will include a component for parents.

There are three ways parents teach emotional competence, Davis said. The first is to be a role model and show children how they deal with their own emotions by setting examples. The second is coaching in which parents talk directly about emotional issues with their children and help them label and understand their feelings. Davis called the third way "contingency," when parents react to how children manage their emotions.

Davis said the research group will develop a multimedia training component for teachers. In addition, he said, because kindergarten now teaches so much in the way of basic skills, "one of the things we are going to do is infuse the program into basic academic skills to make it part of what they are learning. For example, if children are learning about letter recognition, we might use a game identifying emotions and highlighting the first letter of each emotion."