Children who understand emotions become more attentive over time

Children may be absorbed in figuring out emotions of people important to them. Leonid Mamchenkov, CC BY

What is going on in the minds of young children when it seems they are daydreaming or appear to be scatterbrained?

A study that my coauthor, Susanne A Denham, and I conducted recently shows that inattentive children may sometimes be absorbed in trying to figure out the emotions of their parents, siblings, teachers and friends.

Young children are vitally interested in which emotions these important people in their small social world are feeling in respect to them and others, why they are doing so and whether their emotional displays are “real” or “fake.”

We found that children who have a better knowledge of emotions have no need to ponder these questions. They become free to pay attention to their social partners, to play and to academic learning, among many other things.

Why emotion knowledge matters

The research project, named “Elefant” – short for “Emotional Learning is fantastic” – surveyed 261 children from 33 kindergartens in Lower Saxony, a state in northern Germany, as well as their teachers and parents.

Two separate surveys over an interval of 14 months were conducted. The study tested children’s “emotion knowledge”: that is, their ability to identify facial expressions of emotions and typical situations that give rise to emotions, such as happiness when receiving a birthday gift.

It also included knowledge of strategies for controlling one’s own emotional expressions. A further component was the slowly developing insight that people often differ in their emotions because they appraise situations in light of their own preferences and beliefs.

Along with this, children’s self-regulation of their behavior, their memory span and their language skills were tested.

Children with better emotion knowledge had fewer attention problems later. Arctic Warrior, CC BY-ND

Children, especially young boys, who come from low socioeconomic status and do not understand complicated language usually tend to have more attention problems than others. The Elefant study confirmed these findings.

In addition, it found that children who had a better understanding about emotions had fewer attention problems later on even after such demographic factors had been taken into account.

In fact, children who understood more about emotions in the first survey managed to shape up their attention skills more than those who initially were largely ignorant of their own and others’ emotions.

What is ‘emotion knowledge’?

As the capacity to understand emotion progresses, one’s own behaviors and those of others become more predictable. This, in turn, absorbs less attention and promotes helpful behavior. It also leads to positive social relationships and academic achievements.

Children with limited “emotion knowledge,” on the other hand, often seem distracted. Their attention may be occupied by the explanation of their own confusing emotional states, the negative emotions of others or the regulation of their own emotions.

In addition, these young “emotional illiterates” tend to harbor more ill feelings because they believe that others will harm them. They tend to become more often angry and aggressive and have less productive relationships with teachers and peers.

Last but not least, their academic achievements are compromised.

Implications for children with ADHD

This study expands on previous research on the development of attention deficit problems (ADHD) in children.

The common assumption in research was that children’s deficits in memory, attention and inhibition that are often summarily called executive functions partly explained their symptoms of ADHD.

With our study, we find that children’s knowledge of emotions provides a better explanation for their attention control than other factors, such as demographics and executive functioning.

“Emotion knowledge” should therefore occupy a more central role in future studies and in kindergarten education. Lessons on emotion knowledge should be included in training for teachers so as to help young children improve their attention.