Positive affect and the socio-emotional development of
preschool children - PTDC/PSI/66172/2006 (From 2007 to 2011)

Reaserch Team:

António Santos (Project Leader)
Manuela Veríssimo
Lígia Monteiro
João Daniel
Inês Peceguina
Nuno Torres

Project's Summary:

Developmental scientists agree that affect and emotion are intertwined with all facets of development and adaptation. Many aspects of emotional development are topics of research (e.g., expression, knowledge, regulation), but by far the most research has been directed to explicating processes regulating affect or the behaviors motivated by affects. However, and despite agreement that this must be a critical feature of emotion requiring understanding, there is no solid consensus on just what it means to “regulate” emotion. Furthermore, the emphasis on regulation highlights negative emotions and obscures the impacts of affective experiences per se (both positive and negative) as influences on salient developmental outcomes. By focusing primarily on the expression of affect and outcomes associated with individual differences in expressivity, this proposal offers an alternative to the (admittedly productive) emphasis on negative emotion and mal adaptation that currently pervades developmental accounts of emotion. By looking explicitly at positive affect experience, this research will begin to bridge the divide between the interest in positive affect from adult positive psychology and developmental accounts of the consequences of emotions. The study provides developmental data documenting (or not) findings concerning predictive relations between affective expressiveness and adaptive behavior, personality, social and academic success in the preschool, and health domains that have been reported for adults. This study addresses several perceived weaknesses in the adult literature by using a multi informant, multi-measure design (as opposed to the single informant), by a longitudinal design (compared to typical cross-sectional designs used for adults), and by including observational and laboratory components (compared to questionnaire/self-reports used in most of the adult research). Based on the adult literature and on pilot data, the following hypothesis will be tested: 1) Affect expressiveness will increase with age (both positive and negative affect expressions will be more frequent for older children); 2) Children who more frequently exhibit positive affect will be more socially engaged in the classroom and in lab assessments, will be considered “likeable’ by peers, and adults, and will be described as socially competent by observers; 3) Positive and negative affect do not constitute a bipolar dimension and will have different patterns of association with most outcome measures; 4) Children who more frequently express positive affect will be described by teachers as academically capable and will more readily engage math, science, and literacy materials in the classroom; 5) Children who more frequently express positive affect will be absent from class less due to illness and will be described as more healthy.

This study offers an alternative to current approaches to emotion and emphasizes the benefits of experiencing and expressing positive affects rather than the liabilities associated with failure to regulate negative affects. The study also links developmental data to interests arising from adult positive psychology. Studies of children afford opportunities to examine both trajectories of growth/change and predictions to salient life outcomes (at least as these are instantiated in the lives of 2.5 to 5.5 year olds attending day care programs). The longitudinal data will allow a stringent test of causal hypotheses suggesting that affect experience precedes and predicts positive outcomes. Both positive and negative affect will be assessed and the measures can be pitted against each other as predictors to adaptive and problem outcomes. Finally, measures of emotion knowledge and regulation will be included in the assessment battery to determine whether one or another facet of emotion (expression, knowledge, regulation) is “primary” in terms of how emotion influences behavior and development over this age-range.

Project’s aims:

This study is designed to assess the impact of affect expression on broad domains of functioning for preschoolers. The data test explicit hypotheses concerning the role of positive affect in facilitating children’s social and academic functioning over this period. The data will also test provocative hypotheses about positive (vs. negative) affect and indices of physical and mental health. Should, as is predicted from the adult literature, positive affect expression-experience be found associated with the manner in which these children engage the academic aspects of the preschool curriculum (in addition to social aspects) and with indices of physical health, the findings should impact preschool curricula development and delivery as well as teacher preparation and parent education. If happy children are more academically oriented and physically healthier, efforts should be expended to ensure that the school and home environments support the experience of positive affect for young children.

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