The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Pamela Cole (Penn State) Presents Research on Language and Emotional Regulation in Early Childhood

Pamela Cole

A little girl is quietly constructing a tower out of large Lego bricks. All goes well until the structure becomes taller than its base can support. The blocks give out, and she breaks into hysterics. As she applies pressure to snap the pieces back into place, the remaining portion of the tower breaks off and the girl throws a chunk of brick in frustration.

Pamela Cole showed this video during her lecture Feb. 27 to introduce her work on how toddlers learn to control their emotions in upsetting situations. Studies have shown that a child’s ability to regulate their behavior predicts later outcomes, including successful adult relationships, academic success, and weight management. And the earlier kids develop this ability, the better.

“Maybe it’s good if you’re self-regulated at 6, but these predictions out to adolescence, early adulthood, and later adulthood were associated with self-regulation at the age of 3,” she said.

Cole is particularly interested in the relationship between language ability and behavioral regulation. Parents often tell their distressed children to “use their words” to express how they’re feeling. Cole shows another video, this one of a 42-month-old girl who is devastated that she is only 3, and not yet 4-years-old. The mother is helping her child talk through her emotions, and the girl, clearly still upset, seems to calm herself as her mother speaks. “What’s going on there?” Cole asks. “What is the function language is serving?”

To find out, Cole set out on the Development of Toddlers Study (DOTS), a research program funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health that follows 120 children between 18 and 48 months of age to study how self-regulation develops throughout these years. One focus of the research is on parent- and child-language.

In the lab, Cole and her collaborators have parents fill out a questionnaire about their child’s typical behaviors while the children are given a shiny, wrapped gift and a broken toy. Pointing to the wrapped toy, the mother tells the child, “That is a surprise for you but you have to wait until I am finished with my work to open it.” The children are unable to open the gift until the experimenter reenters the room 8 minutes later. This “Wait Task” is designed to frustrate the children. The researchers are interested in how the children handle their frustration at different ages.

At 18 and 24 months, the children show signs of anger by the first minute. By 48 months, they are able to delay the onset of anger until halfway through the session. This pattern begins to shift at 36 months. Cole has found that this shift is related to children’s language level and rate of vocabulary growth. Although they are still upset with the situation, the children begin to learn how to deal with their frustration over time.

“It’s some evidence that the language status is steepening the decline in angry reactivity over this period of time, and it may be doing that through a strategy we call support-seeking,” she said. Through this process, the child initiates communication with the parent to guide control over his or her emotions.

In addition to the lecture, Cole provided her expertise to UMass psychology professor Elizabeth Harvey. Harvey’s research has shown that distinct ADHD symptoms are often evident during the preschool years, yet the disorder is not diagnosed until about 7 years of age. She has developed and tested an ADHD intervention program on campus and published a manual for clinicians. As a 2013-14 Family Research Scholar, Harvey will be submitting a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health for a project titled, “A Longitudinal Study of Emotion Competence in Preschool Children with Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” The project will investigate how cognitive control, cortisol reactivity, and parenting practices impact emotional development in preschool children with ADHD symptoms.