Young children have a hard time controlling their emotions. How can they learn to manage their feelings and focus in school? Just ask Karen Bierman
Karen Bierman tells a story about working with an 8-year-old boy who had a problem managing his anger. One day, Bierman asked him to make a drawing of what it felt like for him on the inside when he lost his temper. He drew an elaborate picture of a bag inside of him and a small mouse. He explained that when people said things to him that he didn’t like, the mouse started to blow the words into the bag. The bag “got bigger and bigger” inside him, hurting his stomach. When it got too full, it exploded, sending him out of control, and the yelling words came rushing out.
This led Bierman and the boy to discuss his feelings of anger and coping strategies. “We talked about how he could let the words out of the bag slowly so he could talk about his feelings and avoid the blow-up,” she said.
Bierman, distinguished professor of psychology at Penn State, subsequently included this child’s imagery in one of her programs to help young children develop problem-solving skills.
“Young children have strong emotional impulses and ideas, and they don’t always have the verbal skills to put those feelings in perspective. They’re dependent on adults to help them regulate those feelings. The skills we teach can help," she said.
Bierman is the recipient of this year’s Faculty Outreach Award for her longstanding work in developing such skills -- research-based interventions to improve the academic and mental health outcomes for children, particularly those at risk.
Melvin Mark, professor and head of the Department of Psychology, said, “Not only has Dr. Bierman’s research on high-risk children and emotional development had a significant impact on our scientific understanding of these issues, it has also resulted directly in the widespread implementation of school and community programs that foster youth development in Pennsylvania, as well as in other sites, national and international.”
Fending Off Trouble
Building social and emotional skills in the early school years has received more attention in the last 20 years. Studies have shown that children who have problems socially and are disruptive early on are more likely to fail at academics, drop out of school or get into trouble with the law.
One project co-led by Bierman that addressed this issue is Fast Track, a multisite study started in 1990 to design and evaluate different interventions to prevent antisocial behavior in high-risk youth.
The youth were randomly assigned to receive long-term, comprehensive preventive intervention from first grade through 10th grade at several different sites locally (Mifflin, Bellefonte and Tyrone school districts) and nationally (Seattle, Wash.; Nashville, Tenn., and Durham, N.C.). This included home visits with parents, in which parents were helped to support their child’s social-emotional skills; school-based academic tutoring; and social skills training.
A popular aspect of the social skills training from Fast Track is the Friendship Group. In this program, children meet in small groups to talk about friendships and practice social collaboration and self-regulation skills through a variety of interactive peer activities. “The groups are designed to be very fun, with games that take children through a sequence of social skills,” said Bierman.
Activities include dramatic role-playing, such as a pretend game of firefighters to build teamwork, as well as stop-and-go games to build self-control.
The Penn State Fast Track grant officially ended in 2008, with follow-up interviews collected when participants were age 20. Findings are good, with a decreased probability of juvenile arrests and more positive mental health outcomes among children who participated in the interventions. For instance, in Pennsylvania, 33 percent of the Fast Track participants were arrested as juveniles, significantly lower than the rate of 45 percent arrested in the comparison group.
The Friendship Group method that was developed for Fast Track is now offered as a community service at Penn State’s Child Study Center (which Bierman directs), open to children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, with Penn State students running the groups. Friendship Groups are also offered in a number of Pennsylvania school districts, as a stand-alone program or as part of other programs of prevention research led by Bierman and colleagues.
“This investment in group activities and in group membership is a really key part of why they work so well to shape children’s social skills and ability to self-regulate,” said graduate student Marcela Torres about the Friendship Groups. She cites as an example that by the end of the program the children are more flexible in their pretend play, such as taking turns being the wolf in “The Three Little Pigs.”
Learning ABCs and Social Skills
Social skills are the key in another effort, REDI, which focuses on designing and evaluating interventions to promote school readiness in low-income children.
Bierman explains that children who grow up in poverty often experience delays in cognitive and social development; many start kindergarten unprepared for the academic and behavior demands of the classroom, causing an achievement gap relative to children from more advantaged families that widens over time.
A major philosophy behind REDI (Research-based, Developmentally Informed), which started about eight years ago, is that children need to not only practice their ABCs to prepare for kindergarten but also need to work on social skills in order to prevent learning problems and conflicts with peers and teachers later on.
Bierman and a team partnered with Head Start in Blair, Huntingdon and York counties to deliver the program. A key goal was to develop a useful set of enrichment materials to facilitate both social growth and language and literacy that preschool teachers could easily incorporate into their daily schedules.
These materials include books that encourage interactive reading, with the teacher asking students questions about the words and situations, and cute animal characters that address emotional issues head-on.
Take Twiggle the Turtle, a character from the Preschool PATHS Curriculum— developed by Celene Domitrovich, assistant director of the Penn State Prevention Research Center, and Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research at Penn State—and used in the REDI program. When a child gets upset if, say, another child knocks his block tower over, he is encouraged to go inside his shell, like Twiggle. The teacher tells the child to take a deep breath and say what bothers him and how it makes him feel.
Cathy Kipp, director of Head Start in York County, said, “Dr. Bierman’s ability to relate her knowledge of social and emotional development to teachers at training and through the manual gave the teachers a sound foundation, which enhanced the success of the program.”
The program continues in the original Head Start counties and is now being used by Barnardo’s, an organization that serves at-risk children, in Ireland.
Bierman and her team conducted follow-up assessments with children who entered elementary school. Findings show that, in kindergarten, 70 percent who received REDI showed little or no disruptive behavior, compared with only 56 percent in the nonenriched classes.
Great Personality Traits
The seeds of some of Bierman’s work can literally be seen in her own three children. Training videos made during the program development phase for Fast Track feature younger versions of her daughter, now 25, and son, now 22. Bierman’s 10-year-old daughter participated in pilot videos for REDI.
“They all have different temperaments,” notes Bierman, “and had a lot of fun being involved.”
Bierman enjoys working with children—particularly those whose emotions run high and are often called “spirited” by their parents. “Those challenges of high emotionality can emerge to become great personality traits, such as leadership and ambition,” she said.
This story is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine.