Teaching feelings in preschool can ease emotional problems for teens

Feelings. We all have them, and yet, most of us were never taught how to talk about them. This can leave us at risk of developing emotional problems as we grow up.

To help boost the social and emotional skills of future adults, researchers at Penn State University looked into how young students could potentially benefit from attending preschools that implemented research-based programs designed to “enhance the child’s ability to get along with others, regulate their emotions, and develop coping skills.”

The researchers focused on Head Start preschools that implemented Research-based, Developmentally Informed (REDI) programs. What they found was that students who attended them were less likely to experience behavioral problems and emotional symptoms such as feeling anxious or depressed by the time they reached the seventh and ninth grades.

“The program had an effect on internal benefits, including better emotion management and emotional well-being, as well as external benefits, such as reduced conduct problems,” said Karen Bierman, a psychology professor at Penn State. So not only did the program result in fewer distressed adolescents, but it also resulted in less distress for their teachers and peers, as well. It’s an important finding to know we can promote these long-term benefits by intervening early with a strategic prevention programming embedded in a well-established public program like Head Start.”

By incorporating stories, puppets, and other activities that introduce concepts like understanding feelings and cooperation, REDI programs looked to improve important emotional and social skills. More specifically, one of the main focus points of REDI programs is to help children living in poverty. According to the researchers, the lack of resources and added stress can increase the chance that a child may develop gaps in social, emotional, and language skills by the time they begin school.

Previous research has shown that stronger early social-emotional and self-regulation skills can help prevent these gaps from developing, but the new research found just how important early intervention can be in helping impoverished children down the road.

“After the children left preschool, they moved on to many different schools and school districts,” Bierman says. “Once they reached seventh and ninth grade, their teachers who provided ratings for this study didn’t know who had been in the REDI classrooms and who hadn’t, so it was very much a blind rating.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that 6 percent of the REDI program students had ratings of very high conduct problems compared to the 17 percent in the comparison group. In addition, 3 percent of REDI program students had very high emotional symptoms compared to 15 percent in the comparison group.

The results, which were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggest that programs like REDI can help reduce the gaps in school readiness and mental health that can arise when early development is disadvantaged by financial hardship and lack of access to resources and support.

In short, talking about feelings early can be immensely beneficial later in life. 

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