What Early childhood teachers can teach us about the language of emotions?

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14th November 2019

In the following, we expose some sections of a doctoral thesis in Neuroscience and Language aimed to characterize effective language use by Early Childhood teachers from the perspective of the psycholinguistic approach. In this way, it is intended to take the first steps for the characterization of well-being language, and its role in non-invasive treatments.

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Current trends in higher education emphasize the gradual improvement of student’s formative process by developing a series of competencies that prepare them to deal with real professional tasks; whereas many of them belong to the verbal domain, and imply linguistic abilities to be contemplated as a pedagogical tool, especially in disciplines related to social science, and especially education. Early childhood education (hereinafter ECE); has not been outside this trend by advancing the curriculum quality standards to incorporate the scaffold of competency-based education (Campbell-Barr, & Bogatić, 2017); making the acquisition of verbal competences a pivotal part of early childhood teachers’ (hereinafter ECT) professional possibilities beyond language proficiency. Although it’s been claimed teacher language as such had not been yet properly studied (Cuéllar, & Oxford, 2018); an interest is growing based on the modulatory effect of ECTs care qualities on children development (Pennington, & Richards, 2016); especially in the domain of language development (Manning, Wong, Fleming, & Garvis, 2019; Phillips, Zhao, & Weekley, 2017).

The study of teachers’ language characteristics and verbal competences is been tackled out by a research line that approaches the specific variations of their language in learning environments, (Shleppegrell, 2012); a kind of language that is characterized by its dynamism and multidimensionality, going from greater conciseness, information density, and accuracy, up to more conversational elements (Snow, 2010).

Within this line, our study aims to address the distributions of the specific of affective terms uses by ECTs in the context of improving teacher effectiveness through the study of ad hoc competences to be later transformed in suitable pedagogical ways to teach and acquire them.


Words and emotions

Many theoretical explanations had been proposed about this relationship, highlighting emotions are represented in the brain as a set of semantic features in a distributed sensory, motor, language and affective network (Hinojosa, Moreno, & Ferré, 2019); where language enhances extra attention from an emotional experience that may be necessary for the activation of the appetitive-aversive motivational system, and/or be likewise of a particular relevance to survival (Ya et al., 2017). Consequently, sentence meaning and its concatenating emotions can be understood as more than a simple lexical building block reflected in the activation of subjective experiences attached to the vast word’s semantics, but also like a complex interrelation between the body, the brain, and its environment.

An emotion term is usually understood as a word with an affective connotation, that from a structural perspective, must have a few distinctive characteristics. Following Klaus, Scherer, and Fontaine (2013); some of them are: (a) an appraisal component that triggers the emotion: (b) a distinguishing tendency toward action; (c) facial movements, and voice/speech qualities; (d)body reactions; and, (e) a subjective component. All of them converge in words that are associated with subjective emotional experience, and its own characteristically behavioral, and physiological manifestations, sometimes occurring already after being exposed to its first syllables (Alex, Babu, & Mary, 2018).

The study of emotion terms in psycholinguistic had been approached from various angles, giving noteworthy attention to its affective value in regard to its valence, arousal, dominance, and other variables. A general conclusion emphasizes the pervading influence of language on an individual’s neurophysiology and cognitive mechanisms, as well as on emotional and sensorial experience. For instance, evidence within this line suggests differences between cognitive processing of words with the emotional content of those neutral or abstract in nature, the last typically processed faster (Yao et al., 2018); with an early attentional bias for negative words (Ho, Li, & Yeh, 2016). Moreover, contemporary thinking critical of strong divisions between the rational and emotional dimensions, had asserted words may convey in emotions, and sensorial experiences when recalling them, as is in the case of pain (Borelli, Crepaldi, Porro, & Cacciari, 2018); and/or relaxation (Przyrembel, & Singer, 2018). Following that, language can be understood as a cognitive marker for physiological processes from which an experience is retrieved, and hold by specifics cognitions anchored in a meaningful situation to the person, and accordingly, word choice become a good predictor of a number of psychophysical states (e.g.: Shahane, & Denny, 2019). The above empirical evidence exposes an intricately process underlying the relationship between words and emotions, deeply related to many factors, and from where researches argue it contributes to the final meaning formation and sentence building that a person finally speaks out.


Adults language and its modulatory effect on child development

Five decades of research have well-documented this relationship (Adamson, Kaiser, Tamis-LaMonda, Owen, & Dimitrova, 2019; Fernald, & Weisleder, 2015). Specifically, it been established teacher’s language has an incidence on many aspects of student’s cognitive functions, and linguistic behavior, like word production, word types, abstract thinking, expressive language, and so on (McNally, McCrory, Quigley, & Murray, 2019; Chen, 2018; Kısa, Aktan-Erciyes, Turan, & Göksun, 2018; Clément, Bernard, Grandjean, & Sander, 2013; Bowers, & Vasilyeva, 2011); and/or on emotions as it is for the case of enjoyment, and anxiety (Dewaele, Witney, Saito, & Dewaele, 2017). Evidence suggests a stimulating surrounding by means of early reading to preverbal infants enhance language development (Muhinyi, & Rowe, 2019); and/or playful interactions with adults have a positive effect on expressive language development (Cuellar, & Farkas, 2018); with a promotive role in fostering their cognitive development (Leech, Leimgruber, Warneken, & Rowe, 2019); and long-lasting effects in life on sensitivity to words emotional valence, and semantic arousal (Kornilov et al., 2019).

Adults language scaffolding of children’s verbal behavior is needed in order to successfully integrated new verbal skills into their developmental path, and that way to facilitate their expression into important coping strategies, as emotion regulation is (Bendezú et al., 2017). It has been alike argued it has an impact on children’s cognitive, and emotional modalities of behaving, and experiencing oneself through imitative learning. It is known accordingly, preschoolers adapt their exploratory strategies to the task information structure that it’s given to them (Ruggeri, Swaboda, Sim, & Gopnik, 2019); then the same is expected in regard to the linguistic configuration of emotion terms, associated semantic networks, and terminal verbal behaviors that children acquire from adults, and consequently, the kind of engaging with their affective environment, and own emotions.


Teachers language characterization in ECE

Teaching is an intensely interpersonal profession which requires a complex set of cognitive, and social-emotional skills, and language is one of the main means to deliver it that ECTs had, yet such variables had not been well-explored on the subject of characterizing teacher language uses, and its properties. Research consistently had indicated teachers vary considerably in frequency, complexity, and forms of their speech to children (Bowers, & Vasilyeva, 2011); with a large specter of influences, especially on children language development (Muhinyi, & Rowe, 2019; Cuellar, & Farkas, 2018).

Some studies had identified ECTs’ profiles by addressing different dominant variables (Göncz, 2017). For example, some research indicates that teachers with higher academic credentials engage in better quality practices (Denny, Hallam, & Homer, 2012). Others approach ECTs classifications had to cover professional characteristics by countries ECE policies (Oberhuemer, 2015); sociodemographic variables (Unal, & Kurt, 2018); patterns of professionalization and professional training (Nasiopoulou, Williams, Sheridan, & Yang, 2017); and/or different degrees of teaching efficaciousness (Decker-Woodrow, 2018; Hu, Chen, & Fan, 2017). Other studies which belong more directly to the pedagogical domain show ECTs profiles of preferences by supporting book-reading v/s writing activities (O’Leary, 2017); types of personal orientation towards subjective theories v/s scientific in explaining toddler’s behavior (Mischo, Wahl, Strohmer, & Hendler, 2012); and/or in identifying ECTs emotional competences repertory (Fernández, Bravo, & Fernández, 2019). Psychological characteristics had been also included in this research line by categorizing profiles depending of the nature of their attitudes toward teaching (Jeon, Buettner, & Hur, 2015). Moreover, personality traits had been studied. Higher openness and agreeableness are frequent traits in ECE students (Smidt, & Roux, 2014); and conscientiousness is strongly associated with satisfaction, but neuroticism is not (Smidt, 2015). Also, it had been approached recently the study of different ECTs personality traits who work with children with special needs (Tatalović, Skočić, & Josipović, 2018).

Going further, there are some specific studies on ECTs’ specific linguistic modes on habits and children skills formation. Recent work explores the use of emotion minimizing language, a kind that purposefully distances from a child’s current emotions and discourages to express them, and its detrimental influence on toddlers’ social-emotional competence (King, & La Paro, 2018). Other works show an increasing interest in storybook-telling ECTs profiles due to its impact on toddler’s latter syntactic spoken complexity (OʼKeefe, 2018; Cekaite, & Björk-Willén, 2018). Also, more specific ECTs linguistic characteristics are also been studied regarding quantity, syntactic complexity, and lexical diversity (Pizarro et al., 2019); and/or the presence and use of academic language in ECTs, and its relation to children language development (Treviño, Varela, Romo, & Núñez, 2015). All this evidence refers to a growing interest to explore ECTs’ language characteristics and is situated under the umbrella of improving theirs’s pedagogical work efficacy.


Goals of the current study

The recognition that the semantic environments in which children grow shapes their thoughts, behavior, social interactions, and emotions, from a pedagogical point of view, imply the need to access language characteristics, and properties of those who directly work with them. Our general inquiry hypothesizes ECTs’ word preferences related to the affective domain can be highlighted by its particular distributions of use. Over the understanding that word by its nature can be classified in semantic categories of meaning, we pose therefore three specific questions to help us to identify specific ECTs preferences for words from the above-mentioned domain: (1) Do some semantic categories related to the affective domain emerge with statistical significant differences, which highlight frequent word uses by ECTs? (2) Do some particular distributions of semantic categories will emerge that can be referred to as distinguishable ECTs semantic profiles? (3) Which are the best predictors for semantic categories related to the affective domain?

The results are in progress (next January). This study is being simultaneously done in the city of Zagreb-Croatia, ate the University of Zagreb, and the city of Copiapo-Chile, at the University of Atacama.

Any interest in conducting a similar study in Asia, please contact me.

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