Every day students hustle along Virginia Tech’s West Campus Drive, disappearing into buildings as they tug at book bag straps slipping off their shoulders.
A toddler and his mother, making their way down this same path, seem out of place until she sees the sign that reads “Wallace Hall.” A Virginia Tech student awaits and leads them through the doors to classrooms and echoing hallways.
The creaking elevator stops at the third floor and the pair shuffles down the hallway, hand in hand behind the student, to a room with a camera resting quietly in the corner.
Only about two years of age, the boy squats beside a whirring bubble machine, popping the perfect little soap circles shooting haphazardly out of it, a wide smile set on his face. Later, in another room, while watching a DVD recording of the session, a student checks off a box on a coding sheet, giving the young boy a two for activity level. Welcome to the Children’s Emotions Lab.
Eventually, Dr. Cynthia Smith, who has a degree in developmental psychology and is an Assistant Professor of Human Development for Virginia Tech, will sift through mounds of data collection on about 140 toddlers with the undergraduate and graduate students involved in her research.
Although she has been doing research within the same vein as the Children’s Emotions Lab since her own undergraduate career at Penn State, Dr. Smith did not begin the project until her arrival in Blacksburg in August of 2004.
There are currently seven undergraduate and three graduate students working with the project to perform various types of duties. Over the course of their time working on the research, students may carry out observational coding, transcribing, assembling references for future studies, interacting with the children and their families, filming sessions, or recording responses from questionnaires.
Rebecca Ullrich, a senior honors student in human development currently working in the Children’s Emotions Lab, describes the goal of the research as “investigating the children’s emotional development and their ability to regulate their emotions and how parental qualities play a role in the quality and frequency of regulatory strategies.”
She goes on to explain that “a child’s ability to express emotions appropriately is a key factor in his or her success in interpersonal situations and can have a significant impact on his or her social skills . . . data can be analyzed to determine what might be typical in terms of the display of certain emotions and the range of intensity of the emotional experience.”
Dr. Smith is especially interested in the effects that anger has on children as well as the effects of parents on a child’s emotional development.
In order to investigate these emotions, the researchers place the children in situations where they are required to perform different tasks that may potentially frustrate the child, such as being shown a box of toys and told to wait to play with them.
Other methods to elicit emotion are to present the child with a novel stimulus that is unexpected, like a student entering the room wearing a mask, or a toy spider jumping across a table toward the child.
According to Dr. Smith, these methods are part of a standardized procedure developed by researchers interested in seeing children’s emotions. These and similar methods have been used in many different research projects to try to improve the under standing of child development, specifically children’s emotions.“Looking at a child’s reactions to these situations and how they are able to compose themselves as well as looking at influences from the type of parenting has several potential benefits,” said Smith.
“The Lab promotes an understanding of how children develop and how different areas of development (such as emotion regulation) affect children in many domains. Understanding these things is very important and can benefit how children are taught, friendships are formed, and parents interact with their children,” said Lauren Robinson, a Virginia Tech graduate who worked with Dr. Smith for several years.
The research can lead to early intervention for children at risk for problems associated with the inability to control emotions (such as anger management issues later in life), as well as contributing to the understanding of which factors influence stable development in children.
“This knowledge can be further applied to developmental psychopathology, as early difficulties regulating emotions and a lack of effortful control may be typical of a number of different developmental disorders, including ADHD and autism,” notes Ullrich.
“I’m inquisitive,” said Dr. Smith. “I like to know what is going on and why it’s happening, so seeing the parents and their children, I’m able to figure things out and the research is challenging work.”
The work is challenging, according to Smith, due to the longitudinal nature of the study. Children have been seen at two different periods of their development, first when they were toddlers (30-36 months) and again when they were in early childhood (4.5 – 5.5 years).
Lauren Edwards, a senior in human development, explains the data collection process. After observing the children engaged in various activities, the person scoring the child’s behavior will “quantify a child’s emotions via a numbers scale.” In the coding project that Edwards works on, “each observation receives a score reflecting the child’s level of positive affect,” Edwards explained. “The categories—duration of smiling, activity level, presence of laughter, and intensity of smile—are quantified on a scale from 0-3, where a child who, for instance, pays no attention to the bubbles in the bubble activity would receive a 0 while a child who runs around actively and intensely popping bubbles would qualify as a 3.”
Participants are all volunteers, found through notices at local daycare centers and moms’ groups, as well as records of previous university studies.
“A lot of the participants are just people who are interested in the research and want to help out,” said Dr. Smith.
Funding thus far for the Children’s Emotions Lab has come from several awards from the Virginia Tech ASPIRES program, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, but Dr. Smith is constantly searching for additional funding from other sources.
“I would like to expand the research and develop different projects within the Children’s Emotions Lab,” Smith said. “Ideally, I’d like to get a new sample of first-time mothers recruited during pregnancy.”
Also, the project is hoping to expand to the surrounding areas of Blacksburg. “It would be nice if we could get samples from Roanoke, because we want as much diversity as possible so that the results generalize to as many people as possible,” Smith said.
Regardless of future aspirations, the Children’s Emotions Lab has a lot to be proud of in its research so far. Findings from the research have been presented locally at Virginia Tech and also nationally and internationally, with graduate and undergradu ate students often included as authors.
Every student involved in the project expresses their gratitude for the opportunity to be involved, citing that the experience has given them the skills and knowledge to conduct research studies and has motivated them to pursue research possibilities in the future.
Ullrich has even used her experience to develop her own undergraduate honors thesis project, which connects the work done with the Children’s Emotions Lab to her personal interest in autism spectrum disorders.
Data collection will continue as Dr. Smith and her students work to expand their knowledge of child development. Whether they must don masks or ask children to wait to eat M&M’s, they will continue to contribute to the understanding of children’s emotions, encourage and allow students to become involved in research, and help not only those families involved in the project, but all families, to better relate to their child’s emotions and ability to control them.
ABOUT THE RESEARCHERS
Allison Arroyo is a senior human development major, with an emphasis on child and adolescent development. After graduation in May, Allie plans to pursue an occupation related to helping others while also exploring options for graduate school.
Margaret Bradley is a senior human development major, whois planning to attend graduate school for social work after graduation in May. She plans to work with foster children in the child welfare program.
Kelsey Culbertson is a senior interdisciplinary studies major, who has been with the project for three years. Next year, Kelsey plans to attend graduate school in an early childhood special education program.
Lauren Edwards is a senior human development major, with anemphasis in professional helping skills. After graduation, Lauren plans to begin a master’s program inpublic health. She will focus on research in epidemiology.
Kelsey Jefreys is a junior human development major, completing the child and adolescent development track as well as the professional helping skills track. Kelsey plans to continue with undergraduate research during her senior year and then will pursue graduate training with a focus on relationships between mothers and children.
Mary Moussa is a junior human development major, with a minor in psychology. In the future, Mary plans to pursue graduate education in marriage and family therapy.
Rebecca Ullrich is a senior honors human development major,with a psychology minor. Becca has completed three semesters with the project and was also selected to participate in an interdisciplinary undergraduate research program last summer. Becca is interested inpursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology