Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Emotional Development


Although the place of emotions in early childhood curriculum has been debated, recent child development research provides convincing evidence that young children’s emotional competence is key to their later competence, not just in the emotional domain but in social and academic areas as well (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2001). To support positive development and learning, early childhood education programs must therefore implement curriculum that effectively promotes emotional competence, whatever the other goals of the curriculum.


The Emotion-Centered Tradition in Early Childhood Education

In U.S. early childhood education, early childhood programs have traditionally emphasized five components: the emotional nature of teacher-child relationships; activities to meet children’s emotional needs; open expression of feelings by children and adults; the development of positive affective states and dispositions; and awareness of children’s emotional responses (Hyson, 2003). Although their specific forms have been influenced by cultural contexts, these components have also been prominent in non-U.S. early childhood education programs. Yet this traditional emphasis is at risk. In a social policy report from the Society for Research in Child Development, Raver (2002) concludes that “psychologists’ and educators’ emphasis on cognition and on children’s academic preparedness continues to overshadow the importance of children’s social and emotional development for early school readiness” (p. 3). For this reason, many urge that a research-based focus on emotions should permeate the early childhood curriculum.


Focusing on Emotions within the Early Childhood Curriculum

“Emotional curriculum” or “emotion-centered curriculum” does not necessarily require the creation of a separate curriculum about feelings. Indeed, the research on early emotional development suggests that a focus on emotional competence should be infused throughout the curriculum rather than being added on in an isolated or disconnected way. A synthesis of this research would recommend the following as the primary goals of any curriculum that aims to support young children’s emotional competence:

1. Creating a secure emotional environment. If adults create an emotionally secure climate, children are able to explore and learn.

2. Helping children to understand emotions. If adults promote emotional understanding, children have insight into their own and others’ feelings, becoming more empathic and socially competent.

3. Modeling genuine, appropriate emotional responses. If adults show authentic emotions, and if they are effective models, children are likely to adopt appropriate ways of showing their feelings.

4. Supporting children’s regulation of emotions. If adults gradually guide children toward self-regulation, children will gain skills that support healthy development in multiple domains.

5. Recognizing and honoring children’s expressive styles. If adults respect individual differences in emotional expressiveness, while promoting culturally and developmentally appropriate expression, children are nurtured and supported.

6. Uniting children’s learning with positive emotions. If adults give children many opportunities to experience the joys and overcome the frustrations of new learning experiences, they are better able to persist at tasks and seek out challenges.


Associations between Curriculum Emphases and Emotional Outcomes

Early childhood educators have adopted a variety of curriculum models and approaches to teaching. As summarized in Hyson, Copple, and Jones (2006), several programs of research have examined relationships between the emphasis of a specific early childhood curriculum (especially along the dimensions of teacher-directed vs. child-focused) and the likelihood that the teacher has warm, emotionally positive relationships with children. For example, in studies in which the emotional climate of the preschool classroom was rated along with other features of the curriculum and teaching practices, classrooms with higher levels of adult direction and formal instruction were significantly less likely to be characterized by teacher-child affection and warmth.

In other studies, highly didactic, basic-skills-oriented curricula that emphasized individual success and failure were associated with less teacher warmth and nurturance toward children and less attention to their individual needs than in the more child-focused classrooms. Furthermore, children’s motivation suffered in these contexts. Children in these classrooms tended to rate their own academic skills lower than children in classrooms that offered more choice as well as greater acceptance and, when given a choice, they avoided challenging tasks.

Despite these trends, it is impossible to conclude that the only curriculum approach that supports close teacher-child relationships is a strongly child-centered one. It has not been possible to disentangle curriculum approach from emotional climate, since these two variables have been so strongly correlated. There are now a greater number of early childhood programs that cannot neatly be categorized as “child-centered” versus “didactic,” including those influenced by Vygotskian and other social-constructivist perspectives, the educational approaches of the Italian Reggio Emilia preschools, and revisions to The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) guidelines for developmentally appropriate practices. These programs place greater emphasis on teachers’ active promotion of cognitive and academic competencies through scaffolding, reflection, and representation, while embedding these in first-hand experiences linked to young children’s interests and within the context of play and rich social interaction. However, the emotional climate and motivational impact of these curricula have not yet been systematically studied.


Specifically Designed Curricula or Programs to Support Emotional Competence

A number of U.S. researchers have recently developed and attempted to validate specific classroom-level interventions designed to support young children’s emotional competence. The following points should be kept in mind when considering or adopting any intervention or prevention program (adapted from Raver, 2002):

• High-quality early education, including a rich, emotion-focused curriculum, provides the foundation to which more specific interventions may be added. Caring, emotionally knowledgeable teachers and a classroom climate that addresses and integrates the broad goals of emotional competence are essential.

• Research indicates that the most effective emotional-competence programs go beyond commercial packages that simply teach children names for feelings and that encourage children to “use words” to resolve conflicts. At least with elementary-age children, such programs are relatively ineffective when used in isolation. Effective programs require investment in professional development; link classroom lessons with games or other activities to build self-control and other skills; and coordinate classroom-level interventions with parent training and support. As compared with more limited interventions, such programs are expensive, but research indicates that the investment is worthwhile.

• An approach that has shown very positive results is to combine universal programs (for all children in a classroom or school) with more intensive intervention, in school and with families, for a smaller number of children who seem to be at greater risk for emotional difficulties.

• Although the programs described below have shown positive results, those who intend to adopt an emotional-competence program should consider whether the evaluations were conducted in settings that were demographically similar to those in which the program has been used and evaluated.

• High-intensity clinical interventions, perhaps using school-based early childhood mental health consultants, are recommended for young children at high risk of serious emotional problems, often because of family adversity. However, researchers emphasize that such interventions must avoid inappropriate labeling or stigmatizing children and must address family needs as well as those of individual children. Below are three examples of classroom-level interventions designed to support young children’s emotional competence. Evaluations have shown at least some positive effects for each of these programs.


Floor Time (program developer: Stanley Greenspan, M.D.). Also termed the Developmental Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model (DIR, commonly referred to as the “Floor Time” approach, Greenspan and Weider, 1998), focuses on helping all children, but especially those with disabilities such as autism, develop relationships and emotional communication. The goals of the one-on-one “Floor Time” intervention are to help the child become more alert; take more initiative; become more flexible; tolerate frustration; sequence and execute actions; communicate gesturally and verbally; and take pleasure in learning. Parents and other adults learn how to use individual interactions with a child (with or without disabilities) to support these goals.


The Incredible Years (program developer: Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D., University of Washington). The “Incredible Years” program provides comprehensive training for parents, teachers, and children ages 3-8, focused on improving children’s emotional and behavioral adjustment. Programs include videotapes, activities for parents and children, and other school- and home-based materials. Empathy, problem solving, and anger management are among the areas of emphasis for children. The program has been evaluated in Head Start settings (Webster-Stratton, Reid, and Hammond, 2001).


PATHS (providing alternative thinking strategies) (program developer: Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., Penn State Prevention Research Center). This curriculum was originally developed for elementary-age children, adapted for preschool (Preschool PATHS), and tested in Head Start programs (Kusche and Greenberg, in press). Using “PATHS characters” and other tools, curriculum units teach self-regulation (the Turtle technique), emotion awareness and communication, problem-solving, positive identity and peer relations. The curriculum also aims to promote a positive classroom atmosphere that supports social emotional learning.



Considerable research supports the importance of incorporating specific emotional competence goals into early childhood curriculum. Two complementary approaches appear to be effective. First is what might be called a universal or broadband approach in which an emphasis on emotions permeates and is integrated into all other aspects of the early childhood curriculum. Second, a number of well-validated interventions may be incorporated into this broadband approach, with the intensity of intervention being influenced by the needs of individual children. See also Vygotsky, Lev.

Further Readings: Greenspan, S. I., and S. Weider (1998). The child with special needs: Encouraging intellectual and emotional growth. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley; Hyson, M. (2003). The emotional development of young children: Building an emotion-centered curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press; Hyson, M., C. Copple, and J. Jones (2006). Bringing developmental theory and research into the early childhood classroom: Thinking, emotions, and assessment practices. In I. Sigel and K. A. Renninger, eds. Child psychology in practice, Vol. 4: Handbook of child psychology. New York: Wiley; Kusche, C. A., and Greenberg, M. T. (in press). PATHS in your classroom: Promoting emotional literacy and alleviating emotional distress. In J. Cohen (Ed.) Social emotional learning and the elementary school child: A guide for educators. New York: Teachers College Press; Raver, C. (2002). Emotions matter: Making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. SRCD Social Policy Report 16, no. 3. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development; Shonkoff, J. P., and D. Phillips, eds. (2001). Neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Webster-Stratton, C., M. J. Reid, and M. Hammond (2001). Preventing conduct problems, promoting social competence: A parent and teacher training partnership in Head Start. Journal of Child Clinical Psychology 30, 283-302.

Marilou Hyson