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Young Children’s Representations of Emotions and Attachment in Their Spontaneous Patterns of Behaviour

Recently I read a journal article about an exciting project in an American Laboratory Preschool for three and four year olds, with Hurricane Katrina as the focus (Aghayan, Schellhaas, Wayne, Burts, Buchanan and Benedict, 2005). The authors described the children’s interest in what, for them, was a real and recent event that affected all of their lives. Four children were taken into the Preschool as evacuees after the hurricane struck.

Hurricane Katrina was not the original focus for their work at that time, but it was what the children were talking about and interested in, so the teachers decided to make it their project for the term. I have always admired workers, who have the confidence to go with the children’s interests and to create an authentic curriculum based on ‘uncovering the curriculum’ in each child (Lawrence, 2005). Five years ago, I would have seen this as a really good example of a project that began with the children’s own lives, concerns and experiences and grew from there. I eagerly read what happened. The project was exciting and interesting. Children became involved in many different ways in talking about, writing about and representing the hurricane in many ways. There was a great deal of learning happening and reported…but there was something missing…there was very little mention of anyone’s feelings. There was very little acknowledgement of what must have been a frightening and traumatic experience for some of the children and adults there in the classroom. That does not mean to say that feelings were not talked about but they were not reported in the article. The report made me think about what we value, as education.

As a teacher of young children, I have focussed almost exclusively, on researching, studying and reporting on the cognitive aspects of the curriculum for many years. For the last five years, I have been redressing the balance somewhat by considering an association between cognition and affect. Five years ago, I would probably not have noticed the lack of ‘feeling’ words in the report by Aghayan et al.

More than ten years ago Elfer raised this issue, making the point that cognition had been given a lot of attention and relatively little attention had been given to ‘the emotional content of children’s relationships with adults and its importance to their learning’ (Elfer, 1996, p.30). Recently, Elfer has questioned what we see as our ‘primary task’ (Elfer, 2007, p.116). In his study, he found that ‘one (setting) with a long history as a nursery school for three and four year olds had recently been extended to include under-threes’ (ibid, p.117). The emphasis was still on ‘the education task of the nursery’, thereby ‘implicitly downgrading other tasks’ of a more emotional nature, and causing resentment among those staff working with the younger children. Elfer found that in a community nursery, where the focus was primarily on ‘childcare and parenting support’, inspectors advised the staff to ‘strengthen its educational role’ (ibid). It seems that in all settings we need to search for a balance between children’s emotions and cognition.


    Where, Who and What?.

1. Setting the Scene

    1.1 Child Development
    1.2 Piaget’s Work Carried Forward
    1.3 Vygotsky’s Work Carried Forward
    1.4 A Critical Incident
    1.5 Bowlby’s Concept of Attachment
    1.6 Reflective Practice

2. Preparing for the Action

    2.1 Building on Earlier Approaches
    2.2 Using Video and Interaction Analysis
    2.3 Designing the Study

3. The Action

    3.1 The Pilot Story – Evan
    3.2 Jordan’s Story
    3.3 Chloe’s Story
    3.4 Steffi’s Story
    3.5 Susan’s Story
    3.6 A Story about Courtney
    3.7 The Inside Story

4. Reflections

    4.1 On the Action
    4.2 On the Literature
    4.3 On Preparing for the Action
    4.4 Implications for Practice

Appendix One

    Observations of Jordan

Appendix Two

    Observations of Chloe

Appendix Three

    Observations of Steffi

Appendix Four

    Observations of Susan

Appendix Five

    Table of Schemas and Interpretations Across the Children

Appendix Six

    Letters Sent to Parents and Workers

Young Children’s Representations of Emotions and Attachment in Their Spontaneous Patterns of Behaviour