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«C. Arnold PhD Young Children’s Representations of Emotions and Attachment in Their Spontaneous Patterns of Behaviour: An Exploration of a ...»

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Young Children’s Representations of Emotions

and Attachment in Their Spontaneous Patterns

of Behaviour: An Exploration of a Researcher’s


C. Arnold


Young Children’s Representations of Emotions

and Attachment in Their Spontaneous Patterns

of Behaviour: An Exploration of a Researcher’s


C. Arnold


“A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the

University’s requirements for the degree of Doctor of


Awarding Institution: Coventry University Collaborating Establishment: Pen Green Centre for Under-Fives and Their Families, Corby, Northants ABSTRACT Over the last thirty years in the UK and a small number of other countries, workers and researchers have developed a robust theory of cognitive development by studying young children’s patterns of behaviour (known as ‘schemas’) (Athey, 1990; Matthews, 2003; Pan, 2004). The research has shown that young children across cultures, are intrinsically motivated to explore patterns through their actions, symbolic behaviour, functional dependencies and thought.

By working closely with parents and workers and drawing on their intimate knowledge of each child and their family context, I have extended this theory to include the children’s explorations of emotional issues, such as attachment and separation.

During the study, I made video observations of eight children, aged two, three and four years, over one to two years, engaging in spontaneous play in the nursery. I viewed the filmed sequences alongside their parents and workers to gain their insights into each child’s motivations and interests.

I then revisited the filmed sequences over time and used journaling, as a technique, to record my responses and reflections. I constructed a case study about each child using schema theory and attachment theory as theoretical frameworks for analysing the data. I also constructed a case study about my own growing awareness of my responses to emotions.

I identified some basic psychological needs in the data about each child, that seemed to link with the cluster of schemas each child explored. There seemed to be a gender bias.

The boys studied seemed more focussed on ‘doing’ and expressed this by using a cluster of predominant schemas such as ‘trajectory’ and ‘connecting’. The girls studied seemed more focussed on ‘having’ and ‘relating’ and expressed these needs by exploring a cluster of schemas, including ‘transporting’, ‘containing’ and ‘enveloping’. Children seemed to use these repeated patterns in four ways; to gain comfort; to give form to experiences or feelings; to explore or work through painful experiences or feelings, and; to come to understand



I articulated my understanding of Piaget’s concept of ‘reflective abstraction’ by applying it to data gathered and to the literature. I proposed extending this concept to include ‘reflective expansion’. The child takes actions forward onto a higher plane within the cognitive domain, when developmentally ready (reflective abstraction), and simultaneously draws on earlier actions to make links in the affective domain when faced with complex

–  –  –

I am dedicating this study to my family; my husband, Terry, who has encouraged me to continue studying for many years and has supported me by being here for me and by doing the washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning; my children, Colette, Paul and Eloise and my grandchildren Georgia and Harry, who all seem to realise how important this quest has been to me and who have all encouraged me in different ways to continue and to finish.

I want to thank Margy, who encouraged me to begin, funded the study through the Research Base and enabled me to access books and papers; my colleagues in the Research Base and the nursery and centre, who have shown interest in my progress; my Director of Studies, Professor Chris Pascal, who has supported and encouraged me throughout; my Second Supervisor, Professor Julia Formoshino, who has inspired and supported me;

Colwyn Trevarthen and Colin Fletcher for providing support and advice.

A very special thanks go to the children, their families and the Family Workers, who collaborated with me in this study. Without them, there would have been no study.

Last, but not least, I want to thank two very special people, who have tirelessly made themselves available for support, advice, proofreading, honest critical feedback and

general nurturing for over five years:

• Chris Athey, my guru and friend, and

• Colette Tait, my daughter and colleague

–  –  –

Video observations are double spaced, indented and italicised.

Quotes at the beginning of sections are in bold, italicised and in inverted commas.

–  –  –

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.

As an early years teacher, I have become very practised in articulating young children’s cognitive learning but less practised in articulating their emotional or social development and learning. I began this study with a hunch that there was always an emotional aspect as well as a cognitive aspect to young children’s explorations. Colwyn Trevarthen stated that ‘emotion is the motor of cognition’ (2003), but how does it work? How do we recognise it?

How can I make myself see it? I remembered a little boy called Alex, aged three, and a

conversation we had many years ago. It went something like this:

–  –  –

Alex seemed to be philosophising about how we get to know people. I was wondering about how I could deeply understand emotions as well as cognition. This study is the story of how I approached the task of valuing emotional development and learning alongside cognitive development and learning in young children. Although my journey has been roughly five years, many aspects have been with me for much longer than five years. The story is about the individual children and their families and about the changes in my understanding and awareness of my own motivations for action.

I decided that this study was primarily about the children’s actions, and, mine and their

parents’ and workers’, reflections on those actions. There are four sections:

• Setting the Scene (the literature and background to the study)

• Preparing for the Action (the method and design)

–  –  –

• Reflections on the Action (conclusions and implications for practice) I will now introduce myself, as observer of the action, the setting, where the action took place and the children and families, as the actors.

Me, as Observer of the Action I have worked with young children for just over thirty years, in care and education settings.

For eighteen of those years, I have worked at the Pen Green Centre for Under-Fives and Their Families, in Corby, Northants. I went to work in the nursery at Pen Green without formal qualifications and qualified as an Early Years Teacher in 1992. Subsequently I studied for a Master’s Degree in Education. Although my professional heritage is education, I have been part of a multi-disciplinary team at Pen Green for many years and have benefited from the sharing of ideas with workers from Health and Social Care.

Throughout my career, so far, I have been fascinated by how children learn, valuing the family and home learning and using video to document and discuss children’s learning and the role of the adult.

This study has brought together all of my fascinations and has also expanded my world to include a greater awareness of emotions in the children and in myself.

The Setting Where the Action Took Place All of the observations of the children were made in the Pen Green Nursery, which is a Local Authority nursery in a disadvantaged area in an ex Steel Town in the Midlands. Pen Green has always been different to other nurseries in the town, opening longer days and during school holidays. The nursery opened in 1983 as a Community Nursery for two to five year olds. There has always been a strong emphasis on Pen Green, as a learning community, for children, parents and staff. Staff and parents wrote Pen Green Curriculum Document in 1986 and within the document stated, What we are aiming to offer children at the Centre, we also want to offer parents and staff…enabling personal growth, development and learning, the enjoyment that comes with friendships, time to be active and time to reflect, to listen and to be listened to (Pen Green, 1986).

Pen Green has traditionally employed workers from Education, Health and Social Care.

The organisation was housed in an old 1930s style secondary school building. There was room to expand services and, over the years, the Centre has grown. In 2007 we offer services to children and families, which include; a nursery for one to two year olds; the nursery for two to five year olds; After School Club five nights a week; groups for children and parents, such as Baby Massage, Messy Play; groups for adults focussing on health issues, education or therapy, and; Family Support services, such as Homestart.

Eleven years ago, we began a small Research and Training Base (in a small room with two members of staff), which has since expanded to a Research and Training Base, with Conference Centre. About eighteen workers are employed in the Research Base, plus several associated consultants. There is a small specialist library with books and journals on Early Years and on Leadership in the Early Years.

The Actors


Harry, who is my grandson, born in May 1993 and although not part of this study, his story was the inspiration for my interest in studying emotions, attachment and cognition (Arnold, 2003).

Evan, born in February 1998, who was one of the two children, who took part in the Pilot Study. With very little expressive language at first, he communicated his need for a ritualistic separation from his parents, Jenny and Gary.

Jordan, born in March 2000, who expressed his wish to be connected to other people at nursery, indirectly. He was supported by his parents, Andrew and Maria.

Chloe, born in July 2000, who enjoyed containing and transporting and was supported in her emotional, intellectual and social development, by her mum, Arlene.

Steffi, born in November 1999, who enjoyed stories and storying, and was supported by her parents, Jackie and Mark.

Susan, born in November 2000, who showed her emotions very subtly, and was supported by her mum, Sian.

Courtney, born in October 1999, who was very interested in feelings and who experienced a death in her family during the study. Courtney’s story is shorter than the others, as she was not one of the focus children in this study.

These children and other children I have studied are referred to in examples used throughout all sections of my writing. Whenever I have judged a case to be extra sensitive, I have used pseudonyms.


1.1 Child Development – Standing on the Shoulders of Piaget and Vygotsky How Young Children Learn Through Repeating Patterns and Through

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