This paper aims to determine possible gender differences in children’s observed emotional expressions and their relationship with teacher-rated self-regulation (SR) skills in the setting of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Supporting SR and emotional wellbeing in early childhood can be considered a favourable pathway towards holistic development (e.g. Shonkoff et al. . The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), e232–e246; Bagdi & Vacca . Supporting early childhood social-emotional well being: The building blocks for early learning and school success. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(3), 145–150). The participants included 1213 (44.2%) boys and 1075 (41.0%) girls which were 13–83 months old. The SR data was collected through an evaluation instrument. Emotional expressions (N = 50480) were observed with an independent instrument. The results indicated how girls were observed to have more neutral, calm or peaceful-related emotional expressions, while boys tended to express more surprise, curiosity, anger or frustration-related emotions. Boys’ and girls’ ability for SR was related to their emotional expressions. Boys’ and girls’ SR skills had the same tendency in weak, moderate and good SR categories.
The main goal of the current research is to investigate boys’ and girls’ observed emotional expressions and how they are related to their teacher-rated self-regulation (SR) skills in the Finnish ECEC environment. In addition, the research tries to contribute social value and empirical understanding as to how SR, as a mental ability, is supporting boys’ and girl’s external behaviour. Earlier studies have focused on the complexities of how and when gender differences differ, with the theoretical framework being that gender differences in emotional functioning are both moderated and mediated by biological, behavioural, socio-cultural and cognitive variables (Brody & Hall, Citation2008, p. 395). Previous studies (e.g. Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, Citation2000; Veijalainen, Reunamo, & Alijoki, Citation2017) have also advocated the early gender differences in children’s ability for SR. This study tries to fill the knowledge gap for the type of emotions that boys and girls express in their everyday lives in the ECEC environment. There is, moreover, a lack of empirical research on how the gender differences in SR are related to children’s emotional expressions.
The social value of the current study is based on the knowledge of how shared positive emotional experiences between children and adults play a fundamental role in the development of emotional and social wellbeing (Bagdi & Vacca, Citation2005). In contrast, negative emotions and experiences of toxic stress in the early years increase the risk for emotional, social and learning problems (Cassiba, van Ijzendoorn, & D’Odorico, Citation2000; Constantino & Olesh, Citation1999; Shonkoff et al., Citation2012). In view of this, one of the main goals for ECEC is to support and teach children how to regulate their emotions, social behaviour, attention and cognitive processes in a way that is consistent with their environment and social standards (Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, Citation2001; Repo, Citation2013, pp. 19–20; Ylvisaker & Feeney, Citation2008, p. 410). This study concentrates on boys’ and girls’ regulatory processes and their relations with emotional expressions so that the teachers of ECEC could develop better pedagogical interventions and environments for children. This article does not just look at the gender differences in SR, but focuses on the intermediated variables of their emotional expressions and their role in the regulation process.
The different concepts of self-regulation
There is an extensive literature on how children’s developing SR skills in early childhood significantly relate to their wellbeing, where later success in everyday social relations, adaptive behaviour, studying, health and work is at issue (Degnan, Calkins, Keane, & Hill-Soderlund, Citation2008; Eisenberg et al., Citation2003; Lengua, Honorado, & Bush, Citation2007; Moffitt et al., Citation2011; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, Citation2003; Ylvisaker & Feeney, Citation2008, p. 410). The most significant stage of the development toward SR is in early childhood (Bronson, Citation2000, p. 2; Kochanska et al., Citation2001; Kopp, Citation1982; Montroy, Bowles, Skibbe, McClelland, & Morrison, Citation2016). There are a variety of psychological theories that include proposals about how SR develops and the mechanisms that mediate SR in the early years (Bronson, Citation2000, p. 27). To name a few, Bandura’s (Citation1977) Social learning theory proposes the development of SR through observational learning where a child gains information about which kind of behaviour is valued and rewarded. Bowlby’s (Citation1958, Citation1969) Attachment theory underlines how the individual differences in SR are embedded together with interpersonal relationships, in terms of the quality of attachment between child and caregiver. In Vygotsky’s (Citation1962, Citation1978) theory, the development of SR is strongly positioned towards the socio-cultural environment where language and especially the adult’s guided participation, known as ‘scaffolding’ (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, Citation1976) helps the child to regulate him/herself.
SR is a broad concept and it has many different and overlapping definitions, depending on the viewpoint of the human functioning (Blair & Raver, Citation2012; Montroy et al., Citation2016; Posner, Rothbart, Sheese, & Tang, Citation2007). The regulation of emotions, behaviour, attention and cognitive processes, such as executive functions (attainment of chosen goals) are interacting and closely entwined (Aro, Citation2011, p. 20). In the current study, the concept of SR is defined as a child’s ability to adjust his/her own emotions, behaviour, cognitive functions and it is viewed as a strength, such that a child is able to regulate frustrating situations and his/her attention properly (Aro, Citation2011, p. 10; Ayduk et al., Citation2000).
According to Whitebread and Basilio (Citation2012), the socio-emotional aspect of SR refers to the ability to adapt emotionally challenging situations and to the ability to modulate and control positive and negative emotional expressions. Emotion regulation is a conscious or unconscious multicomponent system, which can decrease, maintain or increase an individual’s emotional expressions and experiences (Blair & Raver, Citation2012; Calkins & Leerkes, Citation2011, p.355; Montroy et al., Citation2016; Parrott, Citation1993). Developmental difficulties of SR are associated with later problem behaviours, including fear, reactivity and anxiety (Nozadi, Spinrad, Eisenberg & Eggum-Wilkens, Citation2015).
The origin of gender differences in self-regulation
The basis of biological SR is rooted in temperament, which sets the individual differences in the early infant period. Temperamental aspect of SR is referred to as effortful control, which is the efficiency of executive attention, the ability to inhibit a dominant response in activating a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors (Rothbart & Bates, Citation2006, p. 129). As a component of temperament, effortful control is associated with low levels of children’s negative emotionality and it is relatively stable across time and contexts (Eisenberg, Smith & Spinrad, Citation2011, pp. 263–267). In Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith and Van Hulle’s (Citation2006) meta-analytical study, the temperamental features of openness/sensitivity and effortful control, including inhibitory control, showed moderate gender difference favouring girls. Despite the underlying feature of temperamental effortful control, various studies have demonstrated SR as a developmental, highly teachable and malleable skill (Anderson, Wojcik, Winett & Williams, Citation2006; Connor et al., Citation2010; Diamond, Barnett, Thomas & Munro, Citation2007; Raver et al., Citation2011; Tominey & McClelland, Citation2011). However, distributions of gender overlap considerably, and temperamental differences within genders tend to be more substantial than differences between them (Else-Quest, Citation2012, p. 492).
According to Feingold (Citation1994), there are three general models which address the causes of children’s overall gender differences: In the socio-cultural model, social and cultural factors produce gender differences in children’s personality. The socio-cultural model (Eagly, Citation1987; Eagly & Wood, Citation1991) considers gender differences in social behaviour to originate in culturally determined social relationships, which determine behaviours that are appropriate for each gender and these behaviours may shape children’s personalities. The biological model highlights the innate, biological basis of temperament. Costa, Terracciano and McCrae (Citation2001) have pointed out that temperamental features of high-intensity pleasure steers boys more towards high-intensity activities in early childhood, such as being engaged in rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports. The biosocial model proposes the combination of both models.
The famous Stanford Marshmallow test (Mischel & Underwood, Citation1974) revealed that preschool girls were able to wait for significantly longer periods of time to obtain the larger reward in comparison with the boys. Also, Bjorklund and Kipp’s (Citation1996) meta-analysis concluded that there is a female advantage in inhibitory control. Montroy et al. (Citation2016) have pointed out the early gender differences in children’s SR skills. According to Kochanska et al. (Citation2000), by 33 months gender differences had emerged favouring girls. The gender differences in SR have similar tendencies in primary and secondary schools (Cadime, Cruz, Silva & Ribeiro, Citation2018).
Emotional expression and self-regulation
According to Ekman & Cordaro (Citation2011), emotions are separate, automatic responses to events, which are universally shared and culturally and individually specific. These affective responses are unintentional, pre-programmed and shaped by life experiences. However, in this article emotions are considered not just as responses, but are included as fundamental elements in social relatedness, socialization and cultural processes (Healey & Consedine, Citation2011). Emotions are central to human functioning, which fulfils our behaviour and thoughts, and it also motivates us to make important decisions. In addition, several emotion theorists (e.g. Ekman, Citation1994, Citation2003; Izard, Citation1991; Izard & Ackerman, Citation2000) concluded that human behaviour is organized in the service of emotion-related goals and functions. In this light, emotions are primary motivational forces in human beings. It is noteworthy to understand that emotions occur also when we are alone and even without other people in mind. Still, the main function of emotion is to serve as a mobilizer of the organism in dealing quickly with important interpersonal encounters (Ekman, Citation1992). In the environment of ECEC, children experience an abundance of emotional-filled encounters with other children as well as adults. Children’s internal environment comprises the dynamic transactions of several different components of emotions, such as expressive behaviour, social and physical contexts, goals and motives (Saarni, Citation2008).
Ekman (Citation1992) has described the basic emotion theory by saying that it captures what is unique about emotion and what basic emotions have in common that distinguish them from other affective states such as moods, emotional traits and emotional attitudes. Certain characteristics of emotions, e.g. distinctive universal signals, distinctive physiology, quick onset, brief duration, unbidden occurrence and automatic appraisal play an important role in separating basic emotions from one another, as well as from other affective phenomena. The strongest evidence for distinguishing one emotion from another has been found in the research of facial expressions. Emotional expressions are crucial to the development and regulation of social relationships (Ekman, Citation1992; Ekman and Cordaro, Citation2011). According to Prosen and Smrtnik Vitulić (Citation2017), children express different emotions in terms of their complexity, with joy being the most frequently expressed emotion, followed by anger. There were no significant differences in the frequency of emotional expression between toddlerhood and early childhood or between boys and girls. In Köngäs’ (Citation2018) study, children in the ECEC environment tended to share various emotional expressions in a peer group, where no adults were present. Especially, emotional expressions of sadness and grief were observed to be limited in those situations.
When emotions seem to be inappropriate for a given situation or environment, we frequently try to regulate our emotional responses and states so that they better serve our goals (Gross, Citation2002). However, the environment can predispose the children to experiences of excessive stress. Children’s repeated experiences of anger and frustration may be at higher risk for developing externalizing behaviours or conduct problems (Deater-Deckard, Petrill & Thompson, Citation2007; Eisenberg et al., Citation2001; Eisenberg, Ma, Zhou, West & Aiken, Citation2007; Frick & Morris, Citation2004). Likewise, in Nozadi’s et al. (Citation2015) research, the children with high levels of dispositional fear had poor performance on the SR task.
This quantitative study is part of a larger research project (Orientation project). The Orientation project includes comparative research and learning-environment development based on the research results of ECEC. The research has received a €24,000 funding grant (00170415) from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation. The research data are based on the evaluation of children’s skills (incl. SR skills) conducted by children’s own teachers and child observation (incl. emotional expressions), including Likert-scale statements, which measured the children’s SR skills, social- and metacognitive skills, motor development, language skills, play, peer relations and attachment to the ECEC employees.
The research questions are as follows:
What kind of emotions do boys and girls express in the ECEC environment?
How are gender differences related between children’s observed emotional expressions and their teacher-rated SR skills?
The age range of the children in the groups was 13–83 (M = 58.7, SD = 18.9) months. The participants included 1213 (44.2%) boys and 1075 (41.0%) girls. No gender data were reported for 601 (14.8%) children. The number of children in the groups varied from 11 to 29 (M = 21 children, SD = 4.3 children). Children’s overall attendance in day care ranged from 1 to 82 months (M = 21.8 SD = 15.9). Participating day-care centres (N = 36) were municipal day-care centres in southern Finland. Altogether, 13 municipalities participated in the research. In some municipalities, all of the day-care centres participated in the research; in others, the administration took a random sample of the day-care centres. In one municipality, all day-care centres from a certain area participated in the research.
The instrument of self-regulation
The children’s SR skills data were collected by asking the teachers to evaluate the skills of the children in their own groups. The teachers were asked to use an evaluation form based on a Likert-scale (1–5). The evaluation instrument (can be retrieved at http://www.helsinki.fi/~reunamo/apu/ch_eval15.pdf) included background information, for example, age, gender, special needs, social skills, motor skills, adaptivity, attachment to ECEC personnel, peer relations, and language and metacognitive skills. In total, there were 20 items in the evaluation form, of which six statements aimed to measure the children’s SR skills. The statements were as follows:
The child has no difficulty in challenging and dealing with frustrating situations interactively,
The child copes sensitively with his/her own feelings,
The child regulates his/her attention appropriately,
The child easily becomes emotionally upset in frustrating situations,
The child can inhibit his/her responses appropriately,
The child can maintain a level of arousal that is necessary for the activity.
The instrument of SR skills was originally developed by Reunamo in 1997 and further enhanced in 2009 and 2014. The teachers were trained to use the instrument in February 2015. There are several other instruments for assessing the development of children’s SR skills (see, for example, Children’s Behavior Questionnaire [CBQ], Putnam & Rothbart, Citation2006; Whitebread et al., Citation2009) whether they are related to temperament, cognitive control, attentional or emotional regulatory processes. Excluding temperament, the evaluation used in the current study strives to combine those components (Reunamo et al., Citation2013; Rintakorpi & Reunamo, Citation2016; Veijalainen, Reunamo & Alijoki, Citation2017), and these add to the reliability of the evaluation instrument.
The instrument of child observation
The observation instrument included different categories of the children’s main activity in ECEC, children’s activities, children’s object of attention, children’s involvement (Leuven scale for involvement) (Laevers, Citation2005), children’s physical activity, emotional expressions, social orientation, and the nearest teacher’s activity. This current study focuses on the children’s observed emotional expressions. The observation instrument can be retrieved at http://blogs.helsinki.fi/orientate/files/2015/12/obs15.pdf. Ekman’s (Citation1992) classification for six basic emotions was used as a basis for the classification of the emotions for two reasons. Firstly, the cross-cultural study (Ekman, Citation1992) emphasizes how six basic emotions are observable and universal, despite the cultural background. Secondly, the observation instrument in its entirety was comprehensive for the observations and therefore Ekman’s classification was suitable for it. The classifications for emotional expressions were: (1) Anger, frustration, disappointment, (2) Disgust, contempt, (3) Fear, nervousness, (4) Happiness, joy, contentedness, (5) Sadness, depression, (6) Surprise, alertness, curiosity, excitement, (7) Neutrality, calmness, peacefulness and (8) other emotion. The classifications of neutrality, calmness, peacefulness and other emotion were added into the instrument because, during the observation, it often occurred that children did not express any emotion. Other emotion contained various and constantly changing emotional expressions, which were unreliable for coding as a specific emotional expression.
The teachers were trained to observe children between September and December 2014. Because of logistical problems, an identical training was conducted in three different cities. The training period included three training days where the observation was practiced via different videos of children’s everyday situations. The observers coded their observations and the pre-defined ‘correct’ codes were discussed. Training included also discussions of the observation practises. In the training, it was emphasized that only observed emotions should be coded. Between the training sessions, the teachers practiced the observations in their own groups for one month. The reliability of the observations during the training was checked and discussed with the observers. The teachers conducted the observations in day-care centres were they neither knew the children nor had any background information on them. The employees of the day-care centres, where the observations were conducted, did not know the dates when the observer arrived. Between January and May 2015, the children (N = 2276) were observed using systematic sampling in 5-min intervals. There were 50,480 single observations of children’s emotional expressions. The children were observed for seven randomly selected days – six days from 8:00 to 12:00 and one day from 12:00 to 16:00. The observation took place from January to May 2015.
The reliability of the observations can be assessed with three aspects. Firstly, the observation instrument has been proven to work well with other independent research measures (cf. Reunamo et al., Citation2013; Rintakorpi and Reunamo, Citation2016). Secondly, the observers were trained for observations. Thirdly, the reliability of the instrument was tested with paired observations (N = 8). Four pairs were formed to observe the children simultaneously. Half of the observers were doctoral students from the Orientation project (see above) and the other half were kindergarten teachers from different day-care centres. Each one of the pairs observed different children and the observers were not allowed to discuss or compare the results while the observation was in progress.
The analysis was conducted with IBM SPSS Statistics software. The internal consistency of SR skills was tested with Cronbach’s alpha and it was found to be high (α = .860) (Veijalainen et al., Citation2017). A summary variable of SR skills was created from the six items. The summary variable was transformed into three different categories: weak, moderate and good (cf. Fabes et al. Citation1999) using cut-off scores for determining the percentages. The weak SR skills category included 438 (15.3%) children. The moderate category, representing the majority of the sample, included 1128 (38.9%) children, while the good category comprised 746 (25.7%) children. Altogether, of these children 24 had missing information about gender and were omitted from the analysis.
The inter-rated reliability of the children’s emotional expressions was tested. The percentages of negative emotions were small and were more difficult to agree on the inter-rated reliability test. For example, the expressions of disgust, contempt (0.7%), sadness, depression (1.6%) and anger, frustration, disappointment (2.1%) were rarely observed. Especially, the emotional expressions of anger (22.2%) and other emotion (28.6%) were found to have weak consistency. Despite that, the inter-rated reliability was found to be fair enough as a whole (see Landis & Koch, Citation1977) with Cohen’s Kappa = 0.352, p < .001.
The children were not exposed to strong stimuli and no register of the children was collected. The research procedures did not affect children’s everyday activities in any way. The ethics forms for the children were collected by the parents and guardians. The research permission form can be retrieved at http://blogs.helsinki.fi/orientate/research-permits. The children’s names, birthdays, social security numbers, or other data making the identification of a child possible were not collected; neither was the personal information of the parents nor that of the teachers. Instead, each child and child group received a number that was used in the analyses. The data collection was conducted as part of the everyday activities. The children’s physical integrity was not violated in any way while the observations were carried out. The observers’ training emphasized the respect of the children’s own feelings and rights. The observers did not participate in children’s everyday activities in the ECEC environment.
Gender differences in observed emotional expressions
In this chapter, analyses are disclosed by presenting the items and descriptive statistics of the total sample. Then, the differences of the children’s observed emotional expressions by their gender are reported. Often an emotional expression could not be observed. This category of neutrality, calmness or peacefulness was observed most often (40.4%, N = 24,438). Happiness, joy or contentedness was the second most frequent (28.4%, N = 17,186) and surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement the third most frequent (20.2%, N = 12,237) observed emotion. In total, nearly 90% of the children’s observations included in the above-mentioned categories. The most common negative related emotional expression for children was anger, frustration or disappointment (2.5%, N = 1505). Other emotion (2.4%, N = 1468) contains all the observations, where children’s emotional expressions were too difficult to interpret or constantly changing. There were 622 (N = 1.0%) single observations of sadness or depression. The emotional expressions of disgust or contempt were the second rarest observed emotional expression with 399 (0.7%) single observations. Fear or nervousness (0.4%) was the least frequent of all observed emotional expressions. Nonetheless, because of the large sample size (N = 50,480) of the current study, the frequency of it was 213 cases.
The statistical differences between gender and observed emotional expressions were studied with Pearson’s chi-square test and Z-test. Overall, gender differences in observed emotional expressions () were found to be statistically significant, Χ2 (7, N = 50,480) = 311.602, p < .0005, Cramer’s V = .079. Observed emotional expressions by gender are presented as well as in frequencies and in percentages. The missing data of the observations were found to be quite large (16.5%, N = 9974).
Girls (43.7%, N = 10,450) tended to have more emotional expressions of neutrality, calmness or peacefulness than boys (39.6%, N = 10,518) and the Z-test confirmed that the differences were statistically significant (p < .05). Girls were also observed to have more emotional expressions of happiness, joy or contentedness (31.3%, N = 7472) than boys (28.7%, N = 7644). The difference was statistically significant (p < .05). There was a statistically significant difference (p < .05) between children’s gender and surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement, when boys were observed to express these emotions more (23.8%, N = 6323) than girls (18.5%, N = 4410). Even though the emotional expression of anger, frustration or disappointment was observed rarely, the gender differences were clear and statistically significant (p < .05). Boys were observed to express anger, frustration or disappointment more (3.2%, N = 850,) than girls (2.2%, N = 527).
Other emotion included all the children’s emotional expressions, which were difficult to categorize, interpret or they were constantly changing. Boys’ (2.7%, N = 707) share in other emotion were more common than girls’ (2.1%, N = 510) and the differences were statistically significant (p < .05). The emotional expression of sadness or depression was observed infrequently, when boys’ (1.1%, N = 281) share were equal to the girls’ (1.1%, N = 257) share. The differences were not statistically significant (p > .05). Girls (0.8%, N = 184) were observed to have slightly more emotional expressions of disgust or contempt than boys (0.6%, N = 168), but the difference was negligible, and it was not statistically significant (p > .05). As such, the emotional expressions of fear or nervousness were observed rarely, and there were no statistical differences (p > .05) between boys (0.4%, N = 101) and girls (0.3%, N = 78).
Gender differences in emotional expressions and self-regulation
The statistical differences between boys’ and girls’ SR skills and observed emotional expressions were studied with cross-tabulation () and Pearson’s chi-square test. Percentages of observed emotional expressions in SR categories are presented in columns. The statistical differences between genders were statistically significant with the Z-test. Although some of the percentages were small, the sample size was large enough for statistical differences.
Table 1. Relationship of self-regulatory gender differences and observed emotional expressions.
Gender differences in SR skills were analysed with a chi-square test. According to the test, girls’ SR skills were statistically more significant than the boys’, Χ2 (2, N = 48,969) = 2366.652, p < .0005, Cramer’s V = .220. In a weak SR category, 69.1% were boys while girls’ share was 30.9%. In a moderate SR category, 55.7% were boys, while 44.3% were girls. In a good SR category, 39.4% of the share were boys, while the girl’s share was 60.6%. According to the Z-test, the gender differences were significant in every category of SR skills.
Weak SR skills’ relation with observed emotional expressions were found to be statistically significant with both gender, Χ2 (7, N = 10,195) = 47.902, p < .0005, Cramer’s V = .069. According to the Z-test, gender differences emerged when children with weak SR skills were observed to be neutral, calm or peaceful. The difference was statistically significant (p < .05), favouring girls (40.1%, N = 1263) more than boys (37.1%, N = 2615). In turn, there was no statistically significant (p > .05) difference between gender and emotional expressions of happiness, joy or contentedness, if the children’s SR skills were weak. Boys (24.1%, N = 1698) tended to have more emotional expressions of surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement than girls (20.3%, N = 641), if the SR skills were weak. The difference was statistically significant (p < .05). Gender differences were also notable, if the children with weak SR skills were having emotional expressions of anger, frustration or disappointment. The emotional expressions were more common for boys (5.5%, N = 386) than girls (3.5%, N = 110), and the difference was statistically significant (p < .05). There were no statistically significant (p > .05) gender differences in emotional expressions of other emotion, sadness, depression, disgust, contempt and fear, nervousness, if the SR skills were weak.
According to chi-square test, the gender differences emerged statistically significant in emotional expressions, if the children’s SR skills were moderate, Χ2 (7, N = 21,228) = 123.258, p < .0005, Cramer’s V = .076. Z-test showed the statistically significant gender difference (p < .05) in the emotional expressions of neutrality, calmness or peacefulness, if the SR skills were moderate. The difference favoured girls (45.4%, N = 4203) more than boys (40.8%, N = 4881). In addition, girls (30.1%, N = 2794) tended to have more emotional expressions of happiness, joy or contentedness than boys (28.6%, N = 3415), if the SR skills were moderate. The difference was statistically significant (p < .05), unlike in the case where children’s SR was weak. The Z-test confirmed that boys (23.2%, N = 2778) had more emotional expressions of surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement than girls (17.8%, N = 1646), if the SR skills were weak. The difference was statistically significant (p < .05). Unlike in the case where SR skills were weak, there were no statistically significant (p > .05) gender differences in emotional expressions of anger, frustration or disappointment, if the SR skills were moderate. The Z-test confirmed the statistically significant difference that boys (2.9%, N = 342) expressed more other emotions than girls (2.0%, N = 187), if the SR were moderate. The result differed, if the SR skills were weak.
Good SR skills’ relation with observed emotional expressions was found to be statistically significant with both genders, Χ2 (7, N = 10,195) = 79.420, p < .0005, Cramer’s V = .071. In addition, in moderate or weak SR categories, girls (43.1%, N = 4125) expressed more neutral, calm or peaceful emotions than boys (39.3%, N = 2448), if their SR skills were good. The difference was statistically significant (p < .05). Girls also had more emotional expressions of happiness, joy or contentedness than boys, if their SR skills were good. The result was similar to the moderate SR category. Instead, the emotional expressions of surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement favoured boys (24.6%, N = 1534) more than girls (19.3%, N = 1851). The gender differences were statistically significant (p < .05) in each category of SR.
The emotional expressions of anger, frustration or disappointment were not observed regularly in children with good SR skills, but the gender differences were statistically significant (p < .05). As in each category of SR, the result favoured boys (2.2%, N = 140) more than girls (1.7%, N = 167), but the differences were statistically significant in categories of good and weak SR. Additionally, the better the SRs were, expressions of anger, frustration or disappointment decreased with both genders. Unlike in a moderate SR category, there were no statistically significant (p > .05) gender differences in other emotion, if the SR skills were good. The better the children’s SR skills were, the more emotional expressions of sadness or depression decreased with boys and girls. Yet, the gender differences were not statistically significant (p > .05) in each category of SR. There were no statistically significant (p > .05) gender differences between the good SR category and emotion expressions of disgust, contempt, fear, or nervousness.
In its entirety, the gender differences of the neutral, calm or peaceful expressions were more common with girls than boys. Also, emotional expressions of happiness, joy or contentedness were observed more often with girls than boys. The results are uniform in the study of Prosen and Smrtnik Vitulic (Citation2017), which denotes that children express different emotions in terms of their complexity, with joy being the most frequently expressed emotion. Furthermore, Chaplin and Aldao’s (Citation2013) meta-analytic study provided evidence that girls expressed more positive emotions than boys in their early childhood. The emotional expressions of surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement, were more common with boys than girls. In addition, boys tended to have more classification of other emotion. It may indicate that boys’ emotional expressions could be more difficult to interpret or their emotional variability is greater than girls’. Do the gender roles favour positive calmness for girls and excitement for boys?
In contrast to Prosen and Smrtnik Vitulic’s (Citation2017) study, the results of this current study found the emotional expressions of anger, frustration or disappointment to be somewhat rare. Still, boys expressed those emotions more often than girls. The result was expected as boys’ expressed more externalizing emotions (Chaplin and Aldao, Citation2013) and their emotional dysregulation (Herndon, Bailey, Shewark, Denham & Bassett, Citation2013) occurred more frequently.
The emotional expression of sadness or depression was observed unexpectedly rarely, and the shares were almost equal with both genders. Unlike in Chaplin and Aldao’s (Citation2013) study, girls were showing more internalizing emotions, such as sadness or anxiety. It is possible that the gender differences could have arisen more significantly, if the observations of the current classification would have been greater. Also, disgust, contempt and fear or sadness had no gender differences and they were observed rarely. It is a positive result and it may indicate children’s comfort in the ECEC environment.
In all, this research confirmed that girl’s ability for SR skills were clearly better than boys’. The result is uniform with the previous research, which denotes that inabilities in early SR skills occur more often with boys (Cadime et al., Citation2018; Kochanska et al., Citation2000; Veijalainen et al., Citation2017). Gender differences in SR were manifested partly with certain observed emotional expressions.
Boys may be susceptible to external outbursts with their emotional expressions, when they lack abilities in SR. On the other hand, girls’ weak SR skills may not occur as emotional dysregulation. Therefore, it is presumable that girls’ weak SR skills occur in different domains of SR, such as inabilities in executive function and attachment for the activity or problems in attentional and inhibitory control. Since the girls with weak SR skills also tended to express more neutral, calm or peaceful emotional expressions than boys with weak SR skills, the result conforms with the assumption that they may have better abilities for suppression than they have for their external emotions.
The current study is an exclusive and multidimensional research in ECEC. Thus far, previous research has not as comprehensively studied young children’s gender differences in emotional expressions and their relation to SR with a comparable sample size. In conclusion, gender differences in children’s emotional expressions differed.
Based on the results, the researchers suggest that the teachers in ECEC should put their efforts into observing children’s emotions in an everyday setting and be aware of how boys’ and girls’ SR skills occur slightly differently in their expressions. Because of the gender differences, teachers could support and teach boys’ and girls’ SR skills differently. Perhaps girls tend to hide their negative emotions. Girls’ SR skills include staying calm and positive. What if the teachers guided girls in play containing heightened arousal and energy? For example, rough-and-tumble is play in which children need to control their external behaviour and emotions to an optimal level. Would it result in different kinds of SR skills?
These results have important consequences for SR. As we know, SR is related to better regulations of frustration and emotions. However, boys had more observations of anger, frustration and disappointment through all three levels of SR. This means that also boys with good SR skills were more frustrated than girls with good SR skills. Moreover, the boys had less neutral, calm and peaceful expressions in all three levels of SR skills. How can boys have as good SR skills as girls, if they were observed to be more easily agitated and less calm? The boys also were observed to be more often surprised, alert, curious and excited, indicating an easier degree of arousal in kindergarten context in all three categories of SR skills, where the difference increased as the SR skills increased. To what degree are the SR skills a cultural concept with gender stereotypes? The socio-cultural model (Eagly, Citation1987; Eagly and Wood, Citation1991) views how gender differences in social behaviour originate in culturally determined social relationships, which determine behaviours that are appropriate for each gender. Boys thrive in an environment with more frustration, arousal and agitation. Boys practice their SR skills in a different context than girls. Perhaps boys practice their SR skills with a higher intensity of emotions than girls. This may lead to a situation in which boys more easily get into trouble in a school with rules and a low tolerance for disturbance. If boys and girls have different criteria for SR skills in kindergarten, their ability to prohibit their emotions later is different. Is the school ready for both girls’ and boys’ different criteria for SR skills?
Limitations and reliability of the study
The current study sought to delimit and view the phenomenon with a psychological background, but there are several psychological, cultural and socio-economic features which could implicate the differences in children’s emotional expressions and gender differences. As for any other research method, observation creates limitations on the study. Emotional expressions may not necessarily implicate the emotions and feelings that the children are actually experiencing, which makes such a study challenging to carry out. Still, according to Ekman (Citation1992), the strongest evidence for distinguishing one emotion from another has been found in the research of facial expressions. It should be considered going forward that a majority of the observers and teachers who rated the children’s SR skills are female. That may have an influence on the presuppositions of what is suitable and unsuitable for boys and girls. Moreover, considering how SR is dependent on the maturation of the brain, the age range of the study was wide. In turn, a wide age range enables the exploration of the phenomenon in a broader fashion, and it promotes comprehending how SR and emotional expressions occur in the ECEC environment.
In this study, the extent of the observation was a valuable but also moderate instrument. First, the classifications of emotional expressions are categorized slightly inconsistently in some parts. For example, the classifications of surprise, alertness, curiosity or excitement does not establish full consistency, because the emotional expressions are somewhat dissimilar. Second, the inter-rated reliability of the instrument was moderate in some parts. Finally, the emotional expressions of anger, frustration, disappointment and other emotion should be viewed with particular caution. Thus, the reliability of the emotional expressions could have improved, if there were more anger and frustration-related situations in the data. However, the instruments of teacher-rated SR skills and the child observation were independent of each other.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Jouni Veijalainen is working on a study of children’s self-regulation skills in early childhood. His doctoral studies are a part of the Orientation project and his main interests are children’s self-regulation and emotional development in early childhood.
Jyrki Reunamo is a principal investigator and university lecturer at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. He is the principal investigator in the early childhood education research and development project Orientation project (blogs.helsinki.fi/orientate).
Minna Heikkilä is working as a teacher in the Finnish early childhood education. She is specialized in young children’s socio-emotional development and support in early childhood education setting.
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