Narrowing the Achievement Gap with Social-Emotional Skills

Sherri Widen

By the time of kindergarten entry there is an achievement gap between children from low income families and those from higher income families. This gap continues to grow as children progress through school – low income children are less likely to complete high school, attend college, or find well-paying jobs. An important component of school-readiness is how well children are able to successfully navigate social and emotional situations. Social-emotional skills, for example, help children (and adults) get along with others and focus on tasks. The question is: How can we narrow the achievement gap between low- and higher-income children?

One factor that influences educational disparities is differences in family income level and children’s early learning opportunities at home. Indeed, by four years of age, children in low-income families have heard about 30 million fewer words than wealthier children. Such gaps are troubling given the strong links between early home environments and children’s development of social, emotional, literacy, and numeracy skills, which are critical for later academic success.

The story is not just about how economic resources shape cognitive learning – children’s early acquisition of social and emotional skills also creates meaningful differences in long-term success. Children who enter kindergarten with poor social-emotional skills have more difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, more behavior problems, and lower levels of academic achievement. Emotion regulation and self-regulation skills contribute to a variety of other skills that help children succeed in school including following directions, maintaining focus on a task, engaging in classroom activities, and working independently – skills that affect self-confidence, peer relationships, and coping with stress, which in turn affect academic success. But there is hope. Social-emotional skills can be developed via strategic interventions, and children who start out at a disadvantage may be able to overcome learning gaps.

One promising parenting intervention is Ready4K. Ready4K leverages the power of text messaging – texting is nearly ubiquitous (especially among traditionally texting at breakfastunderserved families) and extremely inexpensive and easy to scale – to support parents and enhance the home learning environment. Each week, Ready4k sends text messages with information and activities related to school-readiness skills to parents of preschoolers. So as not to overwhelm parents, and in an effort to help them build new parenting “muscles,” the information is provided in bite-sized pieces and recommended activities take only a few minutes a day and build on existing family routines. Ready4K has already used text-messages to improve preschoolers’ early literacy skills. This year, for the first time, the program will include text messages to support preschoolers’ social-emotional skills. For instance, it encourages parents to increase their children’s self-confidence by letting their children make choices. As another example, the new messages promote perseverance in children by praising their efforts on a difficult task. The hope is that stronger social-emotional skills will provide a solid foundation for children’s future success in school. By harnessing the power of text messaging (which most people have already) to deliver useful information to parents, we hope to help parents to raise the next generation of socio-emotionally competent children and narrow the achievement gap.

Understanding the Early-Life Origins of Extreme Anxiety—Role of the Amgydala

Alex Shackman

The internalizing disorders—anxiety and depression—are a major human blight. According to the World Health Organization and National Institute of Mental Health, depression is responsible for more years lost to illness and disability than any other medical condition, including such familiar scourges as diabetes and chronic respiratory disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common family of psychiatric disorder in the United States and rank sixth as a worldwide cause of disability. These disorders, which commonly co-occur, also impose a substantial and largely hidden burden on the global economy: hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity each year. Unfortunately, existing therapeutic approaches are inconsistently effective or, in the case of many pharmaceutical approaches, are associated with significant side effects. Not surprisingly, the internalizing disorders have become an important priority for clinicians, economists, research funding agencies, and policy makers.

The internalizing disorders generally have their roots in the first three decades of life and there is clear evidence that children with a fearful, shy, or anxious temperament are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, major depression, or both as they grow older. As a postdoctoral fellow in Ned Kalin’s lab at the University of Wisconsin and, more recently, as the director of my own lab at the University of Maryland, I’ve used a range of tools and techniques to understand the brain systems that contribute to extreme anxiety early in life. Building on a tradition that dates back to pioneering studies at Wisconsin by Harry Harlow, Karl Pribram, and others, much of the work that I conducted as a postdoc used nonhuman primates to model and understand key features of childhood anxiety. Young rhesus monkeys are useful for deciphering the brain circuits that underlie childhood anxiety. Owing to the relatively recent evolutionary divergence of humans and Old World monkeys (~25 million years ago), the brains of monkeys and humans are biologically similar. Similar brains endow monkeys and children with a common repertoire of social and emotional behaviors, which makes it possible to measure anxiety in monkeys using procedures similar to those used with kids. Another virtue of working with monkeys is the opportunity to collect high-resolution measures of brain activity (using positron emission tomography or PET) while the animals freely respond—hiding in the corner, barking, and so on—to naturalistic threats, such as an unfamiliar human ‘intruder’s’ profile. This would be difficult or impossible to do in children and, somewhat surprisingly, has rarely been attempted in adults (most human imaging studies use fMRI, which requires that the subject remain dead still throughout the scan).

Large-scale brain imaging studies, each including hundreds of young monkeys—in humans terms, roughly equivalent to children and teens—show that anxious individuals respond to signs of potential threat with heightened activity in a number of brain regions. For present purposes, I’ll focus on the contribution of the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region buried beneath the temporal lobe of the brain (the red regions in the accompanying animation).

Collectively, these studies teach us that amygdala activity systematically differs across individuals. Some individuals show chronically elevated activity; others consistently show much lower levels. Notably, elevated activity is associated with exaggerated reactions to potential danger: Monkeys with higher levels of metabolic activity in the amygdala tend to show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and to freeze longer (in an attempt to evade detection) in encounters with the human intruder. Like many other qualities that distinguish one individual from another, work by our group demonstrates that amygdala activity is:

1. Consistent over time and context: We can think of amygdala activity as a trait, like personality or IQ.

2. Heritable: Amygdala activity partially reflects the influence of genes. Parents marked by higher levels of amygdala activity are more likely to have offspring with this trait.

Of course, like any brain imaging study, it’s important to remember that these results do not let us to claim that the amygdala causes anxiety. From this perspective, it is reassuring that mechanistic work in monkeys and rodents demonstrates that it does: selective lesions and other biological manipulations of the amygdala sharply reduce (but do not entirely abolish) anxiety (see for example this very recent rodent study). This is consistent with observations of a handful of human patients with near-complete amygdala damage. For example, one relatively well-known patient (identified as ’SM,’ to protect her identity), has normal intellect, but reports a profound lack of fear and anxiety in response to scary movies, haunted houses, tarantulas, and snakes.

According to Justin Feinstein, Ralph Adolphs, and other researchers who have studied SM over the past two decades,

She has been held up at knife point and at gun point, she was once physically accosted by a woman twice her size, she was nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion she has been explicitly threatened with death…What stands out most is that, in many of these situations, SM’s life was in danger, yet her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency. Police reports…corroborate SM’s recollection of these events and paint a picture of an individual who lives in a poverty-stricken area replete with crime, drugs, and danger…Moreover, it is evident that SM has great difficulty detecting looming threats in her environment and learning to avoid dangerous situations.

This and other evidence—spanning a range of species, populations, and measurement tools—indicates that anxious individuals’ exaggerated distress in the face of potential danger reflects hyper-reactivity in a brain circuit that includes the amygdala. Systematic differences in amygdala activity and connectivity first emerge early in life and can foretell the future development of anxious and depressive symptoms in humans. These and other observations suggest that enduring differences in amygdala function contribute to key features of childhood temperament, like shyness, and confer increased risk for the development of internalizing disorders, particularly among individuals exposed to stress or trauma. More importantly, this work lays a solid, brain-based foundation for developing better strategies for treating or even preventing these debilitating illnesses.

To learn more about the emotional disorders, please visit the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) website, which features a number of useful videos, fact sheets, and other resources for patients, clinicians, and researchers.

Photo credit: The amygdala animation was generated by Life Science Databases, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, and is freely used under a Creative Commons license.


Emotion News is back after summer hiatus

Kristen Lindquist

Emotion News took a bit of a summer vacation this year as our contributors submitted grants, wrote papers, collected new data, and availed themselves of some much needed R&R. Fortunately, while we were offline, emotions were still very much in the news. With the release of the Pixar movie Inside Out,  kids and parents everywhere were learning just how important understanding our emotions is to day to day life. Scientists also weighed in, both applauding and criticizing the movie for what they thought it got right and what it didn’t get right about emotions. We’re currently cultivating a series of future blog posts outlining how scientists differ in what they think emotions are, and why this matters. Stay tuned!

In the near term, we’re excited to bring you a whole new year’s worth of posts on the science of emotion. We look forward to hearing again from Daryl Cameron, Piercarlo Valdesolo, Lisa Williams, and Sherri Widen, as well as a new group of contributors who study the impact of emotions on decision making, in business, in health, and beyond. For instance, up next we will hear from Alex Shackman, who will share his research on the neurobiology of anxiety.

Readers, if you’d like to see a particular topic covered this year, please leave us a note in the comment section below.  Scientists, if you’d like to join us as a contributor, please email us and pitch a piece.  You can reach us at kristen.lindquist [at] unc [dot] edu and eblissmoreau [at] ucdavis [dot] edu.

Happy reading!

Kristen Lindquist & Eliza Bliss-Moreau



The emotional potency of peers during adolescence

Leah Somerville

If you had to choose one event that epitomizes your experience as a teenager, what would it be? For me, I immediately think of that moment at the school dance while I was dancing with my middle school crush to November Rain by Guns n Roses. Our slow dancing skills were passable during the first part of the song, but then the tempo picked up … and let’s just say, we were not very smooth at adapting our dancing styles. Although I hope (for your sake) that the same thing didn’t happen to you, I’d bet that whatever memory you do conjure when you think back to your own adolescence is socially and emotionally charged.

It turns out that my adolescent experiences were completely typical of most adolescents—social experiences take on heightened emotional and motivational importance during adolescence as compared to other stages of life. In a study we conducted, we wanted to see how sensitive adolescents were to even the simplest, most innocuous social provocation: being looked at by a peer. During our study, we measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging in tandem with physiological arousal (measured with the skin conductance response—how much sweat is secreted on the skin during emotional events). We observed that even the simple act of being looked at by a peer was enough to induce heightened emotion reports, physiological responses, and brain activity in adolescents (when compared to adults and younger children). For instance, we saw biased activity in regions of the brain important for representing the emotional value of stimuli and in brain regions involved in thinking about ourselves (to read more, see here). All of these findings add up to the general conclusion that adolescents are highly attuned and reactive to their social environments – even very subtle ones – and that this fact influences a variety of their daily choices and feelings.


The author of this post at age 13 showing off her spiral perm.

What’s interesting about these findings is that they seem not to be unique to human adolescents. The term ‘adolescence’ is a sociocultural construct that refers only to humans, defined by simultaneous physical and psychological change that ends when an individual takes on adult roles in society (adolescence is most often defined as the approximate ages ~13-17 years). However, some aspects of biological changes during this age range, including hormone changes that define puberty, occur in other mammals as well. Some surprising results have arisen from the study of pubertal-linked changes in social behavior in non-human mammals. Pubertal rats enjoy ‘social play’ (kind of like wrestling) more frequently than adult rodents, and also seek out more novel and potentially thrilling experiences. Perhaps most intriguingly, rodents undergoing puberty also approach potential rewards (in this case, consuming alcoholic beverages) more when in social groups. Whereas adult mice spent the same amount of time consuming alcoholic substances when alone and with peer animals, juvenile animals in the pubertal stage spent more time consuming alcohol when in a cage with familiar peer animals. And it wasn’t just a motivation to consume the tasty cocktail before others got to it – they each had their own sipper.

What lessons can we learn from our furry friends about adolescence and the social potency that characterizes this age range? It is often assumed that peers take on heightened importance in adolescence due to overt concern about social status. However, it seems unlikely that such complicated, strategic motivations would drive rodents to behave differently around peers. This raises a second possibility, that there are “undercover” or non-deliberate ways that adolescents are influenced by social contexts. We believe that adolescents’ brains are biased to assign importance to social information, which imbues social settings with an extra boost in power to shape their feelings, motivations, and decisions. Although more research needs to be done to address questions like “why” and “how”, I guess that’s why I’m still mildly embarrassed by my tragic bout of dancing (and simultaneously thankful I grew up before the days of smartphone cameras).

Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

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