The Child Who Thinks — Post-thesis reflections

Thinking is at the heart of humans’ identity. It transcends all demographic and geographical characteristics in its power to substantiate their true values and ideals. The Quran places great emphasis on thinking. Lifestyles, choices, beliefs and behaviours are attributed to people’s thinking, or the lack of it, making it an underlying mechanism for life and an inevitable means to success. Motivated by this, I embarked on my MEd thesis, researching key ways to nurture young children’s thinking skills, which is seen to encompass executive cognitive processes including reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, inhibition and knowledge acquisition. I specifically questioned the extent to which emotional understanding and linguistic competence relate to and predict thinking skills when studying children aged 4–6. The question emerged admits disproportionate emphasis on developing thinking skills through content and assessment based education for early-years, while an education that is driven by first nurturing more fundamental life skills appears to not be emphasized equally.

Lowering expectations of young children’s academic performance is not the message here; rather, it is about meeting their developmental needs by mindfully, rather than spontaneously, helping them to develop their ‘humanness’. In other words, the message here is to facilitate the unfolding of the sort of thinking that can help young children to maneuver their way in
life, not just in a baseline assessment and for an artificial score. Longitudinal research in Psychology and Education consistently highlights the instrumental role played by skills accumulated prior to reaching the age of 5 in predicting not just children’s performance in school in later years but also in their lives in general. That is, how children are raised and educated between 0–5 has been shown to be pivotal to their later learning and performance.

Part 1: Emotional Comprehension and Thinking Skills

Emotional comprehension is the ability to comprehend one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. It is intricately intertwined with thinking skills in that before exhibiting physiological and behavioural changes an eliciting event is first perceived, interpreted and evaluated, all of which are acts of thinking. As such, nurturing emotional comprehension will in turn positively impact thinking skills and vice versa. Subsequently, through better comprehension of one’s own emotions and those of others, two crucial avenues and foundations for thinking skills and learning emerge: self-regulation and social relationships.

Essentially, emotions are entangled, and once one emotion is active, it is very likely that other emotions are also concurrently activated. Through this collaborative nature of emotions as a profound learning tool, one emotion might trigger an evaluation of a stimulus and another emotion might create a will for thinking of a response accordingly. Although difficult to accurately measure, various emotions were observed in young children through facial cues and other technical measures in educational settings. These studies yielded findings associating specific emotions with autonomy in engaging with tasks and sustaining motivation. For example, children’s expression of persistence and shame was associated with their motivation to work on difficult tasks and an increase in their social interactions with peers and staff. Moreover, ‘hope’ is identified as an ‘activating emotion’ such that it not only
correlates with self-regulation, it also activates strategies affecting learning and thinking, creating an overall positive emotional tone that may also entail a lot of resilience. Subsequently, once ‘hope’ is active, the emotion of ‘interest’ becomes active too.

Teachers may testify to the difficulty in engaging a bored child, and that the satisfaction of capturing their attention is like no other. While investing in exciting activities and colourful resources helps immensely, it is still argued to be insufficient without the child’s interest. Research is increasingly shifting from perceiving interest as an extrinsic goal-striving process
to perceiving it as a unique emotion in that it entails both cognitive and affective components. This leads to what some educational psychologists call ‘total involvement’, in which the child is performing continuously, with control, and according to no conscious intervention leading to little distinction between ‘self and environment’ and ‘stimulus and response’ — a state of ‘flow’.

I observed from the range of characters in my Year 9 class that the emotion of interest is not merely about one being interested in a given topic. It in fact extends to managing and regulating thoughts and behaviours such that they become aligned with a learning purpose even when coping with a boring topic. It was apparent to me that no matter how colourful my Othello powerpoints were, there was a general consensus that the topic was just not quite so interesting to them. Nevertheless, the children who generally came across as more emotionally aware managed to pull through my Thursday double-periods safely and eventually realizing the learning outcome (or so I like to think), while those who generally came across as less emotionally aware became disruptive very quickly. In technical terms, the former group engaged in ‘interest-enhancing action’, which is the autonomy to not just
cognitively engage with a learning experience, but to also adapt or take ownership of the task with autonomy to make it more interesting. Young children with good emotional comprehension demonstrate this initiative-taking by making a boring task more challenging (e.g., writing more than requested) to maintain their interest. In other words, emotional comprehension yields learners who can use their own initiative and lead on their own learning.

Additionally, in developing young children’s emotional comprehension, their attention skills are simultaneously developed too. Research identified a positive association between young children’s emotional comprehension and their attention skills, even after controlling for age and gender among other confounding factors. Because attention acts as a ‘shuttle’ between emotions and thinking processes, the more emotionally aware a child is, the more stimuli are recognized and transferred to the thinking capacity for processing. This means that the triggering of emotions is a prerequisite for using cognitive resources. How children feel towards different stimuli is a gateway to determining how much attention is given to each stimulus, e.g., if a stimulus is felt to be insignificant then limited attention will be given to it. In turn, thinking skills are engaged according to how much information the attentional skills have captured.

A cyclical pattern emerges here in that emotions are first triggered, activating attention, leading to cognitive processing, where the thinking capacity at this point maintains the attention by managing thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Some suggest that the task complexity is not as relevant to a child’s performance as this processing capacity, which is said to be initiated by emotional comprehension.

Moreover, social relationships are a powerful avenue for learning, the development of thinking skills and morality. The Theory of Mind (ToM) is the child’s ability to recognize and understand that other people also have mental states, feelings, intentions and thoughts that are separate to their own. Research suggests that this ability emerges from the age of 2 but varies in the strength of its development depending on various factors related to a child’s earliest environment, including the extent to which families invest in building strong relationships and nurturing emotional comprehension. These social relationships are pivotal to the development of ToM, and, in reverse, ToM facilitates children’s normal functioning within various social settings, suggesting a bidirectional relationship.

The ToM facilitates meaningful relationships, e.g. showing empathy towards a sad peer and in differentiating between intentional and unintentional behaviour and responding accordingly. It also helps to nurture their thinking ability through the development of their moral judgments, e.g., children learn right and wrong from observing or being a part of social situations. They also progress from learning about distribution based on equality, ‘She got more than I did!’, to distribution based on merit and hard work. In all these social events, emotional comprehension plays a vital role in enabling children to recognize cues and absorb them as social norms or rules, and in ultimately contributing towards the building of their characters.

Moreover, emotional comprehension has been noted to contribute towards important skills that maintain these relationships including, among others, maintaining eye contact, inhibiting negative behaviours and knowing when to start and stop a conversation. It is crucial to stress that building effective social relationships with very young children requires much more than everyday routines like physical care or teaching content that is void of understanding or
engagement. Meaningful relationships require more platforms through which emotional comprehension can be nurtured among other life skills. The consequences of denying children meaningful relationships can be serious even in the long run. Various studies have identified characteristics of the early childhoods of inmates and found that the social relationships they
had as young children were either weak or non-existent.

Finally, no matter how much teachers maintain professionalism and fairness, some studies suggest that children’s levels of emotional comprehension will subconsciously impact the teachers’ perceptions towards these students and therefore their relationships. It was found that positive teacher-child relationships increased the likelihood of students’ academic performance regardless of their initial performance before starting these experiments. Children’s level of emotional comprehension (as exhibited through self-regulation, attention and behaviour) influences teachers’ perceptions of them, such that children with weak emotional understanding may be seen to be difficult to manage and requiring more time, whereas those with good emotional comprehension may be perceived more positively.

The impact of young children’s emotional comprehension is vast and stretches beyond daily social interactions and dealing with childlike disputes. It contributes to shaping their ideas, behaviours and attitudes in addition to contributing greatly to their academic performance. In developing children’s emotional understanding among other important life skills, they first become aware of what it means to be a good person. However, the onus of developing a strong foundation for emotional comprehension is on young children’s earliest environments and not entirely on the children themselves. Being equipped with powerful learning tools still requires a nurturing environment to properly activate these tools, which is argued to not occur through narrow approaches that rush into focusing on a set of academic skills too soon.

The child who thinks is therefore able to utilize their God-given tools to be good mentally, cognitively, spiritually, and physically. He said, ‘We created man in the finest state’ (Quran 95:4), referring not just to the physical form, as Qutub explains, but also to the internal capacities, the excellence of which is matched with the excellence of the external form, though it takes precedence in maintaining this ‘finest state’ by leading on decisions, reasoning, learning, internalizing and projecting what is good. It starts from within.
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Abdelhalim, M.A.S, 2015. The Quran (English Translation). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sansone, C., & Thoman, D. (2005). Interest as the Missing Motivator in Self-Regulation. European Psychologist, 10(3), 175–186.
Wilson, B., & Gottman, J. (1996). Attention — the shuttle between emotion and cognition: Risk, resiliency, and physiological bases. In Stress, coping and resiliency in children and families (pp. 3–22). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Woolfolk, A., Hughes, M., & Walkup, V. (2008). Psychology in Education. England: Pearson Education Limited.