Texas Tech University

Recent Study Shows App Play Helps Preschoolers Develop Emotional Competence

George Watson

August 6, 2018

The research by Texas Tech University assistant professor Eric Rasmussen is a continuation of previous investigations involving “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

In the movie “Happy Gilmore,” the lead character constantly deals with anger issues. His golf coach, Chubbs, encourages Gilmore to picture in his mind the things that make him happy when he feels like he is about to explode in order to deal with his aggression.

Going to that “happy place” is a nice theory. In real life, it is a technique known as emotional regulation which is learned early in life and is a determining factor in the level of emotional competence a person possesses. Being able to turn anger into calmness, sadness into happiness, disappointment into encouragement and flip all other emotions early in life is crucial to physical and emotional growth.

Eric Rasmussen
Eric Rasmussen

Past research by Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication associate professor and doctorate program director Eric Rasmussen and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Dakota has shown the television show, “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood,” provides a pathway to help preschoolers develop those emotional regulation techniques, which helps them gain emotional competence at an early age. New research with the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood app shows that not only can those techniques be learned early, but they also are more likely to stick around.

“As soon as kids are born, they start to develop these skills, but some cognitive changes take place during preschool that, if you miss those years, they're hard to get back,” Rasmussen said. “We develop these skills in several ways, such as from biology, from growth in the brain and changes in the brain. We learn them socially, from our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends. We also learn them from the media. The way that emotional and social skills are portrayed in the media, we can learn from those as well.”

The study, “Promoting Preschoolers' Emotional Competence Through Prosocial TV and Mobile App Use,” was funded by Fred Rogers Productions, which produces “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” and other popular television shows like “Odd Squad.” Daniel Striped Tiger was a prominent figure and the first puppet to appear on the original “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” television show that was broadcast nationally from 1968 to 2001.

This latest study involved 121 children in three different groups. Each child in each group was surveyed three times to measure his or her level of emotional competence after exposure to certain types of media messages.

The results showed that the “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” television show and corresponding educational app played significant roles helping these children learn to not only develop but also maintain skills necessary for emotional competence, also shedding light on the importance parents play in that development.

Emotional competence, Rasmussen said, is a vital tool in determining future success. It is the ability to deal with people or situations on an emotional level. Emotionally competent individuals can recognize and identify emotions and use techniques to regulate emotional reactions, whether it's for oneself or for another person who might be feeling those emotions.

“The higher we can push levels of emotional competence in kids, the better chance they have at being successful in many parts of their lives,” Rasmussen said. “Every child has some level of emotional competence, and anything we can do to help that grow will only help the child.”

Measuring competence

To measure emotional competence, the children were divided into three groups determined by how media messages were delivered to them. Over a two-week span, each child was given a Kindle Fire tablet and assigned a television show where they watched one episode per day, then played with an educational app for 10 minutes per day.

The first group of kids watched episodes of “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” television show and played with a control app associated with another television show, “Bubble Guppies.” The second group of kids watched the television show and played with the Daniel Tiger app, Grrific Feelings, which uses games to teach kids how to make right choices. The third group watched episodes of “Bubble Guppies” and played with Grrific Feelings.

Children and parents were measured prior to the beginning of the study, then were measured again two weeks later and once again a month after that.

“Kids who played with the Daniel Tiger app, and those who played with the app and watched ‘Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood,' developed a greater ability to regulate their emotions,” Rasmussen said. “What's cool is it wasn't just happening right when they finished the two weeks. We brought them back a month later and they still had those developed skills. In other words, the lessons started by Daniel Tiger's media, the app and the TV show, stick. They are learning some long-lasting skills from this.”

That wasn't the only discovery from this study that excited Rasmussen. The study also showed that by simply playing with the Daniel Tiger app, children were able to recognize and identify emotions, also known as emotional knowledge, which is another aspect of emotional competence. Those lessons also stuck around a month after the study was completed.

In previous Daniel Tiger research, Rasmussen discovered that parent participation is essential for lessons from the television show to stick with children. Parents need to talk to their kids about what they are seeing on television. However, in this study, results showed that parental participating did not make much of a difference in whether those lessons were learned and retained from children using the Grrific Feelings app.

“The app seems to facilitate enough back-and-forth interaction to make up for that interaction, almost doing a parent's job,” Rasmussen said. “It is providing the same kind of enhancement that parent-child observations do, providing that interaction, and that interaction is important whether it comes from the parents or comes from the app.”

The study showed that if the parent is present when the child is watching the show or playing with the app, then the parents pick up on that content and learn some things themselves. Having content going on at home encouraged parent-child conversation about it afterward, which Rasmussen said is crucial for future learning.

“We learn better when we're actively involved in the learning process,” Rasmussen said.

Future blueprint

As an academic, Rasmussen has done extensive research on the effects of media messaging on children. As a father to four daughters, he also has searched for effective educational apps for children.

After sifting through thousands of apps, he has found none that are as effective in teaching emotional and social skills to children as Grrific Feelings. That's why he feels this app could be the blueprint for future developmental apps. Parents now can seek apps from organizations of child development experts and not just commercial apps.

This study also shows that parents don't necessarily have to tear their kids away from video games or tablets and kick them outside in order to learn social skills. It also gives those parents who need a television show or app to temporarily take the place of a babysitter in order for them to get work or chores done, knowing kids won't be just mesmerized by cartoons, but could be learning while watching.

“This is the first study that we are aware of where empirical research shows that kids can learn social and emotional skills from an app,” Rasmussen said. “That is extremely valuable knowledge for parents to have. As a parent, that's a pretty valuable tool.”

If funding allows, Rasmussen said he would like to pursue this line of research to the next step to discover the factors that go into making a truly educational app, not just labeling one as educational. He also would like to expand this recent study nationwide so it can be representative of children across the U.S.

“Now we have two studies where we can say, ‘Look at this; Let's expand this now and go bigger and figure out how we can really help kids,'” Rasmussen said.