This study provides support for the importance of investigating peer nominations of children's emotional expressivity. Moreover, the pattern of findings indicates that both the composite measure and discrete negative emotion items were associated with concurrent indices of social and psychological functioning. Peers' and teachers' ratings were significantly associated, suggesting that peer nominations of emotional expressivity relate in general and specific ways to social functioning as rated by teachers. In contrast, peer perceptions of children's expression of negative emotions were not associated with children's self-report (internalizing symptoms) or parent-report (internalizing, externalizing, or social competence). Overall, our results highlight the significance of the social setting with regard to the ratings of the children's emotional expressivity.
Consistent with our hypotheses, we found gender differences for some measures but not for others. As expected, boys were rated by both parents and teachers as exhibiting more externalizing behaviors than girls. The absence of gender differences in peer-nominated emotional expressivity is consistent with previous studies that do not find gender differences in peer nominations of sadness and fear displays (Schultz et al., 2004
). Contrary to our predictions, however, there were no gender differences in parent- and teacher-rated social competence.
Our hypothesis that peer nominations of emotional expressivity would be associated with teacher-reported psychosocial functioning was supported. Emotion nominations were correlated with increased teacher-rated externalizing behaviors, whereas emotion nominations were associated with decreased teacher-rated social competence. These associations were further clarified by examining the discrete emotion items. Within teacher ratings, externalizing behavior problems were associated with peer nominations of crying and appearing afraid, and social competence was inversely correlated with appearing sad and afraid. These findings suggest that children's perceptions of their peers' expressions of negative emotions may increase their risk of being evaluated as socially maladjusted by teachers. On the other hand, because children were reporting on their peers' emotional expressions in general, it is also possible that the nominations include peer observations of teacher-child interactions. Our results dovetail with previous studies that demonstrate the link between peer nominations of depressive symptoms and teacher-rated externalizing behavior (Shoemaker, Erickson, & Finch, 1986
), and are somewhat consistent with previous studies showing that peer nominations of anger predict higher levels of teacher-rated aggression (Schultz et al., 2004
). As other studies have demonstrated significant correlations between anger and sadness nominations (Schultz et al., 2004
; Shoemaker et al., 1986
; Trentacosta et al., 2006
), these results provide encouraging support for our hypotheses. Given the paucity of research using discrete emotions, it is clear that further investigations of peer nominations are needed to substantiate our findings.
Contrary to our expectations, emotion nominations were not correlated with or significantly predictive of self- or parent-rated internalizing symptoms. However, a similar lack of association was found in a previous investigation of associations between peer-rated anger displays and depressive symptoms with self- and teacher-rated internalizing symptoms (Shoemaker et al., 1986
). In addition, a meta-analysis of cross-informant agreement by Achenbach and colleagues (Achenbach, McConaughy, & Howell, 1987
) suggested that concordance for internalizing symptoms is lower than externalizing behaviors, as was demonstrated by our results. The similar patterns observed in our study between peer nominations of emotional expressivity with teacher (but not parent) ratings of externalizing behavior and social competence may reflect the effects of the school setting. This setting effect may explain why parent-reported psychosocial functioning was not associated with the peer perceptions of emotional expressions.
In contrast to teacher ratings, parent-reported psychosocial functioning was not associated with peer nominations of emotional expressivity. However, it is important to note that parent ratings were significantly associated with teacher ratings. Specifically, teacher- and parent-ratings of externalizing behavior exhibited concordance. In addition, teacher-rated social competence was inversely correlated with parent-rated internalizing symptoms and externalizing behavior. However, parents and teachers did not demonstrate agreement in their ratings of children's social competence. Previous studies have illustrated how informant concordance is influenced by setting (e.g., home vs. school) as well as type of behavior being evaluated (e.g., internalizing vs. externalizing). Externalizing behaviors often show higher rates of inter-informant agreement compared to other behaviors (Achenbach et al., 1987
). Thus, it is plausible that the significant associations between peer nominations of emotional expressivity and teacher ratings of externalizing behavior and social competence were due, at least in part, to effects of the shared school setting. Classmates and teachers are in a better position than most parents to observe children's emotional, behavioral, and social functioning, particularly as reflected in peer interactions on a regular basis. Thus, when children are facing developmental challenges specific to the school setting, peers and teachers may provide the most accurate assessment of children's functioning. We interpret our findings as providing potential evidence of the importance of social contexts, but an alternate explanation for the observed lack of correspondence between peer ratings of emotional expressivity and parent- or self-reported clinical symptomatology is that these measures reflect different constructs (e.g., daily emotional experience versus psychological symptoms). Indeed, children's self-reported internalizing symptoms were not related to any parent or teacher ratings, despite exhibiting good internal consistency. The current study was not designed to investigate cross-informant agreement on children's expression of negative emotions, so we were limited in the range of testable hypotheses. Our findings do, however, suggest that peers are capable of reporting on children's emotional expressivity, and those reports converge with teachers' ratings of behavior. Since parents and siblings constitute the natural raters within the family (Kellam & Van Horn, 1997
), future studies will need to generate designs that allow us to investigate peer ratings of children's emotional expressivity in the home setting to address the limitations of the current study.
A unique strength of the current study was the analysis of peer nominations of emotional expressivity in two ways. We examined an aggregate that comprised all four negative emotion items, and analyzed the items separately, in order to evaluate potential differences in their associations with psychosocial functioning. We chose to use these particular emotion items because they were the items available in this valuable dataset. While previous research has focused on anger, our study addressed a salient gap in the literature by examining other negative emotions, including sadness and fear. Moreover, a few studies have documented the importance of other negative emotional states, including sadness (e.g., Perry-Parrish & Zeman, in press
). The current study documented the importance of these other negative emotional states. In sum, the results provided support for our decision to analyze both the individual emotion items and the composite measure.
In the case of teacher-reported externalizing symptoms, the regression analyses indicated that the emotion items of crying and appearing afraid were important predictors, whereas displaying sadness and worry were not. By comparison, nominations of fear and sadness displays were significant predictors of decreases in teacher-reported social competence. Despite the utility for predicting teacher-rated variables, the discrete emotion approach did not alter the findings for parent-rated measures. Specifically, peer nominations of emotional expressivity were unrelated to parent-rated internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and social competence. As teachers and peers likely rated children based on their behavior in the school setting, these findings may reflect the importance of setting and/or social context in shaping children's emotional expressivity. Future studies could consider how to explore this idea in other social contexts involving peer interactions (e.g., after-school programs, extracurricular activities).
Given that little research has focused on African American children's emotional development (Barbarin, 1993
), our study adds to the extant literature by examining peer nominations of emotional expressivity among a predominately African American sample. Moreover, because our sample also included White youth and demonstrated some diversity with respect to SES, we explored the effects of these variables but did not generate specific hypotheses. The results indicated that African American children received fewer peer nominations of displaying sadness and appearing afraid than White youth, and children who were eligible for free/reduced lunch received more nominations for displaying sadness than their classmates. However, the magnitude of these differences was small. Likewise, significant ethnicity and SES findings emerged for internalizing symptoms and externalizing behavior, but these effects were also small.
More central to our study, peer nominations of negative emotions significantly contributed to the prediction of teacher-rated social competence, beyond the effects of SES. In the case of teacher-reported social competence, neither ethnicity nor SES was significant, whereas peer-nominated emotional expressivity was an important predictor. It should be noted that this study was not designed to evaluate ethnicity differences, as reflected in our predominantly African American sample. However, our sample was more balanced with respect to SES (i.e., free/reduced lunch), and the few significant findings related to SES were relatively small. Although our study does not allow for strong conclusions to be drawn about ethnicity differences in emotional processes, the results do suggest that emotion variables are important predictors of psychosocial functioning among African American youth in the school setting. Specifically, peer nominations of expressing negative emotions were significantly associated with teacher ratings of externalizing behaviors and social competence. This pattern dovetails with other studies with predominantly White children (e.g., Schultz et al., 2004
), and thus our findings suggest that frequent expressions of negative emotions represent a potential psychosocial liability in the school environment. Additional studies are clearly needed to identify whether ethnicity, SES, or other social factors may alter or influence the relationship between emotional expressivity patterns and psychosocial adjustment.
Although our results support the usefulness of peer nominations of emotional expressivity, the measure did not assess a broad range of affect (e.g., anger, positive emotions). In addition, we included two items that reflect negative affective displays without specifying discrete emotional states (i.e., worry, crying). Because distinct emotions are associated with unique appraisals (Lazarus, Campos, Tennen, Lazarus, & Tennen, 2006
), functions (e.g., Campos et al., 1994
), and action tendencies (Frijda, 1986
), it would be beneficial for future research employing peer nominations to include a range of discrete negative and positive emotions. Moreover, although it appears that there was limited variability and a low ceiling effect among the peer nominations, it is clear from the overall analyses that negative emotions were a significant predictor of psychosocial functioning in the school setting. Thus, our results support the notion that peer perceptions of emotional expressivity are a meaningful and valid source of information.
Another limitation of the current study is our focus on one age group of relatively young children at one time point. Had we investigated peer nominations of emotional expressivity in an older cohort or over time, it is possible that a different pattern of associations with psychosocial functioning would emerge. Although we focused on early childhood, many foundational skills are in place as early as first grade, including accurate identification of other's emotions (Saarni, 1999
). Thus, it is likely that peer nominations reliably capture some useful aspects of children's emotional expressivity, despite the existence of age-related differences in emotional development. For example, younger children are more likely than older children to report expressing their emotions (e.g., Zeman & Garber, 1996
While previous studies have found mixed results regarding gender differences in peer nominations of emotions, more work is needed to clarify the relationship between gender and emotional expressivity in this age group. Among first- and second-grade children, boys have received more anger nominations (Schultz et al., 2004
; Trentacosta et al., 2006
) and fewer happiness nominations than girls (Trentacosta et al., 2006
). This pattern is consistent with research demonstrating that boys exhibit more externalizing difficulties than do girls, a gender difference that is evident by early childhood (Crick & Zahn-Waxler, 2003
). In contrast, no gender differences were found in peer nominations of fear or sadness displays in this age group (Schultz et al., 2004
; Trentacosta et al., 2006
); this lack of gender differences may accurately reflect emotional similarities between boys and girls. Given that internalizing disorders begin to disproportionately favor girls during adolescence, the lack of gender differences may be influenced by developmental level as well. For example, girls received more peer nominations of overt sadness displays than boys in a study of early adolescents, but only adolescent boys' nominations of overt sadness expressions were associated with decreased social acceptance by peers (Perry-Parrish & Zeman, in press
). Thus, more studies of peer perceptions of emotional expressivity in children and adolescents are needed. Other limitations include the exclusion of the relatively small subset of children who were missing the peer nomination data; imputations procedures could be used to determine the extent to which the pattern of findings observed in the current study are sensitive to the relatively small amount of missing data. Furthermore, the teacher and parent ratings of externalizing and social competence had slightly different response scales and number of items. Future research should explore the extent to which these findings generalize to other parent, teacher, and self-report ratings of social-emotional functioning.
Implications and Future Directions
This study makes several important contributions to the extant literature. Our application of a standard sociometric procedure yielded an interesting, valid method of assessing emotional expressivity in early childhood. This method also allowed us to examine discrete emotional states and expressions, rather than solely relying on an aggregate measure of negative emotionality. Ethnic minority children comprised the majority of the sample, which represents an improvement over research that typically includes predominantly White participants, especially among studies of emotional development (Barbarin, 1993a
). Furthermore, multiple informants provided ratings across several salient domains of adjustment, which represents a crucial design strength given recent calls for multi-method designs in emotional development research (Zeman et al., 2007
). Future research could further explore the correspondence between multiple raters of children's emotional expressivity in order to examine their relative and unique contributions (see Kraemer et al., 2003
The present study highlights the importance of investigating discrete and aggregate forms of emotional expressivity. The absence of gender differences in peer nominations of negative emotional displays in our early childhood sample is interesting on multiple accounts. Although children exhibit some awareness of emotional display rules as young as the preschool years, their expressive behavior does not reliably reflect these rules for modulating emotional expressions until later in middle childhood (Saarni, 1999
). The developmental transitions across early to middle childhood into adolescence marks increasing sophistication in both the capacity and motivation to alter one's emotional expressions; this shift in emotion regulation illustrates children's consideration of salient features of the social context, including gender, relationship with the other person, and what specific emotion is expressed (Zeman, Cassano, Perry-Parrish, & Stegall, 2006
). Thus, the lack of gender differences in our study may accurately reflect a developmental period that exists prior to the emergence of gender-typed emotionality later in childhood. Research on emotional displays in middle childhood provides increasing support for a gender socialization theory of emotions (Brody & Hall, 2000
). This theory proposes that boys and girls receive gender-specific instruction and feedback regarding the appropriateness of their emotional expressions. For boys, emotion socialization is theorized to emphasize suppression of vulnerability (e.g., sadness, fear), whereas girls' socialization is thought to encourage consideration of others' feelings (e.g., by masking anger or displaying positive emotions). However, most of the research in support of this theory relies on predominantly White samples. Because socialization may be influenced by ethnicity as well as gender, our study of urban, predominately African American youth provides another step in understanding the potential social and developmental origins of gender differences in emotionality among older children and adolescents.
The present study also provides further evidence to support the inclusion of peer perceptions of children's emotions in studies of children's social development. Peer assessments represent a historically important source of information about children's psychosocial functioning and adjustment, but they have rarely been used to investigate the domain of emotional development. Our results add to a small but growing body of studies that illustrate the importance of investigating peer perceptions of emotions in early and middle childhood (Schultz et al., 2004
; Shoemaker et al., 1986
; Trentacosta et al., 2006
) and adolescence (Perry-Parrish & Zeman, in press
). In addition to other established methods of assessing children's emotional development, peer nominations could also be used in future investigations to explore emotional displays and regulation across childhood and adolescence. Finally, if research continues to document the importance of emotions in peer interactions, then prevention/intervention efforts would be well-advised to include an emotion component in classroom-based curricula. For example, Izard and colleagues (Izard et al., 2008
) have begun an investigation of an emotion-focused prevention program to target preschool children in Head Start centers at risk for behavior problems and psychopathology. Likewise, the school-based Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies
(PATHS) social-emotional learning curriculum emphasizes increasing emotional competence, including teaching youth how to effectively discuss and manage their emotions (Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995
). To aid in the evaluation of such programs, future studies could include peer-based measures of emotional expressivity and regulation to capture whether the interventions are not only improving children's emotional self-regulation, but also changing peer perceptions of children's emotional behavior as well.