The Impact of Early Experiences on Empathy and Emotion Regulation Development: Markers of Vulnerability and Resilience

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Amber Newell
Submitted: September 2021


Experiencing maltreatment in childhood can have detrimental and long-term effects on a child’s development. Maltreatment is the main reason for children to be removed from their family settings and to be looked after by alternative caregivers. Research has demonstrated that even after removal from the maltreating context, many children continue to experience persistent socioemotional difficulties. Less is known about the impact of maltreatment on children’s development of empathy and emotion regulation (ER) specifically and the ways that alternative caregiving protects against negative effects of maltreatment. Empathy and ER are key competencies that underpin a wide variety of other socioemotional skills. This thesis presents two related studies. Firstly, a systematic literature review was conducted to consider the literature exploring the impact of alternative caregiving on ER development. Eight studies were included that compared ER between children with and without experiences of maltreatment and subsequent transition to alternative care arrangements. Half of the studies concluded that maltreatment is associated with significantly less ER and an additional two studies found similar, but non-significant results. There are very few studies that have this focus, highlighting a need for further research. Secondly, empathy was assessed in 27 school-age adopted children with a history of maltreatment and compared with empathy measured with 72 non-adopted, non-maltreated children who live with their biological parents. It was hypothesised that maltreatment would have a negative impact on empathy development resulting in the adopted children scoring lower on empathy measures. It was also hypothesised that caregiver and child empathy would be associated and that this relationship would be moderated by maltreatment (group) status. The findings were that adopted children scored lower on parent-report questionnaire and behavioural measures of empathy. There were significant associations between parent and child measures of empathy, but maltreatment status did not significantly moderate this association. Taken together, both studies identify difficulties maltreated children have even within a context of adoption and fostering with empathy and emotion regulation development. The implications of this are discussed broadly and more specifically related to an educational psychology context.

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University of Southampton Psychology Post Graduate Research Conference – presentations

The Southampton PGR conference recently concluded – the ninth psychology conference but the very first to be carried out online. We were delighted by (and very proud of) the contributions of the Ed Psych Trainees to the conference, which included Year 2 research posters, Year 3 thesis presentations and two members of the Year 2 cohort – Sophie Smith and Amber Newell – sitting on the four person conference planning committee (and what an incredible job they did under these exceptional circumstances).

Please find below two great examples of the Ed Psych thesis presentations, presented by Caroline Bird, Jesvir Dhillon, and Annie McGowan:

Caroline Bird: Attributions of Challenging Behaviour from Looked After Children

Jesvir Dhillon A qualitative exploration of facilitators and adolescents experiences of a school-based iCBT

Annie McGowan: Exploration of the Views and Experiences of Transgender Youth in Secondary Education

Supporting the attachment needs of looked after children in education settings

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Kelly-Marie Underdown
Submitted: June 2015


For decades, researchers have identified looked after children (LAC) as a particularly vulnerable group with regards to both their academic attainment and social, emotional and mental health outcomes (McAuley & Davis, 2009). This is often attributed to the impact of adverse early life experiences on their attachment relationships with primary caregivers. Given encouraging findings regarding the impact of teacher-student relationships on children’s learning and behavioural outcomes (see McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015), in chapter one the current researcher conducted a systematic approach to a literature review examining implications for education professionals in supporting the attachment needs of LAC. Eleven texts were identified which provided implications for staff in supporting students’ learning and behaviour. Furthermore, the texts suggested a possible lack of understanding of attachment theory among education staff; hence, providing a potential training role for Educational Psychologists (EPs). Given the lack of empirical studies identified there is a call for more robust research in this field.

Secondly, the empirical study (chapter two) explored one of the recommendations for supporting LAC in schools; namely, the practice of implementing staff as ‘key adults’ (who are intended to provide an additional attachment figure). As there is a lack of research in this field, the researcher explored the experiences of secondary school staff acting as key adults for LAC in one local authority in south-east England. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven participants. Thematic analysis of the interviews revealed a rich picture of experiences captured within five interrelated themes: professional responsibilities; approach to the role; personal perspective; knowledge/understanding of LAC; and the wider school context. The findings provided implications for education professionals (e.g. EPs) in supporting both the policy and practice of key adults working with LAC. Additionally, suggestions were made for researchers to further explore whether this relationship fulfils an attachment function (as intended theoretically).

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Looked After Children’s experience of a group intervention to promote resilience

Assignment type: Research Project (Small Scale Research Project, Year 1)
Authors: Chantelle Zilli, Rebecca Neudegg, Eleanor Hayes, Ed Sayer and Hanna Kovshoff
Submitted: Spring 2017

The objective of this study was to understand children’s experience of a therapeutic programme designed to build resilience in Children Looked After (CLA), aged 8 to 12 years old. Researchers show that compared to the general population, CLA are at risk of poor outcomes such as mental health difficulties (McAuley & Davis, 2009), low academic achievement (O’Sullivan & Westerman, 2007) and youth offending behaviour (Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000). This may be due to adverse experiences both pre-care and within the care system which are associated with poor social, emotional and educational development in CLA (Sempik, Ward, & Darker, 2008; Ward, 2009). It is therefore important to develop interventions which remediate these risks. Continue reading