Exploring the importance of early care-giving experiences on children’s socio-emotional functioning: the role of empathy

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Derek Hanley
Submitted: October 2021


The parent-child relationship is considered a critical context for children’s socio-emotional development. While it is understood that this relationship is interactive and bi-directional in nature, parenting practices and behaviours, specifically, parental socialisation styles, have been consistently linked to children’s development, including emotional competence and social skills. Empathy, which describes an innate capacity to understand and resonate with others’ emotional experiences, is regarded by some as being at the core of what it means to be fully human, as it is central to social interaction, lays a foundation for moral judgement, and acts as a precursor to prosocial behaviour. Evidence has shown that individual differences in child empathy are related to and affected by the socialisation practices of parents. Building upon this research, this thesis presents two related, but individual papers that aim to further our understanding of how early care-giving experiences influence children’s socio-emotional functioning, specifically empathy. Firstly, a systematic literature review was conducted to consider the association between the quality of the parent-child relationship, as defined by the indices of attachment security, parent warmth, and parental sensitivity, and the development of empathy in toddlers and pre-schoolers. 16 articles were included for review. Overall, the review highlights that the evidence-base exploring the association between child empathy and the quality of the parent-child relationship among toddlers and pre-schoolers is small and strikingly inconsistent. Put broadly, the most consistent associations were found in longitudinal studies with pre-schoolers where attachment security was linked with higher scores of empathy. Secondly, an empirical study was carried out to test a proposed mediational model, whereby lower empathy is a pathway between childhood maltreatment and peer relationship problems. Using a combination of parent-report, child-report measures, and behavioural measures, empathy and peer relations were assessed in a sample of maltreated (n = 29) and non-maltreated children (n = 82). Findings show that maltreated children scored significantly lower on parentreport measures of empathy and scored significantly higher on parent-report peer relationship problems than non-maltreated children. The behavioural data showed similar group level differences for child empathy, however, no differences were found for child-report peer relations. In terms of the proposed mediational model, empathy was found to mediate the relationship between maltreatment and poor peer relations. Taken together, both studies highlight the importance of early care-giving experiences on children’s socio-emotional functioning, specifically empathy. The implications of this are discussed broadly and within the context of educational psychology.

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Academic Critique of the ‘FUN FRIENDS’ programme

Assignment type: Academic Critique
Author: Lauren Dobson
Submitted: April 2021

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To cite this work, please use the following:

Dobson, L.(2022, 29 September).Academic Critique of the ‘FUN FRIENDS’ programme. University of Southampton Educational Psychology research blog. http://blog.soton.ac.uk/edpsych/2022/09/29/academic-critique-of-the-fun-friends-programme

Parental involvement in Primary School interventions to support children’s mental health and emotional well-being: a systematic review of the literature and exploration of StoryLinks

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Joanna Spragg
Submitted: June 2017


There is considerable emphasis in research literature and educational policy on the importance of parental involvement in supporting children’s academic and social outcomes. Much of this is based on correlational, rather than experimental evidence. Also, the focus has been on children’s academic outcomes and attainment, as opposed to emotional and social outcomes. A systematic review of existing literature was conducted to evaluate recent empirical studies of school-based interventions that actively involve parents in supporting and promoting children’s mental health and emotional well-being. It aimed to describe the characteristics of such interventions and to consider whether there is research evidence supporting the ‘added value’ of these. Results suggested the interventions promoted a range of positive outcomes related to children’s mental health and emotional well-being. However, further work is needed to understand to what extent positive outcomes are related to the specific approaches and methods used, especially as there is much variation in the types of interventions used. Currently there is little robust empirical evidence for the additional benefits of actively involving parents in interventions to support children’s emotional well-being. Also, further research needs to be undertaken that seeks to consult with the parents, children and professionals facilitating these complex interventions to better understand potential barriers and facilitating factors of parental involvement in school-based programmes.

The empirical paper aimed to explore the experiences and views of parents, children and facilitators who have been involved in the StoryLinks intervention. StoryLinks is an individualised, parent-partnership intervention that involves children, parents and school in the co-creation of stories to support children’s emotional well-being and literacy skills (Waters, 2010). StoryLinks is based on the principles of therapeutic storywriting and attachment theory, including the use of metaphor to explore feelings and story-making as a way of supporting relationships. There is some preliminary evidence that the intervention may have a positive effect on children’s emotional and social well-being, behaviour and rates of exclusion, as well as the parent-child relationship (Water, 2014). The current exploratory study drew on the multiple perspectives of parents, children and facilitators who have been involved in the intervention. The research aimed to gain a better understanding of their experiences of the implementation, process and outcomes of StoryLinks. Semi-structured interviews with eight participants (four facilitators and two parentchild dyads) were conducted and thematic analysis was applied to the transcripts. The findings for each group were analysed and presented separately. There were some commonalities between groups, suggesting that participants had mostly had a positive experience of StoryLinks and considered it to be a collaborative intervention. Outcomes identified by participants included that StoryLinks had supported relationships and adults felt they had developed greater insights into their child’s emotions and behaviour. Findings were discussed in the context of relevant literature and research related to therapeutic storywriting approaches and parental involvement in interventions. Consideration was also given to implications for future practice and research.

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To What Extent Is the Thrive Intervention Grounded in Research and Theory? (2019)

Authors: Rosa Gibby-Leversuch, Jasmine Field and Tim Cooke
Published: 2019
Publication: Educational Psychology Research and Practice

The Thrive approach is an assessment and planning based intervention that aims to develop children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Despite the increased popularity of Thrive, there is limited research that has investigated its effectiveness. After reviewing the assessment, training and intervention elements of Thrive and the evidence base for the underpinning assumptions, this article considers the evaluative research. Thrive is rooted in attachment theory and assumes that infant development is vulnerable to disruption by poor attachment experiences and that these disruptions can be ameliorated in later life through the development of secure relationships with school staff. The article concludes that, while Thrive is based on attachment theory, which itself is well supported by evidence, how Thrive applies and interprets this theory is less well supported. There is currently limited evidence of the impact of Thrive on children’s development. Other issues and implications of this critique are also discussed.

Gibby-Leversuch, R., Field, J., & Cooke, T. (2019). To what extent is the thrive intervention grounded in research and theory? Educational psychology research and practice, 5(2), 1–8. Available at: https://repository.uel.ac.uk/item/8873x

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The Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA) Programme: Can you develop an evidence base for an adaptive intervention? (2019)

Authors: Leanne Pickering, Joanne Lambeth and Colin Woodcock
Published: 2019
Publication: DECP Debate

This article considers different aspects of the Emotional Literacy Support Assistant Programme. Specifically, it critiques the evidence base for the intervention and discusses issues relating to the adaptability of the programme..

Pickering, L., Lambeth, J. & Woodcock, C. (2019) The Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA) Programme: Can you develop an evidence base for an adaptive intervention? DECP Debate, 170, 17-22.

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Establishing the effectiveness of a gratitude diary intervention on children’s sense of school belonging (2016)

Assignment type: Research Project (Applied Research Project, Year 1)
Authors: Tara Diebel, Colin Woodcock, Claire Cooper & Catherine Brignell
Submitted: 2011

Aim: The promotion of wellbeing in schools using evidence-based interventions from the field of Positive Psychology is a growing area of interest. These interventions are based on the principle that sustainable changes in wellbeing can be achieved through regularly engaging in simple and intentional activities. This study examines the effectiveness of a school-based gratitude diary intervention to promote school belonging for primary school aged pupils (age range 7-11 years). Continue reading

What is the Role of Schools and Colleges in Supporting Adolescents who Self-Harm?

Assignment type: Essay
Author: Leanne Pickering
Submitted: May 2015

Self-harm is a widespread issue amongst adolescents, which is often kept hidden from adults. When a young person is identified as self-harming, education professionals often refer them to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for an assessment. This may be due to the prevailing perception of self-harm as a mental health problem that requires clinical treatment and management. However, as the majority of self-harm behaviour is kept hidden, this essay will argue that a reactive response is unlikely to be adequate in supporting adolescents who self-harm. Instead, it will be argued that self-harm may be better perceived as an emotional and behavioural difficulty that can be effectively supported by education professionals working in schools and colleges. Rather than perceiving self-harm as a mental health problem, and the responsibility of clinicians, self-harm needs to be understood as an adaptive strategy that enables adolescents to regulate their emotions and cope with the stress of everyday life. This essay will demonstrate that adolescents who self-harm have fewer functional coping strategies and engage in self-harm as a way to alleviate negative emotions. It will be argued that education professionals are better placed to support children’s development through the implementation of whole school approaches designed to develop young people’s emotional intelligence and problem solving skills. By providing young people with culturally acceptable coping strategies, we may be able to help reduce the occurrence of self-harm behaviour.

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The importance of forgiveness: How can psychological research inform educational practice?

Assignment type: Essay
Author: Tara Diebel
Submitted: May 2012

Forgiveness is a process of cognitive, behavioural and emotional change towards a transgression. It can be seen as a positive psychological resource to interpersonal harm. This essay examines the importance of forgiveness by examining why it is related to increased wellbeing and positive relationships. It then examines how the research on forgiveness can be related to children and adolescents. There has been much investigation on forgiveness and forgiveness interventions with adults, however the research on forgiveness with children and adolescents is still an emerging area. In order for schools to effectively promote forgiveness, an understanding of the developmental prerequisites of forgiveness and how children understand the construct of forgiveness is essential. There is currently limited research on the effectiveness of forgiveness education and intervention in schools. This essay will examine how schools can promote forgiveness at three different levels: a whole school preventative approach, targeted interventions and informal responses to transgressions. Future research is needed to determine the most effective method of fostering forgiveness in a school setting. Implications for Educational Psychologists are discussed.

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To what extent can bullies be seen as the victims of bystanders?

Assignment type: Essay
Author: Cora Sargeant
Submitted: May 2011

Bullying is defined as any repeated behaviour designed to cause harm to someone not readily able to defend themselves. Due to the severe consequences of bullying for the victim, it is understandable that bullies have been cast as sole antagonists in the bullying dynamic, victimising the vulnerable and intimidating bystanders into complicit inaction. This essay challenges this view, arguing that bullying behaviour can be viewed as the misguided effort of a rejected group to be more accepted by their peers through the public derogation of other rejected groups. The essay goes on to argue that this reinterpretation of the role of the bully necessitates a reinterpretation of the role of the bystander. Bystanders have been viewed as intimidated into frequent inaction during bullying episodes. This essay argues that bystander inaction can be equally viewed as a form of social rejection of the bully, with bystanders distancing themselves from their counter-normative behaviour. Thus bullies can be seen as the victims of bystander inaction, caught in a vicious cycle where bullying becomes both the cause of and the only perceived solution to social exclusion and rejection. Implications of this reinterpretation of the roles of bullies and bystanders for anti-bullying interventions are discussed.

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At what level should schools be working to develop resilience and promote emotional wellbeing in children and young people?

Assignment type: Essay
Author: Laura Harris
Submitted: May 2011

Recent reports suggest that the wellbeing of children living in the UK is significantly poorer than other high income countries.  This is despite the fact that the children of today’s society receive better education, and have more possessions and better homes than ever before.  For a number of years, researchers have attempted to identify protective factors that have enabled children to thrive when faced with difficult circumstances.  It is thought that these protective factors help to unlock a child’s innate resilience and promote emotional wellbeing.  Research which has identified these protective factors has led to the creation of school-based programmes, aimed at developing these skills in children and young people.  This paper explores whether schools should implement programmes which target specific at-risk groups using targeted prevention approaches, or employ universal prevention programmes which encompass all children.  The evidence suggests that schools should employ targeted programmes, as these are currently supported by empirical evidence which is methodologically and theoretically sound.  The evidence also suggests that whilst a number of researchers claim that universal programmes will benefit all children, studies of their effectiveness to date, are largely based on teacher reports.  It is important to address this issue in order to gain a better understanding of the most effective and efficient ways of ensuring positive outcomes for children and young people.  Thus, efforts to promote resilience and emotional wellbeing in schools must be evidence-based.  Future research needs to determine the most effective combination of universal and targeted intervention programmes.

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