Emotions are part of everyday life. They influence how people think and behave regarding themselves and others. Therefore, people have to be able to deal with, identify correctly, and react appropriately to emotions [1
]. According to Denham [2
], emotional competence describes the ability of an individual to deal with emotions. It includes emotion expression and experience, emotion understanding of oneself and others, and emotion regulation.
Emotion expression summarizes an individual’s ability to understand the experience and expression of emotions both verbally and nonverbally. Children learn to identify expressed basic emotions within their first year of life, although not yet consciously [3
], which then constantly improves. In this process, primary emotions are learned before secondary ones, and positive ones before negative [4
]. Emotion understanding refers to knowledge about the emotions of oneself and others and consists of three main components: (a) facial identification of emotions, (b) situational identification of emotions, and (c) vocabulary of emotions [5
]. The first describes the knowledge of the different forms of facial expression of emotions. Situational identification refers to the extent to which an individual is capable of connecting situational contexts with the corresponding emotions and vice versa. Finally, making such connections requires an appropriate vocabulary on a verbal and probably also on a conceptual level. Emotion regulation describes the capacity to deal with one’s own negative or positive emotions in a functional way that is both holistic and goal oriented. Children’s successful emotion regulation contributes to their overall emotional competence as it is adaptive to the demands of the context and age-related expectations [6
Facets of emotional competence are valid predictor of socioemotional well-being, healthy social relationships, academic success, and general physical health [7
], and their validity is well established. Further, through several studies there is a well-established association of emotional competence with the different components (as described above) and mental health. Difficulties in emotion regulation have been shown to correlate with externalizing [e.g., 10
] and internalizing [13
] symptoms. A meta-analysis by Trentacosta and Fine [18
] with 84 studies indicated a relatively consistent yet modest relation between emotion knowledge—a construct similar to emotion understanding—and internalizing and externalizing problems. Emotion knowledge also facilitates emotion regulation [19
]. Further, there is an important contribution of emotional competence to academic [20
] and social [2
] competence. Preschool-aged children’s understanding of emotions often relates to positive peer status, prosocial behaviors, and discrete social behaviors [22
Considering these findings, it is apparent that on the one hand, early deficits in emotional competence are linked to the development of behavior problems and subsequently to the early emergence of mental disorders. On the other hand, emotional competence also facilitates positive social skills and competence [26
]. The development of emotional competence begins in early childhood (e.g., sucking a thumb for self-soothing, social referencing when experiencing a current emotion) and continues throughout life, with preschoolers already being adept in some of the components of emotional competence. One study by Saarni [28
] found that early childhood (preschool age) is a crucial time for the development of the first stages of emotional competence. This time serves as an early playful testing ground for emotional competence, beginning with successful initiation of a child’s first peer relationships at the age of 2 to 5 years [29
Assessing emotional competence should be possible already at the preschool age and early school-age. Therefore, assessment measures for preschoolers and school-aged children with sufficient psychometric properties are required. Several instruments have been developed to measure emotional competence in early childhood (e.g., the Assessment of Children’s Emotions Skills [30
] and the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy [DANVA; 31
]), for reviews see McKown et al. [32
] or McKown [33
]; there is no claim for a complete overview on emotional competence measures. Overall, there are only a few validated instruments for the preschool age (e.g., the Children and Adolescents’ Recognition of Emotions [30
], the Emotion Matching Task [34
], and the Affect Knowledge Test shortened [AKT-S, 35
]), and these instruments are available only in English, indicating the necessity of a German instrument. There is also a lack of computerized tests, one example is the computerized adaptation of the AKT-S [36
]. Overall, there is a lack of validated computer-based preschool emotional competence instruments in German. The need for an additional instrument was also indicated by child psychotherapists who participated in an expert rating in a pilot study of the MeKKi (see below). Existing measures in German predominantly assess singular components of emotional competence [37
], such as the ET 6-6R, a development test for ages 6 months to 6 years [38
] that assesses general emotional development; the Scale of Emotion Knowledge for 3- to 10-Year-Old Children [40
]; and the Questionnaire on Strategies of Anger Regulation for Children [41
]. The FEEL-KJ [42
] is a self-report questionnaire that assesses emotion regulation strategies (adaptive and maladaptive) for the emotions anxiety, sadness, and anger. In conclusion, as outlined above, emotional competence consists of several components that should already be directly assessable in preschoolers and not only with caregivers. Therefore, to assess several components of emotional competence in preschoolers and school-aged children, a new computer-based standardized measure, the Emotional Competence Inventory for Children (referred to here by its German acronym, MeKKi), was developed; the measure is based on Denham’s [2
] model of emotional competence and Ekman´s definition of emotions [43
]. We investigated the psychometric properties (reliability and validity) and factor structure of the MeKKi in a preschooler and school-aged sample.
The goal of Study 1 was to investigate the revised version of the MeKKi, especially the interrater reliability, retest reliability, and internal consistencies.
The sample consisted of 45 children between 5 and 11 years of age (M = 7.44 years, SD = 1.71, 22 girls, 23 boys), recruited in schools and kindergarten. Participants and their parents provided written informed consent and the children were each investigated in a one-on-one setting.
The Emotion Vocabulary subscale, which includes open questions, had a very high interrater reliability of 0.99 between independent researchers. The interrater reliability was 0.66 for Emotion Expression, 0.85 for Emotion Regulation, and 0.71 for Emotion Understanding. The 7-week retest reliability was r = 0.40 and r = 0.46 in a small subsample of n = 13 for the Emotion Vocabulary and Emotion Identification (visual) subscales, respectively. The other subscales and the total score resulted in larger correlations, ranging from r = 0.59 Emotion Identification (auditive), r = 0.71 for Emotion Understanding, r = 0.86 for Emotion Identification (situational), r = 0.81 for Emotion Regulation to r = 0.88 (Emotion Understanding). Positive correlations were found between nearly all subscales to varying degrees. Cronbach’s α for Emotion Identification was 0.57, for Emotion Expression 0.75, for Emotion Regulation 0.79, and for Emotion Understanding 0.76. Considering these results, a larger sample of preschoolers and school-aged children was recruited, with which we used for Study 2.
The MeKKi was developed to assess different components of emotional competence, that is, emotion vocabulary, emotion understanding, emotion expression, emotion identification (situational, visual, auditory), and emotion regulation, in preschoolers and school-aged children. This is the first German-language instrument that assesses different components of emotional competence and that can be used in preschoolers and school-aged children. Our investigation of the psychometric properties and factor structure of the MeKKi indicates that most of the MeKKi subscales were unidimensional with one latent dimension underlying each subscale. The only exception was Visual Emotion Identification, which showed some estimation problems that need further investigation. Estimates for Cronbach’s α and item–total correlations were in an acceptable to good range for most of the subscales, again with the exception of the Visual Emotion Identification and Auditory Emotion Identification subscales.
There was a wide range of correlations between the subscales, confirming that each scale represents a separate factor of emotional competence. Configural invariance was found between preschoolers (< 7 years) and school-aged children (≥ 7 years) for Emotion Expression and Emotion Regulation, which indicates that the unidimensional structure holds for both age groups. Furthermore, there was strict invariance for Emotion Regulation. Because the sample size was too small, a test of measurement invariance for Emotion Understanding was not possible and has to be addressed in future studies. Unidimensionality was also found for Situational and Auditory Emotion Identification, but only Auditory Emotion Identification reached Rasch homogeneity, while some items of the Situational subscale showed differential item functioning. The Birnbaum model for Visual Emotion Identification for both age groups did not converge successfully. An inspection of the factor scores showed that for most of the factors only one observation was found and the expected value was zero. One problem could be that with increasing item number, an increase of sample size would be required [59
]. For Birnbaum models, a sample size of 200 is recommended [60
], which was not available for all subscales. Therefore, the combination of a relatively small sample size and the high number of items could be the reason that the model did not converge.
The results add to the previous pilot results of the MeKKi, as presented in the Introduction section, indicating acceptable to good retest reliabilities for the majority of the subscales and high acceptance ratings of the participating children. Examining gender differences, no differential item functioning was shown for any tested subscale and strong invariance was found for Emotion Regulation. The only subscale that showed no invariance was Emotion Expression. On a subscale level, there were no significant group differences between girls and boys, which is in line with other studies on gender differences in emotional competence during early childhood [e.g., 61
]. Given the very small number of group members, the issue of gender differences must be addressed in further research.
Despite these positive results, there were some problematic items identified in the MeKKi. Several items concerning anger showed differential item functioning for the Situational and Auditory Emotion Identification subscales for preschoolers. This is a known problem, because anger is difficult to distinguish from some other emotions, such as grief [64
]. The relatively wide range in ages within this sample could be an explanation for the differential item functioning mentioned above. Another explanation could be that different facial emotion expressions are learned in different life stages. For example, Durand et al. [66
] showed that happiness and sadness are recognized earlier than anger or disgust. However, it has to be investigated, if this result is also shown in auditory emotion identification of anger compared to other emotions. Results in the present study indicate that preschoolers had more difficulties with the task than the school-aged children. We also found that children with above-average person scores (indicating higher emotional competence in this study) had a higher probability of answering correctly than children with below-average person scores.
This study has some limitations that have to be acknowledged when interpreting the results. Splitting the sample into two age groups (preschoolers, aged < 7 years, and school-aged children, aged ≥ 7 years) was a reasonable way to address the fact that the development of emotional competence changes with increasing age. It was expected that these differences would reduce the fit of the models. It is possible that there are other differences between the age groups that are not represented by these two groups. However, given the overall sample size, splitting the sample into more age groups was not possible. Further studies should examine the MeKKi for different age groups or should reduce the variance of age within each group to control for age as a variable. Splitting the sample into several age groups, at least for children below the age of 9 years, could be reasonable for future studies given the findings of de Sonneville et al. [67
], which indicate that emotional competence stabilizes around age 9 with only a small qualitative increase to be expected afterward. The sample sizes differed in the subscales, which means that scales with fewer tested children were less accurately estimated. Measurement invariance was tested only between groups and not over time, as no repeated measurement data were available. This has to be done in future studies to ensure that the number of dimensions does not change over time and that intercorrelations between items and their respective dimensions remain relatively constant. Like other self-report measures on emotion regulation, the MeKKi assesses knowledge of emotion regulation strategies, as opposed to actual behavioral emotion regulation in different emotional situations. This could be investigated by considering teacher or parent reports of emotional competences of the children. Regarding the development of the MeKKi and the present study adding to the results of the pilot studies, the findings indicate much potential for this inventory. Overall, the present results confirm the results of the pilot studies of the MeKKi. Nonetheless, further improvements will help increase the quality of this inventory; for example, results indicate that items with differential item functioning should be revised or could be deleted.
The MeKKi could potentially find application in identifying deficits in emotional competence in children as young as preschool age, enabling the adoption of intervention or prevention programs. The correlation of the MeKKi and the well-established SDQ instrument in a pilot study seems promising even though it lacks statistical significance, which might be due to the limited sample size in the pilot studies. Further research should address the convergent and predictive validity with larger samples to investigate the association between psychopathology and the MeKKi subscales as well as other validated measures on emotional competence (which would have to be developed and evaluated in German). To establish the MeKKi as a suitable diagnostic instrument, further testing should also include clinical samples. This would make it possible to investigate the differential validity beyond the pilot studies. Furthermore, the MeKKi might be used to evaluate intervention programs fostering emotional competence. Overall, the results indicate that the MeKKi is very likely a suitable computer-based standardized inventory for assessing emotional competence on a multidimensional level in preschoolers and school-aged children.
The results of our study indicate that the MeKKi is very likely a suitable computer-based standardized inventory for assessing emotional competence on a multidimensional level in preschoolers and school-aged children. The MeKKi was developed to assess five components of emotional competence: emotion vocabulary, emotion identification, emotion understanding, emotion expression, and emotion regulation. Results on acceptance ratings in participating children, validity, reliability, and factor structure provide support for the use of the MeKKi in research and clinical settings. The MeKKi could potentially find application in identifying deficits in emotional competence in children as young as preschool age, enabling the adoption of intervention or prevention programs.
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