Strategy Flexibility: A New View of Early Childhood Emotion Regulation

Open Access
Tan, Patricia Z.
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 15, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Pamela Marie Cole, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Pamela Marie Cole, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Kristin Buss, Committee Member
  • Clancy B Blair, Committee Member
  • Jose Angel Soto, Committee Member
  • emotion regulation
  • emotion
  • flexibility
  • preschool children
Evidence has accumulated supporting the centrality of emotion regulation (ER) in mental health (for a review, see Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Eggum, 2010). However, researchers and clinicians have recognized that the clinical utility of ER research will remain limited without delineating the specific dimensions of ER that contribute to dysregulated emotion and psychopathology. This dissertation investigated an often-cited but rarely-studied dimension– strategy flexibility, or a person’s ability to be able to vary the strategies used to regulate emotion across situational contexts and within a given situation. The present study tested the convergent and predictive validity of new strategy flexibility measures in children at ages 36 and 48 months. If strategy flexibility is important to mental health, children with greater strategy flexibility should show greater self-regulation (e.g., fewer externalizing symptoms, better social self-control, and better general emotion regulation skill). Convergent validity of two forms of strategy flexibility, specifically, children’s flexible use of strategies (a) across different situations (situational flexibility) and (b) within a given situation (momentary flexibility), was tested by examining relations between these new flexibility measures and an observational measure of children’s skill at ER. First, we compared the convergence of the variety of children’s regulatory strategies (strategy variety) and (i) situational flexibility with independent ratings of children’s overall quality of ER. This approach was intended to capture children’s ability to use different but appropriate strategies as a function of task objectives. Second, we compared the convergence of strategy variety and (ii) two new momentary flexibility measures assessing the frequency (ratio-of-switches) and speed (latency-to-switch) with which children switch strategies when a first strategy is ineffective with independent ratings of children’s ER quality. The two momentary measures were intended to capture children’s ability to change strategies when a current one was ineffective. Second, we tested the predictive validity of strategy flexibility measures by relating strategy flexibility measures to indices of child socio-emotional competence at ages 36 and 48 months. Finally, relations between measures of strategy flexibility and cognitive flexibility, assessed by young children’s ability to shifts sets in a cognitive task, were examined. Results provided support for the convergent validity of situational flexibility and one measure of momentary flexibility, latency-to-switch, as measures of young children’s flexible strategy use. These two newly-developed strategy flexibility measures systematically predicted independent ratings of children’s global quality of emotion regulation at ages 36 and 48 months. In contrast, strategy variety and momentary ratio-of-switches were not consistently related with children’s global emotion regulation; moreover, when predictive, they were associated with less skill at emotion regulation. Finally, set-shifting was not associated with strategy flexibility at either 36 or 48 months of age.