Studying Developing Minds in a Changing World

Meet Missouri Scientist: Elizabeth King, Ph.D.

Written by Madalynn Owens, MOST PR Assistant

The impacts of schools across the world closing due to the pandemic over the past year have helped many people see the importance that childcare has in society, but there hasn’t been much support for childcare workers and the childcare industry during these challenging times. 

“Our economy, our livelihood, our ability to continue on as a society rests largely on childcare,” Elizabeth King, Ph.D. said. 

Dr. Elizabeth King studies early childhood development, specifically how to support the learning environment of teachers and children. Her main research focus is how teachers talk about emotions with toddler and preschool-aged children. As an Assistant Professor at Missouri State University, she also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on human developmental studies. 

“The ways that we communicate about emotions really early guide how we react to and regulate our emotions throughout life,” Elizabeth said. 

One of her main focuses is the impact that minimizing emotions in children has on a child’s life. Minimizing emotions often looks like verbally distancing from another’s emotions, which in young children can often look like authority figures telling them they’re fine after an event takes place, such as the frustration-inducing experience of breaking a toy.

“They may not specifically say ‘your feelings don’t matter’ but it’s subtle messages that the feelings they have aren’t useful and aren’t valid for them to be feeling,” Elizabeth said. 

Elizabeth mentions that there is a time and a place for reminding children that they’re physically okay after something happens to them, such as falling on the ground, but if children are constantly being told they’re fine then they don’t feel validated and can’t practice regulating their emotions. Her emotion language research is often done in a classroom setting by watching naturally occurring events and interactions between teachers and children and children with their peers. 

“I try to be a fly on the wall and let everything happen naturally and organically just to see how the emotional space is set up,” Elizabeth said. 

After recording these interactions, Elizabeth and her team spend hours transcribing the session and coding the words with their corresponding emotional responses. Since many of these children aren’t speaking in full sentences at this time in their life, Elizabeth sends surveys to teachers to measure their emotional responses or completes tasks with the children such as pointing out what different emotions look like. Elizabeth made sure to point out that these methods are imperfect, surveys such as these always have concerns with biases, both from the creators and the people filling out the survey.

Elizabeth began her work in this field over a decade ago when pursuing her undergraduate degree in psychology. She began by working in a research lab as an undergraduate research assistant studying how mothers discuss mental states, such as feelings, with their children. In this position, she coded the transcriptions and fostered a deeper understanding of the language surrounding emotions and mental states. 

“That’s what jump-started my understanding about how important this language is to navigate these internal thoughts that can be really confusing for both children and adults,” Elizabeth said. 

She pulled together her research in the lab and paired it with her courses on early childhood development and began to question if people were studying the emotional language in these settings, not just with adults. 

“I wanted to look not just at the home, but every context that a child is engaged in, because every context matters for their development,” Elizabeth said. 

Utilizing Diverse Perspectives in Research

In high school, Elizabeth said she was interested in pursuing psychology because she wanted to learn more about why humans behave the way they do. In a developmental psychology course, Elizabeth realized that a way to begin to understand this is to study behaviors early, with childhood psychology. Thinking back, she says this motivation to study psychology was rooted in her lens of the world which is impacted by her whiteness and privilege. 

“I still agree with that to a point, if we do want to change the world and want more actively engaged citizens we need to start talking about these things with young children,” Elizabeth said. “But I still think this thought process was coming from a place of what I wanted to change in the world, which is problematic.”

After taking more courses in developmental and family studies, Elizabeth learned more about the contextual aspects that impact how a child grows, such as race, gender, and systems of oppression. Through these courses, she began to look at her studies on less of an individual level and pay greater attention to the impacts that racism and other factors have on development as a whole. Her understanding of the interactions between development and sociohistorical factors only deepened through her coursework in her master’s and Ph.D. programs. 

“I had the opportunity to take a variety of classes on racism and classism which helped me understand my position and biases in the work that I was doing with this research,” Elizabeth said. 

These courses also helped mold the reasons that she was passionate about this work from when she started in high school and undergraduate studies. 

“Originally, I wanted to support children and help create a more just and equitable world, without fully understanding what that meant,” Elizabeth said. “Those foundational things still motivate me, but now in the space that I hold in my institution I’m less focused on changing what I think should change in the world and now focused on becoming more engaged with my community.” 

A majority of the research in child development is being done by white researchers, on white middle-class families, and impacted by white policymakers. 

“This field is going to fail if we are continually perpetuating whiteness in the research methods we use because we are leaving out almost everybody with this strategy,” Elizabeth said. “Childcare work is often done by Black and Indigenous people of color, but they aren’t the ones coming in to do the research, often because of institutional barriers to getting involved in research.”

Elizabeth suggests that creating more of a bridge between people that do research and people that work in childcare would help start to make this field more realistic of what’s actually happening in the world.

“It’s been my goal to create a partnership with early childhood educators in Springfield,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t want it to be one-sided communication, I want to communicate and work with a variety of different programs in Missouri.”

At many institutions across America, psychologists, faculty, and researchers are continually trying to improve their work on anti-oppressive efforts while also engaging the community. Elizabeth stresses the importance of involving everyone in science and research efforts, particularly in her field. 

“Somebody took a chance on me in inviting me into this space to do research,” Elizabeth said. “Then I realized I can actually do research, research always felt to me that something white men in a lab coat did.” 

Continuing to Ask Questions

Much of Elizabeth’s past work has been focused on teacher compensation and the emotional language of teachers in the classroom setting. 

“From here on out, I can’t have a study where I’m not situating how teachers behave in a classroom within the system of teachers not being adequately compensated,” Elizabeth said.

In the future, she hopes to continue to showcase how teachers’ concerns about their financial wellbeing impact their ability to teach and help children develop in the classroom. 

“Every time I do anything with research at all, I’m left with more questions than answers,” Elizabeth said. “There’s always a pressure to get it perfect the first time, but I view research as a continuous process to take a more critical lens on things each time.”

Soon, Elizabeth will begin a study on the emotional language of teachers, specifically how teachers socialize emotions. This research will take a broader view of how internal biases impact teacher behavior and the potential negative impacts on the development of young children. 

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