Paper Review: Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments

Chilver-Stainer, C., Gasser, L., & Perrig-Chiello, P. (2014). Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments, Journal of Moral Education, 43, 3, 235-249, DOI:10.1080/03057240.2014.913515

Browsing Research Gate earlier this week, in the name of “constructive procrastination” (read: putting off re-analyzing some data for a little while longer), I discovered the above paper. One key criticism of my group-based emotion and social exclusion research is that it is very experimental (the groups in my studies are contrived by me, and don’t ever interact with one another for the sake of experimental control), and I am keen to look at what goes on when researchers test actual, real-life groups, so this one was worth following up.

So what happened here? Well, the researchers looked at how  215 Swiss 10-, 12- and 15-year-olds attending mainstream school felt about, and judged, the social exclusion of peers with hearing impairments.This sample is worthy of comment before I describe the study. It is said in the paper that there were a number of children with hearing impairment in the children’s class – yet (while these children’s parental approval of the study was sought) these children did not participate. This struck me, because I am asked by our ethics board to include all children in my research on disability and inclusion (and have tested those with disabilities) – and even if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t want to exclude children with disabilities. Rather, even if numerically less significant, the qualitative responses of children with hearing impairment to these scenarios would have been interesting. This is another case where half the research design is apparently missing.

Moving on. Scenarios of social exclusion in different contexts were shown to the children.  There were four different scenarios, where a hearing child and a child with hearing impairment wanted to join an activity, but unfortunately, there was only room left for one more child. The protagonist decided to pick the hearing child in doing so excluded the child with hearing impairment.  (Note: the constant exclusion of the child with hearing impairment means that we cannot be sure that later measures relate to exclusion based on disability per se, as we have nothing to compare it to). The scenarios described either (a) a group of children preparing a presentation (b) a child doing oral homework, (c) a birthday party or (d) talking with a child about shared interests. The activities always involved oral communication. Nevertheless, participants were told that the hearing child and the child with hearing impairment were equally qualified for the activity. The contextual variables here were school versus home, and group versus dyadic interaction.

Next, participants were asked what emotions the protagonist might feel with respect to the exclusion, and how they judged their behaviour. So the two questions were: ‘How do you think Erwin [the excluder] will feel? Why?’. Participants could select one or two of the following emotions: proud, happy, sad, neutral, angry, fearful, guilty, ashamed or empathetic, and ‘What do you think? Is it good or bad that Oliver chose Rolf [the hearing child]? Why?’. There are several things to say about these two questions, even though they are derived from previous research (just because everyone else is doing it….).

Firstly, the first question is forced choice. Children were asked to select one or two emotions. This limits their responses: one could quite easily imagine a situation where a child might feel guilty and sad about having to exclude the child – as well as feeling fearful of the repercussions, and angry that they had to choose in the first place. Rather then, emotions could have been measured on Likert-type scales – ‘To what extent does X feel?’.. This would allow for neutral judgments of some emotions, whilst allowing children to indicate the ones they would expect the excluder to feel most strongly (leading to a more sensitive index). Furthermore, in later analysis, emotions were classified as moral (sad, guilty, ashamed, empathetic) or amoral (proud, happy, neutral, angry, fearful). In the adult emotion literature I am aware of pride and anger are very much moral emotions (cf. Saab, Tausch, Spears, & Cheung, 2014Tangney,  Stuewig & Mashek, 2007).

Secondly, the  question, about moral judgements. One could argue that this is a leading question – is it good or bad? Some actions might be morally neutral. Yet this is not, apparently, an option. One also wonders what children might be led to say, on the basis of having a teacher in the classroom (neutral territory?), supervising the research. This question is highly susceptible to the problem of social desirability bias (for this group of children at least: of course it’s wrong!) and also to audience effects. Who are the children responding to? The teacher? The school? The researcher? Other children? As research shows, who you tell participants will see your answers, makes a dramatic difference to what they report (e.g., Rutland, Cameron, Milne, & McGeorge, 2005). Moreover, classes differ in their inclusivity norms (cf. Glasser et al., 2013) and this point of reference would be worthy of future study.

Finally, participants inclusive behaviour was assessed through  peer nomination of those in the class who “let other children participate”. This was a good idea. Having peer nominations as well as self-report reduces shared method variance, and gives a different perspective from the child’s own on how inclusive they are. The inclusive behaviour measure also brings these researchers closer to measuring actual behaviour than most of the scenario-based literature in this field. Unfortunately, participants were then split into not-inclusive or inclusive, based on the mean scores given from this task (rather than absolute scores, as used in a lot of the bullying literature) to ensure that some children fell into each category. I would argue that retaining the continuous nature of the initial variable would have led to a richer pattern of results.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children's books.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children’s books. Image from: http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/sites/artsprofessional.co.uk/files/legacy/AP_186_08.jpg

Another potential strength of this study is its mixed method approach. As you will have noted from above, the authors asked ‘why’ a character might feel that way, and ‘why’ the children felt that way about him or her. Unfortunately, as the authors note, the increasingly elaborate answers with children’s age likely reflects their writing, rather than their reasoning ability. Nevertheless, it was found, in line with prior research that reasoning correlated with emotion, was particularly astute among more inclusive children, and fell into one of two categories; moral reasons for feeling bad following exclusion (e.g., equal rights for all), social-functioning reasons for exclusion (e.g., he would slow the group down). Examples of negative moral reasoning (it was the most efficient thing to do) and positive social-function reasoning (he would have added something new to the group) were not given in the paper. If this dichotomy exists (if children did justify exclusion on moral grounds, or encourage inclusion on social-functioning grounds) a four-way split of the data would have been interesting to examine.

It is perhaps the latter of these categories (social-function reasoning for exclusion) that demands further exploration, since it reflects children’s beliefs about when exclusion is OK. As noted above, the scenarios cited the oral nature of the interaction – which children with a hearing impairment might find challenging. Given that children were told they could equally cope with the task, if one took the stance that it is never OK to exclude someone with a hearing impairment, then modifying these beliefs associated with this kind of interaction would be a key focus for intervention. Again, however, another element of the research design is lacking. Research shows that children misperceive disabilities such that impairment “spreads” (eg., Abrams et al., 1990). So, for example, in my research, children have said that a child in a wheelchair because she is unable to walk wouldn’t be able to play a musical instrument. Thus, measuring children’s exclusion justifications where a child with a hearing impairment was excluded in a non-oral interaction would be worth looking at.

It would also be interesting to take further advantage of the open-ended questioning to look at ways in which children think about overcoming the exclusion (e.g., how could you include X in the group?). I present children with a “winning ticket” scenario (the child has four tickets, and four friends) similar to the group-leisure scenario above. We discuss in groups how the friend left without a ticket might feel, and what can be done to mend those feelings. And the children come up with very creative ways of sorting things out, even when I emphasise the fact that there are only four tickets to be had. Examining children’s strategies for dealing with unfair exclusion, in order to enhance these would also be worthy of future research.

Bringing this together then, this study looked at hearing children’s responses to the reported forced-choice exclusion of a child with a hearing impairment from either a leisure or school, group or dyadic interaction, as given in a scenario. Additionally, and unlike previous research, children’s actual inclusion behaviour was also examined. And the evidence showed that moral emotions were linked to moral justifications in a similar way to prior research, with inclusive children being more in tune with this. However, this is a piece of a much larger jigsaw. We must now ask many questions: how do reasons differ for positive versus negative emotions? What audience are the children responding to? What do child with a hearing impairment think? Does the nature of the interaction matter? And what happens afterwards? Exclusion isn’t the end of the story.

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