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Researchers investigate children’s ability to read body language

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Posted May 16, 2013

Children who have difficulty reading faces and body language in social situations are the focus of an ongoing psychology study at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus.

Tara Kocek, a PhD candidate, and her supervisors Dr James Donnelly, from the School of Health and Human Sciences, and the School of Education’s Dr Tony Yeigh are investigating high level, executive brain functions in children and their relationship to social and emotional information processing.

Dr Donnelly said the human brain was typically able to process a lot of information quickly before making a decision to act in a certain way.

“For example, when a person is reading someone’s face they unconsciously look at the expression in the eyes, in the mouth, body postures, and maybe the tone of voice, all at the same time. The brain quickly integrates that information so a person can function effectively in a social situation.

“However, some children who function well in most domains, have a specific problem in reading subtle social cues and may feel confused, withdraw socially or even act out if they misperceive what is happening.

“These children can fall through the cracks or get into repeated hassles at school as they struggle to manage social challenges.”

Dr Donnelly said difficulties in these areas were well-established in children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders and those who had suffered brain injuries.

“But there is a lack of research into children who excel at reading social situations or the emotions in the faces of others.”

The work done so far by Mrs Kocek, Dr Donnelly and Dr Yeigh has led to the first Australian normative data on measures typically used to assess high level brain functions in children. They have also begun to test links between measures of social information processing and reports from parents about their child’s abilities and mood.

The study is seeking a larger, more diverse group of children, including those who may have already been identified by teachers or parents as having some difficulties in the school setting. The researchers hope to not only identify what early patterns in perceiving and thinking might underlie difficulties but also help develop early interventions that improve social functioning.

“Reports from parents and children have been uniformly positive but we do need more families to participate,” said Mrs Kocek.

“We have already been working with support services at some schools so we can contact parents who may be interested, but we would also like to include children from the community whose parents may have concerns about their child’s behaviour or emotions at home or in school.”

Source: Southern Cross University

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