Why do some kindergartners find it easy to focus and learn while others struggle? Young children with a keener understanding of emotion suffer fewer attention problems than children who possess less emotional intelligence, a new German study reveals.

Children with a more limited emotional vocabulary “often seem distracted,” Dr. Maria von Salisch, a professor of developmental psychology at Leuphana University, stated in a press release. “Their attention is occupied by the explanation of their own confusing emotional states, the negative emotions of their fellow human beings, and the regulation of their own resulting emotions.”

What factors facilitate or inhibit kindergartners in learning to master their attention? von Salisch and her colleagues asked themselves.

To find the answer, the research team worked with 261 children from 33 kindergartens in Lower Saxony. The study began with an evaluation of the children when they were about 5 years old, and then, after a 14-month interval, the researchers conducted a second survey. Each of these examinations measured each child's understanding of emotion, ability to regulate behavior, complex memory span, and language comprehension. The researchers noted sociodemographic background, sex, and language skills of each child. Meanwhile, preschool and kindergarten teachers also were asked to rate each child’s attentional abilities and problems.

The children who possessed a comprehensive knowledge of their own and others’ emotions during the first survey experienced fewer difficulties mastering their attention 14 months later (as compared to those with less knowledge of emotion).

Emotional intelligence, then, in addition to working memory and emotional inhibition — two aspects of executive function — contributed to each child's attentional abilities, the results reveal. Even after controlling for sex, socioeconomic status, and language skills, all well-known influences on a child’s capacity to focus, this conclusion held strong. Three skills, psychologists commonly say, constitute emotional intelligence: awareness of your own and others’ emotions; an ability to harness and apply emotion to thinking; and an ability to regulate your own and other emotions (for instance, cheering or calming another person, if necessary).

Emotional intelligence, the researchers conclude, should occupy a central role in future studies of childhood development and attentional disorders. As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about five percent of children have ADHD, though this figure may be too low by some calculations.

“The previously common assumption in research was that a deficit in executive function was especially crucial for the development of ADHD,” von Salisch said. “With our study we can now prove that, in addition to executive function, so too is emotion knowledge a key explanatory factor for the development of attention problems.” The heart, it would appear, impacts our ability to focus, to learn, and to grow as much as the brain.

Source: von Salisch M, Hänel M, Denham SA. Emotion Knowledge, Executive Functions and Changes in Attention Problems of Preschoolers. Kindheit und Entwicklung. 2015.