Research in Psychology

Behavioral Expression of Anger in Preschoolers


by Sophia Baxendale

Over the summer and into the fall, I worked with Dr. Locke-Arkerson to learn to code facial, bodily, and vocal expressions of context-appropriate and inappropriate anger in preschoolers. I was awarded a summer research award for 2020 by the Office of Undergraduate Research, funded by the College of Arts and Sciences. The opportunity to work one-on-one with Dr. Locke-Arkerson has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn more about behavioral data and research with children. Learning how to code and working with Dr. Arkerson has fostered confidence in my ability to learn different aspects of research, and I look forward to continuing to code this sample to learn more about emotional expression in different contexts.


Anger regulation involves the modification of emotional responses to situational changes (Thompson, 1994). Until now, research on anger expression has been limited to identifying children who show more anger than others in appropriate contexts (e.g., delay of gratification, blocked goals; Brooker et al., 2014; Cole et al., 2011; Gilliom et al., 2002). However, Dr. Locke-Arkerson has also measured anger during threatening and positive situations (context-inappropriate “CI anger”) (Locke et al., 2009; Locke et al., 2015). CI anger has been found to increase the risk of externalizing behavior and peer rejection (Locke & Lang, 2016; Locke et al., 2017; Locke et al., 2015). CI anger uniquely predicts these outcomes above and beyond CA anger. It also differs from the way anger has historically been studied, as its correlation with CA anger is only moderate. Dr. Locke-Arkerson’s research utilizes a novel approach to understanding emotional responses by studying them in distinct contexts to determine which children are unable to regulate anger responses in adaptive and acceptable ways.

The collection of behavioral data in research conducted with children has use beyond what is possible to collect from questionnaires. In order to translate collected behavioral data into ratings, a standardized and objective system of observation must be in place. The individuals rating of behaviors (“coding”) must reach a level of agreement, or interrater reliability. Once reliable, the individual coders can rate behaviors independently and these ratings can be used quantitatively for statistical analysis.

The aim of this project was to learn and become reliable in coding facial, bodily, and vocal expressions of context-appropriate and inappropriate anger in preschoolers. This project met the goal of obtaining acceptable interrater reliability for assessing the level of facial, bodily, and vocal expressions of anger during emotion-eliciting episodes in preschool-age children. CI anger in prior studies focused on facial expressions of anger in response to affective pictures, slides, and videos (Locke et al., 2015), making the data coded in this project unique.



Participants included 69 four-to-five-year-old children from preschools local to UMass Dartmouth.


Data used for this project was collected for a larger study exploring emotional and biological measures associated with behavior problems in children. For this project, I was trained on how to code expressions of anger during an anger-eliciting episode. Training on the coding of behavioral data required regular remote meetings and practice sessions with the master coder, Dr. Locke-Arkerson. Prior to training, Dr. Locke-Arkerson developed our training manual for the anger episode. I also filled out the coding sheets with the begin and end times of the episode for each individual subject. Dr. Locke-Arkerson reviewed the episode-specific manual and the System for Identifying Affect Expressions by Holistic Judgments coding system (AFFEX; Izard, Dougherty, & Hembree, 1989) manual with a graduate student, Samantha Clark, and myself. We were then assigned practice cases to code independently, and to discuss together. Samantha and I met several times to compare our codes, and then brought our discrepancies to Dr. Locke-

Arkerson. We reviewed the discrepancies as a group and worked together to determine our sensitivity level to minute expressions of anger. This training process took approximately 127 hours, which was followed by reliability coding, in which I was assigned cases to code independently for all four variables. My codes were compared to the Master Codes created by Dr. Locke-Arkerson and were reviewed to understand where we disagreed. Through the training and reliability process, Dr. Locke-Arkerson and I were able to completely code 24 participants and partially code 17 more for the anger-eliciting episode.


Context-Appropriate and Inappropriate Anger. Children were videotaped during episodes of the Laboratory Assessment Battery (LabTAB; Goldsmith et al., 1999), which were used to assess appropriate and inappropriate anger in distinct contexts (positive, threatening, frustrating).

Anger episode. The anger episode that was used for reliability training was the I’m Not Sharing game. During the I’m Not Sharing game, the experimenter shares candy with the child and will give themselves more candy than the child. In the end, the experimenter gives the child two pieces of candy.

Behavioral scoring. Coders rated anger facial, bodily, and vocal expressions during the episode using the LabTAB and Affex coding systems.

Pictured: A child playing I’m Not Sharing game.


Dr. Locke-Arkerson assigned me reliability coding for the different variables after an intensive training period. Agreement between my codes and the master codes were determined through a calculation of hits and misses for each variable: presence for vocalizations and bodily resistance, intensity for bodily and facial expressions of anger. The minimum Cohen’s Kappa score to be reliable was .7, or approximately 90% agreement with the Master codes. I was assigned 10 cases for each variable until I was reliable according to the calculated Cohen’s Kappa. I required 10 cases to reach a Cohen’s Kappa of .7 for bodily resistance, or instances where the child attempted to stop the episode. I required 21 cases to reach a Cohen’s Kappa of .7 for vocalizations of anger. I required 20 cases to reach a Cohen’s Kappa of .74 for bodily expressions of anger. I required 20 cases to reach a Cohen’s Kappa of .73 for facial expressions of anger. This means that I will be able to code reliably for the rest of the episode and other episodes moving forward to produce qualitative data that can be used quantitatively for data analysis to address study hypotheses. The coding completed through training and reliability amounted to around 60% of the total data set being at least partially coded for the I’m Not Sharing episode.


Over the course of this project, I accomplished my goal of becoming a reliable coder and leading to the near completion of coding all participants for the I’m Not Sharing anger-eliciting episode. With Dr. Locke-Arkerson’s commitment to this project and my training, I was able to learn how to code and become reliable. Given that we were unable to meet in person, my training required modifications to be the most effective for a remote modality. This meant meeting with Dr. Locke-Arkerson several times a week for up to three hours at a time to make sure that we were identifying the same behaviors as anger. The process of learning such a skill was exciting, as it enhanced my working relationship with Dr. Locke-Arkerson and allowed me to see a side of research that I had misunderstood in an academic setting previously. I did not understand the value of behavioral data, as I believed it to be too subjective. After going through such an intense and rigorous training process, I now have a better understanding of how behavioral data can be quantified. It was also exciting to be able to identify slight tells of anger in children, something I was not able to pick up explicitly when I helped administer the episodes prior to the pandemic. While I may have been able to sense frustration, I was not able to identify specific incidences of anger prior to watching the episode as a trained coder with an understanding of slight expressions of anger, especially in the body and face.

I anticipate being able to complete coding of our sample for I’m Not Sharing soon, to be followed by positive and non-social fear episodes. The positive episodes that may be coded include the Surprise! and Popping Bubbles episodes. The non-social fear episode that will be coded is the Scary Mask episode. I am excited to see how our sample expresses anger in contexts that would not be considered appropriate, allowing for more questions to be asked. The completion of coding will allow Dr. Locke-Arkerson and her lab to use the data to enhance the literature on child behavioral and emotional expression, as well as assisting findings in Dr. Locke-Arkerson’s ongoing study. This data will become a resource for myself and future research assistants to use for poster presentations and manuscripts. Specific analyses that this data set can be used for include assessment of the association between behavioral measures and a parent-report measure of CI anger (Locke & Lang, 2016). This data set may also be used to supplement an ongoing manuscript that Dr. Locke-Arkerson, Samantha Clark, and I are working on regarding children who withdraw.

Learning how to code and becoming reliable is a skill has been invaluable to my understanding of hands-on data processing and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to build on my research experience. It has been rewarding to gain perspective from both data collection and coding that I have had the opportunity to be a part of in Dr. Locke-Arkerson’s Child Emotion Lab. Thank you to the Office of Undergraduate Research and the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Dean Entin for expressing interest in this project and awarding me the funds to pursue it. The time invested in this project has and will continue to propel progress in our lab and the research program. Thank you to Dr. Locke-Arkerson for committing to this project and taking the time to strengthen my confidence in attention to detail.


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