Michael Costa (Psychology ’14), spent the last two years listening to, researching and analyzing children’s whining. At the heart of his efforts was a desire to understand a very common (and admittedly, annoying) behavior which has garnered very little scholarly attention.
A talk by scholar Rosemarie Sokol Chang as part of the Evolutionary Studies Speaker Series two years ago prompted Costa to begin his research. Sokol Chang suggested that whining might be an attachment behavior, similar to motherese, a type of infant-directed speech, but offered no supporting evidence.
Costa approached his Research Methods professor, Alison Nash, with the idea of an independent study on whining, which became his spring 2014 Honors Program thesis.
Honors Program Director Patricia Sullivan said projects such as Costa’s showcase the independent thinking and active intellectual engagement central to the Honors Program mission. “Ideally, somebody would get a seed in a course that they’ve taken, and work with a faculty member, and that seed would develop over time into something much larger,” she said.
The research project held particular appeal for Costa, who has worked with children since age 17, in both pre-school and summer program settings, and who is particularly interested in child development. In the independent studies with Nash (done in collaboration with fellow Psychology students Amanda Lane and Sarah Rodriguez), Costa immersed himself in the published research on whining. Most of the research primarily focused on whining’s acoustic properties, and not the behavior itself.
Costa developed a hypothesis and worked closely with Nash to prepare for observations at an area pre-school. He observed children between the ages of two and five interacting with familiar teachers, less familiar assistants, and familiar peers. The research took place over an eight-week period, with observations lasting between 45 and 60 minutes.
Using a 10-column chart that he developed with Nash, Costa recorded, among other data, the objects of the students’ whines, the duration, initiating event, response, and whether or not whining ended the interaction between child and adult.
The study yielded several interesting findings. Costa found that children whined significantly more to very familiar teachers than to less familiar assistants and peers, which supported an attachment claim. Whining also led to continued interactions, even when children did not get their way. The findings supported Costa’s hypothesis that whining may serve as a way to modulate young children’s emotions and help them forge close relationships.
Costa described his work as only an “exploratory study,” and suggested areas for future research, including a comparison of the ways in which teaching styles and strategies may minimize, or even prolong, whining episodes. During his research, Costa noticed that adults who addressed the emotional need at the center of students’ whining shortened the episode, whereas adults who simply told children to stop whining often intensified it.
Costa, who has been accepted into the Psychology graduate program at St. John’s University in Queens, said his time at New Paltz–and his advanced research on whining in particular–prepared him for his graduate school interviews. “As researchers, they’re very interested in what you’re working on. The study was a real strength in applying for graduate school,” he said.
His future plans include working in an elementary school setting as a psychiatrist or in an early childcare center for children with behavior problems. “Children at a younger age need someone to advocate for them more than older children,” he said.
– Despina Williams