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UA researching new intervention program to help with children’s emotional awareness


The University of Alabama is studying a new intervention program for children who have difficulties recognizing others’ emotions. The Center for Youth Development and Intervention at UA is conducting research on the effect of Facial Affect Sensitivity Training, or FAST, for children. This intervention was developed for youngsters who have difficulties recognizing and reading facial expressions.

Dr. Bradley White, UA associate psychology professor, said he developed the FAST intervention to give kids a better chance of success in their social environments.

UA Center for Youth Development and Intervention

“Our expressions convey our emotions, which then influences our social interactions,” he explained. “So, in other words, since our success depends upon our ability to navigate our social worlds, being able to recognize others’ emotional expressions, as how they're feeling is really crucial for a child's ability to function well in their social interactions with others, and that can be with family members, with peers at school and so on.”

White is the principal investigator of this study, working alongside project coordinator and clinical psychologist, Dr. Nicole Powell, as well as several other psychologists and co-investigators.

UA Center for Youth Development and Intervention

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports parents, at some point, expect their kids to manage their emotions. However, some kids struggle with understanding emotions, therefore, they do not know how to regulate their own.

According to the APA, one measure parents can take to improve their kids’ emotional recognition is to start teaching them about feelings, even still as babies. This can include pointing out when movie or TV characters experience emotions such as sadness, anger or happiness. Another tool is teaching kids to understand and identify their own emotions: when they are happy, sad, angry, etc.

“The sorts of difficulties we found can interfere with children’s social development and put them at risk for more serious behavior problems later, such as aggression and rule breaking,” said White. “So, to address these issues, we've developed a computer-based intervention, this FAST training, that targets certain difficulties these children often show, such as difficulty attending to and recognizing other’s feelings.”

Just as understanding emotions is crucial to children’s success in their social environments, The Frontiers in Psychology also reports, “Recognizing the emotions of other people through their facial expression is important in human relationships. It is an essential ability in interpersonal interactions, since it allows us to behave properly in different social contexts, is an important aspect of interpersonal communication, and is crucial in regulating the behavior of others.”

The FAST clinical trial, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, is underway and currently in phase two of the process, according to White. In phase one of the study, researchers were attempting to discover whether there was a change in the way children react to faces they see and if that influenced their ability to recognize and identify emotions.

Researchers used a technique called eye tracking to determine where a child is focused while looking at certain faces. White said the main finding from phase one is that children who received the FAST intervention improved in their ability to recognize facial expressions.

“We're currently conducting the second phase of this study to see if we can replicate those findings. What we're hoping is that as this intervention works, then we can provide this intervention pretty widely,” White explained. “It's a computer-based intervention. So, it doesn't take a lot of resources, and it's something that could be easily distributed more broadly in the community. But first, we have to make sure that it really works and see if it needs to be tweaked at all, and if there's ways that it might be combined with other forms of more established treatments for children.”

White explained that the FAST intervention is computer-based and works much like a video game for the kids to play. They see facial expressions conveying different emotions on the computer screen with the eye tracking technology, and they earn points towards prizes if they choose the correct response.

White said the study consists of a five-week intervention that children participate in twice weekly on UA’s campus, either receiving the FAST intervention or in a control group. Researchers then follow up with those children after three months.

“Our hope is that this gives us another way of helping to address some of these emotional behavioral concerns that arise in children right now, for children that have these sorts of difficulties,” he explained. “They don't always respond as well to even some of our best current interventions, such as improving our approaches to parenting, for instance, and the way we manage children's behavior. So, we're hoping that this will give us a new way of trying to help these children that struggle with some of our more traditional approaches to say therapy, and medication and such.”

The program is currently enrolling participants, boys and girls ages six to eleven. White explained that they are looking for families in which guardians may have concerns about the child’s behavior patterns and emotional awareness.

Parents can find out if their child is eligible and apply to participate by contacting Dr. Powell at 205-348-3535 or by emailing

Caregivers of participants will receive compensation, and they will also receive compensation to keep for the children.

More information on this study can be found here.

Gracie Powell is a student intern at Alabama Public Radio. She is from the small city of Thomasville, AL, planning to graduate from The University of Alabama in May 2026. She is studying Public Relations with a minor study in General Business. In her free time, Gracie loves to listen to music, watch TV and spend time with friends and family.
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