28 August 2022

UC researchers join with Communities at Work to improve early childhood workforce wellbeing

| Dione David
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Children play in a sandbox

Happy educators, happy children – but research has shown staff need to fill their own cups before they can give our kids their best. Photo: Tyler Cherry.

Communities at Work has partnered with researchers from the University of Canberra (UC) Faculty of Education to address wellbeing concerns among its early childhood education professionals.

UC researchers Associate Professor Thomas Nielsen and Dr Jennifer Ma found higher reported levels of psychological distress by early childhood educators compared to the general population.

They drew on insights from their research to design and deliver a tailored, evidence-based professional learning approach known as the ‘Curriculum of Giving’, which prioritises the experiences and needs of educators and children under their care.

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“It’s based on the knowledge we gained from our research showing meaningful happiness is so much more important than the experience of pleasurable happiness alone,” Assoc Prof Nielsen said.

“Pleasurable happiness is a wonderful aspect of life, but does not contribute in the same ways to our resilience in the face of trauma, stress and adversity.

“Determining what is meaningful is complex because it can be many things to many people, but there’s a common denominator for what people say is meaningful in their lives all over the world, across cultures and religions – and that’s being something to someone or something other than yourself. In other words: giving.

“The other side of the equation we need to understand is that we have a threshold where the benefits of meaningful happiness run out when we’re burned out from giving. We need to look after ourselves in order to have a surplus to give to others.”

Assoc Prof Nielsen has delivered the Curriculum of Giving framework to more than 35 schools and educational settings over the past 10 years in the ACT and beyond.

Communities at Work, Canberra’s largest provider of children’s services, has signed up 12 of its centres to participate in the project.

Two people speaking

University of Canberra researchers Dr Thomas Nielsen and Dr Jennifer Ma address staff at Taylor Child Care and Education Centre in Kambah, one of 12 Communities at Work centres to participate in the Curriculum of Giving program. Photo: Tyler Cherry.

Dr Ma said the project looked at the ecology of giving, beginning with ensuring one’s own cup was full before giving to others, then surrounding communities, then the environment and finally, what is called “the whole”, which refers to the “mytho-poetic” part of our lives, whatever a person’s ideology.

“Where the curriculum part comes into that is we work with educators using this ecology of giving framework and other evidence-based strategies to ask them, ‘what are the wellbeing practices for yourself and your students that fit under each of these dimensions, where are the gaps and what can be done better in relation to what you’d like to see happen?’,” she said.

“What we’re talking about is important for all people, but we already know early childhood is such a critical stage for laying foundations, and we also know to have well students, we have to have well educators and carers.”

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Assoc Prof Nielsen said data collected from 108 participants working in Communities at Work early childhood contexts “confirmed a lot of the things that we already knew from educational settings around Australia — there are high levels of compromised wellbeing of educators, which relate to ongoing systemic challenges that have been amplified by COVID-19”.

Three people standing side by side

Dr Ma and Dr Nielsen with Communities at Work director of Children’s Services Kellie Stewart. Photo: Tyler Cherry.

Communities at Work director of Children’s Services Kellie Stewart said she was hopeful the partnership would boost staff wellbeing following a difficult period in early childhood contexts.

“We know our early childhood professionals are extremely passionate, and each day go above and beyond in the work they do,” she said.

“But COVID and workplace shortages have created extreme stresses that are taking a toll on their wellbeing.

“We want our staff to feel connected, supported and happy in their job and we hope that, through the partnership, we can provide the support they need to thrive long-term.

“We’re also excited that this could potentially be used as a case study to make a meaningful difference to educators across Australia.”

It’s hoped that collaborative research and professional learning will empower educators and, in turn, promote more positive, long-term wellbeing outcomes in the early childhood community across the ACT.

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The main problem with ECEC education is that it’s too full of academic ********, just like that represented above, e.g. “the ecology of giving, beginning with ensuring one’s own cup was full before giving to others, then surrounding communities, then the environment and finally, what is called “the whole”, which refers to the “mytho-poetic” part of our lives, whatever a person’s ideology”. Give me a break!

The curriculum is so full of incomprehensible waffle and junk language that it is almost impossible to work out what it is actually saying. When it is that unintelligible, the curriculum is open to interpretation and misinterpretation.

For people with limited education, or when English is a second language, this thicket of unnecessarily long and complex words is a huge barrier to understanding basic ECEC principles.

For example, supporting children is known as “scaffolding”, activities are now “provocations”. This bastardisation of the English language, and this academic wankery, is itself the biggest barrier to effective ECEC.

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