Preschoolers from South Australia were part of a PhD project which identified that healthy relationships during preschool have a strong link to mental health and the way children engage in learning.

Previous early childhood research has examined relationships in preschools but has never examined the notion that relationships benefit engagement in learning because of their positive effects on mental health.

PhD student from the University of Adelaide, Amelia Searle, pictured, says the results validate what teachers have always known intuitively.

‘‘Teachers have known for a long time that building good relationships with children is central to their school success and the research does show that, but we were really looking at exactly how it all plays out – the pathways that are involved,’’ she said.

‘‘The relationships with their teachers and their parents which we found built children’s self esteem and their feelings of competence led to improved mental health and improved engagement in classroom learning activities.’’

This project was part of a larger, longitudinal study called the Healthy Minds Healthy Futures Child Resilience Project, which followed nearly 600 children for three years from preschool to Year One.

Led by Dr Lauren Miller- Lewis, the Healthy Minds project focuses on identifying factors that build children’s mental health resilience. The PhD study focused on children’s engagement in classroom learning activities during reception.

The study used observation methods in the schools, data collection via questionaires from parents and staff. Ms Searle said many of the preschool teachers reported on the importance of building up, developing and supporting close relationships with children.

‘‘It’s something that perhaps is easier to do in a preschool setting given that the ratio between children and teachers is
much lower than in schools.

‘‘The earlier that we help children out and we build on their strengths – the better the start to school we can give them.’’

The research was presented at the 14th European Conference on Developmental Psychology in Lithuania and the 16th Biennial Conference of the Australasian Human Development Association in Adelaide.

Ms Searle said traditional research focussed on ‘‘deficits and problems’’ but her research is based on resources such as teacher, child and parent relationships which can improve
the school experience. Twentyseven preschools and 85 schools across the country took part.

The project was supported by the Department of Education and Children’s Services, Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Rotary Health and the University of Adelaide.


Christies North Kindergarten director Tania Liston
working with preschoolers

Christies North Kindy Preschool director Tania Liston couldn’t be happier with the findings from the PhD research.
She says a strong relationship between the teacher, children and parents must be built on trust for any learning to occur.

‘‘It is something that early childhood educators have always been a part of, but I think that the profile of learner wellbeing and the relationships that teachers have with their children has definitely become more of a focus,’’ she said.

‘‘The fact that our preschool has been involved with the Healthy Minds, Healthy Futures research team into wellbeing has meant it has been at the forefront of our curriculum focus. The first thing that we work toward is making a connection with families so once we have that, then all of the learning is built on top of that.’’

Ms Liston said it is important for the children to have a connection with their teacher before they begin to connect with other students.

‘‘We’ve actually seen the progress it has made as far as you make those connections and you take the time to focus on the learner well-being, and the learning comes.

‘‘The way they engage in their environment is so different to when they feel like they are disconnected or if they feel like that they’re not at ease or comfortable in the kindy environment.’’

Story source: The Advertiser (23/2/2010)
Journalist: Martina Simos
Photos: Michael Marschall

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