Unpacking Well-being – What Does the Early Childhood Research Say?
It is often tempting to think about well-being as an individual pursuit and an individual responsibility. However, contemporary research around well-being in early childhood is showing well-being to be much more nuanced than a singular individual responsibility. Contextual, relational, systemic and discursive influences all play a role in supporting well-being in early childhood (Cumming, 2016). Understanding this dynamic interplay of factors is vital for responses that support educators’ well-being in authentic ways.
To fully support educator well-being a shared understanding of what well-being is needs to occur. The concept of well-being has different perspectives applied to it depending on what theoretical framework and lens you bring to it, and the understanding of wellbeing differs from discipline to discipline (Gillett-Swan & Sargeant, 2015). The reality is, what discipline you draw the research from, will shape what perspective you look through!
Different lenses of well-being can be observed in philosophical perspectives on well-being such as the concept of living well that originated with ancient Greek philosophies. Some of these perspectives highlight individuals working towards optimal function and self-actualisation (Dagenais – Desmarais & Savoie, 2011), contribution to society and ethical ways of living (Estola et
al., 2014; Ryan & Deci, 2001). However, these perspectives have also been critiqued as not paying enough attention to social justice principles, concepts of opportunity and of privilege (Cumming & Wong, 2019). Eastern philosophies also encompass philosophical perspectives on well-being including the path to well-being being related to heightened wisdom and emotional capacity.
In recent times, we have seen in society a growth in the combination of eastern and western perspectives, for example the use of meditation as a tool in well-being practices (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
Like many topics in early childhood, there is complexity around the topic of well-being. This complexity is something to engage with, and not shy away from. Our understanding and awareness grows as we engage in unpacking complexity. Luckily for us, as a significant contribution to the field of early childhood around wellbeing, Cumming and Wong (2019) have articulated a
definition of early childhood educators’ work related well-being that we can use to support our shared understanding.
Early childhood educators’ work related wellbeing definition (Cumming & Wong, 2019)
A dynamic state, involving the interaction of individual, relational, work -environmental, and sociocultural political aspects and contexts. Educators’ well-being is the responsibility of the individual and the agents of their contexts, requiring ongoing direct and indirect supports, across psychological, physiological and ethical dimensions (p.,276).
This definition offers us a place to critically reflect on wellbeing and continue to build our shared language and understanding of well-being in our teams. Where do our ideas about well-being come from? How as a team can we ensure our work environment supports individuals to engage with their own well-being as an important concept, and to ensure that our work environments and
relationships support well-being? What theories and perspectives are we drawing on to frame well-being? What are the ethical dimensions of well-being?
A shared language around well-being is important to ensuring authentic conversations are occurring around well-being. By digging deep into this topic, colleagues can support each other to navigate what is complex and challenging work, and to recognise actions that can be taken to increase the well-being of educators. To be impactful, this needs to be a shared conversation and be supported by ongoing critical reflection.
Another reflection point for your teams around educator well-being might be the invisibility of educator well-being in the National Quality Standards. In the descriptors of the National Quality Standards, Quality Areas 1, 2 and 6 mention well-being in the context of outcomes for children and to support families in relation to their child’s well-being. However, educator well-being is not
addressed across the NQS descriptors. Something to ponder as a team…
Written by Dr Amanda McFadden
Research & Evaluation Lead, Lady Gowrie Qld.