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Where kids do it tough, educators ease the strain

“Resilience is about how people respond when they’re facing stress,” stated Dr Amy Conley Wright, a member of the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong.

By this, she means resilience is the ability to deal with stress. For toddlers from disadvantaged backgrounds in New South Wales’ Illawarra region, the need for resilience is particularly pertinent.

That’s why she and her colleague, Toni Latham, studied how early childhood educators in this area fostered kids’ and their families’ inner strength. They presented their findings at last month’s Australian Institute of Family Studies conference.

The problems are certainly real

“Educators would talk about children who would arrive at the centre in their pyjamas, noticing they hadn’t been bathed for a few days whilst parents rushed out the door, to get to work on time or because they weren’t coping. These educators would bathe the children, wash their clothes, feed them, and attend to all their primary needs,” Latham described. “Educators certainly outlined to us that parents had indicators of [poor] mental health, children were exposed to violence in the home, [and] there was also a large use of drugs and alcohol from the parents.”

Then there were other external, parental factors that could erode children’s resilience. “The parents who participated in the study were … exposed to a number of risk factors; for example, poverty, unemployment and a lack of support,” Latham said. “Despite struggling to survive, they wanted the best for their children.”

Whose problem is it?

It is clear that the kids needed serious support, but why should educators have to bear this burden? Latham explained that they willingly adopted it. “Educators told us they want to get better at [it],” she said. Conley Wright added that they are involved by default, as “early childhood education and care is a mainstream service, which a majority of families in Australia access”.

Another reason: an overburdened child protection services system is unable to deal with what they would consider ‘mildly’ neglected children. “[It] is only going to [intervene] when it becomes serious and there is maltreatment,” Conley Wright advised. It’s up to teachers to fill this service gap, if they so choose.

In doing so, Conley Wright submitted that educators should consider a context wider than the child: it’s about building children and their families up, to provide long-lasting outcomes. Because it’s not just the kids who are suffering. Conley Wright explained that the reason for kids’ neglect is often that their parents are stressed, isolated, and struggling to meet even their own basic needs.

What’s a teacher to do?

Conley Wright proposed that, first up, in addition to serving children’s basic needs, educators should form secure attachments with them. She explained her rationale for this: “…A lot of children’s capacity to cope comes from receiving warm, consistent attention – what we call attuned parenting…” If they’re not getting this from their parents, teachers can provide it.

Another key strengthening measure is building kids’ cognitive resilience, by providing a “stimulating learning environment”, Latham offered. In other words, by developing kids’ intellect, teachers can boost their self-esteem, and therefore, their resilience.

The proof was in the feedback: Latham reported that, after implementing these measures, “educators would tell us the children were often happier with them than their own families”.

Helping can be a minefield

Building kids’ resilience is not without obstacles. Latham enumerated four main sticking points educators frequently encountered.

The first: reigning in aggressive kids or, in Latham’s words, “applying behaviour management strategies”. She elaborated: “…It was really consistent [among] the educators who participated in the study that the children were coping with their circumstances through aggressive and violent behaviours…there was lots of swearing.”

Next, educators found it difficult to control their antipathy toward neglectful parents. Latham recalled a particularly searing story: “One educator said to me, there was a dad that she knew was the local ice dealer, but she really liked him, and could see parts of him that had strength in his parenting, but she really wrestled with the fact that the kids would come in and use the scales in the home corner area and act out…measuring out drugs…”

Then, there was simple lack of knowledge about the social issues that underlie inadequate parenting. Latham evinced that “[educators] were very open about it, saying things like: ‘I’m not a drug and alcohol worker, I don’t know anything about this.’ ”

Finally, educators often found it tricky to co-ordinate with child protection services. Not only, as Latham revealed, did they lack knowledge about available services, but if they made a report, follow-up from the service was not assured, and there was insufficient liaison between childcare and child protection services about children in their mutual care. In addition to this, Latham said, “there was fear associated with dealing with the child protection agents”, because of the implications this could have on their relationship with parents.

Despite these emotional and organisational hurdles, Latham deemed that educators were doing a great job at strengthening kids’ resilience. To further accelerate this process, she and Conley Wright suggested resilience-building strategies to educators involving the inclusion of struggling families. Once those are implemented, they said, educators should study their effects. Because when it comes to helping disadvantaged kids cope with stressors, an extra, caring pair of hands is not only helpful, it’s essential.

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