How can we gauge the well-being of the youngest children in kindergartens?

Researchers have listened to what has not been said in order to gauge the well-being of the youngest children in kindergartens.



‘At a time when a growing percentage of one- to three-year-olds are in kindergartens, their well-being is profoundly important. The simply reason for this is that subjective well-being is fundamental for children to be able to play, learn and develop favourably along with other children and kindergarten staff’, according to researcher Monica Seland, who bases her statement on a review of international research.

Empathy with toddlers

Researchers can interview older children about their well-being, but how can we gauge the well-being of the youngest children, that is, the ones not old enough to talk? Monica Seland and her research colleagues Åse Bratterud and Ellen Beate Sandseter decided to try to answer this challenging question. They opted to use an observational method, based on the researcher trying to see and understand the world through the eyes of the child.

A total of 18 children, ages one and two, from nine different ECEC facilities, were observed for one hour each. The researchers sat quietly in the room, like “shadows”, visually observing one child at a time.

They paid attention to what the child did, who it interacted with, how the interaction unfolded, and what feelings the child expressed, as well as what feelings this elicited in the researcher. Afterwards, the experience was logged as accurately as possible.

‘The goal for us has been to empathise with what it is like to be this particular child in this particular ECEC facility. Each of us brings our own experiences to the table so we can, with a high degree of accuracy, interpret a child’s expressions of joy, frustration, apathy, etc. That gives us an understanding of what the child is expressing through its body language, gestures and facial expressions. Our goal has been to listen to what has not been said’, smiles Seland.

Most were thriving

In general, the researchers observed that most of the children were thriving. However, they also saw children who were overlooked, or who were not understood, and who spent a lot of time alone, according to Seland.

In the situations in which children appeared to thrive, good social relationships were fundamental. This might be in interaction with staff, with other children, or in a group situation, like the common activity sessions.

When the observations were analysed, the researchers discovered that strong expressions of well-being frequently occurred when a child shared a common focus, common feelings and common intentions with other children and with staff, that is, when they shared a common purpose.

‘This might happen when the child took the initiative to play with someone, and other children or staff joined in. Or if the child wanted to explore, for example, the sand in the sandbox, we saw that the child beamed if others wanted to join in. When we understood what the child wanted, we could share the child’s perspective’, explained Seland.

Can also thrive alone

The researchers also saw children who sat alone, concentrating intently on an object, despite being right in the middle of a room, surrounded by a plethora of activities. This was not uncommon.

‘In such cases, we didn’t see the child laugh, smile or jump up and down, which are the most obvious signs of subjective well-being. That raised the question: Is this well-being?’ asked Seland. The researchers chose to interpret it as such.

‘We know that when we are engrossed in an activity, we tend to get into the “zone”, forgetting time and place, as we concentrate deeply. This can be a strong, good feeling. For children to experience this “zone”, they must feel fundamentally safe and secure within the group. That allows them to explore the world around them on their own terms. Well-being and feeling secure are closely related’, confirms Seland.

‘Sit down for half an hour or an hour and follow one individual child with your eyes.’ 

A method for ECEC institutions?

The method used by the researchers is simple and costs nothing. Seland urges ECEC staff to apply the method themselves.

‘Sit down for half an hour or an hour and follow one individual child with your eyes. Afterwards, write everything down in as much detail as possible. Exactly what do you think it is like to be Per or Kari in your kindergarten?’ asks Seland.