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Unique research project to boost happiness for early educators and children

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We all know that people who work in the education and care sector work darn hard. But what if data-driven research could hold the answers to boosting their wellbeing?  

Investigating how to add a dose of meaningful happiness into the workplaces of educators in the early education and care sector, the ACT’s largest children’s services organisation Communities at Work has partnered with the University of Canberra (UC) to test a new wellbeing framework to see what we can do to help educators be more resilient, healthy and happy.  

And while ‘wellbeing’ might sound like a buzzword that evokes images of candles, yoga, and #selfcaresunday, according to UC researchers Associate Professor Thomas Nielsen and Dr. Jennifer Ma, to create deep transformational change in the workplace, it’s important to find out what wellbeing actually means for the sector and where there’s movement for real change.  

“We’re collaborating with Communities at Work because wellbeing is something that’s a challenge for all of us, at any age, but particularly in education, and for educators and children at the moment,” explains Thomas.  

“Our work together will be very focused on increasing people’s sense of meaning and connection,” adds Jennifer. “Research has found that people who have meaningful happiness, rather than just pleasurable happiness, tend to have more resilience in the face of adversity, stress and trauma.” 

The aim of the project is to help Communities at Work promote positive, long-term wellbeing outcomes in the early childhood sector by helping educators find meaningful happiness through their work. The just-completed phase one involved surveying 108 staff to find out about their mental health, their levels of resilience and capability to bounce back after adversity (including the COVID-19 pandemic), and their psychological resources and strengths. Staff were also surveyed about what they have personally experienced and want to see done to promote wellbeing for them and the children under their care.  

The project is based on the Curriculum of GivingR – an educational wellbeing framework that can help guide an organisation’s existing practices towards evidence-based wellbeing principles using an ecological-systems approach. It was created by Thomas and Jennifer after a decade of researching wellbeing education initiatives from around the world, and aims to help educators, parents, and caregivers build more resilience, wisdom and meaningful happiness in young people (as well as themselves). 

According to Communities at Work Director of Children’s Services Kellie Stewart, the fundamental reason for being involved in the project was to help those the organisation values most, and then pass that learning on to the rest of the early education sector. 

“The initial research survey revealed some of the same outcomes we saw in our staff satisfaction survey: educators have been in highly stressed states over the last three years,” says Kellie. “They’ve been essential workers. They’ve worked throughout a pandemic environment without a break. They’ve had to change the way that they do things. They’re dealing with a national workforce shortage.” 

“Some things that stand out from the survey are the toll these things are taking on individuals. We hear what our educators are saying and want to do more to help them. That’s why we’re invested in this project. Hopefully, this can act as a case study that brings in a conversation more broadly about what it means for education in Canberra or even nationally.” 

And while the results from the initial survey confirmed what Thomas, Jennifer and Kellie expectedthose in the education and care sector have compromised wellbeing and are feeling burnt out as a result of ongoing and new systemic pressures (especially following the pandemic) they say the data is an important step for being able to identify and tailor intervention in ways that shed light on and value educators’ experiences and their voices. 

“We often can’t change what we’re unaware of in the first place,” says Jennifer. “It’s about finding a way to get everyone together to talk openly and honestly about these collective challenges and what can be done, from the ground-up, to address them beyond band-aid solutions.”  

Using the data to listen to what the staff need from Communities at Work (whether it’s support or more professional development opportunities), Kellie says as the next phase of the project launches, she’s excited to see how the organisation can use the wellbeing framework to make a real difference to its educators. 

“I think we’re going to see a highly skilled workforce become more comfortable in the work that they do,” Kellie says. “I think they’ll better understand that Communities at Work is here to care for them, and that we’re committed to their wellbeing as much as they’re committed to the wellbeing of the children.” 

“We’re really looking forward to what comes next. This new research will start making a difference to educators, and in turn, that will make a difference for children.” 

Want to find out more about Communities at Work’s Children’s Services? Visit their Children’s Services page on their website.  

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