The Positive Early Childhood Education Program (PECE)

Participation in high quality early childhood education, that is, child care characterised by responsive and attentive educators and stimulating play and learning experiences, has consistently been found to be linked to long-term gains in a range of important skills in children during primary school. Educators are uniquely placed to provide nurturing environments for young children that support and bolster the effects of quality parenting, and have the potential to buffer the effects of disadvantage and detrimental early family experiences. However, the quality of early childhood education and care is variable, and there are significant differences in educators’ capacity to provide a nurturing environment, promote child prosociality and manage difficult child behaviour in effective ways. Thus, research-based professional development and learning programs are needed to build the capacity of educators to provide nurturing environments for children in their care.

This program of research involves the evaluation of the new Positive Early Childhood Education (PECE) program, which is designed to enhance the skills and capacities of early childhood educators. The research aims to assess the feasibility and acceptability of the program with educators, and to examine whether PECE is effective at improving educator competence and confidence in promoting young children’s development and managing difficult behaviour, and at improving child prosocial behaviour and reducing disruptive child behaviour.

Project Supervisors: Cassy Dittman & Karen Turner

Companion Animals

The role of companion animals (CA) in families has changed over time with animals increasingly considered part of the family. In Australia, over 62% of households have at least one companion animal with the most common companion animals being dogs (39%) and cats (29%). Additionally, 65% of people consider their CAs a member of the family. CAs play multiple roles within families and can be a vital part in the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of children. However, the family context has also be shown to be a correlate of childhood cruelty to CA’s. Thus, CAs have the potential to bring both benefits and risks for families, children and animals. The family environment offers a context for the development of skills and attitudes that may aide in the prevention of cruelty in society.

Currently little emphasis is placed on the role of parents in promoting compassionate and responsible interactions between children and companion animals. The role of parenting in the development of children’s attitudes and behaviours with CAs requires further investigation, as does the effect of children’s CA related interactions and beliefs on broader child and emerging adult outcomes. Outcomes from this research could inform future public policy and interventions that could lead to better human to CA relationships with benefits for the wellbeing of CAs and broader child development and human to human relationships.

This program of research aims to investigate the role of the family environment in promoting positive relationships between CAs and children and associations with positive child development. Specifically, the study will seek to extend on the current understanding of the role of parenting and parent attitudes on children’s behaviour and attitudes towards CAs and their association to skills associated with optimal child and emerging adult adjustment (empathy for others, peer relations, self-control, wellbeing).

Project Supervisors: Kylie Burke

Parenting and the Development of Gender Roles

Gender role stereotypes play an important role in all areas of human development. They affect our emotions, choices, and behaviours in multiple contexts, and set the stage for prejudice and discrimination. While adult gender roles may have changed over the last few decades, most children are exposed to a continuing barrage of stereotyped gender roles from birth: from parents, the media, and peers, and these stereotypes have not changed significantly over time. Many parents express an interest in raising their children in a way that deemphasizes gender, yet there no existing evidence-based approaches focused on minimising the effects of gender role stereotypes in early childhood. This research aims to: 

  • Provide a longitudinal description of the early home environment and its influence on infants’ gendered development, with a particular emphasis on the role of parents and specific parenting strategies.
  • Evaluate the content and evidence base of existing messaging to parents around gender-neutral parenting, via content analysis, systematic review and meta-analysis.
  • Assess the efficacy and mechanisms of change of a brief parenting program delivered prenatally in promoting an early learning environment that deemphasises the role of gender via a randomised controlled trial evaluating proximal program outcomes in the first year of life.

Project Supervisors: Alina Morawska

Adolescent Mental Health

National and international population-level surveys suggest that much work is still to be done to improve outcomes for young people. Mental health disorders have been found to affect 14.4% of young people in Australia, with adolescents with mental health disorders at greater risk of growing up to be socially disadvantaged adults who experience unemployment, family breakdown and violence, substance abuse, and who have difficulty raising their own children. Thus, without appropriate intervention, mental health problems in adolescence can be long-lasting and contribute to an ongoing, intergenerational cycle of social disadvantage. Evidence-based and scalable solutions are required that ameliorate outcomes for adolescents with mental health problems, and importantly, support adolescents to build the skills, competencies and coping resources they need to manage their mental health and promote their positive development and wellbeing.

This research aims to further explore the role of parents and the parent-adolescent relationship in outcomes for adolescents with mental health disorders, as well as to evaluate the efficacy of family-based prevention and/or intervention programs that support the mental health and positive development of adolescents. 

Project Supervisors: Kylie Burke & Cassy Dittman

Language

From the earliest moments of life, parents play an important role in children’s development of language, and good language skills are important for school readiness. Parents are encouraged to talk, sing and read to their baby from the first days of birth. However, many children experience difficulties with language development, and the extent to which parenting interventions can assist in these situations is unclear. This research aims to further explore the role of parents in children’s language development, and test parent intervention models to assess the extent to which specific parenting practices and intervention approaches contribute to children’s language development. This research will consist of a number of elements:

  1. Longitudinal studies examining the transactional influences between parenting strategies and child language development in the earliest months and years of life.
  2. Clinical trials examining the effectiveness of parenting interventions in assisting children with language delays.
  3. Studies examining the mechanisms of change in parenting intervention approaches which are responsible for improvements in children’s language development.

Project Supervisors: Cassy Dittman & Alina Morawska