Author Identifiers

Nichola Webb
ORCID: 0000-0001-7236-4549

Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Dr Justine Dandy

Second Advisor

Dr Elizabeth Stamopoulos

Field of Research Code

1701

Abstract

The development of social–emotional skills is pivotal in generating positive outcomes for mental health and wellbeing throughout the childhood period and into later life (Hertzman, 2004; Moore, 2006; Sosna & Mastergeorge, 2005). While research has explored the effects of parent and teacher influences on young children’s social–emotional skills, most studies have either focussed on high-risk child populations, compared single influences with each other (e.g., parent versus teacher) or compared one combined group of influences with a control group. Few studies have directly compared the separate effects of parent, teacher and peer components to assess which are more successful in the development and maintenance of young children’s social–emotional skills. According to Ştefan and Miclea (2012), it remains an important priority for future research to determine the extent to which each intervention strategy adds information and is relevant for obtaining effects on behavioural skills for children.

The current study compares the separate and combined influences of parent and teacher emotion coaching practices on children’s social–emotional skills in their first year of compulsory schooling in Australia (the pre-primary year) within a low-risk, mainstream setting. This population was chosen due to limited studies focussing on the development of children’s social-emotional skills within this age band, risk status and setting. The aim was to determine the extent to which teacher, parent and combined (teacher and parent) groups as separate approaches influenced children’s social–emotional skill development in this first year of formal education. A control condition was used to measure normal developmental progression in these skills, thereby controlling for time and maturation. The study’s original contribution initially lay within its purpose-designed parent coaching program. This was developed for the study’s intervention phase and contained social–emotional skill activities specifically constructed for developing social-emotional skills with pre-primary children. Information was also included for parents in how to develop emotion coaching skills in this process. The program was designed as an at-home, individually-delivered, training guide for parents unable to commit to structured, group-delivery programs. The program focussed on developing age-appropriate core social-emotional skill elements of Emotion Knowledge (EK), Emotion Regulation (ER) and Emotion Expression (EX) as derived from Denham et al.’s (2003) construct of emotional competency, in a cumulative and progressive manner over time. It was successfully piloted with a small sample of children and parents who were not participants in the main study. The classroom program undertaken by teachers in the main study, utilised PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) by Kusché and Greenberg (1994). As an additional contribution, the study employed a multi-focussed primary prevention approach, utilising a new presentation of separate and combined parent and teacher influences alongside a control group (i.e., parent group versus teacher group versus parent-plus-teacher group versus control group). The Devereux Student Strengths Assessment Mini instrument (DESSA-Mini) (LeBuffe, Shapiro & Naglieri, 2009) was also utilised as a standardised social emotional skill assessment measure, (not previously used in this manner), to determine skill progression for children over time.

The research took place within two Western Australian independent primary schools, focusing on low-risk, mainstream children in their first year of compulsory schooling (pre-primary children, n = 86). Research was conducted over a 15-month period, with nine months intervention and six months follow-up. Each child was assessed three times over the total research period by both parents and teachers at pre, post and follow-up time points. The quantitative results of the main study showed that teachers and parents rated social–emotional skills higher for children in the combined and teacher groups following the interventions. These outcomes are discussed in relation to the effects of school culture, personal, community and family-of-origin influences upon parents’ and teachers’ abilities to teach social–emotional skills to young children in this age group. While social-emotional skill gains were not sustained in any group at the six-month follow-up period, contrary to expectation, the combined group showed less decay in social–emotional ratings compared with others groups at the follow-up time point. This decline in ratings overall was attributed to a lack of skill practice and consolidation for children over the relatively short intervention period (nine months), leading to a lack of social–emotional skill endurance over time. Additionally, children’s exposure to new teaching styles, academic expectations and social challenges in their following new school year may have resulted in their uncertainty and therefore a regression of observable social–emotional skills as they adjusted. The overall impact of the combined teacher-plus-parent group approach on the development of social-emotional skills in the study was of significance and is discussed, together with the influence of home and school environments in the development of these skills for children.

The qualitative results showed that the majority of parents who completed the purpose-designed program at home were able to teach social–emotional skills to their children and were influenced in doing so by the social– emotional practices of their own family of origin. In particular, parents who developed positive parenting practices despite identifying with negative family-of-origin influences highlighted the importance of parents’ professional learning (e.g., emotion coaching training), together with parents’ abilities to shift their internal working models (i.e., mental representations for understanding the world, self and others). The research findings highlight the effectiveness of teaching social– emotional skills to pre-primary children in mainstream schooling, with the combined parent-plus-teacher approach proving most effective and enduring over time compared with other outlined approaches. However, longer intervention time frames are recommended. The findings also highlight the effectiveness of a home-based parent coaching program for individual delivery, focussed on developing social-emotional skills with mainstream, pre-primary children.

Findings from the study may also offer a path forward for policymakers in Australia to advocate for the mandatory inclusion of mental health programs in education for children in order to facilitate the development of early mental health practices. In particular, findings demonstrate that combined parent plus teacher approaches for social-emotional skill development are especially important from the first year of compulsory schooling and that benefits are maximised for children’s development through such pairings.

Access Note

Access to Appendices A and B of this thesis is not available.

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