The global social and emotional learning program empowering change for young children


Teachers in the program are observing changes in childrens' empathy and their ability to deal with conflict. Image: Think Equal

An Australian study of a global program that teaches social and emotional skills in early childhood settings has provided strong evidence that the program positively influences children's wellbeing.

Federation University Australia partnered with Yale University's Centre for Emotional Intelligence to introduce and assess the Think Equal program in Australia. Think Equal is currently being trialled in 14 countries across five continents.

Dr Susan Emmett, Early Childhood senior lecturer and program coordinator in the School of Education, said the study of more than 300 children aged three to six across Victoria and Brisbane showed many significant results, particularly in areas of emotional intelligence and regulation and the way the children interact with others.

The research showed that children who participated in the Think Equal program benefited across eight areas. These benefits included that the children were more emotionally regulated, less emotionally dysregulated, less anxious and withdrawn, demonstrated greater effortful control, demonstrated greater extraversion, and had lower negative affect.

Dr Emmett said this finding was important because a child who can manage their emotions can readily engage in learning and achieve social goals more effectively.

Think Equal is an explicitly taught program with a narrative-based pedagogy. Teachers were resourced with step-by-step guides and were extensively trained in the program. The program ran over 30 weeks with 90 lessons implemented over three 30-minute sessions per week.

The Australian research utilised a randomised control trial (RCT) methodology, which is uncommon in education and more often used in medical research. Dr Chris Turville, from the School of Engineering, Information Technology and Physical Sciences, used complex statistics to analyse the data.

"We have some significant findings from the program and some tremendous feedback from teachers who have seen some pretty remarkable changes in children," Dr Emmett said.

"But, importantly, we now have the evidence base to back this up. We haven't had many studies in this area in Australia or anywhere, really, where there are both qualitative and quantitative evidence to say that social and emotional learning programs like this work and make a positive difference in children's lives.

"And teachers are telling us they are observing changes in children's empathy and their ability to deal with conflict – they are seeing a whole range of different aspects along the social and emotional spectrum that have improved children's capabilities as a result of participation in this program."

Teachers also reported that children engaged in kinder and more compassionate behaviour, which had a calming effect on the participants' group.

Dr Emmett said the trial's success demonstrated that a program like Think Equal could have a significant impact across Australia, and the researchers would continue talks with federal politicians and policymakers about expanding the program.

Dr Lynne Reeder, Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport, said these research findings were timely because of the extra stresses many people were experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The children are developing important life skills and skills for their mental health in their future. In this context, one of the most important findings of this RCT was that the impact of the Think Equal program was greatest in children with lower levels of self-regulation and higher levels of anxiety as assessed prior to the program implementation," Dr Reeder said.

"The research tells us that if we can work with children in the early years, we're establishing strong foundations for the rest of their lives. Think Equal was designed by leading international experts including neuroscientists, and the research shows that we can make the biggest difference in those early years."

The multi-campus project was led by academics at the Berwick campus and involved staff in Ballarat. After utilising tools from Yale University which were adapted for the Australian trial, the researchers received ethics approval from Federation University and the Department of Education and Training to run the program and held education sessions and support forums for the early childhood teachers delivering the program within the early childhood centres.

For more information, contact the Australian director of Think Equal Emma Welsh at emma.welsh@thinkequal.org

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