The social life of well-being assessments: an ethnographic study of child well-being in the Danish day care institution

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    The paper discusses perceptions and practices of child well-being in the local setting of the day-care institution, with a particular focus on a recently implemented well-being assessment tool. The paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork and is part of a larger research study that addresses child well-being from the perspectives of children, parents and practice.

    Within recent years, children’s state of well-being in Danish day-care institutions has received heightened political attention and is increasingly approached as a phenomenon to be systematically assessed, evaluated, and acted upon. In 2007, children’s “well-fare” was written forward as a central aim in the Act on Day-Care Facilities alongside “development” and “learning” (Danish Ministry of Education, 2007) and in 2015 a tool for systematically assessing and hence categorizing all children’s state of well-being was implemented in the day-care institutions within the Copenhagen area (Mehlbye and Andersen, 2012). The tool does not present a definition of child well-being but rather seeks to encourage reflection and dialogue among practitioners, acknowledging that perceptions of well-being are complex, dynamic, and often contextually defined. Nevertheless, the rationale behind the tool is to ensure that all children’s state of well-being is regularly reflected upon and colour-categorized as either ‘green’, ‘yellow’ or ‘red’. It is the aim that even the earliest signs of low well-being are identified and acted upon in order to prevent the onset of later and hence more serious problems – an objective that is also crystallized in the heading of the tool, namely ‘early detection’. By emphasizing ‘detection’ and encouraging reflection and dialogue, a key objective of the tool is to make the invisible visible and to facilitate a systematic verbalization among practitioners and thus a move towards shared understandings of what it means to fare well. Ideally, this should lead to timely pedagogical interventions to improve the lives of children who are not perceived to be thriving. In this manner, the tool addresses larger concerns around the role of the day-care institution in early preventive intervention and in supporting socially vulnerable children in order to improve their life chances and well-being in the long-term (Petersen, 2015). Within a larger context, the tool reflects a growing international orientation towards measurement, documentation, and standardization.

    In the approach to well-being, the research is inspired by phenomenology (cf. Schiermer Andersen, 2013; Jackson, 1996; Frykman and Gilje, 2003) and investigates well-being as a situated and relational phenomenon as opposed to an individual and ‘objective’ state; something that simply ‘is’. This involves a focus on well-being as it is experienced, shaped, practiced, and recognized in everyday practices, always already embedded within wider contexts of institutional settings, social relationships and political agendas. In the discussion of perceptions and practices of well-being, the paper will draw on the analytical concept of social technology (Jöhncke, Svendsen and Whyte, 2004) to explore the well-being assessment tool as not simply a solution to the problem of working pedagogically and systematically with well-being but also as a tool that activates particular perspectives, values and actors. As stated by Jöhncke, Svendsen and Whyte (ibid.), social technology is a practical art, embedded within professional and institutional settings, and always carrying a particular intentionality towards shaping ‘the social’. In other words, social technologies are carried out by social actors, realized through social relations and with social consequences (ibid.). From this analytical perspective, the paper will address the following questions: what logics inform practitioners’ perceptions of well-being and what signs of low and high well-being do they draw upon in their assessments? What kind of knowledge emerges through the assessment of children’s well-being and with what implications for practitioners, children and their families?

    From an ethnographic point of view, the concept of social technology calls for an empirically sensitive investigation of how the well-being assessment tool is unfolded over time in the everyday local world of the day-care institution, and how it is shaped by, and shapes, understandings and relations between practitioners, children and their families. The empirical material that will be presented in the paper is based on ongoing ethnographic fieldwork (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995) in two public day-care institutions in Copenhagen caring for children between the ages of 3-6 (in Denmark, 98% of children aged 3-5 attend day-care full time). The institutions involved in the research differ with regard to the children in their care, with one institution mainly caring for children from an area with social housing and from families with different ethnic backgrounds, while the second institution is located in a predominantly middle-class residential area with single-family houses. The two institutions differ markedly with regard to the number of children in their care who are perceived by practitioners to be socially vulnerable and who, for various reasons, are categorized as ‘red’ in the well-being assessment. The fieldwork is carried out in three waves; the first 5 weeks of fieldwork was conducted in the second half of 2016 and another two waves are to be completed in 2017. The fieldwork involves participant observation in the everyday local worlds of the institutions to explore the positioned perceptions and practices of child well-being and hence the social context that the well-being assessment tool is introduced into and unfolded within. Moreover, the fieldwork includes informal conversations, in-depth qualitative interviews with practitioners, and the reading of the well-being assessments over time. Following the reading of the assessments, a number of children categorized as ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ and hence not perceived to be faring well (enough), will be followed more closely during the second and third waves of fieldwork.

    The research study is expected to generate experience-near and nuanced accounts of child well-being as an everyday practice influenced and shaped by policy, structural constraints and specific notions of ‘the good childhood’. Specifically, participating and observing in the daily activities of the day-care will generate insights into well-being work as an integral, and often tacit, part of everyday pedagogical practices as well as insights into the kinds of knowledge about children and their families that practitioners employ to interpret and act on matters of child well-being. The research is expected to generate an increased understanding of what is considered ‘good’ in practitioners’ perspectives on child well-being and how these perspectives influence and guide everyday pedagogical practices. The methods applied in the research study allow not only for an exploration of explicit as well as tacit perceptions and practices of well-being within particular institutional settings, but also over time as children’s state of well-being is defined through the well-being assessments and acted upon.

    Publikationsdato24 aug. 2017
    StatusUdgivet - 24 aug. 2017
    BegivenhedECER 2017: Reforming Education and the Imperative of Constant Change: Ambivalent roles of policy and educational research - København, Danmark
    Varighed: 22 aug. 201725 aug. 2017


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