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Early childhood educators’ workplace well-being: A case for using self-determination theory to understand and support workplace well-being in early childhood services

Full reference
Jones, C., Hadley, F., Waniganayake, M. & Johnstone, M. (2019). Early childhood educators’ workplace well-being: A case for using self-determination theory to understand and support workplace well-being in early childhood services.  NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal. Special issue presenting early childhood position papers, 22(2), pp. 9 - 17. Retrieved from

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Page 9

Original Position Paper
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NZ Int Reseach ECE journal pic

Early childhood educators’ workplace well-being: A case for using self-determination theory to understand and support workplace well-being in early childhood services

Catherine Jones, Fay Hadley, Manjula Waniganayake and Melissa Johnstone
Macquarie University, New South Wales



Current conceptualisations of Early Childhood (EC) educator workplace well-being are problematic due to large gaps in the workplace well-being literature. Gaps include a dearth of research examining healthy well-being, limited qualitative studies to understand the complexity of workplace well-being and a focus on hedonic well-being (happiness at work) without the inclusion of eudaimonic well-being (meaningful work). Moreover, attention in the literature is mainly given to external conditions influencing well-being such as poor pay and working conditions. This article begins with a critique of EC workplace well-being literature and then provides an argument that asserts Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has the potential to provide a more suitable conceptualisation of EC educator well-being. Key principles of both SDT and Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) are provided to highlight the suitability of using SDT to understand and also support the healthy well-being of those working in prior to school settings in the Australian ECEC context.

Key words: Self-determination theory, well-being, work-place stress, job satisfaction.


Defining early childhood workplace well-being

Defining Early Childhood (EC) Educator workplace well-being is problematic. Well-being is a broad and complex concept and hence difficult to define.  The need for a clearer definition of well-being and a greater understanding of how stressors emerge and why certain conditions act as buffers to poor well-being is needed (Corr, Davis, LaMontagne, Waters, & Steele, 2014; Cumming, 2017; Hall-Kenyon, Bullough, MacKay, & Marshall, 2014) to support EC educator wellbeing.

The majority of studies on EC educator well-being have focused on a deficit model of physical and psychological health that has concentrated predominantly on stress and burnout (Cumming, 2017; Hall-Kenyon, 2014). However, there is evidence in the EC well-being literature of the potential benefits of a more positive focus on well-being (through the lens of positive psychology theorists) in terms of understanding and supporting workplace well-being (Hur & Buettner, 2016; Nislin et al., 2015; Nislin et al., 2016). Moreover, the dominance of quantitative studies in the well-being literature limits a deep understanding of the complexity of workplace well-being. These factors highlight the need for more qualitative methods of data collection and analysis to obtain a rich and in depth understanding of educator workplace wellbeing and enable the development of a more holistic conceptualisation of well-being applicable in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings (Corr et al., 2014; Hur & Buettner, 2016). The term ‘educators’ in ECEC centres in Australia refers to all staff who work with children 0-6 years regardless of qualification.


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