Newcastle researchers intervene online to support ECEC to eat more vegetables
Researchers from the University of Newcastle have undertaken a web-based intervention program with early childhood education and care (ECEC) services in the Hunter New England region, seeking to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed by children.
The Sector spoke with the research team about their work, which explored the value of intervention programs within ECEC services where parents and families provide meals and snacks, where more than 20 children per day attend, and which were not, at the time of the study, fully compliant with healthy eating practices, such as those outlined in Munch & Move.
High intensity, face to face interventions hard to sustain
To open the discussion, we wanted to learn more about the research finding that “high intensity, face to face” approaches to changing children’s eating behaviors was limiting, and had been unsuccessful in the past.
“Traditional approaches provided to ECEC services have typically involved health promotion staff visiting services to provide face-to-face training, as well as ongoing telephone and email support,” Ms Courtney Barnes, from New South Wales Health, explained.
“Although this approach is effective, it only allowed us to visit a small number of services each year due to limited resources (e.g. staffing and time). To address this, we needed to develop an approach that allowed us to reach as many ECEC services as possible and provide equitable support. Offering our program via web-based means gave us the opportunity to do that.”
Challenges of online learning considered
Although delivering programs online can overcome some barriers, it can also be limiting for those services with poor connectivity, low levels of digital literacy among the staff team, and educators with language barriers who might find access challenging.
The team considered these barriers during the development of Childcare Electronic Assessment Tool and Support (EATS).
“We undertook pilot work to determine if ECEC services had access to the necessary resources, and found 99 per cent of services had computer and internet access,” Associate Professor Sze Lin Yoong, from the University of Newcastle said.
When it came time to develop the program, the researchers worked closely with nominated supervisors, directors and educators to ensure any barriers to program use were taken into account, and the program was designed to be embedded within usual service processes, so that time spent on reporting obligations for the program were minimised.
ECEC staff were also able to access the program at any time that was convenient to them, Dr Alice Grady, a fellow researcher on the program explained.
This allowed the researchers to address barriers such as a lack of time and competing service priorities.
“We also worked with our Aboriginal colleagues and ECEC services enrolling Aboriginal children to ensure the program was culturally appropriate,” Dr Grady said.
How common are “lunch box” services?
With many “full service” ECEC services providing three meals a day, plus snacks, for children, we were curious to learn about why “lunch box” services, where families supply food were chosen for the research, and if the researchers felt that this might limit the value of the findings to the sector more broadly.
“In contrast to other countries, it is common for ECEC services within Australia to be lunchbox services (i.e. where the primary caregiver packs food for children to consume in care),” Ms Barnes said.
Within the Hunter New England region of New South Wales, she continued, an estimated 70 per cent of centre-based services are lunchbox services. Supporting families to provide healthier foods packed within lunchboxes was one practice targeted by the program.
“However, we also focused on other components of the ECEC service nutrition environment, including intentional healthy eating learning experiences for children, having a strong service nutrition policy, educator professional development, and positive educator practices.”
What holds educators back?
Commentary about the research outlined other studies by the research team which had shown that training which shapes practices around increasing fruit and vegetable intake are not routinely implemented by staff.
We wanted to learn more about why the researchers think this is the case, what the barriers to routine implementation are, and what could be done differently in that space to support the learning to “stick”.
When speaking with educators and other ECEC professionals, the researchers heard about a number of challenges, including a lack of access to training (e.g. unable to access face-to-face workshops), time available to participate in training, and a lack of supporting resources.
“We attempted to address these barriers in the Childcare EATS program,” Ms Barnes said.
“For example, links to online professional development opportunities were embedded within the program. These professional development opportunities are self-paced, allowing educators to gradually complete the training in a flexible manner.”
To further support the educators, the Childcare EATS program houses a library of learning resources, such as factsheets and guidelines, that can be continually accessed by ECEC service staff.
“This is the first step,” Ms Barnes said, “of planning towards larger studies, with the aim to eventually roll out the Childcare EATS program on a population-level to support ECEC service implementation of not only healthy eating practices, but also physical activity, breastfeeding and screen time.”
For more information on Childcare EATS, please see here.