SA (NWU)-Finnish study investigates resillience of first-graders

Anjonet Jordaan -- Mon, 03/23/2015 - 11:48

SA (NWU)-Finnish study investigates resillience of first-graders

Many first-graders across the world start school under very challenging circumstances due to issues such as poverty, marginalisation and parental divorce. Why are some first-graders resilient and doing well despite their circumstances? A SA/Finnish study is seeking to answer this question. The South African leg of the study is led by acclaimed resilience researcher, Prof Linda Theron from the North-West University’s Vaal Triangle Campus.

The study is called “Social ecologies of resilience among at-risk children starting school in South Africa and Finland: A visual participatory study”, or SISU for short, and refers to the Finnish word that means resilience or grit.

 Prof Kristiina Kumpulainen of the University of Helsinki heads up the study in Finland.

SISU is a visual participatory study funded by the National Research Foundation (2013-2015) and the Academy of Finland. The SISU project was initiated to answer a call by both the National Research Foundation in South Africa and the Academy of Finland to increase current knowledge about protective processes that promote children’s resilient management of transitions to starting school.

The primary objective of the project is to explain why, and how, some at-risk South African and Finnish children make positive transitions to school. The second objective is to identify sociocultural processes embedded in the children’s social ecologies that support their successful school transitions.

“Sociocultural processes are those mechanisms or practices that flow from social and cultural routines or values. For example, in the SA rural data, we are learning that how families and communities value education, and how they coach children to make the most of schooling (e.g. listen to the teacher, love school), supports adjusting well to Gr 1. A social ecology is the system or community of people in which a child grows up. At its most basic level this could be the family; at its broadest, the child's country," says Prof Theron.

The third objective of the study is to examine and further develop participatory visual research methodologies for investigating and promoting children’s resilience and positive adaptation to school.

Visual participatory refers to qualitative methodologies that invite participants to generate visual data that will help researchers understand better why some children adjust well to the multiple challenges of Grade1, despite being placed at risk for negative outcomes because of social issues. In SISU, this included participants making and explaining drawings; taking and explaining photographs; allowing researchers to video-record a day in their lives and then, helping researchers to understand what they observed, reflecting on digital story books that the study researchers compiled from their data.

By using visual participatory methods, the research project provides a nuanced understanding of sociocultural processes that result in children’s positive transitioning to school. In doing so, the study contributes to the development of culturally sensitive protective mechanisms, for the purposes of education in particular, that potentially increase children’s socio-emotional well-being and enable young learners both in South Africa and Finland to overcome inequalities and risk of marginalisation.

The South African team are all based on the Vaal Triangle Campus and include Prof Linda Theron (SA study leader), Prof Tinie Theron and Prof Tumi Khumalo, as well as PhD students Carla Bezuidenhout and Carlien Kahl.

Recently, the two teams of researchers met in South African to share the emerging Finnish and South African findings with one another and to consider the similarities and differences in the two data sets. By comparing their findings they can begin to formulate a rich answer to what supports children to adjust well to the multiple challenges of the first grade, despite being placed at risk due to social issues like poverty, marginalisation and parental divorce.

During their visit here, the research team also visited South African schools taking part in the study in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with the first grade in a resource-constrained school and resource-rich school in the South African context. Schools in South Africa were purposefully chosen to represent both urban and rural settings. Similarly South African researchers visited schools in Finland during January this year to gain understanding of the Finnish context.

While the researchers are currently still in the process of analysing the data they collected, early indications is that the relationships between children and others, such as their parents, extended family and teachers, and children’s agency seem to play a decisive role in the adjustment process of South African children.

While the NRF funding received for this project extends until 2016, the principal investigators (Prof Theron and Prof Kumpulainen) have plans to seek follow-up funding so that the findings of the project can be investigated on a wider scale.

* Prof Linda Theron is the sub-program leader of Pathways to Resilience and Post-traumatic Growth within the Optentia Research Focus Area located on the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University. To read more about projects done by Optentia on the subject of resilience, visit their website To read more on the resilience research done by Prof Theron, visit her website