University of Nebraska Medical Center

Relationship-building practices and social-emotional development in Liberian Preschools: Our findings using the BEQI observation tool

Image of a teacher helping a student at a school desk.

By Dr. Dawn Davis (ECD Measure) and Dr. Cecelia Cassell (University of Liberia)

Over the past decade, Liberia has increasingly focused on improving access and quality early childhood education (ECE). Measurement is a key component of a quality ECE system, and Liberia has adapted ECD Measure’s Brief Early Childhood Quality Inventory (BEQI) to help Liberian researchers and policymakers understand the current state of preschool quality and make choices about how to improve. In this blog, we describe our quality measurement process and share preliminary findings from the Promoting Strong Relationships items from the BEQI classroom observation.

The BEQI is designed to be adaptable, easy to use, and focused on critical aspects of quality in four areas:

Play-based learningDoes the teacher engage with children in play-based learning activities and materials?
 Learning through conversationsDoes the teacher facilitate children’s learning through extending conversation and dialogue?
Promoting strong relationshipsWhat are teacher-child interactions and how does the teacher foster social and emotional development?
Safe and stimulating environmentsWhat are the health and safety features of the learning space and facilities?

In April 2021, the Liberia BEQI team, led by Dr. Cecelia Cassell, trained six pre-service teachers to reliability on the BEQI classroom observation tool and collected BEQI data in 38 preschool classrooms near the capital city, Monrovia.  The teacher-enumerators also conducted interviews with teachers in 31 of the 38 classrooms. Participating preschool programs included government centers, private centers, and faith-based programs. The project’s purpose was to pilot the adapted BEQI in programs to explore current conditions of quality and build capacity for collecting quality data.

BEQI observation data showed that teachers were implementing many strategies to build strong relationships with children and support their social-emotional development. The majority of teachers seemed mostly positive with children, called at least half the children by name, made eye contact with children, addressed misbehaviors, intervened in peer conflicts, and over half the teachers comforted children when they were distressed.

However, we observed other strategies for building strong relationships less often. For example, less than one-fourth of teachers talked about feelings, got on eye level with children, or engaged in play with children.  About one-fourth of teachers had negative verbal interactions and over one-third were observed using physical punishment with children. Almost one-third of teachers reported using physical punishment, and almost half reported receiving training on child protection in the last 12 months. The negative verbal and physical interactions raise concerns as these approaches have negative impacts on child development.

Teachers’ relationship-building and social-emotional support practices

Findings from other BEQI areas showed that teachers implemented a variety of activities using almost exclusively rote instruction. Most teachers implemented a math activity, just under half implemented a literacy activity, and less than 20% implemented a science activity during the observation period.

Classrooms were often crowded, with over 80% of classrooms having inadequate space. The average class size was 28 children, with a range of 4 to 70 children. Classrooms also lacked materials. While writing utensils were present or used by children in over 80% of classrooms, 75% of the classrooms had no art materials or blocks, 80% had no fantasy play materials or other educational materials and, 89% did not have books.

These findings indicate that teachers are already implementing some practices that build positive relationships and support children’s social-emotional development. However, they also show areas where support is needed to improve these positive practices and, in particular, the need to reduce physical punishment and negative verbal interactions.

This project offered an opportunity to build capacity among pre-service teachers by training them on a measure of classroom observation and giving them experiences in observing a variety of classrooms.  The students will take what they’ve learned into their own classrooms and share these experiences with their peers.  Liberia plans to use the results and lessons learned from this project to inform their collaboration with Together for Early Childhood Evidence (T4ECE), including a mapping and survey of early childhood programs. Dr. Cassell also plans to take her experience into the university classrooms and lab school, focusing on providing professional development opportunities for teachers to reduce the use of physical punishment and negative verbal interactions.  She is also interested in how these data can be shared back with programs to provide them with specific supports based on the findings.

For more information, please visit the BEQI page and Liberia’s involvement in Together for Early Childhood Evidence page.

Note: We are cross-posting this blog about our related work in Liberia, which was funded by a private foundation, because of its relevance to T4ECE.