Young children's meaning-making about the causes of illness within the family context : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand

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With the current prioritising of child health promotion, practitioners in health, education, and social services are facing the challenge of providing effective health education programmes for young children. Appreciation of the role that families play in young children’s meaning-making about the causes of illness is likely to assist practitioners to reach this goal. To date, researchers have largely sought to determine children’s understanding at various stages of cognitive development rather than exploring how children might acquire, process, and share their knowledge within particular social contexts. However, attention is increasingly turning to sociocultural aspects of children’s learning and development, and the need to explore the various ways in which children’s knowledge of health and illness is acquired in everyday contexts. Adopting a socioconstructivist perspective of children’s learning and development, and using a narrative methodology, this study sought to identify the ways in which young children’s illness causality concepts are embedded in the sociocultural context of the family. In-depth interviews were undertaken with five four-year-old children, their parents/guardians, sibling/s aged five to nine years and two other family members (29 participants in total). Participants reflected a diversity of cultural communities, spiritual orientations, and family structure. To aid the elicitation of young children’s narrative accounts of illness causality, children were invited to create a storybook about ‘getting sick’ utilising art materials and photographs of children experiencing illness. A social interactional approach was then employed to interpret participants’ narratives. Findings indicate that preschoolers draw heavily on their family contexts in their meaning-making about the causes of illness. Furthermore, young children’s illness causality constructions are significantly influenced by the particular illness experiences, illness prevention messages and behavioural rules within their families. Consequently, researchers are encouraged to further explore the social construction of children’s knowledge, and practitioners are urged to utilise children’s existing understandings and associated family practices as the context for children’s learning about health and well-being. By viewing family members as essential partners in the education of young children, practitioners may be better placed to develop effective health education programmes and provide enhanced psychosocial support for young children and their families.
Illness causality, Children's perceptions, Illness in family, Child psychology, Cognitive development