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‘Where there is a caring teacher, there is a compassionate school’: poor children's experiences of wellbeing and teacher-child relationships in Mumbai, India



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Kurian, Nomisha 


This research explores socio-economically disadvantaged children's lived experiences of ‘wellbeing’ and 'care' in an Indian school, in order to offer fresh perspectives on child wellbeing in resource-constrained settings and children's own views on teacher support for vulnerable learners. On a small scale, this study aims to help fill three gaps in the literature. Firstly, given growing calls to explore under-researched contexts in wellbeing scholarship, it focuses on 11-14-year-olds in Mumbai, India. Secondly, given the dearth of qualitative work compared to substantial quantitative work conducted on children in poverty in developing-country contexts, the study uses child-centred qualitative methods to help address the lack of attention to poor Indian children's own perspectives on their wellbeing. Thirdly, given rising calls to recognise poverty as a relational experience of deprivation, the study focuses on the role of teacher-child relationships in influencing child wellbeing. Thereby, this research aims to share child-led (and teacher-informed) perspectives on building caring teacher-child relationships in school settings marked by inequality and crisis.

Theoretically, the research is anchored in the concept of educational 'care' pioneered by Nel Noddings. To contextualise and analyse children's experiences, the study integrates the hedonic and eudaimonic framework of wellbeing with Bronfenbrenner's social-ecological systems approach. Methodologically, the study employs Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis and a trauma-informed research design. To elicit rich data on child-participants' lived experiences, it uses semi-structured interviews and includes children’s artwork. The research also draws on interviews with teachers for a multi-perspectival phenomenological analysis.

The findings illustrate the significant role that teacher-child relationships play in impacting socio-economically disadvantaged children's trajectories of wellbeing and associated outcomes, such as learning and achievement. Each chapter of the findings is centred around a ‘story’ highlighting a key challenge, adversity or trauma that children commonly experience in high-poverty communities. This includes bereavement and the loss of primary caregivers, forced displacement, bullying, homelessness, caregiver and child illness, and intergenerational traumas including child marriage and gender-based abuse. In response to each challenge, the research spotlights child-participants' own insights into teacher behaviours and gestures that help protect and nurture, or alternatively damage and undermine, their wellbeing in school. The children's experiences reveal the extent to which a school's everyday relational climate reinforces or transforms complex cycles of structural and interpersonal adversity and trauma. The findings also shed light on intersectional aspects of children's identities (such as gender and health) that create compounded vulnerabilities and needs.

The research aims to make three contributions. Firstly, it seeks to value and foreground children's own conceptualisations of wellbeing and care. It crafts a child-centred framework to identify the key relational barriers and enablers that participants identify as influencing their wellbeing in the face of adversity. The framework is structured around five key themes: deep listening, whole-family engagement, creativity and self-expression, spaces of sanctuary, and a strengths-based lens. Secondly, the study also sheds light on teachers’ experiences and perceptions of the challenges and possibilities of supporting children’s wellbeing in resource-constrained settings. Thirdly, the study aims to connect the psychological and the societal-structural by becoming the first known study to integrate the social-ecological model, the ethic of care, and the concepts of hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing in a multi-layered, interdisciplinary theoretical framework. The social-ecological model allows for analysis of both proximal and distant structural, interpersonal and historical influences upon child wellbeing; the ethic of care allows for attention to teacher behaviours and actions that make children feel seen, heard and nurtured; and the hedonic-eudaimonic framework allows for attention to the nuances of children’s inner lives and emotions in response to contextual challenges. This interdisciplinary theoretical framework thus makes connections to the broader systemic and cultural context of each child while not losing sight of their individuality. Engaging with current debates about the need to go beyond individualistic approaches to wellbeing, the study situates child wellbeing within its social, economic, and cultural context and seeks to connect concepts of children's flourishing to broader notions of equity, inclusion and social justice.





Cremin, Hilary


child poverty, child wellbeing, ethic of care, teacher-child relationships


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Wolfson College, University of Cambridge