Professor Mirjam Kalland: Parents of small children need a community to support them

Mirjam Kalland’s route to a professorship has been far from straightforward, but her focus has always been research on children.

Antenatal classes, maternity and child welfare clinics, health centres – the parents of small children in Finland have access to a wide variety of support services.

Yet there has, to date, been little research on how social support affects parents and the wellbeing of families. But now, Mirjam Kalland, the Swedish-language professor of early childhood education, has compiled a dataset on the parents of more than 1,000 firstborn children aged 0 to 2.

A parent can find a community in a family group.

Kalland’s data show that easy access to services may reduce symptoms of depression and the stress associated with parenthood. Such services include informal parental groups that parents can participate in without registering in advance.

The results did not come as a surprise to Kalland, for she firmly believes that parents need a community around them. One place to find it is in a family group.

Some may recognise Kalland’s name from outside the academic world. She herself describes her academic career path as atypical. After completing a doctorate in education, Kalland became a qualified psychotherapist in the 1990s and served as general-secretary of the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare for seven years in the 2000s. 

However, she continued her research work throughout that time. In 2001 she received a great deal of attention with a study that tracked the development of children and adolescents who had been taken into care (adolescents who had grown up in a children’s home). Her research revealed that the mortality rates of these adolescents was clearly higher than that of their peers due to, for example, a higher risk of accident.

One of Kalland’s major interests is the theory of mentalisation, which focuses on how parents interpret their children’s emotions based on their actions. She carried out related research while working on other tasks.

Eventually, though, she had to make a choice.

“I had to decide whether to concentrate on research or abandon it altogether. I chose research.”

However, she first got an administrative job in academia, as the rector of the Swedish School of Social Science. Her second five-year term as rector had just begun when she was appointed to the professorship in early childhood education.

And this is a position she intends to keep.

“Now I just want to do research and teach. This is a fantastic place, as I will get to know the people who will work with practical early childhood education for decades to come.”

At present, Kalland is particularly interested in the many application opportunities of the theory of mentalisation in early childhood education.

“Early childhood education allows us to influence the critical years of personal development. They are key to shaping a child’s potential.”