Career Feature: Family Relations and Human Development

Author: Dana Lowry

Parents in modern Western societies are increasing their demands professional childcare. According to Statistics Canada, about half of Canadian parents rely on childcare, with over 70% of households with two working parents using childcare on a regular basis. Despite the demand for daycare and after-school program specialists, Early Childhood Educators (ECE) are not widely recognized as holding a professional designation. Dr. Tricia Van Rhijn, professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph in Canada, shared some insights towards gaining a better understanding of professionals working in the childcare sector.

Although Dr. Van Rhijn teaches a variety of students, earning a diploma as an ECE along
with a bachelor’s degree is an especially popular route. Students pursuing this route take a wide range of courses, from human physiology and development to program planning and
counseling skills. The degree also involves a practicum that allows students to gain real-world
experience in their field. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree and ECE diploma is not a walk in
the park, and neither is the job itself.

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Besides early childhood education, the study of Family Relations and Human
Development (FRHD) encompasses a wide breadth of subjects. This area draws in students interested in a wide array of research topics including human sexuality, parenting, and the effects of aging. Graduate degrees in FRHD “are more interdisciplinary and lead to greater depth than most areas of study,” says Dr. Van Rhijn. Students focus on familial structures and how children can thrive, as well as behavior and social development at all ages.

Dr. Van Rhijn’s research is a true testament to the eclectic nature of the FRHD program.
She studies “two ends of the spectrum”: early childhood education on one end and mature
students on the other end. Dr. Van Rhijn’s work on mature students seeks to understand the
experiences mature students and their parents have in post-secondary institutions. She is
interested in the barriers and obstacles these non-traditional students face and how broader
policy changes can improve their experiences in terms of access to services and tailored
programming. In research, mature students are defined as 25 years or older, though Dr. Van
Rhijn says that mature students are defined differently depending on the institution or purpose.
She explains that “someone may be 21 years of age and considered a mature student because
of a lack of prerequisites for university admission.”

The project that Dr. Van Rhijn is exceptionally excited about is an extension to her
undergraduate and graduate research, which focused on the barriers and facilitators to success
for mature students. Dr. Van Rhijn explains that she “never added partners to the list [of
barriers], so now [she is] bringing it forward because the relationships that people are in greatly affect their achievement and well-being.” Dr. Van Rhijn points out that on average, mature students gain higher marks than their traditional, younger, student counterparts, but they are also more likely to drop out. She notes that “if mature students are more likely to get higher grades, but also more likely to withdraw, then the issue is obviously exterior to the
environment, and an important aspect of that environment is the relationship [that they are

Dr. Van Rhijn’s passion for her work stems from her own experiences as a mature
student. She explains: “I took some time off to care for my own children, and after 8 years of
work [running a licensed home child care] I went back to finish my first degree.” She noticed
the difficulties faced by mature students firsthand and wanted to study these issues more in
depth. Now, after completing her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Guelph,
she spends her time both teaching and conducting research. Research involves working closely
with graduate students, and this teaching experience is her favorite part of the job. She reasons
that “working with grad students offers major one-on-one time and being able to see the
lightbulb go on is so rewarding.”

In the end, Family Relations and Human Development is an applicable subject of study
for anyone that wants to work with people and services. Graduates are qualified to work in a
variety of fields such as libraries or schools as learning specialists, childcare centers, or charities as program managers. Dr. Van Rhijn’s final advice is relevant for any student: be proactive in your work. She emphasizes that “you need to have intentionality with the program. Go to conferences, make connections and take advantage of all things the university has to offer.”