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Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development

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Socialemotional wellbeing and resilience of children in early childhood settings PERIK: an empirically based observation scale for practitioners
Toni Mayr & Michaela Ulich
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State Institute of Early Childhood Research, Munich, Germany Version of record first published: 11 Mar 2009.

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Early Years Vol. 29, No. 1, March 2009, 4557

Social-emotional well-being and resilience of children in early childhood settings PERIK: an empirically based observation scale for practitioners
Toni Mayr* and Michaela Ulich
State Institute of Early Childhood Research, Munich, Germany

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Compared with the traditional focus on developmental problems, research on positive development is relatively new. Empirical research in childrens well-being has been scarce. The aim of this study was to develop a theoretically and empirically based instrument for practitioners to observe and assess preschool childrens well-being in early childhood settings. The analysis of preschool teachers ratings yields six dimensions of social-emotional well-being: (1) making contact/social performance, (2) self control/thoughtfulness, (3) self-assertiveness, (4) emotional stability/coping with stress, (5) task orientation, (6) pleasure in exploration. Composite scales were constructed. PERIK consists of six scales of six items each. The scales differentiate in both the upper and lower range and despite their brevity have good psychometric qualities. The instrument was published together with a booklet containing examples of how PERIK observations can be employed in practical work with children. Keywords: observation scale; social-emotional well-being; resilience; early childhood settings

Introduction Well-being is a topic that concerns us every day in our professional and private lives and it is quite natural for adults to be particularly concerned about the well-being of children. All parents wish that their children will develop positively. Even for preschool and other teachers who deal with children professionally, the well-being of the children in their care is of paramount importance beyond all pedagogical methods and trends. They know that learning and developmental processes succeed best when the children are healthy and happy. Thus, well-being of children is a central indicator of the quality of educational institutions and processes (Laevers 2003; Ministerium fur Kultus, Jugend und Sport Baden-Wurttemberg 2006; New Zealand Ministry of Education 1996; Van Sanden and Joly 2003). But what are the consequences for pedagogical work in early childhood settings and schools? Here, it very quickly becomes clear that it is one thing to use terms like well-being and positive development in everyday discussions and educational programs and quite another thing to make such concepts concrete, because terms like well-being and positive development refer to complex physical and psychological states and dispositions. In order to observe and keep track of each childs individual well-being, professional educators need to have (a) a welldefined concept of well-being and (b) reliable and valid instruments for its observation and assessment. There is a vast need for development here, which is
*Corresponding author. Email:
ISSN 0957-5146 print/ISSN 1472-4421 online # 2009 TACTYC DOI: 10.1080/09575140802636290


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certainly surprising considering how often the topic of well-being is highlighted in preschool education. The lack of theoretical concepts and instruments for describing and recording well-being in children is due mainly to the fact that positive development has long been neglected by research. Developmental risks were prominent; the instruments for observing children are still strongly focused on developmental problems with a few exceptions, e.g. the innovative and widely known work of Laevers on involvement (Laevers 2000, 2003; Ulich and Mayr 2003a) or, with a different perspective, the scales of Ulich and Mayr (2003b, 2006) for the observation and assessment of language and literacy competencies. It is only in the past few years that this deficit perspective has been questioned. Currently, there is an ever-growing interest in competence and positive development. The following gives a report on a newly developed instrument for observing and assessing the well-being of children in early childhood centres (Mayr and Ulich 2006). The instrument is called PERIK (Positive development and resilience in kindergarten; in German: Positive Entwicklung und Resilienz im Kindergartenalltag). Theoretical background The development of PERIK was based primarily on three different sources: research on mental health, resilience and school readiness. Mental health About 30 years ago, research on mental health started to look systematically at positive development and physical and mental well-being (salutogenesis). The aim was to achieve a discrete concept of positive development (e.g. Antonovsky 1979). Different concepts were developed with regard to individual mental health (e.g. Compton 1998; Goppel 1997). A differentiation made by Ryan and Deci (2000) is important for the understanding and theoretical classification of these currently very heterogeneous concepts: the focus is either on subjective well-being (hedonic approach) or on optimum development of the individuals intrinsic potential (eudaimonic approach); the latter can but does not have to be linked with subjective well-being, and vice versa. In Germany, it was above all Becker who concentrated on research on mental health (e.g. 1982, 1986). He developed a complex concept of seven bipolar dimensions (Becker 1986), e.g. physical well-being (frequently positive feelings, seldom negative feelings), high level of energy (vitality, activity, initiative, interest) and expansivity (spontaneity, self-assertiveness, self-actualization). The concept of life skills (World Health Organisation 1994; Asshauer and Hanewinkel 2000) is influential in the educational sector. What is meant here are skills that enable appropriate interaction with fellow human beings and also facilitate coping with everyday problems and stress situations: (1) self-awareness and empathy, (2) effective handling of stress and difficult situations, (3) communication and social competence, (4) critical, creative, independent thinking, (5) ability to solve problems.

Early Years 47 Resilience The concept of resilience came to the fore in the field of so-called risk research. This concentrates on children who grow up in particularly difficult conditions; these children often suffer from different problems in childhood or later. Longitudinal studies of these children from birth or early childhood to adolescence and adulthood (e.g. Block and Block 1988; Garmezy 1981; Murphy and Moriarty 1976; Rutter 1997; Werner and Smith 1982; see also review: Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker 2000; Werner 2000) show that even in such high risk samples there are children who do not fail in their developmental tasks or show deviant behaviours, but develop positively in kindergarten and school and later become successful and happy. These children are described as resilient. What characterises these children? The results of longitudinal studies have provided perspectives on critical developmental personality factors of resilient children (Mayr and Ulich 2003):

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easy temperament and friendliness ability to elicit positive attention from family members and strangers positive self concept, self-esteem autonomy and independence proactive approach to problem-solving persistence and concentration pleasure in novel experiences, curiosity and exploratory drive, alertness empathy and prosocial orientation positive social relationships ability to delay gratification positive processing (and restructuring) of negative experiences control of affect adequate expression of feelings and demands optimism, vitality and energy having hobbies and interests ability to recover after distressful experiences being calm and relaxed

Readiness for school Transition to school is a complex phenomenon involving an organised system of interactions and transactions among persons and institutions (Pianta and RimmKaufmann 2006). As far as the competencies of children are concerned, mostly we associate school readiness with intellectual, linguistic and numeracy competencies. However, more recent studies show that also early social and emotional competencies have a significant influence on how a child copes with school later on (Becker and Luthar 2002; Ladd, Birch, and Buhs 1999; Lane et al. 2007; Meisels 1999; McClelland and Morrison 2003; McClelland, Morrison, and Holmes 2000; Normandeau and Guay 1998; Raver and Zigler 1997; Rimm-Kaufmann, Pianta, and Cox 2000; Shonkoff and Phillips 2000; Zins et al. 2004). Of primary significance here is the capability of children to regulate themselves at different levels (e.g. Blaire 2002; Bronson 2000; Kopp 1982, 1989; Rothbart and Bates 1998). In detail, this concerns the following:


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Regulative competencies at the cognitive level (control of attentiveness, planning and target orientation in activities, independent working, persistence). Impulse control or effortful control (ability to resist to temptation, tolerate frustration, comply with requests, wait patiently, listen to others). Emotion regulation (appropriate expression of emotions, modulation of emotional arousal, managing aversive emotions like sadness, frustration, or anger, remaining behaviorally organized in face of distressing circumstances). Regulation of exploratory behavior (level of interest, curiosity, initiative, persistence and motivation to explore).

Social competence is also a multilayered construct (e.g. Eisenberg, Fabes, and Spinrad 2006; Kienbaum 2003, forthcoming; Petermann 2002; Saarni 1999). The following competencies are often emphasised as being particularly relevant in relation to school readiness:


Assertive behaviours (ability to say what he/she wants, to defend own views under group pressure, to question unfair rules). Prosocial behaviours (initiating interactions with peers, cooperating with children and adults, sharing, showing concern for others, resolving conflicts without aggression, cooperating with adults). Social integration/social performance (friendships, appreciation by other children, good relationships with preschool teacher).

Early regulative and early social competencies are linked with each other (e.g. Fabes et al. 1999) and establish a framework for later development. They provide the requirements for good social relationships in school with peers and the teaching staff and lay the essential foundations for learning and performance. These competencies are important not only at the transition to school, but also at the ages of three and four and can thus be observed and encouraged early on (McClelland and Morrison 2003). From the theory to the observation instrument A basic task of research is beyond personal wishes and educational aims to define the content of positive development more precisely and to define the ways of achieving this aim. Here all three theories are relevant. The traits and conditions of positive development are differentiated and researched empirically, e.g. on the basis of large-scale longitudinal studies. Important for our work was the fact that various approaches reveal perhaps not quite identical, but nevertheless very similar, dimensions of positive development. This is remarkable in that we are considering different scientific schools that hardly take any notice of each other. However, apparently there is a common core of socioemotional competencies that build the foundations for positive development regardless of the scientific contexts. This common core was the basis for developing PERIK. PERIK focuses on a concept of well-being emphasising the eudaimonic approach and socioemotional competencies. The aim was to develop a practical, not too complex but nevertheless reliable instrument for preschool teachers enabling them to observe and record systematically the well-being of children in their everyday educational settings. PERIK is the result of various phases of development. The first step was to mould the results and concepts of research into a construct that is suitable for

Early Years 49 observing children in preschool. Some concepts (e.g. self-actualization) were developed in research with youths and adults and so cannot be transferred directly to the preschool age group; others, for example proactive coping, are very difficult to observe externally. On the basis of theoretical considerations and working sessions with practitioners from eight day care centres, we first defined nine areas and designed items for each area (a total of 78 items with a five-point rating scale). The work of the Ferre Laevers research group (e.g. Vandenbussche et al. 1999) with their more phenomenological descriptions of well-being was also helpful in this process. The first experimental version of the questionnaire was tested in two empirical studies: the first with 171 children, the second with 309 children (Mayr and Ulich 1999, 2003). The results were interesting and encouraging. Basically, childrens wellbeing in preschool emerged as a multidimensional construct. A total of 11 independent dimensions were identified by principal component analysis: (1) empathic, prosocial behavior, (2) social initiative and vitality, (3) self-assertiveness, openness, (4) pleasure in exploring, (5) coping with stress, (6) positive self-defence, (7) pleasure in sensory experiences (food, smells), (8) persistence/robustness, (9) sense of humour, (10) positive attitude toward warmth and closeness, (11) ability to rest and relax. The first six dimensions could be interpreted relatively clearly, whereas the remaining five factors were more hypothetical. This was a first exploratory step toward developing a theory of well-being in early childhood and constructing a scale to be used in early childhood settings. The experience gained from this first empirical phase was channelled into a thorough overhaul of the observation instrument. On the conceptual level, we had not paid enough attention to the topic of self-regulation and self-organisation as a central development task in preschool age (e.g. Aksan and Kochanska 2004; Bronson 2000; Kochanska, Murray, and Harlan 2000; Kopp 1982, 1989; Rothbart and Rueda 2005). The studies of Hightower et al. (1986), Kendall and Wilcox (1979), Olson and Kashiwagi (2000) and Shields and Cichetti (1997) were the main points of reference at the observation procedure level. The second experimental version of the observation scale comprised a total of 85 items. This instrument was used to observe a random group of 351 children in 30 kindergartens1 (159 boys, 161 girls; 116 four-year-olds, 128 five-year-olds, 76 sixyear-olds). Teachers were asked to rate the children on a six-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (always applies) to 6 (does not apply). Empirical findings Six dimensions of well-being Teachers ratings were subjected to principal component analysis with orthogonal varimax rotation2. Six central dimensions could be interpreted as follows (percentage of the variance, number of markers and factor loadings in brackets).3 Factor 1: Self-control, thoughtfulness (13.2% of variance; 18 items; 7 items with loading >.70, 5 items >.60, 3 items >.50) This first factor is composed of items that refer to self-control and to empathicthoughtful behaviour; both aspects are highly interrelated. Childrens ability to

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control their own actions consciously and deliberately grows rapidly in the three to six-year-old age group. The observation is focused on the one hand on the aspect: can children defer needs and put aside their own wishes? Can they keep to rules and regulations? On the other hand, it focuses on perspective taking and empathy. Can children put themselves in the place of others? Do they show compassion, do they have respect for others? The ability to control oneself consciously and the ability to respect and care for others are stages in development that are of long-term significance. Factor 2: Making contact, social performance (11.4% of variance; 16 items; 4 items with loading >.70, 6 Items >.60, 3 Items >.50; 2 Items >.40) The items for this area primarily target the four different social competencies involved when interacting with other children: the ability to make positive contact easily; the ability to apply appropriate means to join in the games of other children; the ability and readiness to communicate with other children verbally; the ability to initiate games that are attractive to other children. All these competencies when used by children affect the development of early behavioural patterns in relationships with peers. Two major aspects of the development of relationships in early childhood are addressed; each has to be observed separately also with respect to their different significance for the development of the child:

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The position of a child in the group: how important is the child in the eyes of the other children, what influence does the child have? Friendships: to what extent does the child have intensive, friendly relationships with other children?

Factor 3: Task orientation (8.5% of variance; 14 items; 2 items with loading >.70, 4 Items >.60, 5 Items >.50; 3 Items >.40) Factor three refers to activities that have to be planned and executed purposefully and where the children have to act independently. These tasks can be set by the preschool teacher or chosen by the children. The following aspects play a role in responding to the question How does the child behave with respect to such tasks?. It is a matter of concentration and persistence in executing the tasks, and also a matter of independence. Does the child try to master the tasks independently or does he/she always need praise and encouragement? Does the child start quickly? Is he/she careful and accurate? Factor 4: Self-assertiveness (7% of variance; 11 items; 1 item with loading >.70, 3 Items >.60, 2 Items >.50; 5 Items >.40) Factor four describes a child who has a self-confident attitude, who will assert himself/herself and take a stand (hold his/her ground), who is ready to defend himself/herself when necessary. More specifically it refers to childrens ability or readiness to communicate their feelings, needs and wishes to others (also to adults), to make claims, to tell other people what is on their minds. Self-assertiveness should be distinguished from aggressive behaviour.

Early Years 51 Factor 5: Pleasure in exploring (5.2% of variance; 11 items; 1 item >.60, 4 items >.50; 4 items >.40) This factor has a very clear focus. It includes items like asks questions, wants to know about things, likes to explore new things, is optimistic and positive when beginning something new. Even exploratory courage comes under this factor: will try things that seem difficult. All in all, this factor seems to describe a very basic tendency of children to be curious and optimistic rather than defensive toward novel situations, to show a positive and constructive attitude toward challenges. Factor 6: Emotional stability, coping with stress (4.6% of variance; 8 items; 2 items >.60, 2 items >.50; 4 items >.40) Factor six describes two highly interrelated aspects: reactivity or emotional stability and coping with stress. Reactivity refers to habitual emotional responsivity, coping with stress means the ability of children to modulate this reactivity (is able to calm down on his/her own). Children with high scores in this dimension remain accessible and open to their social environment even when under stress: they do not tend to withdraw, and they will let themselves be comforted when they are sad which means that they can accept and use emotional support from peers and adults. Scale development With reference to the factor pattern, six composite scales were constructed with six items each. Items are chosen for inclusion on the basis of factor patterns, item-total correlations, internal consistency and a thorough examination of the contents of individual items. PERIK consists of 36 items (Table 1); some statistics of the instrument are presented in Table 2. Reliability coefficients (Cronbachs alpha) range from .81 (emotional stability/coping with stress) to .88 (Making contact/ social performance) demonstrating a relatively high internal consistency of the scales, considering the measures brevity. The scales are approximately normally distributed; they differentiate in both the upper and lower range. To evaluate age and gender effects, children were divided into three different age groups (four, five, and six years). Next, 2 (child gender) 63 (child age) ANOVAS were conducted separately for each scale. Analyses revealed that childrens scores on all six scales varied significantly with childs age, in the expected direction of older children manifesting more advanced competencies. Significant main effects were obtained for childs gender too: univariate tests revealed that girls had higher scores than boys on five scales. Boys and girls did not differ significantly on the scale selfassertiveness. For all six scales percentile norms were calculated (percentile 25, percentile 75). Discussion Because interest in childrens competencies is relatively new, compared with the traditional focus on developmental problems, less is known about empirically derived dimensions of competencies/dispositions and about instruments to observe and assess competencies. The present research revealed six dimensions of socioemotional competency in preschool age: making contact/social performance,

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Table 1. PERIK: Dimensions and items. Making contact/social performance N the child makes (positive) contact easily with peers N initiates games which are attractive for other children N tells other children about his/her experiences N if he/she wants to join other children in play, he/she can express this adequately, e.g. using entrance rituals like may I play with you? N his/her opinion is important among peers N has close relationships (friendships) with other children

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Self-control/thoughtfulness N the child can wait for his/her turn, e.g. in group discussions, when food or materials are handed out N respects the boundaries and needs of other children N is worried when he/she has hurt another child or damaged something; apologises, tries to make up N has respect and empathy for feelings and mood of adults, e.g. when I ask the children to be a little quiet, because I am not feeling well N respects dos and donts, e.g. concerning the use of certain rooms or objects N can be glad for other children, shares their joy and success, e.g. when a child gets a present Self-assertiveness N the child enjoys relating tells his/her experiences, e.g. about the weekend N when an adult does not treat him/her justly, the child will speak up for himself/herself N is able to make justified demands on adults, e.g. reminding them of a promise N when something is wrong/disagreeable or something bad happens among children, he/she will speak up, e.g. will say stop it, no I dont want to do that N can defend himself/herself verbally or physically when attacked by other children N does not allow himself/herself to be put under pressure, e.g. holds an opinion that others do not share Emotional stability/coping with stress N the child remains reachable when in distress, e.g. when he/she is cross, disappointed, sad N he/she calms down on his/her own following excitement or stress N appears well-balanced N doesnt mind too much when he/she makes a mistake, loses at a game N takes relatively long to recover after stress and excitement (2) N quickly loses his balance, feels stressed easily (2) Task orientation N the child quickly begins a task N works on a task independently N works quickly N works carefully and precisely, e.g. when cutting, gluing, building a bridge N can remain concentrated on one thing for relatively long N needs praise and encouragement to finish a task (2) Pleasure in exploring N the child likes to explore new things N is optimistic and positive when beginning something new N asks questions, wants to know about things N explores new things independently N gives himself/herself time to get acquainted with new situations and things N will try things that seem difficult or might not succeed

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Table 2. PERIK: selected statistical parameters. Scale Making contact/social performance Self-control/thoughtfulness Self-assertiveness Emotional stability/coping with stress Task orientation Pleasure in exploration M 21.23 21.85 20.97 22.35 22.50 19.84 S 4.85 4.40 4.61 4.11 4.62 4.52 Kurtosis .08 2.46 2.19 .13 2.33 2.28 Skewness 2.51 2.36 2.35 2.37 2.21 2.08 Alpha .88 .86 .81 .82 .85 .86

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self-control/thoughtfulness, self-assertiveness, emotional stability/coping with stress, Task orientation, Pleasure in exploring. At the scientific level, the dimensions found here match well the research referred to at the beginning on mental health, resilience and readiness for school. There is also a high degree of agreement with temperament research (e.g. Rothbart and Bates 1998), research on prosocial development e.g. the link between impulse control and the development of empathy (e.g. Eisenberg, Fabes, and Spinrad 2006), and research on self-regulation (e.g. Bronson 2000). With reference to observation procedures, all the dimensions of PERIK could be identified as independent factors in other empirical studies (Fingerle 2000; Gresham and Elliot 1990; Hightower et al. 1986; Janus, Walsh, and Duku 2005; Kendall and Wilcox 1979; McDermott, Leigh, and Perry 2002; Olson and Kashiwagi 2000; Putnam and Rothbart 2006; Shields and Cichetti 1997). At the educational level, PERIK can be used both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, a summary score can be formed for each area of competence. This provides the option of making systematic comparisons, e.g. where does a child stand in a specific area compared with other children in the same age group? Such scores can be used also in educational projects and interventions. Existing findings indicate that the PERIK scales, despite their brevity, have good psychometric qualities. The scales demonstrate a relatively high internal consistency. There is evidence of validity as well: (a) factorial structure of the instrument was compatible with existing theoretical models and with other empirical results. (b) Associations between PERIK scores with age and gender replicated age and gender differences demonstrated in other studies (Janus and Offord 2007; Kochanska, Murray, and Coy 1997; Mayr 2000). (c) The relationships between childrens PERIK scores and the quality of teacherchild relationships, measured via the Student Teacher Relationship Scale (Pianta 2001), were consistently in the expected direction (Mayr n.d.): there was a high negative correlation between childrens self-regulation (PERIK: self-control/thoughtfulness and emotional stability/coping with stress) and conflict (STRS). As can be predicted from the attachment theory (e.g. Scholmerich and Legning 2004), emotional closeness (STRS) was strongly (positively) associated with pleasure in exploration (PERIK). At the qualitative level there should be a close connection between assessment in pedagogical settings on the one hand and curricular goals and pedagogical action on the other hand (Meisels and Atkins-Burnett 2006). The items in PERIK describe competencies that are designated as concrete learning goals in many German


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preschool curricula. The questionnaire helps professionals to recognise and encourage such competencies in everyday kindergarten life. The questionnaire covers emotions, social processes and interactions. This means that we are moving in a sensitive and complex field and must be careful with quickfix solutions (patent recipes). The relationship between observation and pedagogical action is at different levels in PERIK:

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Working with the questionnaire leads to a differentiated perspective of the individual child. Thus, for example, within a specific area of development different individual competencies become clear: a child might have a lot of contact with other children, but only rarely takes the initiative and has the feeling that he/she does not have many friends. In the synopsis of areas and separate components there are indications of where support can be practically applied. In addition to providing information about children, observation with PERIK also raises questions that concern the preschool teachers themselves: what are my pedagogical aspirations? How should I attune to a child? Where should I change my expectations? How do I react to the self-assertiveness of a six-yearold boy if I am always ready to make compromises and have a need for harmony, for example? How do I differentiate between aggression and selfassertiveness in such a case? Based on the observations, specific competencies can be deliberately encouraged in everyday life. For example in the case of Lena, a girl who has little self-confidence, the preschool teacher observed that Lena is reticent when something new is introduced and hardly tries anything that she is not sure to succeed in. When making a self-portrait, she refuses to paint her nose. She is afraid of messing up her picture. The preschool teacher suggests trying to draw her nose first on a separate piece of paper and thus with this little stimulus helps her over the I cant do that threshold.

The accompanying booklet to PERIK contains practical suggestions and examples of how preschool teachers can support and reinforce specific areas and competencies. The examples reflect different levels of support from spontaneous assistance in everyday activities to the systematic structuring of the learning environment. Notes
1. Traditionally in Germany kindergarten is for children from three to six. 2. Exploratory factor analysis revealed 14 factors with eigenvalues greater than 1. An eightfactor solution was selected because it best satisfied standard criteria for retention and because this solution was psychologically meaningful and compatible with existing theoretical models. With reference to Guadagnoli and Velicers (1988) criteria, the first six factors could be substantially interpreted. 3. For reasons of space we did not include the whole matrix of factor loadings; the complete matrix will be sent upon request.

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