What does 'Care' really mean for under threes in early childhood education?
Nikki is the Director and Operations Manager of New Shoots - an innovative group of early childhood learning environments in New Zealand. Nikki has over 20 years experience in the early childhood education sector and has managed both small community early childhood services and large corporate early childhood groups.
Have you ever truly observed an infant or toddler?
The way they explore and interact with their environment is magical to watch.
Under threes typically spend more time than ever before in early childhood settings across New Zealand. Over the past few months, we at New Shoots have been reflecting on what care – yes I use the word care – looks and feels like for these children and their families.
It turns out we aren’t the only ones considering how to ensure we are providing quality care for young children. Just last week the Brainwave Trust released its two year literature review, “Childcare: How Are The Children Doing?”, which has prompted some much needed discussion around care for children under three.
Care is a word that dropped out of the early childhood professional vocabulary in recent years. Lately though, care is having a revival and we welcome its return. We believe care is the curriculum for our under threes and a stronger emphasis on it can only lead to quality environments for children.
In 2015, the NZ Education Review Office (ERO) released its report “Infants and Toddlers: Competent and Confident Communicators and Explorers”. In it they state that “just over half of the services in the sample had a responsive curriculum that supported infants and toddlers to become competent and confident communicators and explorers.” The report went on to say that “in the most responsive of these services, children experienced a high quality curriculum and responsive interactions and relationships. Children’s interests and their parents’ aspirations informed the curriculum and daily routines.
How well each service promoted positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers was most influenced by:
1. High quality leadership – a highly reflective culture where teachers inquired into and regularly reflected on their teaching practice; and
2. Engaging in whole-staff professional learning and development in relation to infants and toddlers.
These factors meant infants and toddlers experienced a curriculum that fostered and extended their learning and development.”
The report also noted that “the services that were less responsive, continued to give priority to well-being and belonging, but provided less opportunity for infants and toddlers to become confident communicators and explorers. Although teachers usually responded to infants’ verbal and non-verbal communication they did not build on these opportunities for rich extended conversations or oral language development. There were fewer opportunities for infants to explore and develop physical confidence. Teachers were [also] less likely to use what they knew about individual infants’ and toddlers’ interests and developmental milestones to provide experiences that supported children’s abilities to actively explore and communicate in many ways."
If you study the ERO findings you see that care plays a huge part in how responsive a centre is to both children and families. The teachers who develop meaningful relationships use this information to inform the daily curriculum and routine. Those services that don’t, will meet children’s basic needs, but do not further develop or support children’s interests and abilities.
At New Shoots we welcome research that promotes discussion and leads to a greater review of what quality environments look like for infants and toddlers. There are certainly areas that need ongoing consideration and improvement in the early childhood sector.
These areas include the current funded ratio of one teacher to every five children under two years and one to ten for children over two years. I do not know of one Early Childhood Centre who would be working to these ratios. Most are one to four and at times one to three with very young babies; one to six or seven for toddlers aged up to about three years and one to eight or nine for over three year olds. Alongside these figures, our group sizes need further investigation to ensure our environments are conducive for these ratios and ages.
The decline of funding for professional development has impacted on teaching practice, often leaving teachers with little opportunity to continue their learning journey. We see teachers who struggle with what self-review or reflective practice looks like, when this should be at the core of what they do each day. To increase quality across the sector, teacher education programmes that reflect the needs of infant and toddlers need to be developed and offered.
‘Quality’ is a key term, but it looks very different from centre to centre. Quality needs to be quantified against our Early Childhood Regulations and Criteria to provide consistency across the sector. The ERO currently review services and provide feedback on how well placed a service is to provide positive outcomes for children. However, we do not believe that for those services struggling this is enough to ensure practice is improved. For us, quality looks like a service that goes above and beyond the baseline requirements. We believe in having a passionate, experienced and qualified team with low child to teacher ratios and well-resourced environments that are purposefully designed to ensure children feel a sense of home.
Centres have grown larger over the past few years. This means more transitions for young children, creating an area that needs continual review. Often centres, New Shoots included, will have Whānau Support Teachers or Primary Caregivers who support children and their families into the centre. They are responsible for the day-to-day care of the child and develop strong relationships with both child and parent. When children then move into a new room they get a new Whānau Support Teacher and the relationship building starts again. Time is spent in the transition period building up the new relationships to ensure this is a smooth process, but I do wonder if there are better ways. We are reviewing these transitions to see what successes others have had in this area.
As early childhood professionals we need to keep children at the heart of everything we do. As professionals we know that reflective practice brings positive change. We believe now is the time to start meaningful dialogues that can advocate and drive for changes.
New Zealand has a reputation for leading the way in Early Childhood Education, however we believe we cannot maintain this reputation if we do not further consider what we can do better. Group care for children - especially for our under three year olds - is a socially new phenomenon in reality - less than thirty years in the New Zealand context. Let’s carefully consider what we can do to continue to improve care and education for our families, children and teachers.