How can we do the best we can for young children in early childhood services?

“Much of my research over the past two decades has been an attempt to answer this question,” says Victoria University’s Professor Carmen Dalli.

With 94.7 per cent of children starting school having experienced some form of early childhood education, and enrolment in early childhood services continuing to grow for all age groups, participation rates for under-2s year olds have grown the fastest, doubling over the last decade. The average hours of attendance for under-2s have also increased from 14 hours per week in 2002 to 20 hours per week in 2011. Clearly, shared care between the home and early childhood services is an increasingly common experience for children and families. Contemporary childhood is not what it used to be.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing – but it is definitely a new reality for children’s lives to which as a society we must make a responsible response,” says Dalli.

Dalli argues that research is clear that it is the quality of the early childhood experience that matters for children’s wellbeing, not whether it is provided by parents at home or non-familial adults in early childhood settings.

“This question has been discussed since the 1960s and has now been put to rest in the literature” says Dalli.

She cites the latest OECD (2012) report on early childhood education and care (ECEC), which reiterated the benefits of ECEC but also warned that these benefits are contingent on “quality”. In other words, lack of quality is not neutral in its outcomes; rather, it results in long-lasting negative effects.

Creating early childhood services where children experience high-quality care and education requires attention to a range of interrelated process and structural variables, says Dalli.

“If there is a formula, it is this: you need knowledgeable teachers and optimum structural variables and supportive environments. When policy ensures that structural elements such as good enough adult:child ratios and appropriate staff qualifications are in place, a calm and stress-free environment becomes possible, and teachers can engage in the kind of sensitive responsive interactions on which children thrive.”

Dalli adds that parents also benefit from responsive interactions with teachers who seek their input into the care and education of their children and keep them informed about it.

Dalli also says that research shows a link between higher-level qualifications with a specific focus on infants and toddlers and a positive attitude towards very young children and their learning. In her own research, she discovered that many New Zealand teachers working with infants and toddlers feel they have been inadequately prepared for the specialised skills required when working with very young children.

“In a recent project in infant and toddler settings, we came to realise that there is a need for a clearer articulation of the nature of learning in the early years and a stronger focus on pedagogy with under-2s within teacher education programmes.”

Advances in child development and neurobiological research are increasingly evidencing young children’s competencies with important implications for quality early childhood teaching. Dalli argues that infants and toddlers need knowledgeable adults who are able to recognise and interpret their competencies in ways that can enhance them. Without this knowledge base, it is easy to fall back on widespread societal assumptions that babies only need babysitters.

One focus in Prof Dalli’s research has been to examine the place of love in early childhood practice. She recalls that in surveys and interviews teachers regularly talk about their role as involving love, and about being attracted to teaching because they love children. While acknowledging that one would not want teachers teaching who did not love children, Dalli argues that there is a need to re-vision the nature of love as part of the professional practice of early childhood teaching.

“It is so easy for people to think that love is all you need, but there are a number of problems with that assumption. In the first instance, putting the focus on love leads people to assume that anyone who loves children, or has had children, can do the job. But love as a professional behaviour is quite distinct from motherly love or some other unexamined notion of love,” says Dalli.

According to Dalli, professional love may need to emulate all that is good about motherly love – such as constant attentiveness and responsiveness – but it can never be motivated by the same deep engrossment in the life of the child that exists for the parents to whom the child returns at the end of each day, and with whom the child will live well beyond the early childhood years. Nor should it be assumed that professional teachers will automatically be emotionally attracted to each child. Rather, a mark of the professional teacher is that they make available the best they have to offer to each child, irrespective of whether they are attracted to them or not. This makes the source of professional love an ethical commitment rather than a personal emotion.

Dalli, who in the 1990s led the research part of a project that led to the development of the Early Childhood Code of Ethics, argues that the role of the early childhood teacher is complex, often ethically challenging, and inevitably concerned with building and sustaining relationships that extend beyond the confines of the early childhood setting. Her more recent work exploring the nature of professionalism in early childhood teaching practice links professional practice to the broader societal and policy context in which teachers work.

“Acting professionally is not just an individual attribute; beyond an ethical commitment and critical self-reflection, it requires engagement with the broader context which provides the pre-conditions of professional practice,” says Dalli.

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