Imagine a household of 30, 50, or 100 members. How would you cope? Could you manage? How could you form relationships? How could you remember everyone? And yet this is what we ask some of our youngest children to experience, day after long day, in some of our early childhood services. It is stressful, impersonal, and damaging.
The evidence shows that the number of children in a group in early childhood settings is critical to how those children develop socially, emotionally and cognitively.
The group size is also a critical component for health status, with infections spreading, hearing damage due to noise, and long-term disadvantages in language. In large groups, quiet, well-behaved children may go unnoticed, and problems may go undiagnosed. Early intervention is key for the future health and happiness of children, and large group sizes are one of many stressful factors for early childhood teachers to contend with.
Research backs up what is common sense – that very young children require a lot of one-on-one attention from adults. This is especially true for children who have experienced trauma, or have special needs in learning, language or behaviour.
Teacher sensitivity and responsiveness are key to developing secure attachment relationships with children, so the ratios of adults to children in a centre is key, but so too is the number of children in a group. The Ministry of Education is continually extolling New Zealand’s ‘world-leading’ status, and yet group sizes of 150 are allowed and there is no regulation controlling group size. If a centre has the space, it can have the children.
Conflict is more likely in larger groups of children, especially boys. Children who spend more time in daycare with large groups of children are more likely to exhibit externalising behaviours, such as aggression and threatening behaviours.
A Norwegian study in 2015 showed that teacher/child closeness reduced behavioural problems. Language development in children occurs when they have conversations with adults, and this language needs to be reciprocal. An Australian study of several infant rooms showed that teachers were consistently not engaging in rich language scenarios with the children in their care. And it is a conversational exchange that is important. The infant must be receptive, the conversation sustained and uninterrupted, and the relationship must be real. In a babies’ room containing 20 infants and five teachers, where one of those teachers is changing nappies, and another attending to a distressed child, the remaining two adults have 18 infants, in an inadequate space, often with a great deal of noise. A sustained conversation with a single young child is not possible.
Similarly, children with English as a second language will also struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication in larger groups. Their families, too may have more difficulty in communicating with teachers. Children learn language from the context they are in and from the trusted relationships they have.
Large groups mean more profits for early childhood services. Not surprisingly, the Early Childhood Council, which represents mainly profit-oriented services, is opposed to tighter regulations on group size.
Peter Reynolds, the CEO of the Council says, “Regulating group size without an appreciation of the true state of ECE centres seems to me to be overkill … do we really need more regulations?”
Other early childhood advocates say yes, we do.
To see Peter Reynolds’ response to this article, please click here.