Early childhood

We refuse to value care – why sexism is at the core of our early childhood crisis

Introduction: The old, old problem

The introduction of an extra year of education for three and four-year olds in New South Wales (by 2030) and Victoria (by 2025) is an ambitious initiative. Articles in response argue that promises to boost provision may be difficult to deliver. Australia already has a problem filling existing positions in childcare.

Yet the commentary frequently glosses over the fundamental cause of these workforce problems. It’s sexism. Discrimination based on stereotypical understandings about gender. That old, old problem that is ever present, even in these post #metoo days, in which society has awakened to #everydaysexism.

Of course, pay, conditions and turnover affect recruitment and retention in the sector. But without naming and addressing the gender inequalities underpinning these issues, they will not be adequately addressed.

Working in a feminised profession

So what’s going on? Education in Australia (as in the UK and Canada) is a feminised profession.

This means both that women do most of the work, especially at lower pay levels, and that it is perceived as “women’s work”. The majority of teachers, at all levels of education from early years to tertiary, are women. In Australian early childhood education, women make up 96% of the workforce.

Feminist theorist Professor Madeleine Grumet has pointed out the relationship between nurturing at home and at school. Devaluing of women’s work at home (and indeed that of all those who act as carers in our society) is echoed in the devaluing of teachers’ work. In early childhood education these are closely interwoven, and it is therefore undermined as ‘child care’ or ‘glorified baby sitting’. Children themselves are also devalued and dismissed as not worthy until they become “fully formed”, idealised adults.

Caring for children, therefore, is “abjectified”. It is pushed beyond the boundaries of what is recognised and rewarded by society. Caring for children involves snot and poo, dribble, phlegm, sweat, tears, glue, mud, paint, food, vomit, crouching on the floor, carrying heavy bodies, tirelessly comforting, calming, encouraging and supporting. It is also rewarding, tender, exhilarating, creative, loving, funny and inspirational.

The gender binary’s impacts

Many feminist researchers believe that society is organised by a gender binary that privileges what is perceived as masculine over what is perceived as feminine. So the “masculine”, or what is serious, scientific, rigorous, rational, measurable, finite, cleanly defined, standardised, programmable, instrumental and technical is valued above the messy, woolly, grubby world of the so-called “feminine”.

This binary operates at countless levels, in countless ways, to keep the hierarchical status quo in place. Misogyny, the hatred of women, and mysopedy, the hatred of children, are at the heart of a larger system that refuses to value caring. This binary’s stereotypes and assumptions also discriminate against male educators working in the sector.

Early childhood teachers are discriminated against, paid low wages and employed under poor conditions because of the gendered nature of their work. This sexism feeds into the discrimination faced by all primary carers, because undermining the quality and extent of “childcare” affects participation in the workforce more generally. We argue that to change early childhood education, the sexism at its heart needs to be openly named, critiqued and challenged.

What can be done?

So… how to go about this, and ultimately, to make the profession more attractive to all, including those of all genders, colours, abilities, class backgrounds and ages? At the most basic level, researchers, the media, policymakers and politicians need to start naming sexism as the basis for the challenges faced by the early childhood sector.

The labour of workers in this sector is never gender-neutral, but always caught up in societal judgements based on its alliance with child-bearing and rearing in the home. We need to stop pretending these challenges are about early childhood education as a career being rejected simply as “boring”, low-paid or hard work.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift is necessary. If the early years are the most vital years of education, in which children develop at an astonishing rate, then we need investment that places these years at the top of any hierarchy.

Instead of valuing a medical paradigm in education, where being efficient, scientific and  “clinical” are revered, we need to value what is culturally considered to be more feminine. We might ask, “Are there kindergarten surgeons, who model their practice on the patience, kindness and empathy of early childhood teachers?” Flipping a scenario is often a handy way to expose the gender stereotypes and power asymmetries that underpin it.

Conclusion: Reinvention needs both imagination… and funding

Raising the status of early childhood teachers, paying them more, restructuring their work to acknowledge its intensity and toll, creating and rewarding career progression, making early years programs permeable with local communities, creating vibrant, accessible and well-resourced professional learning environments, enhancing early childhood teacher preparation, incentivising transfer for those in other careers, funding vitally needed research… there is no shortage of ideas for where money can be spent.

Whether there is the courage and honesty to address the real problem at the heart of early childhood education is another matter.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Fellow in the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre at Deakin University. She uses a range of feminist theories in her work on teacher autonomy and professionalism. She is also a mother of two children and has spent many hours caring for children at home, and providing community support in early childhood education as a parent helper. Follow her Teaching Digital Writing project blog or her twitter account @lucindamcknight8

Dr Natalie Robertson is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Deakin University. During her time working as an early childhood teacher, she developed a strong interest in workforce issues and play-based learning. These interests have followed Natalie into her later research and work in initial teacher education.  Natalie’s focus on workforce issues has framed her professional and research interests towards the attraction and retention of teachers in early childhood education. She is currently working with the Victorian Department of Education and Training to deliver the Early Childhood Professional Practice Partnerships (ECPPP) project) and the Innovate ITE program: Accelerated Bachelor of Early Childhood Education.

The top five ways COVID places harsher burdens on educators. There’s an urgent need for change

COVID has caused commotion in the early childhood education and care sector since it arrived in 2020. It made educators  more stressed and added burdens to those already overburdened

The current level of chaos is unsustainable as shown in our research with Australian directors from long daycare centres, community preschools and family daycare services.

Six directors from rural and regional areas in NSW participated in the study. In their hour-long interview, the directors revealed stressors within the sector related to the pandemic in a number of areas. Here are the top five.

  1. Health regulations

As the COVID virus changes and governments try different methods to suppress the virus, early childhood directors and educators have tried to keep up with evolving regulations on a daily basis. To date, this has meant continually searching government websites to find the rules, watching media reports, reading government emails, attending webinars and reading text messages, adding to their daily workload and already onerous administrative requirements. 

As the health crisis unfolded, text message updates from government departments regularly came through very late on a Friday afternoon and again on a Sunday afternoon. This meant directors had to spend chunks of time on their weekend trying to decipher the information and then act upon it, including sending on important updates and communications to staff and parents outside work hours.  

Directors mentioned the added burden this required of having to constantly ensure lists of phone numbers were up to date so they could immediately contact staff, cleaners and parents if their centre was locked down. This led to a state of hypervigilance for some directors. 

Additionally, one government department required educators to attend a webinar when most community service educators were on mandated leave. No compensation was offered to educators for these unpaid hours. Since educators are the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia, it is unreasonable to request they attend training sessions during their annual leave.

Educators said: 

‘We were fine to wear masks in and out of the service – greeting parents. We were greeting parents at the gate, they were handing over their children’

‘It came in that you …had to wear a mask not outside, but inside when you were working with children, unless there was a child with a hearing challenge or there was a specific need for a child to see your face moving. I said to staff, actually, that’s all children all of the time.’

2. Staffing

Staffing has been much harder during the pandemic. Directors reported the numbers of children attending changed dramatically because of lockdowns, community outbreaks, families’changing needs and government rule changes. At one time, the government waived fees for everyone in childcare, so many families who didn’t normally access care enrolled, causing more changes in attendance and more administrative burden.

While the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme helpfully supported permanent staff, some casual educators did not receive the government payments. This meant that many casual staff left the sector. Directors reported that when asked to return, some of them didn’t want to lose the government payment which was far more generous than what they normally earned as an early childhood educator.

Staff rostering has also taken longer to organise during the various phases of the pandemic. Permanent staff have had to be given time to work with the children attending, time to work online with children, and then time to engage in professional development. Some services had to close because too many educators were considered close contacts of covid cases.

Additionally, time has had to be spent training educators on how to work with different technologies and with changing hygiene requirements. Staff have needed extra support with their own anxieties about catching the virus and working in a new way with masks with young children.

Educators commented:

‘We … stood down our casual staff, but… most of them could access the COVID payment … but it’s still difficult and we’ve actually spent this week changing staff round from room to room and putting the children together in one room’.

’The first week, we hardly had any children there. But by the second week, almost like 98 per cent.’

‘We had several vulnerable staff members had family members or themselves (with) autoimmune conditions that made them more vulnerable, ….. others had elderly parents in nursing homes’.

 ‘We’ve had different rosters for cleaning.

3. Informing and supporting families

Directors and educators have needed to be able to share the constantly changing and often confusing government regulations with parents, including which professions have been incorporated in the category of ‘essential workers’. 

The guidelines have not been clear, leaving directors with  difficult decision-making. Directors have reported spending time searching government websites trying to find clear definitions and rules to have evidence that their decisions were grounded on government guidelines. They have also needed to manage parents’ reactions to these decisions.

Educators said:

‘We’ve been trying to encourage families not to bring their children in …unless they’re an essential worker, which people have been really good about’.

‘If you’re a mum at home with five kids, you’re actually an essential worker as well’.

‘We shared resources that we were using with them (the children) and we even supplied families with some of those ideas around how to talk to their children. Parents (asked)… how do I explain this?’

4. Managing change and budgets

Some directors have faced challenging financial constraints and pressure from organisational managers. This included justifying the work and training their educators who were balancing that with the viability of the service. 

Additional costs for hygiene and cleaning have had to be absorbed by services, whereas many education departments provided schools with extra cleaning staff to help them. 

Educators explained:

‘COVID’s been a little bit different, because it’s been like a little bit like a stop-start routine’.

‘We wore the cost of that (reduction in attendance) for the first term. So, no families were asked to pay any fees. Then by second term, the State Government had stepped up and brought in the free preschool’. 

‘We spoke to the department early this time and said, look, we’re getting a whole lot of different messages. What’s required? We’ve been proactive in getting in touch with the department…even they are juggling balls at the moment’.

 ‘Some staff members that wanted things cleaned twice a day’.

5. Status

On the positive side, educators revealed that families were more supportive and appreciative of educators during the pandemic. Despite this, educators were disappointed they were not recognised as essential workers in media coverage. This is even when they had continued working throughout the pandemic, staying open for children of essential workers. Being valued, respected and visible has been important to educators, as well as solidarity with other educators.

They explained:

‘I think it’s a good opportunity for the policymakers and the leaders to actually have a little bit of a voice for us as well and just show that we are out here. We’re visible. But everyone’s doing the best job they can, so my hat goes off to everyone wherever they are and to all my colleagues everywhere’.

‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.

A need for change

Overall, directors talked about exhaustion of their staff and being unable to keep going with this level of work in an overloaded sector. Clearly, something needs to change. 

Recently, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, called for radical reform of childcare, which could affect other states. The Thrive by Five campaign is petitioning the government to prioritise significant reform. As this study has shown, it is not time to renovate the sector, we need a whole childcare rebuild.

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education within the School of Education.  Marg is the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She also leads an international team of researchers from Denmark, Canada and Georgia to investigate the impacts of regulated systems on about educators’ work. Twitter @MargRogers11

Associate Professor Wendy Boyd works as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University. Wendy is highly regarded in the early childhood field and researches in a number of areas, including educator professionalism. Wendy’s research focuses on provision of quality early childhood programs to support the optimal development of all children.

Professor Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

As the Omicron virus leaves thousands of families without childcare, because hundreds of early childhood services have been forced to close, early childhood educators are in demand. Previously there was around 30% turnover in the sector, but a 2021 survey of 4000 educators revealed 73% planned to leave in the next three years.

A multinational study I am leading listened to 51 Australian educators who had a range of qualifications and positions in different types of services. Additional data was gathered from publicly available online forums in response to other research-based news articles I have published from the study.

The study has shed light on the hidden costs of being an educator in Australia, many of which have increased during COVID. Here are five hidden costs the educators revealed.

  1. Hidden cost of resources

Educators talked about the extra costs to buy resources for their service that were not reimbursed. An educator commented

‘Educators were pushed to provide high-quality education and care with a minimal budget, and the centre manager received a personal bonus for not spending different budgets. I spent over $4000 of my own money on resources, with not one cent reimbursed. There needs to be more control of private companies and how they treat educators’.

Publicly available forum posts from partners of educators revealed extra costs of outfits, props and craft materials some educators had to purchase themselves, then create them in their own time at home. These items were for special themed days, which help promote the services programs via posts to Facebook and apps for families. 

They reported that the children and staff posed in these costumes and props, which were popular on social media. These specified ‘days’ are often standard across private providers as they commodify education. One educator said the government should ‘Stop the privateers making their centres like Starbucks factories’

These hidden costs for educators are alarming, given the 2021 report that uncovered the $14 billion spent on the sector each year, 80% ($11.2 billion) of which is funded by taxpayers. In addition, a $292 million turnover was reported by the five biggest companies.

  1. Hidden identity and self-worth

Educators revealed that despite being essential workers, they are essentially invisible and ignored. Invisibility is a feature of female-dominated professions, such as early childhood, where 91% of the workforce are female. 

Educators are sidelined in curriculum documents written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Their strengths and interests are not mentioned despite being a key feature of educators valued relationships with children and parents. 

Instead, the documents are filled with ways the educator should constantly reflect and improve themselves and their practice, highly valued practises in Western neoliberal nations. While professional reflection is important, it needs to be balanced with acknowledging the efforts, abilities and successes educators have. Instead, the documents instruct the educator to respect and work with the strengths and interests of the children, and the strengths of the parents.

The underlying message for educators is that they are never quite good enough, even when they are trying their best in a highly pressured work environment. Women are exposed to a similar mantra via the fashion and beauty industries as they sell the need to be prettier, taller, skinnier and more fashionable.

In this study, educators said governments should give educators ‘respect as professionals’ and ‘lift  the professional standing by increasing (the) pay of educators and promote the importance of early childhood education’.

Figure 1: Gender related issues in the early childhood sectoror
  1. Hidden relationship costs

The extra hours and stress educators were expected to do contributed to relationship stress at home, especially during accreditation. Educators commented that it was not sustainable and made them want to quit. They said

‘(My relationships were) strained due to fatigue.

More work at home meant less time with my partner.

It made me very stressed and overwhelmed.

I feel like at times I have no work-life balance’.

  1. Hidden unhappiness

Other educators exposed the managerial systems that dominate their daily work meant they were drowning in paperwork, checklists, documentation and regulation. This caused unhappiness because they felt micromanaged through the government’s demands that require them to collect big data every day. 

They also said they felt micromanaged by the supervisors who completed these daily tasks in a time-pressured environment. One said, ‘I ended up resigning from my position as the top-down approach of management no longer agreed with my teaching philosophy’.

The system also reduced morale, especially during accreditation (Assessment and Rating) every three years. Only 4% of educators said accreditation improved the quality of education at their service, but most revealed it made staff and children unhappy. Accreditation also took them away from interacting with children, which is the key to quality education in early childhood services.

Realising the importance of these interactions, educators actively tried to protect the children against the harmful effects of accreditation (a system that was designed to improve quality). Unfortunately, this meant more work after hours because they had to take the paperwork home in order to teach the children.

Figure 2: The impacts of managerial systems in early childhood education
  1. Hidden hours 

Despite being the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia, regular unpaid overtime is rife within the sector. The unpaid hours are extreme during accreditation, with 50% saying they worked after hours. 

Some reported being paid for only half of the hours they worked, even asking family members to provide unpaid help, revealing the extent of this modern-day slavery. Educators talked about the effect of accreditation on their personal relationships, saying

‘Stress was felt at home by my children and husband; this is why he came and helped at the centre so that I could stop being cranky and overworked at home’.

However, this  free labour is at odds with the million-dollar salaries of some CEOS and  handsome shareholder dividends in the biggest childcare companies. Australia has one of the highest rates of privatisation of childcare in the world. The 2021 report by Bigsteps into the sector uncovered:

‘Financialisation of ECEC has seen the worst excesses of Australian corporate culture including wage theft, aggressive tax avoidance and other misconduct creep into the sector. 

Despite receiving generous COVID relief payments and availing themselves of JobKeeper, four of the six largest for-profit ECEC providers paid no tax in 2020’. 

Hidden complications that stop reform

A significant reform of the sector is needed. However, reforming the industry is enormously complex because of the mismatched mess of funding and compliance shared between federal and state governments. This tangled web means it is more challenging to reduce costs for parents and improve wages because nobody takes responsibility.

Figure 3: Funding and regulation in Australian early childhood education and care

Another complicating factor is the mix of private, community and not for profit services. Educators are likely to be paid more in community and not for profit services, with 70-80% of their revenue spent on wages. However, as little as 54% is spent by privately-owned services. 

One educator called for ‘more control of private centres’ to reveal what they are doing. Educators showed their frustrations, saying

‘My options include selling out to the greedy large corporations where the directors and educators do not know their children or families. They get exceeding ratings because outsourced marketing gurus write up a perfect marketing plan’.

‘We are burnt out and are leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.

Despite these problems, the Thrive by Five campaign continues to be a beacon of hope as they petition the government for significant reform. Even NSW Premier Domonic Perrottet has flagged the need for substantial reform, which could have major implications for all states and territories. 

When our governments plan for a better future, they could learn from an African proverb that reminds us that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, but the second best time is now. The best time for major childcare reform is right now, before we lose more of its most precious resources, our educators. 

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families.

How children describe their role in organising the materials in a kindergarten classroom

Early childhood teachers have many roles in a classroom – mentor, therapist, nurse, scientist, and judge, to name a few – but one of the main roles is teaching the foundational skills through organising and providing resources in the classroom space.

Recent research indicates that teachers have the predominant role in organising early childhood classrooms in Australia, but there is a growing body of research investigating the role of children in organising the kindergarten classroom. I wanted find out more about how young children are involved.

We do know that participation or involvement of children in organising their learning environment has a positive effect on their sense of belonging, behaviour, learning and development. This could be true for children of all ages but particularly so for young children experiencing their earliest encounters with learning spaces.

I wanted to specifically research how children describe their role in organising the materials in the indoor kindergarten classroom space in the Queensland, Australia context.

The challenges of organising such a classroom are real for teachers. In Queensland kindergarten classrooms there are usually two teachers in the room educating up to 22 children with a play-based curriculum daily. Teachers have to organise learning activities with a range of resource materials, including furniture, and be compliant. So, what is required of teachers in the approved learning frameworks to be compliant?

Requirements of children’s participation in classroom organisation

In Queensland the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) provides kindergarten teachers with a guide for their teaching practice, programming and the facilitation of children’s learning. It emphasises that children play an active role in planning and organising their own learning. Also, according to the Australian Government’s Early Years Learning Framework, teachers ‘can encourage’ the participation of children and families to contribute their insights and ideas about the early learning space. But neither of these suggestions mean that this will happen or that children participating in organising their classrooms will be taken seriously and valued.

Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also requires children’s perspectives to be heard and taken seriously on matters affecting them. Literature has referred to Article 12 and the right to participate in many ways, but I have identified two categories (which should not be taken as exhaustive):

  1. Participation: the process of sharing dialogue and listening to children,
  2. Active participation: children making decisions

There is an increase in research showing how children’s perspectives are heard in the classroom space, however more is needed. My study aims to add to this field.

My Study

I used a sociomaterial and spatiality theory. (For details please see my full paper). This theory had me think of the classroom and the things in it as having an influence and transforming educational practice. In a nutshell, I considered how the materials (resources, learning activities (closed/open- ended), furniture, equipment, and utensils), children, teachers and the kindergarten space influences and transforms children’s ability to organise the space.

My study was conducted in a kindergarten setting within a childcare centre in Brisbane, Queensland. Six children conducted child-led tours describing their role in organising the classroom and then discussed their tours in a follow-up video-stimulated recall interview.

Child-led tours are a participatory tool for research, as it is a method where children lead the data collection and does not rely solely on children’s verbal abilities but draws on their non-verbal abilities. During the child-led tour, the researcher asked each child questions, such as ‘what do you put in here?’ and ‘do you play with it?’. One educator was present in the room at the time. Child-led tours were conducted while other children were playing outside to minimise their being captured in the video recording.

Dingo’s number line

I noted one specific departure from the expected organisation processes. Dingo, one of the six children in my study, indicated during the child-led tour and video-stimulated recall interviews, that he had set up a number line. Sandy, Dingo’s teacher, in an informal conversation with me, spoke about the number line being something that she and Dingo had created together. The creation of Dingo’s number line resulted in him taking ownership of it, as he reinforced the rules to children about using it.  For example, he told them, “Don’t step on it because it’s still dry”.

Dingo making the number line was unexpected as we know research suggests teachers usually have the main organisation role. However, Dingo showed that he had a role in the category of participation where he was involved in creating the number line and his participation was taken seriously by his teacher.  So his participation aligns with Queensland’s Kindergarten Learning Guidelines and the Early Years Learning Framework where early childhood teachers are encouraged to work with children to design and plan the classroom space. (For more details of Dingo’s number line please see my full paper)

Recommendations from my study

A crucial implication of this study is the amount of child involvement and the ‘hearing’ of their voices about the processes and practices of organising a kindergarten classroom. A strong breadth of literature supports the importance of involvement of children in the classroom, with children having the immediate right to be heard, taken seriously, and given due weight on matters that affect them.

A review of the literature suggests that a teacher’s decision to involve children in the classroom is influenced by the large educator-to-child ratios, the perceptions teachers have on children, the lack of support in facilitating children’s verbal and non-verbal languages and the little acknowledged phenomenon that non-human materials and the early learning space have an effect on practice.

Contrary to studies finding that educators have the predominate role in organising the classroom, a child in my study described that he clearly participated in the organisation of his classroom by constructing his number line.

Hear the children

I believe there is a need for researchers, educators, and organizations to hear, through different modes, the views of children.

This qualitative study, and the use of child-led tours and video-stimulated recall interviews, proved a successful measure of investigating how young children describe their role in organising the indoor kindergarten classroom. More research is needed to further under children and their interactions with non-human material to organise their early learning space

Due to the long period of time required to conduct research, the researcher recommends conducting workshops with teachers (in kindergartens, childcare centres), leaders (director, educational leader) and pre-service teachers in ways to discuss how children’s voices can be and are involved in organising their early learning spaces. Participating teachers would be networking and learning from each other.

Finally, it is emphasised by the inclusion of children in research, as seen in this study, children are capable and competent to interpret their world. The decisions made in how a classroom is organised and, with the use of a research story, any feedback about the daily operation of an early learning setting in a kindergarten classroom, can be investigated.

For those who want more detail Children’s participation in the organisation of a kindergarten classroom

 

Evangeline Manassakis is a research assistant for Griffith University in Queensland. She completed the Master of Philosophy (Education) that investigated children’s involvement in the organisation of the kindergarten classroom. Evangeline received for her study the Jean Ferguson Memorial Award and was made the runner up for Outstanding Thesis Award 2020. Her current research interests include children’s voice, classroom design and organisation, spaces, participatory methodology and design, Rights of the Child.

Early childhood help for children of deployed military personnel

One parent shared with me that she was told ‘You’re just on your own until they go to school. There’s nothing out there’. She was part of my research project to find out what 2-5-year old children understand and experience when their parent worked away due to military deployment and training.

During the project many other parents and early childhood educators repeated this problem, telling me about the lack of resources. They told me they wanted storybooks and apps for children from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families to help them understand and build resilience to deal with the stresses they face.

These stresses include: long parental deployments, frequent parental training, frequent relocations and a parent who may get injured or suffer mental health conditions when they return. Children can react to parental deployment in many ways, including  emotionally, socially, physically and in their learning and development (cognitively).

The responses are shown in the infograph below, however, many families are able to use supports around them and adapt and try to cope in different ways.

Early childhood programs

During the research project, the activities I did with the children involved reading them storybooks I had created about defence families. These were used as a springboard to start group chats, artwork, craftwork, raps, puppet play and role play that focussed on their experiences, understandings and feelings about their parent working away.

During the project, an educator said, ‘I want programs like this in all the early childhood services and schools to help the children cope’, referring to the research activities. ‘It helps the children to be able to understand and verbalise what is upsetting them, rather than just whining and crying’.

Our first efforts

To begin to address this need, I published online, two research-based eBooks  for free, called ‘Waiting for Daddy: Rose’s story’ and ‘Now that I am big: Anthony’s story’.

Click on the image to access the free e-book
Click on the image to access the free e-book

Another parent had requested I create an app, saying her daughter had used a US app about military families which the daughter really enjoyed, but the parent said it was not culturally appropriate for Australian children because the context and uniforms were quite different. So, one of the eBooks was chosen to be developed into a free app for iPads. To do this, I joined with an early childhood technology specialist,  Dr Jo Bird, an IT technician, Raph Roberts and a media designer, Trish Donald from the University of New England (UNE) to create ‘Rose’s story’ app.

Click on the image to access the free iPad app

To support early childhood educators, I also published newsletter articles to communicate ideas to  partner with parents when they work away, and how to use various activities to gather the voices of very young children, as I had done in the research project.

For parents, I also published academic media articles about ways to support young children when they have a parent who works away. To further support military families, I published a recommendations report for policy makers, educators, family workers, social workers, and education liaison officers within the ADF.

A bigger response

After these efforts, I decided a more coordinated approach was needed and put together an educational research team, combined with a support team of technicians, digital media learning designers and parent, educator, research and community volunteers, with plans to create 2 free, online programs.

One program will be for educators and another for parents to support 2-5-year old children from defence families (see here for details). Our project then received funding from The Ian Potter Foundation and in-kind funding from the University of New England.

Timelines

We will be creating the programs in 2020 and early 2021, then trialling and evaluating them in 2021-2022. This will involve piloting the programs with parents and educators in early childhood services near navy, army and airforce bases. To register your interest in being involved in these control trials, please email us at ecdefenceprograms@une.edu.au . Once we refine the programs and resources, they will be released for free online by February 2023 in order to better support these young children to build resilience and have the opportunity to flourish.

Can you give us some ideas?

To make sure we create the best programs we can, we are asking educators who have experience working with children whose parents work away and parents from families who experience a parent working away to share some of the strategies with us. We are also asking them to let us know what topics they would like to see covered in the programs and which types of resources they would like the children to use.

There is also a place for feedback on the website for any community suggestions or comments. Please join with us to help make this project a success.

Marg Rogers is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education team within the School of Education at the University of New England, Armidale. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5 year olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families. The programs are to assist them with parental separation during deployment and training and when the parents return with injuries and mental health conditions. She also researches professionalism in early childhood, creative arts education in early childhood and works with Dr Jo Bird in researching early childhood technologies.

Personal photos in images are supplied by defence families and ADF personnel

Hear our voices: growing up with speech, language and communication needs

In kindy, I was very sad for most of the time. Nobody could understand me, so they didn’t want to talk to me…Sometimes I would cry a lot…I was angry because I was being teased and nobody liked me…I didn’t like school… I couldn’t help anyone because nobody could understand my stupid words…I really hated being different…I used to think in my head a lot, but then I couldn’t answer questions. So I just daydreamed most of the time…
[K*, year 3, submission 99, Australian Senate Inquiry]

This is the life experience of a child with speech, language and communication needs; a life where words are hard to say and harder still for others to understand, where reading and writing are a challenge due to a compromised oral language system upon which such skills are based, where developing friendships is difficult as the core skill needed for socialisation (communication) is impaired, where expressing thoughts and contributing ideas to classroom discussions is restricted, not for lack of ideas, but due to one’s own capacity to express them, where misunderstandings are a way of life and feeling sad, left out and different are an everyday experience.

We might like to think that such experiences are rare; that only children with extreme communication needs feel such impacts. But the research suggests otherwise. Findings from the Sound Effects Study and the Sound Start Study, two large scale investigations of child speech disorders, conducted by researchers at Charles Sturt University indicate that the presence of speech, language and communication needs in the early childhood and school years is of greater concern to parents and teachers than almost any other area of developmental need, and that the prevalence of these concerns is high.

Speech, language and communication needs comprise a range of difficulties that affect a child’s ability to produce and/or understand spoken or written messages. Speech (articulation or phonological) disorders involve difficulty processing, planning or producing speech sounds (ranging from lisps to unintelligible speech). Language disorders can involve difficulties with vocabulary, grammar or social skills, and may be expressive (affect language production) or receptive (affect comprehension).

Why teachers and preschools need support

Analysis of data gathered in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, an ongoing investigation of child development in our country, indicated almost one in four parents were concerned about how their preschool child talked and made speech sounds. Analysis of data from the Sound Start Study revealed more parents were concerned about their preschool child’s talking than their motor or social-emotional development.

Also data from primary and secondary teachers in Sydney showed that “communication disorders” was the second highest area of learning need, and the area they identified as requiring the greatest learning support among children in their classes.

It is no wonder teachers recognised a need for support. The relationship between early communication difficulties and later social and academic challenges has been widely demonstrated. From delays in acquiring literacy skills, to the need for more remedial support; from difficulties making friends, to the presentation of challenging behaviours; from feelings of disconnection from school to higher rates of dropping-out – the research is clear: communication skills are essential for school success, and the impairment of such skills can have significant, negative and ongoing consequences.

What is missing in the way we have been dealing with these issues?

Unfortunately, sometimes the actual stories of those who have experienced speech and/or language disorders and the consequences of those disorders can get lost amidst the “data”, “analysis” and “research”. We can be so focused on investigating the extent of an issue in the population, or the community, that we forget to consider the extent of the issue for an individual or family.

I feel we are being lulled into a sense of having done enough by simply conducting these broad-brush investigations. There is a clear danger that research can become detached from the people who experience the very issue that we’re investigating, and this can lead to a failure in responsive action to address those people’s needs.

It is my concern that this is what happened when the Australian Senate conducted a National Inquiry in 2013 to explore the prevalence of speech, language, and communication disorders and speech pathology services in Australia. There were 305 submissions to the Inquiry from researchers, organisations, and institutions, but also from children with speech, language and communication needs, and their parents, as well as adults with a history of these needs. Their stories of living with additional communication needs are informative and insightful, at times uplifting and at other times heart-breaking.

Our research showed the views of those experiencing difficulties

My colleagues and I accessed the 288 submissions that were publicly available, and then conducted a qualitative analysis of those that had been submitted by children and adults with a history of speech, language and communication needs, to gain an understanding of their experiences.

One child in year 2 wrote, “When I was in kinder I was sad when I was talking and reading” and another in year 3 noted, “How I feel when I come to school is I feel left out in the playground”. Adults recalled similar difficulties with socialisation at school: “I can remember spending every lunch time sitting by myself because no one will even try to talk to me”.

They reflected on being misunderstood: “I may have had no speech but I was really quite smart” and “They treat me like I’m mentally challenged and incapable of doing any meaningful work and earning an income”. However, they also reflected on their own feelings of inadequacy caused by being “different”: “I always thought I was dumb”. They described their frustration at not being able to “Say anything right” or “explain what was going on in my head”, and they described the “years of holding back from showing the real you”.

Thankfully, some had received intervention, support or informal help, and this had been useful. Yet, as one adult commented “my life would have been very different if my disorder had been picked up earlier”. And this was echoed by others. There was a sense that help was not provided at times due to a lack of awareness and understanding about speech, language and communication needs. One wrote “Communication issues are invisible in the classroom unless you have a trained eye”. Thus, there was a sense of needing to support teachers to see what was “hidden”.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to communication (“freedom of opinion and expression”) is stipulated in Article 19 of the Declaration. Yet, for many children in Australia the right to communication is constrained by their lack of an effective means to communicate. The presence of speech, language and communication needs means those children are not free to express themselves and to be understood. Furthermore, their impaired communication leads to a constraining of other rights, such as the right to education.

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“… every individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and…to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance …”

The research outlined here is reported in an open access paper written by my colleagues and me, and published in a special issue of the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology dedicated to Article 19 of the UDHR. It is our hope that having investigated the prevalence of communication disorder in Australia, and sought the views of those who experience these difficulties, the Government, and indeed all of us, may now act on what has been uncovered, and listen to the voices of those who are typically the least likely to be heard.

 

Dr Jane McCormack is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

 

 

 

NOTE: on 29th May 2018 the Government announced its response to the inquiry recommendations. Find it here

Toddler risky play: how we got up the research project and what we found

It isn’t often you see the terms ‘teacher research’ and ‘toddler risky play’ in the one sentence. So you can imagine we gained some media attention when we did.

Of course mainstream media focused on what we were doing with toddler risky play (more about that later) but this was just one part of a larger research project undertaken by the University of Newcastle and local early childhood centres. 

It all began with the ‘pedagogista’

The project began when Melissa Duffy-Fagan, a Newcastle early childhood centre Director, approached University of Newcastle Associate Professor, Linda Newman, to discuss the possibility of engaging with the university to institute the role of ‘pedagogista’ in her centre. This concept is drawn from work in Reggio Emilia in Italy, where early childhood centres have educational learning leaders as part of their team to support and mentor staff in their work with children, families and the community.

The original idea of establishing a pedagogista role was extended to invite four local early childhood long day care centres to join in collaboratively with Linda Newman and fellow researcher, Nicole Leggett, in designing and running a year-long practitioner research project that had the dual intentions of professional learning (approved by the NSW Education Standards Authority as professional development hours) and research.

The group decided to embed the two core concepts of Intentional Teaching and critical thinking within the project design. In some ways, the network members therefore shared the role of pedagogista, supporting and mentoring each other in their research journeys.

The research consisted of two main parts. The first was the university-focused research about the educators’ experiences and perceptions within a networked and extended professional learning situation. This research examined professional identities and growth, knowledge of core project concepts and views about professional learning. The second was locally specific action research designed and implemented by each of four centres, with two projects focused on adult learning and change, and two focused on children:

  • Centre 1: Intentional Strategies for Team Collaboration: Building Trust through Professional Connection (examination of how critical thinking facilitates intentional strategies for team collaboration).
  • Centre 2: Taking a Risk with Risk Competence (Toddler and pre-schooler risky play).
  • Centre 3: Enhancing teaching practice and children’s learning opportunities: Examining educators’ understandings of their program roles (Examining roles and responsibilities in a family-grouped long day care centre).
  • Centre 4: Strengthening transition to school: Insights into adult and child perspectives (Examining the shift from early childhood centre to school).

Over the period of a year the group ran two conferences, held four leadership roundtable workshops and engaged in centre visits to mentor the research.

Risky Play in Early Childhood

Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool (Centre 2) undertook their research on the topic of young children’s risky play. Kate Higginbottom, the Director of the centre, pulled together a team of highly experienced and diversely qualified educators; Katie Carrington, Gemma Helm, Kelly Hennessy and April Wood as the project leadership team. They set out to plan, implement and report on their research within a partnership involving the university and the early learning service.

As well as engaging in the initial University of Newcastle professional learning sessions, the project team regularly met and unpacked the service core values to establish a need or interest as the basis for their research question.

Risk in early childhood is a controversial, yet inevitable part of a child’s life and it is particularly controversial when we consider risky play as a part of early education curriculums. Children are innate risk- based learners and need to experience risk to know how to manage it.

As the Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool provides a service that strongly values a ‘risk based philosophy’ to children’s learning and play, rather than avoiding risk, educators at the centre unanimously agreed that their research question should be focused on the inclusion of risky play: “How do risk focused interventions impact upon children’s risk competence?”

Reflecting on the project’s core concepts of critical thinking and intentional teaching, the team aimed to focus on how intentionally teaching and prompting children to engage in risk would impact on their perception, assessment and management of risk. Data generation was grounded in Sandseter’s six categories of risky play and centre educators set out to understand what intentional teaching strategies were already used.

These include:

  1. Play at Great Heights
  2. Play with High Speed
  3. Play with Dangerous Elements
  4. Play Rough and Tumble
  5. Lost/ Disappear
  6. Play with Dangerous tools

After collecting and analysing initial data, a change plan was implemented over a six-week period. This included professional learning about risky play for educators, providing additional spaces and resources to promote risky play and the conscious use of intentional teaching and sustained shared thinking between educators and children.

Following the analysis of the second data set it was determined that:

  • Educators’ confidence in risky play improved, which in turn provided a significant increase in the amount of risky play opportunities children were exposed to.
  • Children used more language associated with risk assessment and risk management when reflecting on the risky play.
  • Children were engaged more often and autonomously, with a significant decrease in physical and verbal support required by educators and therefore an increase in children’s risk competency.
  • Following an unintentional gender prejudice identified in initial data, an increase in girls’ participation was seen and therefore challenged gender bias for a more balanced curriculum of risky play.
  • We know through the underpinnings of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory that social and cultural contexts greatly influence children’s learning and here the service observed increased incidences of children working together to solve problems and best manage risks. For example the team observed children reminding one another to remove their socks when climbing as it may be too slippery and having feet exposed to allow them to ‘stick’ to the climbing object.

So children at the centre had increased their competence to undertake risky play. Their language around safety and risk had increased and more girls were undertaking challenges outside.

The centre team increased their intentional teaching about risk and safety, and agreed that these successes had been achievable because they had been given the space and guidance to choose their own professional learning topic, and to engage in a sustained research project in which they had autonomy and agency. The participating educators say they now feel stronger and more capable as professionals and committed to embedding research into their ongoing practice.

Our work will be presented at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association Conference in Italy in August 2017

 

Linda Newman (Dip. T (EC); B.Ed (EC); M.Ed (Hons); Ed.D.) has worked in the early childhood profession in various capacities for over 30 years. She is currently a Conjoint Associate Professor at The University of Newcastle and Early Childhood Inclusion Advisor at Northcott. Career highlights have included the development of among the first early childhood intervention services in NSW; co-authorship of The Ethical Response Cycle; membership of the Futuro Infantile Hoy (Children’s Futures Today) community capacity building team in poor communities in Chile; and collaborative leadership of Research Connections, an early childhood research network in Newcastle. Linda is co-author of Working with  children and families: Professional, legal and ethical issues and Practitioner Research: International Issues and Perspectives. Research interests in recent years have included teacher professional learning, early childhood teacher workforce issues and early literacy. 

 

Kate Higginbottom has been in the early childhood profession for over 12 years, the last 10 of which she has been a Centre Director, working across diverse long day care settings from private, to organisational and now the community based sector. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood) from the University of New England and qualifications in training and assessment. Kate currently manages the operation Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool in collaboration with a voluntary management committee. She also supports other early education and care services as a consultant, with a particular forte in quality governance and leadership. Kate has worked in a number of advisory roles including on the Early Childhood and Primary External Advisory committee for University of Newcastle and the Queensland Workforce Council PSCQ for the Gold Coast.