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Early years making progress

A massive shift is taking place in Australian early childhood services. Traditionally, the childcare sector’s role has been to offer a safe and caring place for children whose parents are working.

That role, however, is expanding to be one of education provider, as well as care giver. It is a challenging and complicated time.

This change is occurring as we learn more about the importance of early education experiences on children’s long-term development.

Mounting international evidence shows these experiences are vital – particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The sector is now receiving the social, educational and political attention it deserves.

In Australia, early childhood education and care is in the midst of significant legislative reform; the most significant in education since the introduction of compulsory primary schooling in the 1880s. A national curriculum framework has been introduced, the Early Years Learning Framework, and in January the National Quality Framework came into effect, including among its requirements minimum standards for educator’s qualifications and reducing the number of children to be cared for by one educator.

It is unfortunate, then, that articles in the mainstream media appeared in January incorrectly reporting that E4Kids, the largest study to date of Australia’s early education provision, has found the national standard of early education be “very poor”. The impact of such reports on a sector striving to adjust to massive change is potentially devastating.

E4Kids is a longitudinal study run by the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education and Queensland University of Technology, in partnership with the Australian, Victorian and Queensland governments. We are following more than 2600 children from Melbourne, Shepparton, Brisbane and Mt Isa from 2010-2015, from the age of three or four until they are eight, investigating the effect of childcare and kindergarten experiences on learning, development and social inclusion.

While final findings won’t be available until the study concludes, initial findings are emerging. An early analysis of 2010 data from long day care, family day care and preschool/kindergarten settings found (on average):

• medium to high levels of emotional support for children

• medium to high levels of organisational support for children’s learning within these programs

• low levels of instructional support.

These findings show the sector’s performance is far from “very poor”. We found, on average, strong emotional connections between adults and children and among children. We also found services rated well on “behaviour management” and “productivity” (management of instructional time and provision of learning activities).

We did find services scored lower in the instructional support domain, which is concerned with the individual learning support that adults provide children through the course of their play. This includes the ways children are asked questions, the engagement of children in back-and-forth conversations about things of interest and the deliberate expansion of children’s language and vocabulary. It is this kind of support that has been clearly linked to longer-term outcomes.

These early findings are not intended as a criticism of early childhood education and care providers. Childcare services such as long day care and family day care were, after all, mainly established to provide a caring environment for children to allow parents to do other things, principally work, and sound ratings of the emotional climate suggest that they do this well.

The introduction of learning outcomes through the Early Years Learning Framework to all types of early childhood services, from birth upwards, is recent. We know from studies elsewhere that changing the kinds of experiences and opportunities provided to children within early childhood education and care programs takes time and support.

A major challenge for the sector will be to adjust to this relatively new role of providing early childhood education in tandem with early childhood care. This will necessarily involve the inclusion of greater levels of instructional support in everyday conversations, but that doesn’t mean shifting the way services run towards a more formal school-like environment. Play remains vital.

Within play-based approaches to supporting children’s learning, there is good evidence that intentional teaching can make a major contribution to the learning and development of the child, starting as early as the first year of life. Intentional teaching requires the adult to be aware of the individual child’s understanding and capabilities and then to “nudge” them to extend their knowledge, thinking and skills. Intentional teaching is included in the new Early Years Learning Framework because it helps advance children’s development and learning.

This approach is quite different to the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy skills to groups of children. Instead, adults promote the holistic learning and development of individual children in one-to-one exchanges. This holistic development includes the promotion of language development, social and emotional intelligence and creativity.

In addition to assessing child outcomes through the longitudinal study, E4Kids is investigating practical intentional teaching approaches to better support children’s learning. For example, a small study within the E4Kids project is analysing intentional talk by educators in relation to mathematics in play. Another study, related to E4Kids, addresses staff training and the implementation of emotional, organisational and instructional support techniques.

There are still many unanswered questions about the quality of Australian early childhood education and care – including what “quality” looks like in the contemporary Australian system, what type of service is most effective for children and what kind of experience the average Australian child has.

In time, E4Kids should help us understand more about all these issues. In the meantime, we will keep working closely with families and educators in early childhood education, as well as the care services and schools who work with the children at the heart of the E4Kids study. Large-scale, longitudinal research engages many in close collaboration. The outcomes will help all of us improve support to the youngest people in society.

Professor Collette Tayler is the chair of Early Childhood Education and Care at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and chief investigator on the E4Kids study. Rachel Flottman is a lecturer and Squirrel Main a research fellow at the graduate school. For more information on E4Kids see: www.education.unimelb.edu.au/E4Kids

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