More than just nappy changes and sleep times
Valuing our youngest in early years settings - Guest post by Hannah Powell
In the realm of early childhood education, much thought and focus is given to the kindergarten age group (3-5 years), however, adversely, the younger years are often overlooked or glossed over (Sumsion et. al, 2009). Many factors have contributed to this over the years and it has resulted in an eruption of stigmas and myths attached to working with our youngest child care attendee’s. One of the most significant of these is a rising trend in educators’ preferences to work with the older age groups as they are seen as “real” teachers (Fleet & Farrell, 2014 & Salamon, 2011). This is reflected in the early years tertiary training and our informing documents such as EYLF, with much of the wording emphasising learning in the older years as well as a majority of the early childhood research sector prioritising the older age groups (Fleet & Farrell, 2014 & Sumsion et. al, 2009). There are also myths and misinformation prevalent within early years settings that imply meeting children’s needs for attachment and closeness are unnecessarily “spoiling” them and that infants should learn to “toughen up” (Brownlee et al, 2007). This is problematic in many ways and has the potential to have devastating long-term effects on the social, emotional and physical development of children.
Marshall (2011) identifies the first three years of life as critical periods for neural sensory development in which stimulation is what moves neurons to form clusters which then build the structure of the cortex. If adequate and appropriate stimulation does not occur within this period, children will have gaps in their vision, impaired language and delayed cognitive abilities as well as increased behavioural and mental health issues evident from kindergarten onwards (Dunst & Kassow, 2008, Perez & Peterson, 2009). In the 0-2 age bracket, stimulation must be mediated by a caregiver to attach meaning or the stimulus will be disregarded by the child as unnecessary (Fields, 2005). This kind of mediation includes shared attention, touch, language and repetition from a trusted adult and supports the understanding that children’s earliest relationships are known as the “active ingredient” for optimal brain development (Degotardi & Pearson, 2014, Knitzer & Gilliam 2008, Marshall 2011, Dunst & Kassow, 2008, Gordon, 2014).
The first year of life also lays the foundation for all future socialisation and relationships (Degotardi & Pearson, 2014, Dunst & Kassow, 2008 & Ebbeck & Yim, 2009). Through interactions with a primary caregiver with whom a child has established a secure attachment, children learn all the foundational skills required for building and maintaining social relationships such as reading cues, modelling, mirroring, empathy and self regulation (Degotardi & Pearson, 2014). These early attachments also create a range of resilience buffers that boost children’s overall health and development. Some of these are lower cortisol levels, more appropriately met sleep needs and higher immunity to illness (Marshall, 2011). Additionally, a sensitive and responsive caregiver is more likely to mediate stimulation regularly and in a way that is appropriate to the child’s needs and developmental level (Dunst & Kassow, 2008 & Gordon, 2014).
Developing secure attachments that promote neural sensory development and enhance relationships is merely scratching the surface of the pedagogical considerations to be made. Shared experiences with children need to be appropriate to their current developmental level while adding some elements of challenge and with an awareness of the many different areas of development to support children in. Exposure to exploration with all the senses - smell, touch, taste, hearing and visuals are vital, as well as integrating opportunities for children to work through different schema based learning styles, opportunity to properly integrate their reflexes to avoid reflex retention and ensure they achieve their full range of movement potential (Marshall, 2011, Perez & Peterson, 2009). In a home environment, these things often happen organically as children move through the world alongside an attentive adult. In an early years setting, extra attention needs to be paid to ensure these experiences and opportunities are offered to all children in a way that is meaningful and relevant for them and that educators understand what to look for as well as how to integrate it (Macfarlane, 2004).
The integral need for educators to have the time and support to develop positive secure attachments and therefore deliver a program that provides appropriate pedagogical learning through mediated interactions is an issue that needs to be considered from multiple platforms (Fleet & Farrell, 2014). From a training and education perspective, more attention needs to be given to the importance of the educators’ role in the holistic development of infants and toddlers and the ways in which they can deliver relevant and responsive programs. There is clear evidence that demonstrates the level and quality of training that educators receive directly impacts on the quality of care provided (Brownlee et al, 2007, Marshall 2011 & Perez & Peterson, 2009). As Marshall (2011) states, “caregivers must understand how vital infant attachment is, and the role that caring, responsive interaction and nurturing touch plays in supporting neurosensory organization and development.” From a systemic perspective, early childhood settings and government regulatory authorities need to place a higher priority on promoting greater quality care through considering the value of the first three years of life, the adult to child ratios and expectations on the educators working with very young children. Finally, as educators in the field, it is our role to support the program delivery and pedagogical evolution of educators in nursery rooms and work to shift perspectives of the value of educating this age group.
Hannah is an early childhood teacher and forest school facilitator who is passionate about children’s rights to environments that nurture their autonomy, resilience and flow. She has started up three forest school programs in three separate services, running one of them while supporting educator’s to run the others. She was a finalist in the Outdoors Queensland awards and worked in different schools and services as the ECT, teacher and educational leader. She is also a mum of two very cool tween humans and survives on coffee and conversation.
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