Understanding and valuing the work of early childhood educators

We hope to dispel the myths surrounding early childhood education by identifying, highlighting and documenting the distinct and complex nature of educators’ work.

Skilled and knowledgeable early childhood educators are the key to high quality early childhood education, Dr Frances Press writes. So why is it that, in an era where the importance of early childhood education has been recognised throughout the world, the working conditions and pay of early childhood educators are so poor?

In November 2013, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) drew together a Panel of Experts to promote decent work for early childhood personnel. Their report noted that early childhood educators all over the world “often worked under poorer conditions than educators in other levels of schooling” and called for called for improvements in their status and working conditions. They also made clear that early childhood educators require a diverse range of professional knowledge and skills so that they are able to “respond to the learning needs and challenges of all children”. The skills and knowledges identified by the ILO included an extensive knowledge of child development, learning, play, pedagogy, wellbeing, maternal and infant health and safety, first aid and nutrition.

Additionally, early childhood educators need good communication skills and empathy; to be creative, innovative and self reflective; be able to “impart to children values, knowledges and skills necessary for peace, gender equality, tolerance and respect for diversity”. Finally, they often need to know how to support children who, for whatever reason, faced challenges to their development and inclusion.

Yet popularly, the work of early childhood educators is beset with myths and misconceptions. In part, this is because the workforce is highly feminised – with many countries having an early childhood workforce that is over 90% female. Thus, often the work is constructed as an extension of mothering and ‘instinctual’ for this predominantly female workforce. In addition, early childhood’s emphasis on learning through play is at odds with the more structured, teacher led examples of children’s learning often associated with the school classroom. Hence, the thoughtful deliberations that underpin educators’ actions as they set up the environment, work with small and large groups of children, and their ongoing interactions with children, may fail to be recognised as forms of teaching.

A multi level investigation

To help address these and other issues (including the ongoing shortage of qualified educators), researchers from Charles Sturt University (CSU), the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Rutgers University in the United States are conducting a three year study: Exemplary early childhood educators at work: A multi level investigation (LP 160100532). We have partnered with eight early childhood organisations, including the IEU, to conduct a multi level study, which we hope will dispel the myths surrounding early childhood education by identifying, highlighting and documenting the distinct and complex nature of educators’ work. The research which has a dual focus is on the nature of educators’ work and the context within which they work.

Specifically, it aims to:

• identify the work, skills and knowledge of exemplary educators in each of the three mandated qualification levels: certificate III, diploma, and degree, and

• investigate and document the organisational, professional and relational dimensions evident in high quality childcare centres and preschools with educators whose work is considered exemplary.

What the study involves

This is a three year study, taking place in in Queensland, NSW and WA – the states where our partner organisations are located. It will work with educators in early childhood services rated as Excellent or Exceeding National Standard through the National Quality Standard assessment and rating process, with an exceeding rating in every quality area. Using the ACECQA ratings will help ensure that data obtained on educators’ typical activities, understandings and dispositions is tied specifically to the delivery of high quality programs.

Phase one

The first stage of the study involves documenting what educators actually do. We will invite educators to fill out a Random Time Sampling Time Use Diary (RTS TUD) using a smart phone application. This app will buzz educators twice a day for two weeks. When prompted, educators record (though a series of phone ‘swipes’) what they have done for the previous hour. The app has been designed to quickly capture the many activities educators engage in, as well as who they are with (parents, staff, children) and how stressed or satisfied they have feel by their work in the previous hour. Through this phase of the study the research will build a profile of early childhood educators’ work days and illustrate its complex and multifaceted nature. Although the app takes a day or two to get used to, the involvement of educators is crucial. This app has the potential to build a large and robust data base that can tell us a lot about the nature of the daily work of educators.

Phase two

Documenting what educators do in a day is only one part of the picture. We also need to understand why educators do what they do, what skills they use to do their jobs well, and what information and knowledge they draw on. So in the second part of the research we will conduct focus groups. These focus groups will be organised according to qualification level (certificate III, diploma and teaching).

Phase three

The final phase of the study, involves a small number of intensive case studies. Researchers will go into a selected number of eligible services to closely observe the work of excellent educators and talk to them about what they do and why. But we also need to understand what is happening in the service more broadly. A great educator can languish in a poorly run centre, just as a centre with a strong commitment to quality for children and families can support staff to thrive. Therefore, in this last stage of the study all staff working in the case study centres will be asked to fill out an online survey: the Supportive Environmental Quality Underlying Adult Learning (SEQUAL). Designed by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, SEQUAL will be adapted for the Australian context. The researchers and their partners are hopeful that this research will contribute to the retention and further development of a skilled, appropriately remunerated early childhood workforce. We hope our findings will be used to support pay equity, well targeted professional development and preservice early childhood educator preparation, and the effective management of high quality early learning environments.

If you have any questions about the research, email me on fpress@csu.edu.au .

Dr Frances Press is Associate Professor at the School of Teacher Education (SOTE), Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE), Charles Sturt University.