Research – it’s a marathon not a sprint and it is not just for those who are called academics, early childhood centre director Amanda Holt writes.
Research is something we do with children, it is what we are doing when we are studying, it is a human behaviour that goes without recognition most days. While we will not all write a PhD paper, many of us have a lot to offer the early childhood profession from what we do each day.
There is a distinct lack of Australian based early childhood research, as I discovered when completing my Masters of Early Childhood Education. However those of us working in the frontline of early childhood care and education have a lot to offer our professional community and the children and families with whom we engage.
Action research is an opportunity to work collaboratively across all teams in a service or as a specific team. Early childhood settings have a wide skill mix from Certificate III to Masters of Early Childhood. Taking into account the fact that all staff are trained and have professional experience, the viable assumption is that each person will have something to contribute to the process.
What if . . .
Everyone has a question about their current practice. It may be from curiosity or challenges or even being confronted by their profession. It’s when we start a dialogue of ‘what ifs’, that we find common ground and an opportunity to improve understanding and practise together.
Recognising that a question or interest exists about current practice is the starting point. Then forming a team of like minded professionals to share the work of investigating, analysing and implementing the findings is undertaken. It is tantamount to quality improvement as it is a continuous process that evolves into sustained daily practice.
Our team started the action research journey in 2011 after being challenged by Dr Stuart Shanker , a research professor from Canada presenting a workshop in Newcastle to seek out an occupational therapist to do an audit on our centre in terms of supporting children with sensory processing disorders and self regulation issues. Challenge accepted!
We engaged an occupational therapist whose audit results led to further research on how the learning environment impacts children’s interactions with others and the program. This was followed by actions, eg, changing the amount of furniture, colour of the walls, lighting, etc. I have presented the research to centre families, professional colleagues and community members.
This research took over 12 months and is still used today to inform our practice. The good news is the research has been extended from this original action to other topics such as: the 0-2 learning environment and how it should look and feel; minimalistic play in the preschool group; and self regulation in the early childhood setting (3-4 age group).
Once we started the professional dialogue of research practices we were keen to look into other aspects of our work. Some though were not action research, just a piqued interest in something beyond our usual practices eg the developing brain.
Other research topics we have undertaken are:
• laps vs apps – 2-3 room
• loose parts – 3-4 age group
• children’s voices – how do we record and share children’s ideas – preschool group.
Integral to this process is currency. We need to be looking at what is happening in our field and community. Also important is the ownership of the research. When a team can see distinct benefits potentially coming from the work they do then there is more reason to commit to the process.
This year we have chosen to undertake the following two action research projects instead of each team having an individual inquiry. The projects are sustainability – whole service (two teams based on individual interest in topic), and outdoor learning environments. These action research projects are long term and therefore we have extended them over at least two years.
Benefits of the action research process have included acknowledgement of staff strengths, showcasing the centre as innovative and progressive. We have also been able to share practice with other services. Most recently our action research was used extensively as evidence for our assessment and rating visit across several quality areas.
Processes for action research have been refined over time to ensure we remain current and able to sustain the momentum. This has included developing a meeting agenda to keep us on track as well as a guide to support understanding of the process:
• What? Give the meeting a specific title
• End goal? What will it look like at the end (best outcome - this may change as barriers arise, it’s part of the process of learning)
• Why? What is so important about this issue that it has to be researched (ie, how does the current situation impact your practice/interactions)
• Who? What will people be doing in this project (ie, data recorder/script/photos; families, staff, children)
• Influences and data? What influenced your decision (eg, other services, new research, etc)? What data are you going to collect to support decisions – perhaps one person on your team can develop this information?
It is essential to reflect on the process, outcomes and plan for the next step. What is critical to our action research projects is the viability of our findings and actions over a long period of time after the research is finished. We also use the information to inform families of our professional skills as teachers and educators.
As a director I have found action research to be instrumental in developing stronger relationships between and with staff. Change management can be a difficult process when people feel excluded. Action research is the opposite, where every person’s voice is considered. It allows the reality of something not quite working out as planned to be shared at the grass roots level. It also allows the celebration of ‘different but okay’ to be included in a centre’s professional dialogue.
As I have already noted research is a marathon. Each action research event should be progressed at a rate of speed that suits the investigating team and be open to not achieving the big outcome. It is as much about the relationships developed and understanding gained as it is about the issue.