Strategic Research Initiative Literature Review: Early Childhood Education Publications
Over the last four years, the Ministry of Education has been directing significant efforts into refocusing its work and effectiveness. This has involved working towards a more strategic approach to policy planning and development, including aligning policy development and research more closely. One aspect of this work has been developing a set of strategic research priorities. The Ministry recognised that it needed a stronger information base and initiated the Strategic Research Initiative project. This literature review is one of suite of “state-of-the-art” literature reviews that the Ministry commissioned in 1999 as a first step in this project.
Author(s): Anne Smith, Grace Grima, Michael Gaffney, Kim Powell, Children's Issues Centre, University of Otago. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: March 2000
- There is a relatively high proportion of New Zealand children participating in a variety of early childhood settings, but their level of participation is generally for a small number of hours and at a low cost.
- A substantial minority of parents are dissatisfied with their children's participation in early childhood settings.
- Families with low socioeconomic status and low income backgrounds are less likely to have their children attending an early childhood service.
- Children of European background are more likely to be attending an early childhood centre than children of Mäori or Pacific Island background.
- There is some evidence that earlier, longer and more intense participation in early childhood services is likely to be more effective in producing positive outcomes, especially for low income families.
The Importance of Early Experience
- Neuroscience evidence of links between early stimulation and synapse formation in the brain is lacking, though developmental psychology evidence supports links between early experience and learning.
- Brain structures develop from the prenatal period through to adolescence and adulthood.
- There are links between early sensory stimulation and the activation of the arousal system – chaotic environments can produce abnormal reactions to later stress, while nurturing sensitive environments allow children to respond more adaptively.
- Young children need to be protected from lack of stimulation, over stimulation or aversive stimulation in the early years.
- Maternal employment and participation in out-of home early childhood education even during infancy appear not to harm children and can yield benefits to children and their families if it is of adequate quality.
- Attendance at early childhood education programs is associated with cognitive gains and improved performance in school throughout the world..
- Social gains are reported mainly from intervention studies with high-risk children but the experience can help all children develop social competencies.
- Having some early childhood program experience appears to matter more to children than exposure to any particular curriculum or program model.
- The early childhood program experience appears to be a stronger force in lives of low-income children than middle-class children.
- Early childhood program attendance can narrow the gaps in achievement that separate children from different SES backgrounds, but not entirely remove the gaps.
General Quality Effects
- The quality of early childhood education, broadly defined, has an effect on children's emotional, social, physical and cognitive development.
- The positive impact of high quality care is strongest for children who would otherwise experience an unstimulating and unresponsive environment at home.
- The quality of children's early childhood education is not independent of family background. Families with low risk backgrounds tend to use higher quality care and families with high risk backgrounds tend to use lower quality care.
- Recent US research suggests that the quality of family child care is a stronger predictor of developmental outcomes than the quality of non maternal child care, but that a combination of low quality care both within and outside the family produces the most negative outcomes.
- Staff-child ratios, staff training and group size have been shown in international research and in New Zealand to be associated with high quality care and more favourable child development outcomes.
- Staff wages are a very strong predictor of high quality care - at least as powerful as ratios/group size/ training.
- High teacher turnover is associated with poorer outcomes and lower quality care.
- Structural indicators of quality are a necessary but not sufficient condition for quality.
- The most important indicator of quality is the social interactions and direct experiences of children in their early childhood education setting - namely process quality.
- The quantity of interaction which children have with their teachers and the amount of attention they receive is one important aspect of process quality - children who interact little with teachers are less likely to profit from their experience in early childhood education setting.
- The quality of teacher/child relationships is an important indicator of quality - children can have stable secure or insecure attachments with their teachers which are independent from their attachments to their parents. Secure attachments are predictive of later social competence.
- Joint attention episodes, where adult and child are jointly engaged in attention to outside events, actions or objects, are an important indicator of process quality.
- The research supports curriculum models like New Zealand's Te Whäriki, where children are encouraged to initiate, participate in meaningful activities, and explore, and teachers scaffold their developing skills. Highly structured and teacher-directed curriculum models have been associated with poorer long-term outcomes, especially in social behaviour.
- Positive and harmonious peer interactions are associated with high quality care whereas aggression and non-compliance between peers are associated with poor quality care. Little attention has been directed towards positive peer interactions as an indicator of quality (compared to teacher-child interactions).
- Support and sensitivity towards parents, clear communication and information sharing are likely to lead to trusting relationships between early childhood staff and parents.
Outcomes for Families
- Children's participation in various forms of education and care can influence family psychological well-being, family relationships, and family functioning. The availability of child care can encourage women to go to work, but it can also have some negative effects for the well-being of family members such as increased role strain amongst mothers who must juggle work and child care responsibilities.
- Economic policies and child care support programs have to be appropriate for families and children, and they should be flexible for the diverse needs of working and non-working parents who live in a variety of family formations.
- Access, affordability, work schedules and current income level all create different needs for working mothers and their families. As the price of care rises the demand for certain types of care drop. This is more noticeable than any drop in maternal employment due to any price rise.
- Economic disadvantage may result for families of low socio-economic status when subsidies set up for economic and child care assistance are very strict and limited in their rules for eligibility.
- Parental satisfaction with early childhood programs is not always an indicator of quality, and there is a question amongst researchers as to whether parents can readily identify indicators of quality in early childhood care and education.
- The literature indicates that there are now very clear and well-recognized indicators of quality for successful outcomes in approaches to early childhood programs that utilize a parent education component, and that parent education works best when there is a partnership between early childhood program providers and families.
Child care Policy Research
- Early childhood and family policies mediate mothers' work attachment and the supply of labour rather than the demand for labour. Early childhood and family policies and maternal employment demand can also have impact on national fertility.
- There are reasons to believe that within an open market for early childhood education and care parents will under invest in their children. This is because of the externalities that shift the benefits of the education and care away from the families who purchase it to society in general. This points to a potential role for the government to intervene in the 'market' in order to maximize the potential returns to society.
- As early childhood policies tend to be drafted to meet a range of societal goals then there can be a tendency for the policy to lose their external and internal coherency. Resourcing for the policies may be inadequate to meet the goals set, and multiple agency interest in early childhood policy may lead to overlapping policies and accompanying contradictions in their direction.
- The expected rationality of the market requires that parents ensure that the best quality of care is demanded and that providers deliver it at a certain price. But this cannot be guaranteed, as there does not seem to be agreement as to the quality of care and education that children are receiving. This leaves open the possibility that a society cannot maximise their children's potential if child care choices are left to parents alone.
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