Quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds: What should it look like? A literature review

Publication Details

Recent years have seen increasing participation of under-two-year-olds in early childhood education. This literature review draws together relevant research evidence to better understand what quality early childhood education for children under-two-years of age should look like.

Author(s): Carmen Dalli, E. Jayne White, Jean Rockel, Iris Duhn with Emma Buchanan, Susan Davidson, Sarah Ganly, Larissa Kus, and Bo Wang, Victoria University of Wellington.

Date Published: March 2011

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Chapter 1: Introduction


This chapter sets the context for the commissioning of this literature review report including: the growth in participation rates of under-two-year-olds in formally organised group-based early childhood services; a curriculum framework that sees the education and care of infants and toddlers as specialised; rapid expansion of scientific knowledge about early development and the importance of early experiences; a thirty-year tradition of scholarly debate about the nature of quality in early childhood services; increasing recognition that early childhood education and care is a multi-disciplinary field that draws its knowledge base from a broad range of scholarly areas; and the emergence of translational research which, by crossing disciplinary boundaries, is creating a new knowledge base to inform policy and practice. The chapter also outlines the scope of the review and the study methodology. It concludes with a preview of the content of each chapter.

The purpose of the review is to provide the Ministry of Education with further information to support it in ensuring quality early childhood education provision for this age group in New Zealand.

The review draws on research evidence from a variety of scholarly fields to respond to two key questions:

  1. What does research evidence suggest about what quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds should 'look like'? What are the features or dimensions of quality? How should these vary according to the age of the child and other key factors?
  2. To what degree does the current provision of early childhood education in New  Zealand for under-two-year-olds reflect what is known from research evidence about the features/dimensions of quality for this group? What can support as close an alignment as possible to these features in the future?

It also addresses a third subsidiary question identified to be of interest to the Ministry of Education in setting priorities for the review:

  1. What do we know about the capacity of ECE to improve outcomes for under-two-year-old children from low socio-economic status, Māori, Pacific or other backgrounds that include risk factors or vulnerabilities? What is meant by quality in these projects and what are the variables at play? What worked?

1.1. Context

Participation rates of under-two-year-olds in out-of-home group-based early childhood services have risen markedly in many OECD countries (OECD, 2001; Unicef, 2008).

In Aotearoa New Zealand participation rates in early childhood services for under-two-year-olds grew by 36 percent between July 2000 and July 2009 (Ministry of Education, 2010) mirroring trends in comparable countries.

The report responds to this important change in the conditions under which very young children experience their childhood by considering what is known about the best ways to achieve high quality provision for under-twos in early childhood education settings. It is not the purpose of this report to re-litigate whether or not under-two-year-old children should be in centre-based early childhood education.

Scrutiny of the question of 'what is quality for under-two-year-olds in early childhood settings?' is timely in light of recent advances in brain imaging technology which have expanded our knowledge about human growth and development and illuminated connections between individual parts of the brain and specific human functioning (e.g., Inder, 2002; Shonkoff, 2010; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Shore, 1997). Recent research has further indicated that the steepest rate of growth of neurological pathways is in the early years (Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard  University, 2007). These advances have led to attempts to integrate new neurobiological understandings with knowledge/s from other fields, particularly developmental psychology (e.g., Moriceau & Sullivan, 2005; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007; Siegel, 2001). Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) described these attempts as seeking to:

knowledge about the nature of early development and the role of early experiences, to disentangle such knowledge from erroneous popular beliefs or misunderstandings, and to discuss the implications of this knowledge base for early childhood policy, practice, professional development, and research. (p. 3)

The term "translational research", used in the title of Chapter 3 of this report, refers to research that is attempting to cross disciplinary boundaries to achieve this type of knowledge base.

This review reflects the fact that in recent years there has also been increasing recognition that early childhood education is a multi-disciplinary field that draws its knowledge base from a broad range of scholarly areas (e.g., Ministry of Education, 2002; OECD, 2001). Beyond those already mentioned, relevant fields include the sociology of childhood, curriculum theory and pedagogical research and scholarship: Developments in these fields are thus also relevant to understanding what quality might mean for very young children in early childhood settings and add to the timeliness of this review. For example, the recent emphasis on children's rights in the sociology of childhood (e.g., Alderson, 2005; Hart, Price Cohen, Farrell Erikson & Flekkøy, 2001; Te One, 2009) inevitably connects to advocacy arguments about the rights of very young children to quality experiences at all levels of their environment: physical, emotional, social as well as at the level of ideas. For example, Ireland (2006) has argued for the child's right to be considered a learner from the moment of birth, an idea that in Aotearoa New Zealand was introduced to the early childhood community as an "innovative" curriculum concept with the publication of Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 7).

Te Whāriki also describes the education and care of infants and toddlers as "specialised" and "neither a scaled-down three- or four-year-old programme nor a baby-sitting arrangement" (p. 22). This illustrates the point argued by sociologists of childhood and children's rights advocates that children have a right to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect (e.g., Mason & Fattore, 2005; Smith, Gollop, Marshall & Nairn, 2000; Te One, 2009; White, 2009). Yet, to see the infant and toddler as a learner still constitutes a challenging paradigmatic shift for many teachers (e.g., Grieshaber & Cannella, 2001; Smidt, 2006; Urban, 2008). This is evident in the growing body of writing and research seeking to articulate the specialist nature of high quality infant and toddler pedagogy in this country (e.g., Bary et al., 2008a, 2008b; Dalli, 2006; Rockel, 2004) and elsewhere (e.g., Katz, 2003; Macfarlane, Noble & Cartmel, 2004; Rofrano, 2002). The increasingly diverse and multicultural population of New Zealand adds a further important lens through which to understand quality for the very youngest children in early childhood settings.

This review takes on board the view that the notion of quality in early childhood education has now accrued a thirty-year tradition of scholarly discussion and debate (see, for example, Moss & Pence, 1994; Pence & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2006; Phillips, 1987). As argued in Chapter 2 of this report, this scholarly legacy alerts us to the problematic nature of the notion of quality and to its historical, cultural and paradigmatic embeddedness, and thus also to the need to view attempts to define it in immutable or universalistic terms from a critical perspective.

1.2. Scope of the review

The following databases were searched for English-medium research published in the last seven to ten years: ERIC, PsychINFO, Ebsco and Academic Search premier.

The databases were selected after the principal investigator and second author identified peer-reviewed high ranked journals that report empirical research in the fields of child development and early childhood education generally. Journals were chosen that were known to highlight relevant new knowledge:

  • about how the notion of quality in early childhood provision is currently understood and debated
  • from research on the effects of early childhood education on under-two-year-olds, including in relation to at-risk populations and with respect to different dimensions of quality
  • from child development research generally, including research seeking to apply new neurobiological knowledge to understanding human functioning in the very early years
  • from existing reviews about quality early childhood education for under-twos
  • in relation to structural elements of quality, e.g., staff qualifications and training, professional development
  • in pedagogical literature on the nature of quality provision for under-twos
  • in policy commentaries about how to ensure quality in ways that are amenable to policy intervention.

A set of keywords was devised which the project librarian then used to run three trial searches going back over the last seven- to ten-year period. These were to test out the nature and number of studies that different arrangements of keywords would produce.

Concurrently with running the electronic searches, the researchers' existing endnote libraries (total articles = 569) were systematically searched and keywords generated to help categorise and prioritise articles by their relevance to the current review.

The keywords used were as follows:
Setting Actors Events Process Other
quality group
group size
sleep room
changing area
noise levels
adult-child ratio

mat times
low SES

at risk
ethnic gaps
racial gaps
involved families
child  development
language acquisition
responsive care
joint attention
teacher-child relationship
parent participation
intensity of provision/
early intervention
effective programs
brain development
quality debate
specific programs

Articles identified through the search were included if they met the following criteria:

  • the article clearly described methods of data collection and analysis used in the study (i.e. it reported an empirical study;
  • the study provided sufficient information to make some judgment about the reliability and validity of its findings
  • the study was published in the last seven to ten years or was deemed to be of high relevance (if earlier than 2000).

A professional judgement was made by the researchers on the basis of available information in the sources read about the methodological rigour of each study; the scholarliness of each study cited in this report is signaled in the contextual information provided for the cited material.

In triangulating the findings of this review, the key test used was to be alert to the question of whether for groups with similar characteristics; the findings reported were pointing in a similar direction or creating a coherent picture rather than a contradictory one. The researchers were also mindful of issues of face validity in reporting studies, particularly in relation to the applicability of findings from studies carried out in the United States of America to the New Zealand context.In reporting results, attention was also given to the study limitations identified within the studies themselves including limitations of attribution, or correlation compared to causation, or - less frequently within these peer reviewed articles - where limitations were identified by the researchers.

1.3. The structure of the report

The report contains seven chapters. The focus of Chapters 2 to 6 derives from the review questions. It should be noted that the themes covered in each chapter reflect the themes present in the literature identified by the systematic library searches, and not by an a priori plan of what each chapter should cover. Thus, for example, the limited coverage of some issues such as culturally-appropriate pedagogy in Chapter 4 reflects the fact that they are absent in the pedagogical literature published in the peer-reviewed databases searched. Where such gaps were identified in the writing up of the report, efforts were made to go beyond the databases when possible. Nonetheless, this was not possible for all topics and is a limitation to be aware of.

Chapter 2 of the report provides an outline of the way that the notion of "quality early childhood education" has been understood historically, both as it applies broadly to the 0-5-year-old/0-8 year-old age group served by early childhood provision nationally and internationally, and more specifically for 0-2-year-olds, which is the age group at the focus of this review.

Chapter 3 reviews new knowledge about very young children's development with particular reference to the growth of understanding about the interface between neurobiological and holistic development. This is to provide the broad scholarly context of new knowledge that is currently informing discussions about what quality early childhood provision for under-two-year-olds "should look like", as per the brief for this literature review.

In Chapter 4, the focus shifts to research about what high quality early childhood pedagogy looks like for under-two-year-olds. The term pedagogy is defined and enablers and barriers of quality pedagogy identified and discussed.

Chapter 5 provides an update on research that identifies so-called "structural" elements of quality. Noting that quality is a multi-faceted construct that is conceptually constructed in diverse ways (e.g., as a continuum of proximal, distal, and intermediate factors that affect the lived experience of children, see Goelman et al., 2006), and ecologically determined, the chapter uses a question and answer format to provide a state-of-the art statement of what is currently understood about regulable elements of quality.

A key message from this review is that quality is a multi-faceted construct. Thus, attempts to understand what this means for infants and toddlers in New Zealand early childhood settings must take account of multiple discourses from a range of scholarly domains. In the compilation of this review, it has been helpful for the research team to conceptualise the scholarly domains as overlapping as in the venn diagram below.

Figure 2: Venn Diagram


This review brings together discourses about quality early childhood education from different scholarly domains in a way that also seeks to maintain awareness of the ecological, fluid and multi-perspectival dimension of this construct (see Chapter 2). A practical implication of this view of quality is that each of the chapters in this review tells only a part of the "story" about quality for under-two-year-olds. All chapters need to be read as complementary but especially Chapters 4 and 5, which are both based on child development research.

In Chapter 6, a narrative review is presented of studies that report quantitative data on the effects of early intervention programmes with children under two years of age. This replaces a meta-analytic review of this literature that did not proceed due to lack of studies that fitted the necessary criteria. Although, as Melhuish et al. (2008) have noted, "studies with disadvantaged populations may have little relevance for the general population" (p. 1161), this selection of studies is included in the report because this area of research was deemed of interest to the Ministry in the commissioning of the report. The aim of this chapter is to highlight elements of key early intervention programmes found to be associated with positive child and family impacts. In this way, this chapter addresses questions about what is currently known about 'what works' for under-two-year-old children at risk.

A synthesis of findings structured around the questions of the review concludes the report.


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