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 7: Synthesis of Review Findings

Abstract

Three key messages summarise the findings of this report: (1) Early childhood settings for under-two-year-olds should be places where children experience sensitive responsive caregiving that is attuned to their subtle cues, including their temperamental and age characteristics; (2) Early childhood settings for under-two-year-olds should be low-stress environments because low stress environments are correlated to healthy brain development. Calm quiet environments are amenable to policy intervention through regulable elements such as adult:child ratios, and teacher preparation; (3) Environmental conditions and teacher action interconnect in creating quality ECS for under-two-year-olds. The achievement of attuned teacher-child relationships requires a holistic pedagogical approach and environmental and policy conditions that act as a supportive membrane for pedagogical interaction. This concluding chapter draws together the key findings into a synthesis around the key and subsidiary questions that framed this review.


This review has presented the argument that the number of discourses from which to view quality has grown substantially over the past decade. Studies that illustrate this growth range from positivist ones that seek to quantify the effect of discreet variables in determining quality, to others within ecological and socio-cultural paradigms which foreground the contextualised nature of quality within a system or activity. There are also studies that adopt poststructuralist interpretations of quality and thus reject any universal definitions to emphasise uncertainty, contingency and the importance of perspective. As such, quality can no longer be seen merely as an isolated phenomenon that can be measured but rather as a construct that is embedded in layers of meaning that are interpreted within the lived experiences of infants and toddlers in relationship with others and their environments. Since it is now understood that no one discipline can make claims about the complex phenomenon of quality without considering its situatedness as a notion, this review has adopted the position that multiple scientific bodies of knowledge play a part in explaining it. This is consistent with the translational research approach identified by Meltzoff (2009) and ohers (see Cicchetti & Gunnar, 2009).

The expansion of research methodologies for understanding human functioning over the past decade has brought about a heightened appreciation of the unique and sophisticated social, cognitive, and emotionally complex nature of infant and toddler communication as a dialogic phenomenon. Taking the view that the under-two-year-old is more socially competent than was previously understood, there has been an increased interest in under-two-year-olds as social beings, in relationship with others – the people, places and things that comprise their learning experience – and the centrality of these relationships to learning and development.

In this concluding chapter, the insights gained from the research reviewed are drawn together into a synthesis around the key and subsidiary questions that framed this review. The questions of the review are addressed sequentially.

Question 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?

1.1   What does research evidence suggest about the conditions/factors which support the positive development of children under two years of age? What are the implications of this for providing high quality care and education at early childhood centres for under-two-year-olds.

1.2    If an early childhood centre was to be regarded as providing high quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds, what do we know from research about what this would look like?


Quality is now understood as a multi-dimensional, value-laden and situated concept while pedagogical research points to a dynamic interaction between structural and interactional factors in creating quality experiences in early childhood settings. Goelman et al.'s (2006) conceptualisation of quality as a continuum of factors that includes distal features (e.g., regulations, policy and teacher registration requirements) and proximal ones (e.g, child's interactions with teachers, ratios, group size etc), provides a useful tool with which to consider this dynamic interaction. For example, distal features such as regulations and other mandatory requirements stated in policy, may be conceptualised as creating a supportive membrane for the more dynamic elements of early childhood provision.

This literature review points to two dimensions that are essential for a quality early childhood educational experience for under-two-year-olds:

  1. Attuned interactions that establish secure relationships which stimulate emotional and cognitive growth; and
  2. An environment that is free of toxic stress (eliminated by small group sizes, high adult:child ratios, a calm relaxed atmosphere with unhurried, individualised routines and a healthy environment).

Specific features identified in the literature as enabling these dimensions are:

  • a sufficient number of adults per child in line with the benchmark of 1:3 recommended as the ideal, and 1:4 or 2:8 as the back-up options (see Chapter 5)
  • qualified adults who are knowledgeable about contemporary theories of development and learning including an awareness of the impact of their behaviours on brain development
  • qualified adults with specialist knowledge of infants and toddlers and with access to ongoing professional development from providers who are also specialists in the field
  • teachers who are skilled in creating a calm environment and provide a relaxed pace/rhythm to the day
  • teachers who take a stance of respect towards children, seeing them as learners with capabilities to actively participate in social processes of learning, capable of memory, fully functioning cognitively
  • an environment whose physical characteristics meet or exceed regulation standards (including low noise levels and opportunities for quiet rest as well as more energetic play opportunities)
  • an environment that maintains hygienic and nutritional conditions that support the well-being of the infants, toddlers and families
  • favourable working conditions (e.g.,salary, status, qualifications, ongoing professional development) that enable continuity in relationships between teachers and infants, toddlers, and families.

Specific programme requirements for under-one-year-olds as opposed to under-two-year-olds have been identified by some authors (e.g., Stephen, Dunlop, & Trevarthen, 2003) but this is an area that warrants further investigation. This is especially pertinent in Aotearoa New Zealand given the mixed-age compositions in many early childhood educational contexts which make direct translation of research findings from other contexts very difficult to achieve.

Child development and neuroscientific research provides a consistent message that responsive interactions and intersubjective attunement are the foundations for children's emotional, cognitive and overall developmental well-being. Social interactions in which there is a 'serve-and-return' dynamic act as a catalyst for learning. Neurobiological research also suggests that neural mechanisms for cognitive and emotional development might be the same.

The implication of such findings is that high quality early childhood settings for under-two-year-olds should be places where children encounter adults who are skilled in establishing and maintaining attuned interactions. With under-two-year-olds, such attunement is achieved in relationships that are facilitated through a sophisticated reading of children's body cues, such as movement, gestures, vocalisations and subtle changes in any of these. Additionally, early childhood programmes for this age group need to strike a balance between cognitive stimulation and emotionality.

In high quality early childhood settings children experience continuity of care evident in practices such as primary caregiving relationships. This is especially significant for the very young child because of the known positive impact of secure attachment relationships on learning and development. With secure attachment relationships in place the infant and toddler can gradually go on to enjoy multiple relationships with others.

These dimensions of quality environments are important because neurobiological and child development research shows that unresponsive, inconsistent, unhealthy, unstable relationships, coupled with ongoing exposure to highly stressful environments in the first years of life are known to negatively affect brain development with potential long-term consequences.

The following excerpts from recent New Zealand research provide illustrative descriptions of what a high quality early childhood education setting for under-two-year-olds might look like.

An environment where:

….the ebb and flow of the environment, with its unhurried pace, set the scene for children to explore freely. Children moved in and out of spaces and played in their own world alongside others, supported by periodic cultural cues that served as a "punctuation mark" to the day. The children occasionally returned to familiar spaces and used these as a base from which to explore. Adults were always close by and keen to respond to the children when they were invited into their world. …

… In play this meant being attuned to each other, and to the child, through careful observation and interpretation. (White et al., 2009, pp. 46, 47)

A teacher who learns to 'read' young children's cues and appreciate and respond to their cues:

… like, at the beginning I didn't know this child and I think now, because we've built that relationship … I've got to know her a bit more …. At the beginning Zoe was like a book that I had never read … and as it's gone on I feel as if I have read that book so many times and I sort of know what is in each part. Alicia, teacher in Jayne White's PhD study.

Teachers who might say:

The teacher's role then is a finely balanced role, an intuitive role that sees each teacher making decisions 'in the moment' poised as provocateur, as listener, as learner, as teacher, ever vigilant for opportunities to widen and deepen knowledge… It is a highly skilled position and one that can enhance and constrain learning in the blink of an eye. (Greerton Early Childhood Centre's Centre of Innovation Research project final report, cited by Sands & Weston, 2010)

A parent who would say:

I remember getting there at the end of the first day feeling very anxious as to how it would be and finding him snuggled on Bridget's shoulder and he was nestling into her neck. On the one hand [I thought] Oh poor little guy – but they're looking after him – he's getting one-to-one care … letting him snuggle into her. It was really helpful when I got there on the first day, they had taken photos of him, showing photos of him happy in the outdoors, and they had the notebook where they recorded what he was doing, and it was good for me too. … there was something very gentle about Bridget. She was very much into sitting with them and being there for them. (Juliette, mother of Samuel, 12 months. (personal conversation, 17 March 2009, cited in Rockel, 2010)

A teacher who will explain to parents:

Primary caregiving at a centre is different to the primary caregiving that you do as a parent. For a start parents are there for the child and have a shared future for that child, so everything that happens within the relationship is with that future in mind. At the centre it is a little different: our future is not shared with the individual children, although we still want what is best for each child while they are with us. That means that our job is to be in partnership with the child and their families and find out what is important for each particular family and work out how that fits within the centre and our philosophy. (Bridget, teacher at Childspace Ngaio Infant and Toddler Centre of Innovation).

1.3 What else needs to be in place ideally to reflect other characteristics of the child beyond age, such as gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, family background, health or disabilities etc?

Issues related to gender did not feature to any significant level in the literature sourced for this review, and research related to health and disability issues in the first two years of life was too extensive to be included in this report beyond that encompassed within the literature related to early intervention programmes. The latter typically considered factors such as ethnicity/race, low socio-economic status, father absence, low birth weight and prenatal exposure to cocaine as risk factors which early childhood programmes aimed to neutralise. In these contexts, early childhood education programmes typically perform a holistic parent/family support function with early childhood provision conceptualised more as a family multi-service affair and less as a centre-bound experience between the infant and the teacher. Teachers who can establish good working relationships with parents, mindful of values, and drawing on parents' experiences are essential to the success of these programmes.

Results from early intervention studies highlighted the following other factors (see Chapter 6) as essential to achieving high quality outcomes:

  • home-visiting components within centre-based programmes
  • multi-service early childhood centres (Belsky et al., 2006; Melhuish et al., 2008)
  • the provision of transport to ensure children attend the early childhood centre
  • focused curriculum experiences such as language enrichment interventions (e.g., Bolzani-Dinehart et al., 2009)
  • provision of primary health care facilities (Campbell & Pungello, 2000).

Early intervention studies sourced in this study additionally nominated the usual structural components associated with high quality provision as essential for effective programme outcomes, namely:

  • caregiving staff who from infancy were seen as "teachers" (Campbell & Pungello, 2000, p. 5)
  • a linguistically and cognitively stimulating curriculum that values the pedagogical power of play
  • staff:child ratios that exceed minimal state requirements
  • staff salaries comparable to those of teachers in public elementary schools (Abecedarian project, Campbell & Pungello, 2000).

Furthermore, temperamental differences among children were seen to impact the ease with which some children handled transitions between staff and in the early childhood setting generally, with slow-to-warm children finding these harder. This highlights once more the importance of knowledgeable adults being able to interpret children's messages.

1.4 From what age do children experience educational and social gains from entering early childhood education? How do duration and characteristics of the child and their family/whānau relate to this?

The literature does not recommend an optimal age for entry into early childhood education settings. Both the New Zealand Competent Children Study and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Longitudinal Study recruited children at age 3 years, which is above the target age of this review. However, the most recent findings from the prospective longitudinal NICHD study (NICHD 2005a-2005b; Vandell et al., 2010), involving 1364 children recruited in infancy, show that high quality early childhood attendance has immediate cognitive and social benefits that are maintained into adolescence. The NICHD studies also reported 'sleeper' effects from moderate amounts of time in childcare (10–32 hours a week) during infancy with more time in childcare during infancy being associated with better adjustment to school in adolescence (Vandell et al., 2010). These findings are important because they applied to children attending "routine non-relative child care in their communities" rather than intensive early intervention programmes such as described in Chapter 6. As the authors state, the findings "suggest that the quality of early-care experiences can have long lasting (albeit small) effects on middle class and affluent children as well as those who are economically disadvantaged" (Vandell et al., 2010, p. 750).

The most recent findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Developmentfurther emphasise that parenting quality is connected to the effects of centre-based childcare. (Adi-Japha & Klein, 2009; Belsky et al., 2007; Vandell et al., 2010). Studies now note that the role of parenting quality as a mediator of the effects of childcare has been under-studied. In a comparison between three groups of children who all had high quality parenting but different quantities of attendance in childcare (Adi-Japha & Klein, 2009), the associations between school readiness and receptive language were strongest for those children who attended a medium number of hours per week (up to 30 hrs) of centre-based childcare. Brooks-Gunn and Markman (2005), among others, have found that a parenting component added to home- and centre-based programmes can alter parenting to improve nurturance and discipline, and thus children's school readiness.

It is important to emphasise that studies have consistently shown that only high quality education and care settings - characterised by high adult:child ratios (1:3), small group sizes and qualified staff - are of developmental benefit to children. An exception to this is the finding reported by McCartney et al. (2007) that for children at the poverty level, even low quality care showed some positive effects, relative to no care.

For at-risk populations, the research base clearly states that high quality early childhood education acts as a buffer against the deleterious effects of adverse life conditions. This is especially the case for children in multiple risk contexts (Burchinal et al., 2006; Dearing et al., 2009; McCartney et al., 2007) such as poverty, father absence, large household size, low maternal education, high maternal depression, and high life stress. As detailed in Chapter 6, both McCartney et al.(2007) and Dearing et al.(2009) reported that children from low-income families performed better in higher quality childcare – compared to children in lower quality childcare, and to children with no childcare – on tests of school readiness and language competences. Additionally, the parents of these children benefited indirectly from the support received by their child. The data reported by McCartney et al. and Dearing et al. related to children aged 6 to 54 months, while the children in Burchinal's study were enrolled in childcare at a mean age of 5.4 months with the youngest being 1 month old.

As with the general population, specific starting ages for children from at-risk populations were not identified as more favourable than others in the research accessed for this study.

Campbell et al. (2008) also noted that "longitudinal studies demonstrate that some of the most important societal gains to be realized from early childhood programs may not be seen until late adolescence or early adulthood" (p. 464).

1.5 What are the best indicators or measures for examining the degree of quality being provided to under-two-year-olds attending early childhood education?

Different studies continue to use the ITERS as a measure of the quality of the early childhood environment with the NICHD using its own measure called the ORCE. The new tool called the CLASS (Pianta, La Paro & Hamre, 2008) is also being increasingly discussed at conferences where it is gaining favour as a research tool as well as a self-review tool for practitioners. The literature shows that while overall measures of quality have provided a good starting point for many studies, these tools often have had to be amended to respond to local conditions (e.g., the ECERS has been amended for use in New Zealand). In keeping with the broadened methodological and theoretical bases being applied to research with under-three-year-olds, it is increasingly being argued that visual means of data generation, and emphasis on the capability of teachers to recognize and respond to infant communication, hold the key to an appreciation of quality early childhood education for this age group (e.g., Johansson & White, in press).

Question 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?

2.1 What is known about the current situation in New Zealand? How closely does the current situation reflect or align with what is known from the research evidence about the features of quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds?

What we know about the current situation for under-twos in New Zealand, apart from the ERO (2009) report, comes from a small number of doctoral research studies and one-off qualitative projects funded either under the discontinued COI action research programme (see Chapter 2) or the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI).

For example, White's (2009) doctoral study showed that a mixed-age centre considered to be of high quality (according to ERO reports and contemporary quality criteria such as ratios, group size, teacher access to non-contact time etc) still struggled to facilitate optimum relationships with the 18–22-month-old toddlers. The turning point for them was in moving away from strict timetables and rigid templates for assessment towards engaging in dialogic relationships that were characterised by attuned interactions- an insight also reported by Deans and Bary (2008) in their COI-funded project.

COI projects typically focussed on one or two aspects of pedagogical practice and were funded to investigate pedagogical practice to a level well beyond the regular capacity of other early childhood education services. The fact that the TLRI funding pool has nominated the area of infant and toddler provision as an area of priority for early childhood education research over the last two years confirms that infant and toddler pedagogy has been marginalised as an area of research. A current research project funded by the TLRI in which three of the writers of this report are involved (Dalli, Duhn and Rockel) is showing that there is much interest among the early childhood teaching community working in infant and toddler contexts in pursuing a research agenda that would support them to improve their practice.

Several countries have responded to the marginalisation of under-two-year-olds in policy reports over the past decade. These include Australia (Cass, 2007), Canada (McCain & Mustard, 1999), Scotland (Stephen et al., 2003) and the United Kingdom (Abbott & Langston, 2004; David, Goouch, Powell, & Abbott, 2003; see also Fox et al., 2010). In their commissioned literature reviews similar messages can be found about the benefits of social and economic investment in the education and care of under-two-year-olds. McCain and Mustard pointed out that policy makers have two potential pathways that they can take – either (i) centres are funded adequately to provide the high quality education and care that is now known to be essential for infants and toddlers; or (ii) families are supported to remain at home. For at-risk populations, the strong recommendation is to support families and their infants and toddlers through targeted intervention programmes.

2.2 What are the enablers to high quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds?

The literature consistently points out the importance of intersubjective relationships as the key to high quality early childhood education for this age group. These are enabled by the provision of structural variables pointed out in Chapter 5 and are outlined as follows:

  • Caregiving practices that promote secure attachments supported by systems such as primary caregiving and employment conditions that encourage staff to feel valued and therefore stay in the job, thus avoiding high turnover and transition that interrupt caregiving relationships.
  • Individualised care may be supported by a flexible programme that enables teachers to follow the child and their routines, rather than a roster.
  • Teacher-child relationships that are characterised by attunement, intimacy, interactional synchrony, sensitivity and self awareness on the part of the teacher, coupled with keen observational skills and the ability to 'read' cues and subtle nuances in infant and toddler communication.
  • Degree-level, specialised, training for work with infants and toddlers and ongoing professional development that takes into account new knowledge.
  • Attuned caregiving across the curriculum may be supported by teachers who have the capacity to engage in indepth caregiving relationships with infants and toddlers, who have expert, specialised knowledge and the capacity to reflect and review their practice .
  • Supportive working environments that facilitate low staff turnover may be supported by optimum working conditions, recognition and status of the specialised nature of this work, coupled with high ratios and small group sizes.
  • Stress-free environments may be supported by higher ratios, group size, nutritional awareness, space and, most importantly, pedagogical practices that are calm and peaceful.
  • Partnerships with families may be supported by programmes that invite parent/whānau involvement and see themselves as working in tandem with families. Studies with at-risk populations suggest that intervention may need to be active in supporting positive parenting practices in the home as well as modelling positive interactions at the centre. Parents may also benefit from additional funding support to make good choices about the quality of education their infant or toddler receives.

Cumulatively, the findings of this review suggest the following equation:

Knowledgeable teachers + optimum structural variables + supportive environments for teachers, children and parents = optimum pedagogical interactions= optimal developmental outcomes for children

Optimal pedagogical interactions lead to infants and toddlers who have their care and learning needs and interests met in a consistent manner.

2.3 What are the barriers to high quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds? What can help address or ameliorate these barriers?

Identified barriers for high quality education are the opposite to those outlined under 2.2 above. For instance, when teachers do not have specialised knowledge they are not in a position to provide programmes which are appropriate for this age group, nor are they able to support families in the most appropriate ways. When the ratios are insufficient and group sizes too large, a teacher is unable to develop the kinds of relationships necessary for optimum learning, despite a desire to do otherwise. When teachers do not work in conditions that enable them to reflect deeply about their practice, it is likely that current practices will be sustained and become unresponsive to new knowledge that emerges in the field. When working conditions and status are undermined, it is difficult for teachers to remain positive, committed and sustained in their relationships with under-two-year-olds and their families. Clearly, for every positive there is a negative that can be interpreted as a barrier.

In addition, the literature has identified family characteristics that act as barriers to accessing high quality. As illustrated in Chapter 6, these characteristics are described in terms of the following disadvantages: poverty, father absent in household, large household size, low maternal education, high maternal depression, and high life stress.

The literature has suggested that teachers need specialist training to work across diverse cultures and communities. Since infants and toddlers have limited ability to speak for themselves, advocacy from parents and teacher relies on these adults' ability to communicate effectively with one another in the shared care and education of the child.

2.4 What skills, experience, qualifications and other characteristics do early childhood education teachers need for working with children at varying ages up to two years of age?

The reviewed literature overwhelmingly emphasises five key areas of competence for early childhood education teachers working with under-two-year-olds. These are in addition to generic teacher qualities (as outlined by NZ Teachers Council):

  • emotional engagement;
  • critical reflection;
  • awareness of diversity;
  • a research/evaluation focus; and
  • child development knowledge.

Recommended qualifications in the literature base suggest that an undergraduate degree with specialist components, combined with ongoing professional development is optimal. The neurobiological knowledge that is emerging suggests that specialist knowledge must include a multi-disciplinary orientation.

Question 3:

What do we know about the capacity of ECE to improve outcomes for under-two-year-old children from low SES, 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?

Correlational research of the type sourced in Chapter 6 for at-risk populations in the US and the UK is not available for equivalent New Zealand populations within the 0- to 2-year-old age group. Thus the best indications about what works, to date, continue to come from early intervention programmes implemented overseas using an early intervention methodology, as discussed in detail in Chapter 6.

Alongside these data, it is important to note Shonkoff's (2010) argument that disparities in learning and development for very young children are a result of the complex interplay between the kinds of relationships infants and toddlers are able to enjoy with adults, and the social, economic, psychological (and nutritional) state of the adults who care for them. Research is providing new information about the short and long-term consequences of deficit experiences and the factors which impact on these.

This literature is neatly summarized by Perez-Johnson and Maynard (2007):

Early, vigorous interventions targeted at disadvantaged children offer the best chance to substantially reduce gaps in school readiness and increase the productivity of our educational system. The available evidence fails to provide a complete road map for future investments, however. Hence we propose a program of challenge grants to states and their sub-units, coupled with waivers from regulation, to spur innovation and experimentation within this important research area. (p. 587)

Perez-Johnson and Maynard's concluding comment presents a provocation to researchers and policy-makers alike.

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