ECE Participation Programme Evaluation Stage 4

Publication Details

This report is from the fourth and final stage of an evaluation of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) ECE Participation Programme. The overall evaluation focus is on how the Participation Programme and individual initiatives addressed barriers to participation in early childhood education (ECE) for priority groups in target communities.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Patricia Meagher-Lundberg, Sonja Arndt and Helena Kara, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research. Report for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: September 2016

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Executive Summary

The Stage 3 evaluation report integrates findings across the first three stages. The focus in this final stage of the evaluation is on families enrolled in the Engaging Priority Families initiative, an intensive support programme for 3 and 4 year-olds and their families/whānau, aimed at leading to enrolment in ECE, regular participation in ECE, support for learning at home and a successful transition to school. It focuses on families who have a 3 or 4 year old who is not enrolled in early childhood education, identify as Māori or Pasifika, or are from low socioeconomic homes. This initiative offers support from the EPF coordinator to ensure and support attendance at ECE, working with families who are least likely to have participated in ECE without the Participation Programme.

The main aims for Stage Four of the evaluation were "to focus entirely on learning outcomes for children, and specifically to get priority children's stories of engaging in the Participation Programme, the outcomes of ECE participation for them and their families, and information about their transitions to school". The research questions were:

1. Participation:  What did the child's participation in EPF and ECE look like?
  • How did the whānau's approach to participation support the child's participation?
  • In what ways did the whānau's approach to participation change as a result of being in EPF?
2. Learning Outcomes:  What learning foundations did the child develop during the time they participated in EPF and ECE?
  • What support (from ECE and EPF) helped the child develop strong learning foundations?
  • If learning foundations are not strong, what additional support (from ECE and EPF) might have helped the child develop stronger learning foundations? NB support to child from whānau included in EPF and ECE support, and could be discussed as a strand of this where relevant.
3. Transition:  How did the child experience transition to school?
  • In what ways did the EPF and ECE settings support the child's early months at school?
  • How did ECE support of the child contribute to ease (or not) of transition to school?
  • How did EPF support of the child and whānau and brokerage role support the ease (or not) of transition to school?
  • How did how did the school and new entrant teacher contribute to the ease (or not) of transition to school? NB support might be specific transition preparation or regular ECE/EPF activities.
  • How did the learning foundations developed in the EPF and ECE settings by the child and whānau support the child's early months at school?


A study was undertaken over a six month time span to examine the early learning experiences of 18 EPF children in ECE and their transition to school, and how ECE and EPF had contributed to strengthening children's learning foundations and supporting the transition. Perspectives and documented information about the child's participation, learning and development were gathered from each child's whānau, EPF coordinator, ECE head teacher/supervisor and primary school new entrant teacher. Observations in the child's early childhood setting gathered data about short learning episodes. These were analysed in relation to the ECE Curriculum Framework, Te Whāriki. The observations were also used in interviews with the new entrant teachers as examples of what we saw happening in ECE, to ask whether these were happening in school. The child's transition to school experiences was mapped against the Key Competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC). The study examined whānau experiences of participating in EPF, ECE and the early months of school, and how these contributed to involvement with the child's learning at ECE and school, and at home.

Participation and learning foundations

Sixteen of the 18 case study children had not attended any ECE before participating in the EPF programme. Most of these would not have enrolled their child without the help of the EPF coordinator who also encouraged and supported their attendance. All children in the study had regular or mainly regular attendance in ECE for between 18 and 30 hours per week, except for a child enrolled in Te Kura who learned at home. Several families were referred to EPF by external agencies, a finding that reinforces the importance of EPF coordinators having connections with a range of family services in the community. Ten of the 18 children came to their service by van. Two families became actively involved in contributing to the ECE programme.  One of these parents participated in playgroup activities as is expected in a playgroup and the other supported her son in the programme provided through Te Kura. The engagement with EPF and the decision to enrol their child in ECE supported many parents in their parenting and the child in their learning and development.

We focused on Te Whāriki strands in gauging children's learning foundations, especially indicators chosen as particularly significant for a strong platform for learning and successful transitions to new situations. These were:

  • Wellbeing: Confidence; determining own actions, making own choices; knowledge, skills and attitudes to keep selves safe and healthy; teacher and parent rating that child is "ready" for school.
  • Contribution: Working, playing collaboratively with others (socialisation and caring); strategies for relating to others; respect for others; taking responsibility.
  • Belonging: Engagement; persistence with difficulty.
  • Exploration: Developing working theories; enthusiasm for exploring the environment actively.
  • Communication: (non-verbal and verbal communication becoming more complex; familiarity and enjoyment with reading, writing and mathematics; familiarity and enjoyment in being creative and expressive).

All children in our sample were described or observed to be developing positive learning foundations while participating in ECE and EPF. One group of five children was categorised as having strong learning foundations across nearly all the strands of Te Whāriki (two of these children had a way to go on exploration indicators). Nine children had very positive learning foundations, especially related to communication, and still a way to go in terms of some Te Whāriki strands. A third group of four children had slightly positive learning foundations and a way to go in terms of all Te Whāriki strands (see Table 3, p. 22).

Communication was given most prominence and focus, and is in keeping with ideas that communication is linked to the principle of empowerment. Communication is vital for children to be able to contribute their strengths and interests, to find out what they want to know, and to take increasing responsibility for their own learning and care, hence underpinning the child as an independent learner on entering school. Particular emphasis was placed on reading, writing and mathematics in line with parent wishes and teacher views that this would support school transition. Wellbeing was also strongly encouraged by most EPF coordinators and ECE services, and the ability to care for one-self was an attribute that new entrant teachers found helpful in the school classroom. In keeping with some other studies (Education Review Office, 2015; Mitchell et al., 2015), indicators of exploration were less common in documentation, interview comments or observations for the case study children.

Most children had ear, vision and health checks while they were in ECE. Subsequently three children had access to specialist support. One child, Aaron, was receiving Group Special Education support for autistic–like behaviour. However, three children not checked in ECE appeared to have health issues that were not identified by ECE teachers or EPF coordinators, including hearing and vision (subsequently identified at school), speech difficulties, and a learning disorder. This is concerning since delays in diagnosis and treatment/intervention would be likely to have impacts on children's learning and development at the time and throughout their life. More could have been done in ensuring appropriate and timely checks for these children while they were in ECE.

The months of attendance in ECE were related to positive learning foundations. All children who were in the "strong foundations" group had attended ECE for more than six months; five children in other groups had less than six months attendance, suggesting more time in ECE could have been useful. Children who had attended for less time had not been in the EPF programme for long.

Having opportunities for social interactions with other children and adults seemed to contribute to children's social competence. The EPF coordinator played a role in encouraging parents of three children in home-based settings to move to kindergarten before school in order to have opportunity to engage with a bigger group of children and adults. Reportedly, the kindergarten experience supported social development and "readiness" for school. Similarly, the EPF coordinator for a child enrolled in Te Kura encouraged the mother to participate in community activities, as well as providing considerable support for Te Kura activities. However, opportunities for social interaction were not taken up by this family to a wide extent.

A pivotal factor in supporting children's learning was the understanding and interactions of the ECE teachers/educators. Intentional teachers who "noticed, recognised and responded to" valued learning seemed better able to extend learning and articulate it to others through for example assessment documentation. Examples were gathered where teachers/educators purposely focused their pedagogical approaches and assessment documentation to strongly support valued outcomes identified as important to the child's development and family wishes. The assessment portfolios, even over only a short period of time, showed a breadth and depth of learning across the strands of Te Whāriki. Family engagement and contribution were documented too and given recognition and value. Portfolios and teacher interview data about children in the only slightly positive group pinpointed a narrower range of learning and gave less individualised commentary about teaching and learning for specific children.

Finally, the educational activities parents did with their children seemed to make a difference to children's learning. There was variability in the learning activities said to be carried out in the home setting, in the input of the EPF coordinator to home learning, and in the information about learning gained from the ECE setting for the 13 families where children had less strong learning foundations. Some EPF coordinators played a key role in formulating goals with the family and suggesting activities focused on learning. Parents found out about their children's learning in the ECE setting by observing activities, having information conveyed by the ECE teacher through documentation and talking, or through the EPF coordinator telling the parent about the child's day. The role of the EPF coordinator as a conduit for information was particularly evident for some families whose children were transported by van to the ECE setting. Some early childhood service teachers/educators invited parental contribution to assessment and the programme. The child's own enjoyment, interest and progression, derived especially from the ECE experience was a driving force for initiating and sustaining home activities. In combination, these findings suggest the powerful role of all parties in achieving educational aims.

Transition to school

Children's transition to school was mapped against the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC). The Key Competencies and indicators were:

  1. Managing self: child is settled and happy within a week; manages own needs; adjusts to routines (e.g. puts clothes on peg, follows teacher instructions); is described as "ready" for school; child is confident.
  2. Relating to others: Co-operative interactions with others; cares for others.
  3. Participating and contributing: Child is confident to express a view; contributes; is engaged; perseveres with difficulty.
  4. Thinking: Working theories; problem solving.
  5. Using language symbols and texts: Familiarity and enjoyment reading, writing and mathematics. Creative and expressive.

In summary, children in the study had a range of transition experiences. One group of four children experienced transition as very positive in the way they settled and their classroom work. One group of six children experienced reasonably smooth transitions but had some issues in classroom work. One group of three children did not settle quickly, displayed challenging behaviour and experienced challenges in classroom work. Four children left for another city and one child stayed in ECE.

The processes occurring that might be expected to support transition; school visits, health and Before School checks, information sent to school, were variable, and were supported to different extents by the parents, EPF and ECE settings. Nine of the 13 children who remained in the study had school visits before enrolment, organised by their ECE setting except for one child whose mother took the child on the visit after discussion with the EPF coordinator and ECE. Some visits were not to the school the child subsequently attended but were thought to be useful in building familiarity with school. Two of the four children who had no visits had relationships with other children attending or with their new entrant teacher – these supported transition. Health and Before School checks were organised by the ECE setting for eight children and by Plunket for two children. ECE teachers did not know whether two of the remaining three children had these checks; one child had no checks. The role played by the ECE setting was on a continuum from ensuring timely vision, hearing, dental, Before School and other checks (e.g. assessment of special needs) to not organising or finding out about any health checks. Some EPF coordinators played a role in supporting health checks, such as discussing these with the parent and arranging transport. Only five of the ECE centres or parents passed on children's portfolios to schools; four new entrant teachers commented that this would be helpful in building understanding of the child. Parents were the main people who talked to the new entrant teacher about their child if they had opportunity. All ECE settings said they had some kind of transition programme, ranging from a focus on particular skills thought to assist transition, to development of a transition portfolio and regular visits to take part in the local school programme and library.

EPF coordinators generally saw their role as making sure the child was enrolled at a school, and encouraging a school visit, but they tended not to be in direct contact with the school themselves. The aim was for families to take on this responsibility as once the child had been in school three months contact with EPF would finish. All but two EPF coordinators said they played an active role in discussing the enrolment process with parents and potential schools. One of the two coordinators not doing this thought this was an ECE responsibility; the other did not give much detail in her interview. In addition, some EPF coordinators gave more specific support. This included checking that planned visits happened, giving advice on funding, supplying resources, directly talking to the school principal, and developing a transition plan in discussion with the parent. Some coordinators stayed in close contact with families after school enrolment, but feedback from families indicates that others were quite casual about an arrangement, leaving it up to parents to contact them. While families did not express any concerns in these situations, closer contact may have supported smoother transition in some instances.

Once in school, new entrant teachers emphasised children having strength on the Key Competencies of Managing Self, Using Languages Symbols and Texts and Relating to Others as supporting transition. Self-care was viewed as important; a finding that reinforces the value of children being able to take care of their belongings, manage their lunch box and dress themselves. Strong learning foundations developed in the EPF and ECE settings by the child supported them in the early months of school. All four children who had a very positive transition experience were also rated strong across the strands of Te Whāriki. Children had more favourable transition experiences where new entrant teachers noticed, recognised and responded to children's strengths and supported these in the classroom. Some teachers recognised children's proficiency in two languages and made a cultural bridge to support transition. Parents were involved in communicating with the school and supporting their child's learning. In these instances, there was continuity of expectations and understandings in the ECE, home and school settings. Conversely, where patterns of strength seen and documented in ECE were not recognised in the new entrant classroom, children experienced challenges.

Overall, an integrated approach to transition where parents, EPF, ECE and the school acted together to support the child's transition to school seemed to be very beneficial. These findings highlight the importance of the major players in children's lives working together with shared aims around transition.

Conclusion

This study examined the learning foundations and transitions to school of children whose families participated in the Ministry of Education Engaging Priority Families initiative. Overall, we conclude that participation in EPF made a difference for children and families in brokering access to ECE; supporting the development of positive learning foundations prior to school start; and in easing the transition pathway to school. However, there were variations in experience, which are examined in more depth in the conclusion at the end of the report, together with suggestions on what more could be done to help children and families around development of learning foundations and in transition to school.

Participation in ECE made a difference for the children in this study. Throughout the evaluation, EPF coordinators have been shown to have a powerful role in enabling participation; gaining parents' trust and supporting the child's enrolment and attendance in ECE. Regular attendance of between 18 and 30 hours per week for at least six months was associated with strong learning foundations and made possible through EPF coordination, although duration of attendance was not the only or main contributing factor (some children attended longer but had less rich opportunities for learning and development).

All children developed positive learning foundations across at least some of the strands of Te Whāriki while attending ECE; some more strongly and over wider domains than others. Communication was emphasised as being of crucial importance by parents and teachers/educators, most particularly oral communication and good listening skills, and enjoyment of reading and writing, alongside basic skills of counting, identifying letters and writing one's own name. All strands of Te Whāriki link to dispositions that are important for holistic learning and development, but some had lesser emphasis in interview and portfolio documentation for some children, and the strength of their learning foundations varied. For example, the study found a more limited focus on exploration and working theories, consistent with other evidence (Hedges & Jones, 2012; Mitchell et al., 2015) that the concept of working theories has been less well developed by practitioners than learning dispositions. Further, educational activities parents did at home and their contribution to the ECE programme made a difference to children's learning. These were supported by EPF coordinators usually through provision of resources and ideas, and ECE services through modelling and support. However, the teaching and learning approaches of teachers/educators were variable. In our small sample, the importance of pedagogical approaches was very evident. The early childhood services that contributed to positive child and family outcomes were generally characterised by teachers/educators who recognised possibilities for extending individual children's learning and development, and intentionally scaffolded learning. They worked from a strengths based approach as seen in documented assessments where the teacher/educators' focus on valued outcomes for each individual child were evident.

EPF coordinators' role in transition was most commonly in the background working with parents to make sure they made a decision about which school their child might attend, how to go about enrolling the child, and encouraging parents to take their child on school visits before actual attendance. Most coordinators followed up to check that visits had occurred, either with ECE services or parents; one EPF coordinator went on a school visit with a child. When parents visited schools with the children before enrolment, they sometimes did not meet the new entrant teacher who would teach their child; rather the "office lady" or principal. Two parents were deterred from either visiting the classroom pre-enrolment or staying with their child despite asking to do this.

Both EPF coordinators and ECE settings played a strong role in enhancing children's learning dispositions and skills in preparation for starting school; EPF coordinators through supporting parents with ideas and resources for activities at home. Some ECE services had transition programmes that included special transition groups for older children and taking children on pre-visits to school. Where children attended a number of different schools in the community, pre-visits to a local school with all children helped children understand what happens at school. It helped children to have peers and family attend the same school, and for the teacher to know the family. These processes and relationships helped the child feel comfortable and at home in the school setting. Written assessment information was not generally passed on or discussed with the schools that the case study children attended. There were few reported occasions for ECE and new entrant teachers who were serving a local community to share pedagogical knowledge and knowledge of specific children. Once the child was at school, there were no direct connections between the school and EPF or ECE for the children in our study, although the EPF coordinator kept in contact with the family to varying degrees. These missed opportunities weakened possibilities for collaboration and to work in partnership.

Children experienced transition to school in a range of ways, from very positive to somewhat challenging. When transition worked well for the child, there were culturally compatible cross links from the school with the child's home language and culture (Royal Tangaere, 1996) and new entrant teachers noticed and picked up on the range of competencies demonstrated within the ECE setting. ECE and school are valuable for supporting coherence in children's lives and positive transitions.

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