Quality early childhood education for under 2-year-olds Publications
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
The results of this literature review provide strong incentives for policy-makers to maintain optimum ratios of adults to infants, ongoing training including in the specialist area of infant pedagogy, and environments which facilitate low levels of stress. Research shows these variables to be of particular importance in the education and care of infants under two years of age for two key reasons. Firstly, with responsibility for a smaller number of infants, and ongoing training that keeps abreast of specialised knowledge and skills, adults are more likely to be attuned to very young children. Secondly, attuned adults and quality environments are now understood to have a marked impact on the development and learning of infants. Some of these impacts are felt immediately whilst others emerge in adolescence; all have long term implications for individuals and society. The evidence demonstrates that quality early childhood education at this very early age has lasting benefits for infants and their families - especially those from disadvantaged sectors - and for society. The high quality education and care of infants therefore constitutes a key investment in the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Participation rates of under-two-year-olds in out-of-home group-based early childhood services (ECS) have risen markedly in many OECD countries (OECD, 2001; UNICEF, 2008). This includes Aotearoa New Zealand where participation rates for this age group grew by 36% between July 2000 and July 2009 (Ministry of Education, 2010). The Ministry of Education has responded to this important trend by commissioning this review of research published in the last decade about the factors that impact the quality of experience in ECS, and outcomes, for under-two-year-old infants in order to generate an evidence base to underpin policy and practice for quality ECS provision for this age-group.
In keeping with trends, this report does not re-litigate whether or not under-two-year-old children should be in centre-based ECS. Instead, it addresses three key questions in accord with the Ministry focus:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
The review methodology employed for accessing the research evidence in this report involved a systematic search for English-medium research published in the last ten years within the following databases: ERIC, PsychINFO, Ebsco and Academic Search premier. Academic journals were chosen that were known to highlight new knowledge with specific relevance to the key foci of the study. These are described as follows:
- the notion of quality early childhood education
- the effects of early childhood education on under-two-year-olds, including in relation to at-risk populations and with respect to dimensions of quality such as adult:child ratios, group size, staff qualifications and training, and professional development
- general child development research, in particular research seeking to apply new neurobiological knowledge to understanding human functioning in the very early years including relevant medical information
- reviews about quality early childhood education for under-twos
- research on pedagogy with under-two-year-olds
- policy commentaries about quality for under-two-year-olds in early childhood settings internationally.
Articles identified through the search were included in the study if they met the following criteria:
- the article clearly described the methods of data collection and analysis used in the study (i.e., it reported an empirical study, or a review of empirical studies)
- the study provided sufficient information to enable a judgment about the reliability and validity of its findings
- the study was published in the last ten years or was deemed to offer important research findings - either in terms of its context and/or for its contribution to the current knowledge base.
It is recognised that there may be important work still in progress and/or local indigenous research that has not been accessed through this process.
Within the field of early childhood development, the expansion of research methodologies and theoretical approaches to investigation has brought about a heightened appreciation of the unique and sophisticated social, cognitive, and emotionally complex nature of infant and toddler functioning, and of communication as a dialogic phenomenon. The underlying neural mechanisms for cognitive and emotional processes appear to be the same (Bell & Wolfe, 2004); this means that right from infancy, thought and behaviour are being integrated. Through implicit and explicit memory, mental models are built that act as filters for the way an infant perceives the world and responds to it. 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.
Positivist approaches to research using traditional variables continue to reveal important insights into the field, and have contributed substantially to this review. At the same time, innovative research approaches and access to more sophisticated research materials (such as video) have made it more possible to access the experience of under-two-year-olds than ever before. As a result, several studies are now able to demonstrate the impact of early childhood experience on the lives of under-two-year-olds. This includes their relationships with teachers and peers. Taken together, these research approaches provide insights that were previously inaccessible. Children's development is now viewed as an interactive process involving "nature and nurture or nature with nurture" (Herrod, 2007, p. 199). In Gerhardt's (2004) words: "The baby and the care it receives is an inseparable whole" (p. 305).
A parallel development has been the emergence of translational research (Cicchetti & Gunnar, 2009; Meltzoff, 2009; Shapiro & Applegate, 2002) which emphasises the advantages of pooling important insights from neuroscience with developmental psychology, education and other disciplines to highlight the connectedness between the social, physical, linguistic, cognitive and emotional experience of infants and associated implications for learning and optimal development. This is significant because it is now recognised that no one body of knowledge can make finalised claims about the complex nature of quality without considering its conceptual situatedness, and that multiple scientific bodies of knowledge each play an important role in explaining it. Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movellan & Sejnowski (2009) have suggested that the new question for future research is about the role of "the social" in learning, and the factors that make social interaction such a strong catalyst for learning. The foundational mechanisms for this appear to be "the three social skills … [of] imitation, shared attention, and empathetic understanding" (p. 285).
Three key messages summarise the findings of this report:
- 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. This style of caregiving should be marked by a dialogic relationship that recognises the importance of infant contributions as central to adult intervention and response. Such an approach promotes reciprocity in interaction and creates what is otherwise called intersubjective attunement. Sensitive responsive caregiving of this nature enables emotion regulation in infants and toddlers and wires up the brain for learning (Campos, Frankel & Camras, 2004; Gloecker, 2006). Lack of attuned responsive caregiving constrains the developing brain creating "black holes" (Turp, 2006, p. 306) in the architecture of the brain that can persist throughout a lifetime.
- Early childhood settings for under-two-year-olds should be low-stress environments that actively avoid 'toxic stress' or are able to buffer children against toxic stress "through supportive relationships that facilitate adaptive coping" (Shonkoff, 2010, p.359). Toxic stress occurs in situations where the child has no control over events and no access to support from an adult who can soothe them (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005). Factors that produce toxic stress include low quality care, either at home or out of home, which prevents the development of a history of responsive attuned care. Reviewed research implies that the best way of doing this is to have adults working with children who understand the impact of their actions on children's development and are trained to make that impact a positive one. The research suggests that regulable elements of quality environments, such as an ideal adult:child ratio of 1:3 or a 'good enough' ratio of 1:4 (Gevers Deynoot-Schaub & Riksen-Walraven, 2008; Munton, Mooney & Rowland, 2002); small group sizes of no more than 6 - 8 (Frank, Stolarski &Scher, 2006; Girolametto, Weitzman, van Lieshaut & Duff, 2000; Lee, 2006; Thomason & La Paro, 2009); and calm quiet environments are essential to maintain a low stress environment. Low stress environments are correlated to healthy brain development.
- Environmental conditions and teacher action interconnect in creating quality ECS for under-two-year-olds. Reviewed research suggests that the achievement of attuned teacher-child relationships requires a holistic pedagogical approach and structural conditions that support the teacher in context. Quality pedagogy is not merely the product of actions by one teacher but rather relies on a membrane of constantly evolving supportive connections between teachers and children, teachers and teachers, structural elements of the organisation of the centre, and the centre's philosophy and leadership style, all of which are located within a broader policy infrastructure (Dalli & Urban, 2010a; Gallagher & Gifford, 2000). Research suggests that when these work together for the benefit of the infant, their learning and development is considerably enriched.
Shonkoff (2010) has argued that the path to quality ECS for children is "well marked - enhanced staff development, increased quality improvement, appropriate measures of accountability, and expanded funding to serve more children and families" (p. 362). He sees a second path as also essential: to encourage further experimentation, innovation and research which "positions current best practices as a promising starting point, not a final destination" (Shonkoff, p. 362). Shonkoff argues that both provision and research are necessary since there is much more yet to be discovered about the impact of experience on the developing brain but no time to waste in the life of an infant. The overwhelming consensus across research is that the role of the teacher is of primary significance. The pedagogy initiated by the teacher is therefore at centre stage.
What does quality pedagogy 'look like' with under-two-year-olds?
The term pedagogy captures the idea that teaching and learning influence each other. Pedagogical research and debates about best practice in early childhood education inevitably draw on child development knowledge. In the context of early childhood practice with under-two-year-olds, the dominant developmental concept referred to is intersubjectivity, or the infant's ability to engage others in interpersonal communion (Stern, 1985), or person-to-person connectivity Trevarthen (1998; see also Braten, 1998; Rommetveit, 1998), or joint attention (Tomasello, 1988) such as seen in dyadic proto-conversations between infants and adults who mutually attend to one another's cues about their emotional state and cognitive interests.
Linking understandings of intersubjectivity and its developmental potential together with understandings about pedagogy (or teaching and learning) as co-dependent activities leads to the conclusion that pedagogy with under-two-year-olds is realised in the establishment of attuned interaction between children and their caregivers who are present, supportive and responsive to the interactional cues of the infant and toddler.
Researchers have identified that intersubjective interactions (and thus learning and teaching) are more likely to occur within relationships that exhibit: emotional engagement, alertness, reflective presence, respect, engagement in critical reflection, and dialogue. 'Presence' here refers to both a physical and emotional presence, active listening processes, and an ability to orient oneself towards the relationship with the child and the child's experience. The idea of teachers "lingering lovingly" (White, 2009) with infants and toddlers so that they can feel appreciated as unique personalities is another aspect of intersubjective interactions.
The term 'interactional synchrony' is used to highlight that infants and toddlers are active social partners in their own right and contribute creatively to establishing and maintaining intersubjective interactions. At the same time, research has shown that adults have the key role in initiating cognitively stimulating interactions that are attuned to the child (Jaffe, 2007; Warner, 2002). This is significant for caregiving practice and shows that the caregiving environment, and the nature of the interactions within it, have the potential to improve or limit learning. It highlights that pedagogy is a learning encounter that teachers create (Johansson, 2004).
There is consensus that pedagogy with under-two-year-olds is specialised and different to teaching and learning with older preschoolers. This is due to the different communication styles of infants and toddlers, and the increased physical care and emotional nurturing that they require. By adding the notion of an 'ethic of care' (Dalli, 2006; Goodman, 2008) to understandings about early childhood pedagogy, and creating the idea of a pedagogy of care (Rockel, 2009), contemporary literature has shifted the concept of infant and toddler pedagogy away from a didactic stance towards activities and developmentally appropriate practices, and towards a dialogic practice that places the teacher at the centre of the curriculum.
Other key ideas informing current research on pedagogy, and best practice with under-two-year-olds include that:
- The neurobiological insight that the brain and the body are interrelated provides scientific support for the view that physical care is pedagogical work (Manning-Morton, 2006); this has led to the view that pedagogy with under-two-year-olds is not just a meeting of minds, but a meeting of bodies and mind (Thelen & Smith, 1996; Shonkoff, 2010). Contemporary research has picked up on this concept and applied it to understandings of toddlers, in particular (see, for example, Lokken, 2000; White, 2009).
- Attachment relationships are seen in some contemporary research contexts as 'the curriculum' for under-two-year-olds (Raikes, 1993). In a meta-analytic study of the security of children's relationships with non-parental care providers, Ahnert, Pinquart & Lamb (2006) reported that group size, adult:child ratios and caregiver sensitivity are all implicated in the formation of attachment relationships. Gevers Deynoot-Schaub and Riksen-Walraven (2008) likewise highlighted the importance of favourable adult:child ratios (1:3), and the need of caregiver education for work with very young children.
- Infants' and toddlers' agency is evident when they explore, enquire and play and engage in co-operative activity that enables both cultural transmission and cultural creation of meanings. This includes what happens during peer interactions which to date have been insufficiently researched for this age-group. Existing research suggests there is a need to re-think some assumptions about toddler play; for example, Licht, Simoni & Perrig-Chiello (2008) showed that toddler conflict over objects may indicate a wish to explore as opposed to a wish to possess. White's (2009) study revealed similar insights by analysing the genres toddlers used to convey their ideas.
- Infants and toddlers are also very physical beings leading to the suggestion that infant and toddler pedagogy needs to be attentive to children's bodily perspective, their movement and their gesture (Capone & McGregor, 2005; Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998; Crais, Watson, & Baranek, 2009; Gillen, 2000; Hoiting, 2007; Kendon, 2004; McNeill, 2005; Roth, 2001; Southgate, van Maanen, & Csibra, 2007; White, 2009; Winter, 2004).
- Centre-home partnerships can inform the infant and toddler curriculum, and make continuity of learning more possible (Raban, 2001; Theilheimer, 2006).
Specific factors that are recognised to impact on quality pedagogy are listed below either as enablers of, or barriers to, quality pedagogy.
Enablers of quality pedagogy
- Teachers who act as intersubjective partners (Elliot, 2007; White, 2009) optimise opportunities for learning and development and foster infants' and toddlers' capacity to learn. This includes through interactions that promote heightened levels of intimacy (Dalli & Kibble, 2010b; Elfer & Dearley, 2007); a caring ethic (Bardige, 2006; Rockel, 2009), and joint attention (Barton & Tomasello, 1991; Liszkowski, Carpenter & Tomasello, 2007; Tomasello, 1988; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986; Wright, 2007).
- Teachers who employ distinctly specialised practices for infants (e.g., under-one-year) and toddlers (Chapman, 2007; Dalli et al., 2009; Degotardi & Davis, 2008; Fleer & Linke, 1999; Stephen, Dunlop & Trevarthen, 2003; White, 2009), are present to them (Goodfellow, 2008) and pay attention to the learning opportunities within routines (Deans & Bary, 2008) and rhythms of everyday experiences (Nimmo, 2008;Warner, 2002).
- Teachers who are knowledgeable about contemporary theories of development and learning (including neuroscience) and provide curricula that are individually, socially and culturally relevant (Bardige, 2006; David, Goouch, Powell & Abbott, 2003; Degotardi & Davis, 2008; Lagercrantz, 1997; Meltzoff et al., 2009).
- Teachers who understand the role of play in learning for these specific age groups (Alcock, 2007; Kowalski, Wyver, Masselos & de Lacey, 2005; McCain & Mustard, 1999, Munton et al., 2002; White, et al., 2009), are aware of the interactive atmosphere that they can create (Johannson, 2004; Parker-Rees, 2007),
- Teachers who have the ability to interpret and respond to the subtle cues offered by infants (Tomasello, Carpenter & Liszkowski, 2007) and toddlers (Løkken, 2000; White, 2009) across diverse cultural contexts (Gonzalez-Mena, 2009; Walker, 2008).
- Ongoing, consistent and stable relationships (attachments) between teachers and infants and toddlers, as well as with their families (Ahnert , Pinquart & Lamb, 2006; Bardige, 2006; De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Lee, 2006; Liszkowski, Carpenter & Tomasello, 2007; O'Malley, 2008; Rogoff, 2003; Theilheimer, 2006; Walker, 2008). This includes the use of diverse communication strategies to build infant-toddler learning capabilities, confidence and competence, and support for families.
- Specialised teacher education or professional learning opportunities that emphasise intersubjectivity in infant and toddler pedagogy (Gevers Deynoot-Schaub & Riksen-Walraven, 2008; Klein & Feldman, 2007; Manlove, Vasquez & Vernon-Feagan, 2008; Thomason & La Paro, 2009), and equips teachers with the ability to be reflective/reflexive practitioners (ERO, 2009; Gallagher & Mayer, 2008; Honig 2002; Johansson, 2004; Lee, 2006).
- Positive working environments for teachers (Goodfellow, 2008; Manlove et al., 2008) which facilitate low turnover of staff, enhance the status of teachers (Gallagher & Mayer, 2008; Munton et al., 2002), and are conducive to attunement with infants and toddlers within ongoing relationships.
- Small group sizes (Frank, Stolarski &Scher, 2006; Girolametto, Weitzman, van Lieshaut & Duff, 2000; Lee, 2006; Thomason & La Paro, 2009).
- High adult:child ratios (Gallagher & Mayer, 2008; Gevers Deynoot-Schaub & Riksen-Walraven, 2008; Lee, 2006; Muenchow & Marsland, 2007; Munton et al., 2002; Nyland, 2004b) with a recommendation of 1:3 (Gevers Deynoot-Schaub & Riksen-Walraven, 2008).
- Professional teacher education programmes to promote the study of relationships and emotions in conjunction with practicum courses to integrate theory with practice (Lee, 2006); to focus on the ways infants and toddlers develop their working theories as they learn more in relation to knowledge domains (Sands & Lichtwark, 2007), and to increase the quality of the learning encounters (Johansson, 2004) rather than deliver a prescribed programme of activity.
Barriers to quality pedagogy
- Structural (external) conditions which undermine, or do not work together to support process elements of quality that derive from teachers' knowledge (Johansson, 2004); this includes the whole package of variables such as adult:child ratios, teacher training and experience, teacher involvement along with the organisation of environments and philosophies of practice (ERO, 2009; Johannson, 2004; Rockel, 2009; White, 1995);
- High staff turnover (Gallagher & Mayer, 2008), low status and poor working conditions (Sims, Guilfoyle & Parry, 2005), as well as inadequate adult:child ratios (Gevers Deynoot-Schaub & Riksen-Walraven, 2008) which have a significant impact on teachers' ability to demonstrate effective infant and toddler pedagogy.
- Inconsistent care by one or a small number of adults interferes with infants' ability to experience sensitive responsive care that attends to their changing needs, communication and language (Stephen et al., 2003).
This investigation found a lack of empirical research in relation to a specialised pedagogy of care in the New Zealand local context, and a need for a more specialised focus on pedagogy with under-one and under-two-year-olds in pre-service teacher-education programmes and professional development (Degotardi & Davis, 2008; Lokken, 2006; Nyland, 2004a; Rockel, 2009).
Regulable elements of quality: What can policy influence?
The four-decade legacy of research emphasis on structural aspects of quality for ECS has recently been applied to under-two-year-old provision and consistently suggests that higher quality care is associated with more positive outcomes and fewer negative ones (Jacob, 2009; NICHD, 2004). Quality in these studies is defined as:
- more highly-educated caregivers who promote positive social interactions, and
- lower ratios of children to caregivers.
Benefits of routine high quality early childhood education have been shown for all children not just those enrolled in intensive high quality early intervention programmes (Vandell et al., 2010) and are evident in cognitive-academic outcomes for children at age 12 years (Belsky et al, 2007). Moreover, parenting quality is connected to the effects of high quality centre-based childcare (Adi-Japha & Klein, 2009; Belsky et al., 2007; Vandell et al., 2010). Reports of more behaviour problems associated with increased use of childcare in infancy also note that these problems appear mediated by the age of the child and quality of care (Jacob, 2009; NICDH, 2005). Small effect sizes of the connection between quantity of hours in childcare and more externalising behaviour (expressed as risk-taking behaviour) are maintained into adolescence (Vandell et al., 2010).
Given the interrelated nature of different structural elements in the construction of a quality experience for under-two-year-olds and their families within centre-based early childhood provision, a key implication from the studies reviewed is that any changes to regulable elements of quality are likely to have repercussions beyond the immediate change of the element itself.
Interactions between regulable elements are outlined as follows:
- Adult:child ratios of 1:3 are considered ideal (Expert Advisory Panel on Quality ECE and Child Care, 2009; Muenchow & Marsland, 2007; Munton et al., 2002) to enable the style of interaction needed for optimal outcomes for children (see Chapter 4). Adult:child ratios provide pre-conditions for positive interactions, but the nature of the child-teacher interactions may be determined by other factors (Goelman et al., 2006; Milgrom & Mietz, 2004). Ratios interact with higher levels of staff satisfaction, which interact with other factors like appropriate levels of remuneration (Goelman, et al., 2006).
- The higher cost of staff with an improved staff-child ratio can be mitigated by low staff turnover as improved working conditions and job satisfaction reduce stress (Fisher & Patulny, 2004).
- There is a link between higher level qualifications and a positive attitude towards infants and toddlers and their learning (Arnett, 1989; Kowalski, Wyver, Masselos, & de Lacey, 2005). Having the possibility of a career structure, with high status that recognises the professional expertise of staff, is seen as benefitting quality (McCain & Mustard, 1999).
- The content of undergraduate programmes of early childhood teacher education should include: (i) critical reflection; (i) a focus on understanding the diversity of children's and families' contemporary lives (MacFarlane et al., 2004); and (iii) a research and evaluation focus (Nimmo & Park, 2009). The content should be relevant for work with infants and toddlers and reflect what is known about infant learning and development (Elfer & Dearnley, 2007; Hallam, Buell & Ridgley, 2003; Macfarlane, Noble & Cartmel, 2004).
Factors that are recognised as barriers to positive effects from centre-based ECS include:
- Large group size, untrained staff, high child:staff ratios (Munton et al., 2002)
- Low status, lack of appropriate pay in recognition of professional expertise in working with infants and toddlers leading to high staff turnover, and therefore lack of career structure and leadership from knowledgeable and experienced directors and teachers (Ireland, 2007; Nyland, 2007; Pessanha, Aguiar & Bairraeo, 2007)
- Lack of professional development of staff (Ireland, 2007; Tout, Zaslow & Berry, 2005).
- Lack of optimal environmental factors, such as high noise levels, infectious illnesses within the ECS (Bedford & Sutherland, 2008; McLaren, 2008; Vernon-Feagans & Manlove, 2005); along with lack of knowledge about appropriate nutrition for infants and toddlers (Story, Kaphingst & French, 2006).
Early intervention studies: At-risk children
A further aspect of investigation in this report was a review of the outcome studies of the effects of early intervention programmes which provide high quality centre-based early childhood education for at-risk children under two years of age in order to identify elements that worked well.
Factors that were positively associated with the effectiveness of the early intervention programmes were:
- Central-government-supported programmes, like Early Head Start (EHS) and Sure Start (SS), have the capacity to make the biggest difference most quickly. This was evident in the increased access to high quality childcare for infants and toddlers identified by the first evaluations of EHS (Love et al., 2004), and in the rapid expansion of SS (Gray & Francis, 2007).
- The different implementation protocols of the EHS and SS, and the developmental trajectory of SS, suggest clear programme protocols, as well as clear models of community partnerships, are beneficial.
- Structural features of high quality early intervention programmes mirror those identified in high quality early childhood education programmes outlined earlier. Specifically, low adult:child ratios, staff qualifications and a well-articulated curriculum are related to sustained interactions between adults and children and positive outcome measures for children (Love, Kisker, Ross & Raikes, 2005).
- Interventions with children prenatally exposed to cocaine showed that qualified interventionists were essential to the success of the intervention programme, and that additional language intervention (e.g., milieu teaching) while expensive, was also very effective (Bolzani Dinehart, Yale Kaiser & Hughes, 2009).
- Centre-based programmes, and programmes that combine centre-based intervention with home-visiting work better than home-visiting alone (Campbell et al., 2008; Love et al.,2004)
- There is a range of interrelated factors that impact on the effectiveness of an intervention, including ensuring access through the provision of transport for children and parents to a centre-based facility.
- Most of the interventions were multi-service provisions that met health as well as educational needs.
This list is supported also by Herrod (2007) who summarised the characteristics of successful US- based early intervention programmes he reviewed as:
- being relatively intensive
- at least one year long if not longer
- employing teachers who have higher qualifications than those in regular programmes
- providing better pay for teachers
- having lower student-to-teacher ratios than the norm and a limited total classroom size
- being generally research based and designed to have a control group and specific outcome measures
- having greatest impact where there is greatest risk.
Long term effects of early intervention programmes on children's developmental outcomes were shown to be persistent into adulthood (e.g., Campbell et al., 2008; McCormick et al., 2006) and discernible in adult cognitive and academic achievements, including reading and mathematical skills, and in vocational outcomes in adulthood (Campbell et al., 2008). The studies highlight the fact that high quality early childhood intervention can act as a buffer from the effects of risk in social, cognitive and linguistic domains of learning.
Additionally, this review found that parents benefit from the practical support they receive through their child's attendance at an early childhood programme. Their children's learning and language made the parents more responsive to the child's bids for attention at home (Love et al., 2005). Parents in EHS read more to their infants than parents in the control group (Love et al., 2005) and provided a more stimulating home-learning environment (Melhuish et al., 2008a).
The overwhelming consensus across studies, and contexts, is that quality ECS for under-two-year-olds are characterised by attuned relationships between children and adults. These relationships are underpinned by a number of interrelated elements that can be addressed in policy. These include high ratios, ongoing professional development and low stress environments. This report has shown that the impact of such policy investment is huge and will benefit society both now and in the future. As Fox and Rutter (2010) noted in the introduction to a special edition of the top-ranked journal Child Development, devoted to the topic of the importance of early experience for later development:
To borrow an analogy from economics, by investing early and well in our children's development, we increase the rate of return later in life and in so doing improve not only the lives of individuals but of societies as well. (p. 36)
This echoes McCain and Mustard's (1999) argument presented to the Ontario government about the need to maximise 'brain power' potential through early investment in the human lifespan when the brain's development is most intense and malleable. The graphic representation of their argument, drawn by Perry (1996, cited in McCain and Mustard) is reproduced below.
Figure 1: Brain Development - Opportunity and Investment
High quality early childhood education can make a lasting difference and act as a protective factor for children at risk. This points to the need for future policy to take account of the role of high quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds as a unique area of education planning that can enhance children's life chances. The lessons learnt from other countries would suggest that planning should also take account of the limited amount of research in this area and seek to fund research alongside policy implementation. This would provide a local and indigenous research base from which to plan ahead. In its absence at this point, the compelling lessons from international studies provide a very clear direction to follow.
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