Professional Development in Early Childhood Settings: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES)

Publication Details

This report is one of a series of best evidence syntheses commissioned by the Ministry of Education. It is part of a commitment to strengthen the evidence base that informs education policy and practice in New Zealand . It aims to contribute to an ongoing evidence-based discourse amongst policy makers, educators and researchers.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell and Pam Cubey

Date Published: October 2003

BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) Programme
This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box or visit the BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) Programme.

Executive Summary

This synthesis addresses the question of:

"What constitutes quality professional development as it relates to learning opportunities, experiences and outcomes for children within diverse early childhood provisions?" (Ministry of Education, 2002).

The best evidence synthesis is derived from research that provides strong evidence of linkages to learning opportunities, experiences and outcomes for children. An important focus of the work is professional development in support of educational practice that is inclusive of diverse children, families and whānau. Specific emphasis is on evidence related to learning opportunities and outcomes through the provision of professional development for Māori children, Pasifika children and children from low socio-economic families. An extensive search was made for New Zealand and international material through library databases and contact with researchers and professional development providers. Research was critiqued and selected if it met yardsticks for quality evidence. Cross-study analysis was undertaken and the evidence integrated to address the research questions.

  • The synthesis findings of the impact of professional development have been summarised into three categories: enhancing pedagogy; contributing to children's learning; and building linkages between early childhood education settings and other settings. Eight characteristics of quality professional development are derived from evidence of the processes and conditions operating in the programmes under review. Structural conditions supporting quality professional development are also discussed. Recommendations are made for further research and research accessibility.

Enhancing pedagogy

  • The principles and strands of Te Whāriki form the framework of the curriculum in early childhood services in New Zealand . Effective pedagogy requires education and care to be integrated, with learning, development, and experiences for children inter-related. Learning goals are broad and include knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Evidence about effective pedagogy shows the need for teachers/educators to understand children's experiences, and focus on children's interests and understanding. Building linkages between settings, especially home and early childhood service, by sharing curriculum and learning aims supports such understanding and shared experiences. Reciprocal interactions within early childhood settings make a key contribution to children's learning and wellbeing. Effective pedagogy is linked to teachers/educators who are involved, responsive and cognitively demanding, and who encourage "sustained shared thinking" where adults and children co-construct an idea or skill.
  • There is evidence that professional development can make significant contributions to enhancing pedagogy in early childhood settings in three key areas: challenging teachers/educators' beliefs and assumptions from a deficit view so that the knowledge and skills of families and children are acknowledged and built on; collecting and analysing data from the participants' own setting; and supporting change in participants' interactions with children and parents.

Challenging deficit assumptions and supporting inclusive practice

  • Deficit assumptions prevent teachers/educators from understanding and appreciating children's and parents' diverse skills, experiences and knowledge and drawing on these to extend children's thinking and encourage learning strategies. Deficit assumptions are associated with low expectations for children and families and hinder teachers/educators' ability to question their own pedagogical practice and to support children's well being, sense of belonging, and contribution.
  • There was evidence of deficit assumptions associated with ethnicity, socio-economic status and child's age. These included New Zealand evidence of assumptions of limited literacy experiences in the lives of kindergarten children from low income and ethnically diverse families, low expectations for new entrants in schools in Mangere and Otara, assumptions that families of new entrant school children in Otara and Mangere would not return "home readers", and Swedish evidence of some limited understanding of the potential to educate toddlers. Deficit assumptions are likely to be more prevalent when the backgrounds (e.g., ethnicity, socio-economic status, language) of children and families are different from those of the educator, or the educator does not know the child well. Babies and toddlers may be harder to understand well because of their inability to communicate verbally.
  • Professional development can help challenge deficit views of the child and family and support change in pedagogical practice. Conditions that supported such shifts in thinking and practice are: collection and analysis of data from within the participant's own setting; exposure to different viewpoints in the data analysis; and information about alternative practices.
  • Professional development supported inclusive practice when it was based on analysis of data obtained through close observation of relationships, investigation of families' views and experiences and/or formative assessment, and when it supported pedagogy that built on children's knowledge and experiences and strengthened linkages with home.

Data collection and analysis

  • Professional development approaches linking to effective pedagogy and children's learning in early childhood settings involved participants in collection and analysis of data from within their own setting. This can be a powerful mechanism to engage practitioners in work that is meaningful to them, offer useful evidence on pedagogy and alternative viewpoints, create challenges to assumptions, and help practitioners to make assessments and evaluations. Focused professional development is able to support practitioners to collect and analyse data for these purposes. The studies in this synthesis showed a variety of data collection tools being developed and/or used. These included the construction of action research tools to assist with data collected from different sources (parents/whānau, children, adults, peers), the analysis and use in planning of audio and video recordings of verbal and/or other interactions, focused observation of learning and teaching processes, use of reflective questions for critical discussion, and assessment of children's skills on school entry.
  •  Professional development advisers or researchers gathered data themselves for later discussion and analysis with participants, or assisted participants in developing their own analytic and data collection tools. Analysis of data was supported when an outside professional development adviser or researcher was available to challenge and offer alternative views and theoretical ideas.

Supporting change in pedagogy

  • There are common features in professional development associated with changed pedagogical practice. The professional development offers theoretical and content knowledge, and knowledge about alternative practice, generating deeper or new understanding. Children's experiences and adult interactions related to these within the participant's own service are a focus. In the studies reviewed, those participants who were not qualified and had less theoretical understanding or practical experience needed a longer timeframe to benefit from professional development focused on pedagogy.
  • Critical analysis of data and discussion is an essential part of the professional development programme. Planning and action followed analysis, and this cycle was continued in an ongoing way.
  •  Professional development aimed at influencing participants' interactions with children can assist participants to become better aware of children's ideas and theories, helping them to extend children's thinking and promote learning dispositions. Four programmes reviewed in the synthesis demonstrated changes in participants' interactions: a) in scaffolding children's learning; b) in the adult role of mediating between the child's experience and the environment; c) in the way participants dealt with children's life questions; and d) in adult engagement and child involvement. Another showed changes in teachers' behaviour management. The results apply across a range of early childhood settings and with children from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Contributing to child outcomes

  • Evidence of various types of outcomes for children arising from teachers/educators' participation in professional development programmes was found. In two professional development programmes, there was evidence of linkages with Te Whāriki outcomes for children. One of these demonstrated change in child initiated communication, and transcendence by the child (expanding or going beyond the here and now). The other demonstrated change in child involvement. Other studies examined professional development linked to literacy, mathematical understanding, and scientific understanding.
  • There is evidence that some teachers/educators have limited understanding of literacy, mathematics, and scientific learning, and of their role in extending learning in these areas. Although the content of the professional development was different for each learning area, characteristics of professional development leading to outcomes for children and changed pedagogical practice related to these areas, had some common features.
  •  Professional development explored and extended participants' understanding and beliefs, helping them appreciate the strong role they could play as teachers/educators within that learning area. Specific practice was identified. Content knowledge was threaded into knowledge about effective pedagogy. Teachers/educators were encouraged to build on existing opportunities through activities and conversations, rather than plan a structured programme. Data collection and analysis was a core feature. Professional development encouraged teachers/educators to provide an environment to support the learning area, e.g., for literacy, provision of a "print enriched environment" in which a large variety of books were attractively displayed and accessible to children, print was visible on many surfaces at a child's level or children's levels, and print was an everyday enjoyable and useful part of life at the early childhood centre.
  •  Outcomes for children were related to the focus of the professional development. In the literacy programmes, two studies showed positive impacts on school measures of literacy for children 12 months after they started school. Another study showed an increase in children's comments during book reading. Some indicated changes in adults' interactions with children, such as in style of reading story books and stimulating emergent writing, and changes in teachers/educators' confidence in the learning area. In a mathematics professional development programme, teachers became more aware of each child's skill level and were able to offer activities providing a suitable level of challenge.

Building linkages between early childhood settings and other settings

  • Integrated action between early childhood services and home, early childhood services and school, and the key players in children's lives enables teachers/educators to draw on family and cultural perspectives and assist in creating coherence and continuity in children's lives. Co-ordination and matching is harder for early childhood teachers/educators when the children and families in their early childhood services are from different cultures from the teachers/educators or have different experiences from their own.
  •  There is powerful evidence that professional development aimed at strengthening linkages between parents and teachers/educators can contribute to increased learning opportunities for children, changed perceptions by teachers of parents' knowledge and skills, changed perceptions by parents of their roles as teachers/educators, and greater understanding of children's experiences and interests.
  •  There was one study involving joint professional development on language, learning and literacy for primary and early childhood teachers. Joint professional development holds promise that collaboration through professional development will enable teachers in the two sectors to build shared understandings that lead to greater integration of experiences for children between schools and early childhood services. A caveat is that there should be no downward shift that compromises children's learning in the early childhood curriculum.

Eight characteristics of effective professional development

  • Characteristics of effective professional development synthesised from the evidence of professional development linked to effective pedagogy and children's learning are presented in eight major categories. Table 1 summarises these characteristics to present an overview. In addition, the duration and intensity of professional development, characteristics of professional development participants, the professional development adviser, and organisation of the service are influential in supporting or hindering the ability of participants to learn from professional development and change their pedagogical practice.
  • Characteristics of effective professional development linked to enhanced pedagogy and children's learning in early childhood education settings
The professional development incorporates participants' own aspirations, skills, knowledge and under standing into the learning context The professional development takes on board participants' own aspirations, skills, knowledge, and understanding, and recognises the context for learning. This is a starting point: the programmes introduce new ideas and provide opportunity for participants to question their experiences and views, and not simply validate them.  
The professional development provides theoretical and content knowledge and information about alternative practices   Theoretical and content knowledge related to effective pedagogy is provided. This may be generic or content specific, such as generic areas of co-constructing learning, scaffolding, learning dispositions as outcomes of Te Whāriki, and specific areas such as early literacy, mathematical and scientific understanding, creativity. Content knowledge is integrated with pedagogical knowledge. The theoretical and content knowledge expands participants' knowledge base. Information and knowledge about alternative practices are provided.  
Participants are involved in investigating pedagogy within their own early childhood settings The programme involves participants investigating real life examples of pedagogy within their own settings. Investigative methods, such as action research, are useful. Investigation by participants in issues within their own setting (e.g. interactions and behaviour) encourages work on issues that are important to participants and that make a difference to their own pedagogical practice. An external professional development adviser or researcher engages in the investigation.
Participants analyse data from their own settings. Revelation of discrepant data is a mechanism to invoke revised understanding   A key process in contributing to revision of assumptions and understanding is "creating surprise through exposure to discrepant data" from the participant's own early childhood service. Understandable data that reveals "pedagogy in action" and others' views is helpful in these investigations. Useful approaches to data collection include collection and analysis of video and audio-tape recordings , observations, surveys of others' views, and assessments of learning. The professional development programme supports data collection and analysis.
Critical reflection enabling participants to investigate and challenge assumptions and extend their thinking is a core aspect Critical reflection involves teachers/educators in investigating and challenging their assumptions. This in turn encourages insights and shifts in thinking. This is particularly valuable in challenging deficit views associated with ethnicity, socio-economic status, child's age, parental knowledge, and gender. Some conditions that encourage critical reflection: 1) collaboration with others and being exposed to their views. These views include views of colleagues, professional development advisers, parents, and children; 2) using deeper or different theoretical understanding; 3) teachers/educators thinking about their own thinking, e.g. through use of journals and diaries.
Professional development supports educational practice that is inclusive of diverse children, families and whānau Professional development supports practice that is inclusive of all children, families and whānau. Its focus is on pedagogy that understands, values, builds on and extends the competencies and skills that every child brings to an early childhood setting. It supports participants to work closely with families so that both are better informed about and able to extend the child's experiences and learning. Professional development in support of inclusive practice helps participants analyse data obtained through close observation of relationships between children and people, use formative assessment, and offer curriculum differentiation.  
The professional development helps participants to change educational practice, beliefs, understanding, and/or attitudes Professional development is linked to tangible changes in pedagogical interactions and this in turn is associated with children's learning in early childhood settings. The professional development helps participants to change educational practice, beliefs, understanding, and/or attitudes. Participants are encouraged to investigate ideas and practices that stand in the way of an equitable society. Participants may become aware of ways in which they disempower or limit groups or individuals.
The professional development helps participants to gain awareness of their own thinking, actions, and influence The professional development assists participants to gain greater awareness and insight into themselves, and a stronger appreciation of the power of their role as educators.  

Mitchell, L. and Cubey, P. (2003) Characteristics of effective professional development linked to enhanced pedagogy and children's learning in early childhood settings: Best evidence synthesis. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Structural features of effective professional development

Professional development programmes

Duration and intensity

Professional development programmes focusing on abstract concepts, complex theoretical understandings and interactions across many contexts, such as scaffolding learning, mediating learning experiences and integrating observation, planning and assessment seem to require long timeframes (a year or more) for new understandings and ways of working to become embedded in pedagogy. Professional development focusing on discrete goals, such as behaviour management, telling stories or broadening writing opportunities may be effective in a shorter time (1 – 4 months).

Time for professional development may be spread and energy dissipated when there are lengthy periods between professional development sessions. This may slow change. Time taken up with "finding a goal" also spreads out the time needed for professional development, although the process of finding a goal may help ensure the professional development meets needs of practitioners. Intensive opportunities to practice may help sharpen the intensity and effects of the programme.

While opportunities to practice are important, this does not imply a lack of value in one off seminars and conferences, which may play a role in "awakening interest" or ongoing reflection being challenged through exposure to new theoretical ideas and views. It is unlikely however, that such opportunities on their own would directly change practice in such a way as to impact on outcomes for diverse learners.

Involvement of professional development advisers and researchers

Professional development advisers and researchers play key roles in establishing goals, observing teachers/educators, offering knowledge about alternative practice, giving feedback and planning. Intensive input seems necessary at the start of a programme, while at later stages minimal support only may be needed. However, an enduring role is for the professional development adviser to critique and challenge pedagogy.

Bringing new practitioners on board without losing momentum and focus for others is a challenge for professional development in settings where there is a high turnover of teachers/educators.

Whole service approach

Taking a whole centre approach and working with all staff in a service is likely to make it easier for them to work together from common understandings and appreciation. However, this does not imply that professional development with only some of the service's teachers/educators is not beneficial, especially if these participants are able to use their knowledge and understanding to mentor others.


Levels of training and qualifications of participants influence time necessary to make changes to pedagogical practices, beliefs, and understanding. Professional development needs to start from participants' own aspirations, skills, knowledge, and understanding. This is more difficult when a group of participants has different needs and goals. In order to provide challenge and stimulation for all participants, there may need to be differentiation within the programme and support for more highly qualified practitioners to become mentors.

While lack of motivation is a barrier to change, motivation may be enhanced through quality professional development and programmes that have meaning for practitioners, such as action research within their own setting. It seems most productive to attend to these quality issues rather than motivational issues.

Professional development adviser

The processes and experiences that make for effective professional development require highly skilled, knowledgeable, and critically aware professional development advisers. The professional development adviser needs to be able to work with practitioners through processes described in the framework: Characteristics of effective professional development. Professional development advisers need:

  • strong theoretical, content, and pedagogical knowledge;
  • ability to collect and analyse data and teach data collection and analysis skills;
  • excellent communication and relationship skills;
  • to be reflective thinkers and practitioners themselves;
  • to be able to mentor, model, provide feedback, challenge, and model reflective thinking;
  • to understand and be able to challenge practices and ideology that disempower interests of children and families; and
  • to practise effective pedagogy themselves.

Organisation of the service

Features within the service may act as constraints or support participants in implementing pedagogic change and processes of data collection, analysis, and collaborative discussion.

Staffing levels

Good staffing levels (ratios and group size) provide conditions for staff to form close and reciprocal relationships, and work with individuals and small groups of children, as well as time to work collaboratively with families and other community services. Structural re-organisation can sometimes enable teachers/educators and children to work together in smaller groups, but this presupposes an adequate level of staffing to start with. Poor staffing levels hinder the ability of practitioners to respond to diversity and offer a differentiated curriculum for all children.

Tools and support to assist with analysis, evaluation, and planning

It is valuable for practitioners to have access to a range of tools and conditions to support analysis, evaluation and planning, given the importance of these for effective pedagogy. On a practical level this means:

  • physical conditions and materials to enable documentation and discussion of the nature and purpose of teaching and learning. These could include materials for making and keeping observations and records, tools such as cameras, audio-tape recorders, video-tape recorders, scanners, photocopiers, computers, and an adult work environment offering space and tables of adequate size and height to lay out documentation;
  • a print budget;
  • access to professional development advisers who are able to work in the centre as well as with wider groups; and
  • a research community that engages with teachers in useful discussion of research and thinking.

Conditions within the early childhood centre to support effective pedagogy

If early childhood education centres are to be learning communities for teachers as well as children, parents, and others, there need to be opportunities within the work environment for reflection, experimentation, documentation, and planning. This means:

  • centre management who value and support ongoing professional development;
  • teachers/educators who place a high priority on their professional growth; and
  • teachers/educators having time and effective opportunities during the working week for reflection and discussion'
  • meaningful professional development provided by professional development advisers.

Further investigation

This synthesis has shown a number of areas where evidence is lacking or meagre, and in which research would be valuable. The following recommendations for research are discussed in the conclusion to this synthesis.

Linkages to outcomes for children

  • Research evidence on professional development linked to outcomes for children within the principles, strands and goals of Te Whāriki.
  • Longitudinal research of teachers and children to provide evidence of conditions under which effective pedagogy and outcomes for children are sustained, following professional development.
  • Expansion of the knowledge base about Pasifika pedagogy and content knowledge to inform professional development approaches in the Pasifika sector.


  • Further investigation of professional development approaches to strengthening partnerships between home and early childhood setting, including partnerships with extended family members, where they play a key role in children's lives.
  • Investigation of professional development aimed at strengthening partnerships between primary and early childhood teachers, including ways to build primary teachers' understanding of Te Whāriki.
  • Professional development aimed at strengthening linkages with community organisations, including health and welfare organisations.

Structural features

  • Investigation of processes that work well for participants in professional development programmes from services where there is a mix of qualified and unqualified teachers/educators, including ways to offer a differentiated curriculum development programme and assist better qualified teachers/educators to become mentors.

Service features

  • Some gaps in evidence for specific services and teachers/educators working with specific age groups and characteristics were clear. Investigation of professional development programmes for teachers/educators in köhanga reo, home-based education and care, Pasifika services, for teachers/educators working with toddlers and babies, and for teachers/educators working with children with special needs would be of value.

Research accessibility

Practitioners need to have access to useful research evidence and information on workable approaches to building investigation and analysis into their pedagogical practice, and working in partnership with researchers and professional development advisers. Establishment of a central clearing house for people engaged in action research in early childhood settings would help disseminate ideas and approaches.

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