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Opinion: Early-childhood educators aren’t makeshift mothers

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Press, Frances
Publication Date: 
1 Dec 2016



Despite the fact that early-childhood educators require a qualification, too often the skills they have are poorly understood. This work with young children, performed as it is by a predominantly female workforce, is popularly characterised as an extension of mothering. As such, it can be conceived as natural for women, requiring only a kindly, maternal disposition.

At times, the need for early-childhood educators’ specialist knowledge is not only poorly understood, but actively derided. Adam Creighton, a journalist at The Australian, confidently asserted, “Looking after children requires common sense, not a forgettable foray into child psychology.”  Mind you, he also asserted that it is pretty easy for one person to look after six toddlers, presumably something he has never had to do for a whole day.

The play-based curriculum that underlies most early-childhood education and care programs compounds the perspective that work with young children is instinctual. Children’s interested and sustained engagement in play is sometimes taken for granted as natural, rendering invisible the thoughtful deliberation of educators in establishing the environment and supporting their learning.

At the other end of the spectrum, as the capacity of early-childhood education to support children’s wellbeing and development becomes better recognised, some tend to think early learning is more likely to happen in a setting that resembles school.

The reality is that work as an early-childhood educator is distinct from both these views, and quite complex. Looking after children in a formal setting is not the same as looking after siblings in the family home. There are more children, they are of various ages, and – in most cases – they are unrelated. At this stage of great developmental importance, the best care and education for young children requires knowledge of children’s early development and the types of environments that support this.

There are other differences, too. Early-childhood educators are not lone teachers in a classroom. They perform in teams and must be adept at working closely and flexibly with other adults. The groups of children with whom they work change across the week. Children arrive and leave at different times of the day. Further, educators must work closely with families. Discussions with families can be a daily occurrence, and educators are required to document and report on how children are faring regularly. Further, educators are expected to be able to identify and support children and families with additional needs. This often requires finding specialist support and making it accessible.

Unfortunately, the misconception that the education and care of young children is rather unskilled and easy persists. The result is that educators are relatively poorly paid, and there are high levels of staff turnover and attrition.

This loss of skills and knowledge diminishes the quality of children’s care and education.

To counter this, researchers at Charles Sturt University and the Queensland University of Technology are conducting a three-year study into the nature of early-childhood educators’ work, and the skills and knowledge base that underpins high-quality early-childhood education.

It’s hoped the study’s results can lead to view-altering early-childhood education and care initiatives. Because mothering it is certainly not.

-reprinted from Early Learning Review

Entered Date: 
3 May 2017
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