Leading for excellence in under threes’ programs – simple?

Bad practice in education and care services for babies and toddlers hopefully no longer exists. When I began working in Australia in 1978, I visited students on placement in centres where babies and toddlers were force fed, allowed cry because ‘they had to learn’ and where young babies were given bottles in their cots and toddlers were made to sit in the naughty chair. The belief in some services was that all that was needed for under threes was a safe and clean environment, a few things to play with and warm caring people.

However there is currently what I would call benign practice for under threes – not harmful but misguided and missing the mark. One example: I was shown recently a photograph of a photocopied outline of a boomerang with a few splotches of colour on it, an activity offered by a service for NAIDOC Week. Based on that information alone, you could question its appropriateness. However, this ‘activity’ was ‘done’ (?) by a nine-month-old baby! What were the educators’ intentions?

At best that experience was benign. If the baby participated voluntarily and educators were responsive and respectful it may have been an ‘okay’ experience. Under threes are excellent at turning something ordinary into something wonderful and interesting – making the best of situations and what’s available.

The distinction between really good practice and mediocre or benign practice with babies and toddlers, like evidence of their learning, is subtle and easily missed unless you know what you are looking for. The difference is in the detail.

In really good programs educators are intentional in their practice. They tune in to children, try very hard to understand what they are attempting to communicate and always try to respond sensibly, respectfully and with warmth. They show pleasure in their work in ways children can detect. They set up rich environments that invite exploration and experimentation. Educators take advantage of learning opportunities in ordinary everyday experiences, including routines. Their conversations and interactions with children are authentic and genuine. They know that a good quality program for babies and toddlers is not simply a matter of ‘watering down’ elements of curriculum for over threes.

Excellence in programs for babies and toddlers occurs only when educators have considerable knowledge and skills. Providing good quality programs for under threes is in some ways more complex than providing them for over threes. Their cues are subtler. They are more vulnerable. You have to be cleverer about building learning into daily routines. Strong family-educator partnerships are more critical. Culturally based child rearing practices are more prominent. Strong informed leadership of other educators is crucial, as perceptions of the complexity and importance of their role vary widely. There are fewer models of good practice to learn from.

Perhaps leaders of groups of under three year olds need to be more highly qualified than leaders for groups of over three year olds.

Agree? Disagree? Why? What do you think?

Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

One thought on “Leading for excellence in under threes’ programs – simple?”

    Rosemary Boulter Vickers says:

    I totally agree! There seems to be a belief that babies and toddlers need only have their physical needs met by a ‘motherly’ girl.
    After a long career as a preschool and early intervention teacher I have returned to study (completed a MECE at Griffith University last year). Having applied for PhD candidacy, I hope to continue an examination of the parent, baby/toddler and educator relationship in long day care. So,yes, I think that it is time to advocate for high quality programs for babies and toddlers and an acknowledgement of the high level of skills needed by educators in the ‘baby room’.

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