We constantly use the term education and care in early childhood, but what does care mean? DR LIZ ROUSE and DR FAY HADLEY explore the ideas and the research in this ‘hotly debated’ topic. Are educators expected to have ‘professional love’ for the children in their care? What are the benefits and limitations of approaching early childhood from such a perspective? This blog is the first in a series discussing early childhood educators and ‘professional love’. Keep an eye out for another perspective in the coming weeks.
Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) centres are complex places. Current policy and regulatory requirements have created tensions for early childhood educators in terms of how they interact with families. In an attempt to professionalise the work educators do, there is a risk that a focus on learning could permeate the language of practice which sidelines the language of care. We know that families have varied expectations of educators in terms of what they see as important for their child in an ECEC setting and at times differ in what they are interested in sharing and finding out about their child (Hadley & Rouse, 2018). Our research has shown that families will often use language such as ‘care’, ‘happy’, ‘safe’ and ‘love’, when discussing what they want their child to experience in the ECEC centre. Educators, however, have been found to focus on child learning, routines, behaviour and development when discussing the child’s day with families. Jools Page argues that education and care are inseparable and calls for educators to engage in ‘professional love’ which requires integrating conversations that not only focus on learning and education but demonstrate to families that the educators have developed a mutually enduring, authentic, reciprocal relationship with the child. With ‘professional love‘ there is mutual agreement between parent, child, and educator, where care and love are seen as important aspects of the education of the child. It could be argued that care and love are still seen as important in the early years framework. Both the EYLF and the National Quality Standards speak about the importance of forming responsive and meaningful relationships with children and use words to describe this as ‘trusting’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘secure’. Interestingly however, neither document uses words such as caring or loving to describe these relationships. Jane Malcolm would argue that love is already there in practice, however the language of policy needs to catch up.
The idea that educators ‘love’ the children they are caring for can raise concerns in relation to setting boundaries, and just what these boundaries are when it comes to ‘loving’ children can often be contested. The notion of ‘love’ often gets caught up in a broader discussion on what it means to be a professional educator, of connecting love with intimacy and also a concern that if the educator loves the child, then this diminishes or takes away the role of the parent, or that an educator might become a substitute for or ‘improve’ on perceived failings in familial relationships or in a worst case scenario that the educator has put the child at risk of significant harm. Interestingly the Ombudsman New South Wales says:
- conduct that is reasonable for the purposes of the discipline, management or care of children, having regard to the age, maturity, health or other characteristics of the children and to any relevant codes of conduct or professional standards’.
Therefore, when educators (who have clear codes of conduct in relation to child protection and ethical practice) and families engage in true reciprocal partnerships there will be a common understanding of the boundaries and what will be appropriate for that child and family. Page (2018) likens this to a triangle of love that connects the family, the child and the educator. This triangle of love is not just about having permission to love the child, but that this love is mediated within a shared and reciprocal relationship between child, educator and parent. It also speaks of the connections which many families feel for the educators they are entrusting their child to.
We would argue that using the words ‘love’ and ‘care’ should not diminish the early childhood educator’s professional identity (Page, 2014), but instead enhances the understanding of the unique work of early childhood educators. ‘Professional love’ is integral to being an effective educator and understanding the children you teach—to know them and to love them. This is essential to their social, emotional and healthy wellbeing. Learning should not be privileged over love and care.
One challenge for educators is to reposition the early childhood space to ensure that talking about love and care is integral to engaging effectively with families and connecting with what they value as important for their child. Perhaps it is the term ‘professional love’ that creates concern. Maybe instead adopting the term ‘pedagogical love’ might sit more comfortably with the professional identity of educators, and create a context where loving and caring for the child is a key component of the conversations with families. Perhaps what is needed is a rethink of the use of the term ECEC and to consider instead ECCE—Early Childhood Care and Education.
We encourage you to reflect on the conversations you have with families and question what language dominates. To what extent is the language of ‘love ‘and ‘care’ present in your shared discussion about the child? How extensively is the language of learning and development used in preference? How are you listening to what parents are seeking to know? Do the families really know that you pedagogically ‘love’ their child, and see care as critical to the healthy development of the children in your setting?
Dr Elizabeth Rouse is a senior lecturer in early childhood at Deakin University, Australia, working with pre-service teachers gaining initial teacher education qualifications. Her main areas of teaching focus on developing professional practice of teachers, especially those working in early years classrooms.
Dr Fay Hadley is a Senior Lecturer who specialises in partnerships with families and leadership in early childhood education. She is the Director for Initial Teacher Education in the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University.
The author introduces and explores each of the five major groups of theories described in the Early Years Learning Framework that inform practice in the early childhood field. In doing so, it addresses the need of early childhood educators to better understand how their practice is underpinned by theories of learning and development. You can purchase your copy here from the ECA Shop.