Early Childhood Learning Trajectories: What, why, how?

ACECQA data show us that the most challenging quality area for ECEC services to meet is QA1: Educational Program and Practice. Within QA1, Element 1.3.1, Assessment and Planning Cycle is the most likely element to be awarded a ‘not met’ rating[1]. In Australia, educators and teachers are required to implement the principles of curriculum planning by applying the planning cycle described in the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia V2.0 (EYLF V2.0)[2] to guide their teaching. The planning cycle includes five steps (observe, assess, plan, implement and evaluate). Each step informs the next and so the cycle keeps turning. This is exactly where the AERO Early Childhood Learning Trajectories (LTs)[3] can help. The LTs offer a research-informed lens to help with purposeful observations, assessment, planning and evaluation.

What? The LTs focus on five domains: mathematical thinking, language and communication, physical development, executive functions and social and emotional learning of children from birth. They are informed by research and have a user guide[4]. An evidence paper provides more information about each domain. Domains are divided into subdomains which in turn are divided into strands. A series of indicators is provided for each strand. The LTs do not provide examples to illustrate the indicators because children demonstrate their thinking in highly diverse and individualised ways.

Why? Learning Trajectories support the planning cycle by helping educators and teachers to observe, assess and reflect on children’s play and interactions.  In turn, this supports services to meet NQS Element 1.3.1,  which states,

Each child’s learning and development is assessed or evaluated as part of an ongoing cycle of observation, analysing learning, documentation, planning, implementation and reflection.

LTs help educators and teachers to be intentional in planning learning experiences that encourage co-constructed learning within zones of proximal development. The learning experiences themselves will depend on children’s interests as well as service and community priorities. Having clear aims (that are informed by LT indicators) sets up opportunities for educators and teachers to evaluate whether their aims were met, and once again, to take meaningful observations of children. In other words, LTs support the planning cycle and in turn, help services to meet NQS Element 1.3.1.

Using research-informed LTs gives educators and teachers confidence and helps them to work efficiently. Using the LTs on a regular basis will contribute to professional learning. In addition, LTs provide a shared language for all stakeholders.

How? LTs are a resource to be dipped into as needed – they are not an add-on requirement. LTs are used in different ways by different educators and teachers. Some educational leaders use them to support their team’s professional learning by having a shared focus on one domain at a time. Executive functions are a new inclusion in the EYLF V2.0. The Executive Functions trajectory[5] expands on the description in the EYLF V2.0 by stating:

Executive functions enable humans to control impulses, stay focused, prioritise, and achieve our goals. They include 3 higher-order thinking skills that emerge during early childhood: working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.

The EF learning trajectory then defines each of the sub-domains:

  • Working memory emerges first. It enables the brain to retain and use new and increasingly complex information for a short period of time.
  • Inhibitory control emerges next. It is the ability to use thoughtful, rather than automated, responses and stay focused while managing distractions.
  • Cognitive flexibility emerges last. It is the brain’s ability to switch perspectives and refocus attention.

Some educators and teachers choose to focus on one domain or one subdomain at a time (such as inhibitory control) to use when taking observations of children in their room. This focus helps them to observe how children’s capabilities vary, to tailor planned learning experiences and to reflect on how they will interact with children in ways that respond to children’s differing capabilities. For example, if we consider the strand of Inhibitory Control called Stay focused on a task and manage distractions, it is likely that some children Allow themselves to be redirected to a more desirable behaviour after an undesirable behaviour is paused, whereas other children may Independently choose thoughtful, rather than automatic, responses to accomplish tasks or goals. As a result of this focus, an educator’s purposeful response to the first child may be to redirect the child in order to support their emerging inhibitory control. The educator’s purposeful response to the second child may be to reinforce the child’s positive behaviour for example by saying, ‘I love the way you have hung up your painting smock and put your painting in the rack to dry!’

To conclude, LTs are not checklists or developmental milestones. Instead, they reinforce the fact that every child is an individual who learns at their own pace. They are designed to be flexible and used in a range of different ways. They are available free of charge to download and refer to as often as you choose. As free downloads, they provide access to professional learning for everyone – this is very important for educators and teachers working in regional or remote areas who may find it difficult to access professional learning.

Sharing LTs with co-educators could be a way of involving all members of your team in documenting children’s learning. This would support professional learning and could distribute responsibility for observations across the team. Sharing these responsibilities would free educators and teachers up to spend more time engaging in high-quality interactions with children.

LTs are helpful during conversations with children, families, and co-educators when describing the learning that occurs during play. They are sensitive to the fact that many Australian children develop skills in languages and dialects other than English.

Finally, they support educators and teachers’ intentional decision-making processes, build professional learning and encourage confidence that their professional judgements are informed by research.

The Early Childhood Learning Trajectories are a great tool to add to your toolbox!

[1] https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-08/NQF%20Snapshot%20Q2%202023%20FINAL.PDF

[2] Australian Government Department of Education (AGDE). (2022). Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia V2.0. Australian Government Department of Education for the Ministerial Council (AGDoE)

[3]  https://www.edresearch.edu.au/early-childhood-learning-trajectories

[4] https://www.edresearch.edu.au/resources/early-childhood-learning-trajectories-user-guide

[5] https://www.edresearch.edu.au/resources/executive-functions-early-childhood-learning-trajectory

ECA Recommends: ECA Statement on Play Bundle

This Statement considers play and young children aged from birth to eight years. The right to play, however, extends to every child of any age, ability or background and is relevant in schools and other learning environments, services, and communities in which children participate.

Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is Professor in Early Childhood Education at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. As she is particularly interested in children’s learning from birth to five years, her research encompasses the home learning environment as well as early childhood education and care settings. Her research ranges from fine-grained analyses of interactions, to collaborations with quantitative researchers in Australia and overseas. She recently collaborated in the development of the Early Childhood Learning Trajectories that have been published by the Australian Education Research Organisation. These assist educators’ enactment of the early years planning cycle.

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