From the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, the early childhood sector was tasked with expanding their required health practices to include up-to-date, health information to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among staff, families and children. Despite considerable concern about their own health and safety, educators and providers responded quickly to this new challenge, drawing on their established health knowledge and practices and their close relationships with families and young children to find effective ways to communicate COVID-19 health and safety practices.
Responding to the challenge
To do this effectively, the ECE sector required information to be clear, accurate and unambiguous. Communication pathways also needed to be effective and efficient. To add to the challenge, health information also needed to be communicated through multiple organisational, managerial and service levels to reach diverse communities of families who use ECE services and teachers, educators and other staff who work in these services.
Not surprisingly, there were considerable difficulties. Social media sites were flooded with questions and comments from educators about unclear or conflicting advice. While social media sites clearly provided a support for educators, some asked why information was not forthcoming from other channels. Information was being targeted towards schools, but the early childhood sector, it seemed, was largely overlooked.
It was these experiences that prompted a research team from Macquarie University and the Australian National University, in collaboration with ten early childhood and health organisations, to study how COVID-19 health advice was communicated to and by early childhood educators and providers in 2020. The team is interested in where the sector sourced its COVID-19 information, how effectively it was communicated to the sector, and how educators and providers then communicated this to families and staff. The study is currently undertaking interviews with representatives from early childhood and health organisations and is conducting in-depth case studies of early childhood services who cater for families from diverse geographical, social and cultural backgrounds. A document analysis of COVID-19 health communications from the early childhood and health sector will provide information on the features and effectiveness of various forms of communication.
What are we finding?
Emerging findings reinforce the competence and dedication with which many in the early childhood sector responded to the immense challenge of translating ever changing health information so that it could be distributed clearly and rapidly to centre- and home-based early childhood services. At a time when staff were stressed, financial viability was at risk, and wellbeing was suffering, many organisations worked tirelessly, and used multiple means to pass on COVID-19 health information in ways that would be effective for staff and families. However, early findings also highlight the frustration felt by many at the enormity of the task, and the lack of clear information that was tailored to meet the needs of the early childhood sector.
How can you help?
The team is now seeking input from educators in both centre-based and family-day-care services as well as the families that are using these services. How easy was it to find useful COVID-19 health information, and how effectively were you able to implement advice and communicate the information to families and children? What worked well, and what stood in the way? What advice would you give to health and early childhood organisations about how best to communicate COVID-19 information to staff and families?
With the help of those who participate in the study, and with insight from our partner organisations, the team will provide recommendations to health organisations to enable them to recognise and realise the potential of the early childhood sector as capable and highly effective health communicators.
Professor Sheila Degotardi, Associate Professor Fay Hadley and the COVID-19 Communication research team.
Sheila Degotardi is a Professor of Early Childhood Education who specialises in infant-toddler curriculum, pedagogy and learning. Sheila is also the Director of Research, in the Macquarie School of Education.