Relationships matter

I have worked in the early childhood profession for many years. First, as an educator in a variety of different settings and now as a university lecturer and researcher. I have always valued the importance of relationships with children and always worked hard to build and nourish these with children, families and co-workers. However, the impact of COVID-19 on children’s resilience and their relationships with others has been repeatedly exemplified during my two-year experience as a mother and parent of twins who attend Yarm Gwanga, an on-campus early childhood education and care service.

When 2021 arrived and my boys began attending their early learning service, I prepared to return to work. After spending over 20 years as an educator and supporting families to feel comfortable leaving their children in the care of others, all the things I had said to parents returned to my mind. I therefore knew without a doubt that they would be nurtured, challenged and encouraged by loving educators, and this certainly made my transition back to work a lot easier.

One thing that did challenge my training and understanding—and sent my anxiety skyrocketing—was the newly-implemented closed-door procedure. For years, best practice (including my practice as an educator) was to encourage families to take the time to settle their children into activities before saying goodbye. But now, due to the impact of COVID-19, I was required to hand my babies over to an educator (or two—not everyone is comfortable carrying two babies at once) at the door, say goodbye and leave immediately. I struggled with this new protocol every morning and, after dropping them off, spent long periods sitting in my car, trying to shift into work mode before venturing into the office. COVID-19 had already altered so many of my experiences as a new mother and would only continue to impact the world as we knew it.

I wondered if I was the only parent going through these feelings, tormented by thoughts of how to keep my babies safe as well as what I needed and wanted as a mother. After speaking with educators and parents, I discovered that there were mixed feelings about the new process and a sense of unknown regarding the impact it was having on everyone, especially our children.

I teamed up with Galia, the Director and Tammy, the Educational Leader at Yarm Gwanga, to conduct an online survey in an effort to explore what was happening. We administered questions similar to those that were circling in my own mind to both parents and educators. After analysing the responses, I was reassured that I wasn’t the only parent who was feeling disconnected from their child’s experiences and sensing a loss of community. But more importantly, the impact on children’s agency and confidence was overwhelmingly positive. The power had shifted. No longer did parents dictate when they would leave their child, children now decided when to walk away from their parents and begin their day. The new process was reducing settling issues and allowing children to take ownership of the drop-off experience.

In response to the findings about families feeling disconnected, Yarm Gwanga started to explore ways to rebuild a sense of community while also keeping our children safe. Opportunities for families to connect through afternoon teas and special events as well as more communication (including photos) being shared about children’s day-to-day experiences were all trialled and then incorporated into Yarm Gwanga’s practice.

Before long, there were mornings when my boys would run straight in without saying goodbye, or give me a wave over their shoulder without looking back. Even though this gave me a heart twinge, I knew they were safe, with strong and healthy attachments to their educators.

It was these healthy attachments that helped the Yarm Gwanga community survive the next event that impacted on our regular routines. In October 2021, a supercell weather event struck Armidale. A tornado ripped a line through the town and through the middle of the University of New England campus. Yarm Gwanga was severely damaged, with broken windows, roof tiles displaced and many trees lying over the new playground (surprisingly, the chooks survived!). Yarm Gwanga closed to assess the damage and then moved across campus to the Wright Centre for what was initially expected to be a two-week period. The educators were overwhelmed with generous donations of items, support, and words of encouragement, as they transformed the Wright Centre into a welcoming (hopefully temporary) place for the children. Three days after the disaster, Yarm Gwanga reopened and welcomed children and families into the ‘new Yarm’.

My boys were only 16 months old and didn’t understand the verbal explanation I felt compelled to give. However, upon entering the ‘new Yarm’ for the first time to find the warm, loving faces of the familiar educators, everything was fine. I got a visual of the room the boys would occupy, and wished everyone a wonderful day before heading home to attempt to work—everything I used for work (including my glasses and computer) was inaccessible in the damaged Education Building.

It wasn’t until I was in a research meeting discussing the publication of the closed-door research findings that it hit me. I realised that the Yarm Gwanga community had survived the impact of the tornado due of the caring and dedicated educators who went above and beyond to make the transition to the Wright Centre easy and comfortable for the children.

I remember when I was teaching preschool and a boy said to me, ‘I love it when you and Linda stop writing notes and play with us’. He was referring to the end-of-year period when we stopped documenting everything and began the final clean-up. In the lead-up to Christmas we were in a festive mood, and this was mirrored in the children we taught. We had also put in the hard yards to teach them how to be a preschool child, how to be separate from their parents, and how to be part of a group. The end-of-year period was a time to relax, play with the children and reflect on how far they had come.

One year later, the ‘old Yarm’ is still awaiting repairs and the ‘new Yarm’ doesn’t seem as temporary. It works, and the children still love going there—not for the building, but for those educators who know them, care about them and work hard to ensure they are strong, resilient learners.

As the first anniversary of Yarm Gwanga at the Wright Centre comes and goes, I realise that the educators actively play with my children, are in constant festive moods and are part of a strong community that will continue to thrive and handle any situation that comes their way. My boys, who love each and every educator, are growing and learning in an environment that is more than just care—it is an outstanding centre with amazing educators and I feel privileged to be a part of the Yarm Gwanga community.

Dr Jo Bird

Dr Jo Bird is a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of New England and has worked in a variety of early childhood settings for over 20 years. Her research focuses on digital technologies within the early childhood sector, both in children's play and scaffolding educators’ skills to implement devices in their programs and to streamline their planning and observation work. Jo is skilled in delivering professional learning around her research interests and has been repeatedly invited to present at conferences and with professional learning sessions.

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