The privilege of working with our youngest citizens.
The engine room of any organisation is the most important and influential. This is where the key driving force for ongoing propulsion happens. Everything moves forward when this room is in full operational mode. Working in the infant toddler environment in a long day care setting is a lot like being in the engine room – literally and metaphorically. This is where optimal conditions for learning and development are set in motion for young children. When you consider that infants and toddlers are built for design, exploration and theory building it makes sense that these spaces require the most capable, curious, and well-trained teachers and educators to propel learning and development.
Infants and toddlers are the greatest explorers of all time, and they thrive in exciting and curious environments. Working with children this young is an exciting proposition. Recent research into child development and childhood increasingly recognises the enormous competencies of the young child, and the importance of the first three years of life for subsequent learning and well-being has probably never been so well understood as it is now. This knowledge sees the role of early childhood teachers and educators’ as significant contributors into young children’s learning and development.
Alison Gopnik an American Professor of Psychology said:
“Babies and young children are like the research and development division of the human species, and we grown-ups are production and marketing,” Gopnik says. What this means is that in many ways, babies are very good at thinking scientifically—as a number of experiments have shown—while many adults are not”. (TED, 2011, 7:39)
Babies are incredibly sophisticated in how they think and hypothesise and then apply this knowledge into making sense of their world, and they require teachers and educators who can understand and support this. So, if we know that the human brain never develops again as fast as it does in the first three years of life, why are we not throwing everything we have into creating optimal infant toddler environments?
Working in the ‘babies’ room is often not first on the list when staff are asked to nominate what environment they would like to work in. I spend a lot of time in the pre-service teacher education space and sadly there are not a lot of students that nominate these spaces as their ‘dream job’. In our current context, working in the ‘babies’ room can suffer from an image problem as well as workforce structural problems.
There are many reasons for this lack of enthusiasm, and they include but are not limited to:
- It is physically hard work. There is a lot of heavy lifting. A lot of up and down. All day.
- It is emotionally hard work. When you consider the importance of serve and return interactions that help shape brain architecture what you do and how you do it matters. Essentially young children’s neural connections are built and strengthened when surrounded by supportive and creative environments.
- Parents sometimes require a lot more support than they might with older children. Handing a baby over to a stranger is a bit like taking out your heart, putting arms and legs on it and setting it loose. It is visceral.
- As a society we often afford a low status to infants and toddlers and this view can also trickle down to the staff that work with them. Attitudes such as ‘it must be fun to play with babies all day and have a nap’ prevail. These views can also be reflected within the early childhood care and education setting itself.
- While we know there is evidence that supports a connection between qualifications, quality environments and outcomes for children, 4-year trained teachers often work in older environments. Because of this sometimes these young infants don’t get highly qualified staff.
- It’s hard to see the feedback. Some in the profession might hold the view that older children verbalise their thinking and their processes in more salient ways. While we must look and listen much harder to see the visibility of our efforts and determine what young children are learning, I guarantee that if you join your attention to children’s attention, you will see it.
- Working conditions such as child staff ratios and workload impact on overall job satisfaction. Research by Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) suggested that the ability of staff to respond to children’s needs is influenced not only by qualifications but by external conditions such as work environment and salary. Staff who work in infant toddler environments are some of the lowest paid workers in the country. A recent desktop search of job advertisements for infant toddler spaces revealed that incentives such as a day off on your birthday, a gift voucher, slightly above award wages, subsidised childcare etc were on offer. Hardly the type of motivators that might see real workforce change and retention of a highly trained and capable workforce.
I wonder if it is possible to reframe the work and the possibilities that working in these spaces offers to us. How do we shine a light on the importance of these very young children and the people who work with them? Maybe acting locally might be a start. How do you in your current working environment promote, support, and show value to the staff that work in the infant and toddler environment? Would a person visiting your early learning service know where the engine room was located?
For those of you who work in these early learning environments and give it your very best shot – every single day, you possess knowledge, skills, and superpowers that many do not have. You understand something very important; that the brains of very young children are in a stage of rapid expansion of neural connections, and this development can be seen daily. You indeed have the great privilege of rolling up your sleeves and getting down amongst it.
Little children are ephemeral and there is always something new to learn and experience. Every day is a new day with new opportunities. A wonderful day. A day they have not seen before.
Gopnik, A. (2011, July). What do babies think? [Video]. TED Conferences.
Shonkoff, J. P. and D. A. Phillips (2000), From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, National Academy Press, Washington DC.
ECA Recommends: Box of Provocations: Birth to Threes Pedagogy
Reflect, act and evolve with ECA’s Box of Provocations: Birth to Threes Pedagogy. Provoke deeper thinking and discussion among educators with the cards in this new collection based on Anne Stonehouse’s encounters. These cards gift readers with an insight into Anne’s longstanding beliefs as an early childhood professional, her current thinking and her evolving perspective as a grandmother. Support critical reflection discussion, debate and deeper thinking in your service today.