Early childhood education and care contributes enormously to this society’s capabilities to function effectively. Photo: Derek Kaczmarczyk

So far, New Zealand has had an early childhood curriculum that is the envy of the world and fits well with our society. It has the potential to create harmonious relationships, and confident and curious human beings who will be the innovators of the future.

Serve and return is a phrase familiar to early childhood teachers working to achieve these results. The term relates to the responsive interaction between an adult and a very young child to facilitate learning – the child ‘serves’ a possible inquiry and the adult ‘returns’ with a response, and on it goes. It’s a process that begins in infancy with benefits that continue when children become responsive adults themselves. It has value across all aspects of life including the formation of effective relationships and thought processes that ultimately lead to working collaboratively with others.

But if there are five children under two years with one adult in an early childhood centre, as per the current regulations, it becomes extremely difficult to have that necessary response from adults to a child’s ‘serve’ for attention.

In the lead-up to the election, Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all made a commitment to work towards 100 percent qualified teachers in early childhood centres and promoting quality experiences. Currently only 50 percent qualified staff is required for children up to two years. Yet, research from all over the world has shown that this is the most important time for significant learning which will also pay off in the later years.

It would seem obvious that children so young, cared for outside the home, need a professional workforce of knowledgeable adults. Getting it right at this stage is a much better option than mending and patching up when the system has failed.

A recent report from Harvard University (published last month) emphasised optimal conditions and focused on three principles to improve outcomes for children and families: responsive relationships; self-regulation as core life skills; and reducing sources of stress in the lives of children and families. The report refers to building sturdy ‘brain architecture’ and relates it to building a house where the foundations, strong or weak, provide the base upon which everything else is built. We see the need for this in the building industry so shouldn’t we be able to recognise the need for this with the brains of our youngest children?

We know now, thanks to science, that the brain is comprised of trillions of connections among neurons that enable lightning-fast communication for different brain functions. The major process for this is the serve and return interaction between children and adults. The Harvard report (along with many others world-wide) stated that the need for responsive relationships starting in infancy cannot be overstated. Policies are required that will support this process.

The one way to achieve this is to make sure that the first years of life are not overlooked. Sadly, the children in this age group cannot advocate for themselves – it is up to those older and wiser to do so. And it is the co-responsibility of government and the management structures of early childhood services to ensure that such quality experiences do happen. The responsibility also rests on the daily practice of the individual teacher within the teaching team, because without the intrinsic motivation and mindfulness of the importance of their role, government and management requirements may just become a set of rules to be followed.

Urgent attention must be given to conditions in our early childhood services where these professional understandings can be brought to fruition, with an intimate group size, as recommended by the Education Review Office’s guidelines on structural aspects of quality. This recommendation states adult to child ratios of 1:3 and group size of no more than six to eight children. These guidelines would form an excellent basis for new policy impacting on every child up to two years of age in NZ education and care services.

Early childhood education and care contributes enormously to this society’s capabilities to function effectively. So far, the new government has not implemented any policy changes, but I eagerly await the overdue changes to ratios and group size, from a committed coalition government in tune with up-to-date research. This new policy will provide a much sought after return.

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