The importance of relationships

The way we think about early childhood education has changed a lot in a relatively short space of time. It’s amazing to remember that across Australia, guaranteed access to preschool education in the year before school is a very recent initiative. The Universal Access commitment from all Australian Governments (Federal, State and Territory) was only agreed in 2009. For a long time, education was something that only happened once children started formal primary education.

A wealth of research and evidence over the last two decades or so has started to significantly shift that viewpoint – highlighting not just the importance of preschool education in the year before school, but the fundamental importance of the first three years of brain development. As the Centre for Community Child Health succinctly puts it – “What happens to children in the early years has consequences right through the course of their lives.”“What happens to children in the early years has consequences right through the course of their lives.”

This places an enormous responsibility on those of us who work in early childhood education and care (ECEC). We are professionals working in a space where we can have a significant impact on the lives of the children we work with – impacts that will be felt far past the time they are no longer with us. Yet the ECEC sector remains fragmented, poorly and inefficiently funded and situated within a market-based model that makes prioritising educational outcomes for children difficult.

The quality of learning children experience in ECEC settings is directly connected to the quality of the educators staffing those settings. Yet early childhood educators are some of the lowest-paid, and least-regarded, professionals working in Australia today. Data from ACECQA shows that Quality Area 1 – educational program and practice, is the Area most likely to be Not Met across the country.

This is clearly a big problem. Documentation and assessment of learning are regularly raised by educators and services as their biggest challenges. But as a sector, our difficult relationship with QA1 may be diverting our attention from practices that are just as – if not more – important.

The evidence is becoming clearer and clearer that how children experience relationships is fundamental to their development, and future success. Not just how adults develop relationships with them, but how they are supported to develop relationships with each other and also how the adults around them interact and engage with other adults.

Looking particularly at the earliest years of life, research is clear: what matters isn’t the most expensive new toy, the flashiest activity board or the “Baby Einstein” CD – but simply the quality and frequency of interactions between an attentive adult and a child. How many of us spend our time wondering what to order from the most recent “educational catalogue”, when we can do the most good with what we already have – ourselves!

The National Quality Standard recognises this – Relationships with Children is Quality Area 5, and includes strong guidance for services and educators to take this seriously as part of their work. But as the fifth out of seven areas, and with Quality Area 1 taking up a lot of our stress levels, it may be time to re-assess how seriously we take this part of our practice.

Remember what the Centre for Community Child Health said: “What happens to children in the early years has consequences right through the course of their lives.” This has both positive and negative connotations. Positive experiences are likely to lead to positive outcomes – but negative experiences may actually damage children. As a sector, can we be sure that all – or even the majority – of our services, are places where interactions and engagement between children and educators are positive, warm and affirming?

We know this isn’t the case, which represents a big challenge to the work we do. Disengaged, stressed and underappreciated educators are not in a position to provide the relationship-based learning environment that will help children thrive. This also has consequences for how children are supported to engage with each other, and with how educators engage with their colleagues. Role modelling of positive relationships and interactions is a key teaching strategy in the practice of relationships, but we know that developing strong, supportive and stable teams is a huge challenge for ECEC services.

Relationships are human – which means they are as challenging, complex, joyous, frustrating and as rewarding as human beings themselves! But despite this, there are two keys reasons to take another look at how they are happening in our services.

  1. We know it is the foundation for the rest of the work we do; and
  2. It is something we have complete control over.

We may be struggling to raise funding to renovate that old room, we may be still working together to develop an approach to documenting learning, we may be challenged by our resource budget – but the simple day to-day, moment-to-moment way we spend time with children is entirely within our control, and it can change for the better today.

If you’re an educator working directly with young children, start to assess your own interactions with children. Are they always positive? Do they always treat young children with respect and dignity? Do you ever ignore children, or is there a child in your room that is quiet and misses out on attention from you or your team? Long experience in any role in any profession can lead to disengagement – doing the same things day in day out can easily lead to poor relationships and interactions. Consciously challenge this, ignore the paperwork for a day and just be with children for day. Laugh and joke, smile and play. This is the work of early childhood.

If you are a leader in a service or organisation, take additional responsibility for ensuring that relationships are taken as seriously as every other aspect of operation – if not more so. We would not tolerate educators who consistently arrive late or miss shifts. The same should be said for the interactions your team are enacting with young children – in fact, it should be less tolerated. Set the expectations for your team, and ensure they are upheld, but crucially role-model and exemplify that standard. Show your team, and your colleagues, how important the simple backand-forth with children can be, and how it should be valued.

Services that practice positive relationships with children will be supporting their ongoing learning and development in real and concrete ways – the documentation and planning will follow.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of e-child TIMES, published by Child Australia.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

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