ECEC services go above and beyond for families. What if they stopped?

The idea was like a light-bulb turning on in my brain. I was attending a fantastic professional learning event in Sydney last year, all about new research ideas for children in the first two years. We were looking at some amazing new technological innovations for reading children’s physical and non-verbal cues, and how these could be communicated to educators.

During a feedback part of the day, one of the participants, a Centre Director, stood up and talked about how this kind of research could be communicated to families. How we could provide families with training on better understanding the communication of their young children. How Directors could do a better job in those tricky conversations with nervous and worried families, dealing with behaviour and sleep challenges. She talked about some of the parenting challenges she and her team were regularly helping families with.

Even now, over 12 months later, I can clearly remember the sharp turn my brain took. I started thinking the way I normally would: “yep, that sounds great, I wonder how I could start talking about this with the Directors I work with…”.

Then, I suddenly stopped. It was like I’d slammed on the brakes. I suddenly thought entirely differently about what this Centre Director was proposing, and what I had, by default, considered proposing to the people I work with.

This Centre Director was clearly engaged and committed to the work she did. She was here for a PD day, probably having spent most of the day before working out staffing to do so. She’d probably responded to multiple texts and calls solving problems at the service, while she was meant to be focused on her own learning. Every Director knows you never actually switch off on these days. When she got back the next day, she’d be solving all the little issues that had arisen, and probably regretting daring to take a day for her own professional development.

With all this likely to be going on in her head, what’s her first reaction to hearing about some exciting new research? “Wow! How can I work harder, and ask more of myself and my team, to use this knowledge to help parents?”

Because of course it was. That’s the kind of people this sector produces. “Gee, I don’t think I’m busy or stressed enough with my work! Let’s add this to my plate because it will clearly help people!”

The brakes applied, my brain then did a complete U-turn and zoomed down an entirely different highway.

Why is it assumed that Centre Directors and educators working in Australia’s early education services are unofficial social workers for parents?

Why is it an accepted part of their role that they will provide parenting support?

Why is it just by default that we think it is the job of Australia’s ECEC professionals to be specialists in the issues facing Australia’s families?

Some people reading this will undoubtedly be shocked by what they’ve just read. The idea that we’re “there for families” is embedded in the sector. But why? And is it realistic?

More importantly, is it fair?

I’ve got three separate qualifications in the sector. Certificate III in Children’s Services. Diploma in Children’s Services. Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood).

Not one of those qualifications certified me to provide parenting support. They certified me to support the learning and wellbeing of children.

And yet, as a Team Leader, a Centre Director, and even in my current role, a significant chunk of my time has been spent as an unofficial social worker for parents. This is true of almost everyone working in a leadership role in early education. It’s just what we do.

But since that event last year, I’ve been increasingly troubled by that assumption.

Now, providing some support to families around parenting is a part of the National Quality Framework. Specifically, Element 6.1.3, which states “Current information is available to families about the service and relevant community services and resources to support parenting and family wellbeing.”

What the NQF tells us is that we should have parenting information available to families. Early childhood educators have knowledge of child development in the first five years, and it makes sense to share that knowledge.

What experience tells us is that there’s this unspoken assumption in the sector that goes far beyond that. We know that families aren’t just being given a brochure and sent on their way. In many cases, educators and particularly Directors are on the frontline in supporting families experiencing challenges.

But again – why? We are trained to work with children. This is our area of expertise, and it is what are roles demand of us. Where has this idea that because we work with children, we also are a support service to their parents, come from?

But an even more important question is – why do those amazing professionals do it? Why do these underpaid and undervalued women (women make up 97% of the early education sector) do it?

ECEC is part of the education system. Yet this kind of direct support to parents isn’t expected in schools. There is no way I’d bail up either of the current teachers of my two children for support with sleep, or behaviour. Certainly not the Principal!

And yet, I vividly remember the amount of times as a Director a parent would just walk casually into my office, plonk themselves down and start talking about what was going on for them. One parent, I remember fondly, actually put her feet up on my desk she was so comfortable!

Imagine that happening in a school.

Some of this is undoubtedly gendered. We just expect the women caring for young children to be available and qualified to do the work of supporting families. We also expect them to do it for free, as a bolt-on to the (barely) paid work they’re qualified to do.

Some of this is Australia’s market model for ECEC. In schools, teachers are free to be there solely for the children. That’s what they’re trained and qualified to do.

Early childhood educators are also trained and qualified to work with children, but parents are paying the bill. It’s a service to those parents. The work with children is a by-product of that service to parents. So keeping parents happy is a financial imperative.

We spend more time asking and talking about the satisfaction of parents, who might be in our Centres for 10 minutes a day, than the experiences of their children, who might be there for 10 hours a day.

So – how’s this for a radical idea? What if educators, and particularly Directors, just stopped?

Stopped doing things they aren’t trained and paid to do? Stopped doing more than giving out information? Stopped being available? Stopped being an informal social worker? Stopped providing vital social services that they are given no resources or funding to do?

The low numbers of union members in ECEC means that strike action is unlikely. But the idea of “withdrawal of labour” is an accepted approach in workforce protests. What if those professionals just went “we’re not doing this anymore until we’re taken seriously, and we’re funded and resourced to do it?”

What would that mean for our communities? What if we couldn’t rely on this labour? What would happen if this unspoken family safety net disappeared?

In my view, Director and educators are more than entitled to ask that question – and have a strong case for withdrawing their labour in this area.

But here’s the problem. They won’t. They couldn’t. Despite the fact they’re overworked and undervalued for their work they’re actually meant to be doing, they won’t turn families away. They’ll keep doing it, they’ll keep saving the Government untold millions in funding by being on the frontline of a sector they’re not even a part of. That’s who these people are.

But if we can’t fix that problem right now, we should at least call it out. We should name the impossible situation that the sector is placed in.

Because we know that ECEC services are on the frontline. How many family violence situations are first picked up by educators? How many child protection issues? How many families who don’t know where else to turn but the people they trust with their own children?

How many other parts of our community will let them walk in and put their feet up on the desk for a chat?

ECEC services and professionals should be doing this work. But they should not be doing it for free. Professionals should be paid properly, supported to obtain training and qualifications, given resources and space, given everything they need to do this job properly.

Either that – or remove that burden from Directors and educators. Let’s be clear that’s not their job. Fund other family support services properly. Make it so that we don’t have to be the frontline. Build up our supports to young children and their families so we can just focus on children’s learning.

As it stands, this unacknowledged labour in the sector is yet another pressure placed on already-stressed ECEC professionals. As a country, we don’t support them enough to do the jobs they are trained to do. Can we seriously keep asking them to go above and beyond?

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.

2 replies on “ECEC services go above and beyond for families. What if they stopped?”

Light-bulb moments can be the most powerful. I agree with your point of view here. Like many directors I’d guess, I felt like you were talking about me! You’re right – we don’t just turn up to a PD day. We don’t stop peeking at our phones to see if we’ve had an urgent phone call. The next day the diary will have comments and questions that people thought you needed to see. Our arms and hearts are supposed to be open to everyone for every purpose when, in reality, some days we are simply trying to keep our heads above water.
But you’re right, we won’t stop. It is who we are and why our services are such beloved and safe spaces for families.
Thank you for the spotlight on this issue.

Thank you Liam for this article. You have spoken the words that most Directors feel but don’t mention. We are stretched beyond our limits and it’s clear to see why most director’s leave from burnout.

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