New era for early childhood

This final edition of Every Child for 2011 marks the shift to a new era for early childhood education in Australia.

On 1 January 2012, a raft of changes will begin with a promise to improve educational and developmental outcomes for all young children, and ensure greater quality and consistency across early childhood services.

The core pillars of these changes are in place, and the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) will work with governments and the early childhood sector to ensure a national system of high-quality early childhood education and care for all children. ACECQA is charged with providing leadership, guidance and consistency in implementing the new Education and Care Services National Law Act 2010.

The timing of the changes is critical. For some time now there has been a widening gap between children who are doing well academically and those who are struggling.

The importance of rich preschool experiences is now well recognised. All young children need strong language and literacy foundations to build the cognitive structures that support transition to school and early literacy learning. The early childhood years are critical in building the cognitive and language base for later literacy.

Speaking at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference in October, leading child development researcher Dr Jack Shonkoff from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, highlighted findings from brain research confirming that early life experiences shape later experiences, as well as the links between early adversity and physiological changes that are detectable decades later.

Drawing on data from a longitudinal birth cohort study of 1,100 individuals over 32 years in New Zealand, Shonkoff highlighted clear evidence that prolonged activation of the stress response system leads to elevated heart rates, blood pressure, inflammatory cytokines and glucose levels, increased insulin resistance and activation of the inflammatory system. In essence, this ‘weakens brain architecture’, leading to the ‘destruction of brain circuits in areas that affect learning, memory, executive functions and the development of other organ systems’.

Given this finding, Dr Shonkoff flagged a new era beyond the typical screening tests and referrals used by pediatricians, focused on more proactive approaches that would enrich experiences for children.

This is where early childhood educators have a key role. Proactive approaches to learning and development for young children are largely our domain. Shonkoff states that new and creative programs ‘that add to the concept of enrichment, education and information-giving to actually buffer the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the immune system from the scourges of toxic stress such that we protect these immature systems’ are needed.

Shonkoff proposed focusing on the brain’s ‘executive functions’, which as we know are critical to learning—functions such as planning, sequencing and review. As early childhood educators we know it is never too early to support children’s thinking processes and their metacognition.

The Early Years Learning Framework makes clear the idea that educators should guide children’s development to meet an agreed set of Outcomes. Expectations are consistent for all children, but the pathways will be very different depending on children’s strengths, cultural and family backgrounds, and the early childhood setting’s program orientation.

Pedagogies around the Outcomes will look different depending on the context. A Montessori program, for example, approaches its teaching in a particular way. Similarly, teaching in a remote early childhood centre looks different from that in a suburban preschool. However, the Outcomes and expectations for brain development should be the same.

This issue of Every Child showcases some of the important ideas and innovations around place-based pedagogies. First, though, Rachel Hunter, Chair of ACECQA, provides an overview of the agency and its goals, mission and tasks. Moving more specifically to strengthening the ideas of place, identity and belonging, Pam Linke writes about risk taking in a cognitive and emotional sense; Ellen Newman discusses the ideas of belonging and wellbeing for staff; Angie Mashford-Scott focuses on promoting children’s agency; and Margaret Sims and Louise Dorrat showcase amazing gardens in the transformation of TG Child Care Centre’s outdoor area and the Westgarth Bush Garden.

Alison Elliott