Under twos and the backlash on working parents

“Home is best for babies” shouts the headline in a national Sunday paper. “A great badness abroad” says a magazine headline about “the great pre-school experiment”. Others misquote US research…

_MG_8779“Home is best for babies” shouts the headline in a national Sunday paper. “A great badness abroad” says a magazine headline about “the great pre-school experiment”. Others misquote US research to suggest New Zealand babies in centres are stressed, and their brains might be affected.

You could be forgiven for thinking we’ve hit a timewarp back to the 1960s and 70s. Something is gripping the public imagination about a debate which most people in early childhood education thought was long settled.

One idea is that this is due to the recession” there’s pressure for women to get back to the kitchen and free up those jobs. But others say the issue runs deeper.

As a society we are undergoing huge change. A third of our under-threes are now in centres (double that of 1990) and recent growth in centre use has been almost exclusively in this age group. If current trends continue, one in five of all babies under one will soon be in out-of-home non-parental care.

It’s this kind of social change that leaves the situation wide open for myths to develop, says Dr Janis Carroll-Lind, Principal Advisor Education at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

The Children’s Commissioner recently announced an inquiry into early care and education for under twos, from the perspective of the children’s best interests. Carroll-Lind says there has been huge interest from the media in the inquiry. She is quick to point out though, “that the last thing we want is for parents to feel guilty. We’re not making any judgments on the rights of parents to be working. Historically, we’re way past that” but parents need to be informed.

“We don’t think there’s any debate around the need for quality education, and we will look at education and care, because you can’t have one without the other. “We particularly want to look at the quality of information available to parents so they can make informed decisions.”

An international expert, Dion Sommer, a professor of developmental psychology in Denmark, is one of a number of experts on the Children’s Commissioner’s advisory group. He has written extensively on the myths of the “ideal mother” and the “fragile child” that emerged in Scandanavia when countries there were undergoing similar social changes.

But in a 2007 paper he concluded, “In Denmark, where almost all mothers work and where good quality care is widely available, the family and day care centres are seen as having important complementary roles in supporting children’s social development.

“The child learns to both integrate and separate the experience of these two worlds, more or less successfully depending on how well he or she is developing at home, and the relationship between the home and the day care centre. Day care should be seen as a positive support for family life: dual-socialisation through family and day care is, and will remain, part of the lives of most children.”

Despite the highly emotional tone of some magazine articles here, the research does not indicate that young children in quality centres will grow up to be any more aggressive, anxious or withdrawn than their peers who aren’t.

The Children’s Commissioner is keen to tease out research such as the widely-quoted research by Dr Megan Gunnar showing babies in US centres had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is potentially damaging to the developing brain.

This research has been used to draw damning conclusions” yet it is not straightforward. When issues of quality of care and duration of time in centres are looked at, it is not possible to draw simplistic conclusions.

In fact, a recent UK study of more than 16,000 families by the University of London’s Institute of Education found a lower likelihood of developmental problems among children who attended formal childcare at age 9-10 months when their mother was at work. It also found that prolonged worklessness was associated with negative outcomes for both women and children because these mothers had poorer mental health.

According to Dr Linda Mitchell, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Waikato University, children in ECE will grow up to do better at school. “In 2008, I looked at the international and New Zealand literature on outcomes of early childhood education on the issue of the under two debate” it was a huge review. “The overall, predominant finding was that good quality ECE benefits children in terms of learning outcomes. However, it also showed that quality is particularly important for very young children” babies and toddlers” and that it is more difficult to achieve. “There is some evidence, mainly from the US where quality is often very much lower than New Zealand, showing that long hours in low quality centres at a young age can result in children who are more physically aggressive or worried” but it has to be long hours, low quality and young children.”

Mitchell would like parents to have a genuine choice about whether to use ECE for babies and toddlers, for example, through longer paid parental leave. And she’d like to see provisions for better ECE and family support services all under the one umbrella” a more integrated approach. Mitchell also notes studies that show long hours in centres for some children are better for them than being at home” children whose mothers can’t cope at home or have mental illness, children of teen parents, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I’ve seen children with a wonderful bond with a loving adult who’s not their parent”they do have the conditions to thrive.”

But like many in the sector, Linda has doubts about some New Zealand centres. “I am concerned about centres I’ve seen where there’s not the staffing support for quality and the environment isn’t as engaging as it needs to be.”

Jean Rockel, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, says, “The debate is very difficult and people try and simplify and polarize it” instead of looking at what is best for the family and babies, and that might be good quality childcare. I have seen under ones really thrive on a positive relationship with a teacher. “There are romantic ideas about mothers, but the reality is it’s often too much for a mother on her own. You look at the killings and abuse of young children” and it’s not happening in centres!”

Quality ECE for babies and toddlers

There’s remarkable agreement among academics and teachers on the basic requirements of quality ECE for under twos:

Child-teacher ratios of 1:3 for under twos. The current legal minimum of 1:5 is seen as far too high.
Qualified teachers.
Flexible routines, based around the needs of the child not the centre.
Small groups.
Teacher stability and one main teacher designated for each child.
Close relationships between parents and teacher.
Respectful interactions between teacher and child.
Use of the curriculum document Te Whāriki.
Adequate space. The current legal minimum of 2.5 sqm per child is too low.

Hey, small spender!

According to the OECD, New Zealand short-changes our youngest children, spending less than half the OECD average. “Spending more on young children is more likely to generate positive changes and, indeed, is likely to be fairer for more disadvantaged children,” says its report on Child Wellbeing The figures are six years old and new spending on policies like “20 hours free” will have seen gains” but not for infants and toddlers. Spending is still not enough to give parents of very young children a real choice. Paid parental leave is short by international standards, and spaces at quality centres scarce.

Only the very best

Early childhood teacher Rosina Timpson left her previous job because the group size was 25 and the ratio 1:5. “I couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be in good conscience.”

She is currently undertaking post-graduate studies in perinatal and infant mental health at the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry, and believes “teachers need to be more conscious and stronger advocates for children”.

She loves her new centre, Montana Early Learning in Christchurch, where she’s the primary caregiver or “key teacher” to three babies, in a group of six. There’s one other key teacher and a permanent floater who the babies know so that if one of the teachers is away, they’ll be comfortable with her. “I’m lucky and most teachers are lucky because you can pick where you work” there are lots of positions available. When I started here I was very clear that one of my main philosophies was having a key teacher philosophy.”

The centre caters for children up to three-and-a-half, and is rolling out the key teacher programme to the 24 older children” these children are in whānau of eight, with two key teachers permanently with the group. “We’ve really made the shift towards relationship-based practise. There’s a much stronger focus on the relationships that the children are having and the relationships with the parents. “All the brain development research that I’ve done is that that’s the foundation for learning. If you don’t have a secure relationship or someone you can trust in your environment, your learning is affected. “For children who are here 45 hours a week, it’s so important that they have a secure attachment with one or two special teachers, and for the family. “When parents ask at the end of day,˜Did they have a good day,’ the teacher won’t say˜I don’t know I was outside all day’. The caregiver can genuinely say this happened and this happened.”

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Rosina talks about the quality care of infants.

Rosina says parents have been upset by what they’ve been reading in the media, “and they don’t need to feel any more guilty than they already do.” She says the current media debate is a distraction from the real issues of the need for better maternity leave, quality of care, qualified teachers, ratios and group sizes. “But that’s not always the angle that gets put on. And when parents read it they think” should I, shouldn’t I put the kids into care. “Parents should have a choice whether or not they want to stay home. You should be able to choose a good centre. But some people don’t get to choose. Sometimes it’ll just be the place where they can get a space first.”

Karanga Mai

Jacinta McInerney is passionate about “our babies”” and upset by an article in her local paper suggesting teachers in centres don’t have time to sit down and cuddle a baby.

Jacinta with Iokapeta and Louchous at Karanga Mai.


“If a baby needs to carried around for two or three hours, I do it. The other teachers will ask if I need a break – we support each other,” she says. “Our babies are really loved and cared for.”

The babies are part of a mixed aged group of 25 at Karanga Mai, a teenage care unit at Kaiapoi High School, although most of the children are aged two and under. The child-teacher ratio is 1:4.

Most of the mothers have no support at home, and quite a few live on their own” a van transports them to and from school. The youngest is 14. “We try to discourage them from starting here before the baby is eight weeks because of health issues. We like to get to 12 weeks if we can, but some mums find they are ready to come at 8 weeks” they can be quite isolated with the long days and nights.”

Karanga Mai has also moved to “key teacher” relationships, so that each baby has a primary caregiver. “Its about developing relationships with the baby so that they learn to trust. We are very respectful of the baby in everything we do.”

Jacinta works closely with the parents, who attend school in a classroom in the same building, and is conscious of the need to role model. She jokes about being part of an “aging workforce” because most of the teachers are older and have been at the centre for years. “The mums like how we are with the children. Like any teenager, they’re very honest about giving feedback. They talk to us at anytime about anything. It’s a very rewarding job because you work really closely in partnership with the mums.”