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Childcare a worrying experience for parents

Pioneering research on children under three settling in to childcare highlights the process as a worrying experience for parents.

Carmen Dalli, of Victoria University's Institute for Early Childhood Studies, says mothers in particular tend to worry as they are primarily the ones who enrol the children and accompany them on their first visits to the childcare centre.

They are not only concerned about the welfare of their children, but often they also have a sense of guilt because they know there is still a strong societal belief that young children should be at home with their mothers.

Dr Dalli's study looks at the childcare settling-in process through the eyes of all three parties involved - the mothers, the children and the teachers.

Her research, which earned her a PhD in education from the University last year, is unique in taking this three-dimensional look at starting under-threes in childcare.

Dr Dalli followed the progress of five under-three children (aged 15 to 26 months) as they started at different childcare centres, observing the children at the centre, videotaping, talking with the mothers and teachers, and asking the adults to keep journals.

The mothers, Dr Dalli found, experienced complicated emotions as they placed their youngsters in childcare. They worried about losing their place in the child's life; they had concerns about health and safety issues; and they were apprehensive about beginning this new experience about which they knew very little.

The mothers spent varying amounts of time at the childcare centres themselves, but worried about what happened when they weren't there.

Developing trust in the teachers was central to all the mothers' accounts of the relationships between themselves and the teachers.

"In the stories told by the mothers, the experience of starting childcare emerges as a time of deep emotions, where positive feelings about the potential benefits to their child had to be balanced against the less desirable feelings of apprehension, guilt and general ambivalence about whether they were doing the right thing," says Dr Dalli.

From the teachers' stories, it was evident that each had a clear idea of their own centre's policies on handling the settling-in phase, even when these policies were not documented.
Two of the centres had a deliberate policy of forming a close relationship between the new entrant and one particular teacher; one actively discouraged this attachment, to avoid stress for the child when "their" caregiver was not there; and two just "went with the flow", assuming that everything would fall into place without explicit guidelines.

All the teachers spoke of having two foci during this settling-in time: one on the child and one on the parent. The teachers all agreed that each child settles in differently. Each teacher had their own "theory" about settling in and used this to guide their practice, but different teachers had different theories.

The children needed to learn to "fit in" with the teachers, the other children, and their new environment - both the physical environment (including new experiences such as sandpits, painting and slides) and the rules and culture of the childcare centre. Watching the children, Dr Dalli was impressed with the evidence that they did learn these things, and that other very young children were good at helping newcomers settle in.

Dr Dalli concluded that starting childcare should be seen as much more than a process of separation.

"The event of separation emerged as an issue of emotional significance for all participants, but starting childcare emerged also as an experience of induction," she says.

"Mothers and children were inducted into a new setting with all of its established ways of doing things. In this process both teachers and the established children at the centre emerged as agents of induction."

Aspects of her research have been described in articles in Childrenz Issues and the European Early Childhood Education Research Journal.

ENDS

For further information contact Carmen Dalli, Ph: 463-5168.

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