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Long term effect of poor quality Early Childhood Education

Early experiences matter: Long term effect of poor quality Early Childhood Education. 

Child Forum has recently published a report of another Early Childhood Education (ECE) centre which has been shut down amid allegations of horrific abuse.  Among many complaints were accusations that staff not only shamed and bullied children, but also dragged and rough handled them.

This kind of emotional and physical abuse against young children is never acceptable, let alone in an early childhood centre. Parents and caregivers entrust their children to the care of adults who are supposed to be professionals in their field.

The above case not an isolated one.  A recent Ministry of Education report highlighted that  reports of abuse and neglect were among hundreds of complaints against ECE centres. 163 complaints were upheld.

Child Forum published a report in 2015 that detailed concerns over ECE quality straight from the horse’s mouth – the teachers themselves. This report, based on interview with 600 teachers,  found that a quarter of teachers would not enrol their child in the centre they worked in. It does not bode well for the state of some ECE centres in New Zealand.

It’s alarming to think that our ECE centres are not all up to scratch and may be having a negative rather than a positive influence on a child’s life. The importance of the early years in a child’s life is well documented. Children who experience stress in their early years will be susceptible to developmental delays, immune system problems, learning problems, behaviour difficulties and mental health problems.

Recent developments in neuroscience demonstrate the significance of early experience for a child’s lifetime prospects. Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff (Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard University), says that our understanding of neural circuits in brains gives us insights into how we learn and grow. Over time neural circuits become increasingly more complex. In short, all development builds on what came before. Brain circuits grow from the bottom up. You can’t build a strong house on shaky foundations.

Shonkoff says “we are now learning just how much early experience from birth, in fact, even before birth … literally gets into our bodies and shapes our learning capacities, our behaviours, and our physical and mental health.” He says this holds importance for addressing critical social problems.

Echoing earlier educational philosophers such as John Dewey (1858-1952), Shonkoff stresses the significance of our early experiences. Dewey may not have had access to the latest neuroscience, but like all great educationalists before him, he knew that experiences matter.

Children need to have rich experiences that are embedded in reciprocal relationships with adults. Early childhood learning needs to be holistic – cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects are merged. Your brain simply cannot learn and develop in isolation or  in the presence of emotional and physical stress.

As a sector we have the knowledge and expertise to do a great job with young children. Our early childhood curriculum Te Whaariki details the importance of rich experiences and responsive and reciprocal relationships. It is a world class document, with a socio-ecological approach to early childhood education.

So why are these problems of abuse and neglect emerging? There are always individual circumstances at play, but some common threads do emerge that increase the likelihood of abuse in ECE centres.

One of the most significant issues is that early childhood education in New Zealand is underfunded and understaffed. Early Childhood Council Chief Executive Officer Peter Reynolds says that is important the services are funded so that they can deliver our curriculum.

Reynolds called the recent government increase in funding of  1.6% as significantly underwhelming. Many centres are currently working close to the breadline, and in communities where parents cannot afford to pay fees the struggle is greater.

It is also important that the government commits to working toward 100 % qualified staff in teacher-led services. Currently the ratio is only 50%. Yet centres are struggling to meet minimum staffing levels to keep children safe – let alone worry about raising the percentage of qualified staff.

I am certain that there are many ECE centres doing excellent work, providing rich experiences and nurturing strong relationships with children and their families. We need to celebrate those centres and support them to continue.

However, it is also clear that we are seriously letting some of our children down through poor ECE practice and abuse.

If our children are experiencing abuse and neglect in any of our ECE centres we have serious problems. It’s time we paid due diligence to what is happening in ECE and really put some serious funding and  policy revision in action.

Early experiences matter. The implications of stressful, noisy, neglectful environments on a child's overall health and life chances are  profound. Children in Aotearoa/New Zealand need a better standard of care and education that will improve not only their life quality, but the health of our society. 

We should do better, we can do better, and we must do better.  



 Dr Lynley Tulloch is a qualified Early Childhood Education (ECE) teacher. She has over twenty years’ experience in the field of education, including lecturing on the history and politics of ECE at the University of Waikato. Lynley has also taught foundation level courses in ECE. A strong  voice  for quality ECE, Lynley has served on Waikato chapter of OMEP (an organisation that advocates for children). She has been a public speaker on child poverty  

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