Considering research papers

In many years working in early years settings I have heard a number of practitioners quoting theories, perceived truths and research about the value or otherwise of early childhood services. It’s a highly charged debate with parents, practitioners, researchers and pundits taking differing standpoints.

The debates are often fuelled by tabloid headlines which distil poorly cited research and scream about the “harm” done to children or the way in which parents “dump” their children for long hours in nurseries. On the other hand there is the camp which put forward the view that early years provision is an essential part of early intervention to prevent irreparable damage to children’s development, which will compensate for “poor” parenting and increase outcomes for children and society in general.

Simplistic and opposing views are often re-stated and become part of the accepted narrative within particular interest groups. It is easy to fall into trite recognised arguments which mirror ones own view and to rail against other narratives.

As Peter Moss points out in his recent publication “there are many stories to be told about early childhood education” and it is important to explore the range. You may not agree with all the views but knowing what the stories are helps to form our aims, values and practice. It also helps us to not just accept the current popular narrative but enables us to examine and reflect upon how we come to our practice.

This is why I like to keep up with research to challenge my thinking.

The latest research I have been thinking about over the last few days is a paper by Eric Dearing, Henrik Daae Zachrisson and Ane Naerde. It explores the long debated issue of the effect of age of entry into early childhood education and care (ECEC) as a predictor of aggression. The research used longitudinal data from Norway, interviews with parents and questionnaires with ECEC teachers.
Not only did the researchers look at measures of aggression, age of entry and number of hours attended by the children at ages 2, 3 and 4, but also a number of interacting variables for example the mother’s mental health and level of education, housing, family composition such as age difference between siblings etc.

The researchers found that two year old children who had entered at earlier ages displayed modestly but not robustly higher levels of aggression than peers who entered later. However, differences in physical aggression diminished over time regardless of how much time children spent in the provision.

It is important to note that Norwegian policy on maternal/parental leave means that a minority of children are in non-parental care prior to their first birthday. The majority (80%) of children enter publicly subsidised and quality regulated ECEC at some point between 1 and 2 years of age. Enrollment in childcare is in August, but children start at different ages depending on when they were born because the child’s birth month, rather than their parents’ preferences, determined when they would commence. So, for example, a child born in August would start at 12 months, but a child born in February would be 18 months old at the time of the August enrollment. Individual children may attend for different numbers of hours but tend to have continuous attendance until they attend school.

So what were the things that came to mind once I had read this research?

• It is not untypical for children to attend a number of settings across a week or day in the UK let alone four years. What’s the effect of this on aggression I wonder? Has any research been done about very young children becoming confused about different rules in different settings? Do they become frustrated and then aggressive because they prefer one setting to another?
• Both Norway and the UK have a “quality regulated” systems but what might the differences be between the two? Are the same criteria used and is the emphasis on positive social interaction the same? I suspect having visited Norwegian kindergartens during the period covered by the research (2007 – 2010) that there is a longer tradition in Norway of social negotiation to overcome conflict between children.
• The link between maternity/paternal leave and the age at which children first enter ECEC in Norway and the UK – the rules are very different. Meaning that many UK children are less than 12moths old when they enter a setting.
A trawl of the internet has not produced any UK studies which have looked specifically at aggression and the relationship to the age or amount of time British children spend in ECEC settings. However, I did find a number of contradictory reports/headlines in the British press all of which were loosely based upon studies from other countries.

So my plea is – practitioners look beyond the headlines!

Inform yourself and be sceptical when the phrase “research” is used with no way of following up the claims. Read and think about views which are not immediately in tandem with your own and reflect upon what this tells you about your own aims, values and ethos.
Most importantly, consider your role in providing the very best you can to support the positive development of the children in your care in true partnership with parents and carers.

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