Dr Wendy Saeme Lee: COVID, its impact, and where to next?

With more than a decade of experience in Early Childhood Education in Australia, Germany and South Korea, Dr Wendy Saeme Lee is now a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Sydney.

Dr Lee’s research focuses on emotional development and child-teacher relationships, so we sat down with her to talk about the lasting impact of COVID-19 on children, the ECE sector and key lessons that have come from this once-in-a-century pandemic.

Navigating the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging period for service providers of all kinds around the world, and Early Childhood Education and Care has been no exception. The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for the sector such as staffing, but also introduced new issues for maintaining relationships between what Dr Lee calls the triad of ECE stakeholders: teachers, children, and their families.

“Not being able to physically come into the centre and observe their child in their educational setting I’m sure has not only impacted parents, but also children and staff. When the child misses out on that smooth transition from the parent to the teacher, they’re missing a very crucial moment,” says Dr Lee.

Although the sudden closing and reopening of centres and the physical absence of parents have been necessary to protect against COVID-19, these factors have contributed to an inconsistency of care. This inconsistency is what Dr Lee considers to be one of the main limitations on high quality education delivery in the pandemic.

“Unpredictability is what really concerns me in terms of early childhood development… This is a time when we should be building on a consistent, consecutive basis,” she said.

From a child development perspective, Dr Lee says it’s important to consider how this will impact children into the future.

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children

Dr Lee does believe it is possible to avoid long-term developmental effects for children, particularly focusing on Quality Area 5.

“If [educators] know how to respond to [children’s] individual needs, I see the long-term impact really decreasing,” Dr Lee said.

“What I love about the NQF [National Quality Framework] and EYLF [Early Years Learning Framework] is they really emphasise each individual child. They are not a blanket [set of] rules for every five-year-old in NSW, but for the individual needs of the five-year-olds in that particular preschool setting, so I think that’s something we really need to focus on as well.”

Dr Lee has encountered ECE centres applying these frameworks by exploring creative solutions to address children’s individual needs and inconsistency of care.

One such example is a centre creating pedagogical documentation and ongoing projects tailored to individual children’s interests. These resources are shared with families to allow for continuity of learning should they need to isolate, or the centre is required to close suddenly. Resultantly, the centre has facilitated more consistent education and strengthened its communication with parents.

“Being comfortable in trusting parents, their children… and teachers and having that ongoing, consistent communication is vital and I think consistency is care in early childhood,” Dr Lee said.

Moving forward

Dr Lee’s main piece of advice for ECE providers post-pandemic is to undertake ongoing professional development to ensure that practices are current and up to date in this rapidly changing environment. Emphasising the triad relationship, she also suggests that centres continue strengthening relationships with children and their families.

“If directors and managers can [provide] opportunities to undertake professional experience and to further reflective practices, this will be a key in my opinion.”

The pandemic has forced ECE providers to reconsider how they communicate with parents, and Dr Lee considers family engagement and Quality Area 6 to be a key focus area for the years ahead.

“We need to continue to see how we can best respond to the needs of our families and children and doing that on an ongoing basis. [That means] ensuring that families have the opportunity to speak, and that children’s voices, their agency, and social and cultural capital are embedded in our practice. So rather than [using] a tick box system, it’s really important that [ECE] is individualised.”

Acknowledging our educators

Dr Lee encourages all educators to recognise their resilience and achievements over the past two years.

“This really is an opportunity to reflect on what our educators are doing so brilliantly and that is teamwork and the ability to build relationships with families and children, even in a time when we have to socially distance.

“This is why I believe that our educators and teachers really deserve the biggest applause… and our health practitioners!” Dr Lee said.

Image: Dr Wendy Saeme Lee
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