FEEL Case Studies

Better professional development for early childhood educators

Findings from Australia's first randomised controlled trial and longitudinal study of professional development in early childhood education

To help build the evidence base on effective professional development in early childhood education, the NSW Department of Education has worked with the University of Wollongong to research best practice in Australia's first blind randomised control trial in early childhood education.

The 'Leadership for Learning' program was delivered and assessed at 38 preschool and long day care services across metropolitan and regional NSW. The program incorporates training in the key skills identified in the Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years Study (2017).

Among participating services, the study found that children demonstrated higher scores against indicators of early literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional development compared to the control group. Improvements to the quality of learning environments was also observed. Participating educators reported increased engagement, greater confidence in their work, and an improved ability to communicate with colleagues and families about child development. Detailed analysis of the impact of this training on child outcomes and educator engagement is available in the Fostering Effective Early Learning Study report (2018).

The recently published Case Studies of Effective Practice (2019) provides accounts of how some of the most improved participating services have embedded best practice techniques into their learning environments. These case studies demonstrate how a quality program of in-service training for staff can improve practice and further illustrate how these improvements result in positive outcomes for children.

For services considering how to best support staff in facilitating learning experiences for the children in their care, this research is a useful source of evidence for identifying what kind of professional development works best, and what practices can make the biggest positive impact on child development.

What did the 'Leadership for Learning' program cover?

  • Theoretical and practical training for staff, encouraging educators to provide pedagogical leadership within workplaces
  • Up-to-date information about principles of child development and how to foster the development of essential skills including:
    • Communication
    • Language
    • Self-regulation
    • Early numeracy
    • Science and exploration
  • Instruction on how to create high quality interactions with children and encourage sustained shared thinking. This is an evidence-supported early education method where educators and children work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem or add to an activity.
  • Training in how to support child-initiated learning by:
    • Embedding learning moments into children’s play
    • Recognising individual children as experts in areas where they have demonstrated skills and knowledge
    • Encouraging children to plan their approach to activities
    • Setting learning intentions and creating clear progressions in learning through the design of sequential instructional activities
  • Introduction to use of the Reflect and Assess, Plan, Implement and Evaluate Improvement Cycle to improve reflective practice.

Case studies: playing shopkeeper

At Centre 2, educators responded to children’s discussion about shopping by setting up a make-believe juice bar in the dramatic play area. By adding literacy and numeracy resources such as scales for weighing items, fruit labels, price tags and menu boards, the centre was able to provide opportunities for children to develop language and measurement skills while having meaningful peer interactions in the context of play.

What can ECE services take away from this study?

The Case Studies provide further evidence that professional development makes a big difference to educator engagement and child outcomes, and illustrate how quality training for educators can have a deep and lasting impact for services.

These findings are an endorsement of the value of adult-supported, child-initiated learning activities, and demonstrate the effectiveness of professional development training that encourages educators to facilitate those kinds of interactions. At the high-performing services profiled in the Case Studies, the percentage of child-initiated activities was consistently high (between 40-60% of all activities).

The Case Studies also illustrate that educators require support in moving classroom practice towards a child-initiated model of learning. Providing professional development is an important first step, but staff also need time to plan, discuss and develop new learning activates.

Important points from this research are summarised below:

1) Strong relationships between educators and families support child development.

  • Early childhood education services can increase their impact in fostering child development by sharing information with parents and families so that the learning journey can continue at home.
  • Some families face bigger barriers than others when it comes to participating in their children’s early learning, but all children benefit when those at home understand the importance of early childhood education and have access to reliable information about how to support child development.
  • Participating centres built closer relationships with families through a wide range of initiatives, sharing information via newsletters, learning highlights and reflections on play activities.
  • All six centres invited family members to stay for extended periods in the room to observe learning activities.

2) Recognising children as experts in what they’ve learned facilitates peer-to-peer learning.

  • Early childhood education isn’t just about facilitating cognitive development, it’s also about helping children develop the social and communication skills they’ll need at school.
  • Researchers found that the best educators encourage children to help each other learn skills and understand new ideas, by recognising children as experts in the topics that interest them and providing age-appropriate resources for interactive play.

Case studies: children as experts

At Centre 6, children were recognised as experts in activities like ‘making a paper aeroplane’ or ‘building a cup out of clay.’ Educators found that encouraging children to seek help from their peers provided the opportunity to build on the strengths and capabilities of the group, and facilitated meaningful social interactions between children.

3) Successful services support staff to achieve high performance.

  • At these six centres where the training was particularly effective, it was notable that directors provided additional support for educators in initiating practice change, including measures such as the employment of additional staff, implementing new mentorship and planning models, and prioritising planning and collaboration.
  • Researchers noted that these services set high expectations for staff, while acknowledging varying experience and qualification levels held by staff and also respected the contributions staff made in improving practice.

4) Incorporating learning activities into child-initiated play requires planning.

  • While skilled educators can make play-based learning look spontaneous, it takes preparation and a solid understanding of child development to introduce new concepts to children at appropriate point to enhance the process of discovery.

Case studies: observing the natural world

After children found a live cicada in the garden while playing at Centre 2, educators established a learning area in the centres dedicated to cicadas, which evolved into a broader exploration of cycles of change in other animals and species. Families were encouraged to share similar nature discoveries with the class. The children’s enthusiasm for insects was also used to foster language skills, with children working together to create a group story based on “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” but substituting in a cicada.

What to look for in quality professional development programs

While this research measured the impact of one specific program of professional development on educators, environment quality and child outcomes, researchers said they can draw some general conclusions about why the program worked so well. Look for programs that:

  • Affirm the professional status of educators. Feedback from participating staff indicated that professional development made educators feel more confident in their professional abilities, giving them the confidence implement new ideas and encouragement to continue to updating their professional knowledge.
  • Focus on ways to support children’s social and emotional development. Parents of children at participating centres indicated that one of the aspects of the program they valued the most was the focus on social and emotional skills, with many reporting that their children had developed the ability to better identify their emotions and self-regulate to avoid physical outbursts when upset.
  • Provide tools for integrated practice. For child-led project-based learning to be most effective, educators need the confidence to incorporate literacy, numeracy, arts and scientific content into different activities.
  • Encourage staff to share knowledge. Some of the most compelling feedback received about the Leadership for Learning program related to how much educators appreciated the investment of time and resources into their development, and how well they took on the opportunity to share what they learned with colleagues and the children’s families.
  • Link theory to practical content. Through sample activities and examples, training can provide ideas for educators to implement immediately in the learning environment. To most effectively convert knowledge into action, training should provide educators with practical ideas for about how to incorporate new practices into the busy preschool environment.

Case studies: discovering together

At Centre 6, a child who had recently arrived in Australia was having difficulty interacting with staff and other children. The educator talked to the child’s parents to find out more about the child’s interests. On hearing that the child liked dinosaurs, the educator found books about dinosaurs to read with other children in the group, which led to a discussion about what kinds of jobs relate to dinosaurs.

The educator organised an initial skype call with a palaeontologist, followed by an in-centre visit from the palaeontologist and an excursion to a museum. The children later made their own museum, contributing documents, photos, bugs and snake skins.

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