As we get ready to finish another year at the childcare centre and watch the next wave of children getting ready to go off to big school, I am overwhelmed by the gratitude and love that exudes from parents. Often, teary eyed mothers give heartfelt thanks to us for the years of nurturing and support we have given them.
A beautiful card, sometimes accompanied by chocolate, sometimes by wine, is a nice recognition that we all appreciate some of Mother’s Little Helpers whatever the genre.
When I first witnessed this gush of emotion, not yet a parent myself, it all seemed rather excessive. The judgmental creature inside me would think “Oh really! For goodness sake, toughen up, Mum!” However, once I had children of my own and we reached that last day in childcare, the day when I said goodbye and thank you, I lost my bundle. I was the crying, blubbery parent. I could not stop and I could not articulate it: even thinking about it now makes my eyes well.
Why do we feel such connection with people who work with our young children? There certainly is an element of such gratitude all through school life, but the emotional super glue is more like blu-tack once you have got to high school. The intensity and importance of the relationship that educators have with children and families is the very core of what we do. The depth of understanding of this relational connection is also one of the most fundamental aspects of early childhood education.
It is thought to be so important that our curriculum document in the Early Years Learning Framework is titled ‘Being, Belonging and Becoming.’ With such a seemingly wafty title we have had our share of people who belittle this idea, but anyone who works with children and families knows it to be true, some instinctually and some through study.
As we continue to defend our profession - or sometimes just have it recognised as one - we realise that our biggest supporters are the families. They know how valuable our work is and are the first to argue for our pitiful wages to increase. They ‘get it’!
The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University explains it thus: “Early experiences affect the quality of the architecture (of the brain) by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behaviour that follow. In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second”.
Infants reach out to adults and adults respond, but if the responses are absent or they are not reliable or not appropriate, the brain does not develop as expected. So as the neural connections fire, the child’s brain explodes with activity. We, as educators with a primary role in the child’s life, have endless opportunities to build on their genetic makeup with rich and valuable experiences.
Good educators see moments of opportunity all the time; they are sensitive to individual needs, flexible in their program delivery and have an enormous range of responses to deal with a multitude of situations. The environment we create for young children has the capacity to scaffold brain development in a way unparalleled at any other stage of life.
Returning to the architectural analogy, we had a new parent orientation the other day and one educator, our very own ‘baby whisperer’ described what we do in the nursery with infants. “To build a solid house, you need a good, strong foundation… and that’s what we do, we build the base.”
The Centre for the Developing Child believes that “emotional wellbeing and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities.” Early childhood educators believe that too.
We reach the end of the year and we stand with parents as their child transitions from one place to another. It is a rite of passage felt most strongly by the adult. Thinking of the emotional parent bidding farewell to kindy I think they know subconsciously how important, how formative their child’s time with us has been. Perhaps the tears come from feeling the weight of the secret we share about how amazing and wonderful their child is.
The wonder of life, of the human condition, of relationships with all the pitfalls and dizzying heights make all the effort so worthwhile. The real sense of achievement for me in early childhood is the knowledge that I have contributed to giving young children the best opportunities to learn, to grow, to belong and to flourish that I could.
Margaret Carey is a director of a Sydney long day care centre. She is a member of United Voice, the early childhood union. Educators’ campaign for professional wages is the next important development in the decades-long fight for equal pay in Australia. 97% of educators working in long day care are women.