Early Childhood Education, Sociocultural Contexts - Professional Partnerships in ECE
Partnerships are central to the work of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) professionals. Professional partnerships and relationships with children, families, professionals from other disciplines, and early childhood colleagues are central in supporting young children’s learning and advancing the professional development of teachers. Participating in quality ECEC programs holds benefits for children and their families such as the provision of nurturing learning programs, creating and enhancing family and community networks, and the early childhood service being positioned as a trusted source of information and support for families and communities (Mitchell et al. 2008). Working in partnership with others also has benefits for the professional learning of early childhood teachers as they share their knowledge, skills, and experiences and engage with the perspectives of other professionals. This can lead to deeper deliberations on one’s own practice and positive change. This chapter focuses on partnerships and child and adult relationships that are considered central to the work of an early childhood teacher. These are represented in this chapter as establishing relationships with children, working with families, and building relationships with professionals from disciplines that stand outside of education and professional partnerships with early childhood colleagues. Each of these four forms of partnerships is discussed in turn.
Establishing Relationships with Children
Through the relationships which children form within their families and communities, they begin to learn about themselves and construct their own identity. From birth, the forming of trusting relationships with adults is important for young children in providing a secure base from which they can begin to explore their world. Secure relationships build children’s attachment and resilience and provide protective factors to support well-being and learning capabilities.
Children develop confidence and feel valued and respected through the relationships they form with others in their early years – families, peers, and early childhood teachers. Early childhood teachers prioritize nurturing relationships with children knowing that these relationships support children’s skills and understandings, especially related to their social and emotional development which has flow on effects to their mental health and well-being. Teachers can spend time with children discussing common interests together, engaging in play as a co-player, sharing meal times, and supporting children to make choices about matters that affect them. These are all ways to build trusting relationships. Early childhood teachers’ recognition of each child’s uniqueness and their responsiveness to each child’s diverse life experiences provide feedback to the child about their own self-identity. This calls for teachers to listen intently to both verbal and nonverbal cues and to value and act on children’s feelings, ideas, and skills. Viewing young children as capable and confident means acknowledging that they have rights and a voice in decisions that affect their lives. Knowing a child well assists early childhood teachers to build connections to a child’s previous knowledge, introduce new ideas and skills, engage a child’s imagination around their interests, and enhance their language learning. It also assists teachers to provide opportunities for children to exercise some degree of power to make choices and decisions. This is only possible if a strong relationship between the teacher and child has been established and the teacher weaves these aspects into their programing.
Children’s learning and development is supported through teachers being intentional in their work with the child, responding in a sensitive and positive way, and expecting and ensuring that children express their views and contribute to decision-making that affects them. Respectful and responsive interactions between teachers and children promote young children’s emotional security and self-regulation, cultural and conceptual understandings, and communication skills. This paves the way for children to become leaders in their own learning.
Being attuned to every child and their family, and fostering emotionally close relationships, takes commitment and effort – and it places emotional demands on early childhood teachers. Service leaders need to recognize that this work often draws from an educator’s individual resources, such as their personality and experience – a practice that is acknowledged as unsustainable without support.
Working in Partnership with Families
Families, particularly parents and carers, are acknowledged as a child’s first and arguably most influential teacher. This recognizes the significant role they play in a child’s life, especially during the child’s early years. Parents are best positioned to know their child well, and it is this information that is considered crucial for early childhood teachers to understand so that they can best support each child’s learning. When making professional judgments to guide their practice, early childhood teachers draw from their professional knowledge and skills and their personal and professional experiences, along with their knowledge of children, families, and communities. It is acknowledged that the successful achievement of children’s learning outcomes is in part due to teachers working in partnership with families. As with many international early childhood curricula, Australia’s national framework to guide teacher practice states “Partnerships are based on the foundation of understanding each other’s expectations and attitudes, and build on the strength of each other’s knowledge” (DEEWR 2009, p. 12). Family/teacher partnerships revolve around elements such as valuing each other’s knowledge of and contribution to a child’s life, having open and respectful communication, sharing insights and perspectives about the child, and engaging in shared decision-making in relation to the child’s learning and development. This positions partnership as not just a teacher sharing knowledge with families but as a more reciprocal approach where each family’s knowledge is recognized, valued, and acted upon. This can be difficult in practice when, for example, family/teacher meetings are dominated by the teacher voice, and teachers tell families how to parent their child. However power-sharing and valuing of each other’s knowledge can be achieved through listening to each other and making decisions about the child together. This might entail negotiating competing interests if what families request is considered by teachers as not appropriate for a child’s learning or growth such as inappropriate food choices or expectations of learning outcomes, for example, reading. Recognizing and drawing from the social and cultural capital that each family brings to the service and balancing that with evidence informed practice can assist families to engage in discussions with teachers about what is best for the child and the program and in so doing feel part of what occurs in the center. There is however a perceived “professional line” which distinguishes between personal and professional relationships that call for teachers to act with integrity in their dealings with families. In practice terms, this means not becoming overly friendly and intimate with families while still developing a trusting and respectful relationship to promote information sharing.
Early childhood services are positioned as sites for partnering with families centering on engagement and inclusion. For some families, engagement in early childhood services is more difficult as they may lack the skills or confidence to openly discuss aspects of their own life and that of their child with teachers. If there are particular values, roles, and language, which dominate, these serve to include or exclude particular families such as multicultural families, Indigenous families, and families who speak language other than English. Another relational barrier to family engagement has been identified as the ability of the service and service providers including teachers to engage families successfully, such as taking a more strength-based approach. This calls for teachers to be nonjudgmental, sensitive to parents’ situations, and acknowledging of family strengths. Building partnerships with vulnerable families is facilitated by practices that are flexible, add value, involve service cooperation and capacity building, and focus on making personal connections with families. The quality of the parent-service provider relationship has been identified as one of the essential factors for effective engagement of families experiencing vulnerability and disadvantage, and the quality of the service can either mitigate or exacerbate the impact of disadvantage.
Quality early childhood programs support the learning of all children which means early childhood teachers need to be aware of the context within which they work and what this may mean for the experiences and situations of the children and families they work with. While early childhood teachers pay attention to the cultural heritage of families and the diverse learning abilities of children, the call is for them to more strongly consider the socioeconomic circumstances that the families are experiencing. Such circumstances have ramifications for young children’s learning and as such should influence programming and pedagogy. For example, poverty has been shown as predictive of negative outcomes throughout a person’s life and mediates quality of life with evidence demonstrating the strong influence of early relationships, experiences, and environments on long-term health, development, and learning. Teachers therefore are asked to consider the life experiences of the child and family to ensure they include resources in their programs that the child is familiar with and that the program is connected to the social capital of the home. Through the establishment of a trusting relationship between the teacher and parent/carer, there is a better chance of information of a more sensitive nature about the family situation being shared which can then be considered in the decisions teachers make about their practice and programing in regard to the child.
Building Relationships with Other Professionals
Integrated service delivery in the education and care sector is becoming more widespread which calls for health, education, and community services sectors to work together to improve the accessibility and quality of services and outcomes for children and families. This means conceptualizing practice in a more collaborative way where connections to other professionals and subsequently to families are strengthened and leadership in forming sustainable partnerships is warranted. Working in a transdisciplinary way, which may involve teachers moving outside of established practices to work in new and different ways, is seen as a step forward. To take a transdisciplinary approach would be to consider an issue both within and beyond discipline boundaries. Working in this way allows for the development of new perspectives between, across, and beyond the disciplines, providing a holistic understanding and appreciation of the issue from multiple perspectives where no one’s discipline knowledge is privileged. This opens up possibilities for adapting and creating new practice; building sustained, respectful relationships; and engaging in critical thinking and reflection while maintaining a strong professional identity (Cartmel et al. 2013). Taking a transdisciplinary approach to practice encourages respect for collaborative and collegial approaches that promote both the individual’s knowledge and the combined knowledge of the group – collectiveness and individuality. This collectiveness can be conceptualized as a “space of inquiry” where the consideration of differing standpoints can assist in the generation of new ideas and thinking that can lead to change in practices.
Working in a transdisciplinary way is not an easy task as difficulties can arise due to the multilayered and multidimensional nature of service integration. These difficulties can be categorized as (1) structural, (2) inter-professional, (3) procedural, and (4) ideological (Anning et al. 2006). Dilemmas include current practice being viewed by some professionals working in integrated settings as hierarchical with some professions considered more prestigious than others, differing value systems and principles due in part to different funding and operational regulations, roles not clearly defined, inequitable working relationships, and differing cultural views of working relationships between different professional sectors. This is where effective leadership can facilitate relationship building and mediate and align differing professional views and responses. Knowledge regarding team building, having clarity of vision and how to work with others to achieve this vision, holding a sound philosophy and comprehensive discipline knowledge, possessing leadership skills, respecting the knowledge base of others, and having an openness to being reflective and reflexive are all considered factors that can influence the success of these professional collaborative partnerships.
Transition to school networks is an example of where professionals from different disciplines such as education, health, and welfare can come together to support a smooth transition to school for children and families experiencing vulnerability. In a review of practice, it has been shown that when early childhood teachers and other professionals work together, the transition to school experience for children and families can be improved considerably. This approach supports the sharing of information, consistency of strategies, a common focus, cross-sector professional learning, and the closing of any networking and cohesion issues across the service system. Through strong networks, engagement with families, who can be “hard to reach,” for example, linguistically and culturally diverse families (CALD), or services that are hard to access may be enhanced when services work together and trust each other professionally. However, developing a collaborative transdisciplinary network takes time to achieve and calls on the goodwill and professionalism of services and personnel. Time spent developing such networks needs to be acknowledged by center/service management as time well spent.
Professional Partnerships with Early Childhood Colleagues
With an increased investment in professionalizing the ECEC sector in many countries around the world, working collegially has been shown to play a key role in building professionalism (Nolan and Molla 2018). One aspect of this professionalization is teacher professional learning. Teacher professional learning is a relational practice highlighting the importance of developing collegial relationships among early childhood teachers. Hargreaves (2000) notes, “many teachers are starting to turn more to each other for professional learning, for a sense of direction, and for mutual support” (p. 162). One such collegial support practice is mentoring. Mentoring is acknowledged as supporting the professional growth of teachers including their professional competence and confidence, as well as their ongoing learning capability. The mentoring relationship determines the success of the process as mentoring is a social practice and over time has moved from being seen as an expert-novice positioning to a more reciprocal and collaborative relationship (Nolan and Molla 2018). Mentoring is now conceived of as an inquiry into practice.
This means establishing a trusting, respectful, and collaborative learning environment where teachers can safely explore their assumptions and understandings about their pedagogic work without fear of retribution. Mentoring offers reciprocal and mutual learning opportunities; it can improve reflective practice, support collegial interactions, and influence practice change. Teachers can be more effective when they are supported by colleagues in a community of practice. Effective mentoring relationships influence teachers’ access to knowledge, information, expectations, and obligations and build relational trust. However, for mentoring to be successful, the following points need to be considered: the value placed on mentoring, the mentor’s role, the level of support and training for mentors, the availability of resources, the divisions between mentoring and other managerial tasks, the tailoring of mentoring to individual and group professional desires and needs, and the presence or absence of formal evaluations to inform the future success of the mentoring.
Building relational trust is seen as a precursor for the growth of a professional learning community and encompasses dispositions such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and forgiveness. When relational trust is established within a team of colleagues, collaboration and a willingness to grow professionally are promoted as teachers feel they can openly share their self-knowledge regarding their practice, challenge their pedagogic assumptions, and consider new possibilities without being judged. A collaborative relationship, grounded on mutual respect, recognition, and trust, enables educators to commit to deeper engagement in their deliberations on practice (Nolan and Molla 2018). Fostering a culture of professional inquiry among early childhood colleagues draws on the collective thinking of the group and the combined experience and wisdom to address problems of practice. Collegial discussions support the sharing and critiquing of practice leading to insight into their roles and responsibilities as professionals. These discussions open up the possibility of participating in constructive dialogue and mutual exploration of practice through the sharing of their lived experiences as teachers, avoiding a focus on normative explanations about what is right and what is not right. In collegial discussions there are opportunities to hear and consider alternative perspectives and ways of working which assist teachers to reflect on their own practices from differing viewpoints. In these situations the focus is on the tasks or issues rather than on the individual which creates an environment more conducive to the sharing of ideas, knowledge, questions, and resources.
Working in partnership with others is considered essential to effective practice which underpins quality programs for young children. Early childhood teachers are expected to develop skills to work effectively in team situations with their colleagues and also with other professionals outside of their own discipline. Building respectful relationships with children and families is also considered an important part of an early childhood teachers’ work to help them come to know more about the child and their background and to support parents and children in making informed decisions that impact their own lives. The relational nature of the work of early childhood teachers needs to be kept in mind in the development of teacher education courses and professional development opportunities. Teachers need to be able to exert confidence in their ability to establish respectful, reciprocal, and responsive professional partnerships with others.
- Anning, A., Cottrell, D., Frost, N., Green, J., & Robinson, M. (2006). Multi-professional teamwork for integrated children’s services. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
- DEEWR (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations). (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.Google Scholar
- Mitchell, L., Wylie, C., & Carr, M. (2008). Outcomes of early childhood education: Literature review. Wellington: Ministry of Education.Google Scholar