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An interview with Jean Rockel about infants and toddlers

Jean Rockel is an Honorary Academic at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Auckland. She is a passionate advocate for the rights of very young children for early learning.  Over the last few years Jean has been researching the content of teacher-education programmes in relation to learning in the first years.  She also is involved in researching Pedagogies of Care for teachers of one-year-olds, an international project with researchers from the United Kingdom, United States, Hong Kong and New Zealand.  She presents at conferences in New Zealand and internationally, and enjoys on-line discussions with infant-toddler teachers on social media.  In 2015, Jean Rockel  received a Queen’s Service Medal for services to early childhood education. In this interview she speaks with Dr Vicki Hargraves from The Education Hub about caring for infants and toddlers.


Thank you again Jean for agreeing to do this interview with us, it will be very interesting to hear your views on infant and toddler pedagogy. And perhaps we could just start by talking about quality environments for infants and toddlers. What do you feel are the features of quality environments for infants and toddlers?

What really sprang into my mind was a peaceful atmosphere that is stress free . Now that’s not about walls and floors and buildings, or curriculum, but it’s that emotional sense of, I don’t know, a sense of harmoniousness when you walk into a centre sometimes and you think, oh, this is just a lovely place, I’d love to stay here. So I think there’s the physical comfort, for children, and for adults, you know, couches for adults, to relax on, so that idea that it’s a peaceful, calm, relaxed, relaxing atmosphere I think is very important.
But obviously structurally, in terms of what ERO has suggested in their report in 2013, was that ratios and groups’ size are going to have huge impact, such as one adult to three children under two, or up to two, and a small group of around six to eight, they say, has been researched as being most effective for a quality environment, but for me too, it’s about having an adult who is available to observe and respond to a child. So definitely that all fits in with our assessment model of notice, recognise, respond, and revisit. And so I think that there is a structural side to this equation, but it’s also that harmonious sense of emotional wellbeing that I think is, for me, that’s the quality side.  

And how do you think that teachers go about promoting that emotional environment that you are talking about – you mentioned couches, and being at peace, and places to relax. Any other tips that you have for teachers?

Of course this is dream territory, isn’t it really? I mean, not to be overworked, and working as a team, so that you support each other. There was an extremely interesting article in the First Years journal by Caryn Deans and Raewyne Bary in 2008 called ‘Burn the rosters and free the teachers’. And if you just google that it pops up. And we had a tremendous response to that journal article, and I think it’s about working closely together as a team and negotiating times, rather than have routines set in a rigid way. And the other thing really from my mentor Stuart Guyton, he always said “slow down to keep up with the toddlers”. And so I think that notion of slowing down is different to working with older children, it’s something that’s quite unique in these first years, and it’s obviously an opportunity then not only for the child to feel that they’re relaxed, but for the teachers to feel that sense of calm.

Absolutely. And so probably part of having that time to spend with children is developing close and caring relationships with each child. And what does a close and caring relationship look like, and how do teachers go about developing those kinds of relationships?

Well I think in New Zealand we are really fortunate to have learnt from Māori pedagogy in the notion of ako, and so it’s about really learning from the child, seeing the child as teacher, and they learn who you are as well so you’re listening to each other. And having time together means that you’re valuing each other’s conversations and when I say conversations, I mean not necessarily to do with speech, but in gestures et cetera, and I think during a nappy change you get that sense of cooperation that’s happening, because you say to the infant ‘lift up’ or to the toddler, you know, you’re using the right sort of words to help them to co-operate, and they do. And this is what astonishes a lot of people who work with these very young children, that there’s this wonderful sense of collaboration, together, and I think that’s what, that’s what it looks like really, and of course it’s during the care moments of nappy changing or mealtimes or going to bed times, all of those care times are when you are showing the respect, that you’re listening, particuarly, to whether they want to have food, or they want to do whatever it is that you are suggesting.

Okay, and this kind of strong attachment between an infant or toddler and their caregiver is something important, but how exclusive do you think that the relationship should be? Should there be a primary caregiver for a child and how exclusive should that relationship be?

I think it’s a co-primary care role, and so I think you need two people who support the relationship over the child’s longer day than perhaps the staff member might be working. Or when one teacher is absent perhaps, during their lunchtime, or if they’re away sick. So it’s not exclusive in my view, it’s key – it’s the main person that takes the responsibility of seeing that the child’s strengths et cetera, that everything is working well for that sense of wellbeing for the child, so I don’t see it as exclusive.  I look at it this way, that a relationship is very much like learning a language, and if you have English and now you have to learn Russian, this is somebody else’s body language et cetera, you can cope with that, but if you then had to have another staff member, that could be Japanese, another that’s Spanish, I don’t mean literally they’re learning that sort of language but it’s that sort of culture shock in a way. They can move that transition from home into the culture of the early childhood setting, and of course they have to feel comfortable and safe for that. I think that it isn’t an exclusive relationship, because of course, children are relating to everybody. It’s not exclusive but it’s the main relationship, so if one person takes that responsibility to make sure that the relationships are progressing well, that’ll give them that sense of security and trust of the child in the environment and the people in it.

So how do you suggest that teachers can go about managing care and relationship building when they have several children in their care?

Right. I think we are very fortunate for children to have that group relationship, because what the children and everybody, what they are all learning is that sense of empathy for others, and so whereas a parent at home takes a lot on their shoulders for that child’s education et cetera, it does go back to the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. So I think that that is a goal that we value, showing empathy from one child to another, and responding to children differently so that they can see that they are valued as an individual but also part of the group. And in terms of Māori pedagogy of course, each child is not just an individual, they’re part of their ancestors, they’re part of a group. And I think that notion of a collective approach to family and community life is important in New Zealand. So I think that you respect their unique temperament, because we know of course that children are so different at such an early age, and so some might be quiet, and they could easily be overlooked, and then there’s the very boisterous times when other children would just love that. And so fortunately we’re not robots, we’re all different, and I think that’s the benefit, if you’ve got a quality programme and environment, I think that’s the benefit of an early childhood setting, because you’re taking the weight off the parents’ shoulders and sharing, and I think that in centres where you do have very good ratios, then parents and family members are learning too, it’s very much more like an extended family.

So it’s about the teacher developing a kind of community amongst the children, as well as amongst them and the children?

Yes. Yes I think so, yes.

That’s useful, thank you. I have another question about infant and toddler curriculum, and particularly the role of teacher observation in infant and toddler pedagogy.

Right. Well I think it’s just a natural process, I mean I think as parents are watching to see how their child can achieve a particular milestone, I think teachers are on the go all the time, they’re looking, and they’re looking with skilled eyes, so they’re thinking ahead as part of that notice and recognise the learning that’s occuring, and then, how best can I respond. And I think before we do any formal assessments of children’s learning, we’re very much looking at their whole … it’s about holistic development, we’re not just necessarily observing and looking at how they hold a paintbrush or whatever you might do with older children but we’re looking at how they are responding to the ambience of the centre, how they’re communicating with others, and so I think that it’s just built in to a teacher. Those observations feed into how you develop a programme and a curriculum, I mean it sounds very idealistic, but I actually think it happens, I think that infant teachers, I have enormous respect for them because they just do it, it’s just because it’s so valuable, and if you don’t do it, it becomes harder, because you’re then fitting somebody else’s prescription and that might not fit that child. So if you’re actually observing, it’s going to enrich your job, it’s not like working in a bank where you take your money and write your receipts, it’s not like that. It’s about feeling that richness of a child’s interaction with their environment, and being amazed, actually. I mean that’s what I love about working with infants, it’s just they do things that we wouldn’t have ever thought of, actually, but if we’re not looking, we won’t see them.

So would you say that the observation was just a key part of interacting with an infant or toddler, that as teachers are interacting they’re also running this observation, kind of ongoing throughout their interactions?

Yes, yes I think so. And I think if you’re going to have meaningful curriculum and that’s what the latest Te Whāriki 2017 talks about, it’s going to be meaningful, well who is it meaningful to? It’s not about being meaningful to, I don’t know, ERO or whatever, I mean it’s about being meaningful for the child and the family, because they only get one childhood, and so it’s got to be meaningful, it’s got to be what we used to call authentic, but I think Te Whāriki now talks about it being meaningful. So we have to say well okay, what does that mean, for this family and this child, it’s a bit like being a detective, really, isn’t it? It’s an ongoing investigation into how best you can interact with the family and the child.

And you’re also suggesting that that kind of curiosity is what kind of enlivens the profession for teachers as well?

Absolutely, absolutely, because it is very hard work. And you need to be patient, that’s why I would stress that ratios do need to be no more than one to three, and I know at the moment that that is not the requirement but many centres actually do have a one to three ratio, and that’s what it is in the UK and many other parts of the world. I mean that certainly impacts on our ability as teachers, to be able to really relax, and find out the way, the best way that we can, to support children.

You also mentioned how infant and toddler development is holistic, and I was also wondering if you could talk a little bit about the kinds of exchanges and interactions that are going to promote infants’ and toddlers’ development, what sorts of things should caregivers be doing? And presumbly again, that would be quite different to the kind of curriculum you would be doing with older children.

Yes, yes, that’s right, and I mean we’ve learnt about the ‘serve and return’ idea which has come from studies in neuroscience, because so much now has been researched on the living brain, and we’ve learnt such a lot, from neuroscience. And it’s described this way, that ‘serve and return’ interactions, therefore somebody initiates an interaction, and the other person responds, and that shapes the brain architecture. When an infant or a young child babbles, or gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, with words, or a hug, the neural connections are filtered, strengthened, in the child’s brain, and that supports the development of communication and social skills. So I think the sorts of exchange really that I would love and I do see, are the ones where sometimes the adult might be sitting quietly by, actually, but when it’s appropriate, then the interaction that the adult might be responsive to something that the child initiates. Yes I think I like that term ‘serve and return’, it describes that sort of two way interaction really really well. I mean it’s not the only way that we interact, as I said before about care opportunities, you might be giving more directions in terms of ‘can you lift up for me, and then I can put this dry nappy underneath?’. So sometimes there are directions that you’re giving but you’re always waiting for that response, and then reacting to that.

So it’s about an appropriate … a responsiveness that’s appropriate and matched to what it was that the child was trying to initiate that you think is important?

Yes, that’s right, that’s right. And sometimes we take them on a different direction, as they get older, there might be some extra resources that we would place out for them, and then again, we would be waiting to see how the child was responding, but I think the temptation with very young children is to think we know what they want to know, and that’s not so at all – they know what they want to know, and it would be foolish if we tried to interfere, that’s where the observations come in. But sometimes it might be that you initiate a story or whatever, but again it’s as the result of the cues that you’ve seen. I think infant teachers are very clever at actually interpreting cues that very young children give, it’s a specialist profession really, and very demanding, and they should be paid extremely well [laughter] for that, certainly they’re not, but they should be.

How do you think that teachers can empower children’s developing agency as part of those interactions and exchanges?

I think it was great to see that notion of agency in the latest curriculum of Te Whāriki 2017, I think it’s giving children chances to be in control. And we see that obviously with problem-solving. And Professor Gluckman, a few years ago, who is the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, he very much endorses this idea that, for very young children, up to three, that opportunity to make those sorts of decisions, in problem solving, is vital for adolescence later on, and I think that idea, more and more, I’m coming round to that idea of giving children that sense of control, handing over the power, actually, but I mean obviously we’re not going to let them, toddlers, run over the road, or anything like that, it’s not that sort of thing, but having control over their own lives so decisions aren’t always made for them but that we are responsive to what might be an appropriate want or desire, I mean we used to talk about needs, needs, but who knows what a very young child needs? And so that sort of thing challenges, well, what is it that they actually desire, and if we’re astute observers we can pick up on those cues pretty well, and actually it’s not time-consuming as such, it actually makes everybody’s life go a lot easier. And a lot of people think, well, if I’m going to be talking to an infant during care opportunities like nappy changing, it’s going to take too long,then I’ve got too many children, well maybe there are too many children [laughter] in the group, you know, we have to, we have to face up to these structural issues. And I think particularly, when people are qualified teachers, to management. They need to sit down and talk with management and say what is best: ‘I know you want what is best for the children, and these are some suggestions that I have’.

And it’s interesting what you say about actually being more time effective, actually, with toddlers, who we know are so keen to assert their independence and agency, and that actually being one step ahead and promoting that agency might actually make things, in terms of care routines, happen a bit more easily for everybody.

Absolutely, absolutely, and that, going back to temperament, I mean that’s a bit of an old-fashioned issue looking at temperament, but I actually have always loved seeing the differences in children and I think that recognising that there is that ‘slow to warm’ child, he’s not going to leap up and put his bib away and push his chair in, he’s going to take a long time to get to do that, and so if you understand more about development and the uniqueness in each child as the pace that they’re going, I think that’s also very important as well.

We keep returning to that theme of observation and knowing the child, don’t we?

Yes, yes absolutely.

Thank you Jean, it’s been fascinating to hear your views on infant and toddler pedagogy and helping us to unpack some of the key features. Just to finish, what would be your main take-home message for infant and toddler teachers around these issues?

Yes, I mean there’s so many different things, but basically, it’s about passion. If you’re passionate about working with infants and very young children, I think you have to follow that passion, and really find the joy, because, they know, they are astute observers themselves, and if you’re not happy and it’s not relaxed, and it’s very stressed, that is not good for anybody. So I think that also having synergy with parents and other teachers’s goals, that’s going to help you to feel in sync with the children, and I think that if you’re encouraging cooperation and collaboration, it makes things a lot more pleasant for everybody, but it does get down to passion, I believe. It’s worth its weight in gold, passion. It carries over a lot of difficulties and hard work, and sometimes when things don’t go so well, but if you’re passionate about it, then the child, and the family, will respect you enormously for that.

And I think a lot of what you’ve talked about today has been about helping teachers to find the passion through, you know, coming to know children, and seeing those surprises as you observe, and being fascinated by young children as a source of passion for teachers, so that’s, so that’s good to hear.

Absolutely, thank you for letting me have my say, that was a privilege to be able to give off some of my absolute passion for children this age. It is such a privilege to know them.

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Jean Rockel

Jean Rockel is an Honorary Academic at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, The University of Auckland. She is a passionate advocate for the rights of very young children for early learning.