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ECE Resources

Specialised practices for infants and toddlers

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar Professor Carmen Dalli (Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Karyn Aspden (Massey University) advocate for infant and toddler practice to be positioned as a specialist pedagogy. They explore key messages from the literature to explain that specialist understandings and expertise are crucial for this age group, and paint a picture of practice for high quality infant and toddler education and care.  

Infants and toddlers have unique characteristics which include both strengths and vulnerabilities. They have many competencies, as shown by research on infants’ sensitivity to sounds and music in utero, their ability to take turns by anticipating what an adult will do next, and their use of vocalisations to engage people. Neuroscience also establishes that the first 1000 days of life shape brain architecture and set a foundation for what comes next. Research shows that infants who are continually exposed to noisy or neglectful environments, without the support of a caregiver to help them to regulate and mitigate the stress, experience toxic stress which limits the brain’s ability to learn. Poor practice for infants and toddlers has real potential for harm and teachers should advocate for specialised practice and the policy infrastructure to support it.  

Infant and toddler teachers need to be informed, skillful and deeply engaged in relational pedagogy. Relationships in which children are known and teachers are attuned to the child are the key priority and driver of practice, as they are crucial for promoting learning and social emotional competencies. High quality infant and toddler practices begin with informed, skillful adults who bring their wisdom and knowledge of infant and toddler pedagogy into low-stress, rich, responsive and relationship-based environments where children are cared for in ways that make them feel protected, safe, and secure. Even when time-poor and overstretched, teachers should try to make the most of the moments they do get with children, and insist that nappy changing time, at least, is a time of unhurried one-to-one interaction. The stability and consistency of staff within an infant and toddler space, along with close relationships and ongoing communication with families, are key components of relational pedagogies.  

The teacher has a professional role based on an ethic of care rather than a mothering role based on love. A teacher in their professional capacity gives the best they can offer to every child. This does not come from a motherly identity, but from an ethical imperative to ensure that children feel loved, safe and secure while in early childhood settings. This emphasis on the professional identity of the infant and toddler teacher does not minimise the depth of care that teachers provide, but rather positions it differently in a way that also honours, affirms and upholds the role of whānau. If teachers are unsure about the appropriateness of their caring actions towards children, it can be useful to ask, ‘who am I doing this for?’  

Key teacher systems ensure every child is being cared for. Often misunderstood as one-on-one exclusive relationships between children and teachers, key teaching is an organisational system in which teachers work as a team to ensure every child’s needs are met. Each child has one main teacher who welcomes them, knows them well, and takes responsibility for ensuring they are cared for, but a second, third, and fourth teacher are available to take on the child’s care needs as required. This is carefully communicated to children so that the security of ongoing relationships is maintained. There are also other cultural models for caregiving, such as whānau based models, which have exactly the same purpose of ensuring that every child is cared for and valued within a collective space. 

Language helps infants and toddlers create a frame of reference through which to see and comprehend the world. Caregiving activities provide intimate moments for rich language experiences. This doesn’t involve talking incessantly, as a calm presence is important, but rather bringing expression to what you see and the child may be seeing so that they learn to engage with what is around them. Infants and toddlers also need opportunities to engage in conversations which incorporate their vocalisations. Teachers might use the mnemonic ‘you, me, see’: say something about you, say something about me, say something about what you can see. Another approach is to narrate daily activity (also known as commentating or ‘sportscasting’) which is more appropriate for this age group than asking questions.  

Environments are also relationship partners in infants’ and toddlers’ educational experiences. Environments need to be planned with regard to infants’ and toddlers’ unique characteristics for being active, interacting with others, and exploring and investigating. These should be spaces in which children feel competent and a sense of control: they should be safe and predictable, but also challenging. Large groups and large rooms can be confusing for infants and toddlers, so it may be preferable to divide spaces up into areas that allow for a range of group sizes. The pace of change in an environment for infants and toddlers should be slow and unhurried, and modifications subtle, because infants and toddlers often require the opportunity to practise, repeat, and develop mastery through multiple opportunities to play with the same resource in increasingly complex ways.  

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