A professional development program for early childhood educators markedly improved their teaching methods, leading to measurable gains in literacy and numeracy, and a reduction in behavioural issues among the children in their care.
The Early Start Research at the University of Wollongong (UOW) conducted the Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) study in partnership with the NSW Department of Education to establish the most effective ways to lift the quality of early childhood education and care.
Early Start designed and trialled an evidence-based, in-service professional development program, Leadership for Learning, for preschool and day care centre staff. It was the first large-scale randomised controlled trial in the world to examine the impact of a professional learning program on early educators’ practice and child outcomes, and the results were dramatic.
Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Academic Director of the Early Years at UOW, said objective measures, as well as feedback from staff and parents, showed impressive gains in literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional development for children in the intervention group over their peers in the control group. Those gains were achieved over a relatively short time.
“We saw really pronounced changes in practice by the educators and that corresponded to positive growth in those key learning areas for children,” Dr Neilsen-Hewett said.
“We also saw increased engagement and a desire for learning among the children, and parents reported increased vocabulary and increased use of questions and curiosity, and an increased passion for learning.
“One of the outcomes that the preschool and long day care centre educators really talked about was the significant shifts in children’s behaviours, and a real reduction in behavioural issues among children.
“These findings show that effective professional development for early childhood educators has tremendous potential to lift outcomes for children in a short time frame.”
More than 1300 children and 90 educators from 83 early childhood education and care centres (38 in the intervention group, 45 in the control group) took part in the trial, conducted over seven months. The centres involved in the study came from a mix of urban and regional areas and the families in the study came from across the demographic spectrum.
Leadership for Learning was designed as a sustained and ongoing program because research suggests one-off professional development programs do not lead to sustained changes in practice. It involved a mix of face-to-face group-based instruction and online support. In-between the face-to-face sessions the educators took their new knowledge back and adapted it to their centre and the children that they were working with.
Educators in the intervention group reported increased confidence and motivation, a deeper understanding of their role, and a deeper understanding of child development and the evidence base underpinning effective practice.
“One of the significant outcomes for educators was an increased sense of worth,” Dr Neilsen-Hewett said.
“Beforehand, many had talked about feeling undervalued and being ready to leave the field. In the questionnaires afterwards, overwhelmingly the educators said one of the greatest benefits was to their sense of professionalism.
“They felt valued, had a renewed sense of purpose and felt the importance of their work had been validated. This is critical as staff turnover and staff instability can really undermine the effectiveness of early childhood education.”
Academic Director of Early Start and Professor of Child Development Marc de Rosnay said that before the FEEL Study there had been a lot of research into the importance of high-quality early childhood education, but very little into how to create the conditions to get those benefits.
“This is a very important study and will have impact beyond Australia,” Professor de Rosnay said.
“There is a wealth of research that shows high-quality early childhood education leads to better child well-being and learning outcomes, and to better social and economic development for society as a whole. Until now, there had been no studies at scale looking at how best to achieve that quality.
“In-service professional development can make a profound difference to staff and children – and to families – so we need to think about how that quality becomes the norm.
“I’d like to see this training made available across NSW and across the whole of Australia. If parents knew about the impact, they’d want their centres to be doing it.”
What parents said
“The program has changed a lot. They do more science and maths. The knowledge that she comes home with and the confidence to say, ‘Hey Mum did you know … that there’s a planet called Pluto’… (She’s) just much more knowledgeable than (my older daughter) was. She is so much more advanced to go to school and it is because of (the teacher). She was (older daughter’s) teacher but she’s got so many more fantastic ideas now and it shows – the kids are happy.” (Mother)
“His language is just astounding. And some of the answers those kids come up with, they … they are encouraged to be questioning, to follow their interests, to- enquire about things, to- analyse and think.” (Father)
What educators said
“It was so exciting to see the impact the changes we were making had on children’s behaviour and engagement; it was making a real difference, it made me excited for the next session and what we would learn next.” (Educator 3)
“We grew in confidence because we could see it in action it was working with the children.” (Educator 5)
“The FEEL PD gave me confidence in what I do. That would be the biggest thing. To be treated like a professional again was very empowering.” (Educator 4)
About Early Start
Early Start is a UOW research institute with a focus on world-class, evidence-based research that informs government policy and assists industry professionals and the broader public in making informed decisions in policy and practice for child development, learning, and health.
(Source: University of Wollongong Australia)