A world-first early childhood education trial is showing dramatic benefits for children and staff.
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.
More than 1,300 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.
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.
What’s more is that 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.”
Dr Neilsen-Hewett added there were also 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,” she said.
Impact will be felt beyond Australia
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.”
Professor de Rosnay said added that 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,” he said.
“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.”