Bank Street Releases Occasional Paper Series #42

The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #42—”Promise in Infant-Toddler Care and Education”—launched today to highlight inequities in the early childhood field and explore how we can work toward designing and funding more meaningful care and education for our youngest children.

In the interview below, Guest Editors Sharon Ryan and Virginia Casper provide additional insight into some of the topics explored in this issue and how we can build a shared understanding of the first three years of life as a period of enormous potential and promise for families and communities.

Sharon Ryan is Professor of Early Childhood Education at the Graduate School of Education and Research Fellow at the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Virginia Casper is a Developmental Psychologist and Teacher Educator.

Q: Historically, what do you think are the reasons behind a lack of focus on infant-toddler care and education?

A: There has always been a tension about who should care and educate very young children. From the earliest days in the early childhood field, dominant discourse has viewed the care of very young children as the responsibility of mothers. It was often argued that without attachment to the primary caregiver, that infants and toddlers would not thrive and follow typical developmental patterns and that no one could replace the bonds between a mother and child. These views were often based on white middle class, masculine, and Western assumptions of child rearing and overlooked how many communities engaged in kith and kin care to ensure that working class women could work.

Similarly, child rearing patterns of other cultures, such as older children taking care of their baby siblings, were not considered. Thankfully, as more women have entered the workforce, programming for infants and toddlers has expanded, although the emphasis on programming for 3- and 4-year-olds has meant that policymakers have tended to concentrate their investments on preschool education. Therefore, even though early childhood education and care receives much more political attention, access to high quality infant and toddler programs remains elusive in many communities because there has not been a focus on birth through age 5.

Q: What are some key qualities of meaningful infant-toddler professional development that cut across all levels of education, from Child Development Associate (CDA) through graduate school?

A: Regardless of one’s level of formal education, increasing self-awareness and self-reflection abilities is crucial to being part of a team that provides quality care and education. Because everyone has some primitive associations with the first few years of life, adults must know how to recognize when a baby’s or toddler’s behavior is pushing their buttons and examine it. This ability is what leads to being able to be present in the moment and truly be with infants and toddlers rather than just caring for them.

Opportunities to better one’s child development knowledge and observational and assessment abilities need to be woven into any program. Also, research has found that experiential learning opportunities and a melding of on-site practice with coaching and classes helps a person traverse complex ideas and practices. And, we know that in any field, adult learning is enhanced when it is consistent and not a “one-off” workshop—and when adults can make some choices about their learning. Finally, it is often forgotten that self-care is the ultimate ingredient for preventing burnout in a field that can be seriously stressful. Many of these qualities and approaches to learning are unfamiliar to adults who are products of traditional education, and the introductory period of any learning program can be bumpy. However, as one graduate of a community professional development program declared, the goal is to “become a student of my own practice.”

Q: How has the dominant knowledge base for birth to three sidelined a focus on context?

A: Much of our understanding of early care and education comes from the field of psychology, and more specifically, developmental psychology. The care and education of infants and toddler, however, is multidisciplinary. Some of our earliest understandings of children, prior to a generation of breakthroughs in neuroscience, focused on ages and stages with little consideration for how context and culture mediate learning and development.

Similarly, the field’s reliance on key theorists like Piaget inculcated a headset of universal patterns of development that were assumed to apply to all children, all cultures, and all contexts. This paradigm reached low- and middle-income countries through “best practice” templates of US and other Western-funded countries directed primarily at under-resourced communities. Too many Western approaches make assumptions about what is good for all children and families, often to reach larger numbers of communities. It is also unfortunate that Western paradigms are too often valued over indigenous ways of knowing and being.

In this issue, Hasina Ebrahim eloquently reminds readers that Western paradigms have little relevance in Africa and other global contexts. In her paper, she illustrates how teen, child, male, and multi-generational parenting is often what knits families together with strength. One way forward in addressing the normative control over non-Western understandings of child rearing and infant-toddler practices is to research with, not on, indigenous practitioners by engaging in community-based research. In this way, it might be possible to combine some Western child development knowledge with local practices that are relevant and informative for communities.

Read the full issue of Occasional Paper Series #42