Week in Review

Why our ECE crisis is everyone’s problem

Overworked and stressed teachers, overcrowded classrooms and substandard nutrition have ECE at crisis point. ECE teacher Susan Bates explains why everyone should care. 

If you want to know what NZ society might look like in the future, look into the eyes of the young children in your neighbourhood. Ask yourself what those children’s lives have been like in the womb, in the first year, the first three years of life. Their brains are 90 percent developed by the age of three. Their physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are formed. If any of them have delays or difficulties, the years before they turn five are the best chance of maximising their outcomes. These children’s experiences have already substantially formed the adults they will become.

Ideally, by the age of five, children have developed empathy, a sense of responsibility, self-care skills, a capacity for joy, creativity, sophisticated use of language(s), humour, problem-solving, a love of learning, tolerance, co-operation, managing fear, stress, risk, embarrassment, frustration and disappointment. They have developed attitudes to their own bodies, food, exercise, what is good for them, and what is not. They know what they like, and what they don’t and they know that can change. They can cope with making mistakes and getting hurt. They know what hurts others. They have done this because they have developed a strong sense of selfhood and their place in a community.

Quality early childhood education will provide warm, calm and consistent relationships for children. Ideally it will provide support and partnership for parents in their children’s learning. It will have access to government assistance and specialists when needed. It will provide or encourage the best nutrition and environmental conditions. It will provide age appropriate experiences for each child to foster their rapidly growing bodies, brains and emotional capacity.

Currently there is a crisis in ECE. Children are too often in overcrowded, noisy rooms that are too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Overcrowding increases illness and injury. Too many children have little or no connection to warm, responsive adults. The food provided is too often not adequate; some centres’ food budget is less than $2 per day per child. There is no requirement for cooks to have any training in paediatric nutrition. Children have no space to run, even outside. Their hearts, lungs, nervous systems, muscles, joints and tendons are not being stretched to their limit. That is what makes them grow. They have no connection with the natural world. How will they learn to care for it?

Teachers in this sector are poorly paid and their working conditions are often appalling. There is a severe shortage of qualified teachers and more are leaving. Teachers are buying resources from their own pockets. They are being bullied by management, owners, and parents with high expectations but little understanding. Too many teachers are suffering from severe stress, which is manifesting in anxiety and depression.

Time is the key ingredient in the life of young children. Successive governments have been slow to recognise problems in the sector, especially inadequate funding, plus minimal licensing requirements and regulations. Some centres are becoming so bad they are damaging to children and adults. In such a context, time is money and it is not spent on children.

Children with the greatest need for caring, those needing sustained one-on-one interactions, are the biggest losers. Teachers are far too busy, with too many children, too many care routines, and too much emphasis on providing accountability paperwork.

Take another look at those pre-school children in your neighbourhood, they are the future of NZ. Whether or not you have a child, grandchild, niece or nephew currently attending ECE, these children are the future of the world you will be living in. Support for ECE is vital for the future of NZ society. Everyone needs to start paying attention.

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