Marg Rogers

Part two: A new way forward for toddlers, teens, educators, parents

Educators and parents often complain about toddlers and teenagers. In the first article of this two-part series, we explained similarities in their physical, social and emotional development. In this second article, we explore the cognitive similarities, share tips on building positive relationships, and provide ways to address their mental health and wellbeing.

What are the similarities?

Cognitive

Both age groups are still learning how to assess risk, yet they think they are invincible. This, combined with the rapid physical development, can lead to high rates of hospital emergency department admissions.

Additionally, teenage hormone surges interrupt concentration, which is frustrating for educators and parents as they sometimes think messages are not going through. Teenagers are often off task and can spend considerable amounts of time day dreaming.

Communication can also be a struggle. While toddlers might struggle to find the right words to say (even if they understand the words), teenagers might find it challenging to express what they really feel. This can lead to grunting, then either tantrums (toddlers), or slammed doors, rolled eyes and sighs (teenagers). There is often a lot of dissatisfied whining and grumbling. Often children just cannot name the emotions they are feeling so they fall back onto the perennial grunt of “nothing” despite clear evidence that they are feeling something. It is useful to use descriptive language, labelling the feelings their behaviour indicates. For younger children, reading books that improve emotional literacy can help. Many of these are available in libraries.

Tips for positive relationships

It is important to maintain a positive relationship with both age groups despite the challenges.

Remembering that it is a frustrating age for children as well as educators and parents. They are not trying to be painful, rather, they are trying to grow up and learn about who they are and how the world works. When they are grumpy, teaching them to be civil is important.

Using humour can make a world of difference when they are sullen, sulky or recalcitrant. Letting them know their efforts are appreciated (whether they succeed or not), and that you understand that life is frustrating at times. 

It is important they know they belong, they are important, they are a valued part of the family or learning environment, not a burden and that you appreciate them being here. It can help to identify what you see as their strengths, particularly at times when they are overwhelmed by frustration at what they see as their failures. Using a strengths-based approach and listening to them can make a big difference to the outcomes.

Boundaries

Both age groups will push against and even throw tantrums about any boundaries you put in place. For a toddler, a boundary might be that they can only play with the blocks when they have helped pack up the train set. For a teenager, it might mean they need to finish their work before they can do something fun, or their behaviour needs to be at a certain level before they can be trusted to go on an excursion.

It is their job to push boundaries and tell you the rules are not fair. It is your job to clearly set limits and stick to them, reinforcing consequences and gradually easing the limits as they mature and show their ability to follow them, and self-regulate. Those without boundaries feel lost and uncared for, so they try riskier activities and poorer behaviour to get attention.

Friends

It is not an educator or parent’s job to be friends with a child or teenager. They have their own friends. There will be moments of friendship, and these are wonderful, and likely to increase as the child matures. However, it is the adult’s job to be a coach and mentor. Their friends are not coaches, so you need to take on that role.

Opinions

Teenagers are learning how to express their opinions and they need support to know how to do this appropriately. This means learning how to:

  • calmly state their opinion,
  • spot the difference between opinion and fact,
  • value a range of opinions,
  • agree to disagree respectfully, and
  • appreciate that you approve of those with different opinions than your own.

Mental health

Not every child, despite all your best efforts, is going to be able to grow up without help being

provided to the family and to those carrying the responsibility for their welfare. There are a range of family support services available upon which families can call. Educators can recommend the mental health resources available at the service, school or community.

Mental health challenges, particularly in the teenage years, are not uncommon and there are a range of supports available (see Teens mental health: services and links and Teenage mental health – treatments and causes. However, understanding the similarities in these age groups and looking after yourself can support educators’ and parents’ efforts and reduce their stress levels.

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education. She researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Marg is a postdoctoral fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood education and care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an honorary professor at Macquarie University.

Toddlers and teens: the news educators and parents need right now

Among educators and parents, the most often complained about age groups are toddlers and teens. Physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively there are many similarities in these developmental ages. Understanding these similarities can reduce frustrations and help us better connect with them.

In this two-part series, we explore the physical, social and emotional similarities. In the second article (published tomorrow), we will explore the cognitive similarities, share tips on building positive relationships, and provide ways to address their mental health and wellbeing.

What are the similarities?

Physical

This is a time of rapid physical growth for both age groups. Brains are struggling to keep up, causing what might seem like clumsiness and frequent accidents as they learn how to move and be in their rapidly changing bodies. They might not know their own strength and accidently break something or hurt someone as they test shifting limits. It is important to avoid overreacting and attaching a purpose behind these actions as there may be none. Letting them know you are upset and that you do not want them doing that again is okay, but try to leave it there.

This rapid growth means both toddlers and teenagers need loads of sleep. This can be tricky for teenagers who like to stay up late, then struggle with morning routines and learning activities. Additionally, gaming, streaming and social media means there is more to occupy them in the evenings. Parents are often unpopular if they take devices off children at bedtime, but it might mean a big difference enabling them to get the physical rest they need.

Emotional

Both ages are times of opposites. One minute children seem to be clingy and wanting attention and support, then the next they are pushing you away, expressing their opinions, and saying ‘No! I can do it’, snarling or grunting. They are still very needy at all times, despite the bravado

Learning to step back and allowing them some freedom is important, but letting them know you are there whenever they need you is vital. The saying ‘Children need your love when they least deserve it’ is very true. Teach them that if they want to do something themselves, or have time to themselves that it is okay, but that they need to express this wish in a way that is not hurtful. Providing example sentences can help them choose appropriate words.

Social

Socially, children are still learning what is acceptable, what will elicit a response, and how to navigate relationships. Emotionally, they are more likely to find rejection heartbreaking because they are forging their identity. Feeling rejected for toddlers might look like someone not sharing their toys, or pushing them over. For teens it is far more complex, and involves feeling liked and belonging within friendship or sub cultural groups

To be mentally healthy all humans need to feel a sense of belonging. We need an identity that locates us safely in groups of others. For toddlers those groups include the family and possibly the educators and peer group in their early childhood setting. For teenagers the importance of the family group declines (but doesn’t disappear) as they seek their place in a range of different peer groups in both the face-to-face and virtual worlds they inhabit. Learning who we are in these groups is often a function of how the group reacts to us, and children need a secure base of caring relationships. This supports them to manage the turbulent emotions that come with learning that not everyone in the world will like them or want to be with them.

Regarding identity

In regards to identity, toddlers are realising they are separate to their primary caregiver, and teenagers are forging their identity as a young person separate from their parents. At both ages, egos are very fragile, so it is important parents provide a place where they can feel safe and secure within their own home, away from the hurdy gurdy of friendships. Ideally, the family environment creates a safe basis from which children can reach out into the world and develop their own identities within their own groups. If there is not a safe environment at home, other spaces might help provide some support, such as libraries, extra-curricular groups and clubs. 

Teenagers are now old enough to realise what people say and what they mean can be different. This new skill means they often believe people are thinking the worst of them, despite the reality that people are not thinking about them at all. It is important to point out to teenagers that it is a time where they are more likely to be self-conscious, but the reality is most people are not thinking about anything but themselves or the task at hand.

For both age groups, having time alone at home is important as this time gives them the space to process their experiences and reinforce for themselves just who they are. For teens, this means times where they are not on social media. They might complain, but it is good for them to relax and not always be socially available. Time in the family unit is also important as it reinforces the relationships that make home a safe place.

Looking after yourself

Overall, it is challenging educating and parenting these age groups, so finding another trusted and experienced educator or parent to chat to is vital for your own wellbeing. It is normal for educators and parents of toddlers and teenagers to feel exhausted, challenged and exasperated at times. It is essential to recognise your own limits. It is not selfish to desire time alone to recharge batteries to enable you to cope with the next challenge thrown your way. Nor is it selfish to reach out for help when those difficulties feel overwhelming. Looking after yourself is vital for the long haul.

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education. She researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Marg is a postdoctoral fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood education and care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an honorary professor at Macquarie University.

Flowers, chocolates, promises: now too late for early childhood educators

The newest Productivity Commission report: A path to universal early childhood education and care glosses over or ignores many fundamental problems within the early childhood education sector .

Scarcely mentioned, or tactfully ignored, are the:
* systemic issues relating to educator burnout,
* poor wellbeing and morale of educators,
* increasing burden of quality assurance,
* emotional cost of caring, and the
* increasingly complex needs of families.

These are crucial challenges creating chaos in the sector as educators head for the door in droves since before the pandemic. This alone is impacting families and the ability of Australian parents to work.

Neglect and abuse

After successive government neglect (poor pay and status) and abuse (overwork, underpay and unpaid hours) of educators over the years, suddenly the sector is getting attention. However, as this report shows, the Commission’s attention is on the wellbeing of the children and families. 

While families need attention and are very deserving, there still seems to be a reluctance to talk about educator wellbeing. When educators are mentioned, it is about how to attract more, rather than real solutions on how to nurture and retain those who have had enough.

An early childhood sector in chaos

The Commission does report on the vacancy rate which is over 5000 (over 4.5%), but this does not
show the number of services that have given up advertising. Many have simply closed down or
reduced the number of rooms they have open.

Many are operating under waivers, meaning they are being staffed by those who are currently
studying to meet the mandated requirements of the service. Studying can be difficult when an
educator’s service is short staffed.

The report does explain that in ‘childcare desert’ areas, that is, where the need for early learning is
greatest, children and families are spending years on waiting lists to access any care they can find.

The Parenthood’s ‘Choiceless’ report about effect of a lack of early learning in regional, rural and remote (RRR) communities shows, this is impacting the:
* mental health and wellbeing of parents
* access to screening services for children
* economic stability of households
* safety of children as they are taken to work with parents,
* viability of rural businesses and communities, and
* viability of families living in RRR communities.
In these communities, educators’ role in providing a link to services and supporting parents in their
role is vital because access to other services is severely limited. Educators in these areas need more support, because they are often providing more than early learning. They often undertake family support and mental health support roles with the families.

Supporting early childhood educator wellbeing

Educators need an investment in their wellbeing. They need access to funded wellbeing programs,
peer support and/or counselling programs. These should be conducted during work hours, otherwise it is only increasing their unpaid hours.

Pandemic stresses

The draft skims over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, which fared poorly compared to the school sector. The services were: told to stay open, roll out wave after wave of new health care policies, enforce new rules about attendance, required to do additional cleaning with no extra funds or hours. It was as though educators were on a ghost train ride to ‘burnout central’.

Additionally, they were labelled as essential workers, but were not given priority for vaccinations, nor given any recognition. The educational leaders showed great innovation in implementing a range of new ways of working, many which have remained in a post-COVID era.

The report also highlights the benefits of investing in the sector to free up parents to work and
increase the access children have to early learning. The report also highlights the overwhelming amount of data available on the sector. They fail to mention how this is collected, often by overworked educators who are trying to collect government data whilst educating and caring for children.

This has led to a ‘datification’ of the sector. It is a constant source of complaints as educators want to work with the children and families. Ironically, the report says there are gaps in the data! Many educators give up trying to complete data collection done while they are on the floor and do the work for free when they are at home. This is appalling given they are the 13 th lowest paid workers in Australia. So, in other industries where no qualifications are needed, workers can earn far more (e.g. in shops, manufacturing, farming and construction).

What the report gets right

The draft report outlines the dire need to remove unpaid practicums for educators because this leads to higher levels of attrition and poverty among educators. Many state governments are offering scholarships to remove university fees, which is encouraging. The report also discusses a range of improvements to assist families to access childcare three days per week, by removing the activity test.

Too little! Too late!

Whilst the politicians are quick to report on their moves in the right direction, the flowers, chocolates and promises have come far too late for many educators who cannot afford to stay in the industry any longer. Many educators can only afford to do the job they love if their partner earns far more, or their parents provide support. In the era of the #MeToo movement, the feminised workforce has had enough of neglect, poverty, being ignored, undervalued, demoralised and abused. They are saying ‘too little, too late’!

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education. Marg researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Specifically, she researches ways to support the wellbeing of military, first responder and remote worker families and early childhood educators. Marg is a Postdoctoral Fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

The government must fix the childcare desert now

Marg Rogers, Navjot Bhullar and Laura K Doan ask: How far will the Budget’s funds stretch to fix educator professional development and ‘childcare desert’ communities?

The Federal Government’s Budget announcement of $18 million of funding to be available as grants for providers is welcome. Providers will be able to apply for up to $900,000 to build more services in ‘childcare desert’ areas. These are normally in regional, rural and remote areas, and exacerbate disadvantage because children in the area miss out on early learning, and their parents miss out on working. However, this is not going to go very far since the problem is so great.

The Government has promised to support 6000 existing educators to upskill and support them to backfill positions that are vacant. It has also pledged $72.4 million over 5 years to support up to 75,000 educators’ professional development for those in regional and remote communities is welcome. 

Educators in these areas often act as more than educators, and face increased pressures. They often plug the gaps for other services that are missing in these communities, such as mental health services, family support and early intervention. Sometimes they are unable to attend further professional development because they do not have the casual staff to cover their teaching load.

Throughout the sector, many early childhood services are scrambling to run effectively. The sector has chronic staff shortages and high levels of burnout.

This has led to alarming rates of staff absenteeism due to increased workload and stress. The impact of this level of disruption and stress on children’s wellbeing and learning is still unfolding.

Despite welcome reforms to reduce the cost of early childhood education for families, staff shortages have increased during COVID as educator burnout has increased. Currently, there are over 6800 advertised positions for educators in Australia, double since the pandemic began. So, how did we get into such a mess?

To find out more about the challenges educators face, our international study explored educators’ work in five different countries. We also wanted to learn from other countries to improve policies and practices.

Australian educators’ experiences

In Australia, 51 surveyed educators told us about their experiences working in a sector in crisis. Additional data were collected from publicly available forums related to the publication of these findings. Predictably, most roads lead to gender

Women make up 92% of this workforce. As part of the feminised care sector, it features: 

financial abuse

“Educators were pushed to provide high quality … with minimal budget. I spent over $4,000 of my own money – not one cent reimbursed”.

“Book week, pirate day, Halloween – …centres force this onto staff. They want photo ops to market themselves on Facebook but expect staff to pay for …costumes. Unpaid overtime setting the rooms up”.

–extremely low pay

“One day I found one of them (educators) crying in the other room… she told me …she works double shifts and so tired but gets paid #%!@ all”.

low status

“Traditionally ‘women’s work’ so it’s undervalued”.

“Quality education begins with quality educators…(who) are valued”.

invisibility

“There is a lot of pressure on educators to meet the needs of others resulting in their own health being overlooked”.

-never being good enough

Early childhood teacher’s and educator’s… qualifications are far less valued”.

unpaid hours

“Too much work ‘from the love of your heart’”.

-chronic overwork

“So stressful due to the admin and recording”.

“Obscene documentation requirement from the government”.

-high stress

“It can be stressful to try and achieve all the goals and outcomes … in these frameworks”.

“All of us have stressful days… managing behavioural issues, parent’s demands and a lot of routine tasks”.

-poor staff morale

“Very low, strained and tired”.

-forced to conform to others’ ideals

“Educators … are … pressured to conform early education to one box”.

What could we learn from Canada?

Clearly, our highly privatised Australian system needs urgent reform. In the meantime, to support educators’ wellbeing, we might be able to learn from other countries.

Up to 50% of educators in British Columbia were leaving the sector in their first five years. To address this, an evaluated, funded peer support program is nurturing the wellbeing of educators. Unsurprisingly, this is reducing attrition.

Potentially, this research-based Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) could be adapted for Australia. It involves peer-mentoring within Community of Practice (CoP) groups.

Why is it so effective?

The program works because it:

-Gives educators a voice

The groups create a safe space for educators to discuss their professional and private lives without judgement or recrimination. An educator in the program said:

“It’s creating a safe place for vulnerability”.

-Supports educator health and wellbeing (self-care)

This is a major focus for the individual groups as educators explore ways to sustain their practice.  

“Our time together ‘filled my cup’, each sip of tea warming my insides … I felt refreshed mentally”.

-Creates a nurturing, connected community

The groups build a sense of belonging with like minded individuals, with mentoring from experienced educators. 

“I would describe the PMP program as going home, being with a group of people who … allow you to be the best version of yourself…”.

-Addresses invisibility

The program focuses on educators’ needs, not the needs of children and families.

“I’m educated … experienced … fulltime … as a woman, why is it okay that I’m at poverty level”?

“We have nothing to give if our OWN cups are empty”.

Post-pandemic bread and butter budget

So, how do we convince governments to fund such a program?

Now, Australian governments and early childhood services are spending a lot to attract, train and induct educators. Some of this money could be better spent supporting the wellbeing of educators in our existing workforce so we can retain them.

What Australia needs to change to keep educators

To reform the sector, Australians and our Government need to take a long hard look at the following: 

Do we value young children’s education and care during the critical first five years? Do we value those in the feminised care sectors enough to give them a fair go? If so, let’s address this crisis by making the necessary policy reforms to nurture, value and keep our educators. The 2023 Budget only partially addresses this.

Dr Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England. Professor Navjot Bhullar is a research-focused professor of Psychology (wellbeing focus) at Edith Cowan University. She is in the top 250 most cited researchers in Australia. Associate Professor Laura K. Doan is an associate professor of early childhood at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

Header image from Anne Aly’s Facebook page

Top of the pops: AARE’s Hottest Ten 2022

Thank you to all our contributors in 2022. We published over 100 blog posts this year from academics all over Australia, from research students to DECRA fellows, to deans and professors. Thank you all for being part of our community and many thanks to the AARE executive, especially newly-minted Professor Nicole Mockler.

Didn’t get to write this year? Want to contribute? Here are notes for contributors. Pitch to me at jenna@aare.edu.au.

The 2022 AARE EduResearch Matters blog of the year, announced at the AARE conference in Adelaide: “Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage”. La Trobe’s Babak Dadvand wrote a compelling account of one way to address the teacher shortage.

It is genuinely hard to choose the best because every single blog reveals new ideas and new thinking about education but I’ll just list our ten most read for 2022 (and of course, some of our older posts have racked up thousands and thousands of views). So many others were excellent and please look at our comprehensive archive.

Here we go! 2022 top ten.

Babak Dadvand on the teacher shortage.

Inger Mewburn: Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Debra Hayes: Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway: There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Marg Rogers: Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

Rachel Wilson: What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Simon Crook: More Amazing Secrets of Band Six (part two ongoing until they fix the wretched thing)

(And part one is now one of our most read posts of all-time)

Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes: The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne: No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Thank you to all of you for making this such a lovely community, looking forward to hearing from you and a special thank you to Maralyn Parker who has now been retired from the blog for two years but is still a fantastically supportive human when I need urgent help.

Jenna Price

We build submarines and the defence force. Now we must support the families who work in them


The Federal Government has plans to expand Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to a 40-year high. They hope to increase the forces by 30% (18,500 extra personnel by 2040), the biggest increase since the Vietnam War. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of children and parents impacted by military service. 

It won’t just be enough to recruit new soldiers, sailors and aviators – retention will also be critical and we know that Defence families play a key role here. Defence families are depended on to provide a crucial service to the ADF, often at significant cost to their own wellbeing. Defence families are mostly ‘invisible’ in our communities, and struggle to get access to the support and understanding they need.  

Our PhDs explored the experiences of young children and partners in defence families and sheds light into some of the factors affecting the ADF, military members, and their spouses, children and loved ones.

Dutiful housewife and children model

One of the major challenges is attracting and retaining staff because of the high demands of the job. The military is a ‘greedy institution’, demanding great sacrifice from the defence member and their family

Most Defence families are expected to relocate at least every 2 years. Frequent relocations, and absences from home, make it incredibly challenging for Defence families to have their own careers and supportive relationships within education settings, as the former Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton highlighted in comments earlier this year. The new federal government announced a funding boost to 48 community-based organisations providing value to defence families and building connections in July.

As Defence is recognising, the expectation of partners who need to sacrifice their own career to support the career of the ADF member is out of step with the vast majority of modern families with dual careers. It is also out of step with children who are connected to peers, educators and the wider community.

Over 73% of Australian couple families have two sources of income and women make up 19% of the ADF. The ADF seeks to be an employer of choice. 

Children are often quite connected to their extended family, and their community through extracurricular activities. Additionally, many build a sense of belonging and the sense of place within their education communities.

Perfect female partners and perfect children

There is pressure on partners of Defence members to perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role, which is at odds with modern society.

The model assumes ‘perfect partners’ will sacrifice not only their career, but will also dutifully perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role. They will not complain about the inconvenience of Defence life. For example, participants said they felt pressure to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ when they were having trouble during deployments. 

The model often requires families to give up access to sources of support which provide a protective buffer. These include extended family, friends within their community, educators, health care professionals and community groups. Additionally, access to specialist services may not be available where they are posted, or those services might not understand the experience of being a military family. 

Incorrect or outdated information about the support Defence families receive can have negative impacts, such as the perception that families receive free housing, as well as some more outlandish claims. For example, one participant said some of her friends thought she travelled on Air Force planes every time they went on holiday.

Children can also experience a lack of empathy from peers, and even teasing if they attend early childhood services or schools that have little experience with military families.

When families don’t receive the support and understanding they need from their communities, it can impact their willingness to stay associated with the military. 
Retention of highly trained members is difficult, with many personnel citing ‘family reasons’ when they leave. As one family explained

We had never planned for it to be Caleb’s career forever. In the end we chose to leave much earlier because of the promotion they offered him. This meant he was going to be away more often for training. When Jess turned 3 we realised Caleb had only been there 1 year of her life…(a) big issue for us. Caleb had missed the first soccer games and other big events in the children’s lives.

The military also makes enormous demands from spouses and families. Defence families have the impossible task of keeping each ‘institution’ (military and family) satisfied. 

This is especially the case when military members work away for months on deployment or lengthy training sessions. This leaves the partner to cope with their own careers, the needs of the children and run the household themselves. 

This is especially stressful when the children are younger and are less able to understand the sudden disappearance of a parent. Partners are dealing with their own responses, and the responses of their children which can sometimes feed off each other. Children’s responses vary, and can include a regression in physical, social, emotional and cognitive (learning) skills.

While time apart is challenging, reintegration is often harder, as the defence member tries to fit back into family life. The children and family have adapted and grown while they were away. 

He was really tired and tried sleeping during the day …. The kids … made really loud noises suddenly and he would be angry… it is hard because when you are on base you are with adults for 9 months…adults who are good at following orders. When he came home, he was dealing with a toddler and a pre-schooler.

… the kids were up to different stages so he was often babying them and they didn’t want to be babied. Nine months is a long time in a young child’s life and they changed a lot. He was also really upset by some of the parenting decisions I had made in his absence.

Some children emotionally protect themselves by not getting close to the parent who has been away. 

Sam had a rebellion against me …There was some nervousness about coming home and trying to fit back in with the children, especially after Sam’s episodes of not wanting to have anything to do with me.

Educators reported children were very clingly when their parent deployed, often reluctant to play with peers at first. They were also less able to cope with small moments of tension in play episodes and were likely to react emotionally.

Support for young children

Until recently, there was also a lack of Australian resources to assist young children understand transitions and stresses they faced within defence families. This showed a lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the sacrifices young children make within defence forces.

Just because very young children may not be able to say why they are upset, it matters to them when a parent is no longer available. Fortunately, funding has enabled free research-based resources to be created to help parents, educators and family/social workers better support young children. 

Apart from frequent relocations and parental deployment, some children can also experience a parent having service-related physical injuries, medical and mental health conditions. This has been highlighted in the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide which has also highlighted these barriers to recruitment.

Where to from here?

Effective recruitment and retention will need policy changes. To address attrition, this Recommendation Report called for policies to guarantee families with children could only be asked to relocate a maximum of 3 times from birth to 18. The report also recommended using a flexible model for deployment where parents deploy for longer but less often. In this model, training episodes can be built into the deployment to reduce transitions at home, reducing stress for children. 

This will also assist children to build strong and supportive relations with their educators, peers and community. This builds stronger, more resilient communities who have a greater capacity to support children from defence communities.

Additionally, greater awareness of modern military experiences in the community will benefit current and future families. This means better understanding for families as they access community services, including GPs and early childhood educators, who might not appreciate the challenges of deployment and frequent relocations.

Bios  

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England and the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She tweets at @MargRogers11 and you can find her on LinkedIn.

Amy Johnson is a lecturer in journalism and public relations at CQ University. Her current research projects include the Early Childhood Defence Project, which develops research-based, free online resources for educators and parents to better support young children from Australian military families as well as projects which enhance veterans and family’s wellbeing. Amy has lived experience of military service as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy (Reserve) and the partner of an ADF veteran. She tweets at @AmyJohnsonPhD and you can find her on LinkedIn.

The top five ways COVID places harsher burdens on educators. There’s an urgent need for change

COVID has caused commotion in the early childhood education and care sector since it arrived in 2020. It made educators  more stressed and added burdens to those already overburdened

The current level of chaos is unsustainable as shown in our research with Australian directors from long daycare centres, community preschools and family daycare services.

Six directors from rural and regional areas in NSW participated in the study. In their hour-long interview, the directors revealed stressors within the sector related to the pandemic in a number of areas. Here are the top five.

  1. Health regulations

As the COVID virus changes and governments try different methods to suppress the virus, early childhood directors and educators have tried to keep up with evolving regulations on a daily basis. To date, this has meant continually searching government websites to find the rules, watching media reports, reading government emails, attending webinars and reading text messages, adding to their daily workload and already onerous administrative requirements. 

As the health crisis unfolded, text message updates from government departments regularly came through very late on a Friday afternoon and again on a Sunday afternoon. This meant directors had to spend chunks of time on their weekend trying to decipher the information and then act upon it, including sending on important updates and communications to staff and parents outside work hours.  

Directors mentioned the added burden this required of having to constantly ensure lists of phone numbers were up to date so they could immediately contact staff, cleaners and parents if their centre was locked down. This led to a state of hypervigilance for some directors. 

Additionally, one government department required educators to attend a webinar when most community service educators were on mandated leave. No compensation was offered to educators for these unpaid hours. Since educators are the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia, it is unreasonable to request they attend training sessions during their annual leave.

Educators said: 

‘We were fine to wear masks in and out of the service – greeting parents. We were greeting parents at the gate, they were handing over their children’

‘It came in that you …had to wear a mask not outside, but inside when you were working with children, unless there was a child with a hearing challenge or there was a specific need for a child to see your face moving. I said to staff, actually, that’s all children all of the time.’

2. Staffing

Staffing has been much harder during the pandemic. Directors reported the numbers of children attending changed dramatically because of lockdowns, community outbreaks, families’changing needs and government rule changes. At one time, the government waived fees for everyone in childcare, so many families who didn’t normally access care enrolled, causing more changes in attendance and more administrative burden.

While the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme helpfully supported permanent staff, some casual educators did not receive the government payments. This meant that many casual staff left the sector. Directors reported that when asked to return, some of them didn’t want to lose the government payment which was far more generous than what they normally earned as an early childhood educator.

Staff rostering has also taken longer to organise during the various phases of the pandemic. Permanent staff have had to be given time to work with the children attending, time to work online with children, and then time to engage in professional development. Some services had to close because too many educators were considered close contacts of covid cases.

Additionally, time has had to be spent training educators on how to work with different technologies and with changing hygiene requirements. Staff have needed extra support with their own anxieties about catching the virus and working in a new way with masks with young children.

Educators commented:

‘We … stood down our casual staff, but… most of them could access the COVID payment … but it’s still difficult and we’ve actually spent this week changing staff round from room to room and putting the children together in one room’.

’The first week, we hardly had any children there. But by the second week, almost like 98 per cent.’

‘We had several vulnerable staff members had family members or themselves (with) autoimmune conditions that made them more vulnerable, ….. others had elderly parents in nursing homes’.

 ‘We’ve had different rosters for cleaning.

3. Informing and supporting families

Directors and educators have needed to be able to share the constantly changing and often confusing government regulations with parents, including which professions have been incorporated in the category of ‘essential workers’. 

The guidelines have not been clear, leaving directors with  difficult decision-making. Directors have reported spending time searching government websites trying to find clear definitions and rules to have evidence that their decisions were grounded on government guidelines. They have also needed to manage parents’ reactions to these decisions.

Educators said:

‘We’ve been trying to encourage families not to bring their children in …unless they’re an essential worker, which people have been really good about’.

‘If you’re a mum at home with five kids, you’re actually an essential worker as well’.

‘We shared resources that we were using with them (the children) and we even supplied families with some of those ideas around how to talk to their children. Parents (asked)… how do I explain this?’

4. Managing change and budgets

Some directors have faced challenging financial constraints and pressure from organisational managers. This included justifying the work and training their educators who were balancing that with the viability of the service. 

Additional costs for hygiene and cleaning have had to be absorbed by services, whereas many education departments provided schools with extra cleaning staff to help them. 

Educators explained:

‘COVID’s been a little bit different, because it’s been like a little bit like a stop-start routine’.

‘We wore the cost of that (reduction in attendance) for the first term. So, no families were asked to pay any fees. Then by second term, the State Government had stepped up and brought in the free preschool’. 

‘We spoke to the department early this time and said, look, we’re getting a whole lot of different messages. What’s required? We’ve been proactive in getting in touch with the department…even they are juggling balls at the moment’.

 ‘Some staff members that wanted things cleaned twice a day’.

5. Status

On the positive side, educators revealed that families were more supportive and appreciative of educators during the pandemic. Despite this, educators were disappointed they were not recognised as essential workers in media coverage. This is even when they had continued working throughout the pandemic, staying open for children of essential workers. Being valued, respected and visible has been important to educators, as well as solidarity with other educators.

They explained:

‘I think it’s a good opportunity for the policymakers and the leaders to actually have a little bit of a voice for us as well and just show that we are out here. We’re visible. But everyone’s doing the best job they can, so my hat goes off to everyone wherever they are and to all my colleagues everywhere’.

‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.

A need for change

Overall, directors talked about exhaustion of their staff and being unable to keep going with this level of work in an overloaded sector. Clearly, something needs to change. 

Recently, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, called for radical reform of childcare, which could affect other states. The Thrive by Five campaign is petitioning the government to prioritise significant reform. As this study has shown, it is not time to renovate the sector, we need a whole childcare rebuild.

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education within the School of Education.  Marg is the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She also leads an international team of researchers from Denmark, Canada and Georgia to investigate the impacts of regulated systems on about educators’ work. Twitter @MargRogers11

Associate Professor Wendy Boyd works as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University. Wendy is highly regarded in the early childhood field and researches in a number of areas, including educator professionalism. Wendy’s research focuses on provision of quality early childhood programs to support the optimal development of all children.

Professor Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

As the Omicron virus leaves thousands of families without childcare, because hundreds of early childhood services have been forced to close, early childhood educators are in demand. Previously there was around 30% turnover in the sector, but a 2021 survey of 4000 educators revealed 73% planned to leave in the next three years.

A multinational study I am leading listened to 51 Australian educators who had a range of qualifications and positions in different types of services. Additional data was gathered from publicly available online forums in response to other research-based news articles I have published from the study.

The study has shed light on the hidden costs of being an educator in Australia, many of which have increased during COVID. Here are five hidden costs the educators revealed.

  1. Hidden cost of resources

Educators talked about the extra costs to buy resources for their service that were not reimbursed. An educator commented

‘Educators were pushed to provide high-quality education and care with a minimal budget, and the centre manager received a personal bonus for not spending different budgets. I spent over $4000 of my own money on resources, with not one cent reimbursed. There needs to be more control of private companies and how they treat educators’.

Publicly available forum posts from partners of educators revealed extra costs of outfits, props and craft materials some educators had to purchase themselves, then create them in their own time at home. These items were for special themed days, which help promote the services programs via posts to Facebook and apps for families. 

They reported that the children and staff posed in these costumes and props, which were popular on social media. These specified ‘days’ are often standard across private providers as they commodify education. One educator said the government should ‘Stop the privateers making their centres like Starbucks factories’

These hidden costs for educators are alarming, given the 2021 report that uncovered the $14 billion spent on the sector each year, 80% ($11.2 billion) of which is funded by taxpayers. In addition, a $292 million turnover was reported by the five biggest companies.

  1. Hidden identity and self-worth

Educators revealed that despite being essential workers, they are essentially invisible and ignored. Invisibility is a feature of female-dominated professions, such as early childhood, where 91% of the workforce are female. 

Educators are sidelined in curriculum documents written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Their strengths and interests are not mentioned despite being a key feature of educators valued relationships with children and parents. 

Instead, the documents are filled with ways the educator should constantly reflect and improve themselves and their practice, highly valued practises in Western neoliberal nations. While professional reflection is important, it needs to be balanced with acknowledging the efforts, abilities and successes educators have. Instead, the documents instruct the educator to respect and work with the strengths and interests of the children, and the strengths of the parents.

The underlying message for educators is that they are never quite good enough, even when they are trying their best in a highly pressured work environment. Women are exposed to a similar mantra via the fashion and beauty industries as they sell the need to be prettier, taller, skinnier and more fashionable.

In this study, educators said governments should give educators ‘respect as professionals’ and ‘lift  the professional standing by increasing (the) pay of educators and promote the importance of early childhood education’.

Figure 1: Gender related issues in the early childhood sectoror
  1. Hidden relationship costs

The extra hours and stress educators were expected to do contributed to relationship stress at home, especially during accreditation. Educators commented that it was not sustainable and made them want to quit. They said

‘(My relationships were) strained due to fatigue.

More work at home meant less time with my partner.

It made me very stressed and overwhelmed.

I feel like at times I have no work-life balance’.

  1. Hidden unhappiness

Other educators exposed the managerial systems that dominate their daily work meant they were drowning in paperwork, checklists, documentation and regulation. This caused unhappiness because they felt micromanaged through the government’s demands that require them to collect big data every day. 

They also said they felt micromanaged by the supervisors who completed these daily tasks in a time-pressured environment. One said, ‘I ended up resigning from my position as the top-down approach of management no longer agreed with my teaching philosophy’.

The system also reduced morale, especially during accreditation (Assessment and Rating) every three years. Only 4% of educators said accreditation improved the quality of education at their service, but most revealed it made staff and children unhappy. Accreditation also took them away from interacting with children, which is the key to quality education in early childhood services.

Realising the importance of these interactions, educators actively tried to protect the children against the harmful effects of accreditation (a system that was designed to improve quality). Unfortunately, this meant more work after hours because they had to take the paperwork home in order to teach the children.

Figure 2: The impacts of managerial systems in early childhood education
  1. Hidden hours 

Despite being the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia, regular unpaid overtime is rife within the sector. The unpaid hours are extreme during accreditation, with 50% saying they worked after hours. 

Some reported being paid for only half of the hours they worked, even asking family members to provide unpaid help, revealing the extent of this modern-day slavery. Educators talked about the effect of accreditation on their personal relationships, saying

‘Stress was felt at home by my children and husband; this is why he came and helped at the centre so that I could stop being cranky and overworked at home’.

However, this  free labour is at odds with the million-dollar salaries of some CEOS and  handsome shareholder dividends in the biggest childcare companies. Australia has one of the highest rates of privatisation of childcare in the world. The 2021 report by Bigsteps into the sector uncovered:

‘Financialisation of ECEC has seen the worst excesses of Australian corporate culture including wage theft, aggressive tax avoidance and other misconduct creep into the sector. 

Despite receiving generous COVID relief payments and availing themselves of JobKeeper, four of the six largest for-profit ECEC providers paid no tax in 2020’. 

Hidden complications that stop reform

A significant reform of the sector is needed. However, reforming the industry is enormously complex because of the mismatched mess of funding and compliance shared between federal and state governments. This tangled web means it is more challenging to reduce costs for parents and improve wages because nobody takes responsibility.

Figure 3: Funding and regulation in Australian early childhood education and care

Another complicating factor is the mix of private, community and not for profit services. Educators are likely to be paid more in community and not for profit services, with 70-80% of their revenue spent on wages. However, as little as 54% is spent by privately-owned services. 

One educator called for ‘more control of private centres’ to reveal what they are doing. Educators showed their frustrations, saying

‘My options include selling out to the greedy large corporations where the directors and educators do not know their children or families. They get exceeding ratings because outsourced marketing gurus write up a perfect marketing plan’.

‘We are burnt out and are leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.

Despite these problems, the Thrive by Five campaign continues to be a beacon of hope as they petition the government for significant reform. Even NSW Premier Domonic Perrottet has flagged the need for substantial reform, which could have major implications for all states and territories. 

When our governments plan for a better future, they could learn from an African proverb that reminds us that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, but the second best time is now. The best time for major childcare reform is right now, before we lose more of its most precious resources, our educators. 

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families.

Want To Know How To Get Funding For Your Project? We Talked To Stakeholders. Here’s What We Discovered.

Designing a research project that engages well with stakeholders is held up as the gold star when applying for funding. And we all know how competitive it is to get funding, so getting it right is key. 

If we don’t engage well with stakeholders, we risk having a project that doesn’t meet the needs of the people, organisations or communities we are trying to serve. Also, the success of a project is often measured by how well the project team have engaged with stakeholders. So, how do we engage in a meaningful way?

Our research project has been exploring a variety of ways to engage with different groups of stakeholders in our 3-year online community education project. Our research team is learning a lot about stakeholder engagement along the way and adapting our methods. We are keen to share what we have learnt.

Who did we engage with stakeholders?

We surveyed parents from defence families, educators and family workers to ask them what should be included in our funded project and what types of resources they thought would work best. We also engaged with experts in the field, such as Legacy staff and volunteers, psychology and social work academics, experienced educators and veteran parents.

What is stakeholder engagement?

Stakeholder engagement is sometimes called community engagement. It is a continuous collaboration with people:

  1. who will be affected by the project, or
  2. who are close to the project (geographically or through shared interests).

How do you work with stakeholders?

The key to the success of a project is how well the project team can identify and gather all the different interests of the stakeholders and manage through them.

Who are our stakeholders?

Knowing who your stakeholders are is a key starting point for engaging effectively. Stakeholders can be:

  • the end users of the program (in our project, children from military families and their educators, parents and family workers), and
  • those interested in governance (our steering committee)
  • those with influence (organisations such as Legacy and the Defence Community Organisation)
  • those who provide resources (our funders: The Ian Potter Foundation and the University of New England)

What’s a good framework for stakeholder engagement?

Figure1: Stakeholder conceptual framework for ECDP (from Rogers et. al., 2021)

It helps our research team to use this framework for engagement. We aim to:

  1. communicate effectively and often (using a variety of methods)
  2. consult with stakeholders early in the project (start when planning the project)
  3. identify stakeholders’ limitations (What will hold them back? How can we help them to interact?)
  4. have a plan for engagement (the research team should discuss and plan)
  5. work on our relationships (take an active interest in stakeholders and let them know how much you value their input and support)

How do we engage well?

Engaging well with stakeholders will look different for every project. In our Early Childhood Defence Programs (ECDP) project, we have focussed on the areas shown in this diagram.

Figure 2: Stakeholder engagement for the ECDP project (from Rogers et. al., 2021)

Types of engagement

There are many ways to engage well with stakeholders. The ECDP project uses a variety of methods, including:

  • social media posts 1) Facebook: linking project progress with current events (e.g. Children’s Week, Anzac Day) 2) Twitter: highlighting academic publications related to the project
  • media engagement (in publications that our stakeholders might read)
  • surveys to get ideas for our programs and resources (targeting parents, educators and family workers)
  • website (for project information, goals, progress, plans, events and draft resources)
  • stakeholder committee meetings (twice a year via video conference)
  • liaison with funders and influences (for advice and ideas)
  • funding reports (formal and informal)
  • presentations (at research events and interagency meetings, then uploading these to our website)
  • funding applications (with influencers for project extensions and future projects)
  • competitions (to engage with stakeholders and community contributions to the project)
  • providing resources (for children, parents and family workers, educators, those supporting children with special needs, academics and policy makers)

What are the benefits of opening the door?

The benefits of opening the door to stakeholders have been both predictable and surprising for the ECDP project.

Predictably we have gained:

  • fresh ideas,
  • ways to strengthen the project,
  • better ways to solve problems,
  • allies,
  • new networks of support,
  • advice
  • refinement of our work
  • a closer engagement with our end users, and
  • new knowledge.

We were surprised to gain:

  • a higher level of interest from stakeholders than predicted
  • an increased sense of direction
  • regular bursts of praise, appreciation and enthusiasm, leading to
  • energy and project momentum.

What are the challenges?

Time and energy. Our research team is made up of academics and academics are time poor. Academics work in a space that is demanding more of their time than ever before.

Due to a very limited project budget, we have chosen to use a very low-cost website and manage all social media engagement. This takes a lot of time and energy.

Figure 3: ECDP logo from our website

Engaging well with our stakeholders in all the ways we do takes stamina. Overall, we have found it to be well worth the effort. Our social media following is growing steadily, and this might help us recruit participants for our control trials.

‘When you open up the door to let the wind in, the dust follows’ according to the Vietnamese proverb. We have found this to be true when we have had to deal with spam, bots and bizarre online comments. Luckily, this has been rare.


Our research team doesn’t think the ECDP project would ever be immune to irrelevance, but we think our efforts are helping us avoid meaningless outcomes. Making sure our project stays relevant to our stakeholders is a work in progress and one we really enjoy. We also believe it gives our project strength, direction and purpose.

Marg Rogers is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families, professionalism, and narratives.

Early childhood help for children of deployed military personnel

One parent shared with me that she was told ‘You’re just on your own until they go to school. There’s nothing out there’. She was part of my research project to find out what 2-5-year old children understand and experience when their parent worked away due to military deployment and training.

During the project many other parents and early childhood educators repeated this problem, telling me about the lack of resources. They told me they wanted storybooks and apps for children from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families to help them understand and build resilience to deal with the stresses they face.

These stresses include: long parental deployments, frequent parental training, frequent relocations and a parent who may get injured or suffer mental health conditions when they return. Children can react to parental deployment in many ways, including  emotionally, socially, physically and in their learning and development (cognitively).

The responses are shown in the infograph below, however, many families are able to use supports around them and adapt and try to cope in different ways.

Early childhood programs

During the research project, the activities I did with the children involved reading them storybooks I had created about defence families. These were used as a springboard to start group chats, artwork, craftwork, raps, puppet play and role play that focussed on their experiences, understandings and feelings about their parent working away.

During the project, an educator said, ‘I want programs like this in all the early childhood services and schools to help the children cope’, referring to the research activities. ‘It helps the children to be able to understand and verbalise what is upsetting them, rather than just whining and crying’.

Our first efforts

To begin to address this need, I published online, two research-based eBooks  for free, called ‘Waiting for Daddy: Rose’s story’ and ‘Now that I am big: Anthony’s story’.

Click on the image to access the free e-book
Click on the image to access the free e-book

Another parent had requested I create an app, saying her daughter had used a US app about military families which the daughter really enjoyed, but the parent said it was not culturally appropriate for Australian children because the context and uniforms were quite different. So, one of the eBooks was chosen to be developed into a free app for iPads. To do this, I joined with an early childhood technology specialist,  Dr Jo Bird, an IT technician, Raph Roberts and a media designer, Trish Donald from the University of New England (UNE) to create ‘Rose’s story’ app.

Click on the image to access the free iPad app

To support early childhood educators, I also published newsletter articles to communicate ideas to  partner with parents when they work away, and how to use various activities to gather the voices of very young children, as I had done in the research project.

For parents, I also published academic media articles about ways to support young children when they have a parent who works away. To further support military families, I published a recommendations report for policy makers, educators, family workers, social workers, and education liaison officers within the ADF.

A bigger response

After these efforts, I decided a more coordinated approach was needed and put together an educational research team, combined with a support team of technicians, digital media learning designers and parent, educator, research and community volunteers, with plans to create 2 free, online programs.

One program will be for educators and another for parents to support 2-5-year old children from defence families (see here for details). Our project then received funding from The Ian Potter Foundation and in-kind funding from the University of New England.

Timelines

We will be creating the programs in 2020 and early 2021, then trialling and evaluating them in 2021-2022. This will involve piloting the programs with parents and educators in early childhood services near navy, army and airforce bases. To register your interest in being involved in these control trials, please email us at ecdefenceprograms@une.edu.au . Once we refine the programs and resources, they will be released for free online by February 2023 in order to better support these young children to build resilience and have the opportunity to flourish.

Can you give us some ideas?

To make sure we create the best programs we can, we are asking educators who have experience working with children whose parents work away and parents from families who experience a parent working away to share some of the strategies with us. We are also asking them to let us know what topics they would like to see covered in the programs and which types of resources they would like the children to use.

There is also a place for feedback on the website for any community suggestions or comments. Please join with us to help make this project a success.

Marg Rogers is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education team within the School of Education at the University of New England, Armidale. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5 year olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families. The programs are to assist them with parental separation during deployment and training and when the parents return with injuries and mental health conditions. She also researches professionalism in early childhood, creative arts education in early childhood and works with Dr Jo Bird in researching early childhood technologies.

Personal photos in images are supplied by defence families and ADF personnel