Can we change the story on inclusion in early childhood education?
Overcrowded classrooms create stress for young learners and teachers, and prevent educators from providing individualised approaches
Stressed, under-resourced and unqualified. Teachers in early childhood education and care (ECEC) across Europe and Central Asia have warned us: large class sizes and lack of confidence, resources and knowledge about supporting children with disabilities or complex needs make it impossible to ensure that all children have the benefit of early learning.
The TALIS Starting Strong survey found that ECEC teachers experienced high stress related to their working environments and an inability to support the most marginalised children. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and the associated limitation of children’s social engagement and stimulation have resulted in developmental delays among (and increased the need for intensive individual support for) children, and further exacerbated teacher stress levels.
A study found that half of Bulgaria’s teachers reported low confidence in working with children with disabilities, even when they had received formal training – which is particularly problematic because approximately 5,900 Bulgarian children with specific educational needs are enrolled in kindergartens considered unable to support their needs.
Overcrowded classrooms create stress for young learners and teachers, and prevent educators from providing individualised approaches. Long work hours with little planning time increases pressure on educators, limiting their ability to prepare to manage their learners’ needs. Lack of continuous professional development prevents teachers from building relevant skills, knowledge, innovations in approach and opportunities for peer-to-peer exchange – all of which support inclusive practices.
ECEC teachers have a crucial role to play in meaningful inclusion, but expectations of the ECEC workforce are unrealistic: they are expected to be carers, educators, administrators, parental counsellors, nurses and social workers while also helping young minds thrive. Evidence shows that ECEC settings that foster inclusion and quality of care for the youngest learners also support educators’ confidence in their profession and ability.
Meaningful inclusion involves teams of experts supporting families and children in a ‘one family – one plan’ approach from birth to entry into ECEC, throughout early education and beyond. Services coordinated through the health, education and social welfare sectors have the best chance of improving quality of life for children with disabilities or complex needs, for their families and for the well-being of educators who support them.
This approach has supported children like three-year-old Silvia in Bulgaria to access inclusive ECEC.
For real inclusion in preschool and kindergarten, there must be a support system for educators, to provide them with information, training and reassurance so they can improve their capacities, mental health and well-being. This can be achieved through policies for supportive teaching conditions; strong ECEC management; leadership that fosters collaboration and a culture of care; relevant, quality training and skill-building opportunities; close links with families and communities; and the provision of specialised support that uses the ECEC centre as a base for engaging children and their educators.
UNICEF is working in countries across Europe on the Child Guarantee Phase III programme. This led to the initiation of Together from the Kindergarten in Bulgaria, which introduced inclusive early education via a whole-school approach to strengthen support mechanisms and the environment. A vital part of this work included bolstering the teachers themselves, strengthening their knowledge and capacities, and having specialists support teachers in their daily work. Through this model, educators improve their understanding of children’s needs and can update their practices accordingly. They also benefit from sharing responsibilities, receiving counselling and guidance on complex cases and having more classroom support. This results in improved educator well-being as well as more inclusive practices.
What better way to ensure that we give the best care to our children than by giving the best care to those who look after our children?
This article was originally published on the European School Education Platform, European Commission.