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Early Childhood Education: What Role do Educators Play in Identifying Areas of Concern?

By Megan Daly and Emily Hanlon

So often, I get questions from parents of toddlers and young children, concerned about behaviour at preschool/daycare.

What’s tricky about this age group is that young children are curious, easily distracted, very keen on being independent (even when they don't know how to be), and are still developing their emotional regulation skills. Behaviours such as tantrums, habits, lying and anxiety/avoidance, defiance, arguing, and attention seeking are all annoying as HELL for parents and educators...but they can also be signs of very normal child development. Furthermore, when it comes to social and emotional development in pre school, we need to remember that this is a huge learning curve for kids and often kids are in classes with kids two years older or younger than them so the behaviour we see is a reflection of a wide range of ages as well.

As with anything, ‘behaviour’ is only a problem if it is a problem for the school. Our daycare doesn't tell me each time my son hits someone because they know that all kids hit. If it is something they need to tell me, they will. Often, if we tell parents every single incident, it does nothing but stress the parents out.

It’s difficult to simply list behaviours of concern because they are are going to vary. For some it may be hitting and biting, and for others it could be throwing things or running across the road. For me, when we are talking about pre schoolers, a behaviour becomes a behaviour of concern if the typical strategies such as talking to them, modelling, reading books on the topic, visuals, etc don't seem to be making any difference. That being said, children are GOING to hit, they are GOING to yell, they are GOING to snatch. This is all developmentally normal and we need to be mindful that we don’t over pathologies them.

To gain the perspective of what it is like for educators, I asked Megan Daly, early childhood educator, some questions to help us understand how pre schools may keep track of things, and what they look out for. Specifically, Megan shares the following insight on what educators look out for and what their referral process may be if they are flagging areas of concern with a child:

‘I am an ECT teaching in a 3 year old class. We have 3 educators in the room (including myself) with 19 children this year. At the start of the year, I go through all the enrolment forms and about my child forms to see if the families have any concerns about development or behaviours and note them and share with other educators. As an educator, we use this only as a guide as we all know that children are different for their parents/families.

It would be very rare for our services to make any referrals in the first term as this is the first time all the children have been in this education and care service (unless they are siblings and might of attended drop off/pickup and events) and they only come 1 day per week at the moment. Our first term goal is to build relationships, connections and make the children feel safe, secure and supported. We do this by providing a play based program, lots of repetition, a daily routine visual board, visual for all transitions and visual for group times (cross legs, put up your hand etc).

During the first term, the educator are taking observations and reflecting on the children at the end of each day. If we have concerns they are noted during this time (speech, behaviour or developmental). If there is a pattern emerging for a child we try and brainstorm solutions and monitor the results. If there is no or little improvement we will investigate further using various screeners.

We use the learn2communicate language screener which assess receptive, expressive language as well as articulate. This is usually one of the first screeners we do. As we are in rural NSW and currently don’t have access to a speech therapist, I have been referring all my child that show difficulties in one or all areas of communication to the community health intake service and providing a list of private speech therapist. Even if the child has only got a few age appropriate articulation difficulties, it’s better to be on the waiting lists and cancel rather than thinking they will get there eventually and than not and waiting another 12 months or 2 years to be seen.

It terms of developmental milestones we use the ACECQA development milestones outlines

We also use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire for development and social-emotional. These screeners identify areas of concern and indicate where educators can provided experience to develop the child’s needs or needs referring to a GP or another Allied health service. We also recommend that the families take their child to the maternal health nurse as this is a free service and they can do developmental milestones testing. Our service also has a good relationship with Intereach.

So if I child is having difficulties in 2 areas such as language and emotional regulation, we would recommend our families go and speak with them and apply for NDIS funding as we don’t have access to any local Allied Health professionals. We facilitate these meetings from our services and provide observation and documentation to help with the process. We also write letters for the families to take with them to the GP to get an appointment for a paediatrician, which is also a 12 months wait or a referral to the Royal Far West if the child has a lot of concerns. All referrals are written using a strength based approach. All referrals are made on observations and not made lightly.

As for what do ECT look for? I tend to take a holistic approach. So is it important that your child can’t hop, or can they just not hop, yet? Is that the only area that is of concern or is ALL areas. What can I implement for the child using their interest to provide, support and extend their needs. I reflect on my own practices, was that too hard?, were there too many steps? Was it boring for that child?

At the end of the day my red flags for a child would be: can they follow a one-step instructions with out the use of a visual, are they mostly in control of the social and emotional regulation, can they resist from being impulsive (most of the time), can they communicate their needs in an age appropriate manner.’

What I love about Megan’s answer here is that she has made a clear distinction between whether a child can’t do something, or simply can’t do it YET, and this is key to ensuring we are not over pathologising children and stressing parents out. Interestingly, Megan has noted that referrals are higher now than they have been in her 17 years in the industry. I find this fascinating, and wonder whether it has to do with lockdowns and the two years of isolation children experienced, the awareness we now have of developmental milestones, environmental factors, or a mix of all three! Regardless, early childhood educators are doing an incredible job with our kids, and they most definitely do not get the recognition they deserve!

Thank you Megan for your invaluable insight!!

Image Creator: Paul Orlando | Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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