1. Why this theme?
Recently, "expertness" has become requisite for ECEC teachers more than ever. This is also indicated in the government's current childcare guidelines, which state that nursery teachers should be responsible for enhancing their expertness. In general, ECEC teachers acquire expertness through teacher training schools and onsite experiences. Then, what kind of expertness is specifically required nowadays? One example is that when coordination in childcare, kindergarten, and elementary school is required, teachers should be able to review and adjust childcare practices from infancy through to childhood. We regard such ability as being expertness. The ability to capture ongoing childcare needs for a longer span of time is essential for ECEC teachers in the fields of child welfare and early education. In the case of children with special needs, another type of expertness will be needed to ensure inclusive childcare. Furthermore, considering the government's policies, knowledge of medical care may be considered as part of the expertness required for ECEC teachers.
As you can see, the concept of expertness is subject to change over time. So then, how do ECEC teachers acquire such expertness in their career path? In other words, how do they achieve professional growth as ECEC teachers? There have been various studies on the expertise of ECEC teachers. In particular, "years of teaching experience" are considered to be one of the most critical factors for their growth. Everyone may agree on this point. However, from my standpoint as a person in professional development, teaching ECEC teacher candidates at a training school, I feel that the factor of "years of teaching experience" alone is not enough to acquire expertness. Numerous researchers have conducted studies by evaluating ECEC teachers' skills according to the length of their childcare experience, starting with their graduation from a teacher training school. However, from my experience in teaching students who are ECEC teacher candidates, it is evident that the previous twenty years of their lives significantly affects their value and perspectives towards children. In other words, they may already have established a conceptual foundation for childcare practices before they start their teaching career. Unfortunately, not many studies have been done to examine this topic closely. Nevertheless, this point may be an important factor when thinking about teacher training in the future.
2. What is the expertise of ECEC teachers?
To evaluate the progress of expertness acquired by ECEC teachers, the term "expertise" may be used. The concept of expertise was originally proposed in the field of psychology of learning, which refers to the development of various types of knowledge and skills in a particular domain of interest through experiences. For example, I recall seeing a carpenter working near my house and marking a straight line on timber building materials. The carpenter pulled a string from an inkpot and instantly drew a straight line on the plank by plucking the string with his fingers. I was fascinated by his mastery of this skill. It may be easier to grasp the idea of "expertise," if you think of it as acquiring such a mastery of skills.
However, it should be noted that the form of expertise for ECEC teachers may differ from that of carpenters. To conceptualize the process of acquiring expertise, there is the term "adaptive expertise." According to Hatano et al. (1984), there are two courses of expertise, that is, "routine expertise" and "adaptive expertise." Routine expertise is the ability to learn a procedure and apply that procedure to solve a problem faster. Just imagine you are working as a cashier at a supermarket. The longer you work and the more experience you gain, the faster and more accurately you can input figures. In contrast, adaptive expertise is the ability to learn a procedure and then flexibly apply that procedure to solve problems in novel situations. In the case of ECEC teachers, they acquire adaptive expertise through their daily childcare practices.
Then, what aspects of expertise acquired by ECEC teachers have been identified so far? According to Takahama (2000), there are certain differences in the expertise of ECEC teachers according to the length of their teaching experience. She conducted a survey by interviewing ECEC teachers and asking them how to manage certain situations which they might feel are difficult. The results revealed that novice teachers were more likely to look at children from a single perspective. In contrast, expert teachers tried to understand children in multiple contexts, such as the factors of classroom/family environments. In addition, expert teachers tend to consider children's behavior patterns as personal differences. These tendencies indicate typical adaptive expertise to be acquired by ECEC teachers.
Understanding the expertise of ECEC teachers is important for several reasons. First, such understanding may provide clues regarding how to conduct "recurrent education"* (i.e., lifelong learning). Second, this also provides clues for how to run a "childcare conference" (a meeting where ECEC teachers gather and exchange opinions to gain understanding about children and improve childcare practices). As I mentioned previously, if novice teachers are more likely to look at children from a single perspective, the role of expert teachers is to suggest new perspectives for novice teachers. Childcare conferences are one possibility but there may also be other opportunities to exchange opinions and views. Therefore, we should consider what kind of settings are needed to provide such opportunities.
3. The expertise of ECEC teachers engaged in care of children with special needs
Next, I will discuss the expertise of ECEC teachers who take care of children with special needs. These teachers are likely to encounter experiences they will never or rarely have in childcare for typically developed children. For example, they need to collaborate with external professional institutions such as child development support centers. In addition, they need to understand the characteristics of each disability. For example, one of the characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders is that they demonstrate persistent behavior, such as keeping a miniature car tire spinning endlessly. Parents of autistic children feel difficulty in understanding such behavior, which may increase their mental burden in childrearing. Therefore, ECEC teachers should find a way to work with these parents to understand the behavior of autistic children. Such experiences can enhance the professional growth of ECEC teachers who care for children with special needs. However, there may also be some ECEC teachers who cannot handle such experiences appropriately, and as a result, feel stressed and overburdened.
I have conducted a survey on the expertise of ECEC teachers. The purpose of this survey is to understand how they acquire expertise through experience in taking care of children with special needs and how ECEC schools ensure internal collaborations among teachers. I will explain the survey results as follows.
Methodology: Eleven daycare/kindergarten teachers participated in this survey. All of them had up to five years of working experience. I conducted an interview with each of them, asking about their challenges and achievements in terms of the following five factors: (1) direct support for children, (2) support for parents, (3) cooperation with external institutions, (4) internal collaborative systems, and (5) general knowledge on the care of children with special needs. Although I obtained diverse analytical results, here I will explain my general findings and some important factors.
Results: First, I will explain my general findings. Novice ECEC teachers answered that they felt uncertain in many ways when taking care of children with special needs. Their concerns include that they were unable to interact with each child sufficiently although they wanted to do so, were unsure about children's developmental tasks, and so on. In addition, most teachers were unsure how to deal with their parents. They had no idea how, when, and where to report children's troublesome behavior (which ECEC teachers could not handle) to parents. However, such concerns will not necessarily be considered negatively. On the contrary, they received support from their colleagues through conversations as well as advice from external professionals at training courses and collaborative institutions. As a result, they could objectively re-evaluate their perspectives towards children. I call this process "objectivity experiences." By objectifying their views and through ongoing interactions with children, ECEC teachers came to understand children and parents in multiple contexts. They also recognized the importance of looking at things from a long-term standpoint. As a result, they became able to think about their classroom as well as the entire school. Next, I will explain some important factors identified in this survey.
(1) Support of senior ECEC teachers
The majority of ECEC teachers answered that they were uncertain about various things when taking care of children. However, they were most encouraged by support from senior ECEC teachers. They said they were able to re-think their approach to children with special needs through consultations with senior ECEC teachers. These answers were in accord with my expectations. Furthermore, they answered that they were under the "benevolent watch" of senior ECEC teachers. Novice teachers usually did not receive direct instructions but could consult senior teachers whenever they had any trouble. Because of this system, novice teachers could have room to relax a little. Considering their answers, it seems essential to have the support of senior teachers who give advice whenever needed, instead of just instructing them on how to treat children with special needs. Novice ECEC teachers may face various uncertain things when caring for children with special needs, which can lead to their professional growth. Nevertheless, they might feel stressed and overburdened if they cannot receive support from senior teachers. In other words, the existence of senior teachers is one important factor that contributes to the professional growth of novice teachers. Senior teachers play an important role by not only teaching what to do but also mentally supporting novice teachers.
(2) Importance of informal interactions
On what occasions do novice ECEC teachers solve their problems in caring for children with special needs? One of the possible solutions is to participate in meetings and conferences, such as a class meeting (a meeting of class teachers and assistant teachers), a staff meeting, and a meeting of infant class teachers. However, the results of this survey revealed that novice ECEC teachers tended to solve their problems through informal interactions with colleagues. Informal interactions mean casual conversations during lunchtime, after-class cleaning time (in the case of kindergartens), or when they decorate the classroom walls. In formal settings such as teacher meetings, novice teachers tend to feel embarrassed to speak out. Therefore, it is difficult for them to explain their concerns and obtain various points of advice and viewpoints (i.e., objectivity experience). However, in informal settings, they can easily ask about what they want to know and obtain advice. Of course, some ECEC teachers insisted on the importance of discussion in formal settings. Nevertheless, novice teachers feel more relaxed and ask for advice through informal interactions without worrying about others' feelings. Therefore, it is important to create informal occasions for novice teachers in order to enhance internal collaboration among teachers. Apart from this survey, I heard a story from one kindergarten teacher one day. In her kindergarten, each teacher prepares class materials alone, after finishing their class and cleaning. Therefore, they rarely talk with each other until they finish their work, unless there is some kind of formal meeting. She said, "In this kindergarten, we need to solve problems on our own." I also know of another kindergarten that sets a teatime session. After class, all teachers gather together to have tea and sweets and talk about their children. I once participated in one of these sessions. I still remember that all the teachers spoke about their children with a smile, regardless of seniority. I also remember that one young teacher talked about her problem, then another senior teacher just said she had the same problem, without providing a solution on the spot. This is exactly the case where a senior teacher warmly watches over a young teacher's professional growth. ECEC teachers who take care of children with special needs may face particular difficulties. It is important to support them through informal interactions, instead of merely trying to solve problems in formal settings. In the end, this could lead to support for children with special needs.
(3) Relationships with parents
The above two factors, i.e., support of senior teachers and informal interactions, will not apply to the case of children with special needs only. However, these factors will give important clues for ECEC teachers to overcome difficulties in caring for children with special needs. In addition to these two factors, I also heard from numerous ECEC teachers that they achieved personal growth through their relationships with parents. A lot of them explained that they felt it was difficult to share their understanding of "disabilities" with parents. In particular, constraints on time and place to communicate with parents were major problems. Teachers only have a short time to talk with parents, when they pick up and drop off children. Even if they can have enough time, it is difficult to speak openly in front of other parents. In addition, they tend to communicate only the positive aspects of children to their parents and feel that it is difficult to share children's problems. Some ECEC teachers said they learned from senior teachers what to communicate to parents within the short time of picking up and dropping off. Observing the interactions between senior ECEC teachers and parents helped the professional growth of novice teachers. Even if novice teachers are in charge of a class alone, without the supervision of a senior teacher, they could learn how to respond to parents, as long as they receive support from senior teachers through informal interactions, as mentioned above (1) and (2).
In addition to the above three factors, I also heard other unexpected growth factors from some ECEC teachers. For example, one teacher explained that her free position without taking charge of a classroom significantly contributed to her professional growth. She said if she had been in charge of a classroom, she would have concentrated on the entire group of children in the class as a whole. Instead, because she was in a free position, she could take time for each child with special needs and gradually came to understand their mumbled speech and atypical behavior patterns. Through these experiences, she came to look on their behavior patterns as their characteristics, not as disabilities. Many ECEC teachers answered that they achieved expertise when they came to look at children's disabilities as their characteristics. In other words, enriched personal growth can be achieved through such personal interactions with children.
In addition, another ECEC teacher answered that she learned a lot through experiences on the evening childcare shift at a daycare center. Evening childcare is often conducted by assembling children in different classes. The ECEC teacher said she actively interacted with children with special needs from other classes. As a result, she could have a "sense of being involved" in these children whenever they became a topic of an internal meeting. She listened to the updates on these children and always thought about what she could do. As in her case, having a "sense of being involved" in children in other classes can be another part of the process of professional growth. Unlike daycare centers, this is unlikely to happen in most kindergartens where distinction of classes is strictly observed. Therefore, it is important to provide an environment where teachers can interact with children in different classes and actively talk about them.
I believe that the findings of this survey can apply not only to the case of children with special needs but also to the general expertise of ECEC teachers. However, there are specific experiences that can be acquired only in the care of children with special needs. The important thing is whether ECEC teachers can share their various concerns with other colleagues. Therefore, it is essential to enhance informal interactions among ECEC teachers, and thus, enhancing indirect support for children with special needs. When I visit kindergartens and daycare centers, I cannot help checking whether they have tea and sweets in their staff room. Although this is merely my impression without data-based research, a kindergarten offering tea and sweets in a staff room is more likely to provide collaborative support for children with special needs. In contrast, a kindergarten where the support for children with special needs is often lacking tends to rely on only one teacher to take responsibility for such children. In this regard, tea and sweets can be an indicator measuring the degree of internal collaboration.
There was one comment that drew my attention in this survey. When an ECEC teacher came to understand the atypical behavior patterns of a child with special needs through individual interactions, the relationship with the child changed.
Not only in the case of children with special needs, but such experiences can also occur daily in the care of infants who cannot express their feelings fluently. As a result, ECEC teachers recognize children differently, and their attitudes towards children may change. Therefore, the fundamental concept of childcare for children with special needs is that ECEC teachers should try to shift their perspectives towards children instead of trying to understand how to treat them. They should comprehend the diverse aspects of children individually. As indicated in this survey, the expertise of (novice) ECEC teachers is considered to be have been acquired when they recognize the diverse aspects of children and parents. Therefore, it is fundamental for ECEC teachers to change their perspectives instead of trying to change the behavior of children with special needs.
Currently, I am working on the next study under the theme of "How caregivers understand the obsessive behavior patterns of children with autism spectrum disorders (expertise)." These obsessive behavior patterns might seem meaningless at first, but in their own way have a world of significance for autistic children. I want to find out how ECEC teachers and parents try to understand such a world. If ECEC teachers can understand the process of how parents understand their child's behavior, they may find out how they can help parents alter their perspectives towards their child. This may help provide better support for parents. The important thing is how we "try to understand" the behavior patterns of children with special needs instead of treating them as part of their disabilities.
* "A White Paper on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology" published by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: Part II "Trends and Development in Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Policies," Chapter 2 "Creating a Lifelong Learning Society," Section 3 "Secure Various Learning Opportunities," 2 "Promotion of University Reforms for the Age of Lifelong Learning - Expansion of Access to Higher Education -
This article was prepared based on my research paper presented at the 69th Conference hosted by the Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education with additional data and analysis results, which is currently published in an academic journal.