Document 67791

Irish National Teachers' Organisation
Early Childhood
Report of a Seminar
.Pubiished by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.
35 Parnell Square, Dublin 1,
INTO. 7983
Origination by Healyset. Dublin 1.
Printed by Oval Printing Company, Dublin 7.
Trends in early childhood education
Thomas Kel/aghan
Education and the phychological and physical
development of young children
Anne T. McKenna
Education for young children:
infant classes in primary schools
Siobhtm M. Hurley
Early education for children with special needs
Anne O'Sul/ivan
Home and school in the education of the young child
Elizabeth McGovern
Preschools, playschools, nursery schools and classes
Kathleen Day
In August 1981 the then Minister for Education, Mr. John
Boland TD, decided to raise the age of entry to primary schools and
thereby he initiated, albeit inadvertently, a public debate about
early childhood education.
The Executive Committee of the Irish National Teachers'
Organisation decided, as part of its contribution to the debate, to
hold a seminar on this important educational and social problem.
The seminar, which was held in Mary Immaculate College of
Education in Limerick in June 1982, was attended by more than
150 people.
The participants heard an interesting and stimulating series of
lectures and contributed to the success of the seminar through
their involvement in group discussions on various aspects of the
central theme.
This report contains the text of the lectures delivered at the
seminar. It is intended to publish separately a supplement giving a
summary of the group discussions.
The Executive Committee would like to record its appreciation
and gratitude to all those who contributed to the success of the
seminar and in particular to the lecturers, chairpersons and
rapporteurs and to the Principal and staff of Mary Immaculate
College of Education.
E. G. Quigley,
General Secretary
February, 1983
Trends in early childhood education
Thomas Kellaghan
Director, Educational Research Centre
St. Patrick's College, Dublin
The author is indebted to Mary Campbell for assistance in the preparation of
this paper.
The care and, in the broadest sense, the education of the young is,
and always was, one of the most basic of human tasks. On it depends
not only the survival of individuals but the survival of the race.
Further, differences in style and practice in child care seem to affect
the psychological characteristics of children throughout their lives as
well as the characteristics of the society of which they form a part.
Almost invariably across all societies, the care of the infant during the
first year or two of its life is primarily the responsibility of its mother.
After that, practice varies and other individuals or institutions may
begin to take over some aspects ofthe care and education of the child.
In many countries in western society, there has been an increase in
recent years in the availability of resources outside the home to assist
in the early phases of the education of children. This can be seen in
general terms as an extension of national educational enterprises
which began in the last century and have been steadily expanding
ever since, though there are also more specific reasons for the
intense interest in early childhood education and the expansion of
facilities which were features of the 1970s (ct. European Economic
Community, 1979; van der Eyken, 1982; Woodhead, 1979).
The tasks facing the child in the first five or six years of its life are not
inconsiderable and the accomplishments of the vast majority of
children during these years are impressive. However, the
achievements of some are not satisfactory and when we consider the
range of tasks facing the child, that is hardly surprising. These tasks
include meeting organic needs and establishing routine habits (such
as eating, sleeping, and washing): learning motor skills and
associated confidences (such as walking, running, and climbing):
developing manipulatory skills (building with blocks, beads, tying
things, buttoning one's coat); learning control and restraints
(listening to stories, sitting still); developing social behaviour (sharing
with others, developing appropriate dependent and independent
behaviour); emotional development (coping with fear, aggression,
anger, frustration, guilt; psycho-sexual development (identification,
sex-role learning); language development; and intellectual
development covering a broad spectrum of activities from preceptual
discrimination to concept formation (Sears' Dowley, 1963).
Despite the fact that early child development has become a major
focus of attention and policy formation in recent years many people
still seem uncertain about the role of educational provision in aiding
that development. There has, for example, been a cut-back in
preschool provision for disadvantaged children in the United States.
In this country, as recently as 1979, a former secretary of the
Department of Education claimed that some teachers would regard
four-year old entrance to school as 'an extravangantly costly babysitting service' (0 Conchobhair, 1979), while more recent
government decisions about the age of entry to school must at least
raise questions about the understanding of and commitment to early
childhood education among teachers, politicians, and administrators.
These statements and actions suggest that the value of early
childhood education is not universally accepted. Indeed not only in
this country, but throughout the world, education at this level ranks
below elementary, secondary, and third-level education in priority(cf.
Psacharopoulos, 1980). And yet, a number of changes and
developments in recent years has ensured that politicians,
administrators, and educators can no longer afford to ignore the area
of early childhood education. Some of these changes and
developments have occurred in the family and in society; others are
the result of a renewed interest in the study of early development.
Among changing family conditions is an increase in the number of
single-parent families and of mothers working outside the home,
either for economic reasons or for personal fulfilment. Thus the major
caretaker is no longer available in many families on a full-time basis to
look after the young child. Further, other adults (grandparents, aunts)
who often formed an extended family are becoming less a feature of
the family circle, particularly in urban areas. Households are getting
smaller and there are fewer people to share in looking after young
children (Hunt, 1970). This is happening at a time when there is
growing appreciation of the importance of the early childhood years
for the development of the child.
Emphasis on the importance of early childhood is not of course
new; the early experiences of the child have been regarded as crucial
in theories of child development, particularly ones relating to
personality. What is new is the attempt to translate into educational
practice on an extensive scale the belief that environmental factors
exercise considerable influence on the development of perceptual
and higher cognitive skills in children before the age of five. Such
educational practice is also supported by the belief that if certain
aspects of development do not take place at a certain time, they may
not take place at all or at least later development will be seriously
Much of the rationale for these views has its basis in the work of
Donald Hebb and his colleagues at McGill University which was
carried out in the 1 940s and 1950s. A series of experimental studies
with animals (rats, dogs, and chimpanzees) examined the effect of
deprivation on perceptual skills and on 'intelligence' or problemsolving ability. In general, the studies indicated that the performance
of animals that had been deprived of certain types of experience early
in life was seriously impaired at a later date. On the 'basis of such
studies, Hebb (1949) argued that a great deal of perceptual learning is
necessary before we see the world as the normal adult sees it. For
example, he disputed the view, associated with Gestalt psychology,
that the human infant immediately perceives a square shape as a
unified structure or whole. By his second year, the child may do so, but
this is the result of a vast number of visual experiences and muscular
explorations, and it is in the combinafion of these that a shape gets its
consistent structure.
The popularization of this work in the writings of Bruner (1961) and
Hunt (1961), received considerable attention. Interpreting the work,
Bruner (1961) concluded that an environment that is impoverished
(that is, one that is monotonous with limited opportunities for
different kinds of stimulation, discrimination, and manipulation)
'produces an adult organism with reduced abilities to discriminate,
with stunted strategies for coping with roundabout solutions, with
less taste for exploratory behaviour, and with a notably reduced
tendency to draw inferences that serve to cement the disparate
events of its environment' (p. 199).
Around the same time, the importance of early childhood received
further support in Bloom's (1964) conclusions following reanalysis of
data collected in longitudinal studies of the development of children.
His finding that scores on intelligence tests at the age of five or six
correlated highly with scores at the age of 171ed him to conclude that
a considerable amount of intellectual development took place in the
preschool years and that the pattern for later development was well
established by the time the child began formal schooling.
All this might have remained of academic interest only and might
have had little impact on educational practice if it had not happened at
a time when Americans were looking critically at the performance of
their schools and particularly at the role of schools in dealing with
problems of poverty. Concern was being expressed at the poor
attainment and early drop-out of children from low socio-economic
status homes and the possible loss of talent which this involved. This
concern seemed to fit in well with another dominant theme of the
1960s - that of equality of opportunity. For a number of reasons,
educational reform was perceived as the main avenue through which
more general social reform could be attained (Madaus, Airasian, &
Kellaghan, 1980).
The United States Congress turned to 'compensatory' preschool
education as the major means of attaining equality. This appro\lch
was predicated in part on the belief that since intelligence was
malleable in the preschool years, education could have a large impact
if children from disadvantaged backgrounds were 'treated' early in
their educational careers. The now well-known Head Start
programme, designed to provide health, nutritional, day-care, and
educational services, set out to overcome the educational
deficiencies which children from poor backgrounds manifested when
beginning school by providing preschool experiences for these
children. It was believed, and this reflects long-cherished American
beliefs about the utility of schooling, that children from 'high-risk'
families, if they were given the resources and the opportunities,
would succeed in school and as adults in later life. This early
education was seen as being a major factor in breaking the cycle of
underachievement and poverty in American society. In this, a
tradition in the use of early childhood education as an instrument of
progressive reform was revived. In attempts to deal with problems
caused by industrialization and urbanization towards the end of the
last century, preschool programmes were established in all major
American cities, first on a voluntary basis and later under public
sponsorship (Lazerson, 1972). The crusade of the 1960s looked like a
revival of the efforts of the 1890s, but on a grander scale.
However, the roots of early childhood education outside the home
are to be found in Europe, not in America. In tracing those roots, one is
brought back to pioneers in the championing of children'S rights, such
as Comenius (1592-1670) and Rousseau (1712-1778), whose
writings did much to promote the concept of childhood and rights of
children. Early childhood education in a communal setting actually
took form mainly through the efforts of Froebel (1782-1852) and, at a
later stage, those of Montessori and the McMillan sisters. The
systems they established flourished throughout this century and,
despite a number of challenges, still exercise considerable influence
today (cf. Weber, 1971).
Here we may pause briefly to consider some of the nomenclature
that has emerged from early childhood education movements. A large
variety of terms has, and still is, being used to describe institutions
which cater for early childhood education. We cannot hope to sort out
fully the meanings ofthese terms which sometimes vary from country
to country or over time in their meaning. Further, anyone term can be
used to describe institutions in which a variety of educational
practices may flourish. Since a good deal of early childhood education
has been and continues to be carried out on a voluntary basis, it is not
surprising that there is a lack of uniformity in terminology.
Some of the terms which are used to describe educational facilities
up to about the age of six are playschool, day nursery, daycare centre
or group daycare, family daycare, creche, nursery school, nursery
class, academic preschool, shared-rearing preschool, kindergarten,
and infant school. Some of the terms emphasize a caring or custodial
function. Much daycare (family daycare) takes place in the child's own
home with hired minders. In other cases, institutional arrangements
are provided. Daycare was the term given to facilities designed to
'warehouse' children in the United States while their mothers worked
during the second world war. On the other hand, the term academic
preschool suggests a serious educational function and such
institutions are often a downward extension of the primary school and
may focus on the development of 'school readiness' skills. What goes
on in a nursery school is not immediately obvious from ttie name, It is
a term particularly associated with English education and has been
used to describe facilities for children around the ages ofthree orfour.
The first kindergarten was established in 1837 by Froebel, who
rejected terms which used the word school, such as infant school and
nursery school (Lawrence, 1952); he selected the work kindergarten
because it embodied his view of child development as something
reflecting the development of plants in a garden. What goes on in an
infant sChool is not immediately obvious from its name either. The one
thing you will not normally find insuch a school is an infant, The first
infant school has been attributed to Robert Owen (established in
1816) and in a number of ways its activities reflected the Froebel
philosophy of child development. Both kindergarten and infant school
are often used to describe facilities for children who have completed
nursery-school or who are in the junior grades of primary school.
In this paper when we talk about early childhood education, we will
for the most part be talking about arrangements in a group setting
away from the child's home that are made for children under the
statutory school-entry age. Further, our concern will be more with
provision for older children (between the age of three and the age of
compulsory schooling) than with provision for younger children,
though some consideration will have to be given to the latter since in
some countries a distinction is not made between the two kinds of
provision. In the case of Ireland, we shall be talking about children
who are in schools which also cater for older children: mainly, we
shall be concerne.d with children who are in what are called junior and
senior infant classes. In other countries, the facilities for children of
this age are often separated from those for older children.
Our consideration will focus more on publicly provided facilities
than on privately provided ones. Many early childhood facilities,
especially those for young children, are private and not a great deal is
known about them. It is difficult to obtain accurate information on the
nature or extent of such faCilities or on the numbers of children who
participate in them. In the official statistics supplied for participation
for some countries, it is not always clear whether they include
children attending private as well as public institutions.
Models of early childhood education
Of greater importance than the labels one might attach to early
childhood education are the characteristics of that education. In
keeping with the multiplicity of labels that exist. one also finds a
multiplicity of institutional arrangements and practices. Not only does
one find a great variety in the preschool provision that exists
throughout the world, one finds variety even within individual
countries. A major attempt to categorize systems of provision
throughout the industrialized world has been made by Robinson,
Robinson, Darling, & Holm (1979) who have described the features of
a Latin-European model (particularly as exemplified in France and
Belgium), a Scandinavian model, a Socialist model (particularly as
exemplified in the Soviet Union), and an Anglo-Saxon model (as found
in the United States, Britain, and Canada). While the categorization is
not entirely satisfactory, we may take it as a basis for considering a
number of dimensions along which approaches to early childhood
education vary. A consideration of these dimensions will provide
some feel forthe range of philosophies and practices which operate in
this area of education.
Vertical organization
First we may note that in many courtries an organizational
distinction is made between facilities provided for children up to the
age of two and a half or three, in what Robinson et al (1979) call
creches, and facilities provided for children from that age upto the age
of compulsory schooling, which may vary between five (in the United
Kingdom) and seven (in Denmark); the latter facilities are called
kindergartens by Robinson at al. The Scandinavian countries do not
have this distinction. They have a unified system of preschool
education from the age of six months to seven years. There is also a
. trend in the Soviet Union to move to a unified 'nursery-kindergarten'
system; the reason given is that in separate facilities, there is too
much emphasis on physical care to the exclusion of the cognitive,
social, and emotional development of the children.
National policies for families
The national policy for families in a country can have important
implications for the provision of early education facilities, particularly
for who provides it, who controls what goes on in the schools or
centres, and what role is assigned to parents. In the matter of family
policy, a distinction may be drawn between Socialist and
Scandinavian countries on the one hand and Anglo-Saxon ones on
the other, with the Latin countries somewhere in between. In the
Socialist and Scandinavian countries, child rearing is seen as
something to be shared by family and state. In the Anglo-Saxon
countries, child rearing is primarily a family function. which in certain
circumstances may be aided by the state. Bronfenbrenner (1970) has
drawn the distinction sharply in his discussion of upbringing in the
Soviet Union and the United States. While the Soviet system
recognizes that parents have a.uthority, this authority is only a
reflection of that of the state. Such a position would not generally be
accepted in the Anglo-Saxon world. In this context the provisions of
Article 42 of the Irish Constitution come to mind; the article
recognizes 'the primary and natural educator of the child' to be the
family and the state 'guarantees to respect the inalienable right and
duty of parents to provide ... for ... the education of their children'.
Parents are free to provide education 'in their homes or in private
schools recognized or established by the state'. While the
Constitution grants to parents the primary moral and legal
responsibility of bringing up their children, in this country as
elsewhere, there are pressures which are making it increasingly
difficult for parents to do that. The result is a growing ·demand for
outside services, including state ones, even in countries where
traditional family policy has emphasized the primacy of parents.
Control of child care
Closely related to national family policy is the control of child care.
In general, Socia list economies are associated with standardization of
programmes while free enterprise ones tend to encourage
diversification (Peters, 1980). While tight control is exercised by the
central authorities on school curricula and there is a high degree of
uniformity in educational practice in all schools in socialist countries,
there is also some diversification. In the Soviet Union, for example,
both creches and kindergartens are sometimes run by factories,
farms, and other institutions to provide facilities for employees. In
other cases, they are run by a government ministry (Grant, 1964). In
Scandinavian and Latin countries, the central government controls
general policy, but programmes may be administered and operated
locally. France, for example, does not provide a standard curriculum
for kindergartens (teachers work with inspectors in doing this), while
in Scandinavian countries, programme guidelines are provided by the
National Board of Health and Welfare, but teachers may adapt these
to their own circumstances and needs. The least amount of central
control occurs in Anglo-Saxon countries; while sectors of early
childhood provision in these countries have some centrally organized
features, these occur in the context of considerable decentralization.
Central control is exercised by a variety of government ministries. In
Scandinavian countries, it is pxercised by Departments of Social
Affairs, Social Welfare, and Hea"n. In other countries, the tendency is
for a Ministry of Health or Welfare to exercise control over institutions
attended by children up to about the age of three, while a Ministry of
Education or Public Instruction is responsible for institutions attended
by children from the age of three onwards. In all the European
Community countries, with the exception of Denmark, the
responsibility for the education of children over the age offour, and in
some cases for children as young as two (France). two and a half
(Belgium), and three (Italy, United Kingdom), lies with the Ministry of
Education (European Economic Community, 1979).
Curriculum objectives and content
Perhaps the area in which there has been the greatest debate over
early childhood education has not related to its' organization or control
but to the curricula which are followed. There are two basic
dimensions along which curricula can be differentiated (Stodolsky,
1972). One relates to curriculum objectives and the second relates to
the structure of the curriculum. The major distinction that is usually
drawn regarding objectives is that between curricula or programmes
which emphasize intellectual-scholastic goals and those which
emphasize socio-emotional ones. We shall return to this distinction
later; at this point, we will look at the emphasis of the various systems
on these two sets of goals. In general, the Anglo-Saxon and
Scandinavian systems have emphasized socio-emotional
development throughout the whole period of early childhood
education. In Latin countries, health, hygiene, and socio-emotional
development are emphasized during the early years of life in creches,
while the kindergarten attends more to cognitive goals and in
particular to the preparation of children for formal schooling. The
Socialist countries seems to have adopted a more mixed approach.
From an early age, a heavy emphasis is placed on social·aspects of
development; experience in 'collective' living is provided almost from
birth so that the child will develop an awareness of the group or
collective and its needs. Attention is also paid to language
development, to some extent as a vehicle for developing social
behaviour, to cognitive growth, to creativity, and to school readiness.
Attention to the cognitive aspects of development is receiving
increasing emphasis, even with very young children.
Curriculum structure
The second dimension on which curricula and programmes may be
differentiated is structure. In a structured curriculum, the teacher
emphasizes specific goals. Further, the pursuit of those goals is
adhered to by allocating specific times for relevent activities, by
providing suitable materials, and by prescribing children's responses.
By comparison with unstructured approaches, the structured one is
more teacher-directed and more homogeneous in its activities.
Unstructured curricula are sometimes called traditional, childcentred, or discovery curricula. The child selects its own activities
rather than being directed towards a particular activity by its·teacher.
Though such curricula are often termed child-centred by comparison
with more structured approaches, they are child-centred only insofar
as the selection of activities is concerned. A structured curriculum,
though its main focus is on the content being presented to the child,
could be child-centred to the extent that thc choice of content
(materials and activities) is based on developmental principles and
related to individual differences between children (Kellaghan, 1977).
The highest structure in early childhood education is associated
with the Socialist model. In this model, detailed plans of activities for
children at different age levels are laid down and systematic teaching
programmes are used. A core principle ofthese programmes is the socalled regime. Each child, as Bronfenbrenner (1970) describes it. is
on a series of reinforcement schedules. The teacher or 'upbringer'
spends a specified amount of time with each child, stimulating and
training sensory-motor functions.
"For example, at the earliest age Isvels, shewill present a brightly
colored object, moving it to and fro to encourage fo(.fowing. A bit
later, the object is brought nearer and moved slowly forward to
induce the infant to move toward it. Still later, the child is
motivated to pull himself up by the barred sides of the playpen to
assume a standing position. And infants learn to stand in such
playpens not only in Moscow, but 2,000 miles away in Soviet
Asia as well" (Bronfenbrenner, 1970, p. 17).
By contrast, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian early childhood
education (with the possible exception of Finnish education which is
moving toward the development of more structured programmes)
consists mostly of supportive, unstructured, socialization
programmes rather than structured informational ones. Such
programmes have been described as providing.
"a warm accepting atmosphere in which a child may achieve his
own maximum social and physical development, and an ordered
atmosphere in which selected equipment and activities are
offered in sufficient variety to meet each child's level of interest
and ability" (Gordon & Wilkenson, 1966, p. 48).
Early childhood education in Latin countries may be regarded as
occupying an intermediate position in structure between the Socialist
model on the one hand and the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian
models on the other.
The kind of objectives a curriculum has and the degree of structure
associated with it are not necessarily related. For example, one could
have a highly structured curriculum designed to attain socioemotional objectives and there is some evidence in the Socialist
model of early childhood education that structure is a feature of
programmes designed to achieve a variety of objectives. In practice,
however, it is easier to prescribe a structure for programmes with
cognitive objectives and the best known examples of highly
structured curricula in the United States were concerned with
language development (Bereiter & Engelmann, 1966; Lavate"i, 1972)
and general cognitive development (Lavatelli, 1970).
Preparation of teachers or upbringers
There is SDme variatiDn, nDt .only acrDSS mDdels, but even within
cDuntries, in the methDds and standards emplDyed in the preparatiDn
.of teachers Dr 'upbringers' tD use the mDre general term. Even in the
SDcialist cDuntries, where .one might expect the highest level .of
prDfessiDnal training and unifDrmity, .one finds diversity. In PDland, fDr
example, .one may take either a tWD-year vDcatiDnal cDurse Dr a threeyear university CDurse, while in the SDviet UniDn, SDme take CDurses
in teacher training cDlleges and .others in specialized secDndary
In the EurDpean CDmmunity, there are five cDuntries in which the
preparatiDn and status .of persDnnel wDrking in early childhDDd
educatiDn are basically the same as the preparatiDn and status .of
teachers in elementary SChDDls: France, Ireland, Italy, LuxembDurg,
and the United KingdDm. In tWD cDuntries, the preparatiDn and status
of early childhDDd educatDrs have been traditiDnally IDwer, but these
are In the prDcess .of being raised: Belgium and the Netherlands.lnthe
Federal Republic .of Germany, the teacher .of preschDDI children is
almDst equal in status and preparatiDn tD the nDrmal teacher, while
preschDDI assistants are IDwer. Only in Denmark, amDng E.E.C.
cDuntries, is the preparatiDn and status .of the teacher .of preschDDI
children definitely IDwer (Elvin, 1981; European ECDnDmic CDmmunity, 1979).
Finally in IODking at vanatlOn in early childhoDd educatiDn
provisiDn, we may cDnsider participatiDn. MDSt Dfthe figures we have
relate tD E.E.C. cDuntries. BefDre cDnsidering these figures, we may
nDte that participatiDn even in SDcialist cDuntries is nDt particularly
high. FDr example, it is estimated that abDut 10% .of children between
six weeks and three years attend creches in the U.S.S.R. while abDut
50% between the ages .of three and seven years attend kindergarten.
The figures fDr the U.S.A. are nDt very dissimilar. Asmaller prDpDrtiDn
attend creches while the figure fDr children aged three tD six years
attending kindergarten is abDut the same (50%) as in Russia
(RDbinsDn et aI, 1979).
AmDng E.E.C. cDuntries the highest participatiDn rates are tD be
fDund in Belgium, France, LuxembDurg, and the Netherlands. FDr
example, 90% .of three-year Dlds and 97% .of fDur-year Dlds attend a
preschDDI in ~rllgium. Practically all fDur-year Dlds attend such an
establishment in France (97%). LuxembDurg (93%). and the
Netherlands (93%). LDwest participatiDn rates are fDund fDr the
United KingdDm (40% .of fDur-year Dlds, but all five-year Dlds) and
Denmark (60% .of five and six-year Dlds,). In Ireland. 65% .of fDur-year
Dlds and 95% .of five-year Dlds attend primary SChDDI (EurDpean
ECDnDmic CDmmunity, 1979).
Controversy on objectives and structure of
early childhood education.
Controversy on content and structure has been a feature of early
childhood education for a long time. A search for its roots brings us
back to two basically different traditions and sets of assumptions
regarding the nature of childhood and of development. One is the
Enlightenment tradition which regards education as the path to
righteousness and rationality. If one accepts this view, then an
emphasis on school-related skills and preparation for life is indicated.
The other tradition is the Romantic one which views childhood as a
period that is important in its own right and not just as a preparation
for adulthood; further, children are naturally good and their instincts,
emotions, and feelings should be allowed full expression: Given this
view of childhood, educational provision should avoid imposing on the
child objectives and structures, particularly ones of a cognitive
Rousseau (1712-1778). who applied the Romantic ideas to
education, postulated that development is made up of a series of
internally regulated stages which are transformed one into another. It
follows a regular order based on maturation and external influences
should not be allowed to interfere with it. In applying these beliefs to
educational practice, the pioneers of early childhood education,
Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and Froebel (1782-1852), stressed the
importance of the child's own contribution to development and to the
need to provide a noncoercive environment in which development
could take place in a natural way.
Towards the end of the last century and into the beginning of the
present one, a debate on the objectives and teaching approaches in
preschools took place which was very similar to the debate of the
1960s and 1970s on the same issues (Evans, 1975). For most of this
century, Dewey's views prevailed and the practice of American and
English early childhood education emphasized social and emotional
development in an informal unstructured environment. Even
Froebel's approach was regarded as too formal and structured and as
failing to provide for the child's individuality. While Montessori's
philosophy and methods were more in tune with the nondirective
influences which were favoured inAmerican classrooms, they did not
support America's commitment to play, imagination, creativity, and
self-expression, or to the importance of socialization and group
activities (Lazerson, 1972).
Dewey's position received support from Arnold Gesell whose
theory of maturation, like that of Rousseau, emphasized the role of
internal regulatory mechanisms on development. Gesell's work on
developmental characteristics suggested a more or less consistent
pattern in all children duri ng the first five years. Differences in growth
between children were attributed to original capacity, rate, or tempo,
and to patterns of developmental organization. Environmental factors
could support, inflect, and modify development, but they did not
generate the progress of development (cf. Gesell, Amatruda, Castner,
& Thompson, 1939). These views became known to vast numbers of
people throughout the world through the writings of Benjamin Spock.
An important educational concept in Gesell's developmental theory
was that of readiness. A child will walk when his muscles have
matured sufficiently to allow him to do so and similarly he will read
when the relevant perceptual and motor abilities have matured. Much
educational practice with young children was based on the concept of
readiness. Readiness tests were often administered to determine
whether or not reading should be taught. Trying to push development,
it was thought, would at best do no good and at worst might do harm. If
readiness is something determined by the child's intrinsic rate of
development, then academic pressure would add 'burdensome
pressures upon the child' at a time when the preschool should be
fostering self-expression and creativity (Butler, 1970).
'Another feature of traditional early childhood education practice
was the relatively little attention that was paid to cognitive
development. While this aspect of growth was not completely ignored
and while in some programmes language development received
considerable attention, the main thrust of most nursery schools was
on the social and emotional development of children. Further, most
nursery school teachers preferred a curriculum based largely on
children's own choice of activity ratherthan one that was planned and
structured by the teacher (Taylor, Exon, & Holley, 1972).
Gesell's maturational theory and the tradition in early childhood
education which it supported had considerable appeal. It fitted into a
well-defined tradition of human development, associated with names
such as Rousseau, Darwin, and G. Stanley Hall, and there was
empirical evidence to support some aspects of it. There were a
number of problems associated with it in practice, however. One was
that children were not always learning when the maturationalists
said they should be readyto(Goodlad, Klein, Novotney, 1973) andthis
became particularly obvious when educational and political attention
was focussed on children living in disadvantaged areas in the 1960s.
Another problem was that where good environmental conditions
prevailed in the homes of children, one might not be over-concerned
about the relative contributions of environmental and maturational
factors to development but where environmental conditions were not
good and children on entering school at the age of five or six were
already considerably behind their peers in scholastic skills, one had to
give further thought to the role of those environmental factors and the
possibilities of preventive action.
The reaction to the role of the traditional nursery school in helping
children from disadvantaged backgrounds meet the requirements of
school was perhaps most forcibly put in recent years by Bereiter &
Englemann 11966). They argued that the traditional nursery school
was not suitable for the disadvantaged because most aspects of such
schools complemented the activities of middle-class homes and
indeed in ways resembled the activities of a lower-class environment.
(For example, the middle class home is rich in verbal experience, the
nursery school, like the lower-class home, stresses seeing and doing.)
What is needed in the preschool for the disadvantaged are activities
that complement the activities of the disadvantaged home and are
similar to those of middle-class homes. Further, there is little time in
which to help the disadvantaged catch up with the privileged; hence
an intensive and selective scheme is required. In the Bereiter &
Engelmann approach, the focus is strictly on academic objectives.
Since the disadvantaged child's major deficiency is seen to be a
language one, a programme designed to teach 'middly-class
language' is provided.
Bereiter & Engelm'ann were not the only commentators to draw a
sharp distinction between the objectives and practices of traditional
nursery schools or 'shared rearing preschools' and academic
preschools. The former were interpreted as providing basic support
services to mothers in the rearing of their children during the
preschool years in 'a secure benign environment that is compatible
with the interests and predispositions of the young child' (Blank,
1974), while the latter were seen to be primarily concerned with the
preparation of children for the tasks of formal schooling.
No doubt this distinction is exaggerated to point up differences in
emphasis between approaches to early childhood education - one
non-structured, stressing social and emotional development, the
other highly structured with an emphasis on cognitive development.
In practice, one suspects that many preschool educational
programmes attend to a range of objectives and involve some degree
of structure. But the distinction has been of value iffor no other reason
than that it forced people involved in early childhood education to
examine some of the assumptions on which their practice was based.
We have, of course, as well as philosophical and practical positions
about child development, a growing area of empirical knowledge
about such development and about early childhood education (ct.
McKenna, 1979). Models of child development have attended to both
cognitive aspects and socio-emotional ones. The former owe much to
Piaget's work and have tended to adopt a general structural and
model-building view of development (Kamii, 1972; Kellaghan, 1977;
Kohlberg, 1968; Lavatelli, 1970; Sigel, 1972; Weikart, Rogers,
Adcock, & McClelland, 1971). Their influence has been greater in the
field of early childhood education than have approaches which have
emphasized socio-emotional development. However, psychological
approaches which give greater recognition to the role of socioemotional factors in development have also found applic~tion in early
childhood education programmes. For example, a d6velopmental
approach, drawing both on the psychological work of Erikson and
Werner and the progressive education movement. has been
developed at the Bank Street College of Education (Biber, 1977). This
approach has stressed the importance of the development of 'a sense
of trustfulness in others and trustworthiness in one's self; a sense of
autonomy through making choices and exercising control; a sense of
initiative expressed in a variety of making, doing, and play activities in
cooperation with others and in an imagined projection of the adult sex
role' (Franklin & Biber, 1977, p.18).
Whatever philosophical or practical position one adopts, empirical
knowledge on child development can hardly be ignored by the
practicioner or poicy maker in the field of education. This knowledge
makes the practice of preschool education at the same time easier
and more difficult. It makes it easier in that clearer guidelines are now
available about the needs and capabilities of individual children and
about programme content and structure. And it makes it more difficult
in the diagnosis of children's needs and capabilities and the provision
of appropriate educational experience is emerging as a highly skilled
professional task, requiring considerable knowledge and experience
on the part of the teacher (cf. Tamburrini, 1982).
In general, it seems that a wide range of objectives is helpful in the
practice of early childhood education, if for no other reason than that a
wide range of activities seem important for development (Kohlberg,
1968); many commentators today stress the need for eclectic and
wide-ranging curricula (Kamii 1972; Robison & Spodek, 1965;
Tamburrini, 1982). It also seems that at least for children from
disadvantaged backgrounds, some degree of structure helps
cognitive development, though peperhaps even more important than
structure is a greater understanding of child development by teachers
and a more coherent rationale on which to build a systematic
approach to their work.
In conclusion, we may note that recent trends in early childhood
education have been the products of a variety of interests and points
of views - national policies regarding the role and pre-eminence of
the family in child-rearing, the backgrou nd and preferences of staff of
educational and child-care institutions, and the points of view of the
sciences as interpreted and expressed by those professionally
concerned with education (cf. Luscher, 1981). The kinds of facilities
that are provided and the services that are offered reflect differences
in these points of view and interests.
The increase in resources for early childhood education which has
been a feature of many countries in recent years has been due in part
to the concern of bureaucratic organizations implementinc; publically
legitimated norms and objectives. The principle of equality of
opportunity, particularly as applied to the problems of children in
disadvantaged areas, has been the guiding m'A;ve in the provision of
early childhood education facilities in most countries in Western
Europe and in North America. Indeed, most of the public provision of
recent years has been directed to children from lower socio-economic
groups. Parents from this background have been more reluctant to
have their children participate in formal early childhood education
than have parents from higher socio-economic groups, a pattern that
is repeated throughout the educational system.
The interests of the family have also contributed to the expansion of
facilities. Of particular importance has been the changing structure of
the family and the increasing demands being made on it in
industrialized urbanized societies. While parents will normally show
considerable concern for their children's welfare, at the same time,
they will also have their own interests in mind, which may not always
coincide with those of their children.
Over the last twenty years, there has been considerable activityin
the study of child development which has had a marked influence on
the practice of early childhood education. We have seen something of
this when considering the objectives and structure of educational
programmes. While the practitioner may be confused by differences
in approach to the description and understanding of child
development, a knowledge of these approaches can add a rationale
and richness to the practical work of education. The good practitioner
will be sensitized to the issues involved and will select the
implications of the models that seem most appropriate for the
situation in which he or she finds himself or herself.
It is of course the interests and point-of-view of the child which
should be central to the practice of early childhood education.
Unfortunately these present problems in interpretation since the
young child is not very well able to articulate his or her interests.
Given this situation it is important that we take more time than
perhaps we have in the past to decipher those interests as best we
can. It is also important that other constituents in the area of early
childhood education, whether they be parents, teachers, bureaucrats,
or politicians, in putting forward their own claims, Should always do
so with an awareness and consciousness of those of the child, no
matter how poorly these might be articulated. For while early
childhood education may serve several interests and constituents,
and legitimately so, it can only be said to be serving its primary
function when the interests of children are regarded as paramount.
c ..
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Education and the psychological and
physical development of young
Anne T. McKenna
Lecturer, Department of Psychology,
University College Dublin
In talking to an audience of teachers in Mary Immaculate College
for Teachers I am conscious that my audience is both well informed
and highly experienced in the topic under discussion - Education and
the Psychological and Physical Development of Young Children. I am
sure you all remember singing as children a song that went:
"Who shaves the barber, the barber, the barber,
Who shaves the barber, the barber shaves himself".
This morning I have been given the task of shaving the barber. But
as the organisers of this excellently conceived seminar know, it has to
be done, and in holiday time even the best of barbers don't mind
letting somebody else do it for them.
Growth and Development
If we think of the child's growth and development as beginning at
conception and finishing somewhere around twenty years of age, it is
obvious that the increase in growth is not uniform throughout this
period. We all know that in the first year of life growth is rapid in
comparison to the rest of the life span; that it slows down until the
years between nine and twelve years, when there is another burst of
growth before the adolescent reaches adult height. All systems and
parts of the body, however, do not grow at the same rate.
It can be seen from Figure I that by four years of age, the child's
brain and head have reached 80 per cent of their ultimate growth,
whereas their general growth status for the rest of the body has
reached only 40 per cent of that at twenty years. In other words the
brain and head are precociously developed, relative to the rest of the
bodily systems. What does this mean for the development of function
in the child, for the development of the child's competencies in motor
development and motor control, and for cognitive development?
The question of brain growth is highly relevant to our topic of
psychological development and education, since we know that the
/'",; - Brain :nd head
8 10 12 14 16 18 20
Agt (years)
Fig. 1. Typical growth curves of three different parts or tissue of the body from
birth to age 20 (Adapted from Mussen (Ed) Carmichael's Manual of Child
Psychology 1970. p. 85)
brain is where messages from the outside world finish up, where they
are linked and coordinated, where the long-term memory traces are
laid down, where logical thinking is situated and where language is
located. How do all of these things relate to brain growth and
ultimately to age; are they parallel to brain growth; do they emerge
immediately after the growth takes place or years after; are they
affected by the amount and kind of stimulation the child receives in
these early years? These are questions to whlch neuro-physiologists,
psychologists and teachers of young children seek answers, answers
. of which at the moment we can only catch tantalising hints and clues.
Where we have the greatest and the most secure knowledge is in
the area of language development, and here the emerging functions
appear to follow very closely the developing structures in the brain.
Figure 2 shows the growth of vocabulary items in young children.
It can be seen that this growth parallels the growth in brain and
head size, with the greatest increase occurring between two and a
half and three years, and the rate of increase slowing down
thereafter. The number of words a child has in her vocabulary is a
good indication of overall language development, although they are
not the most characteristic aspect of child language: they are merely,
as it were, the tip of the iceberg. As you know, we expect an infant of
one year to have two orthree words in their vocabulary, but by the age
of two years we expect the toddler to be ablp. to put two words together
in a relationship. Between one year and ,VIIO years of age, the child
has, as one psychologist put it, "stepped into the human race". This is
in fact precisely and biologically accurate. Between two years and
four to five years, the child in normal circumstances has acquired the
necessary and intricate skills of learning to speak - using three, four
or five word sentences, changing the end of words for number and
tense, joining two sentences together, embedding one within
another. The child can be accurately called a linguistic genius
between the years of two and four, the genius beginning to fade a
little at five to six years, and at eight almost all traces of originality
have gone. That is not to say that the child will not use ideas and have
original thoughts, but she will not be able to invent new wordseffortlessly and spontaneously, nor acquire a complex linguistic
system with such ease.
:'i 1000
Yean or age
Fig. 2. Logarithmic growth curve of the acquisition of recognition vocabulary by
children from infancy to six years of age. (After Smith. 1926.)
Recently a three year old advised me "We'd better dothat, bettern't
we?", and I reckoned, as I'm sure you will too, that such a creation was
beyond my capability, althourJh we can all und"erstand'what was
meant. I would be incapable of making up such an example to
illustrate this point. But this should not be too surprising if we think of
it. Our ancestors, creatures like ourselves, made up a language "out
of their own head", as children so graphically put it, and young
children repeat this creative ability for a short time. The only
surprising thing is that we as adults do not respect it more, but seem
to keep most of our attention for related inessential aspects of
emerging speech like proper pronunciation, or remembering to say
"Please" and "Thank" you". Relative to what the child has learned
and is learning, these are minor skills: to ask a child to repeat her
utterance, but remembering to say it properly this time, is a little like
rebuking a man who has just saved you from drowning for not waiting
to be properly introduced first. There is much that the adult can do to
enrich the child's language, but it does not include correction of
gratuitous speech. Indeed such corrections often have the opposite
effect to that desired, viz. inhibiting the child's precious flow of
What then is the parent's or teacher's role in fostering language
development in the years from three to five? Some years ago in
speaking to an audience of early educators on the subject of child
language, I was at great pains to explain the importance of language
in the school curriculum in the period just after language has been
acquired, i.e. from four to six years. I entitled the lecture "Child
Language: old shoe or magic slipper", to express the idea that most
children will slip into language easily and comfortably as into an old
shoe, because they belong to a species that is made to speak a
language: they are as it were, pre-programmed to speak. True, they
need to be exposed to Irish or English or Chinese to be able to speak
Irish or English or Chinese, but they do not need someone standing
over them to see that they learn it. In these linguistic years, they
appear to pick out what they need in a remarkably quick time, and this
short exposure sets off their own language into an empty head, but
more like exposing the child to a little language which will then act as
a trigger to set off the child's own biologically pre-existing language
"programmes". Just as we cannot say that a child "learns" to walk,
because walking comes with growth and without much help from
anyone, so it is to some extent with language. Just as we might say
she "took her first steps" at fourteen months, so too should we say
she "put her first two words together" at twenty months. We are
wired up, prepared to speak, and this happens between the ages of
two and four years.
This early biological thrust to speaking and listening, or to what are
sometimes called the primary linguistic processes, does not apply to
reading and writing, the secondary linguistic processes. We are not
wired up to read and write, no more than we are to broadcast on radio
or to make audio-visual cassettes. Reading and writing, like these, are
man-made artificats. There is nothing inevitable about them, and
some cultures do not even have a written language, no more than
they have libraries or TV sets. Whereas we might say then, that the
years from two to four are biologically controlled, the years from four
to six may be said to be environmentally or socially controlled, or if the
child is at school, educationally controlled. And it is at this point.
beginning around three or four years of age, that the old shoe mayor
may not become a magic slipper, a magic slipper to carry the child into
the realms of literacy and human culture by means of books and
The language that the great bulk of four year olds possess on
entering school is perfectly adequate to carry them through all the
normal home and play transactions. They are able to express their
wants to their parents, be it for a drink, for sweets or to be taken to
MacDona Ids. They can shout and protest if someone annoys them, or
tell tales on another child, and report when they are feeling sick. They
can ask where their bike or lost shoe is, and pester their parents for
special treats. But all this is of a quite different quality to written
language. I do not propose here to discuss all the differences between
written and spoken language. The main difference is that most of our
spoken language and almost all of a four year old's language is
context-bound, whilst written language is not. One has to be in the
presence ofthe child to get her message, whereas a book may be read,
and usually is, in total isolation. For example, if you asked a five year
old a question like: "Who told you to draw on the paper?", the answer
would likely be "Her" or "She did", pointing at or just looking at the
person concerned. Most of the message comes from the meaning of
the gesture and the total situation, with the words carrying relatively
little information. And why should it be otherwise? If that message
were to stand on its own without gestures, as in a written passage it
would have to be something like: "The woman with the white blouse"
or "The woman that's minding me". Why should you say allthatwhen
you can do it so much more economically with a gesture, throwing in
perhaps one word for good measure. The gesture plus pared down
speech can make for effective inter-personal communication but it is
of little use in such non-personal communication as reading and
writing. The structure of reading and writing is more elaborate
because it has to carryall the information. As well as being selfsufficient it also has to be "rounded off", as half finished sentences
are not tolerated in writing as they are in speaking. The difference
between the language that the four year old brings to school, and the
language of reading books or written language, is the difference we
feel our selves between talking to someone and writing a letter to
them conveying the same information. The reason that the latter
gives us so much trouble does not reside in the motor act of writing so.
much as in the fact that we have to do a translation job first: we have
to translate our speech into written language, then write this written
language on paper.
The language of books, even of infant readers, is of necessity a
written language and therefore unknown to the non-reading child.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say unknown to some children
because it is here that we find one of the most important sources of
individual diffElrences, differences which are due almost entirely to
the home Jckground and socio-economic status of the family. The
child who has a repertoire of songs and poems, who has had stories
read to her, who has been encouraged to use speech for comment and
discussion as well as for on-going transactions, is already initiated
into written or "school" language. For the others, the teacher may be
the Open Sesame. The teaching task is to build a bridge between the
child's very impressive and effortlessly acquired speech, and his
ability to read written language, and to put his own speech in writing.
The child will acquire this only with considerable difficulty, and with
great effort on his part and on the part of his teacher.
These findings -from recent experimental research in the
psychology and sociology of language have far-reaching
consequences for practice in the infant classes. There are a numberof
ways in which the teacher might build them into classroom practice,
depending on the time available for individualised instruction.
The child's own speech can be transformed into reading
material. This is not the same thing as constructing an
"experience" reader from the child's own background of
experience. It is doing this but doing it in the child's own words;
we might call them linguistic experience readers. There is only
one way to do this accurately and that is to make a recording of
the child's speech. If this permanent record is not present for
evidence, the adult will gloss the child's speech and not even be
aware of the fact that they have tidied it up. Such a written
record would look something like this: "My Mammy is nice and
she's called Mary. My Mammy a/ways makes my tea, so she
does". The more usual written version found in books, even
children's books, would not repeat Mammy the second time but
say "she" instead, and would not contain the little bit of
circularity at the end which we all use in some shape or form
when we talk, but not when we write. These are just a few of
the differences between the child's language and written
language. However, we cannot gauge how a child might
construct his sentence until we have it on record. We know only
that it is likely to be very different from reading book language.
The child's existing speech can be improved upon and the child
can learn how to transform this into a closer approximation of
written language when the occasion demands. This is
sometimes called teaching for "language lift" or promoting
aracy. The term oracy is a useful one as it reminds us that we are
not teaching the child to speak: he can already do that. Our task
is (a) to get the child to put his language skills to work in the
classroom by whatever means we can, and (b) to work on this
freely expressed language to prepare for reading. Oracytraining
has received great attention in the last few years in many
countries. We might mention in passing the Bullock Report, subtitledA Language for Life, and the many practical programmes of
oracy, the best known being probably those of Joan Tough and
the Gahagans, all of the United Kingdom.
A third aid in transforming or lifting child's language in the infant
class is both traditional and routine in the infant programme, viz.
the reading of stories to children. There is a structure or format
to all stories, more subtle and often more undetected than that of
a beginning and an end. The "once upon a time" at the
beginning and the "happy ever after" at the end are part of the
structure, but there are other equally predictable elements in
between. There is a central character, usually a little boy or girl,
with a family constellation and friends around her. When there
is a journey, there will be a setting-off followed by an arrival.
Children who are fortunate enough to come from homes where
stories are frequently read to them will have a variety of story
structures which will match all eventualities without
necessarily having one word of "reading". How often have you
witnessed such a non-reading child go through, for example, an
entire Ladybird book, getting the sequences in their correct order
and sometimes - and sometimes not - reciting the written
words in parrot fashion. Such a child is half-way to reading, and
is engaging in the best kind of pre-reading activity. Psychologists
studying children's cognitive processes have interested
themselves in the kind of story structures or "scripts" that
children can call on from inside their memory. It is obvious that
the greater amount of scripts that the child has, the more
predictable will be the written material of the stories and the
better able will he be to guess what.comes next. We have known
for a long time that reading or telling stories to children helps
their speech and reading, and now we know that it is because
the repeated story structures are forming a scaffolding for future
forward planning when the child faces a page of text.
The other pre-reading skills such as letter discrimination, matching
letters to sound and word building, are well recognised and catered
for in the infant programme, butthe basic one of matching spoken and
written language, or the teaching of oral skills is now seen to be the
most effective because it is the most basic skill for embarking on
Returning then to the question of brain growth and language
development, it follows that if the basic syntactical and
communicative abilities are laid down by four years of age, then atthis
juncture, and perhaps even earlier, all children will benefit from
language enrichment and teaching of oral skills. Every month that
passes is taking the child from those twenty or so months of optimal
language acquisition in the linguistic genius period of development:
every month that passes is wideni ng the gap between the
competencies of the child from the language-stimulating home
background and those of the child from the language-deprived home
background, a gap that good infant teaching can hope to narrow.
Cognitive Skills
Closely tied up with the child's developing language skills is the
growth of conceptual development. Concepts may be called the tools
of thought and it is indeed with these that children build up their store
of knowledge and skills t~rough primary school and thereafter. The
primary teacher may take many of the basic concepts for granted: the
infant teachF!f dare not. When the child enters school, he has an array
of practical concepts which, again, like language, he has picked up for
the business of living, sleeping, eating, shopping and playing. The
world of concepts to which he will now be initiated in school, are
those which divide up our world mathematically and scientifically,
concepts of colour, time, space, size, number, and logic. There is,
accompanying the learning of these concepts, a vocabulary, a
technical language so to speak, which the child must know.
The difficulty in introducing these first, all-important concepts to a
four and five year old is that the language accompanying them is
deceptively easy. If it were a technically abstruse vocabulary like that
of chemistry or astronomy, we might do it better. The words for the
concepts we are teaching are every-day words like more, less, bigger,
in front of. later and soon. Because they are parts of our every-day
speech, we are tempted to take them for granted, not fully
appreciating the abstract structures they represent. Table 3 shows
some of the basic scientific and social concepts that must be learned
by a child. Those on the left hand side are abstract words showing the
areas we are trying to teach: the words on the right hand side are the
examples of these concepts we need toteach the child, and I think it is
obvious from the table that they are in fact words in every-day use.
Table 3. Typical Examples of Early Concepts
on top of
Saturday June
bigger Ismallest
"none left"
a pair of
same as/different
myself daughter
The familiarity of the words should not blunt an awareness ot their
inherent difficulty. If we do not recognise this, w~ ~annot plan fortheir
acquisition, and tick them off systematically when that has been done
for each single child in our care. Such detailed ticking-off requires a
level of detail in excess of that in the current Department of Education
Curriculum. However, the great upsurge in interest in early childhood
education over the last two decades has resulted in a plethora of
excellent curricula and handbooks. These tend to converge on well
agreed areas which include as well as language and cognitive skills,
manual and movement skills, self-awareness skills and social skills
(see My World; A Handbook of Ideas).
Just as most of the concepts that we are introducing to the child at
the beginning of school are accompanied by words or labels that are
used dozens of times a day by us, so too the activities that lead the
child to understand these concepts may also be very ordinary and
routine. The first and most important point to be made, of course, is
that the activity of the child provides and lays the ground for all real
cognitive development. This is the one most important insight that
Piaget passed on to us, and one that has found its way into all good
infant teaching. The young child's ability to snatch up a word and
repeat it parrot-fashion can blind us to the fact that the possession of a
word does not necessarily mean possession of the idea behind the
word. So our four year old chanting the words "one, two, three, four,
five" may signify no more and no less than his reciting "eenie,
meenie, minee, mo". It has been said that a word is just a label on an
empty bottle. Infant teachers certainly should treat it as such until
they can investigate if the bottle has any contents. Secondly the
activities that the child engages in, and the materials which he uses,
may be of a very simple and ordinary nature indeed. The value lies in
first what the child is doing with them and second how much the
educator-observer is in association with the child. For example, a
child slopping around in water with dishes might be imposing an
order by his mental activity, noting that the little fat dish held more
water than the big thin one, or that the lid of the small tea-pot fell
inside the big tea-pot, but not vice versa. Another child, faced with an
array of elaborate nesting cubes, might be doing nothing more than
banging on the desk, or using them as pretend lorries. I am not, or
course, suggesting that the child is wasting his time when he is
engaged in pretend play. Pretending and make belief are as essential
to the child's healthy development as food is to his physical
development. The point is that the trained teacher knows one from
the other and is unlikely to confuse them. Only thus can she extend
the child's mental internal activities, presenting the right word, the
provocative question, a new piece of equipment, introducing another
child, or just leaving the first child alone. The importance and value of
play are well known to the infant teacher: what she needs are the
space and facilities to permit play its rightful place in the curriculum.
Nor is it being suggested that good equipment in the classroom is
not of great imporlance. On the contrary, we can say that the quality
and quantity of material resourses of the classroom is more critical in
these years than at any other period in school. The point I am stressing
is that the most important equipment is the equipment inside the
head of the teacher. Teachers are sometimes only too aware that they
are expensively trained personnel, and feel that they have to justify
their existence by constant activity on their part; questioning the
child, planning guided discovery, or producing something tangible
and visible at the end of the day. By quietly watching a child
manipulate material, by eavesdropping on children's conversations,
the teacher's knowledge of the child and the child's competencies are
being put to professional use, with the teacher noting, observing and
planning for the next stage. Teaching, like beauty, is in the eye of the
beholder, in so far as informed observation is at the heart of good
infant teaching. For example, one of the impressive things about a
child who has been at school for a mere two or three months is that
they have learned the elements of time and know the difference
between Saturday, Sunday and days of the week, between morning
and evening. By the very act of attending the institution of school,
these time elements, essential for learning to read the clock and
calculate time, are borne in on the child through the structuring ofthe
week and of the day. This is done by the teacher, more often than not,
in an informal but highly effective manner. Just as in the other
mathematical concepts, it comes through a heightened awareness on
the part of the teacher as much as in any structured lessons on the
concept of TIME. While the teacher is absorbed in watching and
observing the child, she will be much less likely to push the child
beyond its capacities, or fail to extend the child's capacities, the twin
worries of the infant teacher.
Whilst the teacher is using materials to build up concepts, whether
these be purpose-built educational or teacher-made materials or
even everyday objects, she should bear in mind that these will be
novel to the child in varying degrees. Before a child can be asked to
pe~form mental acts with the objects, like putting naturally
corresponding objects together, putting one above another or
arranging objects in order of size, he or she needs a degree of
familiarity with the objects in the first instance. Children have a
strong natural curiosity and are compelled to look at new things. They
need time - and only they know how much time -to gaze and take in
the new information from the object; with their eyes, hands and ears.
When they have examined and 'got tothe bottom of' each object, then
and only then are they able to perform mental actions on them. Atthe
other end of the scale, children of this age can cease to find materials
sufficiently attractive to want to do anything with them, apart from
using them in play, in make-belief, or just throwing them around. Just
as the period of getting to know them can take longerthan for an older
child, their boredom with the same object can set in quick""
Social Thinking
Finally let us consider an area of thinking and learning which is of
paramount importance to the emotional and social wellbeing of our
children, as well as affecting their reading, mathematical and other
school skills. I am referring tothe child's thinking about himself, about
his father, mother, his brothers and sisters, his perception of other
people, his abilityto interpret his own emotions andtalkaboutthem, as
well as interpret the emotions of those around him. The reason why it
was not touched upon in this lecture was because it was too
important to be included, and would need another lecture. Rather
than omit it altogether, perhap.s at the end of the lecture I could
illustrate it with a story.
The event took place on the very first day of a reception class, a
reception class in a school which drew from all social groups. One
miserable, poorly fed and carelessly clad little bot sat asfar away from
the teacher as possible, at the back of the room. Like many children of
this age, his behaviour under stress showed evidence of regression
to an earlier stage in his thumb-sucking and in the fact that he hadjust
wet his pants. Another new entrant of the same age confidently
approached the teacher, and in a discreet low voice said: "Something
very embarrassing has happened. A little boy has wet his pants". The
social skill, poise and rich vacabulary separating the two children
must serve for today to remind us of the magnitude and i'mportance of
our role, and perhaps point the way our curriculum should be going in
the area of social thinking and social skills.
There are many areas of psychological development and education
that have not been touched upon in this lecture, such as physical
skills, aesthetic development, and in particular, the role of parents.
The difficulty in selection serves to highlight the fact that there is so
much to say in this newly expanding area of early education.
However, one final thought on the critical nature of the infant
teacher's work: a careful monitoring of each individual child's
development and progress can be a critical factor for the whole
educational future of the child. The infant educator, as well as being a
teacher, is engaged in work of critical prevention, the prevention of
remedial problems for the remainder of primary and possibly
secondary education.
In conclusion, might I say how impressive it is to observe how well
infant teachers know their children, in spite of all the difficulties of
large class size and inadequate equipment. The INTO organising
committee have to be congratulated in helping them to get to know
their children even better.
BATE, MARGARET, M. Smith and J. James 1981. Review of Tests and Assess·
ments in Early Education. N.F.E.R. - Nelson. Windsor.
BULLOCK, SIR AL.4N (Chairman) 1975. A language for life. (The Bullock Reportl
H. M. S. O. London.
CURTIS. AUDREY & 5. HILL. 1978. My World: A Handbook of Ideas. N.F.E.R.
GAHAGAN. D.M. & G.A .. 1970. Talk Reform: Exploration in Language for Infant
School Children. London Routledge & Kegan Paul.
McKEN NA. A. 1977. Child language: old shoe or magic slipper? Wychowanie w
przedskolu. 11. 528·534. Warsaw.
TOUGH. JOAN. 1976. Listening to children talking: A guide to the appraisal of
children's use of language. Ward Lock Educational for Schools Council
TOUGH, JOAN. 1977. Talking and learning: A guide to fostering communication
skills. Ward Lock Educational for Schools Council.
Education for young children:
infant classes in primary schools
Siobhan M. Hurley
Lecturer in Education
Mary Immaculate College. Limerick
In any treatment, however cursory, of the topic selected for
discussion in this session of our seminar, some attention must be
given both to the leading characters involved in the process being
considered and to the main strategies which they adopt with a viewto
achieving their objectives. In this paper, therefore, brief consideration
will be given first of all to the two main characters whose interaction
constitutes the focus of our attention, namely, the pupil and the
teacher. From there we shall go on to examine the blue print which is
meant to chart the course of this interaction, in other words, the
curriculum. And we shall then turn our attention to what, from a
practical point of view, is really the heart of the matter - the various
problems which in one way or another ensure that actual outcomes
are sometimes only a pale reflection of anticipated ones. It is the
latter, I imagine, which will provide greatest food for thought in our
subsequent workshop sessions.
The Protagonists
The Child
Each year another set of new entrants is admitted into infant
classes throughout the count .. · some are tearful, others smiling;
some are shy, others self-assertive. But for all of them it is the
beginning of a new era, and, whatever their temperament, it is a
process that involves upheaval and readjustment. We must not lose
sight of the fact that, whether it be at the age of four or five, and even
for the best-adjusted child, starting school can be an intimidating
experience. He is plunged from the small familiar world of home into
the much bigger and less personal one of school. he is called upon to
find his way around a new physical environment, to mix with new
children, to take his instructions from strange adults. The sense of
bewilderment at being left by his mother in these new surroundings
can sometimes be very real. Naturally enough, the busy teacher is
often tempted to assume that new children will quickly settle and to
make light of the 'silliness' of those who seem to betaking longer than
usual to do so. But the experiences of early school life can often play
an important part in determining, not only a child's longer-term
attitude to school, but also his attitude to new experiences in general.
All infant-school children are young children, but not all who attend
are the same age chronologically or in terms of maturity. Furthermore,
there are tremendous individual differences in development even
among children of the same chronological age. Una picks up the
scissors and uses them matter-of-factly while Sean is hesitant and
helpless in using such an instrument. Still, despite the wide range of
individual differences so common at this stage, there are some
characteristics infants share that are worth bearing in mind, the most
significant, perhaps, being that their behaviour from one minute to
the next can at times be marked by sudden and apparently unheralded
contrasts. These children are no longer babies, as they will tell you in
no uncertain terms; yet then need affection and support, and will
break down under excessive stress as though they were. They are
eager for information; yet they cannot concentrate for very long on
anyone area.
At this seminar our attention has already been drawn by Dr.
McKenna to the complex pattern of psychological and physical
development which characterises the young child at this stage. Atthe
physical level alone, we cannot help noticing that they are always
ready to run and climb and reach and grasp and shout. Watching them
in the playground we marvel at their energy as they race at full speed,
climb over self-imposed obstacles and screech with delight when
propelled into the air. Their co-ordination is still to be refined. They
therefore need a great deal of practice at such interesting skills as
jumping from or over objects of moderate height, suspending
themselves vertically by hands or by feet, or climbing swiftly up and
slowly down. Infants often choose to do something the hard way just
to give themselves interesting exercise.
Linguistically their potential is no less obvious. Infants love to talk.
With their keen ears, good memory and flexible tongues, four-, fiveand six-year-olds grow astonishingly in language power and in
vocabulary. At this age they can pick up a second language in the
same way in which they acquired their mother tongue. Current
experience suggests that younger children are particularly
responsive to informal opportunities for language acquisition. They
can use accurate intonations and inflexions when portraying a certain
character in dramatic play, they can learn many verses of a song, and
they delight in acquiring new words. especially appealing ones like
'millions and trillions'.
Substantial intellectual activity is also in evidence at this time. One
need only mention their constantly increasing power of reasoning,
their deep and often unanswerable questions, their absorption in
problem solving, fascination with a variety of mathematical concepts
and spontaneous interest in symbols. The children need and want a
chance to exercise their fast-growing minds. Yet they do not learn
primarily by passive attention to the teacher or mere receptivity to
information. Exercise of the mind at this stage comes about as partof
the total activity of the child and is accompanied by a sense of urgency
to find out now, on the spot.
Significant development is also to be expected on the social front.
The young child is small and frail. all around him, especially when he
has taken the major step into the wider world by coming to school, he
is confronted with greater size, strength and power. SOCially a fouryear-old is friendly and trusting. Even ill-treated and badly neglected
children of this age have seldom enough experience of anything else
with which to compare their lot, and anti-social attitudes, which they
may develop later, have not yet had time to put down roots. Just
occasionally a child is so accustomed to rough handling that he views
the teacher's kindly concern with mistrust and suspicion. But, on the
whole, almost all children of four, five or six years respond
enthusiastically and willingly to someone who listens to them and
takes an interest in what they are doing and thinking. This does not
mean that four- and five-year-olds are not frequently self-centred and
demanding. At school they have to learn to share and to take turns.
Sometimes this is very hard for them, especially if their mother has
always been at their beck and call. They usually have the capacity,
though, to recognize fairness and to respond enthusiastically to it.
While not as immediately obvious as certain other aspects of their
personality development, perceptible advances are also being made
in emotional growth and personality development. You can easily see
the increases in height and weight. But if you look closely you will also
see that a child in the infant school develops noticeably in personality
as well. During this period, in fact, he may change from a youngster
who seems to have no initiative and who only imitates what another
child does, into a child who asserts his preferences, expresses his
ideas and carries them out so that both teachers and other children
have a genuine respect for him.
This, then, in ,broad outline, is the main character in our plot.
brimming over with enthusuasm to be allowed develop
simultaneously along so many differer' 'rants. The essence of the
task he constitutes for the infant school must surely be to find the
most expeditious way possible of facilitating these spontaneous
tendencies to development which have begun to manifest
themselves. The task is undoubtedly a daunting one. To settle for
anything less, however, would be seriously to betray the implicittrust
placed in the school by this aspiring adult at perhaps the most crucial
stage of his development.
The Teacher
In coming to introduce our second protagonist, then, it must already
be obvious that the task which confronts the teacher is in anybody's
terms a formidable one. The work of the reception-class teacher is
different in some important ways from that of any other kind of
teacher. It used to be thought that she did not have to be particularly
clever and that any motherly soul who could count up to ten, wipe
noses and tie shoelaces could do the job competently. Fortunately,
educationists do not take that view nowadays.
The easing of children from home, where they have almost the
undivided attention of their mother, to school, where they have to
share the teacher with thirty or forty others, and where they are
expected to become self-reliant and learn in specific ways, is a highly
skilled job. Needless to mention, the reception-class teacher does
more of the wiping-and-washing, tying-and-buttoning type of task
than any other teacher, because her children are less capable of doing
these things for themselves. But this is not the main burden of her
work. On the reception-class teacher, for example, rests the weighty
responsibility for forming the child's attitude towards school. If we
can encourage him to enjoy coming to school, to enjoy learning, to
have a positive attitude towards his own progress and to pecome a
valued member of a group of children of his own age, then, whatever
his capabilities may be, we have laid good foundations for his
happiness and educational progress in school. This should be our
primary aim.
If we want the children to live happily in tomorrow's world, we must
be aware that personal prejudices affect our judgement of them. One
obvious example is that we teachers, being human, have to be on our
guard against being prejudiced in favour of behaviour that makes life
easier for us in the classroom. If we allow our personal preferences
such matters as manners and social niceties, neatness and
appearance, or the accents and social status of parents, to influence
our professional judgements, we can make serious mistakes when
assessing a child' ability. Assessment of potential for learning should
be based on such indicators as level of curiosity, ability and
determination in solving problems, increasing concentration span,
sensitivity to experience, breadth of vocabulary, and on emotional
factors like response to encouragement and reaction to new
challenges. Such assessment can only be made by someone trained
to know what to look for, who has observed a child carefully in
learning situations for a considerable time.
The effects of a teacher's judgement are more far-reaching and
have more influence than many people realize. The burden of making
accurate assessments lies heavily on every teacher, but especially on
infant teachers who make the first ones. Succeeding teachers often, if
only subconsciously, take earlier teachers' remarks into account. and
so prejudice can build up, especially as the child himself by this time
may be conforming to the official assessment of him.
The real test of the teacher's beneficial professional influence on
the child, however, will be in the manner in which she exploits to the
full the potential of the infant school curriculum, and it is to this aspect
of her work that we shall now direct our attention,
The Curriculum
Building a curriculum that is sufficiently varied to be relevant to
most if not all of the children must be the aim of every infant teacher.
The possibilities for social and intellectual development in infants call
for careful analysis of their capacities for achievement in these areas,
and for just as careful an examination of which aspects of the
environment should be built into the curriculum. The latter may well
be different for different groups of children, since their previous
experiences will differ as to familiarity with organizational
requirements, receptivity to materials, facility in adjusting to new
situations, and even familiarity with certain songs and stories.
A lot of thought is required to plan a day's programme and organize
the children's work and activities so as to cater for their all-round
development at this level. A structured scheme for language and
mathematics is clearly needed, due at least in part to the existence of
individual differences. A child is a bundle of many parts - physical,
intellectual, psychological, spiritual - and often there is no knowing
where one ends and another begins. Each one of these facets of our
human nature is itself fascinatingly complex and varied. one might
liken the individual human being to a telephone exchange. It is not
sufficient to have a limited number of lines in operation. In the one
case as in the other the real challenge lies in keeping the entire
system working at optimum capacity. Education, therefore, must help
the child to grow in each and everyone of the facets that constitute his
total make-up.
To take an obvious example: the activity we used to know as 'Drill'
has changed its name to 'Physical Education' because it is now
recognized that the skills involved are as much a part of real education
as the 3 R's. The name has changed, not because we think the new
one sounds nicer than the old, but because the new one is a more
adequate expression of what children are now doing in the periods on
the timetable labelled Physical Education. Each child is born with
abilities, powers, energies enfolded within him like a flower inside a
bud. Education is the sunshine that coaxes the bud to open and the
petals to unfold to their fullest size and perfection .
. Children learn best when the things they learn about have their
roots in their own interests and experiences. There are sound
psychological reasons for this. Children feel secure and at ease with
what they already know, and the teacher meeting them thus on their
own ground wins their confidence and friendship. They are then
willing and eager to set out with her on this educational treasure-
hunt, following all the clues she has laid forthem along the trail to the
rich prize of ever-growing knowledge and skill.
All this means that the role of the teacher is no longer that of a
dispenser of information in a haze of chalk-dust. She is a leader, a
guide whose function it is to help her children to think forthemselves
and to progress from one discovery to another and from concrete
examples to general principles and abstract reasoning. This is
delicate and demanding work and it presupposes a teacher who will
have the patience to watch and listen to her children with a view to
discovering from them the things they have at heart and the ways in
which their minds work. Then she will provide opportunities and
materials for these interests to be expressed in creative ways,
through art, drama, reading, writing and mathematics. She leads her
children along, step by step, as individuals or as members of a group,.
but only rarely all together as a class. This is to ensure that each child
can progress at his own rate, the brighter ones forging ahead as fast
as they like, the duller ones plodding along without feeling that they
have to try to catch up with the rest. In this way the latter are spared
the humiliation and discouragement which are the fore-runners of
failure throughout their school life.
The starting point of all education is the child, at whatever stage of
development we happen to find him. The aim of education is his
maturity, which is simply the ability to apply his knowledge, skills and
standards throughout his life in a way that is practical, persevering
and of benefit both to himself and to the whole community.
We have looked, then, at the nature of the child at infant level, atthe
complexity of the child's development and at the problem offraming a
curriculum suited to the needs and capacities of the infant. We
recogn ize the tremendous challenge wh ich th is task constitutes forthe
teacher. Perhaps the greatness of this challenge, however, arises not
so much from the extent to which young children are alike but from the
extent to which they differ. Who will deny that the level of individual
differences in entrants to our primary school system today is
greater than it has ever been before? Those infants who are fortunate,
either through the provision for them by their parents of educational
toys, colouring-books and pencils, story-readers, jig-saws and the like,
or'through a selective and enlightened exposure to television, or
perhaps through travel abroad, or even through the influence of
effective pre-school preparation, will arrive at school already well
advanced on the educational ladder. The result will bethatthosewho
come from less fortunate or even disadvantaged homes arrive at school
at an even lower starting-point, relatively speaking, than might have
been the case in the past. The question now is not simply how this
challenge can be met; for some teachers it has become a question of
whether it can be met at all.
The curriculum currently in operation in our schools allows the
greatest degree of flexibility in selecting the programmes most suited
to local circumstances, The school and its environment. the particular
aptitudes and interests of its pupils and teachers and the range of
facilities available to it are all relevant considerations when making
this selection. The emphasis which the curriculum places on the
creative areas is of vital importance and has rightly been welcomed by
teachers and children alike. It tends to correct the imbalance which
has long been a feature of the educational system, and which has
involved an over-emphasis on retention and recall and on waiting
passively for information and direction at the expense of the more
fundamentally important ability to question, to think independently, to
put things together in new ways and to discover for oneself.
The present curriculum seeks then to promote the growth of the
child in his various dimensions, not through mere instruction in a
variety of subject areas, but through a sequence of educative
experiences .. The teaching of content knowledge is secondary to the
development of a variety of skills. The basic skills of literacy and
numeracy remain a foundation but are accompanied by a range of
other skills - social skills and study skills, for example - all of which
lend themselves to the development of that ability essential for
survival in the world oftoday, and, we are told, even more essential for
survival in the world of tomorrow, namely, the ability to find out for
The Problems
Incomplete Understanding of Curriculum
With any curriculum there are problems. Our present curriculum,
despite its considerable virtues, is hindered by many practical
obstacles from really achieving the aims set for it. We as teachers
should be aware of these difficulties. Admittedly, the current
curriculum, by comparison with that which preceded it is still
relatively new. Indeed we still tend unconsciously to refer to it as 'the
New Curriculum'. But to what extent have we succeeded in exploiting
its many-sided potential and in availing of the rich opportunities
presented by its high degree of flexibility? To what extent have we
introduced the informality in approaches to learning it explicitly
encourages? To what extent have we escaped from the long tradition
of formal work at the infant level or indeed throughout the primary
The most fundamental difficulty with curriculum, then, is in relation
to its implementation. To implement any curriculum successfully we
must have a body of teachers, with adequate resources and backup
facilities including in-service tr~.,ling, who understand the basis of
the curriculum and who are prepared to implement it even in the face
of some opposition. You may wonder where this opposition could
come from. Occasionally it will come from fellow-teachers who either
have only an imperfect conception of what the curriculum really
offers, or who have become so inflexible in their own approaches that
they are not prepared to put their trust in something new, whatever its
theoretical merits. Opposition, however, can more frequently be
found to come from parents; and this brings us to our second point.
Educating the Parents
Despite efforts made through such publications as 'A.r nDaltaf Uile'
and 'Your Child and Your School' to inform parents, there can be no
doubt but that many parents have little understanding of the work of
primary teachers today, and large numbers of them remain quite
unconvinced of the value of approaches which are so radically
different from those of former days. This is especially a problem at
infant level. The infant teacher is concerned with developing
competency in the basic skill areas through emphasizing number
concepts and reading readiness, knowing how such a foundation will
later enable the child to forge ahead. She will also be concerned with
the creative aspects of the child's development as well as his social,
spiritual and physical growth. The painstaking work of the teacher in
carefully laying the foundation is not always appreciated by the parent
who is anxious to see the building take some shape above ground
level. In this area, too, we have ourfly-by-night builder who sets about
erecting a structure on a foundation of sand. We have all met the
children who arrive on the school door-step drilled in the rote
recitation of numbers one to ten, and whose parents are convinced
that they will be reading in weeks since they already have the
alphabet by heart.
If we are to avoid disappointing such parents, and if we are to win
their confidence in us as professionals, it is essential that we
establish the closest possible links between home and school. In so
doing we will often be engaged in educating the parent as well as the
child. The necessity for this approach was recognized by the Plowden
Report where we read (par. 129): 'It has long been recognised that
education is concerned with the whole man; hence forth it must be
concerned with the whole family.' Teachers, however, are becoming
increasingly conscious of the need for effective home-school links,
and this fact is borne out by the recent INTO Congress policy decision
in this matter.
Finding Effective Admission Procedures
A third problem manifests itself every year on the first schoolday in
September, when upto forty new entrants, and sometimes more, take
their places in the junior infant class. The problem is, in fact, twofold.
Quite clearly it is a problem for the teacher. The frustration involved in
attempting to develop an interpb. ~onal relationship with, and to act as
guide, as mentor and as substitute mother for forty individuals is not
to be underestimated. On the other hand, however, the problem for
the child should not be underestimated either. Coming, as most
children do, from a caring, secure relationship where the effective
child-adult ratio is 1:1, he is expected to take in his stride an
environment of apparent chaos, an environment of noise and
numbers, where a single caring adult is herself striving to operate
within the limits imposed by a ratio of 1 :40. For years we have spoken
of the pressures which large class sizes cause for teachers. it is my
firm conviction that a greater emphasis on the pressures which they
cause for children would bring speedier results in this area. After ali,
how many parents would place their child in a creche of forty? What,
in fact, is the largest number which a caring parent would tolerate in
the care of a single adult in existing playgroups and pre-schools?
Haphazard Pre-School Provision
The teacher's problems in this regard are compounded by the great
variety and lack of cohesion or organization to befound in the existing
forms of pre-school child-care provision, which range from simple
child-minding services through various kinds of playgroups and
nursery groups to the more formally organized pre-schools which are
quite specific in their effort to make at least some kind of structured
educational provision for the children. Each of these can, of course, in
its own way, quite successfully serve a particular need. Where the
difficulty arises, however, is when one of them attempts to fulfil
purposes which can only be catered for adequately by another. One
might refer in this regard to the admittedly rare instances which occur
of play-groups which sometimes set themselves the task of catering
for specifically educational objectives. Such instances prompt one to
ask: what is the point of having a carefully structured curriculum
providing for a continuous graded development through the full eight
years of primary school, and then permitting others, who may have
only the haziest and most superficial knowledge of that curriculum
and who may be totally lacking in anything approaching a
profeSSional understanding of the developmental needs of young
children, to set them objectives and to give them expectations which
in no way relate to what may reasonably be expected of them when
they eventually find themselves in the reception class in the infant
Inadequacy of Two- Year Cycle
Turning to problems of a different kind, one also notes with interest
the resolution of the INTO Congress which advocates extending the
present two-year infant cycle to a three-year one. Such a change
would, in my view, be most welcome if it were used to extend the
period of pre-formal preparation which all children should enjoy
before commencing the more formal work of the higher standards.
Given the relative shortness of the present two-year cycle, many
infant teachers, recognizing the value of informal work and play-type
activities, feel pressurized by the programme, by the parents, and on
occasion even by other teachers, into embarking at too early a stage
upon the more easily assessable, more obvious and more formal
aspects of schoolwork. An extra year, provided it is put to the right use,
and is not used to extend downwards still further th') commencement
of formal work, could be of tremendous advantage in laying a really
sound foundation for all subsequent endeavours in the field offormal
Shortness of Day
At the risk of drawing upon myself the ire of the junior-infant
teacher, let me highlight another related difficulty which sprang from
the long tradition of formal work even at the junior-infant level. Here
traditionally we have had a short day. But even with such a short day it
was still felt that the necessary minimum of formal work had to be
fitted in, thus leaving less timeforthe desirable informal activities. As
we now move into an era of less emphasis on formal and more on
informal work, is it not the case that the children will run less risk of
becoming exhausted? Will the teachers not now be less pressurized?
Will there not, accordingly, be reasonable grounds for arguing In
favour of the extension of our relatively short junior-infant day?
Deficient Background Services
One must ask whether the burden of the infant teacher would not
also be reduced by bringing support personnel into the classroom.
Such ancillary personnel, or teacher aides, have proven their
effectiveness in other countries. If they are needed and have been
found useful in countries which have considerably more favourable
pupil-teacher ratios, how much more essential are they in this
country where the ratio is still so unfavourable. Much ofthe drudgery
and many of the less professional aspects of the teacher's day, such
as mixing paints, laying out newspapers, tidying up, paring pencils,
perhaps even playground supervision, could be entrusted to an
appropriately trained teacher's aide. Many parents also would
welcome such involvement even on a rota basis. It is possible that
special courses could be organized, perhaps through the colleges of
education, for such personnel. The teacher of today, professional,
caring and confident in her approaches, has nothing to fear and has
much to gain from welcoming the purposeful presence of others in
her classroom.
Isolation of Classroom Teacher
In speaking of the infant teacher as a professional person, we
recognize the necessity for keeping up-to-date with new
developments·in the field of early childhood education. A constant reevaluation of our ideas, our procedures and our practice is required.
Such professional development is well-nigh impossible for the
individual isolated in his or her own classroom. Each year brings new
insights into this area for both the individual and the teaching
profession as a whole. Such insights can be shared through meeting
one's colleagues, through reading in this field and through a
continuous process of inservice study. It is now patently obvious that
specialist inservice courses on an ongoing basis should be available
to all infant teachers as one of the best means of advancing the
frontiers of our professional knowledge. In this regard one might ask:
when do infant teachers have an opportunity for such re-evaluation?
and how many infant teachers ever get together to discuss the
availability of resources, the preparation of apparatus, the grading of
materials or the structure and organization of specific programmes? If
at present many of them experience difficulty in making such
arrangements, surely the matter is sufficiently urgent to demand that
acceptable solutions to these difficulties be sought actively without
Inequitable Official Discrimination
My final point has to do with points! To be more precise, it relates to
the points system. You will have noticed that throughout our
discussion of schooling at infant level it has been necessary to
emphasize that the infant is a unique individual, that the infant level
has its unique problems, and that we have never seriously faced up to
the challenges or grappled with the problems of this level in a
comprehensive or organized manner. In other words, we have failed
to pay sufficient attention to the particular problems of the youngest
children in our system. Indeed it is worth noting that that great arbiter
of relative merit, the points system, gives to every child under nine
years of age a value of 1.5 points as opposed to a full 2 points for his
older brother or sister who is between nine and thirteen years of age.
The child in infant classes, in fact, is conceded a mere quarter of the
significance ascribed to a sixteen-year-old, who merits a full 6 points.
Since it is the points system which decides such significant questions
as the level of a principal's remuneration and the level of promotional
opportunity in general within the school, and since these are matters
which are by no means unrelated to the important question of how to
attract enthusiastic and enterprising teachers into that area of the
educational system where most can be done to alleviate the
damaging effects of social inequality, it is surely not unreasonable to
ask, with the best interests of the child at heart, whether in present
circumstances we can truthfully be said to cherish all the children of
the nation equally.
Schooling. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Inc .. 1977.
Curaclam na Bunscoile: Lamhleabhar an Oide. Baile Atha Cliath: an Roinn
Oideachais, 1971.
MITCHELL. CYNTHIA. Time for School. Harmondsworth Middx.: Penguin Books,
SPODEK. BERNARD. Early Childhood Education. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc..
United Kingdom. Report of the Central AdVisory Council lor Education. (The
Plowden Report.) Vol. /, London: HMSO. 1967.
Early education for children with
special needs
Anne O'Sullivan
Lecturer in Special Education, St. Patrick's College of Education
Rationale of Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs
Historically there have been two views on the impact of early
intervention on cognitive abilities. One view is that heredity sets the
limits of cognitive growth and intelligence, consequently home and
school training cannot develop the child's intelligence beyond the
limits set by inherited biological characteristics. Arthur Jensen was
one of the most outspoken proponentsofthe hereditary viewpoint. The
other viewpoint takes an enviromental perspective. It suggests that
school success is at least partly the product of early home and school
training. Consequently environmental experiences can accelerate
mental growth. Some of the influential work giving support to this
viewpoint included Hunt's famous book Intelligence and Experience
(1961) and Bloom's Stability and Change in Human Characteristics
(1964), the Skeels & Dye Iowa studies (1939),1942,1966), theKirkwork
(1958, 1965), and the work of Heber et al (1972). In the Skeels & Dye
study (1939) in Iowa 13 children of less than 3 years were removed
from an orphanage and placed in an institution for mental defectives.
These infants were placed only one to awardwith adolescent mentally
retarded girls who gave them attention and training. Therewas also a
comparison group that remained in the orphanage and received no
special training or care. Two years later the first group was found on
testing to have increased their IQ scores by an average of 27.5 pOints,
while the comparison group experienced an average decrease of 26.2
points in their scores. Follow-up studies 3 and 20 years later showed
that the differences between the groups were maintained in favour of
the experimental group.
In the Kirk study, two preschool groups were organised for young
mentally handicapped children, one of which received preschool
education and one of which did not. Children who received two
years preschool education increased in both mental and social
development and retained the increase to age eight. Those who did
not receive preschool education dropped in both their IQ and SQ.
The results of these and other studies led to the conclusion (Kirk,
Kliebhan & Lerner, 1978) that 'intensive and appropriate education at
an early age can account for a 20-30 point increase in IQ'. The later
Headstart findings provide support for the preventive function of early
intervention. According to Lerner et al (1981) 'the belief that
interventional strategies can enhance cognitive growth in children
provides the common cord binding together the fields of early
childhood and special education'.
There is, moreover, evidence that for children with severe learning
difficulties, the years before 6 may be critical for their grasp of
language (Mittler, 1979). It does seem that the arguments for early
intervention in the case of children with special needs are
overwhelmingly in favour. According to Professor Peter Mittler
(1979), 'there is now general acceptance of the principle that one
cannot begin early enough to work with a handicapped child and his
family. Services have to be provided right from the start; it is certainly
no use waiting for the child to go to school before providing skilled
professional help'.
The functions of early intervention are two-fold.
1. Preventive
By the time the child reaches school age precious learning time
has passed and developmental delays may have led to academic
Early intervention may reduce the number of children requiring
special education.
2. Developmental
Early intervention will serve to increase the potential of severely
handicapped children.
In the U.S. the early childhood movement for the handicapped has
received support from both State and national sources. At the federal
level the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services
within the Department of Education has placed early childhood
special education programmes as a 'top priority' item. PL94-142 (The
Education of An Handicapped Children), which is considered a
landmark in special education legislation, mandates free appropriate
public education for all children aged 3 to 21. Thefederal mandate for
children in the 3 to 21 age range is subject to the provisions in State
law for this age group. PL94-142 does not include the birth-to-three
population.' However as of 1977 ten states had legislation covering
children from birth onward.
In 1972 the Headstart legislation was revised. The revised
legislation required all Headstart programmes to include a minumum
of 10% of their enrolment to be identified as handicapped.
In the U.K. in 1977, according to the Warnock report, roughly only
one in six 3-5 year old children was attendin~ maintained nursery
school or nursery class in maintained primary schools. Within these
restricted numbers of children receiving nursery education, the
proportion of children with speCial needs appeared to be very limited
and more of these children were found (in one study at least) to be
attending playgroups and day nurseries. The Warnock Report
recommended that the provision of nursery education for all children
should be increased, so that opportunities for nursery education for
young children with special needs could be correspondingly
In Ireland, with a few exceptions, children with special needs do not
receive a state education below the 4yr level. The exceptions that I am
aware of are the Sean McDermott Street Preschool Centre and young
visually-impaired and hearing-impaired children who have the
services of peripatetic teachers and a preschool diagnostic class in
Temple St. hospital for children with language disorders. In Ireland,
according to Faughnan & O'Connor's NESC report the number of
children attending special schools or special classes (1.4% of the
school population) is similar to comparable figures in England and
Wales (1.8%) and Scotland (1.4%). This figure does not represent the
total number of children with special needs. It has been estimated in
8ritain that up to one child in five will have some sort of special need.
These are the children who in the Warnock Report's words 'are likely
to require some form of special educational provision at some time
during their school career'. At present in. Ireland, according to
Faughnan & O'Connor, special provision of some type is available for
just over 5% of the primary school population, 3% being in the form of
remedial teaching. It would appear then that at present in Ireland the
majority of children with special needs are being educated in ordinary
schools without any formal special provision, either at pre-primary or
primary level.
In order to provide for childen with special needs at an early stage,
one has to identify these children. The more obviously handicapped
children are easily identified. Children with Spina Bifida, Down's
Syndrome, severe Cerebral Palsy and total deafness or blindness can
be identified in the first hours or days of life. It becomes more difficult
to identify children whose handicaps are not so obvious, especially
those who fall into the mild category of handicap.
in the U.S. a federal programme 'Child Find' mandates States to
'actively" seek out those handicapped children who are currently
unserved, underserved, or inappropriately served'.
The steps involved are four:
1. Definirlg the target population
2. Increasing the public's awareness
3. Encouraging referrals
4. Canvassing the community for children in need of services.
Screening follows. A comprehensive list of medical and educational
conditions are included in screening programmes.
There are very grave problems, methodological and otherwise,
involved in screening and assessing children at an early age. For
instance, Lerner et al report that of forty-four preschool assessment
tests available nationally in the U.S. only five met the American
Psychological Association guidelines for educational and
psychological tests.
A start would have to be made to develop a reliable screening
process. At present, the identification of children with special
educational needs is donebyHealth Boards and probably serves only to
isolate those children whose handicap is moderate or severe rather
than to pick out those with mild degree of handicap, or those who will
experience learning problems in the ordinary school. There exists at
present no proper structure for identifying children with special
educational needs. The absence of a preschool system, the absence of
a Schools' Psychological Service makes the task impossible. Even at
present in infant classes no formalised attempt at assessment to
identify children with special needs is made. Some of the reason for
this gap is lack of skill in formal assessment techniques on the part of
infant teachers. It is due also to lack of a structure or tradition of
assessment within the primary school. No small part of it is due to lack
of time and resources.
In the last few years in Britain there has been a move towards
developing and trying out criterion-referenced assessment schedules
which can identify and pinpoint areas of developmental delay and/or
signs of handicap. Criterion-referenced assessment is to be
distinguished from norm-referenced assessment. Norm referenced
assessment is used to compare one individual's test performance
with another individual's on the same test. Criterion-referenced
assessment is used to compare the individual's performance with
some standard or criterion and is concerned with the individual's
ability to perform certain tasks. Examples include
1. The Behaviour Assessment Battery (Kiernan & Jones, 1978) a
battery primarily aimed at the young severely handicapped child.
2. The parent Involvement Project Developmental Charts (Jeffrey
& McConkey 1976). These charts are designed for mentally
handicapped children but useful for pinpointing specific problem
areas for other groups.
3. A Develop(TIental Schedule (Berry & Ives 1976)
These schedules cover a wide range of developmental processes
in gross motor, fine motor, social, personality and behaviour traits
There are several other examples, both British and American, for
use at pre-school and early primary levels.
The existence of a preschool system would in principle, at any rate,
permit the identification of children with special needs at an early
stage and the possible diagnosis and programming for spec'al needs
at this stage. The suggestion in the Warnock Report of special
education advisors would seem to be a good one. That and/or a
Schools' Psychological Service would appea'to be a necessary adjunct
to a preschool system which would attempt to help children with
special needs.
Characteristics of Early Intervention for Children with Special
The chief ways by which a programme of early intervention for
children with special needs would be characterised are:
A major emphasis on individual differences.
The intensive examination of tasks to be learned, or task
High level of parent involvement.
Flexibility the programme, and the setting will vary
according to the needs ascertained.
1. Individual Differences
The curriculum for the child with special needs at the early stages
would probably focus on the following areas:
Motor and Perceptual Skills
Cognitive Skills
Communication Skills
Social and Affective Skills.
Following assessment of the child's needs, an individual
programme would be worked out for each child in all of these areas.
For example, the child with special needs may have difficulty in the
last area above. There is some evidence to suggest that handicapped
children have psychosocial problems in addition to their other
handicaps. This aspect of their problem may be the most debilitating.
They may be rejected by parents, peers and teachers, and disliked or
ignored by others. They may be poor in perceiving social cues. These
children may need to be taught how to play. some of the research
done, for instance in St. Michael's House, would indicate that young
Down's Syndrome children develop spontaneous play more slowly
than normal children; and that they can be helped here by parents.
Wehman outlines four categories of play (1) exploratory play, (2) toy
play, (3) social play and (4) structured game play. The handicapped
child may need to be helped in any or all of these types.
The example of play illustrates the necessity for detailed
observation of the young child's behaviour, and the desirability for an
understanding and working knowledge of the teacher's part in
reinforcement theory, modelling, shaping behaviour, and methods of
behaviour recording and monitoring. It illustrates also the fact that the
young handicapped child will not learn many of the life tasks which in
other children we take for granted, and that education for this child
will involve teaching of these skills of living.
2. Task-Analysis
The rationale underlying this emphasis in teaching young
handicapped children, is that unlike the normal child for whom
learning will occur naturally and spontaneously, the young
handicapped child will not learn many tasks unless he is taught and,
moreover, will not learn unless the task to be learned is broken down
into successive steps, which are sequentially mastered. Another
aspect of task analysis relates to the child's learning style - to how
best the task should be presented. Thetask needs to be analysed from
the point of view of the demands it makes on the child's ability to
process information e.g. does it demand a visual, auditory or
tactual/kinaesthetic response - is the response at receptive or
expressive level.
3, Parent Involvement
Lerner et allist a number of reasons why parents should be involved
in early education of children with special needs.
Parents are in strategic positions: they know their children better
than anyone else and spend more time with them over an
extended period.
Parents can compensate for shortages of one-to-one services.
Parents can reduce the cost of instruction and other services.
Parents can solve time and distance problems, particularly in
rural areas.
They further outline four dimensions of parent programmes
1. Developing Parent Participation.
2. Supporting parents emotionally.
3. Exchanging information with parents
4. Improving Parent/Child interactions.
Programmes of parent participation are varied, both in the U.S. and
the U.K. some of them are worth mentioning:
1 . The Portage Projects
The Portage Project was developed in Wisconsin, U.S.A. and used
on both sides of.the Atlantic. It is a means of home-based teaching of
of skills to preschool children with a variety of developmental handicaps
or delays. The system is a structured method involving trained home
advisors who on a weekly basis supervise and monitor the parents'
handling and teaching of their own children, using schedules of
training skills and behaviours which cover six areas - infant
stimulation, self-help, motor, socialisation, cognitive and language.
A developmental checklist containing 580skills in these six areas is
accompanied by a set of cards, one for each skill on the checklist. and
outlining suggestions for teaching the skills. The use of the Portage
system was evaluated in Wales and England, and results were
positive in terms of mothers' responses and children's skills
acquisition. According to Mittler the system seems to provide an
effective and flexible approach to early intervention which helps the
child and supports the family. It is also remarkably cheap; the training
of home visitors can be complete in about a week, butthe system calls
for a series of weekly control meetings between all the home teachers
working in a particular area.
2. Putting-Two-Words-Together
This course, designed and evaluated by Dr. Roy McConkey of St.
Michael's House, uses 5 video-tape programmes. It aims to impart to
parents and teachers, techniques which have been found to be
effective in helping the early language development of mentally
handicapped children, particularly those around the 'two-word' stage
of expressive language.
For parents who cannot attend courses, or avail of a home<based
programmes, Souvenir Press have published some useful handbooks.
These include:
Starting Off, Kiernan, Jordan & Sounders, 1979
Let Me Speak, Jeffree & McConkey, 1976
Let Me Play, Jeffree, McConkey & Hewson, 1977.
These are just some examples of ways of helping parents. There are
others - self-help groups of parents for instance.
Organisation of Early Intervention for Children with Special
It is clear that no blanket system exists which would meet the needs
of all handicapped children.
A number of aspects pertinent to organisation are:
(11 Intervention at preschool level will need to commence shortly
after birth for some children .
.(21 Any system which is evolved will need to be flexible so that a
range of options would exist, which could be adapted to a
particular child's needs.
-:)tions might include:
(11 Home-based tuition.
(21 Attendance at a regular preschool either whole or part-time.
(31 Attendance at a special preschool class attached to an ordinary
(41 Attendance at a special preschool attached to a special school.
(51 A combination of any of the above.
It is particularly important that an openness be maintained as one
important aim would be integration. An optional balance would have
to be achieved between striving for integration and attempting to
meet the child's special needs. for instance, at present some
playgroups make a point of accepting handicapped children. this is a
good thing, from the point of view both of providing the young children
with social experience and the stimulation of normal children's
company, and of introducing the other children early to the notion of
handicap as a normal part of life. The danger is that specific
educational and developmental needs which might call for a more
specialist approach may be neglected and at a crucial period for
Training of Teachers
Much of what has gone before has implications for the role of the
teacher and training of teachers. Already in this country teachers are
working in homes with infants and their families (e.g. the Visiting
Teachers of the Visually and Hearing Impaired). Some beginnings are
being made in viewing the teacher as a professional whose skills are
useful in settings other than the classroom, and applicable to very, very
young children.
The question has to be faced, however, that if we are to meet the
needs of those 20% of children, the ordinary teacher probably needs
some training. We cannot hope that preschool education will do away
with special needs later or that the Special Education Diploma will do
it - at 40 per year, wewouldwait a longtime! some more economical
system will have to be employed. Training is needed at both
perservice and in-service levels. The preservice courses certainly
would appearto be a useful starting point. In-service training might be
organised along the lines of the pyramid model, where each person
who receives training passes on skills learned to a group of others. The
implications are far reaching.
I hand over to the Conference for consideration this issue which is
ultimately about teachers' own professional development.
To conclude, I would like to quote this passage from the Warnock
Report; it expresses very well my own feelings on this issue.
'Whatever else may come of our report. we hope that one
thing will be clear. Special education is a challenging and
intellectually demanding field for those engaged in it. More
researc.h is needed, more expeflments in teaching techniques,
in curriculum development, and in cooperation between
different professions. "Those who work with children with special
educational needs should regard themselves as having a crucial
and developing role in a society which is now committed, not
merely, to tending arId caring for its handicapped members, as a
matter of charity, but to educating them as a matter of right and
to developing their potential to the full.'
SLUMS. S. ET AL The Portage Project: A Parent's Guide to Early Education,
Cooperative Educational Service Agency 12. Portage, Wis.. U.S.A.
DES Special Education needs (Warnock Report). HMSO. 1978.
JEFFREE. O. ET AL Let Me Speak. Souvenir Press. 1976JEFFREE. O. ET AL Let Me Play. Souvenir Press. 1977.
KIERNAN. C. ET. AL. Starting Off. Souvenir Press. 1978.
LERNER, J. ET. AL. Special Education for the Early Years. Prentice Hall 1981.
McCONKEY. R. & O·CONNOR. M. Putting Two Words Together. St. Michael's
House, Dublin. 1978.
MITTLER, PETER People Not Patients: Problems & policies in Mental Handicap,
Methuen. 1979.
NESC (50) Major Issues in Planning Services for Mentally & Physically Handicapped Persons. Stationery Office. Dublin.
WOLFENDALE. S. & BRYANS. I. Idenfitication of Learning Difficulties: A Model
for Intervention MARE 1978.
Home and school in the education of
the young child
Elizabeth McGovern
Principal Teacher, Rutland Street Preschool
The past two decades have witnessed a rapid growth in interest in
early childhood education. Much of the impetus for this growth has
come from an appreciation of the importance of the early years for
later cognitive development. This appreciation has led, inevitably, to a
consideration of the role of the home. There is a growing recognition
that to consider the child in isolation from his family and community is
not sufficient if long term educational goals are to be realized.
The emphasis in much recent theorizing and practice has shifted,
therefore, from the sole consideration of the child to a concern forthe
adults surrounding him and to the relationship between them and the
child. Schools are awakening to the need to be more accessible and
more responsive to the family. Increasingly, the importance of parents
as active partners with the school in the education of the young child
is being acknowledged.
In this paper I will first look at evidence which supports this
welcome development. Then, I will review current attempts at
promoting liaison between home and school. Finally, I will consider
some practical implications for those of us dealing with the education
of the young child.
Why involve parents?
While there is undoubtedly a growing general interest among
teachers, psychologists, community workers, sociologists and policymakers in home-school liaison and the education of the young child,
much ignorance persists concerning its importance. There is
remarkably little consensus about what is involved. Certainly
'parental involvement' is a paradoxical and ambiguous concept. The
rights and duties of parents are enshrined in the Constitution and for
most of our history the family's involvement in the young child's
education required no justification. Indeed, for many, the introduction
of compulsory schooling was seen as a revolutionary invasion of
parental rights. Nevertheless, the past century has witnessed a
dramatic change in the relative roles played by the family and nonfamily institutions in the education and welfare olthe young child. It is
ironic that now, when more adults than ever before are literate, fewer
are directly involved inthe educational process.Atthesametimesocial
changes affecting the family as an institution are forcing parents into
greater consciousness oftheir child-rearing practices.
Furthermore, although much of the impetus for home-school
collaboration in early childhood education has come from that section
of education catering for children with special needs the
disadvantaged and the physically and mentally handicapped - it is
recognised that all children can benefit from such collaboration. To
create the best possible learning climate for their pupils is a common
goal ofthe teaching profession. It is clearthatthis cannot be achieved
if the most profound influences in the young child's life - his home,
family and parents - especially his mother - are ignored.
The increaSing awareness of the need for co-operation between
home and school has been prompted mainly by a growing body of
research that highlights the part children's home environment plays
in determining their school progress. In investigating the relationship
between environmental factors and sCholastic ability and attainment
much attention has been paid to social class membership. Numerous
studies have shown substantial correlations between parental social
class and intelligence and scholastic attainment on the one hand, and
various characteristics of the home on the other hand. (Chazan, 1976,
Davie, 1972, Douglas, 1964, Plowden, 1967, Kellaghan, 1977).
Among the material circumstances in the home which have attracted
attention are such variables as income level, family size and overcrowding. Not surprisingly, these have been found to have a
significant impact on school performance. More crucial, perhaps, are
cultural elements such as the quality of language used in the home, or
its level of literacy. (Fraser, 1959, Plowden, 1967). Furthermore,
several studies indicate that parental attitudes, motivation and
contact with the school are factors also related to children's school
progress (Douglas 1964, Floud, 1957). This research however, only
partly explains the mechanisms by which people's class membership
predispose them to educational success or failure.
More relevant to teachers anxious to understand their pupils' home
gackground and the effect it exercises on performance at school are
studies which attempt to explore the early environment of the child,
especially aspects of socialization such as the language, teaching
style and control techniques of the mother. Although providing
descriptions rather than explanations such research does indicate
that homes differ in certain respects. On the basis of such differences
some consequences for cognitive development have been identified.
The language of the family has been seen as an important medium
by which differences in cognition are effected (Bernstein, 1960,
1971, Woohon, 1974). The child's orientation towards using
language is induced by his mother's expectation of him and the talk he
hears from her. If a mother fails to extend her child's language beyond
his individual needs by responding minimally to his questions and
comments, or, indeed, by leaving him for long periods in the company
of his peers, the child will come to school with no sense of being
listened to, talked to, or thought of as an individual (Newson, 1976,
1977). His level of language ability will compare unfavourably with
that of the child whose mother welcomes and encourages his
attempts at verbal interaction (Robinson, 1972, Tough, 1977, Wells,
Related to this is the importance mothers attach to other aspects of
childrearing. The extent to which they recognize that this involves
helping the child develop an accurate picture of the world and a sense
of mastery of his environment can vary considerably. Some mothers
view the task of childrearing prinCipally in terms of physical care, and
of bringing up the child "properly". Hence the child is largely the
recipient of adult instructions. He is less frequently exposed to the
language through which teaching is carried out. Other mothers, while
sharing this concern for their children's physical well-being, also
advance their awareness by provoking them to explore, to question, to
solve problems and to use language as a means of thinking (Newson,
1968, Robinson, 1972, Tough, 1977, Woohon, 1974).
Differences in the way parents control their children have also been
observed. It is noted that some use techniques which discourage
discussion and offer few opportunities for choice. Such techniques, it
is argued, hinder cognitive growth which is fostered, rather, by
opportunities to extract general principles from situations, to link
cause and effect and to make choices. (Bernstein, 1960, Hess, 1967,
Woohon, 1974).
In other ways too, homes promote a range of school-related skills.
Through participation in a high proportion of indoor activities,
including being read to, some children come to school with a range of
attitudes and skills which ensure early and easy adjustment to their
new situation. Moreover, once there, some parents are better able to
monitor their progress (Newson 1968, 1976). This brief review of
aspects of home-background leads to the conclusion that the hidden
curriculum of the homes of the children we teach d" ,er, and may, in
many instances, be in conflict with. that of the school. There would
appear to be good theoretical and empirical grounds for regarding
domestic factors as crucial for educational success. These exercise a
formidable influence on learning readiness and predispose the
interaction of the young child with the school to a degree, we should
not underestimate. The implications for those of us involved in early
childhood education are clear. We must seek to actively collabClrate
with parents so that possible conflict between home and school is
reduced. The home must be seen as a focus for educational
intervention, and the early school years are an optimum time for such
efforts. Formal academic demands are at their lowest, and most
parents, for whom this period is a time for optimism, feel they can
cope with any tasks the school may ask them to undertake.
To answer the initial question then - why involve parents? We
have seen that some parents for a variety of socio-cultural reasons fail
to develop in their children the habits, skills and attitudes which
facilitate learning and easy adjustment to school. Many more are not
fully conscious of the significant contribution their continuing support
and encouragement could make to their children's school
performance. These parents need to be made aware of the aims and
objectives of the school and of how they can complement the work of
the school at home. Some may merely need to be alerted to their
responsibilities, others will need additional help to assist them
develop new skills and improve their existing ones. Without such
active cooperation between school and home many of our pupils may
never reach their full potential.
A review of current home-school links
Strategies which link home and school in joint educational effort
take many forms. They run the gamut from simple exchange of
information to serious attempts at aligning the values of the two
institutions by seeking to influence home factors such as the motherchild interaction patterns thought to be responsible for school failure.
For the purposes of this paper parental involvement will be
considered under two main headings: Home-based and School-based
Home-based strategies
Lest we consider that home intervention is irrelevant to those of us
who teach in schools, it must be stated at the outset that welldocumented work with parents and children in the home has provided
much relevant information applicable to the school situation.
Home visiting involves a series of regular visits to the home by a
teacher or other professional or paraprofessional person. Methods of
interacting wit.h the child and of teaching school-related skills and
concepts are demonstrated (to the mother alone, or to the mother with
the child). The hope is that shewill not only become a more competent
teacher of her own children but that she will be enabled to deal more
confidently with that part of her child's life represented by the school.
While home-visiting programmes are used with school-going
children -we are all familiar With visiting teachers ofthc hearing and
visually impaired child - this approach is more frequently used with
younger children, especially in disadvantaged communities. Irish
examples of the latter type have been the Rutland Street Pre-School
Home Programme (Holland, 1979) and the Kilkenny Home Visiting
Programme (Archer and Kellaghan 1975). The approach is also fairly
widely used in other countries such as the United States, Britain and
some European countries (Bronfenbrenner, 1975, Davies, 19B2,
Smith, 1975, Tizard, 1975).
An alternative approach is to invite the parent - usually the mother
- to come on a regular basis to the school or other centre. Here,
activities aimed at promoting the child's educational progress are
demonstrated and discussed, and the necessary teaching materials
are prepared. Through such techniques the parent is prepared forthe
task of "teaching" units at home; she bears full responsibility for
implementation. The regular session at the school, in addition to
helping develop teaching skills, boosts parental confidence. Results
from this approach are encouraging both with pre-schoolers, and in
programmes aimed at older children. With this latter group, such
'home programmes usually focus on aspects of reading.
It seems appropriate here to make a brief reference to occasional
visits by class teachers to homes. Whilewe in Ireland aretaking some
tentative steps in this direction, it is interesting to note that in some
countries, notably the Soviet Union, class teachers are expected to
visit homes at least once a year. While not advocating compulsory
home visiting, I believe in the value of such visits, both from personal
experience and from talking to teachers who visited homes - and
survived! Handled properly a home visit can be mutually informative
for teachers and parents, and does much to improve the quality ofthe
teacher-pupil and teacher-parent relationship. I do think that the full
benefit of a visit can only be truly appreciated by a teacher after the
In my own school teachers visit the homes of all newly-enrolled
children either before, or soon after the child enters school. They also
seek other opportunities to make brief visits, for example, to ask about
a sick pupil, or to take home a child not collected on time. Teachers in
the field of early childhood education are presented with a variety of
suitable opportunities for initiating visits to homes. Perhaps we
should seriously consider availing of these opportunities, in some
instances. at least.
School-based strategies
Strategies that link home and school are varied and happen at a
variety of levels, both educational and non-educational. The recent
INTO policy statement on home-school links provides a
comprehensive review of current practice. Therefore, rather than
reviewing specific approaches I wish instead to consider such
strategies from a different perspective, namely, in relation to the
varying roles they confer on parents. Generally speaking these can be
categorized as parents as supporters, as learners, as teachers of their
own children, as classroom helpers, and as management. Before
turning to these categories however, it is necessary to consider the
warmth or openness of our schools and ourselves, as teachers, to
parents. I am referring here to the atmosphere of tolerance and
warmth we create, indeed must create if we are serious about
involving parents and sharing with them the task of educating their
The first and most essential ingredient of satisfactory teacherparent relations is that parents should be able to sense that the
teacher is genuinely concerned for their children's welfare. Through
frequent casual contacts, which the infant teacher usually has,
parents have the opportunity to get to know the teacher as a person,
seeing her in a variety of moods and predicaments. The sheer
informality of such encounters robs them of any threat and helps build
a relationship between the two. It is this relationship which is the prerequisite of satisfactory and effective home-school cOllaboration.
We might ask ourselves the following questions. Do we leave
parents standing outside the school gate? Have we notices displayed
or implicit rules which say "No parents beyond this pOint"? Can we
greet parents by name? Are we readily available for consultation? Do'
parents spend time in our classrooms? I believe that we could do
much to improve our schools in this regard. (without creating
Parents as supporters: Most teachers will recognise the "parents
as supporters" role. Indeed, few schools could function properly
without encouraging parents in this role, for example, helping on
fund-raising committees, on outings, at concerts; providing materials
for arts and crafts, making tea, mending books and equipment etc.
Such contacts, although primarily of a non-educational nature, do
confer on parents a specific recognizable role and a real feeling of
being involved in the life of the school. Moreover, involvement of this
type is often a stepping stonetotheir wider involvement in community
affairs, especially in newly developed residential areas.
Parents as learners: This way of viewing parents is probably the
most relevant to us here. The underlying assumption we make is that
parents who are familiar with what is happening in school are better
able to reinforce and extend this work at home. Consequently, schools
communicate indirectly with parents through letters, reports,
information' leaflets and booklets, newsletters, and notice board
displays. We expect them to act upon the information received. In
. addition, parents are invited to meetings, films, discussion groups,
talks by experts and to open days, where discussion on their
children's progress is used. However, telling parents is not always
enough, some need a more active approach such as demonstrations, or
classes (e.g. explaining new Maths)andschools in increasing numbers
are providing these facilities.
Parents as teachers of their own children: Helping parents to
recognize their 'teaching role' is usually seen as a crucial component in
maximizing their children's potential. Some parents of schoolgoing children abdicate their responsibility in this regard, leaving the
full burden to fall on the "teacher-expert". Schools often need to
remind and where necessary, inform parents of their primary role.
More importantly, they need to create opportunities which help some
parents assume that role. Where necessary they should provide advice
or material to facilitate parental efforts. Homework seems an ideal
device for parent-teacher collaboration in this category, involving, as
it does, the parent working alongside the child on education activities.
Parents as aides and volunteers. This is a role parents are
beginning to fill, if only in a very limited way, in Irish schools, and is
in my opinion, one worth encouraging. It can involve the parent in
assisting the teacher by mending books, preparing art materials, and
in supervising groups of children at various activities within the
classroom, while the teacher works with individuals or small groups.
Teachers can also use parents very successfully to direct art activities
and to hear reading. The other obvious way of using parents as
volunteers is to capitalize on their own skills or talents in a variety of
areas such as hand-crafts, music or sport. Since the financial and
other resources of most schools are limited, we should not neglect
external assistance which may be available in the community. As in
the case of home-visiting, any fears we might have soon disappear,
and from personal observation the benefits are well worth the effort.
Parents as management. Until recently, parents playing a role in
policy-making or in management and planning is not something of
which we, in Ireland, have had much experience. In some countries
it is a recognized and accepted role for parents. Here, apart from some
isolated instances and the involvement of parents on management
committees, it is most frequently seen at pre-school level. It is a type
of involvement we will probably see more of in the future. For the
present, it is worth noting in passing, that writers on disadvantage
stress this as a vital way of giving people a sense of mastery of their
environment. It is claimed that only through such experiences will
parents change the way they interact with their children, thereby
facilitating their better adjustment to, and success at, school.
From this review it is evident. I think, that schools are already doing
much, both formally and informally. to foster home-school cooperation. Many teachers undervalue their own efforts and
frequently fai I to perceive the fu II extent, or benefit of their day-to-day
contacts with parents. Yet it is equally clear that we could do more no
matter how restricted our resources and facilities. If we are serious
about linking home and school we must become more professional in
our approach. By structuring our thinking on the matter we will be
better able to create opportunities which allow and encourage all
parents to playa role in their children's schooling according to their
needs and ability. Furthermore, we will become more adept at
utilizing situations which present themselves to us, and at gradually
coaxing parents into new and more complex levels of involvement.
Is home-school cooperation effective?
Having considered the various types of situations when home and
school can cooperate in the education of the young child, it is
opportune to ask how effective are such attempts? Even where no
formal evaluation is carried out, evidence based on observations from
parents, teachers and children is positive. Evaluation of individual
small-scale programmes do point to significant, measurable gains in
children's ability and attainment. Large scale longitudinal studies of
early education programmes are generally positive. (Bronfenbrenner,
1975; Kellaghan, 1977; Smith, 1975; Tizard, 1975).
To paraphrase the main findings we see:
- Home involvement strategies can have long-term impact on
ch ildren, in terms of sustai ned gains in 10 and on the parents, both in
relation to interaction with the child, and at a personal level. It can
also have an impact on siblings and even on neighbouring children.
- The effects in terms of measured 10 are greatest for children under
school age. For the school-going child parental involvement has
been proven to be a crucial component of successful programmes.
Its importance appears to lie in its being a catalyst for sustaining
and enhancing the effects ofthe school programmethroughoutthe
child's school career.
- Effects are diminished when parents fail to see themselves as
having a central role in their children's educational development.
- Finally, results from many studies indicate that home intervention,
without other supporting services, has limited applicability and
effectiveness with severly deprived families.
Some Guidelines for planning home-school contacts
From such evidence above, and from a general review of the
literature it is possible to abstract some guidelines to help teachers
plan effective home-school contacts. Briefly, these are:
- parents must be viewed as educators with a central role to play in
their children'S educational development;
- parental confidence in their own abilities and worth is a crucial
component of their competence in implementing anything the
school might ask them to do; schools need to help and encourage
parents to assume their responsibilities through collaboration
rather than by coercion;
-the sort of activities through which we choose to promote
cooperation should where possible, be closely related to the
curriculum the child is following in school; where possible too, they
should involve the parent and child working together in situations
which promote sustained verbal interaction;
- guidelines and advice given should be specific ratherthan general,
be individual to the child's needs and be presented actively if
- evaluation, however simple, must play an integral part; only inthis
way can impressionistic evidence about effects be verified, but
more importantly, it involves a continuous struggle to solve
theoretical and practical problems.
The role of the teacher
In the time that remains it is appropriate to reconsider an issue
central to the whole home-school liaison debate, that is, the role of
the teacher. While there is general agreement that the early school
years is an optimum time for such activity this does place a heavy
burden on the already over-worked teacher. She is paramount in
bringing parents to an early awareness of their crucial role in their
children's educational development. She has to find ways of
awakening, harnessing and directing parental interest and energy.
Not only must she be able to give specific detailed information to
parents on educational matters, but she is often expected to be an
expert on physical, social and other problems as well. She also
needs to be a good listener and be able to extract from and act upon
information parents have about their own children.
In order that teachers may begin totreatthe child and his family as a
unit they may need additional skills. More initial and inservice
training are required to acquaint both trainee and professional
teacher of current trends and findings in sociology, psycholinguistics and psychology, so that they may develop a fuller awareness
of, and empathy with, the life-style of the pupils in their care.
Teachers need to develop skills which help them to motivate and
communicate with adults of differing levels of education, to work with
professionals from other disciplines, to diagnose problems and to
select suitable stragegies for solving these problems. In addition, they
need time to reflect on what they are doing and to share experiences
with colleagues in similar situations. In particular, they merit the
support and encouragement of principal teachers who must be
prepared to facilitate their efforts at home-school liaison.
Regarding this last point, it is obvious that leadership must come
from principals and inspectors. The momentum within a school must
be initiated and sustained by the principal. A whole-school policy
needs to be adopted so that parents can experience consistency in
home-school collaboration and, equally, so that the efforts of
individual teachers are not to be dissipated when their pupils move on
to other teachers. Perhaps school staffs should ~gree a minimum
standard of involvement, e.g. (i) to promote a welcoming and tolerant
attitude towards parents, (ii) to open and maintain communication
channels between school and home, (iii) to establish times when
teachers are available for individual consultation, (iv) to hold open days
- once a year etc. Teachers who wish to attempt additional forms of
liaison or who are already doing so should be encouraged to do so.
In conclusion, this paper has been a plea for greater home-school
liaison in Irish schools particularly for the younger children. It has
reviewed research which underlines the important role home
background factors play in determining the young child's response to
learning. Practical steps which can be taken by teachers to improve
parents' contribution to their children'S educational careers have
been discussed and guidelines to help structure such efforts have
been listed. We have also seen that one can be modestly optimistic
about the outcome of any attempts made in this area. Our hope is that
both teachers and parents will rise to the challenge. What seems
certain is that parents whose role in their children's education has
been high-lighted and nurtured by home-school cooperation in the
early years will be unwilling to retreat for the rest of the children's
schooling to as passive a role as they have formerly been accorded or
have themselves adopted. Thus, time spent working with them now
may not only pay current dividends but future ones, as well.
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Disadvantaged Children", Irish Journal of Education. IX (1975): 5-27.
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BERNSTEIN. B. Class. Codes and Control. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971
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Struening rEds.) Handbook of Evaluation Research (Beverly H;tJs: Sage
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DAVIE. R.; BUTLER, N.; and GOLDSTEIN, H. From Birth to Seven: A report ofthe
National Child Development Study. London: Longman 1972.
DAVIES, A., ed. Language and Learning in Home and School. London: Heinemann
Educational Books, 1982.
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FLOUD. J. HALSEY, A.H.; and MARTIN, F.M, Social Class and Educational Opportunity. London: Heinemann, 1957.
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WOOTtON, A,J, "Talk in the Homes of Young Children", Sociology, VIII (1974):
Preschools, playschools, nursery
schools and classes
Kathleen Day
Former Principal Teacher, Rutland Street Preschool
The organisation of official educational provision for young children
in the Republic of Ireland has been relatively uncomplicated because
(i) the centralised control of education;
(ii) the education of young children as part of primary education;
(iii) the uniformity of teacher qualifications at primary level, and
(iv) the age of entry to formal school.
A look at our educational history shows that (iv) age of entry has
been the subject of attention from time to time. Compulsory
attendance at school for children from 6-14 was introduced in the
Republic from 1 January 1927 under the provisions of the School
Attendance Act, 1926. From Dr. J. Coolahan's article in the INTO journal
(Vol. 26. No.3, 1982) we learn of an even older tradition - that of
sending quite young children to school. Shortly after the issuing of the
1930 Rules for National Schools, the Minister for Education revised
Rule 60(i) which had read:
"No child under 3 years of age may be enrolled as a pupil in any
national school."
This was changed in 1934 and further amended in 1946 as follows:
1934 (March) Revision of Rules and Regulations, Rule 60(i) amended
to read as follows:
"No child under 4 years of age may be enrolled as a pupil in any
national school. "*
(1946) Revision of Rules and Regulations, amendment of Rule 60(i)
"No child under 4 years of age may be allowedto attend a national
school or to be enrolled as a pupil therein. .Unlike the general European pattern, we have a strong tradition of
school attendance among the pre-compulsory age group, whereby
about 85% of those aged 4 and 5 are in regular attendance in both
urban and rural areas. (Coolahan, 1982).
*No. of children involved, about 7,000.
Percentage of children attending a pre-school establishment
3. 4 and 5 years
5 years
4 years
3 years
6 years
5 and 6 years
3, 4, 5 and 6 years
Federal Republic
of Germany
5 years
4 years
3, 4. and 5 years
5 years
4 years
5 years
4 years
United Kingdom
(England and
Nursery class
Primary school
less than 1%
less than 1%
(excluding playgroups)
Extract from "Preschool Education in the European Community" Education Series
No. 12. Brussels. September, 1979.
If the term .preschool child is taken as a generic term to cover all
children who have not yet enrolled in a formal school system, it
applies to a different age range in different countries. In Denmark,
children of 6 are not yet all in school - in Britain, Luxembourg,
Belgium and France all children of 5 years attend an educational
A strategy for dealing with the educational provision for young
children in some European countries has been the gradual lowering
of the age of compulsory school attendance.
Of the terms included in the title ofthis paper - and other speakers
have shown us how imprecise the terminology is since the same term
means different things in different countries - that with the oldest
tradition would seem to be the nursery school. Until recent years it
was a common assumption that the British nursery school as it
evolved was archetypically the institution for the education of young
children once they were old enough to leave home. Yet a glance at a
history of education reveals that:(i)
the demand for nursery schools was related tothe enforcement of
rules for school attendance
(ii) the growth of nursery school provision was limited and sporadic,
(iii) nursery schools were separate from primary schools.
In Great Britain, the 1870 Act gave Boards of Education the power
to introduce bye-laws to insist on attendance at school for children
from 5-13. The 1920 Education Act made the schools the
responsibility of the Local Education Authorities and by this time the
tradition of attendance at school by children as young as 3 years was
well established. Figures for 1900 show that 43% of all 3-5 year olds
were in school - "a higher proportion than were attending nursery
and reception classes today"' (Hughes, 1980). These children were
predominantly working class. The great majority of middle and upper
class children were being cared for by nannies and nurse maids in
household nurseries. At the end of the last century the number of
nannies in employment is quoted as half a million. At this time, in
Ireland, girls read in their school text book that nursery education was
defined "as consisting chiefly in the judicious management of diet,
cleanliness, clothing, atmospherical temperature, respiration,
muscular exercise, sleep and the animal passions" (HMSO, 1873)and
nursery education was understood as taking place in the child's own
In Britain in 1905 inspectors of the Boards of Education
recommended the exclusion of children of under 5 from school and
complete discretion in the matter was given to the local authorities
without any stipulation that the change in the age of admission be
dependent on alternative arrangements being made. By 1926 the
number of under 5's attending school had fallen to 13%. In 1907 the
consultative committee of the Boards of Education was asked to
consider the need for making some provision for young children
whose home conditions were poor, the ideal institution for such
children and the advantages to be derived from attending at such
institutions which were to be called nursery schools.
As a result of its enquiry, the committee reported that though the
ideal place for a child under 5 was at home, "the economic and social
conditions of large numbers of children were such that special
nursery schools were best for them .. ' Their recommendations that
such schools should be attached to the public elementary schools 71
separate from them but nonetheless an integral part of them - was
significant and farseeing. The fragmentation of educational systems
may not always have been a good thing and indeed in the past decade
much thought is being given in many countries to the integration of
educational provision. "No profound impact is likely from any
programme as long as it remains isolated from the mainstream of
educational provision and is not planned as part of it." (Shipman). As
previously stated the development of nursery schools has been
inconsistent. By the Education Act 1918 local authorities were
empowered to supply nursery school places for children over 2 and
under 5 "whose attendance at such is necessary or desirable for their
healthy, physical and mental development." Unfortunately this Act.
while it gave recognition to the separate work and identity of the
nursery school also coloured attitudes as to the role of nursery
education. The result was that by 1921 an anomaly had been created
within the education act of that year whereby the nursery school was
classed as a special school out of the mainstream of the educational
The situation has not improved with the passing of time because
although the policy of the central government may have been to back
the expansion of nursery education, local authorities were not obliged
to adopt such a policy. During World War II the Ministry of Health
encouraged local authorities to open day nurseries so that mothers
could contribute to the war effort. Day nurseries in peace times were
not run by education departments but by the Departments of Health
and Social Services.
Day nurseries were not schools. They kept children for the whole
day and their personnel were trained with a bias towards health and
nursing care rather than education. The few day nurseries which
exist in this country, while not under the aegis of the Department of
Education, include some educational activity appropriate for the age
level of the children attending.
In the immediate post war years there was a great deal of heated
controversy, even in educational circles about whether the best place
for a child under 5 was at home or in a nursery school. The World
Health Organisation in 1951 stated "that the use of day nurseries and
creches has a particularly serious and permanently deleterious effect
on children". Certainly in the poorer urban areas in Britain "there was
a fairly widely held feeling that there was a social stigma about trying
to get one's child into a nursery. Nursery schools were regarded
traditionally as necessary provisions for deprived children rather than
a desirable educational provision." (Cave). Perhaps that ,cadition
owed something to the fact that the concern shown by the McMillan
sisters for deprived preschool children first brought nursery
education to the fore in public consciousness
A circular issued by the Ministry of Education in May 1960 stated
"no resources can at present be spared for the expansion of nursery
education and, in particular, no teachers can be spared who might
otherwise work with children of compulsory school age." It was not
until 1967 with the publication of the report of the Plowden
Committee that the demand for nursery education in Britain got a
tremendous impetus. The report recommended that nursery
education should be available to all those who wish for it".
It is possible to learn a lot about the viscissitudes of the nursery
school without getting a clear picture of what a nursery school is or of
what its function is. 'The word 'school' is misleading. There are no
formal lessons but children from 2-5 are supervised by trained staff
and given a stimulating environment in which, through selfdiscovery, they can broaden their outlook" (Van der Eyken, 1967). "A
nursery school is a small world run entirely for children, with
furniture and fittings of the right size, in which the grown ups only
business is that of providing such surroundings as will give every
child a chance of becoming a happy, creative, independent and useful
person" (Nursery Association of Britain and Northern Ireland).
The most recently opened nursery schools are custom built with an
outdoor playing area, open for the normal school year and staffed by a
teacher who is supported by nursery assistants. Teachers get either a
3 or 4 year college training or a one-year post graduate qualification
rather like a primary teacher's education in this country. Nursery
assistants are usually trained by the National Nursery Examination
Board which was set up for that purpose in 1944. The average sized
nursery school has 2 or 3 nursery classes with about 52 places per
school. The Department of Education and Science lays down
standards for premises, staffing, equipment and curriculum. A staff
child ratio of 1:13 is considered acceptable and one full time nursery
nurse (or 2 students) is recommended.
A strategy for circumventing the problem of scarce resources is the
nursery class. This is a class mainly for 4 year olds attached to infant
schools where children of preschool age are introduced to an
educational environment. The nursery class was suggested in the
1944 Education Act as a cheaper way of increasing the provision of
nursery education. Numbers attending must not exceed 30 for which
is provided one teacher and one full-time nursery assistant. Another
idea for the conservation of resources is the nursery annex whereby
the nursery school opens 'branch' classes some distance from the
main building in heavily populated areas and these are served by
peripatetic teachers.
The ethos of the nursery school was traditionally governed by the
belief that a good environment in which the young child's needs can
be satisfied under the care of understanding adults was sufficient in
launching each child on the world to eventually achieve his fulf
potential. The existing model available for some of the Head Start
programmes was the BritiSh nursery school and as Dr. Kellaghan has
pointed out in hi; paper this proved inadequate for the population at
which Head Start was aimed. Social and emotional development was
necp.ssary of course for all children who were preparing for formal
schooling but there were a lot of school relevant skills to be learned as
well. These were hardly likely to 'unfold' in a setting, however benign,
without the conscious intervention and direction of a teacher. By
school relevant skills are meant the skills appropriate to a child's age
and ability level which helps him to gain maximum benefit from
Some of these could be listed as follows: the ability to use and
understand language, the ability to listen and reflect, the ability to ask
for help i.e. use adults as resources, and the ability to persist with a
These are skills which are established at an early age. Bereiter and
Engelmann were early critics of what it was felt was the almost
laissez-faire approach of the nursery school ethos, and they set oullO
introduce clearly stated goals and structure into what children were
being taught.
The Rutland Street Preschool Centre opened in Dublin in 1969 and
was the only government funded model of a preschool in a
disadvantaged area in the Republic. From the outset it adopted a
structured approach. It had a curriculum modelled on what had been
established as good preschool practice in intervention projects in the
U.S.A. Its teachers were specially trained, their goals were clear and
parental participation was considered essential. (Kellaghan, 1977,
Holland, 1981). Undoubtedly the most extreme departure from
tradition was that of Bereiter and Engelmann, and although many
teachers of young children would reject it as beinga 'pressure cooker'
technique, it caused many to question their long cherished
assumptions about the nursery school and to look again at the
characteristics and needs of the young child.
The White Paper in Britain, (1972) announced the intention of
expanding nursery provision and a plan to set up a research
programme to monitor the development of the new provision. The
Social Sc.ience Research Council then invited Dr. Barbara Tizard to
review current research on preschool education in the U.K. and the
Scottish Council for Research and Education commissioned Mrs.
Jennifer Haystead to examine the demand for and supply of preschool
education. The greater part of funds allocated by the S.S.R.C. was
awarded to Professsor Bruner of the Oxford Preschool Research Unit
in 1975. The Schools Council project on preschool education was an
attempt to justify the traditional aspects of nursery schools and to
define what was 'deemed good practice in 1970' and to study
techniques used in different establishfT'°nts for the education of
young children. For all of us, parents and teachers with a special
interest in the education of the young, there is now much valuable
documentation on public library shelves.
Nursery schools in Ireland, where they exist, are privately run feepaying institutions which seem to be organised along Froebel or
Montessori lines. There were in 1980, 34 schools affiliated to the
Montessori Association. Some of these nurseries are attached to
private primary schools run by religious orders.
It is not surprising that the lack of places in nursery schools for
under fives in Britain sparked off a self-help effort amongst parents. A
letter to the Guardian in 1961 began what has been called the
'miracle of the post-war years' - the growth of the playgroup. The
playgroup is a group normally run by parents who charge a small fee
for each child attending, to provide a degree of recreation and
stimulus for local children. There is no formal teaching. Playgroup
sessions usually last 2-3 hours on 4-5 mornings a week. The
movement mushroomed and a national structure emerged, All those
involved believed that the groups were a stop gap for state nurseries.
Some see its roots in the co-operative nursery schools organised as
far back as the 20s in the U.S. on university campuses. Professor
Bruner remarks "No country in the world has achieved anything like
it."ln Australia the playgroup movement was also brought into being
by parents' initiative but was soon supported by the state, proportionately to the financial contribution of parents. In the U.S. parents' participation is largely restricted tofund raising by pressure groups like P.T.A.
Some states provide tra i n ing for parents. A three year fu II-ti me tra in i ng
is provided for playgroup leaders alongside teacher training in a
training college.
The playgroup movement is greatly influenced by the Play Centre
Movement of New Zealand. Parents initiate the play centre and a
remarkable spontaneity is maintained by a regular handing over of the
groups to the oncoming generation of parents. In Britain the first
national adviser to the playgroup movement was appointed with a
grant from D.E.S. and since 1972 the Department of Social Services is
responsible for the registration of playgroups.
Who is entitled to run a playgroup in the Republic of Ireland?
Under the existing statutory arrangements anyone can set up a
playgroup without registration or any other form of statutory control.
The Irish Preschool Playgroups Association was set up almost 20
years ago and it is affiliated to a similar group in Britain and Northern
Ireland. It has consistently called for statutory registration of
playgroups and in the absence of such legislation it offers its
members advice, training, insurance, a news-sheet, suggestions as
to activities and equipment together with voluntary registration.
Some see the movement as a vehicle for parent power.
The aims of the I.P.P.A. are as follows: to assist the promotion of
preschool education in Ireland; to seek a nationally recognised
training course; to set and maintain a code of standards for
playgroups; to hold meetings, lectures, seminars and to servicE> the
demand of members for training courses; to increase public
awareness of the needs of the preschool child and the value of
playgroups; and to cooperate with other organisations and persons
engaged in similar activities.
The Minister for Education has requested the V.E.Cs to assist in
training playgroup leaders. "The foundation course in the North
Strand vocational school has been awarded a certificate by Dublin
City V.E.C. The proposed foundation course in Ballyfermot Senior
Cycle College will be awarded a certificate from Maynooth College.
Certification for these two courses comes from the academic body in
association with LP.P.A. Limerick's foundation course is progressing
well but certification has still to be finalised." (Extract from address of
the chairman of LP.PA 1982).
Playgroups held in private homes are normally fee-paying while
community playgroups, generally staffed on a voluntary basis, charge
nominal fees. Mobile playgroups in converted buses are operated by
Dr. Barnardos, LS.P.C.C. and by a supermarket chain.
The I.P.PA has 767 members representing 692 playgroups in
every county in the country. The adult to child ratio in affiliated
playgroups is 1:846.7% of playgroups have parent participation, 74%
take handicapped children. The association has been given a
government grant to enable it to run a Dublin office and employ a
national advisor.
The following is an extract from the Minister for Education's
address to an O.M.E.P. (international preschool organisation)
seminar in May 1982. "The involvement of the child's family as an
active participant is critical to the success of any early childhood
intervention programme. Therefore it would seem than any future
developments in the education of young children should have as a
major objective the development of the self confidence of parents". In
a reference to empty classrooms in Dublin city schools he said "I
would like to see groups of parents and community interests organise
playgroups for young children in such classes." There are already a
few playgroups in national schools, both in well established and
developing areas. Their organisation and funding are separate, of
An Comhchoiste l'Ieamhscolafochta was set up in March 1978. It is
a joint committee for the promotion of schooling through Irish,
between Bord na Gaeilge and the voluntary organisation Na naionrai
Gaelacha. It is funded by Bord na Gaeilge. In April 1982 there were
one hundred Irish speaking groups involved with over 20 in Gaeltacht
areas. Practically all of the scoileanna lan-gaelacha have a naionra
attached and the children come from 90% English speaking homes.
Each naionra has an adult to child ratio of 8: 1 and with each there is a
stiuirtheoir and 11 cuntoir (director and assistant).
As well as instant . where mothers acting as individuals or as
groups set l!P playgroups other caring associations such as LS.P.C.C.
or Dr. Bernardos give help in certain areas in setting up playgroups for
children 'at risk'. Dr. Bernardos employ three community playgroup
advisors in the Dublin area. They have a playbus which is set up as a
playgroup venue and also used to provide practical training for
mothers. It has in the past year helped to start two community
playgroups and to provide playing facilities for children of travellers.
These also have a toy library in a mother and toddler setting. In recent
times Health Boards around the country have shown a willingness to
help in the setting up of playgroups for children at risk.
Both the playgroups and the naionrai insist that their chief aim is to
provide play opportunities.. They do not teach and they make no claim
to be a substitute for school.
We, as teachers, may have something to learn from the institutions
mentioned in this paper af"'d we certainly should have something to
contribute to the debate on the educational needs of children who are
not yet enrolled in school. It is worth noting again the stunted growth
of nursery education because it catered for children below
compulsory school age. Preschool provision of its nature will be
random, disperse and selective - only within a global framework
such as that of the national school system can a comprehensive
facility of universal access be guaranteed. Our school system has
failed to comprehend the implications of contemporary judgements
on early childhood education. As Barbara Tizard says "The pedagogy
of the early years is as yet undeveloped." It is good that researchers
here are now turning their attention towhat is happening in the infant
school. Recent work by Archer and O'Rourke concerns the
educational experiences of four-to-six-year-olds at present in national
If the school system seeks to develop a broader view of educationwhich is part of the theme of the papers in this seminar -the system
will have to change. Authority patterns will be altered in some way.
There will be a danger of role confusion. What is really crucial is that
the people within the system will have to change. There will have to
be changes on the part of classroom teachers, principals, inspectors,
training college personnel and parents. Everybody's expectations will
have to alter.
ARCHER P. and O'ROURKE B. Teaching Practice and Infant Classrooms - a
survey. Educational Research Centre, 1981.
COOLAHAN J. Who Makes the Rules for National Schools? - article in An Mllimeoir
Naisiunta. Vol. 26. No.3 pub. I.NTO 1982.
SHIPMAN MARTIN. The Limits of Positive Discrimination.
CARE R.G. Partnership for Change: Parents and Sc!1o,oJs Ward Lock EduC8.tiqn.
VAN DER EYKEN W. The Pre-school Years, Pelican 1967.
IRELAND, Oxford Branch Leaflet No.2.
BEREITER C. and ENGELMANN S. Teaching Disadvantaged Children in the
preschool. Englewood Cliffs. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1966.
HOLLAND S. Rutland Street Project Pergammon Press 1981.
KELLAGHAN T. The Evaluation of an Intervention Programme for Disadvantaged
Children NFER Co. 1977.
TIZARD B. Early Childhood Education NFER pub. Co. 1974
PARRY M. and ARCHER H. Two to Five - a handbook for students and teachers
pub. Schools Council 1975.
SEMINAR: 11112 June 1982
Friday 11th June:
3.00 - 3.45 p.m.
4.00 p.m.
Lecture: "'Education and the Psychological and
5.30 p.m.
7.00 p.m.
Physical Development of Young Children"
Dr. Anne McKenna, Lecturer in
Psychology. University College Dublin.
Mr. Morgan O'Connell, Vice-President,
Lecture: "Trends in Early Childhood Education".
Dr. Thomas Kellaghan. Director,
Educational Research Centre, St". Patrick's
College, Drumcondra.
8.30 p.m.
9.00 p.m.
Saturday 12th June:
9.00 a.m.
9.15 a.m.
9.50 a.m.
Lecture: "Schooling for Young Children in Infant
Classes in Primary Schools".
Ms. Siobhan Hurley, Lecturer, Mary
Immaculate College, Limerick.
Mr. Gerry Quigley, General Secretary,
Mr. John White. INTO Central Executive
Workshop Session.
10.20 a.m.
Report and General Discussion.
10.50 a.m.
11.10 a.m.
"Home and School in the Education of the
Young Child".
Ms. Elizabeth McGovern, Principal
Rutland Street Preschool, formerly teacher
responsible for home/school liaison.
Mr. Tom Gilmore. INTO Central
Executive Committee.
11.45 a.m.
Workshop Session.
12.20 p.m.
Report and General Discussion.
J2.45 p.m.
2.00 p.m.
Lecture: "Early Education for Children with Special
Ms. Anne O'Sullivan, Lecturer in Special
Education, St. Patrick's College,
Mr. Brendan Gilmore. INTO Central
Executive Committee.
2.35 p.m.
Workshop Session.
3.05 p.m.
Report and General Discussion.
3.30 p.m.
Lecture: "Preschools. Playschools, Nursery-schools
and Classes".
Mrs. Kathleen Day, former Principal of
Rutland Street Preschool.
Executive Committee.
4.15 p.m.
4.30 p.m. - Plenary
"The Future Development of Education for
Young Children".
5.30 p.m.
Mr. Morgan