Grant holder
Veronica Read, University of Roehampton
Project status
In Progress

A study analysing the lived experiences of children, parents and practitioners on the threshold of nursery, concerning the nature of saying farewell, with specific reference to the two-year-old early education entitlement.

Project summary

This doctoral study will describe the lived experience of what is often referred to as the nursery ‘drop off’, regarding it as an opportunity to learn and explain the phenomena afresh in an authentic and innovative manner.

The aim of the study is to analyse the nature of what passes between young children and adults at significant threshold moments in their lives. It proposes that the goodbye narratives, as told by those involved in daily transitions between the family home and childcare settings might be an under-used source of knowledge, worthy of further consideration, as indicated through previous narratives of parents who have felt marginalised during settling in processes at nursery (Hughes and Read 2012).

The Government funded 15 hours of free provision for two-year-old children is a policy initiative aimed at targeting poor families to counter the potential negative effects of living in circumstances considered not to facilitate their cognitive, personal and social development. Entry at aged two into a community of people who are not close family members raises the possibility of both ambivalence and challenge in the process for both the child and parent. Staff who are initially strangers to the families, require sensitivity and empathy when extending a welcome to the adults of children who may have experienced periods of unpredictability and deprivation in the first 24 months of their lives. If young children are to be required to manage without a familiar caregiver, in an unfamiliar environment, it is possible these early experiences might have an impact in future years, without necessarily being consciously remembered. We could say that these threshold or liminal moments (Turner 1974) of ‘the betwixt and between’ remain within us as a vague or inarticulate kind of memory.

The experience of saying goodbye might be felt in the early weeks by some children and their carers as intense, acute, short lived episodes of profound daily distress. This study will follow a group of nine children who are two -years -old, their parents, and key staff during their first month at three respective nurseries. Adults tasked with the ability to begin where each child is and not where national drivers say they ought to be, require an attitude of respect and interest in young children’s experiences during these early separations. The research will focus on the lived experiences of young children and adults shaped by the networks of relationships which bind them together through the farewell process.

In a Froebelian spirit of respect and interest in each child as unique, the research will use an Adapted Tavistock Observational Method (ATOM) (Elfer 2017) intent on reflecting a deep involvement in the experience of the child through the process of feeling, hearing, and seeing what the experience might be like for those involved. The research will focus primarily on the engagement between adults and children and will emphasise the Frobelian principle of ‘the right of children to protection from harm, or abuse and of the promotion of their overall well-being’.

The proposed ethnographic study is timely in terms of the continuing early childhood education and care (ECEC) discourse about the quality of provision for infants and young children under the age of three years old. This piece of research is sparked by intermittent contemporary, electoral promises to close the attainment gap by extending the current provision to 30 hours for two -year -old children, as most recently articulated by the Labour Party in their manifesto. As ever younger children spend longer periods of time being cared for outside the family home, the latest developments in brain science (Gerhart 2004), reveal that the first two years of life offer a window of opportunity for nurture and close attachments. By contrast, laying the foundations for social mobility seems to correlate with longer periods of time apart for young children and their primary caregivers, with leave- taking becoming a normal, daily childhood experience.

The study proposes there might be more to these experience of goodbye than meets the eye. This research will offer a contribution to the area of developing compassionate paradigms (Taggart 2016) and contextually sensitive practice which values and places children at the heart of all social processes which affect them and respects their contribution as participants in change. Furthermore, it will investigate whether parental knowledge is equitable with professional pedagogy (Hughes and MacNaughton 2000) and whether the narratives gathered at both an individual level and group level reveal any common preoccupations for participants concerning early separation processes. This study offers the potential for transitions to be hybrid spaces where pedagogical practice is subject to reflection and listening, and attentive to very young children’s congruent states of being both ‘competent and vulnerable’ (Kalliala 2004).

This ethnographic study will describe how different settings support parents and their two- year- old children in the early stages of accessing the 15 hours of provision and whether these lived experiences are empathic, potentially joyful, shared opportunities for caregiving and careseeking, allowing both young children and adults an opportunity to discover something different for themselves about the nature of relationships in group care settings (Bowlby, Robertson & Rosenbluth 1952, Ainsworth & Bell 1970, Goldschmeid & Jackson 2004, Elfer & Dearnley 2007, Page 2008, Leach 2009, Read 2015) Two-year-old children may not have acquired the capacity to infer mental states of self, and others but as ‘connected’ toddlers, they are considered to feel other peoples’ minds (Zeedyk 2011). ‘Poised as they are, on the cusp between babyhood and childhood’ (Miller 2004), two-year-old children are in need of ‘a great deal of cherishing and care’.

The research will be looked at through a Foulkesian group analytic lens, namely the idea that there are multiple communications occurring within the open system of the nursery context at any one time. This concept of a matrix of connections relating to interconnectedness has dictated the range and variety of data to be captured and the research questions:

  • What do observations reveal about children’s arrival at nursery?
  • How do children express their feelings about coming to and settling into nursery?
  • What do parents tell us about their experiences of separation from their children?
  • How do practitioners understand their role in the transitional process from home to nursery?
  • How do practitioners talk together about children arriving and going home?

The data gathered will be tripartite in nature. Firstly, what the child tells us about their unique experience of starting at nursery will be captured through ATOM observations. Secondly, what the dynamic interactions between practitioners and parents tell us about farewells will be captured in the semi- structured interviews and fieldnotes. Thirdly, the preoccupations of the practitioner team as a whole will be explored through their response to the choice of topics presented in the Collaborative Problem Solving sessions, the setting’s documentation and pedagogical influences. The research project will attempt to make meaning from this ‘hypothetical web of communication and relationships’ (Foulkes 1964) woven together across the daily interactions on the nursery threshold.

A final report is expected in 2022 and will be published here.