The Importance of Early Childhood Education in an Age of Global Disruption

Steve Jacobson writes about his work with colleagues in New Zealand as they study ECE and how school leaders can assist parents. ECE is the foundation for learning and it’s crucial that all school systems provide high quality, evidence-based programs. Paula

It has long been understood that a high quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) has tremendous potential for enhancing a child’s future academic success, especially for youngsters from economically disadvantaged communities. This belief has been reconfirmed by findings from the Perry Preschool study in the US, which indicated that ‘quality’ ECE (not just any ECE) is a cost-efficient approach for improving the long-term school and career success of children, with societal returns of roughly $16 for every $1 spent (Schweinhart et al., 2005). In a recent study of three high quality ECE centers in New Zealand that serve diverse communities confronting various levels of economic disadvantage, my colleague Ross Notman of the University of Otago and I found another benefit, one that is harder to quantify, but one we feel is particularly relevant in this current period of global disruption and migration. Specifically, we found that while the ECE leaders in the centers we studied were most concerned with the social, emotional and intellectual development of the youngsters in their care, they were also very committed to improving the parenting skills of their youngsters’ parents. This was most notably the case for families fleeing political upheavals in parts of Europe and Southeast Asia and natural catastrophes in other parts of New Zealand, such as the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. For many of these parents, especially those who were first time parents, these relocations had led to a separation from their extended families and traditional supports for childrearing from parents and other relatives that they would have otherwise anticipated had their lives not been disrupted. As a result of these events, they now had to bring in an income and parent, but without the familial support they would have had prior to the disruption.

A preschool in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo taken with permission in February 2018 by PAC

The global magnitude and impact of such disruptions cannot be overstated. For example, data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees indicated that world-wide, immigration in 2013 reached 232 million, a figure larger than that of Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous nation. In other words, across the globe an increasing number of parents are having to go without the intergenerational wisdom and support of an extended family. Especially for the first-time parents in our study, we found that it was their child’s ECE leaders and teachers who were filling that gap by teaching them how to deal with challenging childhood behaviors such as anxiety, tantrums and/or physical aggression, many of which were exacerbated by the family’s relocation and dire economic circumstances.

Young children need exposure to lots and lots of books, something that is often a challenge in schools in marginalized communities. PAC


Our study revealed how important it was for these high-need ECE settings to become what Epstein (2011) has called a ‘family-like school’, in order to partially fill the familial gaps these parents were experiencing. The ECE leaders we studied worked hard to encourage their teachers to view parents as partners and provide them with helpful strategies and resources to support their children outside of school, which would go a long way to complement what faculty were doing in the center. Many of the parents we studied were confronting the types of socio-economic challenges common to high need communities, such as being a single parent household, having limited formal education, living below the poverty line, having unstable housing accommodations and limited time for their children. Moreover, having been displaced and cut off from their traditional familial support networks, the centers’ nurturing and engaging environments enabled them to begin to feel comfortable in entrusting their young ones to the center’s care and, more importantly, to begin modeling the parenting skills of the center’s skilled educational professionals. Parents told us how, once they began to develop some trust, they began to emulate at home what teachers and leaders had done in school as they dealt with the more challenging behaviors exhibited by their youngsters. Since many of these parents were not well-educated, nor familiar with the range of services available to them, they also very much appreciated the support they received from center leaders and teachers in identifying additional professional supports their children needed. This overlap between school and family deliberately developed by the center leaders helped these young, displaced parents build confidence in their own parenting abilities. As previously noted, we believe that these newly-learned parenting skills complement the faculty’s in-school efforts, and the impact these efforts have on after-school hour parenting may prove to be a key factor in a child’s future academic and career success.

More information about this study will be available later this year with the publications of: Jacobson, S. & Notman, R. (accepted 2018). Leadership in early childhood education (ECE): Implications for parental involvement from New Zealand. International Studies in Educational Administration, 46(1), and, Notman, R. & Jacobson, S. (accepted 2018). School leadership practices in early childhood education (ECE): Three case studies from New Zealand. In Leadership, Culture and School Success in High-Need Schools. E. Murakami, D. Gurr & R. Notman (Eds.) Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Meet Dr. Jacobson