Infant Care and Leadership: A Self-Study

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Caroline Stewart (ECEC Professional & Self-Study Participant)

 Brittany Paisley (ECEC Professional & Self-Study Participant)

Alvin Ngo (ECEC Professional & Self-Study Participant)

Tina Bonnett (Research Advisor)

” What are our experiences with, and perceptions of, infant care as it relates to leadership?

authors / ECE professionals in self-study

Introduction

Early childhood is one of the most crucial times as it sets a foundation for life (Lee, 2006; Jung, 2013). To this end, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) professionals possess a significant responsibility in that they must be well versed in the developing child to contribute to optimal outcomes (Ministry of Child and Youth Services, 2007; 2014). At the nexus of this is relationships, which are foundational to early years pedagogical practice in many areas across the globe (Honig, 2002; Ministry of Child and Youth Services, 2007; 2014; Page, 2017). Also relevant to early years pedagogical practice is the leadership capacity that ECEC’s must possess to effectively work within the sector (Davitt & Ryder, 2018). Problematic in this is that leadership, using a traditional system, is not responsive to the multidimensional work of infant care (Muijs et al., 2004). More comprehensive research is hence requisite to garner an understanding of infant care as it relates to leadership (Muijs et al., 2004). As such, three Early Childhood Education and Care Professionals embarked on Self-Study to probe their lived experiences working with infants, in the context of leadership. Principal themes recognized in this research included: 1. Complexities of Infant Care 2. Competencies Specific to Infant Care Leadership 3. Communication as a Key Competency 4. Loving, Caring Relationships in the Context of Infant Care and 5. Leadership Perceptions. These findings suggest that leadership capacity resides within ECEC’s who work with infants but is often overlooked. Findings furthermore reason that leadership approaches that are most fitting to guide infant caregiving require much deeper consideration. 

Infant interaction in care
Communication is a key competency in infant care

Literature Review

Tensions Between Infant Care Complexities And Devaluation

There is a breadth of expertise that is obligatory to the care and education of infants (Ministry of Child and Youth Services, 2007; 2014). To optimize potential in infants ECECs must be experts in varying domains of development inclusive of social, emotional, language, cognition, and motor (Chu, 2016; Recchia, et al., 2018). Furthermore, ECECs hold a role in elevating resiliency in infants through attention, care, and responsive relationships (Chu, 2016). Likewise love, which is as a core element of ECEC professional identity, is a reciprocal process and a precursor to creating synchronous relationships with infants, which is essential in infant/ECEC dyad relationships (Recchia et al., 2018). Tension is evident in this, however, as negative connotations are often affixed to care as it is regarded as burdensome and as a deficit (Langford et al., 2017). This has resulted in a reality where early years professionals are grossly undervalued in society, especially if they work with infants (Chu, 2016). This dichotomy, whereby infant care professionals are held accountable to play a significant role in contributing to the holistic developmental trajectory of the infant, whilst at the same time are devalued as they are not ‘real’ teachers (Ali, 2009; Garvis et al., 2013; Sumsion, 2007), pervades the field. Fallout of this includes low pay, poor working conditions, high turnover, inflated stress, and poverty risk for these professionals (Chu, 2016). Deepening this are expectations that ECECs create highly individualized curriculum that is specific to each infant, including a pedagogy based on emerging interests as well as individual plans for those with differential learning strengths and needs (Edwards & Raikes, 2002). Furthermore, infant caregivers are expected to use their position to create a culture where they reflect, develop their own beliefs, and advocate as dimension of “being relationship focused” (Davitt & Ryder, 2018, p. 21). The expertise surmised to be foundational to working with infants is clearly incongruous with the devaluation, inclusive of leadership capacity, that infant caregivers are subject to.

Leadership In Infant Care

Muijs et al. (2004) posit that for an early childhood program to be high quality leadership is paramount, however, leadership theorization and practice are rarely embedded in preservice or formal training. Leadership is often learned through watching senior employees in their roles or through professional development (Davitt & Ryder, 2018). Complicating this is that ECECs often take on leadership roles without conscious awareness because leadership in this field focuses more on practices than position (Heikka et al., 2013). This often leads to a struggle where those who work in the early years wrestle to view themselves positively as professional leaders, especially if they work with very young children (Heikka et al., 2013). This necessitates deliberation granted the complexities of infant care are typically not explicitly tangled with leadership (Chu, 2016). This very dilemma prompted three ECEC professionals to set out on a quest of Self-Study where they examined: What are our experiences with, and perceptions of, infant care as it relates to leadership?

Methodology

A qualitative approach allowed the self-study researchers to understand the central phenomenon (Creswell & Guetterman, 2019), which in this case was infant care leadership. Self-Study was chosen as a methodology as the three ECEC’s sought to examine their own experiences, bring a critical stance to their practice and engage collaboratively, with the vision of enhancing their practice (Tidwell et al., 2009). The fundamental goal of this research was to reflect on researcher’s work as emerging ECEC leaders, with the ultimate aim to elevate recognition of leadership capacity within those who work with infants in early years settings. All three early years professionals who engaged in this study possess a two-year college Early Childhood Education Diploma and have experience with infants in pre-service training and/or employment settings. Institutional ethics approval was secured to conduct this study, and ethics training was completed.

Data Collection And Analysis

Two data collection sources were employed in this research: 1. Individual Interviews and 2. Research Reflective Journals. The interviews were semi-structured and open-ended to foster depth within the data (Creswell & Guetterman, 2019). Each of the three self-study participants acted in both the role of interviewer and interviewee as they administered a set of five identical questions to one another. Questions probed the experiences that each participant has had working with infants, in connection to leadership. Researcher’s journals were also used as a data source as they captured each participant’s journey in research processes and offered a glimpse into their understanding of the research topic (Annink, 2017). The use of triangulation brought rigor to the study as more than one source of data was used to corroborate findings (Creswell & Guetterman, 2019).

Thematic analysis allowed participants to interpret the data and make sense of key content (Clarke et al., 2015), which was interview transcripts and individual research journals of the self-study participants. In vivo coding was applied to examine and develop meaning of the spoken and written words from both data collection methods (Garbett & Ovens, 2016; Rogers, 2018). A coding framework supported analysis and organization of data. Reoccurring words and concepts became the basis for the themes (Garbett & Ovens, 2016) that informed the findings of this study.  

Findings

Five prominent themes were uncovered in this research which are inclusive of 1. Complexities of Infant Care 2. Competencies Specific to Infant Care Leadership 3. Communication as a Key Competency 4. Loving, Caring Relationships in the Context of Infant Care and 5. Leadership Perceptions.


Complexities of Infant Care

The complexities of infant care became apparent as participants examined how infancy is a crucial time that informs lifelong well-being. This concept was articulated in the self-study as one participant communicated that infant care leaders must have a deep “understanding [of the] long-term importance of infant care”, elaborating that “the early years, especially infants’ experiences, have a profound impact on their futures”. Discussion ensued relating to brain development, providing extensive insight into the breadth of knowledge required by infant care leaders. A participant disclosed that during their post-secondary education they “learned a lot about brain development” as it pertained to infancy. This central phenomenon was re-iterated by another participant who explained that there is a “huge focus on infancy and infant care and brain development” within post-secondary early childhood education programs. A reflective journaling entry echoed this as one participant documented “I can relate to many of the concepts that [the other participants discuss] …Throughout my education I have continuously been told that an infant’s brain is like a sponge because it absorbs everything”. Participants examined how brain development in infancy sets the foundation for all other learning and development throughout life, thus leaders within this field must have comprehensive knowledge in this domain of study. The participants also explored the unique needs core to infant care (e.g., feeding and diapering) and how these seemingly custodial tasks not only inform development but also demand leadership. These findings illustrate that as physical needs of the infant are met that brain development is being nurtured. This was interrelated with evidence-based practice as one participant exemplified this stating that infant care professionals need “the knowledge and theoretical perspective and evidence behind infant development” in order to be leaders in the sector.

Competencies Specific to Infant Care Leadership

Leadership competencies distinct to infant care likewise prevailed as a central theme. Some of the leadership skills explored by self-study participants were found to be fundamental to working with infants. One participant explained that without these skills it is hard to be considered a leader. In the interview this participant stated that:

[Being] patient and organized is really important, as well and being empathetic towards the children. I feel like those are the leadership qualities I’ve exhibited throughout my work with infants. I think those are pretty main solid qualities you should have as a leader as well. Without those I feel like it would be hard to be considered a good leader.  

Also resonating in self-study data was the notion that infancy is a complex and critical time in which professionals need to make intentional decisions about their role as it relates to being in tune with and promoting wellness with infants. Self-study participants punctuated that infant care leaders must be acutely aware and attentive to how they play a role in shaping longitudinal outcomes of each infant they engage with. This was furthered as linkage was made to the criticality of observation to ensure that they are “remaining aware of the needs of each infant”, as infants often communicate their needs through both “non-verbal and verbal cues”. One participant professed that in addition to understanding knowledge typical to infant care that leadership requires an openness to “new concepts and theories” to ensure currency within practice. One participant ascertained that in the ever-evolving field of ECEC infant leaders must ensure that they are “learning new ways to apply” the most current research into their practice reflecting:

I am committed to learning and stretching my abilities and growing my philosophy and pedagogy surrounding infant care, I think when you are in the field for a long time, you start to feel like “this is it” and “I’ve done it” and you kinda forget that it is a continual learning process, and I think that is what kinda makes a leader in infant care, that the learning continues and the learning doesn’t stop when you have been in the field for a long time.

This highlights that continuous professional learning, including self-reflection and an ever-emerging pedagogical philosophy, are core to infant care leadership. 

Communication as a Key Competency 

In addition to the previously examined competencies, communication was highlighted as instrumental to infant care leadership thus warranting its own theme. Each participant touched on the aspect of communication as a key facet of the way in which they view leadership in infant care. They adjoined the ability to effectively communicate with colleagues, parents, and families of the infants in their care, with infant care leadership. One participant mentioned:

I definitely think that communication was one of the skills that I really exhibited. I built those relationships, and I could communicate with parents, and I could communicate with the infants.

Moreover, communication was framed by participants as a pillar of professional practice that accompanies leadership in infant care. They elaborated, suggesting that with increasing experience that they felt that they began to see themselves as more capable and confident in their abilities to communicate with infants and read their cues. Additionally, each participant named how they began to see themselves within a leadership paradigm as their ability to effectively communicate and connect with parents and families matured in their practice. One participant spoke about the way the parents perceived them as a leader in infant care because of their ability to communicate effectively about their infant’s development and share information. They exemplified this recalling “I think they could tell I knew what I was doing by the way I communicated with them about their daughter…I understood the experiences that she had”, while another participant reiterated this notion in their research journal documenting “the conversations that I had with parents and families were often quite brief but I was able to convey the important information about the children’s day and gain a better understanding of what their home life” [was like]. In both data sources the aptitude to effectively engage with families was emphasized as an aspect of leadership.

Communication with colleagues and other ECEC’s who worked with infants was similarly a prevalent topic that emerged in the data. Participants professed that communication with other professionals is not only essential to supporting infant development but is also contingent to leadership. A participant asserted this an interview sharing:

Another quality I think is important is communicating with not just the child but parents as well, and colleagues… There is a lot of diverse needs that exist in an infant room and where you are caring for more than one infant, so a lot of communication is necessary to provide that quality care and ensure you are remaining aware of the needs of each infant, and keeping up with their changing needs, and you are on the same page as your colleagues.

This theme was re-visited across both interviews and research journals as participants identified communication as not only elemental to quality infant care, but also leadership capability. Individualized care, according to participants, demands ongoing consultation and collaboration and therefore should be viewed as primary to leadership for those who work with the infant population.

Loving, Caring Relationships in the Context of Infant Care Leadership 

In tandem with communication, the concept of relationships arose in both interviews and journals as the topics of love and relationships were found to be key principles of infant care leadership. All three participants contended that the loving and caring relationships that they possess with the infants they care for, as well as the families and colleagues they encounter within their practice, define them as leaders. Recognition was offered to the “complex relationships that infants have with those that care about them and that provide their care”. One participant commented “I took initiative and established connections with the child and their family” in order to build meaningful relationships, establishing love and care as a domain of being an infant care leader. This was pointed out in an interview where a participate declared “every action I took was informed by a pedagogy based on love and care”, indicating that this is the nucleus of leadership in infant care. Another participant shared that throughout their educational experience “we talked about, a lot about care with infants, specifically in one of our classes, and how love and care is essential for our field”. This participant went on to examine how the inclusion of love in infant care allowed them to view their work in a more holistic manner. Reflecting on leadership another participant pointed out that “underlying love and care … informs all of my work in all of my practice”. This perception parallels current movements in the sector which deem that love and care are pedagogical tools (Recchia et al., 2018), thus underscoring the necessity to further examine the lack of fit between traditionally hierarchal leadership stances and infant care.

Leadership Perceptions

Perceptions of leadership and the ways in which others viewed the participants in the context of leadership, as well as the ways in which they viewed themselves, resonated as a final theme in this study. One participant recounted a time in which a parent disregarded their expertise as a leader as they recalled being told “wait, you’re not even a real teacher”. This concept was echoed by another participant who felt that they were not viewed as a leader because they were “new to the field”. Similarly, participants described their colleagues’ perceptions about those who worked with infants, indicating that they did not recognize leadership within those who work with the 0-2 population. Participants also described feelings of being unappreciated, “overlooked”, and without leadership capacity. It is to be questioned if this reflects dominant discourse in society which places education in a position of superiority over care (Langford, 2017). Alternately, self-study participants offered contrasting viewpoints to this as they explored connections between increased education (four year degree) and experience, and shifting self-perceptions that incorporated leadership as a component of their professional work and identity with infants.

Discussion

This self-study examined the lived experiences of ECECs, specifically in relation to their work as professionals caring for infants. Findings re-iterate that these professionals possess a deep understanding of the complexities that are akin to infant development and care. This corroborates with literature which supposes that infant care work is multifaceted and specialized (Chu, 2016). This is imperative to note given infants’ brains develop, between pregnancy and the first two years of life, at a higher rate than any other time (Macvarish, 2014), and in these formative years neural synapses that occur in infant’s developing brain informs all future interactions and learning (Thompson & Nelson, 2001). This calls for those who work with infants to reflect on intersections that may exist between expertise in early brain development and leadership, which may allow for more intentional probing of a leadership model or posture that best aligns with professionals who work with infants in early years environments.

 The concentrated emphasis on communication that participants found to be integral to infant care leadership also demands further appraisal in light that Davitt and Ryder (2018) claim that communication is one of the major strengths of an effective leader. The ability to communicate with a number of individuals was found to translate into the development of caring and responsive relationships in this study. Accompanying this arises the criticality, for those who work alongside infants, to delve into the interchange that may exist between love and care and leadership. In this it could prove advantageous to gauge how pedagogical postures that include love and care (Page, 2017; Rockel, 2009) show promise to underpin a fitting leadership stance for professionals in early education and care environments who work with infants.

The final theme that arose in the findings shows that perceptions of leadership vary from participant to participant, however that over all the three ECEC’s main to this study view themselves as leaders with a rich breadth of skills that demonstrate leadership capacity. This is important to for two reasons. First, some participants disclosures parallel Chu’s (2016) proposition that infant care leaders are some of the most neglected and disparaged individuals within the field of ECEC. Feelings of being unappreciated and overlooked resonated with self-study participants, which is problematic in light of the weighty responsibility that they carry regarding infant longitudinal well-being. Second, self-study participants increased work experience and earning a four-year early years bachelor’s degree served to build their confidence. This finding suggests that current trends in the sector that advocate for degree credentials (Norris, 2010) merit attention in both practice and policy agendas.

Conclusion

Research that investigates connections between infant care and leadership is dearth (Beck, 2016; Chu, 2016; Heikka et al., 2013). This self-study provides some insight into this field of research. Overall, our findings suggest that the gap between infant caregiving as a profession and leadership implicitly exists and would benefit from intentional notice to make it more explicit. Although leadership is not typically overtly interwoven with infant care, the findings of our self-study reveal that strong connections exist which encompass the Complexities of Infant Care; Competencies Specific to Infant Care Leadership; Communication as a Key Competency; Loving, Caring Relationships in the Context of Infant Care; and Leadership Perceptions. The three ECEC professionals who conducted this self-study hope to inspire others who work with infants to recognize that breadth of expertise that they possess, and how this lends itself to leadership.  

References

Ali, C. (2009). Impacts on the professional practice of kindergarten teachers working in long day care. Unpublished Honours thesis, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. 

Annink, A. (2017). Using the research journal during qualitative data collection in a cross-cultural context. Entrepreneurship Research Journal, 7(1).

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Clarke, V., Braun, V., & Hayfield, N. (2015). Thematic analysis. In: Smith, J.A., Ed., Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods. SAGE Publications, London.222-248.

Creswell, J. W., & Guetterman, T. C. (2019). Educational research: planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (6th ed.). Pearson. 

Davitt, G., & Ryder, D. (2018). Dispositions of a responsible early childhood education leader: Voices from the field. Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy & Practice, 33(1), 18-31.

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Page, J. (2017). Reframing infant-toddler pedagogy through a lens of professional love: Exploring narratives of professional practice in early childhood settings in England. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 18(4), 387-399.

Recchia, S. L., Shin, M., & Snaider, C. (2018). Where is the love? Developing loving relationships as an essential component of professional infant care. International Journal of Early Years Education, 26(2), 142–158.

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