4. Learning Environments

Educators and what they do in early childhood education programs are essential to determining how effective programs are and how much children and their families benefit. Educators who have early childhood development knowledge and pedagogy use curriculum to design effective learning environments.

The You Bet I Care! study of Canadian child care programs concluded that physically safe environments with caring, supportive adults are the norm in the majority of centres in Canada. However, fewer than half of the preschool rooms (44.3%) and slightly more than a quarter of the infant/toddler rooms (28.7%), are also providing activities and materials that support and encourage children’s  development”.22 Stimulating environments were more likely when staff compensation and educational levels were higher, the study found. Reasonable salary and benefits, clear job responsibilities and obligations, and health and safety protections create a positive working climate for educators, which in turn create a quality setting for young children and their families.

The early childhood workforce is divided along the same policy lines that influence access and funding, with the same uneven results. Certified teachers mainly work for school boards, while early childhood educators have a range of employers, including non-profit  organizations, businesses and public agencies, the latter including local or provincial/territorial governments, post-secondary institutions and school boards. About 75 percent of staff working in child care and other preschool settings have a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree, in contrast to 57 percent of workers in all occupations.23 Despite the level of formal education, child care staff, particularly those employed by community or commercial child care programs, often earn less than the average provincial wage and benefits are minimal. Only Quebec, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island provide pension plans for child care staff.

Full-time positions requiring post-secondary qualifications average $36,900 per year, often without benefits, but there is considerable  variation. In contrast, teachers in kindergarten programs, as public sector employees with working environments established by collective bargaining, often earn more than twice as much. The large wage gap among educators is emerging as a major workforce issue as early childhood positions become integrated into schools. Privately-operated care programs cannot compete with the wages and working conditions offered by school boards and are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified educators.

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Other factors related to compensation affect the workforce. The poor infrastructure surrounding child care provides few resources for educators to support the increasingly complex needs of children and families. The lack of professional development opportunities and potential for advancement, the poor leadership in the sector and the overall lack of societal respect for the importance of what early childhood educators do eats away at one’s sense of professional worth. Qualified educators leave child care, to be replaced with less-qualified staff, creating a downward spiral of reduced quality and less favourable environments to attract and keep professional educators.

Provincial/territorial policies have focused on encouraging graduates to enter and remain in the field. Newfoundland and British Columbia both provide bursaries for graduates. Almost every province/territory has enhanced wage grants aimed at stabilizing the workforce. Prince Edward Island expects early childhood educators working in kindergarten programs to upgrade to a teaching degree with an ECE specialty by 2016. It is the only jurisdiction to require enhanced qualifications since Quebec overhauled its educational expectations for the sector in 1999.

Each province and territory has legislation, regulations and standards that govern the operation of regulated child care programs. They identify requirements for staff, which may include the following:

  • Post-secondary level training in early childhood development;
  • Ongoing professional development;
  • Certification or registration with a government or designated body; and/or
  • Background checks and processes to recognize qualifications acquired in a different jurisdiction.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland also expect enhanced qualifications for program directors.

No jurisdiction requires all staff in licensed child care or preschool centres to have a post-secondary credential in ECE, but all require some qualified staff. Several provinces/territories have minimum “entry level” training requirements for all staff, which vary from 40 to 120 hours of ECE course work. Where child/staff ratios are consistent across the country, the number of qualified early childhood  educators required varies widely. Working in a field dominated by untrained staff becomes another burden for an already over-burdened profession.

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In addition to the educational requirements, eight provinces/territories require all or some staff to be certified or registered. Registration (in Ontario), certification (in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon), licensing (British Columbia) and classification (in Manitoba and Nova Scotia) are all processes that provide official recognition as an early childhood educator and enable the registrant to work in an early childhood program. The regulatory body has the authority to set entry requirements and standards of practice; to assess applicants’ qualifications and academic credentials; to certify, register or license  qualified applicants; and to discipline members for unprofessional conduct.

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Curriculum

Most Canadian jurisdictions have now developed curriculum frameworks to support early childhood education.24 Alberta and Newfoundland’s are due for public release in late 2014, and the Northwest Territories full-day kindergarten curriculum is the base to expand its early learning approaches. Frameworks tend to be holistic and child-centred in their approach and constructed around learning and developmental goals. Where available, curriculum use is mandatory in school-operated settings, but it is not always a requirement in licensed child care.

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School-operated kindergarten and prekindergarten programs follow a more defined, educator-guided curriculum that is organized by broad subject areas, or they may extend the provincial/territorial elementary curriculum down into the kindergarten years. The curriculum contains specific learning standards or expectations and is divided into subject areas. The learning standards or expectations have a propensity to drive planning, along with the assessment and evaluation of children’s learning experiences.

Transition between any two phases of education poses challenges. The starting age for kindergarten ranges from 4.8 to 5.8 years (4.6 to 5.6 in Alberta), representing significant differences in child development. Yet the emergent curriculum frameworks designed for programs before children enter the public education system are not always aligned to kindergarten or primary school curriculum. Some jurisdictions have addressed this linking the goals of their early learning frameworks with kindergarten learning outcomes.

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22. Goelman, H., Doherty, G., Lero, D., LaGrange, A., Tougas, J. (2000). You Bet I Care! Caring and Learning Environments: Quality in Child Care Centres Across Canada. Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being, University of Guelph, Ontario. p. ix.

23. Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, custom tabulation S0814_04_Tab2.ivt.

24. Review of Early Learning Frameworks in Canada. Retrieved from
www.oise.utoronto.ca/atkinson/Resources/Topics/Curriculum_Pedagogy/index.html