Charting Terra Incognita: Inside the Unexplored World of Infants and their Caregivers

Project Category: Preparing a Highly Qualified 0-3 Workforce 

Cynthia Sheaks-McGowan, Ed.D.
Professor and Chair of the Department of Child Development and Education
Moorpark College

Introduction: Professionals across education, health, and social service settings who work with children and families must develop both competencies and knowledge rooted in developmental science (Institute of Medicine & National Research Council, 2015). Despite this recommendation, regulations governing the preparation of early educators are woefully inadequate, especially where infants and toddlers are concerned. Consequently, practitioners often do not regard infant care teaching as a professional endeavor, nor do they grasp the important neurological development occurring during this time of life. This situation undermines the attainment of successful outcomes for infants and their families (Ryan & Whitebook, 2012).

Associate degree granting institutions are well positioned to address this gap in workforce preparation, yet “core” early childhood (ECE) coursework frequently places greater emphasis upon the preschool years (ages 3 to 5) than upon the infant-toddler period (Austin, Whitebook, & Amanta, 2015).  Moreover, the trend in higher education toward streamlining college completion pathways has contributed to declining enrollment in elective ECE courses that would expand pre-professional learning. This project sought to address the problem by infusing infant-toddler content into an Observation and Assessment practicum course. This course previously focused upon preschool-aged children due, in part, to the limited availability of quality infant observation sites. The principal objectives of this project were to promote students’ abilities to recognize critical components of quality infant care (e.g., relationships characterized by attunement and reciprocity) and to explain its developmental significance through the lens of attachment and social neuroscience.

Methods:  The project involved 35 community college students enrolled in the Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood course. The participants, 32 female and 3 male, ranged in age from their early twenties to their early fifties. As is typical in community college, the students varied in their child development preparation and experience prior to enrollment.

Students completed an initial self-assessment and a demographic questionnaire. All were assigned to participate in a three-week infant observation “rotation”. While it was originally envisioned that the majority of these observations would be conducted in-person, most were completed utilizing videorecorded footage. A series of 3 two-hour seminar sessions were provided on the topics of brain development, attachment, and synchrony, and supported by assigned outside journal readings. Two in-class formative evaluations were collected, and students were assigned to submit 2 written observations accompanied by analyses. These documents were assessed to provide student feedback and determine trends in student learning. As a culminating experience, students participated in the creation of an ethnographic exhibit focused on infant care which was shared with the campus community. Lastly, participants completed a final self-evaluation in order to gauge student perspectives on changes in understanding that occurred.

Results: Student self-appraisals after the infant rotation indicated that 27 students rated themselves as either “familiar” or “very familiar” with infant development after completing the course activities as compared to 15 students at the project outset. These changes in ratings were not analyzed for statistical significance due to the small number of participants (Creswell, 2012). The students’ written observations demonstrated their learning by capturing the dance of attunement and relationship building that was taking place between infants and caregivers. Observers adeptly focused their descriptions on the sensitive serve and return interactions taking place. Furthermore, the participants’ analyses of these scenes revealed their developing comprehension of the connection between quality caregiving, reciprocal relationships, and healthy development.

Discussion: Student observations submitted throughout the project provided critical evidence of growth, as effective observers must choose which actions are worthy of documenting, and these decisions are based upon professional knowledge. The primary challenge encountered was a lack of student availability to participate in live observation opportunities. Recorded infant care footage was used to overcome this barrier, which also served to create a common experience for student reflection and discussion. It was questionable, however, whether video observation provided the same intensity and depth of experience as in-person observation. Additional project limitations included the small number of participants and the subjectivity involved in participant self-reporting.

This project created a valuable opportunity to rethink the delivery of a core child development course at the lower division level. To further inform higher education practice, research is warranted into the effectiveness of virtual as compared to live student observations. The optimal length of a student observation rotation could also be investigated. Specifically, would increasing the number of weeks devoted to infant-toddler observation yield more successful outcomes? Finally, in order to sustain this infant-toddler project, technological needs must be addressed. Access to diverse, quality video footage is required to create engaging and meaningful virtual observation experiences for students.

Cynthia Sheaks-McGowan, Ed.D.
Chair, Department of Child Development and Education
Moorpark College
7075 Campus Road
Moorpark, CA 93021


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