Early Childhood Educators: Leading the Way in Times of Crisis
As I commence my role as President of OMEP Ireland, I reflect upon the birth of OMEP at a World Conference on Early Childhood Education in Prague, in 1948. At that conference, the new organisation, OMEP was recognised then, as it is now, as the principal mechanism to bring people together from all over the world, without any criteria other than to share information and initiate actions to benefit young children everywhere (https://worldomep.org). The aims and objectives of OMEP are to defend and promote the rights of the child with special emphasis on the right to education and care worldwide. To this end, OMEP supports any undertaking which can promote access to quality early childhood care and education. These objectives are as critical today, as they were in 1948, as an estimated 30 – 34 million children worldwide under the age of 18 years suffer displacement due to persecution, conflict, poverty, and human rights violations. Their right to quality early childhood care and education experiences is hampered at every turn.
Children are also suffering because of the Covid-19 Global pandemic. In fact, the United Nations (2020) notes that children risk being among its biggest victims in terms of the potential profound effects on their well-being. According to the World Economic Forum (2020) the pandemic disrupts every aspect of children’s lives including their health, development, learning, behaviour, their families’ economic security, their protection from violence and abuse and, their mental health. The economic and social consequences are immeasurable, and, the most vulnerable children suffer most.
It is during times like these that the crucial role, played by early childhood settings in providing refuge, security, stability and protection for young children comes to the fore. As Ireland grapples with the third wave of infection, which is endemic within communities throughout the country, early childhood settings have opened their doors to vulnerable children and children of essential workers since early January. Often, the early childhood educators leave their own children to care for other people’s children. They put their fear and anxiety of Covid-19 aside to ensure they provide the most positive experiences for the young children in their care.
Early childhood educators in Ireland have shown commitment, determination and leadership in the face of adversity. They have put children and families first and, led by example on a daily basis, as they have done since settings first re-opened in June 2020, following the first lockdown. They are positive role models for children, families and aspiring early childhood educators. They welcome young children into their settings, settle them into their play pods, sing with them, dance with them, read stories with them, play games with them, eat with them, wipe their tears, soothe their worried brow, reassure them, cajole them, rock them to sleep, and toilet them. The list is endless. When children return to their homes, these same early childhood educators prepare the environment for the next day. They ensure it is in a state of readiness (the concept of the prepared environment, so beloved of Maria Montessori) safe, warm, clean, orderly inviting and welcoming for the children when they return.
Let us not forget that early childhood educators deal with a multitude of issues alongside health and safety and infection prevention and control concerns within the setting. They also consider the needs, rights and interests of the children as well as the needs of parents and families. They must carefully balance and calibrate all their fears and worries about Covid-19 in the context of their own families against doing what is in the best interests of the children and families in their settings. In most instances, early childhood educators engage in this vital, often under-valued public service for less than the living wage of €12.30 per hour. Yet the quality of the young child’s experience in the early childhood setting is dependent upon the educator, whose role is increasingly complex and stressful. As OMEP Ireland salutes early childhood educators for their leadership, professionalism and integrity in these challenging times, we continue to defend and promote the rights of the child to quality early childhood education and care and, the right of educators to a professional wage for professional work.