Let’s talk about language: Lifting the early childhood profession with the right language

Written by Pauline Roberts

The early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector is one that constantly struggles to be recognised for its significant role in helping young children grow, learn, and develop.

A critical part of that challenge is the sector’s public perception, and how educators and researchers who work in this space talk about the sector. To that end, based on the work of one of our industry partners Early Childhood Australia, I would like to challenge ECEC professionals and researchers to think about how the right language can make a positive impact on the sector.

This blog focuses on the importance of language and outlines some small considerations that will make a difference to how we represent and talk about the early childhood profession. As an early childhood teacher, educator of the next generation of early childhood professionals, and member of the board of Early Childhood Australia – a peak national advocacy organisation, I am in a position to assist others in developing knowledge and understanding of the ECEC sector.

Working in the Educated Child program, and coming from the field of educational research, children and their adults, settings and schools are central to the work I do in my day-to-day professional life. It is important to have a shared understanding that how we talk about early childhood education matters. When engaging with young children, their adults, and services that support children’s healthy and safe growth, learning, and development, it is important that these interactions communicate respect and understanding of the roles being fulfilled.

Consistency and accuracy in the language used, particularly in relation to some key terms and phrases, is important for the standing of the sector within the community, but also for connection to our early childhood colleagues to demonstrate respect of the early years’ profession. In what follows, I identify two key terms or phrases to illustrate this further.  

  1. Talk about ‘birth’ not ‘zero’

One key term for educational research in the early years is the use of the word ‘birth’ rather than ‘zero’ when referring to children in their very early years. The international definition of ‘early childhood’ is from birth to age eight. Important growth and development occur not only before birth but also from the moment young children arrive in the world, and this qualifies them to be referred to as more than zero. A small change here recognises this important time of growth and development and shows the understanding of the broader context of young children and their adults.

  1. Refer to ‘early learning’ rather than ‘childcare’

Another key phrase of concern is that ‘childcare’ is used to refer to the settings that children attend prior to beginning formal schooling. The start date for young children entering formal school settings differs broadly across the country. The first year of school encompasses different ages, is named differently, and has different structures across Australia. However, the places children attend prior to moving to these formal learning institutions are sites of care, development, and learning. To honour this, we encourage researchers to use the phrases ‘early learning’ or ‘ECEC’ to recognise the important learning and development, in a caring environment, that happens within these settings.

Some other terms to be mindful of include:

Childcare workerEducator or early childhood teacher
CentreService or setting
DaycareEarly childhood service or setting
IndustrySector or profession

These small changes mean a lot to the integrity and important role of early childhood education and the work of educators in the lives of Australia’s youngest children. The profession thanks you in advance for your consideration of these ideas. The way we describe or name young children, the profession and the work of those within is important!

For more information, read Early Childhood Australia’s document How to talk about early childhood education and care, where you will also find some other useful resources and support.

I would like to thank Professor Lisa Kervin for her encouragement and support in the development of this blog.

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