Initially, Annica Löfdahl Hultman and her colleagues intended to focus on what is documented when preschools engage in quality assurance work.
Their investigations led them to a surprising discovery. Preschool staff very rarely discuss the notion of care. Moreover, care is not being well documented.
‘Care is both something physical and something interpersonal in the context of preschools’, according to Annica Löfdahl Hultman.
‘We had the impression that care was a key aspect of working in a preschool environment. Why is it not being documented?’
The question piqued the curiosity of the researcher and her colleagues. They wanted to investigate how preschool employees define the notion of care.
The researchers employed a method known as participative observation, attending personnel meetings at preschools in two municipalities in Sweden. They also interviewed 14 preschool head teachers and two teachers.
Care is a competency that is rarely mentioned.
Two ways to provide care
‘In the context of preschool, care is both something physical and something interpersonal’, comments Hultman.
‘The physical aspects include feeding, bathing, changing nappies and providing care for little ones in the purely body-related sense. The interpersonal aspects involve providing validation, listening to what a child has to say, giving it love and protection, and providing developmental support.’
When the researchers ask preschool teachers and head teachers to define “care”, they get a wide variety of responses.
One of the head teachers stated that: ’Care is working with the child per se; it is the very essence of what we do.’
The researchers interpret this to mean that the notion of care is so central that it need hardly be mentioned.
One teacher is of the opinion that the type of care that concerns parents is whether their child eats well, sleeps or develops good toilet habits.
Some preschool teachers refer to care as something stressful, either physically or psychologically, depending on whether it involves heavy lifting or breaking up conflicts between children.
Care is a way of relating to children. It is difficult to document.
Difficult to document an attitude
‘Care is a way of relating to children. It is difficult to document’, comments one preschool teacher.
Care is also described as something that is not planned and has no specific purpose. The preschool teachers agree that it is mainly aspects of care related to parental concerns that need to be documented.
One head teacher comments: ’For parents, of course, we want to emphasise the positive aspects of our activities, like showing what we do, what the children have learned, etc.’
Room for improvement?
Care is a notion that is rarely discussed. It is an ephemeral term in knowledge work that staff members find difficult to document.
Granted, there are forms to complete to show parents when toddlers last had their nappies changed. Preschool staff definitely want to avoid criticism for any shortcomings in their duty of care. However, day-to-day care is rather intangible.
The researchers found it mainly to be the planned, goal-oriented activities that are documented.
‘If care is not being documented, how can we know whether this work is being done well enough, or if there is room for improvement?’ asks Löfdahl Hultman.
A less visible area of expertise
The researchers’ analyses of state and municipal documents and other Swedish research all point in the same direction: Care is becoming an increasingly less visible competency in Swedish kindergartens. Many facilities focus on documentation related to learning. There is no narrative involving the documentation of care situations.
‘One way to interpret this is to recognise that there has been a shift from care to learning’, remarks Löfdahl Hultman.
Today’s preschool facilities are measured and managed, as they move in the direction of more and more educational content. The shift has led to requirements for documentation that can be made available for inspection in order to render activities visible.
‘Preschools are starting to look more and more like schools. I feel the notion of care is being pushed into the background by this trend’, she continues.
Not high status
‘Care per se is taken for granted. It is not high status for a preschool to document that its staff members are devoting a great deal of time to child care’, asserts the researcher.
‘To elevate one’s status as a preschool teacher, it’s more important to talk about learning than care. Parents prefer to have their child in a facility that teaches them mathematics, rather than in one that can demonstrate that it is actively engaged in providing care’, she adds.