The role of values in ECEC institutions

Values play a far more important role for ECEC personnel and the children they care for than most people realise.



Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is an environment in which values are transferred from adults to children.

Sometimes intentionally, but usually not, every single day, ECEC personnel communicate society’s values to the children.

Although most people would agree that values are an important part of day-to-day routines in ECEC institutions, this topic has largely been neglected. Neither ECEC personnel nor early-childhood researchers have talked much about values before now.

A joint Nordic research project has now examined the topic from different angles. In a study of 45 staff members from 10 ECEC institutions in all five Nordic countries, the researchers discovered the importance of values in Nordic preschools.

Agreement on values in the Nordic countries

The researchers also discovered that the Nordics have a lot in common when it comes to values. Nordic preschool employees agree on a number of key educational ideas and values. In fact, they think a lot alike.

All the Nordics are welfare states that emphasise democracy, equality, freedom and solidarity. The rest of the world often considers the Nordics to be global leaders in terms of both gender and financial equality.

Until now, however, we have known little about how these values are passed on from adults to children.

A cloakroom story

The study involved 45 ECEC employees from the five Nordic countries reading an anecdotal story about a real-life episode observed by researchers in a Swedish preschool.

It took place in a cloakroom. Eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 3, had to be dressed to play outside. Several of the children were clearly restless. Some started to quarrel, others to cry. One child wandered in and out of the room incessantly. The adults try to explain good behaviour to the children at the same time as trying to discipline them by taking a stern tone.

After reading the whole story, the ECEC employees engaged in group discussions. The researchers took notes and made audio recordings of what was said.

The Finnish researcher Anna-Maija Puroila headed this study. She found it very interesting to hear what the employees chose to talk about after reading the story.

‘It was fascinating that staff members from all five Nordics focussed on almost exactly the same things. All of them described the scenario in the Swedish preschool as chaotic’.

Identical interpretations

The childcare workers stressed that some of the children in the cloakroom had started to cry, and the adults were concerned that there were too many children in the room at the same time. They felt the space for getting dressed to go outdoors was too big to keep track of everyone, and that the situation was poorly organised.

The researchers also noted that staff in all the Nordic countries were concerned about exactly the same aspects of the communication between the adults in the room.

One child with special needs

Another intriguing find, according to the Finnish researcher, is that all the ECEC employees who took part in the group discussions were aware  that one of the children had special needs.

‘Everyone had realised it, even though it had not been mentioned explicitly in the text they read.

Naturally, there are differences between the Nordic countries. However, this study shows that differences could be greater between staff in two ECEC facilities in the same country, than between childcare workers in the different Nordic countries’, Puroila points out.

What values did staff emphasise?

The researchers also examined the values expressed during the group discussions between the researchers and the employees from 10 ECEC institutions in the five Nordic countries.

‘The informants did not say much directly about values like democracy, caring or discipline, but indirectly, they clearly expressed precisely such values.’ The participants had strong opinions about what is good and what is bad, and about desirable versus undesirable. Those taking part in the discussion clearly recognised several different values in the situation described.

Caring means a great deal

‘One value that is obviously very important for ECEC employees is caring’, the researchers found.

‘Those taking part in our discussions talked a lot about children having individual needs, and about how important it is to empathise with the children.’

When discussing the episode in the Swedish preschool, the informants were especially critical of how the youngest children were treated; most felt the little ones did not get enough help.

‘They were also concerned about how discipline was expressed as a value. Their impression was that there was a great deal of corrective and controlling behaviour on the part of staff. Many reacted to that’, Puroila explains.

The informants agreed that there has to be at least a semblance of order in a situation like the one described, but they did not agree on how to achieve it.

Concerned about democracy

Several informants pointed out that the employees obviously lacked the expertise or training they needed to deal with the situation in question.

Indirectly, they were concerned with democracy as a value. Many were of the opinion that the right thing to do would have been to allow the children more participation in the decision-making process. They questioned whether the children had been heard.

Education may be the key

‘The ECEC employees are probably not aware of the extent to which values underlie all that they do’, concludes Puroila.

The researcher is not surprised by the fact that values play such a major role in ECEC work, both for the individual ECEC employee and as part of the ECEC culture. The seasoned Finnish researcher had almost expected the study to bear this out.

Puroila points out that ECEC teachers’ training in the Nordic countries is highly value-laden, regardless of whether the focus is on the employees’ role as teachers or the environment in ECEC institutions. She believes that part of the explanation for why values are so clearly present in Nordic ECEC institutions may be rooted in ECEC teachers’ training in the Nordic countries.