INVEST Blog 4/2021
Childcare attendance and child development
Early childhood is a developmental period when the foundations of children’s cognitive and socio-emotional skills are established (Shonkoff, 2012). Although, the family environment is the most proximal factor which influences early child development; over the last 40 years, childcare has become another meaningful environment where children can acquire motor, cognitive and socio-emotional skills (Burchinal et al., 2015). Childcare facilities are stimulating environments where children build their first relationships with peers. Being exposed to a diverse group of peers and to an educative curriculum implemented by trained educators can promote the development of all children, especially those from vulnerable families (Burchinal et al., 2015).
In its latest Comprehensive Action plan to prevent bullying, teasing, violence and harassment, the Ministry of Education and Culture in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health proposed that action to tackle bullying should start already in the preschool years (Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland, 2021). The objective is to strengthen emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills in childcare facilities to prevent bullying and teasing from early childhood. The Finnish context seems to be the perfect ground to develop this initiative as a large number of children attend childcare facilities which are highly available in their communities. However, developers may be faced with additional challenges when it comes to implementation and dissemination of a new program to prevent bullying and promote child development as there is great heterogeneity in the monitoring of childcare quality at the municipal level.
Finnish Universal Access to Childcare Services
In Finland, local authorities are responsible for the provision, quality and supervision of childcare services. All parents of children under compulsory preschool age, age 6 in Finland, have a right to a place for their child in municipal childcare facilities, regardless of their financial situation or whether they are in paid employment (Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, 2021). The childcare fees are highly affordable and are set according to family size and annual income (OECD, 2016a). Finnish childcare facilities implement a national core educative curriculum provided by trained personnel (OECD, 2016a). Finally, Finland sets high expectations for the level of structural quality in childcare asking for high minimum staff qualifications, small educator-child ratios and high requirements for infrastructural quality (OECD, 2016a).
Advantages of the Decentralized Childcare Approach
Similar to other Nordic countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, adopting a decentralized approach to Finnish childcare services provision has been associated with higher childcare attendance rate before school entry (Brennan & Adamson, 2015). By relying on proximity agents like nurses and social workers, the Nordic countries’ strategy seems to counteract some social selection factors that undermine childcare attendance in other childcare provision systems (example: familial income, administrative difficulties to access vouchers and subsidies, city planning etc., see Brennan & Adamson, 2015). Nevertheless, it is important to mention that the availability of home care allowances and additional subsidies in Finland seems to encourage mothers from lower income and immigrant families to remain at home to care for her children (Ellingsaeter, 2012).
Another strength of the Finnish childcare system relies on the liberty of the local authorities to adapt the national educative curriculum to meet the needs of their respective communities (OECD, 2016b). Moreover, every municipal authority is responsible for the evaluation of the quality of the childcare facilities within its jurisdiction. The monitoring requires facilities to identify the learning needs of children and to launch initiatives to enhance educators’ practices, among other things (OECD, 2016b). A large set of indicators and methodologies are used to evaluate the quality of the childcare services ranging from observational checklists to self-assessment of educating practices (OECD, 2016b). Children’s development is also monitored at the municipal and building-level to orient future training and evaluate additional needs (OECD, 2016b).
Interestingly, Finland is one the rare countries where children’s perspective on childcare quality is also included in the evaluation process, which represents valuable feedback from the primary users of these services. To express their opinions on their childcare facilities, children take photographs, share drawings and discuss with staff what they appreciate in childcare and what they do not like and would like to change (OECD, 2016b).
Flaws of the Childcare Decentralized Approach
Although the decentralized vision of childcare provision brings its advantages, it also contains certain flaws that should be acknowledged and addressed. The Finnish childcare system faces specific challenges when it comes to developing interventions that will be implemented in childcare facilities. There are important differences in monitoring practices across regions, as well as limited training on how to assess childcare quality in Finnish facilities (OECD, 2016b). This heterogeneity in the definition and monitoring of childcare quality might hinder the development and implementation of statewide initiatives as the aims may be interpreted differently across regions, and the “active ingredients” from the initiative may be diluted in its dissemination. In other words, it is challenging to universally promote children’s development and prevent bullying behaviors when there is no shared definition of childcare services quality and when we do not know the level of heterogeneity of the childcare quality.
Where do we go from here?
By setting out explicit comprehensive quality goals for childcare settings, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health could support the development of a standardized monitoring measure (e.g., list of children’s developmental milestones) or subsidize the training and use of well-validated quality measures like the Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS)(Gordon et al., 2013). The availability of a standardized measure of quality across regions would allow local authorities to compare their strengths and weaknesses whilst respecting municipal-level autonomy and encourage vertical (Ministries to local authorities) as well as horizontal (between municipalities) collaboration.
Children’s and educator’s perspectives on their care and work environment are essential to develop an educative curriculum that will address the roots of bullying behaviors. Finland has the great advantage of relying on a strong, highly-publicly funded childcare network where local authorities are highly knowledgeable of the strengths and needs of their population. Centralizing this wealth of information will help us to develop an educative curriculum tailored to children’s and educators’ needs.
Marie-Pier Larose has a Ph.D. in public health from the Université de Montréal and is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Turku with the ‘Inequalities, Interventions, and New Welfare State’ (INVEST) Research Flagship.
Action plan to prevent bullying – resources, education and legislative amendments at the centre—OKM – Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland. (n.d.). Opetus- Ja Kulttuuriministeriö. Retrieved March 3, 2021, from https://minedu.fi/en/-/action-plan-to-prevent-bullying-resources-education-and-legislative-amendments-at-the-centre
Brennan, D., & Adamson, E. (2015). Baby Steps or Giant Strides? The McKell Institute. https://mckellinstitute.org.au/research/reports/baby-steps-or-giant-strides/
Burchinal, M., Magnuson, K., Powell, D., & Hong, S. S. (2015). Early Childcare and Education. In Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (pp. 1–45). American Cancer Society. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy406
Ellingsaeter, A. (2012). Cash for ChildcareExperiences from Finland, Norway and Sweden. Friederich Ebert Stiftung.
Gordon, R. A., Fujimoto, K., Kaestner, R., Korenman, S., & Abner, K. (2013). An assessment of the validity of the ECERS-R with implications for measures of child care quality and relations to child development. Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 146–160. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027899
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. (n.d.). Financial assistance for families with children. Sosiaali- Ja Terveysministeriö. Retrieved March 3, 2021, from https://stm.fi/en/income-security/financial-assistance-families
OECD. (2016a). Monitoring Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care Country Note: Finland. OECD Publishing. http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/ECECMN-Finland.pdf
OECD. (2016b). Starting Strong IV: Monitoring Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care. OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264233515-en
Shonkoff, J. P. (2012). Leveraging the biology of adversity to address the roots of disparities in health and development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17302–17307. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1121259109