The East Sussex ‘Interacting with babies (0-18m)’ collaborative research project

The aim of this project was to create a learning culture of professional reflection for a community of baby room practitioners. Following successful projects in other counties, we wanted to know whether conducting practitioner action research could improve reflective practice.

Background

Our observations during support given to settings identified weaknesses in interactions between practitioners and babies. A national review by Canterbury Christchurch University (Goouch and Powell, 2013), identified that baby room practitioners often feel neglected and isolated from other practice in settings, especially if they are in separate rooms. Research such as the Osgood report (2017) identifies a need for more practitioner training focused on children aged from birth to three years. Page et al. (2013, p. 13) recognises that ‘Practitioners must be ready to respond to change but, more importantly than ever before, practitioners must understand the research and theory which underpins their day to day work and decisions; for without such theoretical knowledge what they do can lack rigour and a rationale. It is like a building without foundations.’

Method

14 settings were chosen for their diversity of ownership, layout and geographical spread. We understood that practitioners with level 2/3 qualifications would need guidance, as research skills are not expected at this level. To meet the aims of the project, the two East Sussex project leads:

  • asked each setting to identify a lead practitioner, ensuring that the managers were supportive.
  • held a launch event for both the setting manager and lead practitioner to attend.
  • shared an interactions self-evaluation tool to be used to identify areas of practice for the research focus.
  • completed observations of interactions in each setting at the start of the project, using an observation format adapted from ITERS and other research. This included how babies were encouraged to interact with each other, how practitioners interacted with babies, the language used and whether they were responding to non-verbal communication. Results were shared with each setting and scored to provide quantitative data.
  • provided support and guidance on research methods.
  • encouraged practitioners to observe interactions and provided an example tally chart to clarify whether non-verbal communication was being recognised.
  • helped them to review their individual research question and break it down into more manageable chunks. Practitioners were given a timeline to the five-month project.
  • held a self-confidence and self-esteem session provided by an external expert.
  • held four network meetings for the leads and a separate meeting for managers. These provided professional dialogue, critical reflection and assistance where needed. As practitioners researched more, we sometimes had to draw them back to the focus on interactions.
  • provided the opportunity to borrow books related to baby room practice, child development and action research skills. We signposted to research articles and websites.
  • set up an email group to share research. This group was for the practitioners only and not the managers, as we wanted a safe space for them to ask questions without a manager wondering why they didn’t understand/know that.
  • repeated the observations at the end of the research phase to compare practice.
  • held an end event to celebrate their projects.
Practitioners were asked to:
  • complete reflective journals recording their reading, relevant information, observations, etc. in order to support information processing.
  • complete the self-evaluation tool at the beginning and end to evaluate knowledge progress.
  • complete a case study, including an overview of their setting, starting point, what they did/found, the impact and any future plans.

Impact

Our analysis of the link between this research and practitioner practice consisted of:

  • evaluation of any improvement when observing practice. Significant improvements in interactions occurred in all settings. Settings who were weakest at the start saw the biggest improvement (42.86 per cent in one case).
  • self-evaluation at the end of the project, which showed that practitioner knowledge had increased across all areas of interaction, and not just their specific focus.

Overall, there has been a significant increase in respectful and individualised interactions, with a greater understanding of non-verbal communication. Although not officially part of the project, observations demonstrate that learning environments have improved as information is gained. In many settings, parents became involved in the project, extending the learning community and sharing knowledge and ideas.

All settings have reported an increase in confidence of the lead practitioner as they shared their research skills across the wider setting. This has raised the profile of, and respect for, baby room practice and staff. Some settings focused on interactions between babies and non-baby room staff, further extending their learning community.

Challenges included staff changes and other demands on setting time. All challenges diminished as a setting-wide learning community became fully developed.

This project identified that practitioners of all qualification levels can express themselves, question, assert, challenge, defend, explore and examine their behaviour, motivations and practice when supported to become researchers in their field. Feedback has included: ‘You’re more likely to use something in practice when you find out for yourself’ and ‘Research is a good way of furthering knowledge and we have developed a culture of reflection. It has been eye opening to use this method and we now have more reflective practice.’

Reflective practice has increased as practitioners have expanded research to other areas of practice: for example, they have linked missing non-verbal communication with babies to missing play cues in older ages. One practitioner reflected that at the start of the project she felt that the use of song was one of her stronger qualities, but after researching realised that there were many more ways to develop this. Practitioners reported relishing being part of a learning community, listening to other people’s findings at network meetings and reflecting together. Particularly helpful was talking about practice with others in relation to common concerns and issues.

The way that a single research focus has spread and expanded to other areas of provision and practice clearly supports the development of small-scale practitioner research within a wider learning community, as a valuable way of developing professional reflection.

References

Goouch K and Powell S (2013) The Baby Room – Principles, Policy and Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Osgood J, Elwick A, Robertson L et al. (March 2017) Early Years Teacher and Early Years Educator: A scoping study of the impact, experiences and associated issues of recent early years qualifications and training in England, Middlesex University, UK. Available at: http://tactyc.org.uk/projects/ (accessed 4 January 2019).

Page J, Clare A and Nutbrown C (2013) Working with Babies and Children: From Birth to Three (2nd edition). London: Sage Publications.