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Mentoring for Quality Improvement

by Heather Barnes on July 12

In my work as an early childhood consultant I visit many services throughout Australia and it is obvious to me that, as the Guide to the National Quality Standard (NQS) states, ‘there is a strong link between leadership and improved outcomes for children.’ It is always inspiring to see effective educational leaders who are using mentoring skills to motivate and encourage other educators to reflect on and improve their practice with the aim of promoting and improving outcomes for children. Unfortunately I also see services where the educational leader is struggling in the role and is therefore unable to mentor effectively or able to guide improvements in practice.

Choosing the educational leader

Having the right person in the role can make a big difference to the overall quality of the service. Early childhood education and care services have been required to appoint a designated educational leader (Regulations 118 and 148) since the National Quality Framework (NQF) began in 2012.

ACECQA’S National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone reminds services that ‘neither the NQS nor the regulatory standards are prescriptive about the qualifications, experience, skills or role description for the person chosen to be the educational leader. This recognises that every service is different and every team of educators is different.’

I’ve noticed that some smaller services don’t have a lot of choice about who to designate as the educational leader as there may be only one person who has the necessary knowledge and experience and who is willing to take on the position. Some services decide that the most appropriate person is the Director/Coordinator/Manager of the service.

Larger services often designate more than one educational leader to support teams of educators.   For example, one long day care service has six rooms, comprising birth to 12 months, 12 months to 18 months, 18 months to 30 months, 30 months to 36 months, 3 to 4 years, 4 to 5 years and a Before and After School Care program. The service decided that one educational leader would be really stretched to be able to provide mentoring for educators across all age groups so they appointed two; one works with educators working with children from birth to three (4 rooms) and the other supports educators in the three older rooms. The two educational leaders meet regularly together to discuss common issues, share resources and knowledge and also meet regularly with the service manager to discuss progress.

Some approved providers who manage several services choose to have one educational leader who provides support to all of the services. In my experience this only seems to work well when the maximum number of services is three as it is seems to be challenging to maintain continuity and relationships, and implement quality improvements,  if the educational leader is not present in the service regularly.

Responsibilities of the educational leader

In order for educational leaders to fulfil the responsibilities of their position and be able to guide other educators, it is important that they understand the key aspects of their role. The Guide to the NQS provides clear guidance in the introduction to Standard 7.2 and in the fine print of Element 7.2.2 (pp. 303 – 306).

It outlines that ‘the role of the educational leader is primarily to:

  • collaborate with educators and provide curriculum direction and guidance,
  • support educators to effectively implement the cycle of planning to enhance programs and practices,
  • lead the development and implementation of an effective educational program in the service, and to
  • ensure that children’s learning and development are guided by the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework and/or the Framework for School Age Care or other approved learning frameworks.’

In March this year ACECQA published The Educational Leader Resource, which provides extensive information and will be an invaluable resource for those in the role and for the Approved Providers who are supporting them. It contains many useful links to other resources as well as interesting case studies.

Knowledge that educational leaders need to support quality improvement

The most effective educational leaders that I have met, have expertise and experience in the sector within which they work and still see themselves as continuously learning. They enjoy researching information to extend their own knowledge and to share information with others. They are open-minded to new ways of thinking about practice and responsive to new information. They see it as their responsibility to remain up-to-date.

In particular, they have a comprehensive knowledge of the requirements of Quality Area 1: Educational program and practice. This includes a deep understanding of the approved learning framework being used by their service and the key aspects: the principles, practice and learning outcomes. One practical way that I’ve seen educational leaders support other educators to stay focussed on all three aspects is to display the image from the framework (a triangle diagram that encapsulates the three aspects) where everyone can see it and/or in the staff handbook. (Early Years Learning Framework p.10 and Framework for School Age Care, p. 9).

If educational leaders are to be able to support other educators to effectively implement the planning cycle (Standard 1.3) then it is important that they have a clear understanding of the steps themselves. Making the planning cycle visible within the service is a great way to start and many educational leaders have copied and displayed the updated diagram that was included in the Guide to the NQS in 2018 (on p. 125) so that all educators are aware of the steps.

When working with services I often notice that educators do not appear to fully understand the planning cycle as there are gaps in the documentation.

  • Observing/collecting information
    Sometimes there isn’t sufficient information collected on each child to demonstrate that educators know the child’s strengths, interests, learning disposition and areas where they may need additional assistance.
  • Analysing learning
    Although links are made between observations and learning outcomes there is often no evidence of analysing the child’s progress towards the learning outcomes in a summative form.
  • Planning
    Documentation of the planned program does not always include all the requirements of Element 1.3.1 such as group goals and experiences to work towards achieving them, plans to support the goals for individual children, plans to extend children’s emerging strengths, abilities and interests, plans that follow up on input from families and any relevant community events.
  • Implementing
    There is no evidence of what actually happened, whether the plans were followed through and whether educators supported child-led learning.
  • Reflecting/evaluating
    Reflections are not documented and if they are, they are very superficial and show little evidence of deconstructing or diagnosing what has happened and why. There is often no evidence to show that educators have reviewed their practice in relation to equity and social justice and few links between their written reflections and quality improvements.

‘An ongoing cycle of assessment and planning is critical to the delivery of a quality educational program. The educational leader plays a pivotal role in this process.’ (Guide to the NQS, p. 305). Educational leaders should be able to identify where there are gaps, talk with educators and plan together how they will be remedied. These identified improvements are often not something that can be achieved immediately so can be included in the service’s Quality Improvement Plan and worked on over time.

Additional knowledge that educational leaders need so that they can support other educators includes:

  • an understanding how to promote a culture of learning so that it is embedded throughout the service. It is important that educators be assisted to understand the significance of how ongoing professional learning links to quality improvement across the service;
  • a clear understanding of current theories about how children learn and how they impact on pedagogy so that they can encourage educators to further their knowledge and to reflect deeply on what is guiding their decisions and practice;
  • an understanding of the importance of being culturally competent themselves in order to support other educators to become willing and able to grow in their understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and to incorporate and respect the cultures of the community in which they operate;
  • knowledge of the range of resources available in the local community that may assist children and families; and
  • an awareness of the three Exceeding themes for each Standard in order to support educators to achieve them.

The importance of mentoring

In order for educational leaders to be able to support quality improvements within the service they need to be able to mentor other educators effectively.

Mentoring has been described as ‘a relationship that involves supporting, motivating, shaping, guiding and encouraging, with the purpose of helping a mentee to reach their potential (Varney, 2012). One of the essential aspects of the educational leader’s role is ‘to mentor and support educators from diverse backgrounds and with varying levels of knowledge and experience.’ (Guide to the NQS, p. 303).

I have noticed that positive relationships are integral to successful mentoring. Where there is trust, honesty, respect and reciprocal and effective communication the relationships work well. Educational leaders who are positive role models, who inspire and motivate colleagues but also accept that not everyone has the same will or abilities, seem to achieve the best outcomes. When there are aspects of practice that need improvement effective educational leaders are open and non-judgemental. They show that they have confidence that the other educator will be able to overcome the challenges.

The most successful mentors have skills and attributes such as being an active and reflective listener, having empathy for others,  ability to overcome resistance or barriers to change, to encourage others to look at issues from other perspectives,  to challenge and at the same time empower others. They demonstrate that they have the commitment to keep developing their own professionalism and knowledge and to assist others to improve their practice.

These educational leaders encourage all educators to stay focused on the importance of continuous self-assessment of their practice against the Elements and Standards of the NQS. They are skilled at goal setting and planning for action with colleagues. They develop the capacity of others and keep track of their progress, they evaluate and reflect with others to identify the outcomes that have been achieved as well as identifying whether further action is needed. They celebrate successes so that morale is lifted and maintained across the service.

Supporting the educational leader to mentor colleagues

Element 7.2.2 was strengthened when the Guide to the National Quality Framework was revised to include an expectation that the educational leader will be supported. ‘This change acknowledges the role requires support in order to effect positive changes and the significant role the educational leader plays in supporting educator understandings of the assessment and planning cycle.’ (Livingstone, 2017).

Approved providers and nominated supervisors are encouraged to consider how they provide support for the educational leader to do the role well. ‘Resources may include time, professional learning materials and opportunities, clearly defined role description, expectations, networking and collegial support opportunities.’ (Guide to the NQS, p. 304).

The best educational leaders that I have met have been provided with professional learning opportunities to stay current in their knowledge and skills, particularly around the approved learning framework, theoretical perspectives, documentation and the planning cycle. They have been provided with time to be an effective mentor, to get to know their colleagues; to listen; to provide help and support and to achieve goals.

Improved outcomes

When educational leaders are able to mentor colleagues there have been positive outcomes for both the educators and the educational leader. Educational leaders report that being able to listen to colleagues professional concerns and to be able to provide help and support, and to be able to accomplish goals together, has been very affirming for themselves as well as their colleagues. They say that benefits for themselves include increased confidence, self-esteem and sense of making a difference.

Educators have gained knowledge and practice skills such as observation, assessment and planning skills and the development of deeper reflective practice approaches. As a result, they have changed and improved their approaches to teaching and learning and all aspects of practice. For example, the implementation of transitions and routines has become more child-focused rather than time-focused. The educational leader encouraged them to consider what the Guide to the National Quality Standard recommends should be evident;

‘children making choices and decisions about matters that affect them for example, whether they wish to play inside or outside, whether they want to play with other children or play independently, whether they are ready to eat, whether they are thirsty, and whether they need to sleep. [Guide to the NQS, p. 117 & 118]),

They therefore incorporated more opportunities for children to have a sense of agency. They have reflected on the flow of the day to incorporate the ‘large chunks of uninterrupted time’ that the approved learning frameworks encourage. They have included more of a free flow indoor-outdoor approach, implemented progressive meal times and invited children to come to planned group times but allowed them to choose whether they attend or not.

Both educational leaders and their colleagues are able to identify that through working together to achieve improvements they are making a difference to the overall experience and outcomes for the children with whom they work. It is inspiring to see the benefits to children when the mentoring relationship has worked well to achieve quality improvements. For example, several educational leaders faced quite a few challenges while working with colleagues who were resistant to change or who felt defensive about having to change their practices. They were met with responses such as, “But I’ve always worked this way and no-one has ever told me that it doesn’t meet the Regulations or the Standards.” The educational leaders have helped them to see that it’s not about being wrong or right but that it is important to reflect on how their practice aligns with the approved learning frameworks, meets the requirements of the National Quality Standard and most importantly whether the rights and best interests of children are being met. This helped to open up discussions, encouraged deeper critical reflection and introduced changes that are more responsive and respectful of children’s capabilities.

References and further reading

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2018). Guide to the National Quality Framework.
https://www.acecqa.gov.au/nqf/about/guide

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2018)., National Education Leader blog, Mentoring Matters, October 8.
https://wehearyou.acecqa.gov.au/2018/10/08/mentoring-matters/

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2017). The role of the educational leader (Information sheet).
https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-05/QA7_TheRoleOfTheEducationalLeader.pdf

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2017). We hear you. The Role of the Educational Leader Series.
https://wehearyou.acecqa.gov.au/tag/the-role-of-the-educational-leader-series/

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) (2017) We hear you – Leaders as agents of change.
https://wehearyou.acecqa.gov.au/category/educational-leadership/

Livingstone, R. (2014) What does it mean to be the educational leader in your service?

Preschool Matters Magazine, ELAA.
https://www.ecrh.edu.au/resources/detail/index/what-does-it-mean-to-be-the-educational-leader-in-your-service

NQS PLP e-Newsletter no. 33 Educational Leader
https://www.ecrh.edu.au/docs/default-source/resources/nqs-plp-e-newsletters/nqs-plp-e-newsletter-no-33-2012-the-educational-leader.pdf?sfvrsn=4

Varney, J. (2012). Humanistic mentoring. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 45(3), 127−131. https://www.kdp.org/menu/downloads/product.aspx?ProductNumber=RSP09_VARNEY

Heather Barnes

Heather was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for service to early childhood education. She works as a trainer and consultant throughout Australia, assisting educators on their professional learning journey. She believes that the National Quality Agenda is the most significant development for early childhood education and care in decades and feels privileged to assist educators in their understanding of the requirements of the NQS and the Frameworks and to identify quality improvements. Heather delivers workshops and key note addresses at conferences in many parts of Australia. She is contracted by individual services, local government and the Professional Support Coordinators in various states and territories as part of the Inclusion and Professional Support Program funded by the Department of Education.