A Sociology of Early Childhood Education: Learning to be Civilized


This chapter will argue that we need to develop a relational, sociological approach that explains the early learning and educational experiences of young children. I will begin by reviewing some of the contemporary trends in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), before focusing on some of the major sociological approaches to childhood that have been used to understand the socialization and education of young children. As more young children enter childcare and early education, the issue of transition from their immediate families to group care settings has grown in importance. Young children are bom into interdependent relationships that existed before them: as they grow up, these relationships with their parents, teachers, and friends change but are structured by different societies in different historical epochs.

I will turn to Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, two of the most eminent relational sociologists, to explain the changing institutional arrangements of care and education that young children experience. These institutional arrangements set the tone for relationships between individual children, dyads (child-teacher), peer-peer (friendships and playmates), and group interactions between young children, teachers, and caregivers. My argument will be that Elias’s concept of “love and learning relationships” provides enormous theoretical potential, enabling us to focus on the cognitive and social relationships of learners and to develop the relational turn that has emerged in other disciplines apart from sociology, particularly in psychoanalysis.

I will then build on the findings from the British object school of psychoanalysis to uncover and explain the emotional anxieties of young children as they learn to become more civilized and internalize from adults and their peers an enormous social fund of knowledge about the world. Bourdieu’s theoretical framework will be used to explore the development of a social habitus in early years education, one where young children accumulate their own stocks of social capital through their strategic use of learning networks.

Early Childhood Education and Care

Early childhood is a complex field with many varied terms, including early years, early childhood development, early care, early care and education, and early childhood education and care. While there are no clear definitions, the terms “early childhood” and “early years” are among the two most popular internationally and are often used interchangeably by researchers. Therefore, the two terms “early childhood” and “early years” will be used in this chapter. There is also some controversy regarding the age span of children that should be included in early childhood, with most using the term to refer to young children from birth to age eight. Despite the contested nature of the ages to be included in early childhood, the vast majority of international researchers consider early childhood or the early years as embracing birth to age eight years (Farrell et al., 2015).

Despite this complexity, it is nevertheless possible to identify some common trends and tensions in the different knowledge traditions in early years education. For example, an OECD (2006) investigation of early childhood education in the Nordic countries, in most European countries, and in the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and Korea identified two different approaches to early childhood education. A social pedagogy approach also sometimes referred to as the Nordic and German model is local, child-centered and holistic, and uses concepts including care, play, relationships, activity, and development. This approach views children as agents of their own learning. In contrast, in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands there has developed an early years education approach that is more academic and centralized, strategically oriented toward teaching, learning, curriculum, content, and methodology.

In addition to these different knowledge traditions, there has been an increasing emphasis on early intervention and regulating young children’s upbringing and behavior (for example through parenting orders and fining or jailing parents for child truancy) (Lister, 2006). Statham and Smith (2010: 17) have identified three different but related approaches to early years interventions: those which target the pre-natal period or young children of any preschool age; early identification of problems and additional needs; and earlier delivery of services and interventions aimed at promoting resilience among groups at risk of poor outcomes. Programs for early interventions vary in their primary aims, focusing on, for example, education, health, early literacy, childcare, family support, and parenting.

Recently, Sahiberg (2014) has popularized an important debate about the worldwide trend described as “Global Educational Reform Movement” (GERM). Although GERM is not a formal policy program, there are some common features which have been adopted in predominantly Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand. Through international funding organizations, such as the World Bank, elements of this reform have also spread to other countries, especially in the less developed parts of the world (Sahiberg, 2016). These elements include, for example, the standardization of teaching for predetermined learning outcomes by using prescribed curricula. This is attempted by detailing the delivery of lessons and evaluating predetermined measures, with very little consideration of local, cultural, or individual differences (see, for example, Robertson, 2015).

We can summarize this contemporary world-wide trend by referring to terms such as “standards,” “accountability,” and “effectiveness,” which are now dominant in education policy discourse and have replaced “autonomy,” “trust,” and “pedagogy” (Sahiberg, 2016). Professional autonomy is increasingly replaced by the standardization of schooling and education; standards, pre-defined learning outcomes, prescribed curricula, testing, and accountability are more and more shaping early childhood education and care. According to Moss (2014), there is little space for uncertainty, experimentation, surprise, or amazement.

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