Live Q&A Episode 13: Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett

Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood Studies and mother of 2 (with a third on the way), has answered the following questions about a child’s learning and childcare. You can find more information at her website

My son (18months) is in childcare 3 days a week while I work. He’s learning heaps including some bad behaviours. How do I make sure that he doesn’t pick up on the bad stuff but keep learning the goodstuff? Thanks.

This is a challenge that faces most parents – regardless of whether our children are in formalized care or not. One of the most challenging goals of parenting is to ensure our children learn and demonstrate acceptable behaviour. While it is difficult to ask an 18-month-old to regulate their own behaviour – our ultimate aim is for our children to develop the self-control needed to manage their behaviour. Parents and caregivers can help children to tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours by helping children to feel secure, praise them when they have done something kind or helpful, model appropriate behaviour (young children in particular learn much more from watching what we do rather than say), give them choices and help them to make simple decisions and to express themselves in words, help them to feel good about themselves and most importantly to show care and respect for others. When your child is ‘naughty’ help them make the distinction that it is their behaviour that you do not like, not them. When managing children’s behaviour it is sometimes important to ask ourselves whether our expectations are realistic – are we asking our children to behave in ways that is beyond their current skills or abilities (biting, for example, is typical behaviour of an 18-month-old but not a 4-year-old) – unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and power struggles. If you continue to experience concerns regarding negative behaviours that he is picking-up at child care it is important that you inform the child care and discuss your concerns – your child’s behaviour is not only your responsibility but theirs too!

At what age should a child be able to recognise numbers, colours, and letters?

Child development occurs at different rates for different children. Some children first begin to recognize and label colours as early as 2-years of age while for others it does not emerge until 3 years with the majority of children labeling basic colours like red, yellow, blue, green and orange by 5 years. By 4 years children can recognize some letters if taught and may be able to print their own name – they will also be able to recognize familiar words in favourite books or common street signs (like STOP). From as early as 2-years children will show interest in counting and may be able to count to 10 by rote – although written number recognition comes later. It is important to remember that every child is unique and will follow their own timetable – which is largely dependent on their genetic make-up and the experiences afforded them. If, however, your child seems to be unable to do many of the skills typical of his or her age group, you may wish to talk to an early childhood specialist or child psychologist just to rule out the possibility of any learning difficulties. You can encourage children’s love of learning by providing them with a range of experiences that are both fun and stimulating. The years prior to school are not a time for formal structured learning (you can leave that until school) – the best way to encourage children’s development in these early years is through play and everyday activities. Cut out magazine pictures of different shapes and colours, ask your child to help your sort the washing or count the number of blue pegs on the washing line. Foster a love of books and reading – you can place books or paper and pencils on a low shelf or box to encourage your child to read and write for fun – remembering to reward all attempts!

Can you please help to resolve a family argument. What are the benefits of preschool over a long day care centre program in the year before school age? My child goes to both and I think they are completely different environments, but my sister says day care is the same. Thanks for your time.

The debate surrounding preschool versus long day care carries over from the early 90s when many parents considered long day care services to be nothing more than child minding for working families. At that time, children’s services were under regulated and the developmental and educational content of programs were not always an expectation. The fact is programs offered in a good quality long day care centres are just as beneficial as preschool for your child, and just as adequate for preparing them for school. In response to parental concerns most long day care centres offer what they call a “preschool program” in their 4-5 year-old rooms. Both long day care and preschools include qualified teachers in the preschool room and need to adhere to the same curriculum content and child-staff ratios. The main differences that exist between preschools and long day care centres are (a) hours of care – with preschools generally mirroring school-hours and close during school holidays, and (b) funding – preschools do not attract any Federal Government assistance such as Child Care Benefit or the child care tax rebate assistance – sometimes making them a more expensive option for parents. When deciding on where to send your child it is best to think in terms of the quality of care your child will receive – children need to be placed in an environment where they feel safe to explore and one that provides opportunities to learn, create, play and have fun. You also want to feel a sense of connection with the staff and feel comfortable in raising any concerns as they arise.

My daughter is a severe bitter it’s sometimes really impossible to take her anywhere without bitting another child at least 5 times.We have tried everthing???

You do not mention how old your child is. Biting is a normal phase for babies and toddlers, however, when your child turns three biting may indicate other behavioural issues especially if they are quite frequent. For infants and toddlers biting is a form of exploration. Infants use their mouths to explore because sensory wise, their mouths are the most developed parts of their bodies. Many infants bite when they are excited and over stimulated or experimenting with cause and effect. Biting is also common when your child is teething.

Amongst toddlers biting can be a form of communication but it can also be a form of frustration if there are too many challenges or demands put on your child. Many toddlers do not understand that biting can hurt other children. They my bite as a self defence strategy or it may be that they need to be taught other ways to communicate. One of the best ways to cope with biting is to remove the child from the situation. Parents need to let their child know that biting is not okay and that it hurts their friends, you need to make sure your child is not around other children until she has calmed down. It is also important to examine the context the biting usually occurs. Is your child hungry, tired or frustrated or does she want attention. Try to orchestrate the environment so that these factors are reduced and hopefully the biting will minimise. If her biting behaviour continues, particularly if it occurs on a daily basis, you may want to check with your GP to ensure that there are no other causes.

Dr Cathrine, my 21month old daughter seems to be very advanced in her speech and learning abilities. She counts to 14, sings her abcs, wants to be read to literally for hours, and even recites passages from books up to 20 words long – without looking at the book. she also already knows 10 colours 8 or so shapes, and over 60 animals. we are wondering if/when we should have her tested for being gifted and talented? we are also concerned that with the new government dates for starting school, she will not start prep until she is 5 and a half. do you recommend testing for giftedness? is there anything that can be done to allow her to start school earlier? we just want her to achieve her potential and stay interested and love learning.

My personal preference is to avoid the testing and labelling of children. As parents, what is important, is that we provide our children with a range of opportunities and experiences and enhance their learning and encourage a love of learning. You can extend your child by providing her with a range experiences, such as taking her to museums, encouraging her to conduct small research projects, get her to compile lists when you go shopping so you can turn shopping trips into a fun scavenger hunt. Continue to read aloud to her and her to read to you. Ask your child to read recipes when you are preparing dinner together. Regarding starting school, it is important to be aware that your children’s academic skill is not the only thing to consider, you also you want to ensure she is socially ready and this can differ widely across children. You can extend her social skills by encouraging friendship and providing opportunities for her to spend time with other children. These important interactions will provide the space needed for the development of more sophisticated social experiences equally important to your child’s development. On starting school if you feel your daughter is not being adequately extended, this may be time to have her tested to ensure her additional learning skills are met. Your daughter sounds like a wonderful child and remember giftedness can be just as challenging as having a child with developmental challenges.

Can you give me some tips on how to teach my toddler her numbers etc she has absolutely no idea and isn’t the least bit interested in learning. I’m also a little worried about her fine motor skills as she never sits down to draw or do craft like my friends kids. She is nearly 3, am I being paranoid about her development?

It is important to recognise that children vary greatly in view of their development and skills. Your child’s temperament will also govern the type of activities your child is interested in. While my daughter was writing her name at three, my three year old son shows no interest in writing or drawing but is very skilled physically. Young children learn best through play and everyday activities. This is not the time for any formal teaching leave, that until school begins. The general rule is, if your child can not learn something through play, they are not ready to learn it. You can help your child develop a love of learning and to develop an understanding of numbers by incorporating these in everyday activities. Get her to set the table by chanting how many forks you need, count how many swings there are at the local park, how many steps she needs to climb to get to the front door or how many toys she has in her toy box. Read plenty of books and stories that include number concepts. Flash cards and learning by route may make look clever but real learning takes place within relationships and is contextualised and meaningful to your child.

I have decided to open my own family day care, however I have a 16 month old son and I wonder if it will adversely effect him to suddenly have other children in his house, playing with his toys, taking his mums attention or will this actually be good for him in the long run?

I know of many mothers who have included their own children in their family day care and if handled appropriately it can be highly beneficial for your child. Many parents prefer family day care because of the family atmosphere and warmth and less structure than more formalised care arrangements. What is important is that you feel comfortable treating all children equally and not showing preference for your son during care hours. It is also a good idea to set toys and books apart that are just for your son that should remain in his room and be kept separate. It is critical to help your son make the distinction between home time with mum and family day care time.

By including him in the care this offers wonderful social interactions opportunities that he may otherwise miss out on if he was to stay at home alone with you.

Am I disadvantaging my child from not spending enough time with him? How can I make more of my tiem spent with him? I’m a single Mum and find it hard to find the time to encourage him developmentally? He goes to daycare 4 days a week 8 hours a day, I train and play soccer and I study full time and than there’s the washing, the cooking, the cleaning….. I want to make the most of the minimal hours I spend with my son a day!

One of the greatest challenges for many working parents is juggling work commitments and childcare. As parents we need to be comfortable with the thought of comparing parenthood and childcare. Motherhood has been around for many centuries and with that the guilt trap. Whether it is about loosing our temper or not spending enough time with our children. The research shows that what is important to our attachment relationship with our children is not the amount of time a child spends in care or with us, but the quality of the care and the quality of the interaction we have with our child when they are at home. Many parents are time poor and experience that added stress of competing career and study demands – you are not alone. Try incorporating play time into your family schedule, your son can play alongside you while preparing the dinner or cleaning the house. Making sometime for parent child play can be especially important bonding time for you and your son.

I am about to put my 9 month old in Child Care one day a week (with one day at Gran’s and one day at home with Daddy) while I go back to work. Should I start her off with just a few hours and build to a full day? I am due to go back to work in July but can start Child Care now if I want.

When putting young children into care it is probably best if they are able to attend at least 2 sessions a week, not just one, so that your baby has a chance to learn to adjust to the new situation and get to know the new care givers. Babies need stable childcare. Changing care arrangements often leaves them confused and can affect their behaviour and adjustment. Under the age of one year, parents experience fewer separation issues but do not be surprised that you’re apparently settled baby will of a sudden become upset at your disappearance when she moves towards 12mths. It is important to understand that your child will prefer to be with you and is likely to be upset when you leave. This does not mean she is unhappy there.

Our 8 month old is looked after by his grandmother whilst my partner and myself work would it be better for him to go to a Day care once a week to help him join in with other tots?

Children are cared for in different ways this may include family, neighbours, family day care or child care centres. Parents need to think about the special needs of their own children and find care that best suits their families’ needs. The type of care you use is often decided by your financial or work needs. Children under 12 mths need the type of care where they can have a close relationship with one carer or a small number of carers. It is best to have the same carer as much as possible. It is important to choose a carer that enjoys being with babies and understands how they learn and grow. If you need to have a young baby in formalised care it is probably best to have them in care for at least 2 sessions a week, not just one, giving him the opportunity to develop a relationship with that person. It is not essential that a child of this age be exposed to group care in the sense of developing relationships. In saying this, children over 3years of age usually benefit from group experiences on part or some days each week whether you are at work or not. If you are concerned about lack of interactions with same age peers you can join a playgroup or invite over other mothers with similar aged babies. What is most important is that your baby is in a care arrangement where he is safe and loved and that will do.

I am about to go back to work and am in the process of looking for a child care centre how do I know and what should I be looking for?

It is important to begin the process early this allows you to make an informed decision about the best care your family needs. Beware a lot of centres will have a long waiting list especially if your child is under 2. When looking for care ask friends and relatives for referrals and you should visit each facility or home you are considering. Things to look for include:

  • The care givers level of education/training
  • The size and appearance of the centre
  • If it is along day care centre ask about staff turnover rates, children benefit from consistency of carers so they are not for ever adjusting to new carers.
  • Look at child/adult ratios
  • Are the carers sensitive towards the children (how do they interact with the children when you observe them).
  • What are the teacher’s attitudes to children towards adversity and disability?
  • What are the child’s actual experiences in this setting are their lots of toys and equipment
  • Are the indoor and outdoor environments interesting, safe and secure
  • Do you feel welcomed – very important?
  • Do you feel comfortable asking a question is there a partnership between you and the carer?

For more information see Episode 13 Child care or Parenting .