Transitioning from primary-grade classrooms to infant/toddler rooms: early childhood preservice teachers’ growth and challenges


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 42:3, 245-264

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors’ goal in this study was to gain a better understanding of the impact of a semester-long practicum with infants and toddlers on a group of undergraduate early childhood preservice teachers who were new to working with this age group.

Research questions
The authors’ aim in this study was to explore how a small group of preservice teachers, all of whom had been well prepared to become primary-grade teachers, made a transition into infant/ toddler group care settings for their last undergraduate field experience.
The following research questions guided their study:
(1) How do the preservice teachers describe new learning during this experience that is different from their primary-grade student teaching?
(2) What do they find most challenging during the transition into infant/toddler care settings?
(3) What factors do they find contribute most to their learning of new beliefs and practices?


The present study was designed as a single case study with the purpose of understanding “how” teachers change and “why” (Yin, 2003, p. 1).
All participants in the study were placed within the same early childhood center and engaged in a particular set of learning experiences during their placement.
Rather than highlighting individual differences, this single case design focused on finding similar patterns in a group of preservice teachers’ experiences and beliefs.
The study was conducted within a Midwestern State university and the practicum placements were at the campus child care center.
The university offers a 4-year undergraduate early childhood education (ECE) program within the College of Education, which provides a teaching license for working with children ages three to eight, as required by the state.
Recognizing the importance of both experience and knowledge regarding the full continuum of child development as foundational to an holistic approach to teaching and learning with young children, however, the students are also required to work with infants or toddlers at the campus center either during sophomore or senior year as an integral part of their teacher preparation.
The campus center enacts a Reggio-Emilia inspired approach and focuses on child centered emergent curriculum and developmentally appropriate practice.
One of the center’s primary missions is to train and support preservice teachers’ learning.
The center philosophy endorses a co-teaching system, considering the preservice teachers as co-teachers whose responsibilities and roles are expected to evolve over time.
During the weekly one-hour team planning meeting, the head teachers and the preservice teachers in each class come together to discuss the children and the ongoing curriculum.
At these meetings, the preservice teachers have the opportunity to engage in questions, reflection, observation sharing, and discussion with the mentor teachers.
Topics focus on children’s interests, needs, developmental progress, how to plan curriculum based on their observations, and how to engage in best practice for all children.
Lastly, there is a weekly seminar class led by the assistant director of the center.
This seminar provides a space for the preservice teachers to delve deeper into issues around classroom practice, curriculum, and student teaching.
The class also requires the preservice teachers to complete daily reflection journals, family relationship/communication reports, observation papers, documentation of individual research topics carried out with classroom children, weekly curriculum (lesson) planning, and documentation of their final 2-weeks when they are fully in charge of the classroom.
These various components of preparation come together for the preservice teachers at the center, providing a cross-fertilization between scholarship and practice.

Nine preservice teachers and seven head teachers from two infant rooms and two toddler rooms participated in the study.
As the focus of the current paper was to explore the preservice teachers’ experiences and perspectives, the preservice teachers’ data were used as the main data sources.
Prior to this student teaching, the participants had been immersed in over 1000 hours in primary-grade classrooms.
As for teacher preparation related to birth-five settings, the preservice teachers completed 38 hours of practicum in one infant, toddler, or preschool room along with ECE courses such as infant/toddler development, curriculum, play & creativity, emergent math & science, and children’s literature during sophomore year.

Procedures and data sources
Data were collected over one semester.
To gain an in-depth understanding of the preservice teachers’ experiences and bring in their genuine voices, multiple data sources were utilized.
First, the preservice teachers’ weekly team meeting was videotaped in each of the four participating classrooms.
In total, 20 sessions were recorded.
The participants’ daily journal entries, a partial requirement for the seminar, served as an additional data source and enabled the researchers to understand each participant’s personal challenges, setbacks, reflections, accomplishments, and evolving beliefs.
The entries comprised a total of about 355 pages, all of which were reviewed and analyzed.
During weeks 14 and 15 of the semester, the first author individually interviewed all participants except one, whose schedule did not fit into the two-week interview period.
Interview questions focused on the participants’ responses to their placements, their experiences in the setting, and their perceptions of infant/toddler development, curriculum, and infant/toddler teachers’ roles.
Also, the interviews provided an opportunity for the researcher to inquire about any remaining questions that arose within the meeting observations and journals.
Lastly, documents (e.g. syllabus of seminar class, weekly planning sheets) related to the preservice teachers’ experiences were collected to help the researchers better understand the context in which they took place.
These documents provided a framework for better understanding the expectations for the preservice teachers at their site and a timeline for the emergence of particular topics for discussion.

Findings and discussion
The authors’ analysis shows that the preservice teachers, moving into infant/toddler group care settings after their immersion in primary-grade classrooms, initially struggled to work with the children and that their long-held notions of children, teaching, and learning were challenged.
Yet, their daily work with the infants over 15-weeks of student teaching helped them deepen and broaden, and become more insightful in, their understanding of children, learning, and teaching.

Personal growth through becoming infant teachers
As noted in the data, for these preservice teachers, working with infants and toddlers provided many opportunities to think more deeply about who they are and what they do as teachers.
At first, they found themselves rattled by crying babies, nervous about interpreting infants’ cues, uncertain of how to help, and uncomfortable teaching at the moment.
They were frustrated with what they saw as their lack of control, and short of patience.
However, over time, and with the help of caring mentors, they were able to engage in a critical self-reflective learning process that allowed them to become more understanding, patient, compassionate, and nurturing toward infants and toddlers.
The findings from this study suggest that field work with infants and toddlers helped the preservice teachers to gain a great deal of new knowledge about more than teaching babies.
Their openness to engaging with new ways of seeing and learning from young children helped them to expand their formerly narrow notions of what it means to be an early childhood teacher.

Inadequacy of preparing teachers for primary-grade education as a substitute for infant/toddler care/education
The preservice teachers’ struggles over the transition to working with infants and toddlers provide evidence that teacher preparation for infant-toddler care cannot be substituted with that for primary-grade education.
The teachers in this study, who had completed over 1000 hours of field experiences in primary-grade classrooms and thus become skilled teachers with this age group, found many challenges in adjusting to infant/toddler care and education due to the contrasting nature between primary-grade classrooms and infant/toddler group care settings.
Unlike their previous primary-grade settings where the curriculum was relatively pre-determined and the class organization was consistent, the infant-toddler curriculum was emergent and the class organization was rarely static and always changing.
At first, individually appropriate moments to meet each child’s development, needs, and interests were elusive to the preservice teachers.
Also, their desire to directly teach children ran counter to respecting the children’s own agendas, requiring the preservice teachers to develop a new attitude.
Without much knowledge of the individual children, they had difficulty “decoding” children’s cues.
Multitasking and class management were daunting tasks.
Consequently, they felt uncertain and less confident as teachers.
The solutions to these challenges were not to be found in any guidelines or standards.
Rather, the preservice teachers had to creatively come up with multiple solutions while developing diverse perspectives along with knowledge and insight into each challenge and inquiry.
These challenges stemmed from the unique contextual nature of the infant room. Infant-toddler group care is multilayered and multidimensional due to the unique nature of infants, the need for dynamic relationships, and the special demands created by group care (Jung, 2013).
Embedded in this complex nature of the infant room, play-based and child-centered emergent curriculum, which is free from direct instruction on academic standards, delineates the context as unconventional and unique, requiring infant/toddler teachers to be flexible, creative, and “innovative in their thinking” (Franzen, 2014, p. 250) and practice of care and education.
Teachers’ professional dispositions are nurtured through their daily practice within complex contexts where children, families, and environments are intertwined (Swim & Isik-Ercan, 2013).
Infant-toddler group care settings are contexts where the complexities are explicit (Degotardi & Pearson, 2014).
Therefore, there is a compelling need for infant teacher preparation to be specialized “within” infant/toddler group care settings where prospective teachers directly “experience” the complexities and are given opportunities for practice in care and education with the youngest children (Beck, 2013; Jung, 2013; Recchia et al., 2015).

Practicing core principles of education and cultivating professional dispositions as ECE teachers
The preservice teachers in this study unequivocally maintained that what they learned from their infant/toddler student teaching experience can be and should be applied to teaching across all ECE settings due to its universal importance.
Their new competencies and understandings included:
a child-centered and emergent curriculum;
reconceptualization of infants/toddlers as capable contributors to their own learning and development;
recognition of individual differences;
value of observation and relationships;
knowledge of the individual child as a vital tool to teaching;
flexibility and openness to children’s needs and interests;
willingness to give up thoughtfully planned curriculum to improvise according to children’s agendas;
respectful approach to children’s play;
holistic approach to understanding a child;
and multi-tasking and time management skills in response to dynamic demands.
It should be noted that what was learned through infant/toddler student teaching was not just a set of skills.
Rather, it was a professional awakening, an actualization of the core principles of ECE, and new dispositions toward child-centered teaching.
These findings confirm those of previous studies in that fieldwork with infants and toddlers challenged the teachers to learn the essential elements of best practice in ECE, and to transform their beliefs and ways of teaching into responsive, child-centered practice (Beck, 2013; Loizou & Recchia, 2018; Recchia & Shin, 2010).
The authors’ findings support previous outcomes in suggesting that infant teachers’ practice should be emphasized as an essential component of early childhood teacher preparation, illuminating its child-centered nature and professionalism, and infant group care settings should be reconsidered as spaces where prospective teachers across grades can learn the fundamentals of ECE, cultivating their professional dispositions.

Mentor teacher support, the nature of infants and toddlers, and quality teaching contexts as pivotal to teacher change
Three primary factors emerged in this study that can be described as critical elements in the preservice teachers’ transformational experiences:
the mentor teachers’ support, the nature of infants/toddlers, and quality context.

Beck, L. M. (2013). Fieldwork with infants: What preservice teachers can learn from taking care of babies. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 34, 7–22.
Degotardi, S., & Pearson, E. (2014). The relationship worlds of infants and toddlers: Multiple perspectives from early years theory and practice. Berkshire: Open University Press. Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. New York, NY: Heath
Franzen, K. (2014). Under-threes’ mathematical learning – Teachers’ perspectives. Early Years, 34 (3), 241–254.
Jung, J. (2013). Teachers’ roles in infants’ play and its changing nature in a dynamic group care context. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 187–198.
Loizou, E., & Recchia, S. (2018). In-service infant teachers re-envision their practice through a professional development program. Early Education and Development, 29(1), 91–103.
Recchia, S. L., Lee, S. Y., & Shin, M. (2015). Preparing early childhood professionals for relationship-based work with infants. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 36, 100–123.
Recchia, S. L., & Shin, M. (2010). ‘Baby teachers’: How pre-service early childhood students transform their conceptions of teaching and learning through an infant practicum. Early Years, 30(2), 135–145.
Swim, T. J., & Isik-Ercan, Z. (2013). Dispositional development as a form of continuous professional development: Centre-based reflective practices with teachers of (very) young children. Early Years, 33(2), 172–185.
Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Updated: Nov. 29, 2021