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Starting Child Care: What Young Children Learn about Relating to Adults in the First Weeks of Starting Child Care

Carmen Dalli
Victoria University of Wellington


This article describes how three toddlers in their first child care experience learned to relate to the adults in the center. The stories are constructed from data gathered as part of a qualitative case study project that explored the experience of starting child care from the perspectives of all the participants in this event: the children, the mothers, and the teachers at the child care centers. A critical polytextualist approach is used in discussing the three children's stories. Findings suggest that a primary caregiver system has much to offer in enhancing very young children's experience of starting child care.


This paper focuses on how three young children learned to relate to the new adults at their child care center during the event of starting child care. Data for this paper are drawn from a larger case study project that explored this event as experienced by five children under 3 years old, their mothers, and one of their child care teachers (Dalli, 1999a).

Two approaches have dominated in studies of children starting child care: the traditional psychological approach, which sees the experience of starting child care as involving separation from the mother, and the social psychological approach, which considers the experience as one of adjustment to a new social setting.

In traditional psychological studies, the analysis has relied on notions from psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory, and the study of temperament. Psychoanalytic studies (e.g., Janis, 1964; Meltzer, 1984; Robbins, 1997) have suggested that separation from the mother on entry into child care results in a need for children to develop a strong relationship with the teacher, who serves as a substitute for the mother. In addition, entry into the group situation of an early childhood center has been seen to represent entry into a form of tribal culture for which the child has to learn the rules by relying on "primitive social impulses" (Meltzer, 1984, p. 100).

Studies from an attachment theory perspective have focused on studying the effect of using child care on children's attachment relationships with their mothers (e.g., Ainslie & Anderson, 1984; Bretherton & Waters, 1985). In a few cases, the effect of the existing attachment relationship between mother and child on the child's experience of starting child care has also been explored (e.g., Petrie & Davidson, 1995).

From a temperament theory perspective, adjustment to being in an early childhood setting has been explored as a function of children's temperament (e.g., Klein, 1991; Lewis, 1977; Marcus, Chess, & Thomas, 1972; Mobley & Pullis, 1991). These studies see adjustment as involving social relations with peers and with center adults as well as an individual's psychological response to a new setting.

Social-psychological studies of children starting child care as an experience of socialization have used teachers' and researchers' measures of children's adjustment to the new demands of the early childhood setting (e.g., Blatchford, 1983; Blatchford, Battle, & Mays, 1984; Feldbaum, Christenson, & O'Neal, 1980). These studies have concluded that new children did not take long to acquire the "necessary information about rules, rituals and power structure" (Blatchford, Battle, & Mays, 1984, p. 157) to operate as established group members (Feldbaum, Christenson, & O'Neal, 1980). In these studies, entry into an early childhood setting was also seen as an experience of transition that affected parents (mostly mothers) as well as children. These studies also found that during the transition, children's experiences were not homogeneous (Blatchford, Battle, & Mays, 1984; Jorde, 1984; Murton, 1971).

A recent approach has been to study children's early experiences of child care from the perspective of the children themselves (Pramling & Lindahl, 1991, 1994; Thyssen, 2000). Pramling and Lindahl adopted the phenomenological position that intentionality is an expression of consciousness and thus of experience. Through analyzing videotaped records of children's behaviors in their day care settings, Pramling and Lindahl arrived at an understanding of the infants' learning experiences. Similarly, Thyssen sought to explore how infants acted in the "life-world" of the day care setting by focusing on the children's interactions with the adults, their peers, and the environment.

Research Approach

The overall study from which data in this study are drawn used a qualitative case study approach informed by principles from grounded theory (e.g., Charmaz, 1995; Hutchinson, 1998); narrative inquiry (Polkinghorne, 1988, 1995; Sarbin, 1986); deconstructivist analysis (e.g., Burman, 1994); and insights gained from the methods used by Pramling and Lindahl (1991, 1994) and Thyssen (2000). The data used in this paper come from three of five case studies conducted in different licensed child care centers in a major city in Aotearoa/New Zealand over a total period of 10 months.

The three case studies used in this paper are those of Nina, Maddi, and Julie. Nina attended a half-day community creche (nursery school) with a parent-cooperative management and operating structure. Maddi also attended a community creche with a parent-cooperative structure; however, this center was open for both morning and afternoon sessions, and children could attend for either half-day or full-day sessions. Julie attended a full-day child care center fully staffed by trained personnel. In Julie's center, parent representatives sat on the management committee but did not participate in the daily program. The duration of each case study varied between 8 and 16 weeks, depending on the number of each child's orientation visits. Table 1 presents the names of the participants in the three case studies, their relationship, and the type of center that each child attended.

Table 1
Names of Participants, Their Relationship, and the Type of Center Each Child Attended
Case Study Child's Name and Age (in months at start of study) Parent(s) Teacher(s) Type of Center
CS1 Nina, 16m Jean Sarah Half-day community creche; community hall venue, parent-cooperative management
CS2 Maddi, 15m Helen Anna & Sam Sessional community creche; community hall venue, parent-cooperative management
CS4 Julie, 18m Lyn Patti Full-day; incorporated society

For each case study, the data gathered consisted of:

These data were augmented by written notes of a number of informal conversations that took place throughout the fieldwork stage of the case studies. These notes became part of the fieldnotes.

In gathering data about the children's experiences of starting child care, the limited verbal skills of the children in the study meant that they were not able to tell their own stories. Thus, the stories presented in this paper are constructions from the combined data in each case study.

Narratives of Children's Experiences: Relating to the New Adults at the Center

The stories in this paper are narratives of children learning to relate to the adults in their center. (For narratives of the mothers' experiences of starting to use a child care center for their child, including their responses to the child care center's way of handling this experience, see Dalli 1999b.) In constructing these narratives, I saw my task as a process of relating "events and actions to one another by configuring them as contributors to the advancement of a plot" (Polkinghorne, 1995, p. 16). This approach is consistent with the methods of the second of two types of narrative inquiry identified by Polkinghorne in which the data consist of "actions, events and happenings … whose analysis produces stories" (p. 6).

The story told about each of the three children is structured around a key phrase that emerged from the data as capturing the central theme of their story. In the case of Nina and Maddi's stories, the phrase was used by one of the adult participants who talked about the children. The title of Julie's story emerged from synthesis of the data about how Julie learned to relate to the teachers in her center.

Nina, Maddi, and Julie entered centers that operated under different policies about how the center adults should work with children. Nina started child care in a center where she was immediately allocated a primary caregiver; Julie attended a center that had a firm policy that all staff looked after all the children; and Maddi attended a center that had no particular policy about this matter and the teachers operated from a practical principle of "going with the child." These policies were clearly articulated by the participating teachers in the case studies regardless of whether the center's policy existed only in practice or whether the policy was documented. Additionally, the policies were related to the individual teachers' views of best practice during the experience of helping a new child settle in. These views emerged as the teachers talked about the event of settling in during the two interviews held with the teachers as well as in their journal records and informal conversations. In this discussion, the teachers used key phrases in a way that appeared similar to Elbaz's (1981) images or mental pictures of good practice. In Elbaz's theory of teachers' practical knowledge, images are seen as the component of the teachers' practical knowledge that is most powerful in organizing that knowledge and making an impact on practice. Elsewhere I have argued that these key phrases or images seemed to form part of a "larger understanding individual teachers had about the nature of the settling-in event" (see Dalli, 1999a, p. 222). These larger understandings are called the teachers' theories of practice or the teachers' perceptions of their practice.

What emerges most strikingly in the stories in this paper is the consistency with which the patterns of interactions that children established with the center adults fitted with the center's policies and the teachers' expectations for how this pattern would unfold. These expectations were also part of the teachers' theories of practice.

Nina's Story: "Coming to Terms with Separation"

"Coming to terms with separation" was how Nina's mother, Jean, described her daughter's experience of starting child care. However, this phrase was also central to how Nina's teacher, Sarah, understood Nina's settling-in experience. In fact, Jean and Sarah told Nina's story in quite similar ways. For example, both women saw Nina's initial two visits as a great success; both agreed that throughout the process, the initial "success" appeared threatened by three breaks in Nina's attendance; and both agreed that at the end of the process, Nina had settled in very happily. In each of the two women's stories, there was also much positive comment on the way the other was handling the experience of Nina's settling in. Beyond these similarities, however, there were some different emphases that related to the different roles, and associated functions, occupied by the two women in relation to Nina. Thus, Jean's story focused on gauging whether Nina was happy or not and on tracing the ebb and flow of this happiness. Sarah, on the other hand, focused on how well she judged the relationship between her and Nina to be developing within the expectations of her theory of practice.

Nina was 16 months old when she started her orientation visits at a half-day community creche. The creche operated in the local community center from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. each weekday. At the end of each session, all the equipment was cleared away so that other community groups could use the center. The center was licensed for 20 children and employed 4 permanent part-time staff. One parent helper was scheduled on each day, bringing the ratio of adults to children to 1:5. At the start of the case study, the center had just decided to test a version of the primary caregiver system. This practice was explained in a letter to parents as meaning that each staff member would have "primary responsibility" for a group of "focus children."

Sarah's Theory of Practice: Weaning Them in

Nina's primary caregiver, Sarah, was very enthusiastic about the primary caregiver system, and her theory of practice about settling in a new child into the center was based on the principle that "it is better for a child to develop a deep relationship with one adult than a superficial relationship with four adults. When they're comfortable with one person, then they'll branch out" (CS1.TIS1.3.2a). (Note 1) Sarah also believed that the primary caregiver system gave the new child "four to six weeks of almost exclusive treatment," adding, "you can't expect that focused treatment from all the staff" (CS1.TIS1.3.2a). In Sarah's theory of practice, "focused treatment" was the mechanism through which a deep relationship would develop that would create confidence in the child to then "branch out" to others. Another aspect of Sarah's theory of practice was the notion that the teacher's role in settling in a new child was to "wean them in"; in her view, if children were "weaned in" as opposed to being "dropped into it" or "just dumped," they settled in more quickly (CS1.TIS1.5.1c). "Weaning them in" functioned as a key phrase in Sarah's talk about her practice, and its use here captures the essence of Sarah's theory of practice. Sarah also believed that the home adults should be involved in the process of "weaning them in."

The Story from the Data

The observational data in the fieldnotes, as well as the video records, showed that Sarah's theory of practice started to be enacted from Nina's first visit to the child care center. For example, it was Sarah who immediately welcomed Nina and Jean and became the main person to guide them around the center and follow Nina's cues about what interested her. Additionally, many of the interactions that Nina had with the adults in the center took place through the opportunities that Sarah either set up or allowed to unfold. In the process, Sarah also started introducing some of the center "rules" about different activities. For example, the following extract shows how Sarah's actions provided guidance about how painting was done at the center. Having rolled up Nina's sleeves in preparation for painting at the easel, Sarah later noticed that Nina's painting was spilling over onto a second easel nearby:

09.24 Sarah leaves Jean's side and goes to the painting area.
Sarah: "Oh, two [paintings] Nina!"; she squats down close to Nina and writes NINA with a thick crayon at the top of one picture and then on the other saying, "Let's write 'Nina' again. Here you go. I think I'll have to get you some more paint and paper in a minute." Sarah walks back to Jean's side. (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/8)

Later still, on noticing that Nina no longer had her apron on and was heading back to the painting area, Sarah went over to Nina saying:

09.30 "Shall we go and wash your hands?" (Nina's hands are covered in paint.) Sarah takes Nina's hand. Nina goes with Sarah towards the bathroom but on the way catches sight of her mother sitting at the puzzle table and veers towards her and sits in her lap. Sarah says to Jean, "I'll tell you what: I'll bring a wet towel to her."

Sarah goes off to the bathroom area and comes back with a wet paper towel and, squatting, wipes Nina's hand with this. Nina toddles off to the collage table. Sarah, still squatting, says, "Oh, she's gone now—here, she's back," as Nina returns to Jean and Sarah holding a gluey paintbrush. "Nina, I think you should have an apron on," says Sarah.

"No," says Nina and toddles off to the painting easel again, leaving the gluey paintbrush behind and picking up a thick crayon instead.

Sarah says to Jean and another teacher nearby, "I'm just going to let her wander about." (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/8)

A later attempt by Sarah to entice Nina to wear the apron by holding up the apron from about a meter away and proffering it to Nina was also refused by Nina, who shook her head in response. Sarah commented about the refused apron to another teacher, "She might not want it—I'm not going to force her—I don't want her to be upset" (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/8, 09.34). After yet another refusal of the apron less than an hour later, Sarah said in a calm way, "No. We'll get there in time" (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/8, 10.12).

Apart from Nina's clear eagerness to explore her new environment, these very first interactions between Nina and Sarah indicate that for the most part, Nina appeared receptive to guidance from Sarah. On her part, Sarah followed Nina's cues about her preferred activities and at the same time started introducing some of the "rules" that accompanied them, such as putting on an apron and having one's name printed on the drawing paper, as well as the hand washing that followed the painting. Sarah's attention to Nina's cues meant that she was not prepared to force the issue about the wearing of the apron once Nina had firmly indicated her opposition to doing so. In this instance, Sarah put her goal of not upsetting Nina ahead of the rule about the apron, which she said would fall into place in its own time. Her wish not to upset Nina was also apparent in her decision to abandon the bathroom trip in favor of the wet paper towel solution. Sarah's activity with Nina thus indicates a balance of guidance (into the ways of the center) and respect, as well as a willingness to make some allowances for the new child in the routines.

During this initial session, Nina was involved in numerous other contacts with Sarah, including when Sarah defused a potential conflict with an older girl over which child had prior claim to a doll's pushchair (stroller) and when she guided Nina through such morning tea routines as washing hands before eating, sitting on a chair to eat her food, not eating food that fell on the floor, and drinking from one's own cup ( records, orientation visit 1/8). From these behaviors, it is possible to hypothesize that Nina may have understood Sarah's role as being one of mediating Nina's peer interactions as well as of inducting her into a range of rules about center life.

Over the succeeding weeks, this pattern of constant attention from Sarah to Nina's focus of attention was maintained, and Nina continued to accept Sarah's approaches. Early during the second visit, Nina's behavior also suggested that she was beginning to be willing to "use" Sarah as a source of comfort: When Jean temporarily left the outside play area and Nina started to cry in protest, Sarah approached Nina, who promptly lifted her arms towards Sarah to be picked up (09.27). Sarah's response to such approaches from Nina was consistently warm and accepting, and she wrote about such instances in her journal as indicating that Nina was feeling "at ease" with her (CS1.TJ.2.23-24).

Nina's early acceptance of Sarah and Sarah's continuous attentiveness to Nina's cues were again apparent when Nina started having brief periods at the center on her own. On the first of these occasions, as soon as Jean indicated that she was ready to leave, Sarah positioned herself close to Nina at the dough table and waited for Jean to initiate the departure. In the fieldnotes, this first separation episode was recorded in this way:

10.15 "So I'll just say goodbye to her," says mum to Sarah—she bends towards Nina across dough table and says, "Nina, sweetie, goodbye, bye Nina." Nina is very absorbed in dough play, however, and does not really look up. "Bye, bye, ta ta," says mum again. But there's still no response from Nina. Mum says, "I sort of feel I should get some recognition from her that I'm going," and tries again. Mum waves and waves, but there still is no acknowledgment by Nina. Mum tries again with no response, so mum leaves without Nina having realised this. Sarah and Nina play at rolling the dough and pretending to eat little balls of it. (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 3/8)

For the next few minutes, Nina remained quite happily occupied in dough play with Sarah, sometimes watching with interest, with her left hand on Sarah's knee (09.44), as Sarah made some dough "snakes" and at other times rolling out dough herself. When one of the dough "snakes" fell onto the floor, Nina happily complied with Sarah's request to pick it up. Nina gave the first sign that she might be aware of her mother's absence about 10 minutes after Jean's departure when she looked up from the table and looked around the room searchingly. This behavior led Sarah to comment quietly to me, "Did you see her searching?" As Nina's attention was caught by a doll's pushchair, however, the moment passed, and it was not till 3 minutes later that Nina suddenly again appeared to become aware that her mother was absent. This "realization" was recorded in this way:

09.52 Nina walks off towards the hallway, a paintbrush in her hand and back again to the easel—Sarah takes the paintbrush off her, picking up an apron and saying, "Oh, Nina," looking at her paint-covered hands. Nina turns away and walks off again towards the hallway and on towards the front door.

09.53 Nina starts to cry at the front door and looks "lost" as if she has just realised that mum is not around. Sarah follows her in the hallway; she picks Nina up and takes her to bathroom to wash the paint off her hands. Sarah talks about the hand washing and the paint coming off as they do this. When they finish, Nina has stopped crying, and Sarah puts her down on the floor; but Nina walks back to the centre front door and cries again.

09.54 Sarah follows; she picks Nina up and gives her a kiss—Nina stops crying—they walk to the blue carpeted room where an older boy is playing with a toy dog. Sarah talks to the boy and asks if Nina can look at his toy dog—Nina smiles broadly at this and is now distracted by the dog and then the flexi-tunnel and then the Lego firehouse that Sarah starts to play with. (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 3/8)

While it is not possible to be sure what Nina's "real" intentions were in going to the center's front door during these incidents, it is difficult to escape the interpretation that Nina had realized that her mother had left the center and that she possibly wished to follow her. I noted this interpretation in my fieldnotes. Sarah had a similar interpretation—both in her comment about Nina's "searching" behavior and her immediate actions to distract Nina while washing her hands, and in her actions to comfort and distract her again with the affectionate kiss and playing in the blue room.

What was also interesting in the interaction between Nina and Sarah during the first trial separation session was the change in the behavior between Sarah and Nina when Jean was not present. As I noted above, Sarah had been involved in a variety of interactions with Nina while Jean had been present; however, true to her principle that "when mum is here, I'm not the primary caregiver" (CS1.TIS1.6.2b), Sarah had kept largely in the background and had allowed Nina to explore the center alongside her mother. During this session, however, from the time of Jean's departure to her return, Sarah was constantly at Nina's side. This proximity did not appear to perturb Nina, who seemed to easily accept comfort from Sarah and to let her "take her [Nina's] mind off mum not being there" (CS1.TJ. 3.43). There were no further obvious signs that Nina was conscious of her mother's absence during the first trial separation session, although the reunion with Jean was, from an observer's point of view, an emotional one, with Jean's face looking flushed with pleasure and Nina's face beaming with delight. Sarah's account to Jean of Nina's response to the separation was factual in detail and included the evaluation that Nina had been "excellent." Jean looked at me for verification, and I smiled and nodded, wondering, not for the last time, about how much I should become involved in these interactions.

What Nina Learned: "Developing a Deep Relationship with Sarah?"

The proximity to Nina that Sarah maintained consistently in Jean's absence during the first trial separation period was repeated during the second trial period of separation, which was seen as another "successful" day by Sarah and Jean. This time, Nina watched her mother's departure and looked composed and not at all perturbed by it, although in my fieldnotes, I also described her as "solemn, as if she understands what's going on" (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 4/8, 09.42).

An indication that Nina may have started to feel her mother's absence came about 10 minutes later when, as she watched another mother leave by the front gate, Nina started to cry. Sarah was immediately at Nina's side, saying:

09.23 "Does that remind you of your mum? Let's go play on the rocking horses." Sarah picks Nina up and carries her to the blue room. Sarah tries to place Nina on a rocking horse, but Nina kicks her legs and resists this. (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 4/8)

It was noticeable that for the rest of the session, Nina stayed in Sarah's arms or on her lap, suggesting perhaps that a connection existed between her awareness of her mother's absence and her desire for proximity to Sarah. This proximity was also welcomed by Sarah, who wrote of this session that she and Nina were "developing a really happy positive rapport" (CS1.TJ.4.24) consistent with the "deep relationship" that Sarah believed a good settling-in experience required. Nina was still at the morning tea table when Jean returned after an absence of 45 minutes. Nina immediately spotted her and raised her arms with a whimper of request to be picked up. Nina had a long and warm cuddle with her mother, her face beaming with delight, and she remained in her mother's arms till they left the center about 10 minutes later.

It is possible to hypothesize from these observations that Nina had learned to relate to Sarah as the adult who would provide her with help and comfort in the center environment. Likewise, it is possible to hypothesize that Sarah's intention to become the one person with whom Nina developed the initial deep relationship from which she could later branch out was being achieved. This hypothesis/interpretation was supported during the following visit when after Jean's departure, Nina was quite tearful and had her first period of sustained crying, refusing to be distracted by Sarah's offers of toys or activities. This behavior lasted for about 4 minutes, after which Nina again started taking some interest in activities around her but remaining close to Sarah throughout the session.

This pattern of behavior was repeated 2 weeks later when, after having missed her visits for 2 weeks, Nina seemed determined to keep hold of mum's hand while Jean remained at the center. On the first two visits after this break, Nina had difficulty saying goodbye to her mother and cried strongly when Jean left. She subsequently remained close to Sarah throughout the sessions, fluctuating between bouts of tears and periods of calm. Both sessions concluded with Sarah deciding to call Jean to collect Nina early. These two sessions caused Jean to feel quite anxious; she said in our first interview that she felt that Nina had "suddenly rejected it quite strongly" (CS1.PIS1.8.13). However, my fieldnotes of these two sessions showed that despite the bouts of crying that Nina experienced, and her reluctance to engage in activities on her own, there were many instances when Nina appeared willing to accept comfort from Sarah and did not appear to reject Sarah at all. I wrote:

10.05 Sarah takes Nina to dough table and starts rolling out some dough. Nina observes—then she picks up dough cutters and starts cutting up shapes. She's beginning to look more settled now and is still on Sarah's lap.... "Push the gingerbread man down," says Sarah to Nina. Sarah puts her own hand on top of Nina's and helps her press down the cutter—Nina stands up now, looks suddenly lost, she whimpers, and Sarah picks her up again—Nina accepts this and now watches an older child at the dough table as she continues to play with the dough.

10.15 Sarah carries Nina to the kitchen; Nina gives her first smile since mum left, then she looks at me (Carmen) and cries! Another teacher goes up to Nina and pats her hand—but Nina still cries.… Sarah takes Nina back to the dough table, and Nina gets involved in this quite happily again.

10.17 Nina's still in Sarah's lap—Sarah says she'll let another teacher get morning tea—"I'd rather make sure she's [Nina's] ok," she says. (Nina in fact seems perfectly fine as long as she is in Sarah's lap, but if Sarah tries to put her down, she whimpers.) Nina gives a small whimper, and Sarah stands up and carries Nina to the morning tea table. (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 6/8)

My perception that Nina was able to be comforted by Sarah was shared by Sarah, who commented on this behavior in her own journal, stating also that Nina "kept up her interest in the children and activities throughout the morning" (CS1.TJ.6.20-34). Nonetheless, both Jean and Sarah were concerned about Nina's experience on these two days, and, having talked over the breaks in attendance that Nina had had, they decided that more frequent visits might be helpful; thus they agreed to schedule an extra visit for the following day. My fieldnotes of this visit suggest that Nina's behavior was closer to her earlier explorative and keen style; at the same time, she remained determined to retain proximity to Jean, whom she pulled by the hand around the various activities in the room. Noting this behavior, Jean said to me halfway through the session:

Jean: "I'm not getting much distance between us."
Carmen: "No, but she's certainly enjoying all the activities."
Jean: "She was happier getting here this morning." (CS1.fieldnotes, orientation visit 8/8, 09.51)

In summary, these observations suggested a "working hypothesis" that over the period of visits to the center, Nina had worked out that she could not assume that her mother would stay at the center throughout her time there; her grip on her mother's hand may have been Nina's way of saying that she preferred to have her mother remain at the center with her. Nonetheless, Nina also appeared willing to accept Sarah as a source of comfort in her mother's absence. An incident during Nina's next visit to the center gave support to this idea, which Jean expressed as Nina needing to "come to terms with the separation" and to develop trust in Sarah. In Sarah's eyes, the incident appeared to mark a "turning point" and subsequently acquired the status of a landmark event in her story of Nina's settling in.

A Landmark Event: Accepting the Separation—Accepting Sarah?

Nina spent all of the next session at the center without Jean. When Jean passed Nina over to Sarah, Nina protested with a determined cry. Nina calmed down somewhat when Jean was out of sight, but for the next 15 minutes, Nina continued to break into small crying bouts between periods of interest in different activities around the center to which Sarah carried her. Suddenly, Nina fell into a sobbing sleep on Sarah's shoulder. Another teacher tried to help Sarah shift Nina's weight from her arm, but Nina woke up and gave such a piercing cry that Sarah continued holding her herself throughout the sleep. When Nina woke up half an hour later, she still seemed ready to cry at any moment and refused to leave Sarah's side, showing clearly that she preferred to be with Sarah than with any of the other teachers. However, over the following 15 minutes, Nina's behavior slowly changed, and although she did not actively participate in any of the activity areas, she again started to show an interest in what was going on around her, smiling at Sarah from time to time and generally looking quite content. Sarah recorded her thoughts about this session as follows:

Just before morning tea she went to sleep in my arms. She obviously felt good enough with me to do that … when she woke up we were outside.… I felt a difference in her mood, and it was not long before she was sitting with me, without crying, enjoying one of the other children's block building…. she had become a lot more relaxed, closer to the stage she was at before her long break from the centre. She wanted me there … our relationship is definitely there. (CS1.TJ.8.29-31; 36-41; 51)

The marked difference in Nina's mood after her sleep, which Sarah noted, was something I also noted in my fieldnotes. As I watched Nina sit close to Sarah, swinging her feet on the edge of the sandpit and smiling as she observed Sarah trickling sand through her fingers, I found myself saying to Sarah, "It's a real breakthrough now, isn't it" (CS1.fieldnotes, sole attendance week 1, 11.28). Sarah agreed. In both our eyes, it seemed that for the first time since Jean's departure that morning, Nina appeared to have reached the state described by Jean as "com[ing] to terms with the separation" and to "have developed trust" in Sarah (CS1.PIS1.2.2). The sense that Nina had learned to "trust" Sarah emerged clearly in Nina's refusal to leave Sarah's side as well as in her definite preference to stay in Sarah's arms while she slept.

Following this session, Nina's behavior in the center suggested a continuing increase in ease. From maintaining closeness to Sarah as she engaged in activities during the second week of sole attendance, Nina progressed in her third week to giving up Sarah's attention when Sarah moved to comfort other children and to initiating interactions with teachers other than Sarah in her fourth week. In the case description, I summarized my fieldnotes from Nina's session during her fourth week of sole attendance in this way:

Nina was so confident and relaxed that it was hard to believe that this was the same child who three weeks earlier had to be carried around the centre by her primary caregiver for the whole period she was there. She moved about the centre with great familiarity ... her confidence in interacting with adults was also clearly more advanced than on previous visits: While she still primarily sought out Sarah as her preferred teacher, she also initiated interactions with three of the other centre staff…. But perhaps most significant of all was Nina's easy acceptance of her mother's departure at drop-off time: she confidently accepted Jean's goodbye kiss and resumed her block play straightaway. ( description, p. 9)

The story from my fieldnotes of how Nina related to Sarah over the time when she started to be at the center without Jean triangulates with Sarah's journal accounts and with Jean's view of events reported in the interviews. Likewise, Nina's experience appeared to be in line with Sarah's prediction in her theory of practice that through the "primary caregiver" system, children developed a "deep relationship with one adult" from which they later "branched out." Thus it seemed that Sarah's enactment of her theory of practice acted as a strong "canalizer" (Valsiner, 1985; Valsiner & Hill, 1989) of Nina's behavior into the ways of interacting with the center adults that Sarah expected and guided Nina towards.

Julie's Story: Who Looks after Me Here?

Julie was 18 months old at the time of the study, the youngest among 21 children ages up to 5 years in a full-day center staffed by five full-time teachers. The center had a firm policy that all staff were responsible for all the children. At the time of negotiating access to the center, Patti, the supervisor of the center and the participating teacher in this study, justified this policy on the basis that it avoided extra stress on children if "their" staff member was absent.

The stories that Julie's mother, Lyn, told about her daughter's settling in relied very heavily on her observations of Julie at drop-off and pick-up times. These times were Lyn's main sources of information because, after staying with Julie during the first two orientation visits, the third visit swiftly became one of sole attendance when Patti and Lyn agreed, 20 minutes after Julie's arrival, that Julie seemed ready to stay for a session on her own.In Lyn's story of her experience of Julie's starting child care, a strong theme was the difficulty she had in working out whom to speak to about Julie on a daily basis (see Dalli, 1999b). As an observer, it seemed to me that the lack of one consistent person to regularly relate to was also, for a time, a strong feature of Julie's settling-in experience. The observational data from my field visit during Julie's second week of sole attendance illustrated this difficulty strongly, with many instances recorded when Julie seemed confused about which of the adults would be the best person to approach for assistance or comfort. These data provided the phrase that I have used as the title of Julie's story—"who looks after me here?"

Patti's Theory of Practice: Providing "Extra Teacher Support"

Patti's theory of practice about settling in new children emerged as constructed around the recurring phrase of needing to provide "extra teacher support" within a structured secure environment so that the new children would eventually gain control. A strong principle within this theory of practice was that each child is different and that the teacher's role was therefore to pick up the cues from the child about when this support was needed. The ability to pick up cues from the child was seen by Patti as largely acquired through experience. In Patti's theory of practice, as in the center's written policy on how to handle a child's settling in, it was not necessary for one adult to be allocated primary responsibility for a child's settling in.

The Story from the Data

Julie had a full-time place at the center, where she quickly became seen as

a happy little girl—she had several "topples" outside when running, and she just picked herself up and laughed—she's confident enough to move from one place to another without teacher assistance. It's great that she enjoyed morning tea—often children don't want to eat at first. (CS4.TJ.2.18-23)

The video records and my fieldnotes of Julie's visits to the center also support this picture. Although Julie did sometimes look hesitant on arriving at the center, within seconds, she typically became interested in her environment; and from the very first visit, she interacted with all the teachers who initiated contact with her. Within the first session, she had spent time with, and accepted direction from, three of the center adults. For example, she allowed one of the teachers, Heather, to pick her up and take her to the sandpit without complaint and accepted the offer of a bucket and spade from her. Later Julie accepted Heather's suggestion of "going for a walk" and happily allowed herself to be carried to the outdoor slide; she subsequently slid down it in Heather's lap. A few minutes later, Julie allowed Carla, another teacher, to help her get off her trike, and later still she went with Patti to the bathroom to wash her hands before afternoon tea. In her first journal record, Julie's mother, Lyn, commented:

After the first 10 minutes, Julie hardly looked in my direction and seemed quite unfazed by the place. I thought she might find it overwhelming because of the number of adults and children, but it was very relaxed, calm, and friendly. (CS4.PJ.1.25-29)

Julie's response to the center adults remained open and responsive during the second and third visits, and she again interacted with whichever teacher was present or available. In the following week, however, I became aware that a different set of dynamics was operating between Julie and the center adults; these dynamics seemed associated with the center policy that all teachers should be responsible for all the children—a principle also evident in Patti's theory of practice.

What Julie Learned

During the fieldwork session of the second week of Julie's sole attendance, I noticed that on a number of occasions, Julie appeared to make approaches to specific adults for attention, especially to Maria and Diane, for whom she seemed to have developed a liking. However, her initiatives were not responded to by the adult to whom they were addressed. For example, when Maria walked into the center carrying the center's shopping, Julie looked at her beseechingly and started to cry (09.32), prompting Patti to say, "Did Maria remind you of mummy, did she?" Maria herself walked on to unpack her shopping, giving no indication that she had noticed Julie. Later, Julie went up to Maria at the net climbing frame in the outside play area and lifted her arms to be picked up; Maria did not pick Julie up and instead re-directed her to the climbing frame by asking her if she wanted to go on (11.48) and helped her to get on the frame. After a brief time there, Julie started to cry and called out for "mummy," so Maria took her off the climbing frame and sat Julie down on the lawn beside her. When another child went up to Maria and had a cuddle in Maria's lap, Julie again started to cry, stood up from her place on the lawn beside Maria, and then sat on Maria's feet. Maria started to rock her feet so that Julie looked like she was riding on them, but Maria still did not pick Julie up. Two other approaches for attention which Julie made to Maria during the day were more firmly deflected, once by Patti and once by Diane. On the first occasion, Patti, hearing Julie give a call of delight as she followed Maria, said as she picked Julie up, "It's Maria's lunch break; no Julie, Maria needs her break" (12.38). On the second occasion, as Julie caught sight of Maria in the sleep room and made a beeline to follow her (12.59), Diane intercepted her and carried Julie to the bathroom. In addition, Julie spent the first 20 minutes of this session with Diane, who during this time appeared very responsive to Julie, but, less than an hour later when Julie followed Diane to the kitchen crying, Diane ignored her totally (09.52), and it was Patti who picked her up.

All this interaction took place against what Pontecorvo (1998) has called a kind of "backstage stream of talk" during which children are spoken of as objects while they are still present. According to Pontecorvo, this type of discourse is one way through which children are socialized. During this session, the "backstage stream of talk" that occurred in Julie's hearing included a number of exchanges among the teachers about which teacher was in favor with Julie that day. For example, while Julie was in the kitchen with Diane at the start of the session, Carla, one of the other teachers, arrived, and Patti caught her up with where things were at for the day. This synopsis included the statement that Julie had fallen asleep after Carla had finished work on the previous day and that Patti had "been out of favor" with Julie, adding a few minutes later, "She only took to Diane yesterday afternoon, didn't she?"

A few minutes later, Julie was in the painting room with Diane, doing some paper cutting, when Patti joined them. When Diane left the room shortly afterwards, Julie looked up, needing some help with the scissors, and Patti went over to Julie and helped her hold the scissors correctly. For the next 30 minutes, Julie stayed with Patti, interacting easily and quite happily except for a few instances when she put her fist in her mouth—a behavior that Patti interpreted as Julie having teething problems.

During this time with Patti, Heather, another of the teachers, walked into the room and commented teasingly to Patti, "We're in favour today, Patti?" Patti started to say, "Well—we've sort of …," leaving Heather to finish the sentence off for her with "… got an understanding?" (CS4.fieldnotes, sole attendance 2, 09.27). The two teachers talked some more about Julie's teething trouble and about Lyn's reports earlier that day of Julie's disturbed nights. Later still, over the lunchtime routine, when Julie refused an additional cup of milk from Patti, Patti commented, "Have you gone off me again, have you?" (12.19).

What emerges from these interactions is that the teachers were very aware that children developed preferences for certain adults; indeed they were aware enough to gently tease each other over it. It seemed to me as observer that on that day, Patti was making serious efforts to become more accepted by Julie. In the process, it also seemed that Diane was taking care to ease out of being the "preferred caregiver" (hence incident at 09.52), a status only established on the previous day; Maria's lack of response to Julie might have been similarly motivated (11.48, 12.38, and 12.59). In a center with a clear policy about not having specific teachers assigned responsibility for specific children, the accepted rationale for this behavior by the teachers appeared to be that Julie needed to have a relationship with all the teachers. Within this context, it was undesirable for any individual teacher to cultivate the preferences shown by the children. However, from the point of view of how the child might have experienced these behaviors, one could argue that the child's wishes for whom to relate to were thwarted. At times, Julie was stopped from being with the person she would have preferred to be with.

The other message for the child from all these interactions could be that one did not always get what one wanted—the adults set the rules, and as a child you were expected to fit in. Julie seemed to learn to understand this rule because, as the sessions rolled on, the data showed that Julie did gradually fit in with the expected way of relating to the center adults and accepted all the teachers as ones with whom she happily spent time. Thus, over the 6-week period of Julie's case study, Patti's early journal comments that "she has shown a preference for Maria and Heather, going up to Maria when she was tired and not very happy" (CS4.TJ.4.14-18) and "Julie is feeling her way—she has shown a preference for Maria most of the day and sometimes Heather" (CS4.TJ.6.13-15) gave way to phrases like "Julie related well to all the teachers today" (CS4.TJ.9.18-19 ) and "she is feeling OK about the staff—going to all of us at different times" (CS4.TJ.10.19-20).

It seems reasonable to hypothesize from this evidence that the "backstage stream of talk" (Pontecorvo, 1998) that occurred around the issue of which teacher was in favor with Julie, together with the way that the adults withheld their attention from Julie to allow a "less-preferred" adult to step in, both worked to socialize Julie into fitting in with the center's expectations about how children should relate to the center adults.

Maddi's Story: "Latching on to Sam"

Fifteen-month-old Maddi was described by her mother, Helen, as

on the whole, a happy sort of kid. When something new comes along, her first reaction is to take it all in. I've seen that in just little things like when I first took her swimming—she was fairly reserved about it, but now she loves it. So when I took her to the child care centre, I did expect her to be a bit subdued. (CS2.PIS1.10.1)

This picture of Maddi drawn by Helen in our first interview coincided with the view that one of the teachers in this case study, Anna, formed of Maddi as "a very quiet little girl who may have found the size of the group overwhelming" (CS2.TJ.1.6-7) and "quite a reserved child, although she is not timid" (CS2.TIS1.9.3b). It also coincided with my own view of Maddi's general stance on arrival at her child care center as being watchful and intensely observant but distanced from actual involvement with people or activities. "Watchful" was a word that Helen also used to describe her daughter's attitude on arrival at the center; she further described her as "quiet," "crowded," and "overwhelmed."

Maddi's center did not operate a system of primary caregiving, and the interviews with Maddi's teachers revealed that the center's policy on helping children settle in existed in the practice and talk of the teachers but not in the center documentation. The teachers described the policy as a flexible one that treated each child as an individual. When I sought access to the center for the purpose of the case study, one of the teachers, Anna, volunteered as the teacher participant, seeing the case study as an opportunity to practice her observation skills. However, as the case proceeded, another teacher, Sam, emerged as Maddi's preferred caregiver, and she subsequently became the second teacher participant in this case study. This story is about Maddi's choice of Sam as her preferred caregiver, or as Anna put it, about how Maddi "eventually latched on to Sam" (CS2.TJ.5.9-10).

Anna and Sam's Theory of Practice

The theory of practice that emerged from the talk of the two teachers most involved with Maddi's settling in included two major principles. One principle was that as a teacher, one must "go with the child" or "follow the child's lead" about which adult the child preferred to spend most time with. The second principle was that the teacher should be flexible and recognize that the child has an overriding influence on the type of relationship that can develop between the teacher and the child. In line with these principles, Anna and Sam described their approach as one in which they "played it by ear" (CS2.TIS1.3.2c).

The Story from the Data

During the first orientation session, Maddi and her mother were approached by both Anna and Sam at different times; Anna made contact with them seven times and Sam five times. Anna was the one who greeted Maddi and her mother on arrival and took them on a tour of the premises, explaining where the children's bags and coats were kept, where the toileting area was, and various other organizational details. Throughout this time, Anna addressed herself primarily to Helen, and her only direct comment to Maddi was the question "Do you want to find something to do?" as they walked back from the changing area to the main room. Anna then switched back to talking to Helen before she was distracted by another mother who wanted to have a quick word with Anna. As Anna made a note of something this mother said, Helen wandered off with Maddi around the different activities. Anna approached them again about 20 minutes later when Helen had settled down with a book and was reading to a group of children around her:

09.29 Anna comes over to Maddi and Helen. "How's it going?" she asks. Helen smiles at her and continues reading to the children. Anna picks up a wooden threading board and catches Maddi's eyes. Maddi smiles back, and Anna asks, "Do you think that's funny? Here you are"—she hands the threading board to Maddi and moves away to the table by the front door again. Maddi loses interest in the threading board and looks around. (CS2.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/6)

This brief contact between Maddi and Anna was typical of the way that they interacted during this session: there was no real engagement in sustained interaction. By contrast, Sam's interactions with Maddi, while fewer in number, were sustained for longer periods and appeared to engage Maddi's interest. For example, in the following excerpt from video records of the morning tea routine during the same session, Sam took the initiative to provide some guidance for Maddi about the expected behavior during morning tea time and later also helped Maddi locate her mother when Maddi looked lost. The excerpt starts at the point when the children had been sitting down having crackers, fruits, and drinks but Maddi had left the table and was wandering about in the hallway pushing a cart and eating a biscuit:

10.16 Sam leaves her place at the table and goes towards Maddi. She gently picks Maddi up and takes her back to the table. Maddi protests, and Sam says, "You put your biscuit down there" and guides her hand in placing the biscuit on the table. Sam then leads Maddi back to the pushcart. But Maddi doesn't want this any more and struggles away from it. "Hard for you to understand, isn't it?" says Sam and takes her back to the table where Helen still is—she gives Maddi's cracker back to her saying, "Here you are—you sit with your food with the other kids."

10.18 Sam and Helen chat; mum rubs Maddi's back in a caress. Sam and Helen are squatting; Sam says to Maddi, "I do like your buttons."

10.35 Sam now sits down in a chair next to Maddi. Sam chats to the other children nearby. Maddi stands up beside her chair—she is following her mother with her eyes as Helen walks to the kitchen carrying the dirty morning tea plates for washing up. Maddi leaves the table and follows her mother and catches hold of her leg. A few seconds later, she walks back down the hallway and into the main room and looks around as if bewildered. Sam notices and calls out her name. Maddi turns around to face her.

10.36 Sam walks up to Maddi and holds out her hand to her, pointing in the direction where mum is. (This action is clearly also a request to Maddi to turn back from the hallway and join the other children in the main room.) Maddi seems to understand; she walks to mum (who is now at the table) and hugs her legs. (CS2.fieldnotes, orientation visit 1/6)

In this excerpt, Sam's attentiveness to Maddi's focus of attention emerges clearly. Beyond guiding Maddi into some initial rules about eating at the table and not walking around with food in her hands, she also watched what Maddi's interest was and helped her locate her object of attention when it looked like Maddi may have temporarily lost her bearings in relation to Helen.

In the second orientation visit, Sam again spent extended time in interacting with Maddi during which she gave Maddi an empty chocolate box with bottle tops inside it, which Maddi explored with interest (09.51); joined in telephone play with her (10.45); and accepted a cup from her and pretended to drink (10.55). By comparison, when Anna approached Maddi and Helen, she again mostly spoke to Helen. This pattern of interaction between the teachers and Maddi continued in the following two sessions, with Anna generally seeming to direct her contact to Helen and with Sam being more focused on Maddi. In the first interview that I had with Anna, a possible explanation for the way Anna behaved during these sessions emerged in Anna's statement that she saw her role in the center during the time that Helen accompanied Maddi as "helping mother to feel relaxed and welcome so she'd be happy to involve herself with Maddi and other children" and not liking to intervene when mum was around: "I don't like to force it unless the child shows she wants to go away from mum" (CS2.PIS1.10.6). In analysis, Anna's balance of focus towards more attention to Helen rather than Maddi may have contributed to Maddi's developing a more open attitude to Sam rather than towards Anna. This attitude first started to emerge in Maddi during the fifth orientation session when Maddi had her first period of being at the center without Helen.

The leave-taking during the fifth orientation was a prolonged and difficult one for both Maddi and Helen, with Maddi crying strongly in protest and Helen becoming flushed and surreptitiously wiping away a tear. When Helen eventually handed Maddi over to Anna and left, Maddi cried very strongly, stretching in the direction of her mother walking away, and pulling away from Anna. Two minutes later, Maddi was much calmer and started taking an interest in the book that Anna was reading to her as she also rubbed Maddi's chest and cuddled her. But for the next 25 minutes or so, Maddi continued to break out in bouts of crying, even though in between these bouts she was able to take a brief interest in a number of different activities to which Anna carried her. During these activities, Maddi appeared to be quite accepting of comfort from Anna; but her calm times did not last, and Anna herself seemed to be feeling unsettled. Anna said to me after about 20 minutes of this behavior, "An hour will seem like an eternity to her mum too … it's actually difficult when they [the children] don't speak" (CS2.fieldnotes, orientation visit 5/6, 09.54). I noted in my fieldnotes that this comment suggested to me that she too was finding this experience difficult.

A couple of minutes later, Sam walked over to Maddi and, opening her arms wide to her, said in an enthusiastic voice and with eyes open wide rather like the personification of King's (1978) infant teacher, "I think I might talk to Maddi; I like Maddi" (CS2.fieldnotes, orientation 5/6, 09.57). Maddi went to Sam straightaway and quieted down immediately. Sam kept up a steady stream of distracting talk, reading, and other activities with her. After morning tea, which Maddi spent on Sam's knees, Sam took many of the children to the indoor gym in a large hall for some gross motor play because the weather prohibited going outdoors, and this experience was the beginning of a complete transformation in Maddi's demeanor. Maddi was delighted to explore the balls and the trikes and had a great deal of fun with this equipment. Sam kept a constant eye on her and stayed very close to her, but Maddi was even happy responding to other children's approaches towards her. She smiled and laughed happily—a big change from her behavior before morning tea.

During the following session, Maddi retained the increased confidence she had shown on the previous visit; however, on this occasion, Helen did not leave the center for any of the time Maddi spent there, despite suggestions by both Anna and Sam that she could try leaving Maddi for a short period. Helen's ignoring of these suggestions caused some concern to Anna and Sam, and they both discussed their concern with me at the end of the session. In response, I wondered aloud whether Helen might appreciate being given a clear recommendation about when it was a good time for her to leave Maddi for a brief period. Both Sam and Anna were receptive to this suggestion and decided that they would try this tack during the following visit, which was also to be Maddi's first day of sole attendance.

At the start of the next session, Anna told me that because Maddi had appeared to respond to Sam very positively during the last two sessions, she and Sam had decided that Sam would be the person who would look after Maddi when her mother left. For a center that did not have a formal policy on using a primary caregiver system, I felt this decision was significant; it was also in line with the view expressed by both Sam and Anna that "you've got to go with the child." As a result, Sam positioned herself close to Helen and Maddi from early on in the session, and 10 minutes later, she started to prepare Maddi for the leave-taking, saying that mum would have to go soon but that it was all right because Maddi was getting used to them both. After a delay when Sam was called to the phone, Sam initiated the leave-taking by approaching Maddi and talking to her gently, suggesting that Maddi join her in saying goodbye to mummy. Maddi pulled back towards her mother but, when Sam prompted Helen to "Just hand her to me" (CS2.fieldnotes, sole attendance week 1, 09.36), Helen did and walked away waving goodbye. This leave-taking was significantly brisker and had none of the vacillation of the fifth orientation session. Maddi responded to her mother's departure with loud and vigorous crying, but after about 5 minutes of crying interspersed with quiet moments, Maddi looked more relaxed and happy and spent the rest of the session mostly in Sam's arms, where she was intently interested in what was going on around her even if she did not actively participate.

Maddi's decided preference for Sam became unmistakable during the fieldwork visit of the following week when Anna made a number of interactive approaches to Maddi that Maddi withdrew from. By contrast, Maddi was much more responsive to Sam's approaches, so that at one stage, Anna said to me, "This is embarrassing" (CS2.fieldnotes, sole attendance 2, 09.33). For the rest of the case study, Maddi's relationship with Sam continued to strengthen, even through the short period when Maddi suddenly "took a shine" to a student teacher, Lisa, who was on placement at the center for a few weeks.

What Maddi Learned

In summary, it seemed that after an initial period of ambiguity about whom among the center adults Maddi would establish contact with, a de facto system of primary caregiving eventually emerged between Maddi and Sam that was initiated by Maddi and followed up on by the teachers. This practice was contrary to the center's policy of not having specific teachers assigned to specific children but was also in line with the teachers' articulated theory of practice that they would "go with the child" or take the lead from them. From then on, it was Sam who met Maddi first thing in the morning and only Sam who handled the leave-takings from Helen. In addition, it was from Sam's lap that Maddi observed the activities of the center and slowly ventured out to take an active part in them.

Discussion: Some Critical Polytextualist Reflections

The stories in this paper have traced some of the early contacts that three children in this study had with the new adults they met at their first child care center. The intention of this discussion was to provide an insight into the lived reality of this contact from the children's perspective. In constructing these narratives, I have been aware of the difficulties of gaining access to young children's experiences commented on by Stern (1985) and Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers (1992), among others. For example, Stern (1985) noted that "since we can never crawl inside an infant's mind, it may seem pointless to imagine what an infant might experience" (p. 4) and argued for the construction of hypotheses about children's experiences because of the human need to try and make sense of what is observed and because of the clinical application that the hypotheses might have. Stern (1985) argued also that adults' understandings of "the infant" are perforce constructions:

The observed infant is also a special construct, a description of capacities that can be observed directly…. As soon as we try to make inferences about the actual experiences of the real infant … we are thrown back to our own subjective experience as the main source of inspiration…. Here, then, is the problem: the subjective life of the adult, as self-narrated, is the main source of inference about the infant's felt quality of social experience. A degree of circularity is unavoidable. (p. 17)

In a similar vein, Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers (1992) noted that observation only finds out:

what children are doing in a very limited and restricted sense—that which the observer, using a given understanding of children, says they are doing. What is revealed are not what children are doing, but the observer's accounting vocabularies and working hypotheses. (p. 18, italics in original)

Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers' (1992) response to the "elusiveness of the real" was to become "critical polytextualists" and shift the objective away from trying to discover the "real" and onto:

An endeavour which seeks merely to discover what we can learn from examining the different stories that are told about children…. For every story that knowledges children we need to ask either (or both): what is the function of the story (i.e. what can be done with it?); and/or, what ideology is the story peddling (i.e. what can be warranted by it?). (p. 18)

In this section, I adopt a critical polytextualist perspective and attempt to answer some of these questions by looking at the stories in this paper from a number of different theoretical perspectives: a social-constructionist perspective, an attachment theory perspective, and a temperament theory perspective.

A Social-Constructionist Perspective: Learning to Fit in

One of the most striking aspects of the stories in this paper was the way that the teachers' theories of practice, and the center's policy on helping children settle in, influenced the way that the children's interactions with the adults were experienced by each child. This insight lends itself easily to a social constructionist interpretation such as that offered by Valsiner (Valsiner, 1985; Valsiner & Hill, 1989).

According to Valsiner (Valsiner, 1985; Valsiner & Hill, 1989), children are socialized into culturally acceptable ways of acting in given situations through a process of social canalization. In Valsiner's framework, children's development of acting and of thinking is explained through the mutually related functioning of three zones. The first zone is called the "zone of freedom of movement" (ZFM) and refers to the structure of the environment that is functionally available to the developing child at a given time. The limits of this zone are negotiated with the caregivers and change as the child develops or moves into an area with a different physical structure. For example, the ZFM of a child may be the playpen or the front yard.

The second zone is the zone of promoted action (ZPA). This term refers to the set of objects and actions that the child's social environment actively promotes to the child to use and perform. The ZPA may be observed in the parents' and other people's preference structure of the child's different actions. This preference structure includes the actions and social expectancies that others promote as desirable for the child. As the child develops, he or she internalizes the social expectancies and gains knowledge about the acceptable and expected way of acting in a given situation. Once gained, this knowledge may be used in any way by the child. Valsiner and Hill (1989) give the example of an adolescent who in a social situation knows the rules of courtesy well but decides to not act appropriately and instead "cuts" another (p. 165). Valsiner (1985) calls the ZPA an important "selective canalizer of the child's actions" but also says that the structure of the ZPA can undergo dynamic transformation because it is negotiated in adult-child interaction.

The third zone is the well-known Vygotskian zone of proximal development (ZPD) and refers to the subset of ZPA actions that could be actualized with the help of other people. According to Valsiner (1985), the difficulty with this zone is that often one cannot know which actions actually constitute the ZPD because the existing structure of the ZFM and ZPA may restrict the opportunities of testing the limits of the ZPD. For instance, if the act of holding a fork is not within the ZPA or ZFM of a 16-month-old, it may not be possible to see if the 16-month-old child is physically capable of holding the fork. Thus, the ZPD-ZPA relationship is seen to determine what can or cannot be performed next by the child.

Using these understandings, it is possible to interpret what Nina learned about relating to Sarah as a product of the "focused treatment" that Sarah espoused in her theory of practice. In line with her principle of "developing a deep relationship" with Nina, Sarah initiated approaches to Nina, accepted those that Nina made, and did not discourage any of them. Sarah was also consistently tuned in to Nina's cues as to her focus of attention. She followed these cues, at times using them to introduce Nina to some of the center's rules and to build up an easy and comfortable relationship with her. One instance was at the painting easel, when, introducing the rule about wearing the apron for painting, she was also careful to not make this rule a cause of conflict. It can be argued that through this focused treatment, the action that was "promoted" to Nina was more direct contact with Sarah and that this treatment effectively "canalized" (Valsiner, 1985; Valsiner & Hill, 1989) Nina into the deep relationship with her that Sarah felt was required for a successful settling-in experience.

Similarly, in Julie's case, the center's policy that all teachers had responsibility for all children was enacted in the way that the teachers appeared to actively work to discourage Julie from forming lasting preferences for one teacher over another. In telling Julie's story, I suggested that both the direct action of the teachers in deflecting her from following Maria around the center and the accompanying "backstage stream of talk" (Pontecorvo, 1998) worked to promote to Julie the center's preferred ways of interacting with the adults. This behavior too had the effect of "social canalization" (Valsiner, 1985; Valsiner & Hill, 1989); like Nina, Julie gained knowledge about the acceptable ways of acting in the context of her center and, over time, fell into line with the adults' expectations.

The story I have told about Maddi's experience of settling in is somewhat different but also similar. In Maddi's center, there were no clear procedures on how the settling-in process was to be handled apart from the principle of "going with the child." This lack of clear procedures meant that Anna's electing to be the teacher participant in the study put her in an unusual position in relation to the center's normal practice of letting things unfold in their own time. The norm in the center was for all the adults to have equal responsibility for all children, with no one child receiving particular attention from any specific teacher. In Maddi's case, what unfolded was a decided preference, over time, to be with Sam, creating what I have called a de facto system of primary caregiving that Sam had not sought but which both Anna and Sam supported once they recognized Maddi's preference. The teachers justified their action in terms of respecting the child's right to choose. However, the type of contact that occurred between Maddi and the two teachers differed and suggests that this difference may have contributed to Maddi's choice to be with Sam. Thus, analysis suggests the following conclusions:

In this way, Maddi's story also may be read as a story of social canalization: the teachers expected her to show them her preference for which of the teachers she wanted to spend time with, and, despite a slow and "bumpy" start, Maddi eventually did.

These stories indicate that a connection existed between the children's experience of their interactions with the center adults and the way that the adults understood their role during the settling-in process. The social constructionist perspective used by Valsiner (1985) and Pontecorvo (1998) would suggest that the children's relations to the adults can be seen as a co-construction between the adults and the children, with the children being seen as having contributed to the process as well as the adults. In the stories told above, the children's contribution was most evident in the choice that Maddi made between the two teachers who actively approached her as possible partners in interaction. In Nina's case, Nina's acceptance of Sarah's attempts to become her primary caregiver can also be seen as an active choice highlighted by her refusal to go to anyone else when she fell asleep on Sarah's arm. The adults' contributions were to set expectations based on policy or their theories of practice. To a large extent, the children found themselves "learning to fit in" with these expectations.

An Attachment Theory Perspective: To Have or Not to Have a Primary Caregiver

In the three stories above, the two themes of the children's separation from their mothers and of forming new relationships—or attachments—with the center adults were constant undertones (or overtones) in the discourse of the adults involved in the study, including my own discourse in my fieldnotes as researcher.

Looked at from an attachment theory perspective, the stories of how the children formed, or attempted to form, relationships with their preferred adult can be read as the children's attempt to develop an attachment relationship with a new adult that would fill the gap left by their mother's absence. There were many elements of the three children's stories that could be used to support such an analysis. For example, all the children swiftly worked out when their mother was not at the center with them. This awareness was evident in Nina's "searching" behavior, noted by Sarah and me, and in Julie's crying when Maria walked in the front door—behavior that Patti interpreted as indicating that Julie was reminded of her mother. Likewise, the meaning for the child of the mother's absence was clearly an unhappy one: it was difficult to interpret the children's crying at the mother's departure as anything but an expression of this unhappiness and of protest at the event. Additionally, for the child, there was a "sense of loss" from which the center adults tried to shift the child's attention through using a range of distracting techniques. The construction of the settling-in event as one of separation was clearly evident in Jean's description of the settling-in experience as one of "com[ing] to terms with separation" (CS1.PIS1.2.2). In Sarah's talk about a new child's needing to develop a "deep relationship," there was a clear expression of the idea that the relationship with the teacher was a substitute attachment relationship from which the child drew security.

Finally, it is also possible to read the behavior of Nina with Sarah and of Maddi with Sam, after both children attended on their own, as being strikingly similar in nature. In both cases, the children had a few sessions when they spent most of their time in close proximity to "their" teacher before they eventually started to move away and take part in activities on their own initiative. In the case of Maddi, her behavior with Sam was also very similar to her behavior when she was with her mother, Helen. In the absence of her primary attachment figure, Maddi appeared to use Sam as her substitute security base, and this relationship enabled her to move beyond the state of watchfulness and observation to the beginnings of involvement in the center curriculum. The teachers saw such involvement as signifying that a child was settled.

So, using a critical polytextualist stance, what is the function of this interpretation? What can be done with it in terms of enhancing practice in early childhood settings?

Most obviously, the answer to these questions is that an attachment theory perspective on these stories would find an argument in favor of having a primary caregiver system in place. From this perspective, Nina's story is a clear example of how the primary caregiver system worked to ensure that all of Nina's needs for security were met during the time of starting child care. Maddi's case could be used to argue that having a primary caregiver system in place on a regular basis would avoid the ambiguities that occurred about the best person to guide Maddi and her mother through the settling-in process. Additionally, Maddi's need to actively seek out which of the teachers she preferred to be with would have been obviated. Julie's case, on the other hand, could be used to argue that in the absence of a primary caregiver with sole responsibility for a particular child, the child's needs for security might be ignored, possibly leading to insecure attachments with the center adults. Thus, from an attachment theory perspective, the different "social practices" used in settling in the three children in these stories would be seen to "matter" (Stainton Rogers & Stainton Rogers, 1992, p. 14)in terms of making the primary caregiver system a more credible system than the other two options for the enhancement of the child's feeling of security.

A Temperament Theory Perspective on Relating to the Adults

Looked at from the perspective of studies that have explored the connection between children's temperament classification and children's response to starting child care, the stories of Nina, Julie, and Maddi also have potential bearing on the issue of whether or not to have a primary caregiver. For instance, in a study of adjustment to nursery school, Marcus, Chess, and Thomas (1972) found that "easy" children adapted without difficulty regardless of the routines used in the nursery school, "difficult" children did better in more structured and friendly environments rather than in "laissez-faire" ones, and the "slow-to-warm" children did best when they were allowed to adapt at their own slow pace. Other work (e.g., Center for Child and Family Studies, 1993) has suggested that slow-to-warm children need constant attention and a style of handling that involves a recurring cycle of adult behavior described as "being with, taking to, remaining available and moving away."

The angle that temperament theory would take on the stories above would be that because both Nina and Julie appeared to have temperaments that would be likely to be classified as "easy," it would be reasonable to hypothesize that they would have settled in quickly in any type of child care environment. On the other hand, with Maddi and her mother, who were both described as quite "reserved," a temperament theory perspective would hypothesize that in their case, a more guided and focused system for settling them in would have been more likely to have been experienced positively. It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that from this perspective, the primary caregiver system would also be seen as a social practice that was credible as a way of approaching the experience of starting child care, because a center policy that assigns responsibility for settling in a new child to a specific teacher is more likely to enable constant monitoring of how a child responds to the new situation. In turn, one would expect that this practice would result in more accurate tuning in to the process of "being with, taking to, remaining invisible and moving away" that slow-to-warm children find helpful (Center for Child and Family Studies, 1993).


One of the intentions of the overall study from which this paper has drawn its data was that it should illuminate how the process of starting child care might be enhanced at the level of practice in early childhood settings. The data presented in this paper are only a small part of the picture that emerged in the overall study; my intention here has been to present stories of how three children learned to relate to the adults in their new child care center rather than recommend ways to enhance practice. Through these stories, I have sought to illuminate the lived reality of the experience of starting child care from the children's perspective.

Nonetheless, in the context of seeking ways to enhance practice, at least one major implication emerges from these data. It is clear in these stories of how children learned to relate to the center adults that what the teachers did, in terms of relating to the new children, had an impact on the kind of relationships that developed between the teachers and the new children. In other words, what teachers did, as well as what teachers did not do, made a difference. At the very least, this finding suggests that teachers need to be self-conscious about how their center policies and theories of practice influence children's learning.

Furthermore, teachers posing the polytextualist questions of "what can be done with these stories? what can be warranted by them?" may be interested in the suggestion from the data in this paper that a system of primary caregivers has much to offer in enhancing the nature of the very young child's experiences of relating to adults.


1. In the notation system used throughout the paper, the case study number (1-5) appears first, then the research instrument is named from among the following:

For the interviews, the page number and question number follow (e.g., CS2.TIS1.3.2c means case study 2, teacher interview schedule 1, page 3, question 2c). For the journals, the page number and line references follow (e.g., CS1.TJ.2.23-24 means case study 1, teacher journal, page 2, lines 23 and 24). For the fieldnotes, the term "fieldnotes" is followed by type of visit the child had (e.g., orientation 3/8 means third orientation visit out of 8; sole attendance 1/6 means the first attendance out of 6 attended by the child without a home adult). The time of the fieldnotes observation is indicated at the start of the data segment (e.g., 09.27 mean 09.27 hours).


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Author Information

Carmen Dalli is senior lecturer in the School of Education and associate director of the Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She teaches in undergraduate B.A. program, the B.Ed. (Teaching) in Early Childhood program, and the M.Ed. program. Her research interests are in early childhood development and early childhood education, professional practice in early childhood, and early childhood policy studies.

Carmen Dalli
Senior Lecturer
Associate Director, Institute for Early Childhood Studies
Victoria University of Wellington
Box 600
Wellington, New Zealand
Fax: 64-4-463-5168

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