Men rarely work in early education – does it matter?

Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

In an early childhood classroom, male teachers are a rare breed. Around the world, numbers range from barely more than 0.2 percent of early childhood teachers and caregivers in Israel to 9 percent in Norway. Often having to cope with stigma from traditional social norms, men find it difficult to enter and remain in the profession.

Alongside the various social issues this raises around gender equality, however, the situation begs another important question: What difference, if any, does having a male early educator – usually working with children aged three to five – make for a young child’s development?

A unique role?

According to David Brody, an Israeli researcher who conducted the first international study of men in early childhood, they tend to display certain characteristics more often than women.

Firstly, “they encourage daring and risk taking,” he said. Out in the playground, the kids will be bragging: “look how high I’ve climbed’, Brody said, and the teacher will say: “well, climb higher!” Secondly, he said, male early childhood teachers and caregivers tend to help children in problem-solving and critical thinking, encouraging more autonomy as they “encourage the child to reach a solution”.

Although based on anecdotal evidence from his observations, these characteristics correspond with a wealth of research on fatherhood: in particular, the paternal ‘activation relationship‘ based on attachment theory. “Fathers tend to surprise and destabilise children,” explained Daniel Paquette from the University of Montreal, “teaching them to react to unexpected events.”

The evidence

So far, however, the evidence has been mixed in finding this unique role in professional contexts. Partly owing to the small number of male early childhood teachers, research has usually been very small-scale.

“Most studies find that male caregivers are equally sensitive” to children compared to women, said Ruben Fukkink from the University of Amsterdam. Their study in the Netherlands on three-year-olds failed to identify a unique role for male pedagogues, seemingly contradicting Brody’s findings. Men were just as good caretakers, but weren’t doing anything different.

“Children enrolled at centres with a higher share of male staff performed better in language and mathematics tests when they got to school.”

However, there has been some evidence of a complementary male role. Most notably, government researchers in Norway did a more comprehensive data analysis of childcare centres in Oslo, and found that children enrolled at centres with a higher share of male staff performed better in language and mathematics tests when they got to school.

Unanswered questions

“Maybe in a Scandinavian context,” suggested Fukkink, with its culture of more autonomous, informal, play-based education, “there is more room to explore and use these male capacities?” For example, he said, you usually find more male caregivers in outdoor kindergartens like forest schools, which tend to encourage more risk-taking like climbing trees. With far fewer men in childcare in countries like the Netherlands, Fukkink speculates, perhaps they are more likely to mirror their female counterparts’ behaviour and display less of a unique role.

“Could a combined male-female workforce and childcare environment be more conducive to the attachment of boys?”

Since publishing his study, another important finding has dawned on Fukkink. While a meta-analysis showed that young boys are less likely than girls to have secure attachments with non-parental care providers, his study in centres with male and female caregivers found no difference. “This is an outstanding finding,” he said.

We know secure attachments with caregivers are essential to children’s development. “Could a combined male-female workforce and childcare environment,” Fukkink pondered, therefore “be more conducive to the attachment of boys?”

Many unanswered questions remain. With so few men working in early childhood education, finding the answers could be vital.

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