NTUC First Campus Birth-to-Three Curriculum sets new quality benchmark

July 22, 2015

Local research provides evidence that a relationships-based approach assists the holistic development of children in childcare centres.

A research study spearheaded by NTUC First Campus (NFC) provides evidence that the learning and development of children from birth to three years can be enhanced significantly with a curriculum that is based on developing strong educator-child relationships. This research study, conducted in Singapore, focused on very young children’s development in local childcare settings.

A team of early childhood researchers led by Emeritus Professor Marjory Ebbeck, Director of the Centre for Research and Best Practices at NTUC’s SEED Institute, investigated whether or not a relationships-based curriculum improved learning in a sample of infants, toddlers and three-year-old children. Results are very promising, showing significant gains were made in children’s well-being, involvement and learning outcomes.

Professor Ebbeck, who is a renowned academic in the early childhood field said, “Early experiences do matter and the relationships that we experience as children can have life-long lasting effects on health, social-emotional and cognitive development. Quality early education can help children develop into happy confident individuals able, ultimately, to contribute to society.”

The Changing Landscape of the Early Childhood Industry

Traditionally, much of the attention and emphasis in the early childhood sector in Singapore have been placed on developing pedagogical practices, resources, and quality systems for the four-to-six age group, the age group at which most children here are enrolled in kindergartens or formalised childcare.

In recent years, the number of children in the younger age groups of birth-to-three enrolled in childcare centres has grown significantly. The full time enrolment of children aged birth-to-three years in childcare centres is estimated to have grown by 50 per cent, from 20,000 to 30,000. In 2009, one in eight children in the birth-to-three age group was enrolled in childcare centres. In 2014, this number is estimated to be one in five. Increased enrolment in coming years is very likely.

Importantly, over the last 20 years, research in the fields of brain science, psychology and economics have demonstrated that quality experiences in the early years can positively affect a child’s long-term development and life chances. It was for these reasons that NFC decided that it was timely to invest in research and to develop an appropriate curriculum that will uplift the standard and quality of practice for this age group.

The new curriculum for children aged birth-to-three uses a relationships-based approach. Since January 2015, NFC has implemented this curriculum across its entire network of over 130 childcare centres, starting with children aged two months to two years of age. Over 6,000 infants and young children aged two months to three years will benefit from this new curriculum when fully implemented in two years. The feedback from staff and parents has been very encouraging.

Mr Chan Tee Seng, Chief Executive Officer of NFC, said, “The research led by Professor Ebbeck and the subsequent implementation of the new curriculum in childcare centres operated by NTUC First Campus marks an important milestone and breakthrough in the early years education sector in Singapore. This curriculum has been developed with the vision that it can be adopted in early childhood centres of varying structures and sizes across the sector. We hope that this curriculum can benefit young children beyond our network, and we will work with the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) to find the appropriate platform and format with which to eventually make available our learnings and practices with others in the sector.”

Added Mr Tan Suee Chieh, Group Chief Executive Officer of NTUC Enterprise, the holding cooperative of the NTUC social enterprises, “This new curriculum in NTUC First Campus pre-schools is a game-changer. It raises the standards of how young children aged birth-to-three can be cared for and developed in the crucial formative years. I commend Professor Marjory Ebbeck and the NFC team for their excellent work, which marks NFC out to be an agent of change that brings greater benefit to young children in Singapore.”

Research Study and Findings

The research study was funded by philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, an active advocate for quality pre-school education in Singapore. It was conducted from July 2013 to December 2014 and involved a four-month pilot study and an eight-month main study to examine and evaluate the impact of a relationships-based approach to curriculum for children up to age three years.

Mr Lee Poh Wah, Chief Executive Officer of Lien Foundation, said, “Despite studies showing that children between the ages of zero and three are in the most formative phase of their lives, Singapore has a paradox of placing their care in the hands of the least qualified teachers. We need to reverse this and address the larger challenge of de-professionalisation that is hampering efforts to raise quality and attract talent into the sector. There needs to be better training for educators, and more resources and attention for the birth-to-three years. Like NTUC First Campus, the Foundation believes in owning problems and coming up with constructive solutions. As broader efforts by the government take effect over time, this relationships-based approach curriculum raises our teachers’ skills and increases their self-respect, leading to more parents appreciating the importance of their child’s early years.”

The study used internationally validated observation tools to assess children before and after a specially designed curriculum was introduced. A total of 130 children comprising a control and experimental group participated in the study.

The study was conducted in My First Skool (MFS) pre-schools. Results showed that the children in the experimental group that implemented the relationships-based curriculum improved significantly in both their well-being and involvement levels when compared with the control group, where similar gains were not evident.

Findings from the study also showed that children in the relationships-based curriculum were happier, settled into childcare more quickly and were involved for longer periods with worthwhile and interesting activities. To enhance attachment and security in children, a Primary Caregiving approach used for the infants was also trialed on some toddler-aged groups. This approach was also found to be effective with these children as they developed close bonds with the educators.

Professor Ebbeck added, “The findings of the study have advanced the knowledge of how to provide a quality childcare programme and of the positive impact that a well-developed curriculum can have on children’s well-being and development. By introducing this new relationships-based approach here in NTUC First campus pre-schools, we are raising local early childhood development standards to be in line with best practices globally.”

Foundation and Pedagogy of the Curriculum

The foundation of the curriculum is based on deep, active involvement and well-being of the child, where their learning outcomes are continuously assessed across three main domains of Child Development, namely, (1) Psycho-Social, (2) Physical, (3) Thinking and Communicating.

In contrast with the teacher-directed approach generally used throughout Singapore and across many parts of the world, the pedagogy for the NFC Birth-to-Three Curriculum enables educators to develop a curriculum with activities that match the developmental levels of children as assessed by observing them and analysing these observations to plan what next should be prepared for them. This child-initiated approach fosters learning based on interest, allowing children to make choices among carefully planned curriculum activities.

This approach to teaching also encourages collaboration between English and Chinese teachers to offer a well-planned bilingual programme.

Designed in a way for educators of varying qualifications and experiences to work together, this curriculum is comprehensive and uses an on-the-job approach to upskill educators on their knowledge and understanding of young children’s development.

Educators and Principals in NFC’s childcare centres, who have been using this curriculum for the past seven months, are very enthusiastic about it. They are very motivated by the results that they observe. They see increases in the children’s well-being, active involvement and learning outcomes.

Adoption across NTUC First Campus Pre-Schools

The findings of this study provide insights into the kinds of training required for educators. To date, some 1,000 educators and principals have been trained in this new curriculum, setting a milestone in the organisation’s quality journey that began some four years ago.

As NFC trains its staff to gear up for full implementation of the curriculum at the centres, parents can now expect the quality of early childhood services to reach another level of professionalism. For instance, conducting observations of children has enabled educators to understand each child’s developmental needs better and facilitate regular informed communication with parents about their child’s progress.

These positive outcomes have helped to strengthen collaboration and engagement between educators and parents. Parents who have participated in the study are supportive of the new curriculum approach, having seen improvements in their children’s development and happiness.


Glossary of Terms:

The definition of the following terms used in the release:

Active involvement – refers to being intensely engaged in activities and is considered to be a necessary condition for deep level learning and development.

Well-being – refers to feeling at ease, being spontaneous and free of emotional tensions and is crucial to good ‘mental health’. Well-being is linked to self-confidence, a good degree of self-esteem and resilience.

Relationships-Based Curriculum – is one that places emphasis on the attachment that is the bonding, that occurs between infant and educator, toddler and educator and playgroup- aged child and educator. It also recognises the importance of bonding with the family. The relationship places a focus on the child’s well- being, learning outcomes, sense of autonomy and independence as well as his or her ‘can do’ spirit (that is sense of agency).

A relationships-based curriculum believes that establishing effective relationships is an important factor in ensuring effective practice with young children and their families, together with the key features of responsive care, respect and deep engagement in the curriculum.

Primary Caregiver – the educator who takes primary responsibility for the child. It is the person whom the child forms a bond with and becomes attached. It is a reciprocal relationship.