Published by CELA on 23 Mar, 2021

Mobile phones are unquestionably part of many people’s day to day lives, serving as calculators, fitness trackers, cameras, and ways of keeping in constant touch with family and friends.

As handy as these devices can be, they can cause issues when it comes to their presence in early childhood settings. While some educators view them as a key way of documenting children’s learning, or adding music and information to their work with children, others can see them as a distraction at best, and a supervision hazard at worst.

In this article, we explore the pros and cons of personal mobile devices of all kinds being present in early learning environments, and some of the supervision concerns that arise from the presence of these devices.

Powerful tool?

Without doubt, the mobile devices available to educators have a lot to offer, in terms of time saving, portability and access of information.

When used in a safe and balanced way, mobile devices can support educators to bring the outside world in, to connect children across suburbs, states and countries, and to enhance pedagogy and practice with a continual stream of new ideas and resources.

Social media accounts and curation tools open educators up to a world of ideas, including inspiring examples of learning in action from around the world, and a wide network of advice and support from other professionals.

Some services who choose to allow educators to have personal devices while engaged in working with children have outlined the value of devices being made available to educators:

  • Limited use only: “At my centre educators can have phones in the room, but only in the cupboard, not on them. Phones can be used when the children are sleeping, if everything else is done, or if there are minimal children in that day and we are over ratio, with someone actively supervising. For our educators with children with additional needs, it supports them to feel at ease while at work.”
  • Fit for purpose: “Our team is only small, five staff in total, and we each use our phones as cameras, timers, and to play music. We don’t currently have any problems with that, but our manager has in the past confined phones to the office when there’s been problems. We know she’s done it before and will do it again, so everyone is compliant.”
  • Meeting the needs of community: “The program we run is for teen parents, many of whom feel more comfortable texting us with questions or worries. Our space operates over two buildings, so we also use text to communicate with staff in the other building as needed.”

Powerful distraction?

One of the chief concerns that leaders and managers hold about the presence of mobile devices in learning spaces is around distraction and supervision. Checking in with social media or communications from family and friends can take educator attention away from the children, which is not only an ineffective use of their time, but a supervision concern.

Some of the educators and services we spoke with feel very strongly that mobile devices have no place in early learning settings, concerned about distractions in supervision, and poor role modeling for children.

“Phones are not needed every second of the day,” one educator told us, outlining his service’s policy which is “no phones allowed in rooms – no exceptions.”

“When we arrive at work, our phones go into lockers. We have a tablet in each room to take photos on, and use Storypark. The layout of our service is such that we can easily communicate with other rooms, and each room has a standalone phone for emergencies.”

For one large service, supporting over 120 children a day, allowing the use of phones for such a big staff team could lead to big issues, and as such, mobile devices are not allowed, with concerns about adequate supervision.

It’s against our contracts to have them with us if we are working. We can keep them in a locked cabinet, but not in our pockets, or wear them as a smart watch, can only access them during our breaks.”

One educator noted that the issue of not having phones or smart watches available is not unique to ECEC, saying “We’re not allowed to have phones etc while on the floor. If we are on an excursion, one educator has a phone for emergencies, but other than that, they have to be locked away.”

“In all fairness, I’ve never worked a job where you’re allowed a phone while you’re working. I’ve worked in retail, call centres and early childhood, and in all those jobs, you’re there to work, not check Facebook.”

Supervision challenges and other concerns

Anyone who works with children understands that things can happen in the blink of an eye – one second a child is happily and safely engaged in an activity, and the next, they are across the room, under a table, and possibly in harm’s way.

It’s for reasons such as these that active supervision – defined as educators knowing where each child is, monitoring their activities, and being in a position to respond as needed – is so important. In the time it takes to read a text message, respond to an email, or simply give a “thumbs up” reaction, children could be engaging in harm or hazard in the course of their play, activity or routine.

The challenge of adequately attending to children while also engaging in digital connection is one of the core “cons” in the argument against the presence of personal devices in the learning environment.

Additional concerns relate to images, both still and video, of children being retained on personal devices. There are confidentiality issues relating to pictures, video clips and emails being accessed on personal devices, particularly where issues of child protection may be in play.
Cases in the US have showcased the dangers of images of children being shared on social media, or of images being accessed in an inappropriate way.

As well as risks to children, there are inherent risks to staff members who have access to means by which to record images of children and then take them from the service, exposing both children and staff to risk.

With adequate supervision in place, educators can then focus on their interactions with children becoming more meaningful leading to engagement, which includes listening, encouraging and participating in play.

Privilege or right?

Despite the concerns of leaders and managers, many educators feel they are entitled to have access to their devices at all times. Some will make the argument that smartwatches are a way to track steps, for example, and as such, are an important part of health, safety and wellbeing.

For other educators, perhaps those with anxious children or family members, or who perform a caring role for an elderly relative, a phone or smartwatch is a key way of keeping connected and feeling at ease.

Here, CELA consultant Jennifer Mogila says, is an opportunity to delve more deeply into reflective practice, explore the National Law and Regulations, and understand in more depth the nuances of this issue.

“If we start with the regulations,” she said, “Regulation 122 tells us educators must be working directly with children to be included in ratio. Educators can’t be included in calculating the educator to child ratio of a centre based service unless they are working directly with the children at the service. When educators are distracted by phones or smart watches, they may be in breech, as they are not directly engaged.”

For further guidance, she drew on Early Childhood Australia’s digital policy statement, which states that while children can benefit from co-using digital technologies with adults, it is important that when engaging with young children, adults model person-to-person relationships that do not always involve using digital technologies, and moderate their own use of digital technologies.

Research, the statement reads, has noted situations when adults are preoccupied with digital activities and they might not notice young children’s social cues or requests for attention. These cues and requests are a fundamental part of relationship-building between children and adults.

For example, in early childhood education and care settings, educators might be trying to use digital documentation platforms during routines with infants and toddlers, such as recording nappy changes or feed-times. If adults are preoccupied with their own digital technology use, this may reduce the quality of the child–adult interaction.

In addressing the “privilege or right” issue, one service we spoke with emphasised the need to be inclusive in making a call about allowing, or otherwise, mobile devices in the learning environment.

“Rather than introducing a policy for or against devices, and enforcing it, talk with the team. If management is carrying a phone and texting, educators will be resentful. People need to understand the “why” behind the change, and be part of the solution.”

Jennifer echoed these thoughts, sharing her experiences from her time in a service where both the technology policy and Code of Conduct were developed collaboratively.
At that service, she explained, staff were requested to limit the use of personal phones, smart watches etc to lunch breaks, or in special circumstances as discussed and agreed with the nominated supervisor, such as having a sick child at home.

“I think whatever direction a service takes, it needs to be done with the children’s needs at the forefront,” Jennifer said.

“The team needs to critically reflect on this to come to a shared approach and understanding of why certain policies may be developed and implemented.”

Information and support

For legal guidance on getting policies about phones and devices right, see this article from Workplace Law. Advice about working collaboratively with whole teams to implement policy changes can be found here on the Acecqa website.

Examples of staff policies which include and exclude mobile phone use by staff are available, alongside examples of how mobile device use is handled in other “hands on” sectors such as aged care or construction.

To access reflective questions to guide and support teams in shared decision making, please see here.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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