Early Childhood Ireland and Stranmillis University College hosted this prestigious European research event. The conference took place from 31st August to 3rd September 2016 in Dublin City University. 

The conference was organised to coincide with the centenary celebrations.  ‘With the hundredth anniversary of the birth struggles of the Irish nation, which resulted in a Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann) which resolved to pursue the happiness of the whole nation with a further commitment to “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”, it is fitting that Ireland has been chosen as the host country of the 26th European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA) Conference’. The theme of the 2016 conference was ‘Happiness, Relationships, Emotion & Deep Level Learning’ and focused on exploring the links between the cognitive and the socio-emotional aspects of early childhood learning and development.

Children co-construct meaning in relationship with significant people in their lives. These relationships are core to children’s learning and can enhance or hinder their progress. In the same way, children’s natural drive to relate and connect to community has consequences for their learning and development. Questions therefore arise about how and in what ways the capabilities involved in relating and connecting – attachment, bonding, belonging, emotional regulation, empathy and well-being – are linked to life-long and deep level learning.

This raises many further questions: What capabilities are most important? Why do they matter? How can adults nurture them? How can professionals recognise, describe and assess them? Are professionals and parents accountable for a child’s socio-emotional development? Moreover, is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an inalienable right for all? Is it a universal drive in all children? How does happiness impact on the child as a learner?

All children are driven to explore, contribute and find their place in the world around them. In the societies we live in, in 2016, how do the ‘toxicities’ of current childhoods enhance or impede their explorations and learning and their sense of emotional wellbeing and belonging?

At the conference, the Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone TD, promised to deliver Ireland’s National Early Years Strategy, which is nearly 5 years in the making, within months. The Minister made this clear commitment after some deliberate prompting from Jillian van Turnhout, Chair of Early Childhood Ireland. Jillian reminded the audience that “The National Early Years Strategy was first promised by then Minister Frances Fitzgerald in January 2012. That’s two Ministers and over four and a half years ago”, urging this Minister to “ensure that the baby is delivered before the fifth anniversary of its conception.”

Minister Zappone said how delighted she was that this major international conference had come to Ireland this year and how she is “committed to delivering policy that is informed by evidence of the kind that the EECERA conference provides.” She added that, “Ireland’s Early Years sector is at a critical point. Whilst there has been significant investment in recent years to address affordability and quality, major challenges remain and need to be addressed in a committed fashion over a number of years. Now is the time to ensure that every child and family, regardless of their social or economic background, receives the kind of early years care and education that they need and deserve. I intend to use the strong evidence base that exists internationally to inform how Ireland should best prioritise investment available.”

The Minister said that she was determined to put investment in the early years on a multi-annual basis, rather than Government funding being planned from one budget to the next. Furthermore, she gave a commitment to work towards better pay and conditions for early childhood educators. She emphasised that implementation, which is all important, might take longer.

The conference was attended by a thousand delegates over the five days and included keynote addresses by Anne Looney, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Leon Feinstein and Alison Gopnik, as well as organized childcare visits, special interest group meetings, poster presentations and nearly 200 parallel sessions. 

The Early Childhood Research Group had a stand in the exhibition area and received a lot of local and international interest as well as several new members.