Early childhood education

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Early childhood education is a branch of educational theory which relates to the teaching of young children up until the age of about eight, with a particular focus on education, notable in the period before the start of compulsory education.


The first two years of a child's life are spent in the creation of a child's first "sense of self"; most children are able to differentiate between themselves and others by their second year. This is a crucial part of the child's ability to determine how they should function in relation to other people.[1] Early care must emphasize links to family, home culture, and home language by uniquely caring for each child, which is known as the key worker system. Parents can be seen as a child's first teacher and therefore an integral part of the early learning process.[2]

Infant education is the education of children before they would normally enter primary school. The term "Infant" is typically applied to children between the ages of 1 month and 12 months.

Early childhood education focuses on children's learning through play, based on the research and philosophy of Jean Piaget. This belief is centered on the "power of play". Play meets the physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social needs (PILES) of children. Tassoni suggests that “some play opportunities will develop specific individual areas of development, but many will develop several areas.” [3] Depending on the child's interests will influence the development of skills in different areas of play. It is important practitioners promote children’s development through play by using various types of play on a daily basis.

It has been thought that children learn more efficiently and gain more knowledge through play-based activities such as dramatic play, art, and social games. The theory of play stems from children's natural curiosity and imagination, allowing topic lessons to occur.[4] Key issues of play are having a healthy and safe environment, having plenty of space, correct supervision, quality of care/environment, the attitudes of the practitioner and their cultural awareness as well as a good knowledge of the Early Years Foundation Stage.


The Developmental Interaction Approach is based on the theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, John Dewey, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell. The approach aims to involve children in acquiring competence via learning through discovery.[5][6][7] Theory has various influences on play and children’s learning; this is because theorists research children and have very accurate data. A theory is a thought or a written observation that has been researched to be correct. In practice theories are used for many reasons; to manage children’s behaviour, to get an insight into children with Special Educational Needs, to find out things that we don’t know and would never find out without theory and even because their ideas are better than ours and have been proven through research. It is important practitioners have an understanding of theory for them to use their knowledge when working with children, this helps and links to the way children learn. Theories give information that explains how children learn which practitioners must also know. [8] There are five developmental domains of childhood development:[9]

  • Physical: how well a child is developing physically. You should keep an eye on their eyesight and how their motor skills are developing; they should be able to do small crafts and puzzles.
  • Social: connections a child makes with people and how well they are interacting with them.[10] Pupils' social development involves pupils acquiring an understanding of the responsibilities and rights of being members of families and communities (local, national and global), and an ability to relate to others and to work with others for the common good. They display a sense of belonging and an increasing willingness to participate. They develop the knowledge, skills, understanding, qualities and attitudes they need to make an active contribution to the democratic process in each of their communities. [11]
  • Emotional: creating emotional connections and amount of self-confidence they have.

Emotional skills can be created in a number of ways, according to Doherty and Hughes (2009), "Emotions are more than just physical mechanisms to tell others how we are feeling". They are behaviours that direct our thinking and subsequent actions in response to events."[12] Emotional connections are when people are able to relate to another person, share feelings ,being open and vulnerable, trusting, Most important is relating to a person by communicating. *Language: how well a child communicates with people. Also how they represent their feelings and emotions.

  • Cognitive skills: Neaum (2010) identifies how cognitive skills are a process of thoughts. It is concernered with how children take information and organise it in order to learn. Cognitive skills are concerned with other skills such as problem solving, creativity, imagination and memory.[13]
  • Language development- Language development is a process that begins from within the womb. A new-born should respond to their mothers voice when their to care for their needs, gradually by the time the new-born reaches 3 months they should use different cries for different needs. By the time the infant is around 6 months old they will be able to recognise basic sounds of their spoken language and imitate this by babbling. The first 3 years old a child’s life is the most vital in picking up their native language. The brain during these first 3 years of life are the most intense, the brain is busy developing speech that is heard, seen and making note skills such as grammar. In order for children to develop their native speech, they need to be exposed to communication with others, sounds and language. Children during their first 3 years develop their native language at different speeds, however, there is a generalised checklist of milestones that are naturally followed. For example the sounds a new-born should respond to and the amount of words a 2 year old should approximately be able to say. [14]

Language Development Theory- Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, America and is a linguist and philosopher. Chomsky suggests, according to O’Dea, T and Mukherji, P, that “very young children (1 and 2 years-old) can only acquire language because they are born with the predisposition to do so”. Chomsky referred to this predisposition as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), he later into his research referred to it as Universal Grammars. The LAD provides a child with innate information so that they can learn and remember grammatically correct language that they hear in their first four or five years of childhood. This LAD provides the child with the ability to learn features of their spoken language and any others that they may learn (O’Dea, T. Mukherji, P. (2000) p. 29). [15]

  • Spiritual: the development of a person's religious views over their lifespan, through the experiences they have.[16]

[17] Pupils' spiritual development involves the growth of their sense of self, their unique potential, their understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and their will to achieve. As their curiosity about themselves and their place in the world increases, they try to answer for themselves some of life's fundamental questions. They develop the knowledge, skills, understanding, qualities and attitudes they need to foster their own inner lives and non-material wellbeing.

Piaget and Vygotsky[edit]

Modern theory and practice of early childhood education has been heavily influenced by both the socio-cultural learning theory of Lev Vygotsky and the constructivist theory of Jean Piaget. Both Vygotsky and Piaget’s theories influence contemporary educational practices.

Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Learning Theory on Early Childhood Education

The Russian psychologist Vygotsky proposed the socio-cultural learning theory which emphasized the impact of social and cultural experiences on individual thinking and the development of mental processes.[18] Although Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory was developed in the 1930s, his theoretical perspective is still discussed today as a means of improving and reforming educational practices.

Vygotsky argued that since cognition occurs within a social context, our social experiences shape our ways of thinking about and interpreting the world (Jaramillo 1996). Although the socio-cultural theory predated the constructivist movement, Vygotsky is commonly classified as a social constructivist. Social constructivists believe that an individual's cognitive system is a result of interaction in social groups and that learning cannot be separated from social life.[19]

Vygotsky proposed that children learn through their interactions with more knowledgeable peers and adults. His concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”.[20] In simpler words, it is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with help. According to Vygotsky, “what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the [child’s] actual developmental level tomorrow”.[18] This theory heavily influences contemporary early educational practices by increasing focus on material within the ZPD. Vygotsky proposed that children should be taught materials that employ mental processes within the ZPD.

The zone of proximal development encourages early childhood teachers to implement a technique Vygotsky referred to as “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is the term used when a more knowledgeable partner adjusts the amount and type of support offered to the child in order to fit the child’s learning needs over the course of the interaction.[21] With the help of scaffolds from teachers and/or peers, a child can perform a more complex behavior within their ZPD that he/she would not be able to perform alone.

Unlike traditional teaching practices, Vygotsky advocated a bottom-up approach to teaching in which teachers facilitate, rather than direct, what and how students learn.[22] His approach calls for teachers to incorporate students’ needs and interests while developing their curricula. He believed that every student should actively participate in the learning process. Students should not be passively receiving information from a teacher; rather, they should be involved in a reciprocal interaction with their classmates and educators.

Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory has also proven especially important for the education of the mentally disabled. According to Vygotsky, “special education was the creation of what he called a ‘positive differential approach’; that is, the identification of a disabled child from a point of strength rather than disability”.[23] Proactive initiatives should be taken to provide these children with the resources to fully develop their mental capacities. He believed that when mentally disabled children are not given the appropriate scaffolding, it is impossible for them to develop abstract thinking. Therefore, cognitively impaired students should be provided with specially trained teachers, a differentiated curriculum, and simply more time to learn to accommodate for their disability.

Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory is as relevant today in regards to early childhood education as it was in the 1900s. His concepts of ZPD and scaffolding continue to influence educational practices.

Piaget’s Constructivist Theory on Early Childhood Education

In the 1970s and ‘80s many educators and educational psychologists began to take an interest in the applications of the work of Piaget. Although Piaget himself was primarily interested in a descriptive psychology of cognitive development, he also laid the groundwork for a constructivist theory of learning.[24] Piaget believed that learning comes from within as the child constructs their own knowledge. He said that, “If logic itself is created rather than being inborn, it follows that the first task of education is to form reasoning.” Piaget altered the perspective of how a child learns – that a teacher does not just transmit knowledge, but observes and guides children in building their own knowledge.[25]

According to Piaget’s theory, when young children encounter information that conflicts with their previously learned expectations, or schemas, they attempt to both accommodate and assimilate the new information. Through accommodation, a child attempts to adapt his/her mental schemas and representations in order to make them consistent with reality. Through assimilation, a child attempts to fit new information into their pre-existing schemas about reality. Through these two processes, young children learn by equilibrating their mental representations of reality with the reality they encounter.[26]

By applying Piaget’s theories to school programs, children’s experiences become more hands-on and concrete as they explore the nature of things through trial and error.[27] He believes that early childhood education includes encouraging exploration, manipulating objects and learning about the world through field trips. Piaget found that children who were allowed to make mistakes often learned from them and discovered new solutions. This theory posits that children build their own way of learning – paving the way for early childhood education.

Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction has been particularly influential in mathematical education.[28] Through reflective abstraction, children construct more advanced cognitive structures out of the simpler ones they already possess. This allows children to develop mathematical constructs that cannot be learned through equilibration alone.[29] In Piagetian theory, children at first create empirical abstractions of objects based on their concrete experiences with those objects. Children then use reflective abstraction in order to create mental relationships between empirical abstractions. A child might have empirical abstraction of six marbles, but the number six that she uses to label the set of marbles is a reflective abstraction. Such a relationship has no existence in physical reality, and thus must be constructed by the child.[30]

According to Piagetian theory, use of language and symbolic representation is preceded by the development of the corresponding mental representations. Research shows that this is the case with mathematical knowledge, as the level of reflective abstraction achieved by young children was found to limit the degree to which they could represent physical quantities with written numerals. According to the studies’ authors, the goal of education should be “to focus more on the mental relationships children make (i.e. their abstraction) because the meaning children can give to conventional symbols depends on their level of abstraction” [30] Traditional elementary school mathematics is taught as if math is social knowledge that can be transferred, but Piaget’s theory holds that logico-mathematical knowledge must be constructed by the child himself. Further studies found that children can invent their own procedures for the four arithmetical operations, without teaching any conventional rules.[31]

In another study done by Campbell,[32] second graders individually constructed ways to accomplish a difficult mathematics task, as per Piagetian theory. This demonstrated that children’s mathematical knowledge is always growing and that teachers need to work with children to improve their thought processes. In this way, learning is something that the child owns and the child is encouraged to independently solve more difficult problems in the future.

Piaget’s Constructivist Theory also implies that computers are a great educational tool for young children when used to support the design and construction of projects. Researchers McCarrick and Xiaoming[33] found that computer play is consistent with this theory. However, Plowman and Stephen[34] found that the effectiveness of computers is limited in the preschool environment; their results indicate that computers are only effective when directed by the teacher. This suggests that, according to the Constructivist Theory, the role of preschool teachers is critical in successfully implementing computers as a learning tool in the classroom.[35]

These studies are a few examples of the implications of Piaget’s Constructivist Theory on early childhood education. Both Piaget and Vygotsky’s theory have been significant in influencing early childhood education practices – how educators should teach, how they can affect children’s learning, and how they contribute to the cognitive development of the child. Despite the importance of these two theories, there is still debate on the implementation of these theories in the early childhood schooling system.

The Children Act 1989 is also a framework for settings; [36] Davy states that this links to play-work as the act works with play workers and sets the standards for the setting such as security, quality and staff ratios. Learning through play is seen regularly in practice due to it being the most versatile way a child can learn. Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) suggests that children should be given free school meals, fruit and milk, and plenty of exercise to physically and emotionally keep them healthy. Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) believed play is based on cross curricula teaching as it allows children to talk, socially interact, use their imagination and intellectual skills. Marie Montessori (1870-1952) believed that children learn through movement and their senses and after doing an activity using senses


In Ypsilanti, Michigan, 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families who were randomly assigned to a group that did not receive preschool education were five times more likely to have become chronic lawbreakers by age 18 than those who did receive it.[37]

The aforementioned study also found that low-income individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program earned on average, by age 40, $5500 per year more than those who were not.[38] Furthermore, the study found that low-income people who were in preschool programs as a child are more likely to graduate from high school, own homes, and have longer marriages. Another study, The Abecedarian Project, shows that low-income children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.[39]

Children who lack sufficient nurturing, nutrition, interaction with a parent or caregiver, and stimulus during this crucial period may be left with developmental deficits, as has been reported in Russian and Romanian orphanages.[40] Children must receive attention and affection to develop in a healthy manner. There is a false belief that more hours of formal education for a very young child confers greater benefits than a balance between formal education and family time. A systematic, international review suggests that the benefits of early childhood education come from the experience of participation; more than 2.5 hours a day does not greatly add to child development outcomes, especially when it detracts from other experiences and family contact.[41]

"Why Does Infant Attention Predict Adolescent Intelligence?" by Sigman, Cohen, and Beckwith. This study found that speaking often to children between the ages of 8 and 24 months of age could significantly improve intelligence later in life. It appears in volume 20 (1997) of the journal Infant Behavior and Development.

A report by Rose and Feldman, August 1997 edition of Child Development suggests that visual recognition skills and tactile-visual skills at ages 7 to 12 months are a significant indicator of later IQ scores.

Visual stimulus and response time as early as 3 months is an indicator of verbal and performance IQ at age 4 years: Dougherty and Haith of the University of Denver, "Infant Expectations and Reaction Time as Predictors of Childhood Speed of Processing and IQ", published in volume 33 (1997) of the journal Developmental Psychology.

Otitis media (a condition that affects hearing) significantly impacts the advancement of infants. "The Effect of Otitis Media with Effusion (ie., with fluid accumulation) on Infants' Detection of Sound" by Lynne Werner and Jeffrey Ward from the University of Washington, Infant Behavior and Development, 20 (2), 1997.

Robert Titzer, of Southeastern Louisiana University, reported on a longitudinal case study in which an infant who was exposed to an interactive video involving words was able to visually recognize more than 100 words by 12 months of age and more than 500 words by age 15 months.

In May 2007, Slate Magazine published an article discussing the results of a working paper by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dimitriy Masterov of the University of Michigan about the social and economics benefits of nursery school for disadvantaged children, claiming that more investment in such children at an earlier age is needed to supplement the role of the family.

The reasons given include the importance of early years in cognitive development, the trouble many families have in providing adequate early-childhood nurturing, and the advantage such programs give students starting the next step in their education. The study considered a number of early childhood educational pilot programs for at risk children, similar to Head Start, but more intense, such as the Perry Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Over 40 years of the children's lives, participants showed greater literacy, higher grades, greater likelihood to graduate high school, higher post-high school employment rates, higher earnings, less need for welfare, committed less crime, and had lower rates of teen pregnancy. The rate of returns to the children was estimated to be 16 percent (about 3/4 of this is calculated from the decreased social cost due to lower crime and less prison spending).

The authors also propose that the return on investment declines with age. This study is noteworthy because it advocates spending as an economic investment in a society's future, rather than in the interest of justice.[42]

International agreements[edit]

The first World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education took place in Moscow from 27 to 29 September 2010, jointly organized by UNESCO and the city of Moscow. The overarching goals of the are to:

  • Reaffirm ECCE as a right of all children and as the basis for development
  • Take stock of the progress of Member States towards achieving the EFA Goal 1
  • Identify binding constraints toward making the intended equitable expansion of access to quality ECCE services
  • Establish, more concretely, benchmarks and targets for the EFA Goal 1 toward 2015 and beyond
  • Identify key enablers that should facilitate Member States to reach the established targets
  • Promote global exchange of good practices[43]

According to UNESCO a preschool curriculum is one that delivers educational content through daily activities, tuition and furthers a child's physical, cognitive and social development. Generally, preschool curricula are only recognized by governments if they are based on academic research and reviewed by peers.[44]

Preschool for Child Rights have pioneered into preschool curricular areas and is contributing into child rights through their preschool curriculum.[45]

Formal education during early childhood[edit]

In several countries/states, for example the United Kingdom an infant school caters for the earlier years of primary education, catering for children aged between four and seven years of age. The schools separate the children into age groups, to be taught and in some cases the youngest children are taught in a different building and have a separate outdoor space. Many countries/states, also have fixed structure's such as England follows the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), and Italy which follows a different structure which is the Reggio Emilia[46]

Several theorists support pre-school education due to the benefits of the experience from the opportunity to an early education.[47] It is important for parents to stay engaged in their child's education, even if they are getting most of their education from a daycare, nursery pre-school, or school.[48] Refer back to the theory section of this page for more detail on theory.

Notable early childhood educators[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oatley, Keith; Jenkins, Jennifer M (2007). Understanding emotions (2nd ed.). Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 211. ISBN 978-1-4051-3103-2. 
  2. ^ Footnote Anning, A and Cullen, J. and Fleer,M. (2004) Early childhood education. Lomdon:SAGE.
  3. ^ Tassoni, P. (2000) S/NVQ 3 play work. London: Heinemann Educational.
  4. ^ Winner, Melinda (28 January 2009). "The Serious Need for Play". Scientific American. 
  5. ^ Shapiro, N.; Nager (1999). "The Developmental-Interaction Approach to Education: Retrospect and Prospect". Occasional Paper Series (New York: Bank Street College of Education). 
  6. ^ "Bank Street Developmental Interaction Approach". State of New Jersey Department of Education. 
  7. ^ Casper, V; Theilheimer, R (2009). Introduction to early childhood education: Learning together. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  8. ^ Daly, M., Byers, E. and Taylor, W. (2006) Understanding early years theory in practice. London: Heinemann Educational.
  9. ^ Doherty, J. and Hughes, M. (2009) Child Development; Theory into Practice 0-11 (1st Edn). Harlow, Essex; Pearson.pp 8
  10. ^ footnote Trawick-Smith.J (2013 )Infant and toddler social and emotional development. Early Childhood development – A multicultural perspective (6th edition) Boston: Pearson.
  11. ^ http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130903160914/http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/a00199700/spiritual-and-moral
  12. ^ Doherty, J. and Hughes, M (2009) Child development: theory and practice 0-11. Harlow: Longman.
  13. ^ Neaum,S. (2013). Child development for early year’s students and practitioners. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications.
  14. ^ NIH (2011) Speech and language development milestones (online), USA: NIDCD: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/pages/speechandlanguage.aspx (accessed 15th April 2014).
  15. ^ O’Dea, T. Mukherji, P. (2000) Understanding children’s language and literacy, Nelson Thomas: Cheltenham
  16. ^ Footnote Doherty, J and Hughes, M. (2009) Child development theory and practice 0-11. Edinburgh: Pearson.
  17. ^ http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130903160914/http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/a00199700/spiritual-and-moral
  18. ^ a b Cole; John-Steiner, Scribner, Souberman (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. 
  19. ^ Oxford, R (1997). "Constructivism: Shape-Shifting, Substance, and Teacher Education Applications". Peabody Journal of Education 72 (1): 35–66. 
  20. ^ Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Interaction Between Learning and Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  21. ^ Louis, G (2009). "Using Glasser's Choice Theory to Understand Vygotsky". International Journal of Reality Therapy 29 (2): 20–23. 
  22. ^ Jaramillo, J (1996). "Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory and Contributions to the Development of Constructivist Curricula". Education 117 (1): 133–140. 
  23. ^ Gindis, B (1995). "The Social/Cultural Implication of Disability: Vygotsky's Paradigm for Special Education". Educational Psychologist 30 (2): 77–81. 
  24. ^ Smith, L (1985). "Making Educational Sense of Piaget's Psychology". Oxford Review of Education 11 (2): 181–191. 
  25. ^ "Jean Piaget: Champion of children's ideas". Scholastic Early Childhood Today 15 (5): 43. 2001. 
  26. ^ Piaget, J (1997). "Development and Learning". Readings on the Development of Children: 7–20. 
  27. ^ "Jean Piaget: Champion of Children's Ideas". Scholastic Early Childhood Today 15 (5): 43. 2001. 
  28. ^ Kato; Kamii, Ozaki, Nagahiro (2002). "Young Children's Representations of Groups of Objects: The Relationship Between Abstraction and Representation". Journal for Research and Mathematics Education 33 (1): 30–45. 
  29. ^ Simon; Tzur, Heinz, Kinzel (2004). "Explicating a mechanism for conceptual learning' elaborating the construct of reflective abstraction". Journal for Research and Mathematics Education 35 (5): 305–329. 
  30. ^ a b Kato; Kamii, Ozaki, Nagahiro (2002). "Young children's representations of groups of objects: the relationship between abstraction and representation". Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 33 (1): 30–45. 
  31. ^ Kamii; Ewing (1996). "Basing teaching on piaget's constructivism". Childhood Education 72 (5): 260. 
  32. ^ Campbell, C.S. (2008). "Double Column Edition: A teacher uses Piaget's theory". Childhood Education 84 (3): 186–187. 
  33. ^ McCarrick; Xiaoming (2007). "Buried treasure: the impact of computer use on young children's social, cognitive, language development and motivation". AACE Journal 15 (1): 73–95. 
  34. ^ Plowman; Stephen (2003). "A 'beginning addition'? Research on ICT and preschool children". Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19 (2): 149–164. 
  35. ^ Towns (2010). Computer education and computer use by preschool educators. 
  36. ^ Davy, A. (2001) Play work: play and care for children 5 - 15. 3rd edn. London: Thomson
  37. ^ "Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40". HighScope. 2005. 
  38. ^ Transcript of audio news briefing on the HighScope Perry Preschool Study age 40 findings
  39. ^ "Long-Term Benefits of Early Childhood Education". National Education Association. 2013. 
  40. ^ Groark, Christina J., et al (2008). "Special section on Russian orphanages". Infant Mental Health Journal (Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health.) 29 (4). 
  41. ^ Farquhar, Sarah-Eve (2008). "The Benefits & Risks of Childcare (ECE) for Young Children: A Review of the Best Available NZ and International Research". New Zealand: ChildForum. 
  42. ^ here Slate article: Waldfogel, Joel. "Teach Your Children Well: The economic case for preschool based on working paper: James J. Heckman, Dimitriy V. Masterov. "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children." NBER Working Paper No. 13016, Issued in April 2007." Slate Online, Posted Friday, May 25, 2007, accessed May 30, 2007
  43. ^ "World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education, Moscow (Russia), 27-29 September 2010". 
  44. ^ "UNESCO: Preschool Curricula". UNESCO. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  45. ^ http://preschoolforchildrights.com/
  46. ^ Footnote Clark, R. (2010) Childhood in society for early childhood studies. Exeter: Learning Matters, 2010.
  47. ^ Footnote Pound. L. (2005) How children learn-From Montessori to Vygotsky (1st edition) London: Practical Pre-school books, a division of MA education Ltd.
  48. ^ Footnote Anning, A and Cullen, J. and Fleer,M. (2004) Early childhood education. Lomdon:SAGE.

Neaum,S. (2013). Child development for early year’s students and practitioners. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications.

External links[edit]