'The voice of the child' In Focus webinar, presented by Louis Hamlyn-Harris, Dan Leach-McGill, Janet Williams-Smith and Simone Myskiw on 10 August 2022.
Hello, everyone, welcome to our Be You In Focus Webinar on the Voice of the child. My name is Louis Hamlyn-Harris, and I am the Executive Manager for Early Childhood Australia. I'm joined today by a fantastic panel, who I'll introduce in just a minute.
But before we get started I'd like to invite you to stay online after the session today for an informal conversation extending some of the ideas that we'll discuss in the webinar. We'll stay on for about half an hour after, so please get your questions and comments in the Q&A and the chat box, which are both monitored, and we'll talk to them then.
If you're not familiar with us already, Be You is the national mental health in education initiative led by Beyond Blue in partnership with Early Childhood Australia and headspace, funded by the Australian Government. Our vision is that every learning community is positive, inclusive and resilient, and a place where every child, young person, educator, and family, can achieve their best possible mental health.
Learning communities that register for Be You have free access to a Be You Consultant to assist you in thinking about planning and implementation, selecting resources, identifying actions in your setting. So if your service is not already registered and participating in Be You, welcome. We're really really glad to have you, and there'll be some information in the chat about how to sign up if you'd like to do so.
Before I go any further. I'd like to acknowledge that I am joining you today from the lands of the Wurundjeri people, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are Australia's First Peoples and Traditional Custodians. We value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures, identities perspectives, and continuing connection to Country, waters, kin, and community, and I pay my respects to Wurundjeri elders, past and present.
One of the great things about our Webinars is that we're joined by panellists and audience members from many lands across Australia. So I invite you to acknowledge where you are joining us from either privately or in the chat, and on behalf of Be You I want to extend my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joining us today, as well as Elders across the country.
We know that a sense of safety supports everyone's mental health, so it's really important to us in the space that you feel safe that you only share what you're comfortable sharing in the chat, and that we all maintain confidentiality with anything that's shared by others. Helplines will be posted throughout the webinar. So please access these, if you need to, and remember to take care of yourself.
Just a little bit of housekeeping. We'll stop screen sharing in a minute, so that you can see our faces a little better. You might prefer the speaker view which you can select in the top corner of your screen. You can ask questions via the Q&A box and share comments via the chat, and we'll respond to as many of those as possible, either in the chat directly or during our conversation afterwards.
I want to give a big shout out to our scene behind the teams, our team behind the scenes, I should say, Dino, Nathan, and Maria, who are doing the backend work to host the webinar, and Paula and Blaire, who are moderating our chat and Q&A sections. Blaire is also going to join us for the conversation afterwards.
There'll be some links to some of the resources that we refer to today in the chat as well as a downloadable handout. That includes some reflective questions that you might like to consider, either individually or with your learning community, and in about two days you'll get an email with a link to the recording along with a handout as a a certificate of attendance and a survey.
We're also offering an exclusive Spotlight session in September that's going to build off some of the ideas that we discussed today, and that will be facilitated by Paola and Blaire, who are both Be You consultants. So you'll see details about that in the chat, and also, as you leave. So please sign up, if you'd like to continue the conversation.
All right, I think that's all of our housekeeping. As I said earlier, I'm really glad to be joined today by Janet, Simone, and Dan, a fantastic panel representing a range of perspectives on children's voices, and who better to introduce them but themselves, Dan, can we start with you?
Sure, my name's Dan Leach-McGill. I'm the Policy and Government Relations Executive at Early Childhood Australia and I'm joining from Wurundjeri Country
Great, welcome Dan, Janet?
Hi, everyone! It's great to be here. Thank you for inviting me, Louis. My name is Janet Williams-Smith. I'm the National General Manager for Inclusion and Early Intervention for ECA, currently working in Darwin, and I'm on the lands of the Larrakia people.
Great, thanks Janet, and Simone?
Hi, Everyone my name's Simone and I'm joining you from Wurundjeri land today, and I'm so excited to share some really practical advice and tips, and to share this really wonderful conversation with you.
Great, welcome everyone. Maria, could we move to the next slide please?
Welcome! So today we're going to talk about some of the different ways that children use their voices, and how we hear them. We're going to hear some practice examples from Simone's ongoing work in this space, and we'll also touch on a couple of frameworks and theories that might help us. Think about how we engage with children's voices, but also for what purpose? But to set this scene, I want to zoom out a little bit. I think so much of the contemporary conversation about the voice of the child is averted in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which, as many of our audience all know, was ratified by Australia in 1990, and as being incredibly influential in the early childhood field as well as in areas like social work, and youth justice, and adoption.
So we wanted to start today by taking a close look at Article 12 of the Convention, which is typically understood as the article that protects the voice of the child. So let's bring that up on the screen. And we're actually looking here at the full text of Article 12, and to the right is the UN's child-friendly version, which I tend to prefer. It reads: "Children have the right to give their opinions freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously."
Dan let's start with you. Children have always used their voices. They've always communicated with us, whether verbally or we talk about the one hundred languages of children. Why is it important that children's ability to share their opinions is enshrined as a right?
So, I think it's an important framing, and also a reminder that children are citizens who are regularly marginalised in decision making processes. So I think, training in rights helps to elevate children's rights and really calls on adults to act, and to act differently in response to children's voices.
I think we've probably got a good grasp on it, or more fluency in early childhood education and care settings, particularly in relation to children's choices in their settings. But I do think that there's a spectrum of listening and decision making and choices about their participation versus maybe participation in decisions in their environment that it's important to recognise.
And Janet, Dan's kind of talking about the scope of Article 12, which is actually quite specific, and children have the right to give opinions on issues that affect them. I guess the question that raises is, what are the issues that affect children, and who gets to decide?
Well, I think they can get to decide actually, what issues affect them. I think it's really important for us to understand that children are able to demonstrate to us about things that are important to them, so they can identify the issues.
Sometimes we might identify that we think are really important for children, and decide on things that we think are really important to not listen to them about what they consider to be issues that affect them. And going to what you were saying before Dan, that their environment, their occupation, the pursuits, the things that they choose to do with themselves. How they choose to create the environment there is, but they can also decide on things like when they're hungry when they need to go to the toilet.
Sometimes I think that we might override our views and not listen to children, and telling us what they need when they need it, and how they would like that to happen to them.
We're obliged to listen to children and ask them to tell us what's important to them, not washed through a lens of what we think is more important to them, it's very easy to do that, as adults, particularly when we are thinking about the protection of children. We want to keep them safe. We want to make sure that as responsible adults in their world we are looking after them, but part of that is ensuring that they have opportunities to participate, not just be protected. And if we come over them, then we don't hear them.
One of the things I wanted to talk about in regards to participation is that one of the ways that we know that we've heard children is not just around the fact that they're participating, but they're contributing and forming the world around them.
You know our children. It's good for children to see that the world around them is being performed by them, not just being a place for them to be in, but a place for them to affect, and contribute to change the world.
Dan I think this gets to an idea that's really important to you, which is that children and adults don't actually live in separate universes.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think, and Janet was talking about the drive to protect children, and I think sometimes we've failed to, as adults, we fail to acknowledge that we live in the same world as children. And children's experience of their worlds often go kind of unstoried or unspoken about when we separate those worlds out as adults and children as well. And, part of, if we want to hear children's voices in their worlds and in decisions that affect them, we need to involve them in the understanding and processing and unpacking their own first… of our world as a shared space.
Simone, I want to bring you in. Article 12 says that adults should weigh the views of children according to their age and maturity, but the right itself, the right to be heard isn't actually contingent on the child's age, or their developmental level, or anything else. Is that important, do you think?
Absolutely! Children of all ages have the right to participate in decision making, and what Janet was saying, it's not just about you're here, so let's get on with the day. But how do children contribute and participate from our young citizens as babies all the way through to kinder age children, but also how we're supporting kinder age children to participate once they leave our service and go around to the world.
So it's not so much a question of whether children should be heard and included in decision making, but rather, how do we as adults, educators, and teachers, and leaders in early childhood and policymakers, how do we speak out about that decision making voice? And we do that by really examining what barriers and biases and practices that we have. And how do we challenge and change those in order to create space and give power to children equal to that of adults when it comes to participation and decision making.
When I'm talking about child voice today. It's a bit of an ambiguous term that we kind of use sometimes, and I just want you to think, don't, take the literal voice, but really think about the verbal speaking voice, the children with a non-verbal voice, the children with emerging vocabulary, and children, it includes children of all ages, stages, and ability.
So in thinking about babies to kinder, children with special rights, children with disabilities, children who are forming their sense of identity, the children who attend one day a week vs. five days a week, and to children and families who speak languages other than our own in the service. Challenge how we make assumptions about whose voice should be heard, and how we're seeking out that voice. Because all voices need to hold equal power in decision-making. And if we're thinking about inclusive practice, if one voice misses out on being heard, we're not being inclusive of the whole community.
Simone I love - Oh, I'm sorry, go ahead.
No no you got it!
I just love that you've flagged pre-verbal children as a group to really be aware of, and it's notable actually, that the word voice is nowhere in Article 12.
I think about when educators slow down, when we pause, when we invite participation and cooperation from young children, when we give them that little window of time for a response. This is how very young children learn that they're agents in the world, that they get to act, they're not just acted upon.
Janet, I think this speaks to the kind of multiplicity of ways that children express themselves, right?
Absolutely. I'm really pleased to hear what you're saying to mind about that. The voice of the child isn't just a verbal voice, and there's lots of reasons that we need to attend to that, particularly for children who might have English as a second language, children with emerging language. I'm certainly doing work here at the moment with our team in the NDIS. Where children are non-verbal, and they still have a lot to say about themselves, and they still have ability to demonstrate the things that they need and want, and the agency that they require.
How children communicate with us is as important for us to tune into as much as what that is that they're communicating. Because I think it's really easy to miscue some children, particularly very young children and infants that they do show us what they mean, babies are born with minds. They have some agency, and we have to make sure that we watch out for that.
We can provide lots of ways and lots of environments and tools to help children communicate with us, and I know there's some really tried and tested examples. For example, lots of services I've seen give children cameras as a means of documentation.
Attending as a form of communication and exchange. So providing children with an understanding that you're watching and listening and observing what they're doing. And you're attending to that by commentating and noticing. I think those things are really important.
There's a really good theory, I'm sure you've all heard of Clark and Moss's, you know that Mosaic approach. Because the other thing that we have to make sure that we do well is, how do we collect information from the way that children can communicate with us, and how do we build a picture of the multiple voices of children in that space?
And one of the things I liked about that Mosaic Theory is around collecting information from children, and the way that they describe it, which I love, is like tiles building a picture. And the diversity of the tiles provide us with an installation if you like, not just a question, and not just a picture, and not just an environment, but an installation of ideas and contributions. And suddenly, you can see hundreds of voices of children in lots of different ways, and data collection is quite difficult, I think, in this space, but I really like the way that they talk about that.
The other thing I just wanted to mention is that having a voice is power, children's behaviour is a way of communicating with us children's actions, emotions, proximities, how they stand, where they stand, who they go to, and their play, are all forms of communication.
I'd like to give one example. I don't want to take up too much time Louis, but once I start, I can't stop. My work's predominantly been with highly vulnerable children, potentially at risk of abuse and neglect in their, in their environment, that they're living in. And I remember distinctly one day, a young girl that was coming into a service that I was managing at the time in Melbourne.
She came from a very very high-risk environment, with her family very, very deeply involved with child protection and lots and lots of adversarial stuff going on in her life. And she was four years old, and she was brought to come to play at our service, maybe once or twice a week, because her parents just couldn't manage to get her there more than that.
When she was allowed to come, she would put on her play clothes. It was a very, very clear distinction. I am going to play today because I'm going to my play place, and she'd wear her bathers and some beautiful dressing up clothes, and she wouldn't let her mum come in.
She really wanted her mum to stay outside, which flies in the face of all our family centred practice and inclusive practice. But this little girl was telling us some really, really important things about - this is my place, and it's for me, and I'm going to play today.
And she was telling us all kinds of things. I don't play every day. I've got special clothes to play in, and I really want to play and be here, and really, really loud voice on the things that she needed. So that's just an example of tuning into the way that children communicate with us, not just listening to what they tell us.
And I love that idea, Janet, of going beyond the vocal, I think actually Alison Clarke calls the Mosaic approach polyvocal. So the child's job is to express themselves through whatever mode, beautiful right?
And our job is to listen really carefully, and then to piece those tiles together into a picture. Simone I think this takes us to the second sentence in the article which is, adults should listen and take children seriously. This, to me is one of those things that sounds so simple, but I think there's a real provocation in it. What does it mean for our role as adults or as educators?
I think a really great example is to examine a practice like group time, where we call children together and say, we need to make a decision, and we want the child, voice or children to participate in that decision making. Then we go around the circle and gather everyone's idea. And then we kind of say, okay, great, consultation done, participation done. But then adults still go up and make the decisions for the children, anyway.
So I think that's a really great practice to examine and to really look for and look at your practice and go. Am I really here to gather a decision from a child, and then enact that decision? Or am I here just tokenistically gathering ideas of children that we can't really put into practice?
And I think that kind of leads back to what we're all saying is that rights work with children is more about the strongest voice speaking for all it's about finding ways for all voices to be heard in equitable forums and in different ways.
Something else, I think we should consider as educators and teachers is to really have an image of the child as the image of the child that we currently work with. And I'm sure many of this whole image of a child as a capable and confident learner. It's kind of ingrained in us, it comes from the NQS, it kind of rolls off the tongue when we talk about our image of child.
But what if we were to really challenge this? You know What if a child in one of your settings is not a confident learner? What if we're just assuming they are based off our own biases? What does capable and confident actually look like? Are the children actually capable and confident? Is this a setting where children are not confident, they are not capable because of the conditions they kind of come to you from? And is this the lens that we are placing on all children and always have? And I also want you to challenge how you've developed this image, and has it evolved over time.
Because if we're developing this image of child from our own kinder teacher from thirty years ago, from a theorist in a book, from a radio webinar that you watched. How do you bring all those ideas into a really contemporary lens of who children are now, and to always move forward with that because it's going to change over time.
I think that helps bring that mosaic approach into your work. It's kind of not every single child in my class is capable and confident. I have an image of some children who are really great storytellers, and I need to teach them and learn together and make decisions through that kind of language, I have children who love to write, I have children who express themselves through drawing.
So it's really about being contemporary and discovering different ways of how adults can listen to children and take them seriously. There is a temptation to present this cute work that we did together, which is the group time example.
What new resources do I need for our classroom? Teddies, dolls, blankets, this kind of stuff. And look, we participated today. Look at this cute list of things the children said.
Treat children the way you treat your colleagues. If you're going to gather your colleagues together and ask for participation and decision making together, we need to be respectful of those answers. We need to challenge them. We need to report back to the group and reflect and come together often.
But we also need to make room for the second part, which is enacting the decision that the people want to see. So the same with children. Move away from the tokenistic first level, do the hard work and work down, and really find out what children want and how they want you to do it.
Simone I, first of all, I find this idea about the image of the child so provocative, personally. I think I have an attachment to the confident and capable child. So maybe we can talk about this and our conversation afterwards.
Two really beautiful quotes came to mind as you were talking. I think of John Holt saying treat the child as you would treat an adult whose opinion you respect, right? And then Magda Gerber talking about education as the impossible profession, and the reason it's impossible is because we're bringing children into a world that we haven't seen yet. So I think your challenge to remain contemporary, and to interrogate our biases and our assumptions is such a powerful one.
I'm actually going to stick with you for a little bit Simone, and because I want to get really concrete and practical. Can you describe some of the work that you've done in your setting to elevate the voice of the child? Tell us about the children's council.
So the children's council was some work that I did in a service as the centre manager and at its heart it was about bringing children together. And respecting the way that children think, and the way that children and adults can think together.
Often when I get asked what do you do? And why do you love your job? And people say to me oh, you must really love children then. And look, I do love childhood and children. But what I love most is the power and potential of the relationship between adult and child. That's where the magic happens for children for learning.
So the children's council is about bringing children together and really looking at, harking back to what Dan and Janet were saying, to step into that child world. And this is the my place of the children. If this is their place, this purpose built place, we come to work there every day, how do we really include children in making choices about a space that is for them?
So we would have meetings with children, and one really great example, we call the hug debate, which was about us having to hire a new teacher at the centre. And the first question we asked to the children, we need to hire a new teacher for you to be in your space every day. Who is this person? What do they sound like? Feel like? How do they make you feel?
And because the children were unpractised, and so were we, in this kind of way of working. We had the answers of they have to read books, they'd have to know Karate, they have to be a good friend. And it was like, here we go again. I don't want to do this cute stuff. I really want to find out what this teacher is. And somebody said yes, you have to be a friend, okay, what does that look like? They give you hugs? And there was kind of silence in the group, and I could tell they were waiting for me to make a decision and facilitate the conversation.
So, instead of kind of jumping in and taking over. I kind of stood back and took on the role of facilitator. So I said, this is your discussion, your debate, you guys vote for it. And somebody said, well, I don't like hugs because I'm a big girl. I don't like hugs at school. So another child was like. Come on you're little, little people like hugs, my mum is bigger than you. She likes hugs, and everyone I know is bigger than you, and they like hugs too, so you can't be right.
So we probably debated this bigness, smallness, right to cuddles, no cuddles, yes cuddles for about six months, and the children decided to survey everybody in the centre. Do you like hugs? Yes/no. And then this went on for a couple of weeks, and then suddenly someone said, oh, you know what? I like hugs sometimes, definitely not when I'm here at the centre, though, and it really threw a spanner in the works. We could have at that moment said, okay, well, it's majority. Yes. So we hug at this centre. Let's go for it. But the children really wanted to go back and examine the sometimes, and step into that third space of, well, it's not all black and white here.
So to find out the sometimes, they went and observed children, especially babies, and were looking for cues from babies about no hugs or sometimes hugs, and were communicating that to the educators, and then the baby's educators were meeting with the children to talk about what that means, Yes and no in body language.
So we're getting that direct input from the children and the educators took that really seriously, like they held a forum for the older children to come to the baby's room and tell them what they'd been missing, and how to make decisions about babies. That kind of thinking rolled through the whole service and really changed the way that educators and team members saw children, and saw the seriousness of the decision-making.
Because of the planning and the surveying, and the researching backwards and forwards with the children, it took six months for them to come to a decision about what we would do. Which ended up being a letter to all adults in the community. So if you came to visit, someone from Support Office came to visit, or a new person started, they received a letter that basically was saying, we don't assume children want hugs here, you have to ask, and we can say no. So don't get upset if we say no, it's not you. It's me basically. And everyone had to sign and acknowledge that they understood that when they came to the service.
Simone this is such powerful work, and one of the things that always strikes me here, and you talk about it is how you're able to transcend kind of the child's voice as a tool for problem solving. It wasn't about identifying a problem and thinking about how the children could help you tweak a solution. It certainly wasn't about making a decision and then getting a rubber stamp from the children's council. It's really that a rights-based lens infused the culture of the service.
And Janet, it makes me think about how Article 12 actually asks two things on us. It asks that we listen to children's voices, but also that we act on what we hear. There's a real demand on us to take action.
There is. There's a real impost on us. We have to listen, but we also have to respond. I think it's really important for us. Some of the things that you were talking about Simone, what it raises for me is what your team did, and what the people around those children did to encourage them to keep going and stop, not, you didn't stop at the cute thing. You kept going and kept digging. You said six months for these children to work this problem out and to decide how they were going to deal with it, and to make sure that everybody was consulted, including the babies.
So that brings me to, how do we respond to children when they do communicate with us? And it's that notion of serve and return. You know, how do we ensure children are connected to their autonomy, their agency, and their choice, because that has a massive contribution to their notion of mental health and wellbeing. And I know that all sounds a bit too much when you're thinking about children, but children's mental health and wellbeing is developed from a sense of who they are. Their sense of identity develops very, very, very early in life.
We often think maybe babies don't have a sense of identity. Babies have minds. They're mindful. They're developing a sense of who they are in relation to others around them and those others around them have to make sure that they return the serve that is given to them from those babies. The cues that come from babies and young infants and children is a serve.
We can't just catch it. We have to return it. We have to go. Okay. So what do I do with this information and all of the things that these children and babies are telling me? So we need to hear. We need to validate what we're hearing, and it's really important to reframe sometimes.
So what you're saying is this: I can see from the way that you're looking at me, or talking to me that you feel happy, or I think you might feel worried. So that we provide children with language about what we're receiving from them, and checking with them to make sure that that is what they're telling us, because they might come back and go. No, that's not what I'm telling you, so that reframing and validation's really important.
Lots of cues and eye contact and connection. You know. I see you, I hear you. You are you and I am listening to you. It's really important that the children get that back. Lots of children, particularly in the world that I've worked in for many years, don't get that from their home environments. Lots of them don't get that from their parents, or maybe their family. Some do, some don't.
Lots of children that participate in early childhood education and care, lots of children do come from varying vulnerabilities or varying worlds of disadvantage. Their lived experience, they bring that in with them.
So what is it that's in their backpack that they unpack every day and show us, and what is it that they take home from us everyday. So those kinds of things, I think, are really important.
The only way that the children will know that they've been heard is if we let them know that we've heard, and we check in and respond. It's a really important. It's a basic human right to be recognised, and recognition is the first step towards real inclusion of children, and real participation, and real contribution. So that serve and return is a good way of thinking about-
Recognition for who you are, to be seen fully, I think is so important. And Simone-
And not just, Louis, can I just say one more thing about that?
Sometimes it's really easy for us to recognise the parts of people that are like us, because it's comfortable, and we choose not to recognise the parts of people that are nothing like us, because it's so uncomfortable to look at difference and absorb that.
So we have to really make a very big, brave, courageous effort to recognise the whole person, the whole, particularly the parts of them that are not like us, because that is a basic human right for whole recognition.
You can't include people if you don't recognise who they are and what their contributions are, it's really critical in terms of forming identity too, children's identity is formed by recognition in relation to us. Children will seek reflection on who they are in relation to others. We have to make sure that serve and return, isn't interrupted or stopped by us.
I want to come back to this, but this is making me think about process a little bit, and it seems to me that your work is quite process driven. Actually, I'm really curious about the structures and the strategies that you really kind of intentionally put in place to support that all of the kind of reflection and analysis you're talking about. How did you avoid that temptation to say, okay, we've got what we need, we can get the documentation out, we're done?
So I think just not following on from what Janet was just saying around that acknowledging everyone, and everyone's part of their identity is kind of what I was talking about earlier with the examining that bias and finding all those voices. If there are children who have a disability in our service, and there's no adults with a disability in our service, how are we connecting with those children and challenging what we think children can do?
There was a lot of process kind of involved in it, but I suppose the biggest thing was when we first started this and my personal reflection, I thought I was really good at asking questions from children. I thought I was really great at participation in citizenship. But then, when I kind of was really intentful with it. I was like, oh, I've really got to look at myself, and how we do this practice.
And the real driver was listening, like really listening to children. And the work, and to have this kind of idea that the work is never done. There's never an end date to a project. There's never an end date to the research. It was just us working through it, matching the children's pace, supporting them when we needed to, checking back where we needed to, and just letting it go.
Listening, patience, respect, persistence, and delivering on that promise to always listen, and you always have a space for children to hold power. It's no good to say you can make decisions about hugs, but now you can't make a decision about the food that's in your lunch today. We have to be equal to everything.
Something that we really did, that kind of changed it was, we would record the children's council meetings, and then go back and listen to those recordings, and it was hard to listen to at first. But once we got used to it you could go Oh, did you hear how I talked over the top of Millie today? Like she had something important to say, and I just kept talking, and didn't even listen to her. So we need to go back to Millie and say you said this in the meeting, and I talked over the top of you. I apologise. Can you continue telling that story for me? Because it's going to be important.
We also noticed things like when an adult gave a prompt that they were about to talk, like I would sit up straight or take a breath, that children would stop talking. They would just go, oh the adults are talking now, we have to stop and listen. So we would really kind of look for those unspoken things that were happening, and we reflected on our body language, and how that kind of came across to children.
So by recording the sessions when we were with children, we were really able to put down pen and paper, put down the camera, not document anything. But just listen. Just be that participant there or the facilitator when you need to be, but it's not the adult having that dominant voice in group.
We also use the recordings to come back to children and say, I heard you say this in the meeting, is that what you meant? Or I don't quite understand, can you continue to tell me that story so we can really understand what's happening here? And then, when we eventually did create documentation way down the line, because it was tempting every day to go "children's council: we did this today we wrote this beautiful list, and we did this change and-"
Wrap it up, right.
Yeah. So we've had to just really kind of slow it down. Another great way to do this that everyone can do is when you create visual documentation or wall documentation, floor books, you know whatever, you're kind of creating in your service, sit down with the children who you documented, and read them what you wrote about them.
So if you're telling, writing a story about how Matilda wrote this drawing and did a drawing. It was the at the house, and blah-di-blah-di-blah, Matilda might actually have a different perspective on what she was doing, so let the children kind of challenge what you perceived of them, and then live document on the piece of paper, so leave the post-it note. Strike out the mistake and write over it on top. So the children can see, visually, that their voice, their learning, their opinion has a place here, and that we really care about that, and we're proud to display it.
And your word, the adult's word is not the final word, right? There is a continued negotiation. I want to bring in Dan here, I think.
Dan, Simone is talking about a very particular, very deep kind of sustained engagement with the child's voice over time within a project that kind of evolved over several months. Are there helpful models for thinking about other ways and other contexts where we might invite the child's voice?
Sure, yeah. So, I think just reflecting on my own experience, I became interested in consultation with children by way of community to like studying and community development approaches. And I've got really interested in focusing on mobilising community action and ensuring diverse voices are heard, that the power is distributed over decision making and resource allocation.
I thought I was leaving the early childhood sector, but it actually just pulled me further back in. I started thinking about, I work with children using this thinking, but there's also models like Treseder's model, who offers degrees of participation, and that really assists in like what Simone was talking about, conceptualising or assessing your own participatory activities. I can never say that word by the way.
And thinking about it on a spectrum, not a hierarchy of value, but a spectrum of different choices. Whether it's adults making decisions and children becoming part of those decisions or projects, and focusing on their understanding of those projects and their involvement, right through to child initiated and directed projects, where children take the lead and make decisions and adults are available, but they're not in charge.
I think it's useful to think of those levels of participation. Not suggesting that we can always operate at that child-led, child initiated decision-making phase or stage of participation, but to really examine what's on offer. What can we genuinely offer to children in terms of decision-making? And how can we be transparent with children about what decisions are on offer for them to make?
I think it's, and also revisit, as Simone was saying, revisit those interactions and think about where there could have been opportunities to hand over more power and more decision making.
I think that's actually such a helpful idea. Not all work can happen in that child-directed child-driven space, because not all decisions are within our control fully. But I love that you raise the kind of ethical dimension, which is how important it is that we be really conscious and aware and transparent about how we're engaging children, what we're asking of them. Why, how we're feeding it back.
Ah, Janet, oh yeah please Dan go ahead.
I think that also links back to what Simone is talking about in terms of participation. And I think we can go looking for different types of participation. What really stood out was the silence. How the silence spoke, and actually created something that was unexpected.
I think that silence, that moment of silence was participation. And if we're not looking for different styles or types of participation, we can miss some really important cues and opportunities.
That's the polyvocal idea, right? Going beyond the voice and let's bring the screen share down. And, Janet, I actually want to change topic slightly and think a little bit about bias and families and systems.
But very quickly before we do, another thing that jumps out to me from Simone's example is that when given the opportunity to really use their voices, the children actually requested that the adults in this space change their behaviour. And it makes me think of this kind of old fashioned idea of behaviour management.
This is such a reorientation of that. It's actually about members of a community negotiating how they relate to one another from a position of equality where some members of those communities, of that community happen to be a child, happen to be children. I wonder, does this resonate with your experience of creating kind of mentally healthy environments for young children?
I've been looking at that model that you've just shown, Dan, and just listening to you, Simone, and one of the things that's really resonating with me. Is that the length of time it takes children to do this work is not, it's not a program and a plan that you modify every two weeks.
Children's work is endless. It's endless, and if we interrupt them, we don't provide them with that opportunity to do that really important stuff that they're doing, and our behaviour is often dictated to us by standards, regulations, expectations that have got nothing to do with what the children are telling us, and I think that's really, really important.
It reminds me of the notion, I don't know if anybody's familiar with Harry Potter, but in Harry Potter there's this notion of a room of requirement, and it appears a sentinel space, that appears whenever people need it. And in that room is everything they need for the task at hand, and that's how I see us building environments for children.
The environments that we build for children need to be a room of requirement that appears, and it's full of all the things that they need to do their very best work. Not what we think they need. Children need room to theorise, they need room to do research, they need room to explore.
One of, I saw a piece of work going on in a service a few years ago, it was just extraordinary, and it was a backyard bird project. So lots of children were noticing birds in the backyard. I'm sorry to take up so much time, I've got to say this.
They started doing a bird audit thing. The children got so interested the teacher had to buy an Australian bird book, and then she got them involved in the ABC Bird audit. And then suddenly it just went off. It was a six month project on, they became ornithologists. They all got binoculars. They all started doing audits on when birds come to the paddock, when they don't, and they started doing some work on how birds are affected by the climate, then we moved to climate change, it was extraordinary work and it wasn't interrupted by the teacher. And the behaviour of the teacher and staff in this service was dictated to by the needs of the requirements for children.
I also want to move to behaviour management in terms of children who might have very difficult feelings and participate in progress, and participate in environments where they need lots of help to understand 1: how they feel, and 2: how we can help provide boundaries that enable them to deal with some of that stuff. I think that notion of behaviour management is really, really important for us to attend to in our own behaviour.
Sometimes I think, when children are struggling, it's really important to say to them, I feel like there's a struggle, and I would like to help you with that. I feel worried. Maybe your hearts going fast. My heart's going fast. All of those attending things are really really, really important.
But in relation to behaviour we need to attend to our behaviour as much as we attend to children's behaviour. How we behave around children in those environments can interrupt what they're doing, and that can interrupt who they are, and what they're trying to tell us. I think it's really important to listen.
Janet. I'm just going to jump in, because I think this is a really nice segue into something I'm curious to hear from Simone about which is how important it is in these contexts that we work as a learning community.
I wonder, in many cases that's going to be a paradigm shift, if not for yourself and for members of the team, perhaps for leadership in your service. And I imagine that there are people in our audience who are feeling really inspired by your examples, but wondering how they'll leave that shift in in their setting, how they'll bring everyone along with them, and I wonder if you have any advice?
It's not easy. It's good work when you when you get into it. But it's not easy. You know it does take time and persistence and reflection, and courage and collaboration, and I think challenging the way things have always been done in your service.
Because thinking back to earlier, when I was talking about that changing contemporary image of the child, we also need to have a changing and contemporary image of ourselves as educators and teachers, because children change all the time. The world changes all the time. We're living in a world now that we couldn't have imagined three years ago. So we have to kind of move into that and step into that space that is there.
Like I said before, when I started this work. I thought I was really good at it, and then I kind of had to go and know you need to be a bit more contemporary and lead into it, and do a bit more research and challenge yourself a little bit more.
Rushing through will kind of land you where you've landed before. So it's really important to take one step of the time. There's a lot of things we could be doing in early childhood settings. There are millions of things we could be doing every day. But I suppose a way to get there is what is the one thing that we should be doing today that will support us? Take that first step on that path.
Routines and rituals are a really great place to start, because, especially for babies and toddlers, it's that kind of one to two-and-a-half-year-old space. It's routines, routines, routines all day. And we kind of move children through those routines, and the way to manage what is happening, and manage the 9am-5pm of them being here with us.
So, take that space of routines and rituals, and really think about how do toddlers participate in a sleep time ritual, or routine? What do we know about that child? What do we know about their, what time they woke up in the morning? If they woke up at 4am, and had to catch a train into the city with their family, and then got pushed to the other end of the city up the hill, and dropped off the centre at 9 o'clock in the morning. They're not ready for a sleep at 11:30 when you're ready for them to go to sleep. They might be ready for rest and relaxation at 9 o'clock in the morning.
So where is rest and relaxation available in your program all day long? Rather than you have to survive to 11:30, because that's when bedtime is because that's where I want you to be. And then you might find yourself managing that child all morning, which is exhausting for everybody.
So it's really about moving from this manager of children to a participant in their day and sitting back and thinking, what would it be like for me if I woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and someone said I couldn't rest until midday? I would be anticipating that all day long and feeling upset about it, and wondering why isn't anyone asking me what's wrong? Why, isn't anyone asking me how to be supported? And these people are just making assumptions about me, and how I do this.
So I think, as a whole service. It's about having a plan, a plan for yourself, a plan for your team and a plan for how you will communicate and consult with the whole community, and how you're going to make that really visible and real to children.
If children are able to see that there's a way of working for one child, but there's also a way of working for me that's different that I feel supported through, children will be much more responsive and patient in understanding that I'll get what I need when it kind of comes to me.
Simone, I'm sorry to cut you off, but I want to get to this question of bias, and how we make sure all voices are heard before we finish. And I think this is a really nice segue into something I want to ask, Dan, which is:
One thing that strikes me in this conversation is that when we're using a rights framework, that kind of rights-based thinking can moderate the power and balance between adults and children, but it doesn't displace it. Adults still have more power than children in just about any way you slice it.
And then we have another challenge, which is that power is actually not shared equally even among children, nor among communities of adults. So if a child or a family comes from a non-dominant background, if English isn't your first language, if you're part of a group that is misunderstood or vilified or discriminated against, then it's actually quite possible that your voice is not going to be heard as easily as others.
I wonder for you, Dan, what's our responsibility to disrupt that pattern?
Yeah, I think there's so many layers to that. I do think the idea, or even the concept of giving children a voice when we talk about giving, we have it to give. It's the power that we have to give voice to children. I think we need to understand or reflect, I don't think we can ever truly understand, but reflect on our power, understand our power in our interactions, and think about the extent to which we can share that and do it honestly. As we're sort of talking about the ethical, transparent way of sharing power and decision making.
I'm thinking about some examples, in which we did a national consultation with children, and we kind of we knew what we wanted to ask. We had kind of two key questions. What's important to you, to children and young people? And then what do you think of the service we provide to you?
So we have those two framing questions. But when it came to the doing of it, the methods, we really left that open to the communities in which they were delivered. We left that to the community, it was locally led.
The communities that were implementing that consultation were working in their context involving who they needed to involve, to make sure that children were feeling safe, that they were navigated through this process, and were sort of able to put the layers on it that they needed to put on it to get information out.
And I think if, this kind of comes to culture, if we're unable to, and I say this from my complexion, which I just have to acknowledge as well, if we're asking questions that we're not equipped to hear the answers to, then it's really disingenuous consultation and involvement.
I suppose the next step to that would be defining the question with families, communities, children. And I think we've heard some of that in Simone's examples with the hugs project as well. That wasn't a predetermined question, that question was defined by that community of children.
This reminds me, Dan, of a message that came through so clearly in this year's Reconciliation Symposium, which was that if consultation makes you comfortable, if it gets you the answers that you wanted all along, then you're probably not listening actually.
There's so much to talk about here, and so much more I'd like to ask, but we have about five minutes left in our main session, and I hope everyone will stick around for our informal conversation and keep talking.
Before we finish. I want to affirm that it's really a continuous source of inspiration to me the kind of incredible foundation for children's empowerment that educators across Australia create every day. And so I really hope in today's conversation we've communicated how sharing power with children, listening and responding to children's voices, it actually supports everything we do, and there's so much to celebrate in what we're doing already.
I'm also really really aware that our early childhood educators are under just such incredible pressure at the moment, and leaders too. And I don't want to finish without talking about educator wellbeing, and the support that our educators need to do this work successfully and joyfully.
So we're going to do a kind of a quick, lightning, whip around the table, and I actually want to think about this at different levels of the system. So, Dan, let's start with you again. How can our policies and our systems support educators to share power with children?
Thanks. I think about that in terms of the power that we were just talking about, and I think, an important first step is to think about where your power is, and where you can meaningly share that power and influence.
I think the other thing that sort of comes to mind at a policy systems level is governments at all levels are always asking questions of communities. They're doing it all the time.
And there are real opportunities in partnership with families and children to turn what children are interested in into action by engaging in these opportunities and making children's priorities visible in those processes.
And if you are interested in something, there's somebody that has influence in decision making power over that somewhere, so find them and make sure they hear from you and your children about your interests, and what children think.
Often fewer people respond to those requests for feedback than you might think. There's a real answer often that your voice will be heard.
Janet, let's talk about leaders. This is such a big question. But What can leaders do to support educators, to listen to all children's voices?
I really want to answer that. I also want to answer lots of other things. I do want to say, one thing that I think is really important in terms of participation around children. We are, we have to use our power to empower children. That's how we must use our power. And the way that we do that is that we acknowledge our dominant discourse, and we provide children with an opportunity to give us an alternative narrative. That is a form of democracy. We have to do that.
So we have to shush, and we have to provide space for an alternative narrative that comes from children, and that is their democracy. That is a place of choice. And democracy is important for children. They don't have social and political power, Dan's just talked to that. So that's a really important thing.
Going to educators - leaders, I think recognising individual contributions, acknowledging, and going back to what I said before, recognition. Recognition of the whole person that turns up for work every day. All of those, all of that person, what they bring, their differences, their biases, their language, their presentation. Recognise your staff as a leader. Recognise the people in the room that you're working with, and recognise their individual contribution to the group, to the environment that they're in.
I think the other thing that we can do as leaders; everybody has a leadership element in their work. Everybody, every role, has a leadership element. Attend to language with people. If you're curious with your staff and you attend to staff that you work with and lead, they're going to do that with the children.
So I really want to see less instructive, less directive language in the whole environment that we're in. Much more curious, attending language, like listening, watching, attending, commentating, and being curious. I think they're really important leadership skills, really, really important things to demonstrate and live, so that people have an experience of you as a leader that is interested, and being interested is really important. It's more important, than being "interesting".
It's part of that being seen for your whole self, right? Simone, let's finish with you. How can educators take care of their own wellbeing, which is so important as they do this work?
I think the first thing I want to say is, if we're stepping away from our homes, our family, our hobbies, our interests, five days a week to come to work. It should be a really good five days. So to come in with that mindset of, I'm committed to being here, so let's make it a really great next nine hours of my life, otherwise I'm not really engaged and present and wanting to be a part of this.
Doing this kind of work, and I think everyday work, it's not easy to challenge the everyday or the way things that already have been done. But it's far harder just to sit in this static place of begrudgingly working through a day in the way you've always done it, doing something you don't like over and over again.
It is harder and a bit more isolating to work in a space where children's voices and rights and ideas come first, but finding ways to be true to this vision and work towards it every day, even when we're challenged, it's when the good stuff happens. It's when you kind of connect to your work and really feel like you're a part of something.
I think, for managers, I spent most of my time in early childhood as either a centre manager, and now, in my role working across lots of different services, to really examine and know for yourself what is equality, and what is equity in your service?
If everyone's treated the same, is that fair to everybody? Is that giving everyone the support that they need? Or are we really talking about equity? Some people in our teams might need a five-minute check-in once a week. How're you going, great work, you're doing awesome, get on with it. But some people need a twenty minute check in every day. Some people need time with you in their room, holding their hand for six weeks to support them through something.
So I think, as a manager or a leader, really examining bias, equity, equality, what's really happening in your service, and just like we do with children, be brave, jump into that unknown space, and really start to examine what's happening. Examine power, examine bias, and really understand what your team need and how they need you.
It's such a great note to finish on, and it makes me think of the anti-bias curriculum model, and that really important place it carves out for children and educators as co-activists and change makers.
I want to extend a huge thanks to our incredible panel, to our team behind the scenes, and to everyone for coming to today's webinar, and for participating through the really active chat which has been fantastic. For those of us joining live, please feel free to stay on for our interactive conversation. For everyone else, thank you for joining us.
As you leave, you'll receive an invitation to a special, exclusive Spotlight session on children's empowerment with Paola and Blaire. So if you'd like to continue this conversation, as I certainly do, please sign up and join us then.
End of transcript
The voice of the child
Last updated: September, 2022