25 SES 11 A, Children's right to participation - Early Childhood Education
The objective of this presentation is to explore children’s participation in decision-making processes in selected ECEC institutions in Poland and England. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children the right to express freely their views on matters that concern them, and to have these views taken seriously. This right extends to children of all ages, including the youngest ones (UN CRC 2009). It also applies to all settings, including educational institutions, such as nurseries and preschools (George 2009; Danner and Jonynienė 2012).
Theoretical underpinnings of the project discussed in this presentation include the rights perspective on children’s decision-making, where children are seen as subjects of rights capable of expressing their views and communicating with others, and active citizens here and now (Korczak 2017), engaged in different forms of participation in their reality (Thomas 2007; Wyness 2001; James 2011; Earls 2011; Lansdown 2005; 2001; Larkins 2014). Crucially for our study, it has also been recognized that children’s decision-making (and participation more generally) is dependent on the possibilities created for them by adults (James 2011; Lundy 2007; Lansdown 2001), which, in turn, is linked to their perception of children (Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence 2006).
Our presentation draws on findings from a larger research project carried out by one of us in Polish and English ECEC establishments and aimed at exploring both the ways in which teachers and children conceptualized children’s decision-making, and the practice of decision-making in everyday life of an ECEC settings, with a view to identifying similarities and differences in the two national contexts. In this presentation we intend to focus on the possibilities for and limits to children’s involvement in decision-making processes in Polish and English ECEC institutions. In exploring this issue, we juxtapose, first, the perceptions of children and adults (as expressed in interviews) and, second, the discourse and practice of children’s involvement in decision-making (by drawing on interviews and observations) in order to identify possible discrepancies and overlaps. Examining the teachers’ discourse, we are particularly interested in identifying the ways in which teachers justify their decisions concerning the scope and kind of decisions that children are allowed to make. Moreover, we examine how the teachers’ discourse and practice of creating decision-making opportunities for children reflects their perceptions of the child.
The assumption that we make is that by comparing two distinct national contexts, with one being relatively foreign to us, we would be better equipped to bring to light different kind of factors (ideological, organizational, material, etc.) that contribute to restricting children’s decision-making opportunities. Such a cross-cultural perspective on thinking about the child and childhood (here in the context of participation) can be useful for gaining a broader view on the position of the child in the “adult world.” It opens up the possibility to move beyond attributing children’s restricted participation predominantly to local cultural factors and to see the impact of ideologies traveling across different national context. At the same time, the identification of factors specific to a setting in a given national context and made visible through the cross-cultural comparison, will allow us to formulate recommendations for practice. This, in turn, may be of relevance to ECEC in other contexts.
The empirical material used as the basis for this comes from a comparative research project on children’s decision-making in ECEC, carried out in a preschool in a large Polish city and a nursery and reception class in a small town in northern England. The fieldwork lasted between 7-10 days in each institution. In order to obtain a multi-faceted and nuanced understanding, a variety of approaches were used that enabled access to the perspectives of different participants. Research methods included observation, interviews with teachers and selected participatory methods from the Mosaic approach (Clark and Moss 2011): children’s photographs, child-led tours, map making, child interviews and “magic carpet.” The number of children participating in the project varied from 10 to 22, depending on the setting. One teacher, working directly with the participating children, was interviewed in each setting while additional adults were observed. The interviews with the teachers were semi-structured and focused on three issues: the perception of the child and child-adult relationship; children’s decision-making; teachers’ inspirations for working with children. The child interview questionnaire included questions related to categories such as: decision-making, choice, likes, wants, grown-ups. The observation protocol included categories related to children’s decision-making, such as meals, naps, bathroom use, teacher-initiated activities, playground time, solving conflicts, etc. The collected material was coded using deductive coding, guided by pre-established categories. Categories and areas of decision-making were identified based on previous observations in early childhood settings. These categories included, among others: choosing (“you have to do something, but you can decide how”), choice with consequence (“you can do something, but...”), child initiative, self-determination. The areas of decision-making referred, among others, to: meals, rest, play, bathroom use, relationships with others, structured activities. Additionally, inductive coding was performed. The data were analyzed in such a way so as to determine the similarities and differences between the perspectives of different groups (children, teachers and the researcher) and the institutions in the two national contexts. The research was carried out in line with the principles of ethical research conduct, with consent obtained from all participants.
The research shows that despite the differing national contexts, children’s participation in decision-making is restricted in all settings. First, as observations and interviews with teachers and the children demonstrate, children can typically make decisions only within a framework predefined by an adult and need to obtain an adult’s permission to act on their decisions. Moreover, certain decisions are an outcome of an adult’s failure to impose her will rather than of children’s exercising their rights. Second, free time is where children have most opportunities for making decisions concerning themselves, while having little influence on significant dimensions of everyday life such as time management, participation in teacher-initiated activities, rules or behavior considered acceptable (indicated by observations, interviews and photographs taken by children). Third, in all settings teachers position themselves as authority figures and resort to punishment and means of extrinsic motivation to impose their will. Moreover, the comparison of children’s and adults’ perspectives reveals that teachers perceive the scope of children’s decision-making opportunities as considerably larger than children do. The comparison of the two contexts testifies to the dependence of children’s decision-making on resources available to children, e.g. the organization of space, access to materials etc., which reflects the adopted teaching approach. Thus, the scope of children’s decision-making was visibly larger in the English settings than in the Polish one. Finally, a discrepancy between the teachers’ declared image of the child and that enacted in observed practice was identified. While the former included perceiving the child as a Levinas’ Other who needs to be respected (Dahlberg and Moss 2004), the teachers’ practice revealed their adherence to those constructions in which children appear incompetent and in need of protection, i.e., as innocent and fragile or as an empty vessel (Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence 2006), which restricts treating them as capable decision makers.
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