Early childhood

How children describe their role in organising the materials in a kindergarten classroom

Early childhood teachers have many roles in a classroom – mentor, therapist, nurse, scientist, and judge, to name a few – but one of the main roles is teaching the foundational skills through organising and providing resources in the classroom space.

Recent research indicates that teachers have the predominant role in organising early childhood classrooms in Australia, but there is a growing body of research investigating the role of children in organising the kindergarten classroom. I wanted find out more about how young children are involved.

We do know that participation or involvement of children in organising their learning environment has a positive effect on their sense of belonging, behaviour, learning and development. This could be true for children of all ages but particularly so for young children experiencing their earliest encounters with learning spaces.

I wanted to specifically research how children describe their role in organising the materials in the indoor kindergarten classroom space in the Queensland, Australia context.

The challenges of organising such a classroom are real for teachers. In Queensland kindergarten classrooms there are usually two teachers in the room educating up to 22 children with a play-based curriculum daily. Teachers have to organise learning activities with a range of resource materials, including furniture, and be compliant. So, what is required of teachers in the approved learning frameworks to be compliant?

Requirements of children’s participation in classroom organisation

In Queensland the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) provides kindergarten teachers with a guide for their teaching practice, programming and the facilitation of children’s learning. It emphasises that children play an active role in planning and organising their own learning. Also, according to the Australian Government’s Early Years Learning Framework, teachers ‘can encourage’ the participation of children and families to contribute their insights and ideas about the early learning space. But neither of these suggestions mean that this will happen or that children participating in organising their classrooms will be taken seriously and valued.

Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also requires children’s perspectives to be heard and taken seriously on matters affecting them. Literature has referred to Article 12 and the right to participate in many ways, but I have identified two categories (which should not be taken as exhaustive):

  1. Participation: the process of sharing dialogue and listening to children,
  2. Active participation: children making decisions

There is an increase in research showing how children’s perspectives are heard in the classroom space, however more is needed. My study aims to add to this field.

My Study

I used a sociomaterial and spatiality theory. (For details please see my full paper). This theory had me think of the classroom and the things in it as having an influence and transforming educational practice. In a nutshell, I considered how the materials (resources, learning activities (closed/open- ended), furniture, equipment, and utensils), children, teachers and the kindergarten space influences and transforms children’s ability to organise the space.

My study was conducted in a kindergarten setting within a childcare centre in Brisbane, Queensland. Six children conducted child-led tours describing their role in organising the classroom and then discussed their tours in a follow-up video-stimulated recall interview.

Child-led tours are a participatory tool for research, as it is a method where children lead the data collection and does not rely solely on children’s verbal abilities but draws on their non-verbal abilities. During the child-led tour, the researcher asked each child questions, such as ‘what do you put in here?’ and ‘do you play with it?’. One educator was present in the room at the time. Child-led tours were conducted while other children were playing outside to minimise their being captured in the video recording.

Dingo’s number line

I noted one specific departure from the expected organisation processes. Dingo, one of the six children in my study, indicated during the child-led tour and video-stimulated recall interviews, that he had set up a number line. Sandy, Dingo’s teacher, in an informal conversation with me, spoke about the number line being something that she and Dingo had created together. The creation of Dingo’s number line resulted in him taking ownership of it, as he reinforced the rules to children about using it.  For example, he told them, “Don’t step on it because it’s still dry”.

Dingo making the number line was unexpected as we know research suggests teachers usually have the main organisation role. However, Dingo showed that he had a role in the category of participation where he was involved in creating the number line and his participation was taken seriously by his teacher.  So his participation aligns with Queensland’s Kindergarten Learning Guidelines and the Early Years Learning Framework where early childhood teachers are encouraged to work with children to design and plan the classroom space. (For more details of Dingo’s number line please see my full paper)

Recommendations from my study

A crucial implication of this study is the amount of child involvement and the ‘hearing’ of their voices about the processes and practices of organising a kindergarten classroom. A strong breadth of literature supports the importance of involvement of children in the classroom, with children having the immediate right to be heard, taken seriously, and given due weight on matters that affect them.

A review of the literature suggests that a teacher’s decision to involve children in the classroom is influenced by the large educator-to-child ratios, the perceptions teachers have on children, the lack of support in facilitating children’s verbal and non-verbal languages and the little acknowledged phenomenon that non-human materials and the early learning space have an effect on practice.

Contrary to studies finding that educators have the predominate role in organising the classroom, a child in my study described that he clearly participated in the organisation of his classroom by constructing his number line.

Hear the children

I believe there is a need for researchers, educators, and organizations to hear, through different modes, the views of children.

This qualitative study, and the use of child-led tours and video-stimulated recall interviews, proved a successful measure of investigating how young children describe their role in organising the indoor kindergarten classroom. More research is needed to further under children and their interactions with non-human material to organise their early learning space

Due to the long period of time required to conduct research, the researcher recommends conducting workshops with teachers (in kindergartens, childcare centres), leaders (director, educational leader) and pre-service teachers in ways to discuss how children’s voices can be and are involved in organising their early learning spaces. Participating teachers would be networking and learning from each other.

Finally, it is emphasised by the inclusion of children in research, as seen in this study, children are capable and competent to interpret their world. The decisions made in how a classroom is organised and, with the use of a research story, any feedback about the daily operation of an early learning setting in a kindergarten classroom, can be investigated.

For those who want more detail Children’s participation in the organisation of a kindergarten classroom

 

Evangeline Manassakis is a research assistant for Griffith University in Queensland. She completed the Master of Philosophy (Education) that investigated children’s involvement in the organisation of the kindergarten classroom. Evangeline received for her study the Jean Ferguson Memorial Award and was made the runner up for Outstanding Thesis Award 2020. Her current research interests include children’s voice, classroom design and organisation, spaces, participatory methodology and design, Rights of the Child.

Early childhood help for children of deployed military personnel

One parent shared with me that she was told ‘You’re just on your own until they go to school. There’s nothing out there’. She was part of my research project to find out what 2-5-year old children understand and experience when their parent worked away due to military deployment and training.

During the project many other parents and early childhood educators repeated this problem, telling me about the lack of resources. They told me they wanted storybooks and apps for children from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families to help them understand and build resilience to deal with the stresses they face.

These stresses include: long parental deployments, frequent parental training, frequent relocations and a parent who may get injured or suffer mental health conditions when they return. Children can react to parental deployment in many ways, including  emotionally, socially, physically and in their learning and development (cognitively).

The responses are shown in the infograph below, however, many families are able to use supports around them and adapt and try to cope in different ways.

Early childhood programs

During the research project, the activities I did with the children involved reading them storybooks I had created about defence families. These were used as a springboard to start group chats, artwork, craftwork, raps, puppet play and role play that focussed on their experiences, understandings and feelings about their parent working away.

During the project, an educator said, ‘I want programs like this in all the early childhood services and schools to help the children cope’, referring to the research activities. ‘It helps the children to be able to understand and verbalise what is upsetting them, rather than just whining and crying’.

Our first efforts

To begin to address this need, I published online, two research-based eBooks  for free, called ‘Waiting for Daddy: Rose’s story’ and ‘Now that I am big: Anthony’s story’.

Click on the image to access the free e-book
Click on the image to access the free e-book

Another parent had requested I create an app, saying her daughter had used a US app about military families which the daughter really enjoyed, but the parent said it was not culturally appropriate for Australian children because the context and uniforms were quite different. So, one of the eBooks was chosen to be developed into a free app for iPads. To do this, I joined with an early childhood technology specialist,  Dr Jo Bird, an IT technician, Raph Roberts and a media designer, Trish Donald from the University of New England (UNE) to create ‘Rose’s story’ app.

Click on the image to access the free iPad app

To support early childhood educators, I also published newsletter articles to communicate ideas to  partner with parents when they work away, and how to use various activities to gather the voices of very young children, as I had done in the research project.

For parents, I also published academic media articles about ways to support young children when they have a parent who works away. To further support military families, I published a recommendations report for policy makers, educators, family workers, social workers, and education liaison officers within the ADF.

A bigger response

After these efforts, I decided a more coordinated approach was needed and put together an educational research team, combined with a support team of technicians, digital media learning designers and parent, educator, research and community volunteers, with plans to create 2 free, online programs.

One program will be for educators and another for parents to support 2-5-year old children from defence families (see here for details). Our project then received funding from The Ian Potter Foundation and in-kind funding from the University of New England.

Timelines

We will be creating the programs in 2020 and early 2021, then trialling and evaluating them in 2021-2022. This will involve piloting the programs with parents and educators in early childhood services near navy, army and airforce bases. To register your interest in being involved in these control trials, please email us at ecdefenceprograms@une.edu.au . Once we refine the programs and resources, they will be released for free online by February 2023 in order to better support these young children to build resilience and have the opportunity to flourish.

Can you give us some ideas?

To make sure we create the best programs we can, we are asking educators who have experience working with children whose parents work away and parents from families who experience a parent working away to share some of the strategies with us. We are also asking them to let us know what topics they would like to see covered in the programs and which types of resources they would like the children to use.

There is also a place for feedback on the website for any community suggestions or comments. Please join with us to help make this project a success.

Marg Rogers is a Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education team within the School of Education at the University of New England, Armidale. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5 year olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families. The programs are to assist them with parental separation during deployment and training and when the parents return with injuries and mental health conditions. She also researches professionalism in early childhood, creative arts education in early childhood and works with Dr Jo Bird in researching early childhood technologies.

Personal photos in images are supplied by defence families and ADF personnel

Hear our voices: growing up with speech, language and communication needs

In kindy, I was very sad for most of the time. Nobody could understand me, so they didn’t want to talk to me…Sometimes I would cry a lot…I was angry because I was being teased and nobody liked me…I didn’t like school… I couldn’t help anyone because nobody could understand my stupid words…I really hated being different…I used to think in my head a lot, but then I couldn’t answer questions. So I just daydreamed most of the time…
[K*, year 3, submission 99, Australian Senate Inquiry]

This is the life experience of a child with speech, language and communication needs; a life where words are hard to say and harder still for others to understand, where reading and writing are a challenge due to a compromised oral language system upon which such skills are based, where developing friendships is difficult as the core skill needed for socialisation (communication) is impaired, where expressing thoughts and contributing ideas to classroom discussions is restricted, not for lack of ideas, but due to one’s own capacity to express them, where misunderstandings are a way of life and feeling sad, left out and different are an everyday experience.

We might like to think that such experiences are rare; that only children with extreme communication needs feel such impacts. But the research suggests otherwise. Findings from the Sound Effects Study and the Sound Start Study, two large scale investigations of child speech disorders, conducted by researchers at Charles Sturt University indicate that the presence of speech, language and communication needs in the early childhood and school years is of greater concern to parents and teachers than almost any other area of developmental need, and that the prevalence of these concerns is high.

Speech, language and communication needs comprise a range of difficulties that affect a child’s ability to produce and/or understand spoken or written messages. Speech (articulation or phonological) disorders involve difficulty processing, planning or producing speech sounds (ranging from lisps to unintelligible speech). Language disorders can involve difficulties with vocabulary, grammar or social skills, and may be expressive (affect language production) or receptive (affect comprehension).

Why teachers and preschools need support

Analysis of data gathered in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, an ongoing investigation of child development in our country, indicated almost one in four parents were concerned about how their preschool child talked and made speech sounds. Analysis of data from the Sound Start Study revealed more parents were concerned about their preschool child’s talking than their motor or social-emotional development.

Also data from primary and secondary teachers in Sydney showed that “communication disorders” was the second highest area of learning need, and the area they identified as requiring the greatest learning support among children in their classes.

It is no wonder teachers recognised a need for support. The relationship between early communication difficulties and later social and academic challenges has been widely demonstrated. From delays in acquiring literacy skills, to the need for more remedial support; from difficulties making friends, to the presentation of challenging behaviours; from feelings of disconnection from school to higher rates of dropping-out – the research is clear: communication skills are essential for school success, and the impairment of such skills can have significant, negative and ongoing consequences.

What is missing in the way we have been dealing with these issues?

Unfortunately, sometimes the actual stories of those who have experienced speech and/or language disorders and the consequences of those disorders can get lost amidst the “data”, “analysis” and “research”. We can be so focused on investigating the extent of an issue in the population, or the community, that we forget to consider the extent of the issue for an individual or family.

I feel we are being lulled into a sense of having done enough by simply conducting these broad-brush investigations. There is a clear danger that research can become detached from the people who experience the very issue that we’re investigating, and this can lead to a failure in responsive action to address those people’s needs.

It is my concern that this is what happened when the Australian Senate conducted a National Inquiry in 2013 to explore the prevalence of speech, language, and communication disorders and speech pathology services in Australia. There were 305 submissions to the Inquiry from researchers, organisations, and institutions, but also from children with speech, language and communication needs, and their parents, as well as adults with a history of these needs. Their stories of living with additional communication needs are informative and insightful, at times uplifting and at other times heart-breaking.

Our research showed the views of those experiencing difficulties

My colleagues and I accessed the 288 submissions that were publicly available, and then conducted a qualitative analysis of those that had been submitted by children and adults with a history of speech, language and communication needs, to gain an understanding of their experiences.

One child in year 2 wrote, “When I was in kinder I was sad when I was talking and reading” and another in year 3 noted, “How I feel when I come to school is I feel left out in the playground”. Adults recalled similar difficulties with socialisation at school: “I can remember spending every lunch time sitting by myself because no one will even try to talk to me”.

They reflected on being misunderstood: “I may have had no speech but I was really quite smart” and “They treat me like I’m mentally challenged and incapable of doing any meaningful work and earning an income”. However, they also reflected on their own feelings of inadequacy caused by being “different”: “I always thought I was dumb”. They described their frustration at not being able to “Say anything right” or “explain what was going on in my head”, and they described the “years of holding back from showing the real you”.

Thankfully, some had received intervention, support or informal help, and this had been useful. Yet, as one adult commented “my life would have been very different if my disorder had been picked up earlier”. And this was echoed by others. There was a sense that help was not provided at times due to a lack of awareness and understanding about speech, language and communication needs. One wrote “Communication issues are invisible in the classroom unless you have a trained eye”. Thus, there was a sense of needing to support teachers to see what was “hidden”.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to communication (“freedom of opinion and expression”) is stipulated in Article 19 of the Declaration. Yet, for many children in Australia the right to communication is constrained by their lack of an effective means to communicate. The presence of speech, language and communication needs means those children are not free to express themselves and to be understood. Furthermore, their impaired communication leads to a constraining of other rights, such as the right to education.

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“… every individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and…to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance …”

The research outlined here is reported in an open access paper written by my colleagues and me, and published in a special issue of the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology dedicated to Article 19 of the UDHR. It is our hope that having investigated the prevalence of communication disorder in Australia, and sought the views of those who experience these difficulties, the Government, and indeed all of us, may now act on what has been uncovered, and listen to the voices of those who are typically the least likely to be heard.

 

Dr Jane McCormack is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

 

 

 

NOTE: on 29th May 2018 the Government announced its response to the inquiry recommendations. Find it here

Toddler risky play: how we got up the research project and what we found

It isn’t often you see the terms ‘teacher research’ and ‘toddler risky play’ in the one sentence. So you can imagine we gained some media attention when we did.

Of course mainstream media focused on what we were doing with toddler risky play (more about that later) but this was just one part of a larger research project undertaken by the University of Newcastle and local early childhood centres. 

It all began with the ‘pedagogista’

The project began when Melissa Duffy-Fagan, a Newcastle early childhood centre Director, approached University of Newcastle Associate Professor, Linda Newman, to discuss the possibility of engaging with the university to institute the role of ‘pedagogista’ in her centre. This concept is drawn from work in Reggio Emilia in Italy, where early childhood centres have educational learning leaders as part of their team to support and mentor staff in their work with children, families and the community.

The original idea of establishing a pedagogista role was extended to invite four local early childhood long day care centres to join in collaboratively with Linda Newman and fellow researcher, Nicole Leggett, in designing and running a year-long practitioner research project that had the dual intentions of professional learning (approved by the NSW Education Standards Authority as professional development hours) and research.

The group decided to embed the two core concepts of Intentional Teaching and critical thinking within the project design. In some ways, the network members therefore shared the role of pedagogista, supporting and mentoring each other in their research journeys.

The research consisted of two main parts. The first was the university-focused research about the educators’ experiences and perceptions within a networked and extended professional learning situation. This research examined professional identities and growth, knowledge of core project concepts and views about professional learning. The second was locally specific action research designed and implemented by each of four centres, with two projects focused on adult learning and change, and two focused on children:

  • Centre 1: Intentional Strategies for Team Collaboration: Building Trust through Professional Connection (examination of how critical thinking facilitates intentional strategies for team collaboration).
  • Centre 2: Taking a Risk with Risk Competence (Toddler and pre-schooler risky play).
  • Centre 3: Enhancing teaching practice and children’s learning opportunities: Examining educators’ understandings of their program roles (Examining roles and responsibilities in a family-grouped long day care centre).
  • Centre 4: Strengthening transition to school: Insights into adult and child perspectives (Examining the shift from early childhood centre to school).

Over the period of a year the group ran two conferences, held four leadership roundtable workshops and engaged in centre visits to mentor the research.

Risky Play in Early Childhood

Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool (Centre 2) undertook their research on the topic of young children’s risky play. Kate Higginbottom, the Director of the centre, pulled together a team of highly experienced and diversely qualified educators; Katie Carrington, Gemma Helm, Kelly Hennessy and April Wood as the project leadership team. They set out to plan, implement and report on their research within a partnership involving the university and the early learning service.

As well as engaging in the initial University of Newcastle professional learning sessions, the project team regularly met and unpacked the service core values to establish a need or interest as the basis for their research question.

Risk in early childhood is a controversial, yet inevitable part of a child’s life and it is particularly controversial when we consider risky play as a part of early education curriculums. Children are innate risk- based learners and need to experience risk to know how to manage it.

As the Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool provides a service that strongly values a ‘risk based philosophy’ to children’s learning and play, rather than avoiding risk, educators at the centre unanimously agreed that their research question should be focused on the inclusion of risky play: “How do risk focused interventions impact upon children’s risk competence?”

Reflecting on the project’s core concepts of critical thinking and intentional teaching, the team aimed to focus on how intentionally teaching and prompting children to engage in risk would impact on their perception, assessment and management of risk. Data generation was grounded in Sandseter’s six categories of risky play and centre educators set out to understand what intentional teaching strategies were already used.

These include:

  1. Play at Great Heights
  2. Play with High Speed
  3. Play with Dangerous Elements
  4. Play Rough and Tumble
  5. Lost/ Disappear
  6. Play with Dangerous tools

After collecting and analysing initial data, a change plan was implemented over a six-week period. This included professional learning about risky play for educators, providing additional spaces and resources to promote risky play and the conscious use of intentional teaching and sustained shared thinking between educators and children.

Following the analysis of the second data set it was determined that:

  • Educators’ confidence in risky play improved, which in turn provided a significant increase in the amount of risky play opportunities children were exposed to.
  • Children used more language associated with risk assessment and risk management when reflecting on the risky play.
  • Children were engaged more often and autonomously, with a significant decrease in physical and verbal support required by educators and therefore an increase in children’s risk competency.
  • Following an unintentional gender prejudice identified in initial data, an increase in girls’ participation was seen and therefore challenged gender bias for a more balanced curriculum of risky play.
  • We know through the underpinnings of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory that social and cultural contexts greatly influence children’s learning and here the service observed increased incidences of children working together to solve problems and best manage risks. For example the team observed children reminding one another to remove their socks when climbing as it may be too slippery and having feet exposed to allow them to ‘stick’ to the climbing object.

So children at the centre had increased their competence to undertake risky play. Their language around safety and risk had increased and more girls were undertaking challenges outside.

The centre team increased their intentional teaching about risk and safety, and agreed that these successes had been achievable because they had been given the space and guidance to choose their own professional learning topic, and to engage in a sustained research project in which they had autonomy and agency. The participating educators say they now feel stronger and more capable as professionals and committed to embedding research into their ongoing practice.

Our work will be presented at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association Conference in Italy in August 2017

 

Linda Newman (Dip. T (EC); B.Ed (EC); M.Ed (Hons); Ed.D.) has worked in the early childhood profession in various capacities for over 30 years. She is currently a Conjoint Associate Professor at The University of Newcastle and Early Childhood Inclusion Advisor at Northcott. Career highlights have included the development of among the first early childhood intervention services in NSW; co-authorship of The Ethical Response Cycle; membership of the Futuro Infantile Hoy (Children’s Futures Today) community capacity building team in poor communities in Chile; and collaborative leadership of Research Connections, an early childhood research network in Newcastle. Linda is co-author of Working with  children and families: Professional, legal and ethical issues and Practitioner Research: International Issues and Perspectives. Research interests in recent years have included teacher professional learning, early childhood teacher workforce issues and early literacy. 

 

Kate Higginbottom has been in the early childhood profession for over 12 years, the last 10 of which she has been a Centre Director, working across diverse long day care settings from private, to organisational and now the community based sector. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood) from the University of New England and qualifications in training and assessment. Kate currently manages the operation Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool in collaboration with a voluntary management committee. She also supports other early education and care services as a consultant, with a particular forte in quality governance and leadership. Kate has worked in a number of advisory roles including on the Early Childhood and Primary External Advisory committee for University of Newcastle and the Queensland Workforce Council PSCQ for the Gold Coast.