Promoting children’s participation: Tools for Early Childhood Education and Care professionals
As part of children’s rights, children’s participation is key to developing a culture of human rights, democracy, and rule of law. However, its implementation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) remains a challenge. The PARTICIPA project – Professional development tools supporting participation rights in early childhood education – aimed to tackle this by creating tools for supporting ECEC professionals (teachers, assistants, and coordinators) in the promotion of children’s participation both at the classroom and the center level. The tools provided by the project were developed to improve professionals’ knowledge, attitudes, and competences regarding children participation and were based on Lundy’s model of children’s participation. The tools were continuously improved based on qualitative data collected with ECEC professionals, and preliminary data of a feasibility study suggests that the tools have a positive effect on professionals’ beliefs, attitudes, and practices related to children participation and may contribute to mitigate seasonal variations in process quality, throughout the school year.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations General Assembly, 1989) establishes the right of all children to be heard and to have their views taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity (Article 12). Because children’s participation is key to developing a culture of human rights, democracy, and rule of law, young children’s active participation and decision-making in society must be protected and encouraged from an early age. Even though children’s right to participate is key to education quality, its implementation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings remains a challenge. PARTICIPA is an Erasmus+ funded project developed by a consortium composed of ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon, the Hellenic Open University, Odisee, University of Warsaw, Polytechnic Institute of Porto, and APEI. The PARTICIPA project used a multilevel professional development approach aiming to support ECEC professionals in providing high-quality ECEC, by strengthening their knowledge, attitudes, and competences to engage in constructive team work towards developing, implementing, and monitoring young children's participation in ECEC classrooms and centers. Between 2019 and 2022, the project worked with ECEC professionals in four different countries (Belgium, Greece, Poland, and Portugal) to develop tools that help promoting children’s participation in the classroom. In addition to ECEC teachers, PARTICIPA targeted ECEC assistants and ECEC professionals in leadership roles (coordinators), typically overlooked in professional development initiatives and resources. To achieve this, the project team based their views in a theoretical model specifically developed for children’s participation, and results seem promising.
Approach and Results
Cecília Aguiar, the project coordinator, is a researcher at the Center for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte). “The approach we adopted was based on Lundy’s model for children’s participation”, she explains. Indeed, Laura Lundy developed a model to conceptualize the Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The model considers children’s participation in four interplaying – and somewhat overlapping – elements:
Space (Children must be given safe, inclusive opportunities to form and express their views)
Voice (Children must be facilitated to express their views)
Audience (Children’s views must be listened to)
Influence (Children’s views must be acted upon, as appropriate)
In a paper recently published in The International Journal of Children’s Right, Nadine Correia and Cecília Aguiar, both researchers at CIS-Iscte, together with the PARTICIPA team, examined how to apply Lundy’s model specifically to ECEC contexts. They relied on information from ECEC professionals who engaged in good practices for promoting children’s participation, and aligned those with the four elements of the model. Nadine Correia highlights the interrelatedness of the model’s four elements, and further states that “by promoting children’s participation in the classroom, we may also promote their wellbeing”.
Concrete examples of children participation in the classroom include: children choose activities and play in which they want to participate; children choose the peers with whom they want to play and the materials they use in the activities; children make proposals of activities and play to the adults. Hence, instead of the adult being the unique responsible for the decision-making, the children are also involved in the process.
The PARTICIPA team further included the ECEC professionals’ testimonies collected during focus groups to build a massive open online course (MOOC) for other ECEC professionals. This freely available MOOC has different resources, including videos and suggestions for activities, and can be completed at professionals' own pace.
Additionally, PARTICIPA created three self-assessment tools aiming to support ECEC professionals in delivering high-quality ECE through reflection about their participatory practices at the classroom level (one for ECEC teachers and one for ECEC assistants) and based on organizational resources and supports (one for ECEC coordinators). These tools were designed to support professionals in enhancing participatory practices, based on their organization’s resources. They can be completed online, individually with immediate feedback; but also in a printable version, useful to reflect as a team.
Importantly, the PARTICIPA consortium tested the feasibility of the tools in nearly 40 ECEC centers across Belgium, Greece, Poland, and Portugal. In this study (not yet peer-reviewed), ECEC centers with an interest in using the PARTICIPA tools were randomly assigned to either an intervention or a control group. Both groups had ECEC teachers, assistants, and coordinators completing pre- and post-test questionnaires (including questions on participation beliefs and practices) and classroom observations (focusing on the extent to which children’s perspectives were considered). Critically, only the intervention group had immediate access to the self-assessment tools and the MOOC. The preliminary results of this study indicate that the intervention group (but not the control group) decreased decision-making by the adult, improved their beliefs and attitudes towards children’s participation, and promoted increased children’s choice. In sum, these results suggest that the tools provided by PARTICIPA may help increase children’s participation in ECEC contexts and may contribute to mitigate seasonal variations in process quality throughout the school year.
PARTICIPA has developed relevant tools to effectively promote ECEC professionals’ positive attitudes towards children’s participation in early education classrooms and centers. ECEC professionals that self-assessed their practices on children’s participation and had access to the MOOC resources (in comparison to those who did not) improved their beliefs, attitudes, and practices related to children’s participation. Hence, PARTICIPA provides tools for the support of ECEC professionals and institutions in achieving the goals proposed in the Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which refers to children’s right to participation. While PARTICIPA’s approach focuses a single framework on children’s participation (Lundy’s model), it is a broadly recognized one, both within practice and professional development approaches on children’s participation. PARTICIPA tools are an effective way to promote positive attitudes towards giving children space to voice their own views, while making sure they are taken into account (influence) by the appropriate audience.
Implications and Recommendations
By implementing the tools, ECEC professionals are expected to work together at the classroom and center level to promote children’s participation. Teachers and assistants may use the tools to reflect on their practices and how they can improve children’s participation in the classroom; and coordinators may reflect on how they can provide the resources to promote children’s participation in the institution and beyond.
In turn, children will learn they have a voice and their own views are important and will be heard. A child whose participation is respected will very likely be more participative in other contexts beyond the classroom, and grow up to be a more participative adult.
Participation is a children’s right and must be respected. ECEC contexts are ideal to promote children’s participation, even beyond the classroom. To achieve this, ECEC professionals and institutions must be prepared, through knowledge and positive attitudes regarding children’s participation, as well as the resources to give children opportunities to participate and have their views included in decision-making processes that affect them.
The tools are available for free, so virtually anyone can access them and benefit from them. Next steps will focus on maximizing their reach to ECEC professionals. Other target users could be future ECEC professionals (e.g., student teachers). Indeed, Cecília Aguiar and Nadine Correia mentioned the intention of two Portuguese higher education institutions to share these tools with their students in their internships.
Other efforts in disseminating PARTICIPA and its tools have already been made. For example, Nadine Correia participated in an episode of a podcast dedicated to different issues of children’s rights, As crianças importam. Cecília Aguiar also presented the project in 90 segundos de ciência, a Portuguese podcast aiming to disseminate scientific projects. In the project website other publications are available for download, including papers in education journals (in Portuguese), proceedings of conferences, and even a blog post in EaryYearsBlog.eu. The PARTICIPA team also contributes regularly to the blog Primeiros Anos, with evidence-based insights and reflections related to children’s participation in ECEC contexts.
Policy makers should also be informed on these issues and the importance of promoting children’s participation in ECEC contexts, which must be promoted at multiple levels, ensuring opportunities for reflection and sharing. Acknowledging and further testing the efficacy of the PARTICIPA tools across different ECEC institutions will have an impact for future generations with, hopefully, more participative generations.