Being seen as well as heard can transform children’s lives

Children need to get involved in classroom decisions that affect them, rather than just answering questions when prompted to do so. Thomas Mukoya /Reuters

Children thrive when they are allowed to get involved in making decisions and given space to ask questions about things that concern them. They learn to communicate well and believe in themselves. This is particularly true in a classroom setting.

The concept of participation is multi-dimensional and has been interpreted in many different ways. At its simplest, participation is about allowing children to get involved in making decisions that affect their own lives. For instance, this will involve the teacher giving children a say in how one area in a classroom should be set up.

But some teachers and other adults still believe that children should be seen rather than heard. Children are not encouraged to ask questions in class, or are urged to respond only to a teacher’s instructions.

How teachers view participation

In South Africa, Grade R – also known as the reception year – is the entry year into the foundation phase of primary schooling. Children are four or five when they enter Grade R.

There is a great deal of research which shows how valuable early childhood education is to overall learning and development. As with many countries’ school systems, the major focus in South Africa is on ensuring that children can be promoted to the following grade. This means that even in Grade R there is little or no emphasis on child participation. Instead, teachers are trying to prepare their young learners for entry into Grade 1.

Part of my research was into how Grade R teachers understood child participation and how – or if – it was implemented in their classrooms. Five Grade R teachers who worked at public and independent (private) schools in the Western Cape province were interviewed.

It was found that teachers’ beliefs about child participation are not standardised and universal. They are socially, culturally and contextually constructed. The context in which teachers grow up and their own memories of childhood have a bearing on their ideas on childhood, images of children and their notions of child participation.

It’s not just teachers who are reluctant to prioritise child participation. Some student teachers at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology told me they viewed child participation as a challenge or problem. They were worried that if they let children get more involved, discipline would suffer, especially in overcrowded classrooms. There are supposed to be 40 learners per teacher in primary schools, but in reality that figure is often far higher.

Most student teachers have also never seen what active child participation looks like during their teaching practice sessions. They struggle to imagine how it could be productive or constructive.

Children love to take charge

The children I observed showed the highest levels of participation during free play time, which is when they are given the chance to choose what they’d like to play with, and where.

They showed great agency, shaping their own agendas and displaying strong levels of assertiveness. They proved to be skillful negotiators and, through imaginative play, displayed strong levels of agency.

As soon as teachers were present, though, the adults took on an instructive role, made decisions and expressed their opinions. The teachers didn’t see the value of and the rich meanings that emanated from the children’s participation.

Initially I hoped to talk to children about what they liked and disliked and what they were doing, but this proved to be difficult. This has led me to think about new ways of researching with children in future endeavours.

Where to from here

This research makes it clear that a paradigm shift is needed. Teachers need to listen to their young learners and value their opinions. Children must have the space to make decisions about issues that affect them. These imperatives are already enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which South Africa is a signatory.

If this paradigm shift occurs it will enhance learning and this can ultimately help shape a new citizenry. It will also bring South Africa into line with the approaches of countries like New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Portugal. They are all serious advocates of listening to children and subscribe to ways of teaching that encourage participation.

This can only happen if teachers are trained to improve their approach to teaching. They must learn what child participation actually means and how to invite it into their classrooms. It’s also important that parents embrace the concept of participation and come to understand how it can help their children to learn and develop.