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Children and adults need to be prepared emotionally and socially to fully accept and support child participation. This is because the usual cultural beliefs and expectations concerning the roles of children and adults can be challenged when children are given opportunities to participate. Often, adults have had personal experiences which shape their views and behaviour towards children. It is crucial to exchange harmful attitudes for positive new ideas about what is possible and appropriate for children to do and say.
The implementation of child rights in early childhood depends, from the adult perspective, on awareness, shared values, training and resources. As an adult living or working with young children I must first be aware that children too have rights and I must believe, integrate and reflect the concept and reality of 'children's rights' in my life. I may also need support in the form of training or resources to live and breathe a right's based approach within the context of the family, childcare service and the community. As Hindess (1993) proposes rights can only have meaning and significance where a citizen can command sufficient resources (mental as well as material) to exercise those rights. (Hindess, B. (1993) 'Citizenship in the Modern West' in Turner, B. S. (ed.) Citizenship and Social Theory. London: Sage).
A number of steps need to be taken before encouraging child participation in our communities and programs designed for children. This preparation involves ourselves as adults, the community, the children themselves and our organisation (the childhood settings).
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Adults wishing to facilitate child participation must learn to recognise every child's capacity to develop themselves and their world. They must also overcome their fears of giving increased opportunity, responsibility and influence to children - roles which have traditionally been held only by adults. This can take time. Ways to help adults prepare for participation are:
Address negative attitudes
Recognise and address any negative thoughts about, or views of, children, which may affect what adults expect of them. Be especially aware of commonly held negative views.
For example, 'Children don't know anything'.
As such views can become part of our culture, they are often held by individuals at subconscious, emotional levels. They can therefore be difficult to uncover. Spend time in honest reflection to identify any negative views. Think about how they might affect work with children and how those views might be exchanged with more accurate and positive ones. It can be helpful to think about what it was like to be a child and how adults responded to us, both positively and negatively.
Appreciate the individual
Negative experiences with children in the past can significantly affect adult attitudes to, and interactions with, children in the present. For example, perhaps experiences with children have resulted in disappointment or resentment. Each child is unique and deserves the chance to be seen as an individual without being compared with another. Do not allow previous experiences with children to affect how a new child or group of children are viewed or treated.
Focus on strengths
Perhaps the best way for an adult to prepare for child participation is to develop a deep respect and appreciation for the many talents, gifts and contributions of children. This can be very difficult for people who are used to directing and disciplining children, and who, as a result, may focus on faults and weaknesses. Looking for, and acknowledging, the creativity, resourcefulness and achievements of children in their daily lives will increase trust and confidence in their ability to cope with additional involvement and responsibility. Adults who concentrate on strengths and accomplishments allow and support children to participate more fully.
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Prepare the children
Participation requires children to share their ideas, opinions and feelings openly and honestly. We need to create an environment in which they feel safe and confident to do this before they can take action. Some ways of doing this are:
Develop positive relationships
Positive, trusting relationships between children and adults are important for genuine participation. They encourage open communication and supportive partnerships. Spend time developing positive relationships with children, beginning with fun games and activities that allow opportunities for light-hearted interaction. This creates shared memories that can help to strengthen future relationships. Allow space for meaningful conversations that will allow children and adults to get to know each other on a more personal level. Look for common interests and experiences that will encourage bonding.
Ideas for activities that help build relationships
_ Team sports such as football, volleyball or frisbee.
_ Short trips to museums, tourist sites and other fun places.
_ Group games, such as:
REPORTERS In pairs, the children give their names and other information about themselves to their partner. For example, what they had for breakfast, their favourite animal, food and so on. After two or three minutes everyone comes back together and reports what they found out about their partner to the group. This game can be used to introduce new people. Children can also be given a question to answer during their discussion to introduce an issue which will be discussed later in a session.
Children cannot respond meaningfully to social issues unless they are first given the opportunity to learn about, and understand, them. Ignorance is a barrier to participation, while knowledge can result in good participation. Take time to inform children of the issues affecting their lives by organising workshops or other learning events. Allow children to reflect on, and respond to, the information presented by sharing their views with each other in small groups, and later with adults. Peer education (child-to-child) is also an effective way for children to receive and exchange information and views with one another and become interested in social issues.
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Prepare the wider community
Culture and tradition can provide barriers to child participation. Children often provide childcare, labour and income in many households, but find it hard to share their views. Schools and churches may provide children with opportunities to participate in clubs, youth groups and other activities. However, these are usually designed for children rather than with them.
Effective ways to raise awareness in the community about the value of children's participation include:
_ Sharing the results of research undertaken by children with the community leaders
_ Inviting community leaders, parents, teachers, church leaders and other members of the community to an official opening or presentation made by the children for something that they have achieved together. Any activity designed for children must be developed in a participatory and learning approach between the adults and children jointly.
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Prepare the organisation (childhood settings)
If we want children to participate more in the communities in which we work and the programs we carry out, we may need to make changes within our organisation to ensure that our structures and staff support child participation.
The organisation should have a child protection policy in place before members of staff work with children. Ideally all members of staff who have contact with children during the course of their work should attend training about child protection.
In addition to child protection training, members of staff should be trained in how to communicate, and work in participatory ways, with children.
Decision making and organizational structure
By involving children, we will challenge the way the organisation makes decisions and manages its work. Decide how child participation will affect the way that the organisation makes policies, does advocacy work, recruits staff and reviews programmes.
Children's involvement in all these issues will ensure that the organisation becomes one that works with, rather than for, children.