“My Magical Garden”: A mindfulness intervention for teachers working with children experiencing challenges around anxiety, stress and self-regulation – exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, school closures and ‘curriculum catch-up’.

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In this article Katrina Diamond, a Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood at UWE, writes about an evidence-based mindfulness intervention, with primary aged children, based on the book “My Magical Garden” by Jacqui Gray and Terri Allen (2008).

The number of adults, and children, with mental health issues, stress, anxiety and fatigue is stark (Baker, 2021, Pitchforth et al., 2019).

Having experienced a serious illness five years ago I became very aware of mindfulness and meditation practices and the benefits of these holistic practices for health and wellbeing- not least the de-activation of the stress response (Selye, 1946; Neylan, 1998; McLaughlin et al., 2015)

Mindfulness has a growing evidence base (Kabat-Zinn, 2017; Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2015) for utilisation in educational settings (Hyland 2014; Vickery and Dorjee, 2016; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015) as a means of managing stressful elements of school life. The lack of opportunity for creativity in the school curriculum currently and a lack of time for wellbeing and pastoral care, exacerbated by the unprecedented impact on education from a global pandemic, has placed children under increasing pressure, in an educational environment dominated by an instrumental curriculum in a neo-liberal landscape (Graham et al., 2011; Ball, 2016; Keddie, 2016).

The study involved researching an evidence-based mindfulness intervention in the form of a book entitled “My Magical Garden” (Gray and Allen, 2008).

I was lucky enough to meet the author of the book – Jacqui Gray – at a networking event and have been inviting her to my classes to introduce My Magical Garden to as many people as possible, ever since. Jacqui is passionate about her work with children and young people and her strapline is “every child has the right to confidence”. I agree, and with so many of our children currently lacking this due to many factors-not least the enforced isolation throughout the pandemic- it is more important than ever (Loades et al., 2020; Urbina- Garcia, 2021; Irwin et al., 2022)

Jacqui and I undertook a 6-month trial with a primary school in Essex during and after lockdown- using the Magical Garden as a means of reintegrating the children back into school when the pressures of the curriculum were dominating

The focus was on supporting children through two lockdowns, resulting from the pandemic, who were struggling with self- regulation and demonstrating behaviour that frequently resulted in exclusions from the classroom. The study also sought to support teachers and learners by offering a practical intervention that would help to manage the interrelationships between teacher- learner relationships and self-regulation by developing those relationships through support for learners with managing their own behaviour in the classroom and wider school environment generally (Cadima et al., 2016).

The book employs a combination of mindfulness and guided visualisation techniques, encouraging the children to use their imaginations to build their garden, choosing the people, animals, natural features and objects they wish to take in with them and then exploring “the magic that happens” as a result (Gray and Allen, 2008).

This article looks into the psychological and physiological processes involved in the acts of mindfulness and guided imagery and seeks to show the importance of children’s self-efficacy, (Bandura, 1977, 1986) introducing them to their own internal, self-regulation toolkit, that they can use whenever the world is too difficult for them.

The link between mindfulness and guided visualisation, self- regulation and the stress response is physiological and involves the stimulation of the vagal nerve (Tracey, 2002). The vagal nerve runs between the brain stem and the abdomen and reaches out to all of our major organs along the way. It is instrumental in the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, in particular, in keeping us in the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” nervous system and a more optimal learning state, than the sympathetic or “fight, flight or freeze” system responsible for the stress response in times of danger (Kelye, 1956; Tracey, 2002). When this is activated, the stress signals impair prefrontal cortex functioning, where all of our self-regulatory and inhibitory skills reside, as in that moment, survival is all that matters. The vagal nerve does this through the release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “love” hormone, playing a key role in childbirth but also possessing powerful anti- stress effects (Moberg and Petersson, 2022; Porges, 1998). The higher our vagal tone, the more oxytocin we release, the more empathetic we are, the greater our self-regulation and the more socially competent we become (Erath and Tu, 2015). The vagus nerve is like a muscle- regular daily exercising of this through deep breathing, guided visualisation and meditation, and connections with loved ones and peers, will increase vagal tone (Gerritson and Band, 2018). Importantly, in terms of schooling, high quality interactions between the teacher and the learner, particularly socially disadvantaged learners, promote the development of higher cognitive and self-regulatory skills, which calls into question the efficacy and impact of digital or virtual lessons, employed throughout the pandemic, in the development of vagal tone (Kok et al., 2013; Cadima et al., 2015; Urbina- Garcia, 2020).

The intervention took place over six-months in 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic and enforced school closures. The intervention was conducted online with a trauma-informed primary school in Essex involving 31, Year 4 learners- 15 girls and 16 boys- the pastoral and wellbeing lead teacher, their classroom teacher and a group of parents. A second year 4 group not receiving the intervention acted as a control group. Initial workshops with the children, teaching and pastoral team and parents, were delivered by the author of “My Magical Garden” training them on the techniques used in the delivery of the intervention. The teachers and parents then reproduced the techniques with the children, regularly over a 6-month period and increasingly as a means of reintegrating the children into the school environment after the second lockdown.

Research methods to ascertain the impact of the intervention involved interviews with the pastoral lead and the class teacher, over 6 months, using a list of questions that explored the use and success of “My Magical Garden” and aligned with the school’s objectives. The final focus group engaged all the children in the class receiving the intervention, in a remote, one hour, zoom question and answer session, to ascertain their feelings around their use of “My Magical Garden”.

Thematic analysis (Clarke and Braun, 2017) elicited key themes across the research questions and focus groups and concluded that children, parents and teachers felt that “My Magical Garden” is a tool that helps to reduce anxiety, promote self-regulation, increase productivity and provide a safe place for children away from the pressures of school and the curriculum. “My Magical Garden” enabled the children to engage actively with their own imagination and creativity to navigate their school and home lives. From the teachers’ perspectives, the development of positive relationships, help with behavioural issues experienced within the group, and the resulting zero exclusion rate, proved to be invaluable. 

References

Baker, C. (2021). NHS key statistics: England, October (2019). House of Commons Library. [Online] available at; https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06988/SN06988.pdf accessed 20th Feb 2022.

Ball, S.J. (2016.) Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education14(8), pp.1046-1059.

Bandura, A. (1977) Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavior change. Psychological Review. 84. 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Cadima, J., Verschueren, K., Leal, T. and Guedes, C. (2016). Classroom interactions, dyadic teacher–child relationships, and self–regulation in socially disadvantaged young children. Journal of abnormal child psychology44(1), pp.7-17.

Clarke, V and Braun, V. (2017) Thematic analysis, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:3, 297-298

Erath, S.A. and Tu, K.M. (2014). Peer stress in preadolescence: Linking physiological and coping responses with social competence. Journal of Research on Adolescence24(4), pp.757-771.

Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

Graham, A., Phelps, R., Maddison, C. and Fitzgerald, R. (2011). Supporting children’s mental health in schools: Teacher views. Teachers and Teaching17(4), pp.479-496.

Hyland, T. (2014) Mindfulness-based interventions and the affective domain of education, Educational Studies, 40:3, 277-291

Irwin, M., Lazarevic, B., Soled, D. and Adesman, A. (2022). The COVID-19 pandemic and its potential enduring impact on children. Current opinion in pediatrics34(1), p.107.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2017). Too early to tell: The potential impact and challenges-ethical and otherwise-inherent in the mainstreaming of dharma in an increasingly dystopian world. Mindfulness, 8, 1125–1135.

Keddie, A (2016) Children of the market: performativity, neoliberal responsibilisation and the construction of student identities

Kok, B.E., Coffey, K.A., Cohn, M.A., Catalino, L.I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S.B., Brantley, M. and Fredrickson, B.L., (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science24(7), pp.1123-1132.

Loades, M.E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M.N., Borwick, C. and Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid systematic review: the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry59(11), pp.1218-1239.

McLaughlin, K.A., Sheridan, M.A., Tibu, F., Fox, N.A., Zeanah, C.H. and Nelson III, C.A. (2015.) Causal effects of the early caregiving environment on development of stress response systems in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(18), pp.5637-5642.

McManus, S., Bebbington, P.E., Jenkins, R. and Brugha, T. (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: the adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. NHS digital.[Online] available at; https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20180328140249/http:/digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB21748 accessed 22nd Feb 2022

Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group. (2015). Mindful nation UK report (p. 82). The Mindfulness Initiative. Retrieved from http://themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk/publications/mind ful-nation-uk-report

Moberg, K.U. and Petersson, M. (2022). Physiological effects induced by stimulation of cutaneous sensory nerves, with a focus on oxytocin. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences43, pp.159-166.

Neylan, T.C. 1998. Hans Selye and the field of stress research. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences10(2), pp.230-230.

Pitchforth, J., Fahy, K., Ford, T., Wolpert, M., Viner, R.M. and Hargreaves, D.S., (2019). Mental health and well-being trends among children and young people in the UK, 1995–2014: analysis of repeated cross-sectional national health surveys. Psychological medicine49(8), pp.1275-1285.

Porges, S.W. (1998). Love: An emergent property of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. Psychoneuroendocrinology23(8), pp.837-861.

Rothì, D.M., Leavey, G. and Best, R. (2008) On the front-line: Teachers as active observers of pupils’ mental health. Teaching and Teacher Education24(5), pp.1217-1231.

Selye, H. (1956). What is stress. Metabolism5(5), pp.525-530

Tracey, K.J. (2002) The inflammatory reflex. Nature 420: 853-859.

Urbina-Garcia, A. (2020). Young children’s mental health: Impact of social isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown and effective strategies.

Vickery, C.E. and Dorjee, D. (2016). Mindfulness training in primary schools decreases negative affect and increases meta-cognition in children. Frontiers in psychology, p.2025.

Katrina Diamond is currently a senior lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at UWE.

She has been involved in Education for 20 years, after an initial career travelling the world, with a background primarily in 14-19 education and adult learning, but focusing on Early Childhood more recently.

Her interests include positive psychology and its role in education and the field of psychoneuroimmunology and the mind-body connection.

Methodological Becoming: Becoming a Reflexive Researcher

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In this blog Dr Tim Clark, Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood at UWE discusses his research which focuses on exploring doctoral students’ perceptions of the influences on their methodological decision making.

It is not unusual for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to encounter challenges with the selection and coherent application of a methodological approach in their research.

The process involves understanding and engaging with complex philosophical debates which inform research traditions and the selection of research methods. This often entails the first introduction to some new (and potentially intimidating!) terminology such as ontology, epistemology and axiology.

In simple terms, these are concerned with the philosophy and study of reality, knowledge and values respectively. Ultimately, the quest for PGR students is to successfully identify and explore their own assumptions in these areas and then to consider, and clearly explain, how these inform the practical decisions they make about their own research design.

This means addressing questions such as: to what extent do we believe that our experience of reality is limited to interpretation? And what forms of data can best help us to understand complex social phenomena? Different perspectives in these areas have led to the emergence of a range of research paradigms, each with different models, principles and understandings of the purpose of research about the social world.

The table below, which appears in Clark (2021), adapted from Lather (2006) is a useful starting point for PGR students who are interested in exploring the decision making ‘landscape’ for research in education, as is Cohen, Manion & Morrison’s (2018) chapter ‘The Nature of Inquiry’.   

Table 1: Paradigmatic Chart

Clark (2021), adapted from Lather (2006)

Through my experience as a Doctorate in Education student I became particularly interested in both the process of my own decision making and in the diverse range of understandings and assumptions which were emerging across the cohort I was part of. At the same time, I was aware that much of the literature which explored this appeared to rest on an assumption that doctoral students’ methodological assumptions and decision making may simply be the product of supervisor and institutional influence.

As I began to consider that this process may be significantly more complex, I commenced my own doctoral research which was focused on exploring doctoral students’ own perceptions of the influences on their methodological decision making.

Methodological Journeys

My study, which is explored in more detail in my recent paper ‘Methodological Becoming: Doctoral students’ perceptions of their methodological journeys’ (Clark, 2021), sought to conceptualise methodological assumptions and understanding as being part of a more complex, socially constructed journey of ‘methodological becoming’. Framed by paradigmatic understandings of methodology, the study used life history inquiry and collective biography to support in-depth conversations with nine doctoral researchers in social science disciplines. The conversations focused on the students’ developing methodological understanding in the context of their personal, professional and academic experiences.

A key finding of the study was that doctoral students’ methodological assumptions could be understood as a socially constructed product of both their life histories and academic experiences. Engaging with academic content relating to paradigmatic understandings of methodology was perceived as playing a vital role in ‘unlocking methodological consciousness’, providing students with the tools they felt they needed to reflect on and understand their assumptions in the context of this previous experience.

Many of the students framed their academic engagement with methodological ideas as then enabling them to better understand themselves as researchers; their philosophies and methodological viewpoints; and, significantly, to reflect on lifelong experiences which may have shaped these. Interestingly, references to these experiences included examples where students cited important experiences in their childhoods and schooling which, through the lens of methodological consciousness, they saw as being relevant to their current assumptions.

It is important to note though, that whatever our own methodological views, it is not necessarily the accuracy or generalisability of any of the doctoral researchers’ memories or stories themselves which offers the most significant learning here. I frequently argue that part of the value of this work is the insight the narratives provide into how students understand, and present their own methodological assumptions – and the potential these have for enhancing reflexivity and methodological coherence. In short, acknowledging and reflecting on the journey may help us to better understand our current position and assumptions. This self-reflection may also be seen as key to preparing for the epistemological diversity (Pallas, 2001) which exists in research communities.   

Becoming a Reflexive Researcher

The idea of being reflexive (self-aware) in our research can be complex, indeed how much of our own stories we share through our work may itself depend on the assumptions which underpin our work and the extent to which we see ourselves as part of our own work (Folkes, 2022). However, engaging in reflexive thinking about our research can help us to better understand our own position, and the positions held by others, and to continue to reflect on the consistent application of our ideas. It is often all too easy to separate different aspects of our work in our thinking and inadvertently introduce contradictions between the position we have explained and the individual decisions we take within the process of our research.  

From the perspective that identifying connections and engaging in reflexive thinking has value in supporting work at post graduate level, some of the following actions may be productive starting points to consider:

  • Look to engage with readings which address paradigmatic understandings and epistemological diversity at an early stage in your studies.
  • Attend lectures or webinars which explore different methodologies, both within your programme and through wider networks and groups.  
  • Engage in dialogue with peers which involve articulating, justifying and listening to different methodological viewpoints.
  • Consider keeping a reflexive journal and recording your own journey. How might your current position have been informed by your previous experiences?

If you are currently considering this aspect of your own work or if you are interested in reading more about the journeys of the students who were involved in the study, you can find further information in my recent paper (Clark, 2021) or my full doctoral thesis (Clark, 2017).

Dr Tim Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). His qualifications include a Doctorate in Education, Post Graduate Certificate in Academic and Professional Practice, Early Years Teacher Status and BA (Hons) Early Years Education.

Prior to his appointment at UWE in 2019, Dr Clark spent 20 years working in the early education sector in the UK, including 12 years as Head of Early Education for a charity in Bristol.

Dr Clark’s doctoral research used a narrative methodology to explore doctoral students’ perceptions of their developing methodological understanding/identities.

Mastery and Depth in Primary Mathematics

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Fay Lewis, Amanda Wilkinson and Marcus Witt, all Senior Lecturers in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE Bristol have written a new book Mastery and Depth in Primary Mathematics which gives teachers practical strategies for developing mathematical thinking in the classroom. 

Dr Lewis writes that the UK National Curriculum is clear about the importance of reasoning and problem-solving in mathematics. Mastery and Depth in Primary Mathematics aims to show teachers how to embed mathematical thinking into their lessons. The book focuses on practical and actionable ways that primary teachers can develop their children’s mathematical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving: through taking everyday mathematical classroom activities and tweaking them to enrich the mathematical experience and outcomes for children. 

The book covers a range of areas in mathematical thinking such as reasoning, problem-solving and pattern-spotting, as well as systematic and investigative thinking. Each chapter provides clear examples of how teachers can make small, manageable ‘rich tweaks’ to their existing lessons to increase the opportunities for children to develop their mathematical thinking. Teachers will be able to dip into the book and find inspiration and ideas that they can use immediately and, importantly, develop a set of principles and skills which will enable them to take any mathematical activity and tweak it to develop their pupils’ thinking skills. 

The authors think that this practical guide will be invaluable to all trainee, early-career and established teachers that wish to enhance their primary mathematics teaching. 

Mastery and Depth in Primary Mathematics  is published by Routledge and is available from 25th January 2022. 

More details here:- https://www.routledge.com/Mastery-and-Depth-in-Primary-Mathematics-Enriching-Childrens-Mathematical/Lewis-Wilkinson-Witt/p/book/9780367407452 

Author Biographies

Fay Lewis, after completing her PhD and PGCE, worked for almost 15 years as a teacher in primary schools in Yorkshire, Somerset and Bristol. Fay now leads the Masters in Education programme at the University of the West of England, where she also teaches about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to undergraduate and postgraduate students training to become primary school teachers. 

Amanda Wilkinson worked as a primary teacher in Manchester and Oxfordshire for several years. She was a specialist mathematics teacher and later worked as a mathematics consultant. Amanda became a senior lecturer in primary mathematics, first at Oxford Brookes University and now at the University of the West of England. 

Marcus Witt  began his teaching career in an international school in South India, before moving to a school in rural Kentucky. He completed his PGCE in the UK and after several years teaching in primary schools, moved to teacher education at the University of the West of England. 

Contemporary Children’s Biographies About Women: A laudable endeavour, but critical reading remains crucial

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This article is a guest blog from Louise Couceiro, a PhD Researcher at the University of Glasgow. Louise’s research explores how children aged seven to ten engage with and respond to collective biographies about women published since 2016. In this article, Louise suggests that although the proliferation of texts centering women’s achievements is laudable, supporting and encouraging critical reading of these texts is crucial.

An Explosion of Children’s Biographies About Women

Over the last five years, children’s nonfiction books about women have proliferated rapidly in the United Kingdom and beyond.If you step into any bookshop, you are likely to find a shelf, if not an entire section, devoted to biographies that present stories of women’s achievements throughout history. In the UK, Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (2016) paved the way, though it was arguably the publication of Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (2016) that prompted an explosion of children’s biographies about women. The book was translated into dozens of languages and quickly sold more than a million copies worldwide. This rapid increase in female representation within children’s nonfiction is as exciting as it is long-overdue. From the biography of Haitian pirate Jacquotte Delahaye to the biography of Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack, the books are brimming with breadth and diversity.


The Study: How do children engage with these texts?

The question at the heart of my PhD research asks how a group of children, aged seven to ten, engage with and respond to collective biographies such as these. To explore this question, I conducted small group reading sessions and individual interviews with eight children on Zoom in the latter half of 2020. In addition to the books, each participant also received a reader response toolkit in the post. The toolkit was comprised of open-ended, arts-based activities, allowing participants to choose additional methods for responding to the texts. Participants’ responses included drawings, choreographed dances, sock puppets and silent LEGO movies. Critical content analysis of the texts and my analysis of the participants’ responses thus far indicates that although the proliferation of texts centering women’s achievements is laudable, supporting and encouraging critical reading is important. Here, to read critically means to ask questions of the text, to be cautious of claims to absolute truth, and to be open to exploration beyond the text. Crucially, this might mean challenging readers’ expectations of the genre.

These women are inspiring, but where are the “hiccups”?

Of course, encouraging young people to be aspirational is important, and the existence and visibility of texts such as these are valuable. For example, the underrepresentation of women in STEM is well-documented and these texts present a plethora of role models for young readers to engage with. One of the primary ways in which readers are encouraged to actively engage with the texts is through use of direct address. In Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet (2020) readers are asked, ‘How will you speak up for our planet?’ Imperative verbs are also used, as readers are told to be like the women presented: to be inspired, to be confident, to be brave. However, to be like the women in the texts or, rather, to be like how the women are generally represented in the texts, means adopting wholly positive qualities. Indeed, the women in these biographies are mostly presented in one-dimensional format – their flaws, imperfections, failings and defeats are only briefly touched upon if not entirely erased.

Participants in the study repeatedly reported that they found these women and their achievements inspiring. Discussing the biography of Cora Coralina – a Brazilian poet and baker – Harry said:

“She was always confident in herself and if you’re confident in yourself then it’s actually gonna work out. If you think oh no I’m gonna do terrible well, you might go all jumbly all over the place and be terrible because you thought you would be terrible so, just think that you’re gonna be great because that’s all you need to think about really.”

Harry’s response implies that aspiring to be confident like Cora Coralina is a worthwhile endeavour. If you’re confident, it’s “actually gonna work out”. However, at the same time, participants clearly viewed these women as exceptional women. Their one-dimensional, hyperbolically positive portrayal was not lost on them. One participant, Orla, noticed the absence of what she called “hiccups” in these women’s lives, reflecting that

“Sometimes some bad things can make them seem extra interesting. For Cleopatra, that’s one of the reasons I’m into her.”

For Orla, the inclusion of “hiccups” could make the women’s biographies even more interesting. Yet, encouraging readers to engage critically, to seek out the “hiccups”, complexities and nuances of these women’s lives, is important for another reason. Spotlighting women’s positive attributes and concealing behaviours or qualities that might undermine this positivity has worrying implications for how young readers might (unrealistically) perceive these women and, consequently, how they might perceive their own self-worth. In other words, if readers do their utmost to be like these women, as instructed by the texts, and inevitably fail to emulate these exemplary ideals, they might feel that they themselves have failed, that they themselves are not good enough.

Although there were numerous points during the study where, without prompt, readers engaged critically, they also ascribed nonfiction the status of irrefutable fact. Or, rather, they expressed their expectation that that is what nonfiction should be. For example, when I asked participants if they thought everything in the books was true, Lucas responded that he thought so, else we wouldn’t be using them for the study. Lucas’ response talks directly to the expectation that factual accuracy is/should be a key criterion for choosing nonfiction books for educational purposes. This is not an altogether terrible expectation, but one of the consequences of this expectation is that it might preclude readers from challenging the text’s authority.

Critical Reading & Changing Expectations

There are innumerable reasons why encouraging critical reading of nonfiction texts is important. In his book, A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child, Joe Sutliff Sanders contends that we ‘should invite critical engagement and foster it where we can because doing so is democratic, respectful and humanizing’ (2018: 230). I couldn’t agree more. In my study, even encouraging critical reading of the texts’ title and peritextual features inspired important discussion around who these texts are ‘for’. For example, participants perceived the title of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls to explicitly invite a female audience, but on reflection were adamant that the content was for girls and boys. In this instance, a lack of critical engagement with the title would have been regrettable, especially given that as Alleen Nilsen shrewedly argued in 1971, ‘it isn’t going to profit us very much if we convince a little girl that she should become a doctor’ unless we also convince ‘all the men in the world who now think it unmanly to go to a woman doctor’ (p. 921). Ultimately, critical reading of these texts is crucial. However, we might need to support readers to relinquish or reframe their expectations of the genre in order to fully embrace the democratic, respectful and humanising engagement that Sanders alludes to.

References

Favilli, Elena, and Francesca Cavallo. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Venice, CA, Timbuktu Labs, 2016.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace. “Women in Children’s Literature.” College English, vol. 32, no. 8, 1971, pp. 918-926.

Pankhurst, Kate. Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World. London, Bloomsbury, 2016.

—–. Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet. London, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Sutliff Sanders, Joe. A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Contact: Louise Couceiro (PGR) 2378413C@student.gla.ac.uk

A fair and equitable curriculum for young children with special educational needs and disability

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In this article, Dr Alexandra Morfaki, Nursery Manager at The Students’ Union at UWE, discusses her doctoral research which focused on Inclusion in the Early Years. Alex’s thesis explored the dilemmas of difference, roles and partnerships in the operationalisation of inclusive practices for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability.

The provision of a fair and equitable curriculum for young children and the means and strategies that early years educators adopt to promote equality of opportunity and prevent the stigmatisation of children who learn differently is a topic that remains under- researched. Yet it is even more relevant now, in light of the recent period of the lockdown, which has brought the inequalities, faced by the most vulnerable children in society to the fore, and exposed the personal, social and emotional impact these challenging times have exerted upon young children.

My research study sought early years educators’ perspectives on inclusion and the tensions and moral dilemmas they encounter (Norwich,2009,2014), when they have to make decisions related to provision for children with special educational needs. I adopted a qualitative multiple case study approach, and utilised interviews and focus group discussions with Special Educational Needs coordinators and Early Years Educators, to collect my data.

My research explored three strands:

  1. What educators thought was the most appropriate early years pedagogical location (mainstream or specialist settings)
  2. The  benefits and drawbacks of diagnoses and Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).
  3. The curricular provisions on offer for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

This article will discuss the curricular provisions for young children with special educational needs and disability and provides a synopsis of the findings related to the inclusive educational provisions on offer, to unveil how differentiated provision unfolds within the early years sector.

It could be claimed that the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017) through its focus on dispositions and play-based teaching and learning (Roberts-Holmes, 2012) provides an elasticity that allows practitioners to develop opportunities for all children to take part in a range of activities that could incorporate personalisation to meet the needs of various children. Although there appears to be flexibility in terms of the pedagogy and teaching strategies implemented to deliver the areas of learning, there is a set of predetermined early learning goals children are expected to achieve by the end of the reception year. These expectations appear to have permeated early years education and care and instilled the concept of ‘school readiness’ into a sector previously considered care- led and play-based.

Given the highly prescriptive nature of the EYFS’s accompanying documents, such as the ‘Development Matters’(DfE, Early Education, 2012), the planning and organising of educational provisions has veered towards an end product: the development of measurable abilities to the detriment of creative and cognitively meaningful skills and dispositions. Requirements such as cohort or individual child progress tracking often favoured by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) and local educational authorities, set expectations for practitioners to identify progress against specific goals in the prime and specific areas of a child’s development (Bradbury, 2019). Although such practices may serve to highlight groups or individual children who require additional support, they equally serve as means of singling them out and setting them on the path of differentiated provision. If this provision does not take into account the institutional and contextual specificities of the classroom that hinder learning and recognise the personal challenges children face in accessing the curriculum, it remains tokenistic and devoid of meaning.

It is unsurprising that children with SEND are likely to ‘fall short’ of the expectations and arbitrary goals set in the ‘Development Matters’ document. The linear trajectory inherent within the ‘Development Matters’ certainly disadvantages children whose development and progression is non -linear or atypical. Furthermore, it underestimates the value and significance of play as a ‘stand-alone process’ which is not aimed at an end product (Palaiologou, 2017).

The explication of inclusion appears elusive and efforts to produce an ecumenical definition have failed. Given that it is hard to define the concept, which appears to exist upon a spectrum of values ranging from the ‘traditionalist’ beliefs that favour highly specialist provision and strategies to the liberal notions of inclusion which eschew notions of the ‘one size fits all’ approach in favour of intuitive well-thought-out practices, it is unsurprising that what constitutes inclusive pedagogy is equally contested.

My study set out to map the pedagogy that early years educators deploy to deliver an equitable curriculum and unveil their craft knowledge and skills (Black-Hawkins and Florian, 2012). Inclusive pedagogy has been dominated by notions of commonality (providing the same provision for all) versus additionality (offering different provisions for groups or individual children). These two notions have been perceived as incompatible rather than complementary. Instead of viewing the practices of commonality and additionality as binary, my participants set out to ‘communalise personalised provision’.  The term personalised rather than individualised is used in this section to denote provision, which is not restricted to the individual child but provides a holistic form of differentiation. Personalised provision in this research was rooted in an understanding of the child and the educators reported that allowing time to build meaningful partnerships, engaging with the child and observing them enabled them to ascertain their interests, establish their readiness levels and plan activities that were relevant and meaningful. The role of the key person was critical and building secure attachments was the cornerstone upon which truly inclusive provision was based. The majority of early years educators in this study relied upon their unique knowledge and understanding of their child; their relationships with the children had led them to discard a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ (King-Sears, 2008) approach to teaching in favour of a ‘trial and error’ stance that promotes experimentation and creativity

This was evident in my research and educators utilised a range of strategies to actualise pedagogical equity: the ‘institutionalisation’ of specific routines, the provision of open-ended activities and the cultivation of a sense of ownership and belonging.

 The ‘institutionalisation’ of free- flow routines and small groups throughout the day and the deployment of circuit activities offered children the opportunity to ‘dip in and out’ of activities without placing an expectation upon them to participate or produce an artefact; there was a wide variety of choices on offer to enable them to pursue their interests at their own pace. Small groups led by key persons allowed children and educators to engage in meaningful exchanges and carefully support learning.

The educators exhorted the benefits of small group activities that allowed children to learn from peers (Janney and Snell 2006) and developed flexible routines that focused on children’s choices and assisted them to develop independence and feel valued for their contribution. In some settings, there was flexibility during lunchtimes, which encouraged the children to complete their chosen task before they sat for their meal.

 Good inclusive practice was not always planned meticulously but often focused upon well- thought- out, open-ended activities. Play was accessible to all and although a plethora of resources was set up, the means by which children experimented and explored the material was open to them; educators perceived the gains and goals achieved through these activities to be different depending on the child’s individual needs and interests. Differentiation was mainly based on outcomes-each child was perceived to acquire different knowledge and benefit in various ways. There appeared to be a well-orchestrated scaffolding of learning, where the educator was willing to take a back step when required. Children in this instance became responsible for their own differentiation; what they learned was unique to them.

Open-ended activities instigated children’s curiosity, creativity and appealed to their need for active exploration. Essentially the activities focused on cultivating dispositions (Carr, 2001) such as perseverance, active experimentation and co-operation rather than being target driven or compartmentalising learning into specific areas. Practitioners felt that dispositions should constitute the core of the curriculum replacing the prime and specific areas of learning. Dispositions are not restricted to children’s mastered skills but take into account knowledge, inclinations, ability and characteristics that can be cultivated and foregrounded into an environment that promotes and rewards them.

 Equally, the notion of ownership became very powerful in the social and institutionalised context of early years settings where engagement was encouraged and participation was considered critical in establishing an inclusive environment. Children were seen to co-own the daily routines, were allowed to make decisions, affect what happens next in relation to activities, and make their own choices.  These were pedagogical practices that actively advocated for children’s rights and entitlement to a meaningful curriculum; they utilised stimulating resources and discarded advice, which was seen as inappropriate. For example, in creating visual aids and cards to enhance the understanding of routines and promote communication, the key person in one of the case study settings liaised with children to create their own cards, which were relevant to their own setting and depicted the children engaged in the activities.  The children were seen as a ‘co-investors’ (Sebba et al, 2011) in their own learning. The key-person acknowledged their right to feel that they had contributed to the process of card making and affected the setting’s pedagogical decision-making.

The sense of ownership, evoked by certain activities and the familiarisation of routines, was considered critical in allowing children to develop agency, released them from the passivity of being the recipients of ‘professional wisdom’ and transformed them into active and autonomous agents (Cefai et al, 2015). In addition, children’s joint sharing of ‘recurring class routines’ were seen as an essential aspect of participating and developing a sense of belonging in a community (Erwin and Guintini, 2010).

The incorporation of personalised teaching approaches into a common curriculum (and vice versa) is seen to enhance a communitarian version of inclusion. The concept of the community as conducive to learning has been well substantiated in theory (Wenger, 1998; 2000) but its tenets have not been applied to inclusive classroom environments. Communities, however big or small, interact with pre-existing structures, utilise an established language, and deploy certain artefacts which secure their perpetuation; these in turn serve to induce ‘novices’ or exclude new members. To ensure new members are welcome the structures, terminology and resources should be flexible and diverse –they should be geared towards serving different learning styles, abilities and proclivities.

In inclusive classroom communities of this type, the structures are not governed by prescriptive and compartmentalised curricula, performance is not measured by’ mean average’ statements, and children are provided with a range of artefacts they could utilise and claim as their own. These artefacts could include toys and resources but extend further to incorporate routines, pedagogical approaches and the overall environment that frames classroom interactions. They are ultimately weaved into the fabric that determines community membership.

Communitarian inclusion in the early years is about bridging differences and introducing various means of expression and representation (Eke et al, 2009) that bind the community of learners together. For example, in one of the early years settings, augmentative communication approaches such as Makaton were rolled out across classrooms to enable children, who did not utilise conventional language, and their peers to communicate and enhance social interaction. In another nursery, sensory intervention advice provided by an occupational therapist was utilised to merge the personalised advice into the core curriculum and enrich sensory provision for all children.

In establishing a truly inclusive environment for young children, it quickly became clear that conventional means of assessment, which rely strictly on Piagetian notions of linear development, were insufficient in capturing the breath, depth and nuances of children’s actual development. The participants in this study felt that the ‘Development Matters’ has outlived its usefulness. It has become the de-facto textbook of normative development. Furthermore, it serves a functional yet insidious purpose; it is seen as a surveillance tool that highlights gaps in children’s development and notes deviation from the mean average. It is there to monitor, record and aggregate children’s performance and reinforces concepts of developmental normalcy, which are not consistent with atypical progress. In trying to place children in boxes and plan based on predetermined targets, we lose sight of what constitutes inclusive and holistic pedagogy and assessment in early years. The participants in this study demonstrated that, where there is flexibility and a relaxation of ‘top-down’ legislation and guidelines (as in the case of the teaching strategies and their delivery), truly inclusive practices could flourish.

In September, the revised EYFS curriculum will be coming into force; the rhetoric supporting the amendments indicates a shift towards an approach that favours quality interactions and pedagogical experimentation. Despite this, the pre-occupation with ‘what children know and can do’ (DfE, 2021) is evident. What remains to be seen is whether the revisions will be accompanied by genuine changes in inspection regime priorities and will be escalated by the government to enable classroom and wider policy and culture shifts.

References

Bradbury, A. (2019) Datafied at four: the role of data in the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood education in England. Learning, Media and Technology. 44 (1), pp.7-21.

Carr, M. (2001) Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning Stories [online]. London: Paul Chapman.

Cefai, C., Cavioni, V., Bartolo, P., Simoes, C., Miljevic-Ridicki, R., Bouilet, D., Pavin Ivanec, T., Matsopoulos, A., Gavogiannaki, M., Zanetti, M.A., Galea, K., Lebre, P., Kimber, B. & Eriksson, C. (2015), “Social inclusion and social justice”, Journal for multicultural education,9,( 3), pp. 122-139.

DfE (2017) (Department for Education), Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. [online] Accessed 01/10/18 Available from: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage

DfE (2021) (Department for Education), Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. [online] Accessed 01/06 /18 [online] Accessed 01/10/18 Available from: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage

Early Education. (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) [online]. Accessed 01/11/17 ,Available from: https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2012/03/Development-Matters-FINAL-PRINT-AMENDED.pdf

Eke, R., Butcher, H. and Lee, M. (2009) Whose Childhood is it?: The Roles of Children, Adults, and Policy Makers [online]. London: Continuum.

Janney, R.E. & Snell, M.E. (2006), “Modifying Schoolwork in Inclusive Classrooms”, Theory into practice, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 215-223.

Erwin, E.J. and Guintini, M. (2000) Inclusion and Classroom Membership in Early Childhood. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. 47 (3), pp.237-257.

King-Sears, M. (2009) Universal Design for Learning: Technology and Pedagogy. Learning Disability Quarterly. 32 (4), pp.199-201

Norwich, B. (2009), “Dilemmas of difference and the identification of special educational needs/disability: international perspectives”, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 447. 

Norwich, B. (2014) Recognising value tensions that underlie problems in inclusive education. Cambridge Journal of Education. 44 (4), pp.495-510. 

Palaiologou, I. (2017) Assessing children’s play: reality or illusion? The case of early years foundation stage in England. Early Child Development and Care. 187 (8), pp.1259-1272.

Roberts-Holmes, G. (2012) ‘It’s the bread and butter of our practice’: experiencing the Early Years Foundation Stage. International Journal of Early Years Education. 20 (1), pp.30-42.

Sebba, J., Peacock, A., DiFinizio, A. and Johnson, M. (2011) Personalisation and special educational needs. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. 11 (3), pp.203-224.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000), “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems”, Organization, 7, (2), pp. 225-246.

Images provided by Dr Morfaki who says “The first picture is of a child in a circle – circles are often used to symbolise belonging and inclusion. The second is a very happy one of a rainbow”.

Nature – a source of solace or anxiety for children and young people?

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In Mental Health Awareness week, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE Bristol explains that although connecting with nature is important for our mental health, increasingly, children and young people are experiencing anxiety about the natural world and the environment. Dr Jones has proposed a three-stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues and has also devised a questionnaire for 7 – 18 year olds which will enable young people to talk about climate change and have their voice heard in this important global issue.

The central theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is Nature and how connecting with it can benefit our mental health. Going outside, taking a walk, being in green spaces.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation reports that through the pandemic, going outside was one of our top coping strategies. This is perhaps unsurprising when Nature is central to our psychological and emotional health. However, there are growing numbers of people who, rather than finding solace in Nature, instead are becoming more anxious by it. Eco-anxiety is a growing concern. There is a deadline approaching –  the UN have suggested that humanity only has 9 years to take action in the face of the potential catastrophic effects of climate change.  Combine this with the images of wildfires, droughts, floods and famines that bombard our social media streams and news reels and the result is increasing numbers of young people feeling deeply negative thoughts. Many of our children are losing sleep, not eating properly, not communicating. Many of our children are feeling helpless.

In the research I do with children and young people I often hear how they are scared, anxious and angry about the state of the world. These feelings need space to be discussed. In many schools, consideration of climate change may be reading the news in tutor time, or talking about the physical processes or social and environmental impacts in science or geography. There is little time for our young learners to talk about how they feel and try and make sense of what is going on.

I support a three stage approach to engaging children and young people with these issues.

  1. Make time to talk – having space to share feelings will help individuals they are not alone.
  2. Make time to plan – find out ways that individuals can get involved in doing something. Recognising that children and young people can be part of the solution, part of their community, is really powerful.
  3. Making time to do – don’t just talk about making changes actually do them. This could be something at home (switching off lights, wasting less food or water or mending clothes) or it could be with the community (helping tidy and plant a local green space, do a beach clean, sign petitions, write to authorities).

Including young people in discussions and actions is vital if we are to move towards more sustainable futures together; more hopeful futures.

Unfortunately, including children and young people in discussions doesn’t always happen. In fact, sometimes they are completely ignored.   Back in March, SKYNews reported on a survey that was supposedly representing the views of Britain with regard climate change and what the population thought were (or weren’t) appropriate actions for them to take. Looking at this in a little more detail  it seems that Britain was represented by adults over 18 years old. All other younger people were ignored. In my view, this is wrong. If we are to represent Britain we can’t ignore a large section of the society. So, I have rewritten the survey questions for younger audiences and have gained ethical clearance from UWE to send out an updated version for 7 –  18 year olds. Doing this survey will provide a space for adults and young people to talk about climate change, as well as provide young people a voice in this important global issue.

Being in / with Nature can improve our well being, but if we are to support those with eco-anxiety, we also need to have time to talk about this relationship and do something about it.

If you have a 7-18 year old who would like to take part in this anonymous survey please contact Verity on  Verity6.Jones@uwe.ac.uk.

Survey closes 31st May 2021.

Photos by Eyoel Khassay Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Raising awareness of Neurodiversity: my lived experience of dyspraxia

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Dr Sarah Chicken Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Education at UWE marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week (15-21 March 2021) by taking the opportunity to raise awareness about dyspraxia by telling some of her personal story. 

I am a senior lecturer within the Department of Childhood and Education where I have worked for seventeen years.  I am also a member of the neurodivergent community with a diagnosis of dyspraxia.

Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a complex neurological condition which affects the messages between the brain and the body impacting on movement and cognition.    Instead of a message going from A to B, for someone with dyspraxia, it can take a detour from A to X, Y and Z ( in no particular order) before making the journey back to B.  This can be exhausting! 

An important issue is that others may not understand how substantial some challenges can be; for example, I have been an educator for decades, I have a PhD and a range of Master’s level qualifications so when I find difficulties filling in forms, driving a car, finding my way around university systems and the world in general, this can seem perplexing to others.

However, a ‘spikey’ learning profile, (where there are significant discrepancies between the things that someone is good at and those that they struggle with) is a key feature of a neurodivergent profile.   In my own case, psychometric tests indicate a large gap between my verbal reasoning at the one end of the scale and my processing speed and working memory at the other end of the scale.

This often feels like I have a fantastic computer which has been ill-matched with some rather outdated software and I spend a lot of time feeling out of synch.   This can impact on my physical co-ordination (my dancing is legendary for all of the wrong reasons 😊) and my speech and cognition which sometimes is not quite connected.   When I am tired or anxious, I can stumble over words or words can tumble out of my mouth in ‘my incoherent soup’. This anxiety-inducing prospect can lead to remaining quiet in large group situations despite having lots of ideas.  On other occasions, I end up talking over the top of people as I can’t quite find the right place to come into a conversation and this can appear impolite. 

Many neurodivergent people have issues with the processing of sensory information; whilst I can hear words in busy environments, I am not always sure if I have fully processed the meaning. Harsh lighting is challenging for me   and can cause eye disturbances which feel as if I am looking through a kaleidoscope with pieces of the picture all jumbled up.     Unfortunately, this is often the case in many parts of my working environment including shared social spaces. 

At the same time, I am determined and driven (pardon the pun), whilst it took me 17 years to pass my driving test, I got there in the end!   This is because, I have limited spatial awareness or depth perception, whilst I can physically see space, I can’t quite ‘feel’ or judge if my car ( or body) can fit.    On the odd occasions that I have been brave enough to drive to work, students have found great amusement as I have tried to park my car, I don’t blame them, I need a runway!

To return to my computer analogy, the cognitive pressure of too much multi-tasking can feel like having too many tabs open at the same time and I start to slow down – now throw into the mix the mismatch between my computer and out- of-date software and there is a danger that I could shut down altogether.  Since my diagnosis I realise that this has implications for my work and life and I am far more successful when I can really concentrate on a small range of activities ( I am a details person)  rather than being spread thinly across many. 

At the same time, my dyspraxia can be viewed as a gift and a superpower.   It offers a unique perspective of the world leading to creative and ‘outside of the box’ thinking when I am in environments where I feel ‘safe’ and valued.  I have a good sense of humour; I have to see the funny side of often tripping over and bumping into things and jumbling up my words. Like others with dyspraxia, I have a ‘stick with it ‘attitude, I am solution focussed, analytical and very empathetic.  I am fortunate to be in a job where I can draw on these strengths to design and deliver teaching, learning and research opportunities which engage and inspire and most of all where I am able to celebrate the wonderful range of diversity seen within the human race.

Dr Sarah Chicken Senior Fellow HEA

Senior Lecturer  Childhood and Education  

I am a champion of neurodiversity. 

Watch this short film produced by the British Dyslexia Association to find out more about neurodiversity. 

Don’t just listen to young people ….

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Over the last few years we have watched the sound of young people’s voices get louder in response to global climate change. Before lockdown we saw thousands gather to protest in public places around the world demanding change. Demanding action. Young people leading young people to insist that the global community act now, and act quickly to ensure a fairer, more sustainable future for all.

Here in Bristol the voices of young people are not overlooked. This year I have been privileged to work with the Global Goals Centre; an exciting new visitor centre that will offer immersive ways of learning about the climate and ecological emergency framed around the Sustainable Development Goals. Learning about these important issues through fun and engaging ways – with an emphasis on what we can do to make a difference – is a key theme running through all stages of development.

As young people will be an important audience for the Centre, I ran workshops across the city to enlist their help in the designing the first of the immersive experiences. Through the Youth Design Challenge young people were invited to design a space around the theme of fast fashion. Entries were judged on creativity, engagement with the theme and consideration of different learning experiences. Whilst knowledge of ocean plastics and the need to reduce carbon emissions was acknowledged, few young people had previously considered their connection with the fast fashion supply chain, but they did not disappoint with their thinking and creative response to the situation.

On 23rd November a host of dignitaries gathered on a zoom call to celebrate the work of those who had entered the competition. Marvin Rees (Bristol’s Mayor) was delighted to make the presentations after the young audience listened to Bristol’s leading young climate activist, Mya Rose Craig (also known as BirdGirl). Finisterre, a Cornwall based company specialising in sustainable clothing donated the prizes.

The competition was not a token nod to the voices of the young. It was not a cheap marketing technique to get buy in from sponsors and lead the headlines. Instead, this competition is just another step in engaging and enabling young people’s voices to be heard in the development of the Centre. These designs will now be used by the creative team to inform pilot designs which are hoped to be tested later in 2021.

Young people aren’t just making noise about wanting a sustainable future, they are full of amazing ideas and ready to think through difficult problems in new ways. We mustn’t just listen, Instead, we need to provide ways in which young people’s voices can inform change.   It is not up to our youth to make the change – such pressure is both unfair and untenable with many experiencing eco-anxiety and grief as a result. Instead, we need to work together – old and young – for a better future.

Check out the Mayor’s blog for more information https://thebristolmayor.com/2020/11/24/teaching-us-a-thing-or-two/

[This research is made possible by UWE’s Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Research award]

Dr Verity Jones is a Senior Lecturer on the Initial Teacher Training Programme (ITT) in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE.

Follow Dr Jones on twitter @VerityJones_edu

We deserve to be taught about it: climate crisis classes for all students – a word of caution

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Recently The Guardian reported on how some universities are ‘bowing’ to student pressure and including classes on climate throughout all courses – whether they be geography and environmental studies (where such issues have traditionally been included) or music and fashion (where issues of connected with climate may not seem so obvious).

A report published this month by Winchester University  showed that 54% of 16-18 year olds saw climate breakdown as the second biggest threat to the UK (after the quality of the NHS). The same percentage considered universities failing in their job of addressing it.

Without doubt, the demand and need for engagement with issues relating to the climate and ecological emergency have never been so clear. We are all aware that there is a need for action if we are to secure a more sustainable future. However, there is growing evidence that with the emergency increasing numbers of young people are reporting the effects of eco-anxiety. Higher Education institutions need to consider how they approach embedding these issues and what the impact may be.

At UWE, Bristol we have been mapping how every programme across the university engages with the Sustainable Development Goals. This has provided an opportunity for us to engage and enable learning for students around real issues associated with the climate and ecological emergency; making explicit links, providing up to date information and opportunities to problem solve. What it has also allowed for is time; time to discuss these issues in supportive groups, share both fears and hopes; share the problems which affect us all.   Delivering the knowledge isn’t enough. Making the time to talk and problem solve together is essential in order to combat feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despondency that our current situation is having on many people. The emotional landscape attached to these issues must be carefully negotiated.

As someone who delivers the Initial Teacher Education programme here at UWE, and undertakes research with young people regarding eco anxiety and sustainable futures, it is clear that emotions are running high in classrooms in both the university and primary classroom. Anger and helplessness are common emotions displayed by the learners. This is often mirrored by the fear or hope embedded in many educational resources used to engage with climate discussion. It is all too easy to say ‘teach climate’. We need to be thinking carefully of how we teach it, and what the impact of the teaching is having both in the short and long term.  

At present I am working with The Global Goals Centre in developing immersive experiences which support young people in learning about the climate and ecological emergency. At the heart of this project is young people’s voice: what they want to learn, how they want to learn and how they feel about the issues. Workshops and focus groups are informing every step, in order to develop a unique learning experience, meeting the needs of the audience rather than socially engineering emotional appeals. Finding out who they think can help and be part of the solution is critical – the image shows one example of how an 8-year-old sees this jigsaw; they are very much part of the solution. However, not all young people have such a sophisticated and hopeful vision.

Teaching about the climate isn’t something that can be done quickly or easily. This is something we need, we need to do well, and we need to think through carefully and with support.

Dr Verity Jones is a  Senior Lecturer on the Initial Teacher Training Programme in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE and is a member of UWE Bristol’s Knowledge Exchange for Sustainable Development group. Her research with the Global Goals Centre is funded by UWEs Vice Chancellors Early Career Researcher Award.

Follow Dr Verity Jones on twitter

School reopening? top scientists say not yet*

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“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.” (Sir David King, Independent SAGE Group)

This blog post could end there, but given the high stakes, it’s worth pondering more…

Teachers and their unions have been robustly rallying against the Government’s decision to re-open schools as early as June 1st. Some sections of the press and government ministers have revisited Michael Gove’s characterisation of these opponents as the “Blob”, who according to the Daily Mail is

“made up of political opponents, union barons and local government administrations – is colluding to sabotage the reopening of schools.”

In 2013, I was one of the 100 academics who signed a letter against Gove’s damaging curriculum reforms, and this time it’s even more serious, so much so that the neutral British Medical Association (BMA) have supported the call from the Independent SAGE Group to keep schools closed for the time-being.

Because of misleading advice and data issued by Downing Street, renowned medical scientists decided to set-up an Independent SAGE group (ISG).

The ISG’s opposition to 1st June re-opening of schools came after a meeting, which included Mumsnet, and supplemented by rigorous advice from expert educationists. Professor Sir David King concluded that there is almost zero chance of conditions being reached for a safe reopening of schools on 1 June.

The report makes clear that decisions on school re-opening should depend on low levels of infections in the community and the capacity to respond quickly to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy. We are not there yet.

Although children are less likely than adults to get ill, they are still transmission agents. Even the DfE advice seems to reflect this concern:

Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best.”

So, a child carrying the infection but not showing symptoms could spread it unnoticed to other children and staff, and it could then reach family members with existing medical problems as well as older relatives. The collateral damage could be fatally serious.

The Government have been keen to stress that their decision was about ethics stating that working class children are being disproportionately disadvantaged because they do not have the learning resources that children from wealthier families have for home schooling.

But the ISG report stresses that rather than rushing to re-open schools, it would be safer to provision computer equipment and offer distance learning. When the conditions are appropriate, outdoor (where transmission is minimised) summer activity schemes, including educational “catch up” sessions would be a viable option.

The current situation opens-up existential questions about how we conceive of education.  We in the Reclaiming Schools network have (long) argued that it is necessary to take a rounded view of children’s needs, not just getting children (back) behind desks.

Education should be geared for developing children’s social, emotional, and wider characteristics. In this context, one could imagine a school strictly adhering to social distancing being harmful for children. Stories of nurseries and reception classes having to remove all toys for a June 1st re-opening are clearly being forced to create an environment devoid of richness.

Furthermore, the Government instruction to get the youngest children back first is questionable. In most nations in the world, the school starting age is 6 or 7, so very few children of nursery and reception age are actually in school.

Mental health problems in children are always much lower in countries with admission at age 6 or 7. Children have had the chance to be children, and without baseline testing (followed by high stakes tests at 7, 11, 16 – England tests more than any comparable country).

There is a strong case to postpone national standardised high stakes testing, it would provide an opportunity to evaluate the impact of tests on children and teachers.

In any given year, around 15% of teacher leave the profession just after 12 months, and over 30% leave within 5 years. In most cases, that’s 4 years of education/training to find out that teaching is not only hard work, the external pressures of tests and league tables make it mentally and physically damaging, ultimately impossible.

Beyond and C-19, we need to reclaim education to make it progressive and socially responsible, and a National Education Service provides a vehicle to do this. 

Dr Alpesh Maisuria is Associate Professor of Education Policy in Critical Education at the University of the West of England. He writes widely about issues of social class, educational policy, neoliberalism and Marxism, as well the proposal of the Nationalised Education Service; academy and free schools; private schools; Swedish social democracy and class. This blog post is written in a personal capacity. 

*Sections of this writing have been reworked from a Reclaiming Schools blog post. Alpesh Maisuria is a Steering Group member of Reclaiming Schools.

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