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Involving Young Children in Decision Making: An Exploration of Practitioner's Views

Hudson, K. (2008) Involving Young Children in Decision Making: An Exploration of Practitioner's Views. Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

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This project explores the views of childcare workers and early childhood teachers (practitioners) on young children’s involvement in decision making. Practitioners who work daily with young children aged six years and under - and within the structured settings of long day care, kindergarten, pre-primary and grades one and two - were engaged in discussions about how they understood notions of decision making and what this meant for them in their practice of working on an everyday level with young children.

This project was initiated by Ngala whose staff were interested in notions of decision making for young children. This interest was set against the background of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which identified that children should be given the opportunity to be involved in those decision making processes that affect their lives. This, combined with an increasing push by government to include children in decision making in professional practice, directed the main interest for the study to be centred on practitioner’s views on decision making and young children, and the opportunities for participation afforded to them in settings where they spend most of their day.

Lotterywest provided funding to Ngala, Anglicare and Murdoch’s Centre for Social and Community Research (CSCR) to investigate practitioner’s views on decision making with the purpose of ‘mapping’ some of the issues.

Approximately 108 practitioners were involved in discussions regarding decision making and young children in structured settings.

This report identifies and elaborates on the complexity of practitioner’s understandings of decision making and highlights a number of competing discourses and tensions. Two main themes are identified: A significant gap in what is understood and talked about in terms of decision making and the complexity of what actually happens in practice, and the importance of the individual practitioner’s relationship with the child.

Decision making was a difficult term to define with practitioners tending to conflate a number of other terms and ideas in an effort to talk about their understandings. The term ‘choice’ was inextricably linked with and often used interchangeably with ‘decision’ with both terms being considered more broadly within the practitioner’s role of providing children with appropriate information and increasing their understanding of consequences. This is an indication that decision making was talked about in adult set boundaries in which children are expected conform to interpretations and standards set by adults.

Practitioners agreed in principle that young children can and should make decisions and be involved in decision making processes. However, qualifying this agreement were considerations of context, age and development, individual capacity, home environment, and the opportunities provided to practice genuine decision making. Limit points were set in terms of children’s participation in the areas of health and safety, and negative social behaviour. The degree to which practitioners viewed these considerations as inhibitors to involving children in decision making processes fell on a continuum: Those practitioners who spoke strongly about the value of decision making for young children did not see such variables as limitations to children making decisions or involving children in decision making processes – they felt that their practices circumnavigated these issues. On the other hand, and to varying degrees, others felt that these variables did limit both the opportunity for involvement and the children’s ability to make decisions.

The level of participation that young children were afforded across the care and educational settings varied according to both the organisational requirements and the practitioner’s views on children’s autonomy and their capacity to decision make. The extent to which children should be involved in decision making according to the relevant articles of the UNCRC is premised on notions of capacity and as such left open to interpretation. Constructions and stages of child development to which practitioners subscribed impact strongly here: Two main positions are noted – the independent and competent child, and the dependent and vulnerable child.

Similarly, practitioner’s views highlighted a competing discourse in how children can/should be involved in the processes of decision making which tended to reflect and fluctuate between contemporary ‘child-centred’ approaches to more ‘traditional’ authoritarian and discipline based approaches. Participation levels from tokenistic to child initiated and directed decision making is discussed in this report using examples of practices used by practitioners and according to Hart’s (1997) Ladder of Participation.

Finally, rather than considering the ‘right’ of young children to be involved in decision making – which was considered the ‘driver’ for the importance of decision making - practitioners talked in terms of ‘education and socialisation’. There was a strong emphasis on decision making as a developmental skill which was considered an essential part of guiding a child towards independence and becoming a functional and capable individual. In view of this, and the particular ‘mainstream’ settings within which the practitioner’s views were explored, a culturally specific notion of decision making is highlighted.

Item Type: Report
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Centre for Social and Community Research
Publisher: Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University
Copyright: Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University
Notes: Ngala ... Anglicare WA ... Lotterywest supported
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