By Rebekah Grace
In the late 1990s I was working on my PhD research, which focused on the experiences of children and adolescents with Tourette’s syndrome. I came to know an insightful young man—let’s call him Jared—who drew a picture to describe what it’s like to be a nine-year-old boy who has a lot of adults interested in his life. That picture appears below.
Jared depicted himself as a ventriloquist dummy, and described parents, teachers, therapists, paediatricians and researchers as the adults who would come into his life and determine what he should say. He described feeling controlled by their expectations of him, and aware that they would not listen unless he said what they wanted to hear.
This study was conducted during a time of rapid growth in research on child voice and participation in response to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the rising influence of James and Prout’s ‘new sociology of childhood’. Research in the years that have followed have demonstrated that children of all ages can be competent conveyors of their own experiences when asked questions in an appropriate, respectful and developmentally appropriate way. Perhaps Jared’s experience would be different if he were nine years old today and, in line with the UN convention, the sharing of his thoughts and experiences would be encouraged and valued by the professionals and others in his life … perhaps.
Talking to children and young people about their lives
Over the last twenty years, we have seen a growing body of high quality Australian research that captures the perspectives of children and young people: from research on children’s experiences of early childhood school transition to research within the child protection field; from understanding the perspectives of young people who are homeless to research in public health; from research with young people with disabilities to research with children who are new arrivals to Australia. The landscape of Australian child voice research is broad and leading the way in acknowledging that children and young people are important stakeholders in the service systems that are intended to support them.
Listening and responding
Certainly, the intent to listen and respond to the child’s voice is present across the Australian government and many service organisations, as evidenced by the consultation structures in place and some key national policy initiatives. For example, the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 and the Early Years Learning Framework both recognise the importance of children’s participation. Direct consultation with children has also been identified as a priority by the National Children’s Commissioner in addressing children’s human rights. Most Australian states and territories have government-funded youth peak advocacy bodies. Many non-government organisations have youth advisory groups, and there are a small number of organisations whose main purpose is to support the voice and advocacy of children and young people, such as CREATE (the national association of children and young people in care) and CanTeen (the national association for young people living with cancer).
Nonetheless, moving from research and policy to practice is not easy, and the extent to which young people are listened to and involved in decision-making processes very often depends on the receptiveness and approach of the adults encountered in different service contexts. There are examples of practitioners and educators who do seek the perspectives of children and young people, engage them in decision-making and who use child reflections to inform their practice. For example, an Aboriginal-led organisation called Winangay has developed ‘Kids Say’ cards used by some child protection workers to engage with Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and facilitate their active involvement in decisions about their lives and about the maintenance of their cultural identity and kinship networks.
However, research evidence suggests that many service providers remain unconvinced that children have the capacity to express a well-reasoned view and are at risk of being easily manipulated. Some argue that consultation requires resources their organisation does not have, or they are concerned that they do not have the skills required to engage children well. Some worry that prioritising child voice might compromise child safety (or other outcomes) or might undermine their own professional authority. Listening to child voice should not be confused with abandoning professional knowledge and experience. It is, however, about being willing to share the expertise and give value to the insight that can only come from the children who are living with the challenges you are seeking to resolve.
Opening the way for impact
The great challenge moving forward is one of application—how do we effectively take all that we have learned from research and all that is stated in policy so that it has real impact at the level of practice? The truth is, for children with complex support needs, our current systems and approaches are not making enough of a difference. An impactful service response requires significant and serious engagement with the most overlooked stakeholders—the children and young people—who will carry the consequences of the decisions that are made about the services and supports available to them.
Rebekah is one of the authors of Children, Families and Communities. She is Senior Researcher, and Macquarie University Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow, in the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University.
Bell, J. et al. (2008). Rewriting the rules for youth participation. Report to the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme.
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Grace, R., Walsh, R. & Baird, K. (2016). Connection, special objects and congruence. Early Child Development & Care. DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2016.1251915
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