How to reduce ‘power-over’ in early year’s settings

Posted: 03/10/2023

We recently interviewed Kerri Watson, an early childhood development advisor and asked her to talk about how we can empower both children and teachers in the early years space.

Can you just tell me a bit about yourself, your role and what you do?

Currently I’m the early childhood development advisor for North Central Victoria. It’s a DFFH funded role, but I’m sort of employed by Anglicare Victoria. I also work alongside the North Central Victoria Family Service Alliance which covers six Local Government Areas. My roles have a strong capacity building focus, so I’m working with practitioners, whether it’s the Orange Door, Child Protection or Family Services.

My focus is children zero to five so I could be consulting in a range of ways. It could be team meeting discussions. It could be running trainings, all those sorts of things. So that’s my here and now. But I come from a kindergarten background, I’ve spent most of my life teaching in kindergartens in a lot of different places. I’m really passionate about vulnerable children and families, which is how I’ve ended up here.

I’ve worked mostly with services where there are a high percentage of children with vulnerabilities or who are at risk of involvement with services. I’ve had to do a whole lot of work around working with children in ways that I felt really empowered them and really met them where they were, as opposed to, you know, walking into a space and saying, well, these are the rules, you must do as I say.

You’ve spoken a lot about the difference between a power-over and a power-with approach. Can you describe how you would see this approach applying in relation to working with young children?

Yes, absolutely. So, a lot of that has come from the work I’m doing with practitioners around hearing the voice of children. When they’re working with families, yes, it’s great to have a family perspective, but what is this little 2-year-old saying to you without words? What’s the baby’s perspective? You know, how do we hear the child’s authentic voice?

I bang on about it. I talk a lot about the fact that we can’t just walk into a space with a child and not really reflect on what we take with us into that space. We automatically hold a sense of power just by being an adult.

Can you give us a practical example of hearing the child’s voice in a more ‘power-with’ way?

Sure. For example, when we started with the forum we ran recently, everyone was given the same bag with the same items in it and were asked to just sit with some beautiful music and create. There were no rules. I had them all in the same room. We were all sitting on the floor, adults and children. We all had the same items but they belonged to everybody.

What we noticed was that everybody’s creation was really different. And so, we then spent time walking around looking at what everybody else had created and you could see the different perspective of each person. Some lined them all up, some grouped them, some were creative and made a hen—it was just really interesting.

It’s just a valuable and powerful example of the idea that every child’s voice is going to be different, but to gain it authentically, we have to give them opportunities to feel safe and to feel they are in a place where they’re going to be valued.

Can you talk about how power plays out in terms of the different relationships in early year’s spaces?

Yes, I think we need to be aware of the power that we hold when we go into a space, e.g. – building. I call it relational practice, you know, you can’t be discovering anything or working with anyone, particularly families and children, if you don’t develop a relationship first.

Our focus is always about building relationships because that’s where everything starts. And that’s where everything ends. Everything happens within relationships. That’s a huge part of the work that we need to do.

And you can’t have a beautiful, two-way relationship if you’re holding power. If you’re constantly walking into a space and you’re standing above a child and you’re saying: I want to know how you’re feeling about that. It doesn’t work like that.

I worked at a kindergarten and out of nineteen enrolments we had seventeen children involved with services or therapists or multiple agencies. Lots of trauma, lots going on. It was really hard work.

We found that whenever people came to the kindergarten the children would get really anxious. Their behaviours would deteriorate. They were trying to tell us that something wasn’t right.

So, we just stopped and we did a lot of work with the children around how they were feeling: What’s happening for you now? What’s making you uncomfortable? Where would you feel better?

What we realised was that the children felt anxious whenever somebody came into the service wearing a lanyard. This triggered a real reaction and trauma behaviour started to kick in. Back then, anybody involved with a service, like child protection, had to wear an ID so people were pulling up in their car with a lanyard on and generally a clipboard.

And so, we actually had a no lanyard policy on the gates. They could come in and show me their ID from their pocket, but they couldn’t wear a lanyard because it was triggering a whole lot of trauma behaviours in the children.

That only happened because we were really trying listen to the children and hearing their voices. We wouldn’t have understood this if we hadn’t made a space for the children to genuinely share, if we hadn’t asked: What’s happening for you? Why is this triggering for you? So, you know, it’s really important that we create spaces for that to be able to happen.

Many of the little things that practitioners are doing automatically carry a sense of power-over a child, so that that voice of that child is not going to be authentic because they are already experiencing a displaced sense of power.

As we’ve just talked about, just wearing a lanyard or taking a clipboard into a meeting with a parent or child can feel like power-over to a nervous mum or child. We can’t change a lot of those sites of power, but we can acknowledge them and try and address them.

If you had three tips for people who wanted to work in a more ‘power-with’ way in early year’s settings what would they be?

There are lots of really easy little tips that I’ve come across over the years.

First, focus on creating reciprocal conversations. You have to be quite structured and deliberate about it at the start.

If a child comes up to you and says something to you, ask a question back, see if you can get five pieces of conversation happening in one go.

This activity encourages you to stop what you’re doing and helps you to focus on the child.

If you’re a teacher who is struggling to engage the children, focus on a particular child for that day.

To make this work, you have to do a few things. You’ve got to get down so you can hear them. You’ve, got to let them know you’re holding space for them. You need to ask open-ended questions because you need them to keep coming back. It can be really challenging at first, if you’re not used to it, but it’s a perfect starting point because it makes you stop and think: OK, how am I going to manage this?

It’s a really interesting way for people to change the way they interact with children. We’re not telling the child what to do. We’re suddenly really involved in that conversation. So yeah, a nice little exercise. Just sit down and have a conversation where you go backwards and forwards five times each.

Secondly, self-reflection. Look, I’m huge on self-reflection and I don’t know who you do it with in an early year’s space—it’s not always easy. I don’t know if there’s somebody you value or a supervisor, but reflect on everything you do. And if you ever tell yourself, ‘I do it that way just because I’ve always done it that way’, that’s what you need to change.

When you’re reflecting on your practice, you also need to ask yourself: ‘Who’s benefiting from this?’ If the answer is an adult, then it needs to change. The benefit should always be the child.

There are still things I do that I think, I need to reflect on that because why am I doing that? Is it because it’s easier for me or it makes my life easier or the outcome is for me?So how can I shift it so that it’s actually an outcome for the child? Self-reflection can be hard but it’s important if you want to empower the children you work with.

So, self-reflection is huge and you should continually do it.

Yes. So, what’s that? That’s two things. How many did I have to give you?

Maybe three—though you’ve already shared lots of great suggestions.

I’ll try for three.

I would also say, do your own research go and look at the studies around trauma-informed classrooms. Research how trauma impacts on the brain. Don’t wait for others to feed you the information. There’s so much available online. Just jump on and ask questions.

Another piece of advice is this.

So often when we’re working with children, particularly those that are really struggling with those big emotions or those big behaviours, it’s really challenging. I won’t let my staff say a child has challenging behaviour because the challenge isn’t the child–their behaviour is challenging us.

We need to own it, that challenge, and we need to ask ourselves, why is this? Why is that behaviour challenging me? What’s happening here?

Yeah, that’s a powerful shift in perspective, isn’t it?

Oh, it changed everything for me. A perfect example is children swearing. You know, when children get really frustrated and they start calling you names. I have staff members who believe swearing is very disrespectful. I suggest to them that it is challenging to them because there’s something in the way they were raised, which is fine, but the child is not swearing to be disrespectful in the moment. That’s just what’s coming out for them.

I ask: How can you shift that? You know, you’re an adult. Can you find a way to ignore the swearing and get to the really important part of what the child needs right now? So yeah, understanding that the challenge is actually lying with you and the onus is on you to change something in the paradigm of that relationship, is really important, I think.

Thanks so much, Kerri, for sharing your many years of experience and insights with us. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us about this important topic.

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