Interview with Greek academic and author, Μαrία Χατζηγιάννη, on how to talk to children about war, conflict and other challenging topicsPosted: 06/04/2023
A few weeks ago, we spoke to Μαrία Χατζηγιάννη, Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood and Care at the University of West Attica in Athens, Greece and an honorary lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
During her time in Melbourne, Maria used the original Strengths Cards for Kids in her work with children. She now wants to use the cards in her work in Greece to talk about challenging topics and help children build resilience, social skills and emotional awareness. She agreed to tell us a bit about her incredible research on using technology with young children to explore big issues like war.
We started by asking Maria to tell us a bit about herself:
I was a lecturer for more than 7 years in Australia in different universities. I completed my PhD with full scholarship at the University of Melbourne in 2008 and before that I completed a Masters degree (ICT in Education) and a Bachelors degree (Early Childhood Education) from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens.
I have also worked as an early childhood teacher and director for more than 13 years, 5 of which were in Australia (in Australian-Greek early childhood settings, seconded by the Greek Ministry of Education).
Most of my research and academic teaching concentrates on the use of new technologies in early childhood education (for children, teachers, parents). I have a specific interest in the associations of the use of technology with social-emotional development. I am also interested in STEM/STEAM approaches in early childhood.
You recently contributed to a book called ‘Embedding STEAM in early childhood education and care’ in which you talked about innovative ways to talk to children about big topics like war and conflict. What key messages do you have for educators or other people supporting children about how to have these difficult conversations?
Based on both my academic and pedagogical knowledge, young children can understand a lot more than we think they can. Building on a strengths approach and not on a deficit approach (what young children cannot do) and using innovative, creative strategies (e.g., design thinking, STEM etc) we can explore with young children ‘difficult’, ‘abstract’ concepts such as ‘war’, ‘peace’, ‘enemy’, ‘borders’, ‘conflict’ etc.
This project took place at a historical time for Greece. Young children, as Greek citizens, were experiencing the whole frustration and turbulence which was happening around them. Early childhood teachers know very well that they need to plan and organise authentic experiences and activities from children’s everyday life and support, anyway they can, children’s active participation.
Parents should also be honest and explain to children what is happening around them. Conversations and explanations should be clear of any biases and stereotypes. During the project it was evident, for example, that young children at the start did not know what a ‘hero’ was, they only knew ‘super heroes’. Children’s understandings were transformed at the end of the project and they could explain who can be a real hero and that heroes can also be women.
You’ve worked in education in both Australia and Greece. What similarities and differences have you noticed in terms of approaches to education? What could we learn from Greek approaches to education?
I have learned a lot in Australia as an early childhood teacher. I now value more children’s free play, outdoor activities, programme planning, pedagogical documentation and also how the early childhood settings are assessed.
The Greek early childhood system is split. Children as young as 6 months old can go to a childcare centre until they turn 4. After 4, it is compulsory to go to kindergarten for 2 years (4-6). At 6 years of age they start primary school. It is great we have a compulsory kindergarten for 2 years and a public/states system – parents do not pay! Unfortunately, in Australia the cost for early childhood education is quite high. Of course, a public system also has its disadvantages (e.g., lack of resources, one teacher with 25 children) but at least it is fair and accessible to all children.
Prep (age 5-6) is the first year of primary school in Australia in most states, and they mostly follow an academic programme, learning to read and write. In Greece, the same year is still considered early childhood and not primary education. Play, projects, inquiry-based learning are still very eminent in Greek kindergarten – which I think is an advantage.
Finally, Greek early childhood teachers have a 4 year university degree, even the ones who work with children under 4 years of age. Teachers who do not have a university degree can only work in private centres – not in public centres.
Can you give an example or two of how you have used Innovative Resources’ cards with children, families or groups?
As an early childhood teacher and a researcher, I was looking for resources for social-emotional development and I found them on the internet. I have used the old version of Strength Cards For Kids.
I used the strength cards with children when I was working as a kindergarten teacher, both with 4 and 5 years old. When working around their social and emotional development, I was showing the children some of the cards (I was choosing maybe 10-15 of the whole set) and we would discuss which ones were closer to each child (e.g., this is a lot like me; not a lot like me).
Young children cannot read, but the graphics of the cards were very intuitive and with my help they could understand what the card was about. I also had the card stickers and children were getting one sticker each time (the card which best described them) – they loved that positive reinforcement.
I also asked questions like: Which card do you think fits with your best friend…(name of the child)?; Which card do you think is very important and you would like to be more like that in the future? Unfortunately, I did not use the cards with parents.
In the current project/software we are preparing for the Ministry of Education, children will be able to see, with the help of technology, the cards on the screen and on the paper. I will also be able to record my voice explaining each card in Greek and the children will be able to listen to the description of the card as many times as they need to.
Combining two mediums (digital and hardcopy) will enhance children’s understanding and engagement with the cards. From a researcher’s perspective, it will also be very interesting to observe and systematically investigate children’s reactions, and hear parents’ and teachers’ feedback about using these cards.
If you could give three pieces of advice to people who are supporting someone using the cards, what would they be?
- Explore all the cards the first time and choose 10 which are suitable for specific children/context
- Prepare a system of how young children can understand/reply to the cards (e.g. ask children to choose two cards that best describe them; or create a scale of answers – mostly like me; a little like me, etc)
- Document children’s answers and compare them in future times and inform parents when you have meetings about their children.
My other tips would be to use a small number of cards each time (5-10) with young children who cannot read, so that teachers/parents can help them understand. Depending on the context and needs of each setting, teachers could choose which cards are most suitable.
They could also use different cards in different times of the year (e.g, at the start, middle and end of the year). Teachers could also be encouraged to monitor children’s answers and compare them at different times to see whether children’s self-evaluations change.
The introduction to the cards would be better when it is part of a project around social-emotional development, emotions, learning about myself and my identity, my well-being etc – associated with the early years learning framework of Australia.
Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions?
One last point to consider would be to organise professional development for early childhood educators around the different sets of cards and to promote their wider use.
We would like to thank Maria for sharing her extensive knowledge, experience and insights with us.