BLOG: It is time for schools and social care facilities to elicit the voices of all children systematically and continuously.
Rami Benbenishty, Professor Emeritus, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Corona crisis demonstrated how children were not part of the public health decision making and discourse. In a time that called for more attentive listening to the voices of children who were torn from their daily routines and sources of support, only ‘expert adults’ were leading the conversation. They referred to children as if they know what these children were experiencing or wishing, but children’s voices were no part of the trade-offs that society made between emotional, economic, and health risks.
As Cuevas-Parra (2021) noted recently, strategies to contain COVID-19 have been criticized for being adult-centered. This current crisis may be over soon, but the need to listen to children should always be addressed.
Right to be heard
Article 12 of the UNCRC states that ‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child (…) the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’
The article further emphasizes that the child in particular shall be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body.’
This current crisis may be over soon, but the need to listen to children should always be addressed.Rami Benbenishty
The wording of this important article seems to focus on the child as an individual. I would like us to consider the voices of children, not only as individuals, but also as members of a social group and a community of children.
That is, their right to have their voice heard not only in matters that are directly affecting them and being heard not only in proceedings that affect them as individuals, but also on matters and proceedings that affect their community of children.
As relevant examples, I would like to discuss two specific contexts: children who are students in school and children in social care (foster care and residential settings).
Empowerment of children
We usually focus the right of children to participate. This is important because it lays the foundation to the demand from adults to honor this right. But a focus on ‘rights’ in this context is limiting. Child participation in educational and social care settings is not disassociated from their education and socio-emotional needs, learning, and development.
Educators and social carers need to see the participation of children as an integral part of their efforts to promote and enhance educational and therapeutic goals. Children who participate in teams that articulate their needs, interests, concerns, and hopes are engaging in important learning and development processes. They go through processes of self-awareness, putting feelings and thoughts into words, interacting and negotiating meaning with peers and adults, and they receive corrective feedback and praise that enhances their self-image.
Educators and social carers need to see the participation of children as an integral part of their efforts to promote and enhance educational and therapeutic goals.Rami Benbenishty
In cooperation with educators and carers, children can learn that they make a difference and change important aspects of their environment. They can also experience the frustration when needs and wants meet reality, and learn how to negotiate responsibly in order to achieve what they think they deserve.
Hence, when we include children in a residential care facility in a process in which they are asked about their lives in the facility, they feel empowered to come to the adult leadership and communicate how they feel about the material conditions in the facility and the ways they are being treated by the staff. They are part of the team that aims to respond to the emerging needs.
Here they also find that some things will not change, e.g., the restrictions on staying out of the facility late at night, even if they request it. They may find, on the other hand, that their complaints about the food variety could be addressed, and their concerns about their safety at night made a major impact on the presence of adults in the facility who are available at night to supervise and protect.
A challenging task
Engaging children in such processes and conducting them effectively is not an easy task for educators and carers. Many children may distrust adults who offer to hear their voice and promise to listen; too many children were disappointed in the past. Some children may find it hard to express their unique voice while accepting that others in their community may have a different voice. Other children may find it difficult to accept that although their voice has been heard, adults may decide otherwise.
It is therefore important to prepare educators and carers not only to accept the idea of listening to children, but also learn how to make it happen in positive and effective ways. There are multiple ways to listen to the voices of children. Some teachers and carers take the time to interview individual children, create focus groups or use other opportunities to listen to groups of children.
In cooperation with educators and carers children can learn that they make a difference and change important aspects of their environment.Rami Benbenishty
The ‘photo-voice’ procedure allows children to express their feelings, needs, and wants through artistic expression, such as photographs and films. For instance, children document their daily routines and physical locations, sometimes narrating their video’s with how they feel about these places and locations, and what make them special (for good or for bad).
It should be noted, however, that all these important methods are usually limited to a small number of children. Furthermore, such methods are used sparingly, inconsistently, and unsystematically.
Sharing their voices through surveys
In the last couple of decades, I have worked with my colleagues Ron Avi Astor and Avi Benbenishty towards schools and residential care facilities in Israel, USA, Chile, Kosovo, and China to provide children with opportunities to share their voice through surveys.
We invited children to take part in designing a survey, to help in gathering responses and to take part in making sense of the findings, sometimes in small groups and other times in assemblies that included a whole school. We also invited children to be involved in processes of translating the voices of children to recommendations to the school and facility leaders.
We did not always succeed. In some cases, it was clear that the adults in the schools and facilities were quite skeptical about the importance of the student voice or had other priorities. But, when we were successful in partnering with the school and facility leadership, we were able to carry out such student surveys annually, with response rates above 90 %.
In this process we were able to empower students’ representatives to be an integral part of the survey design and data gathering. In one of the schools in Israel we even carried out a ‘social survey’ course, in which students learned the knowledge and skills required to develop and execute a survey among their peers. With current technology, many of the tasks (e.g., survey development and online data gathering) are easier than ever, and quite attractive to technology-savvy children.
We think that it is time that schools and social care facilities should be required (and held accountable) to elicit the voices of all children systematically and continuously, and to develop the socio-educational processes to give the views of children ‘due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’
- Cuevas-Parra, P (2021). Thirty years after the UNCRC: Children and young people’s participation continues to struggle in a COVID-19 world. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 43 (1), 81-98. DOI: 10.1080/09649069.2021.1876309
Relevant additional references from the author’s work:
- Astor, R.A., & Benbenishty, R. (2019). Bullying, school violence, and climate in evolving contexts: Culture, organization and time. New York: Oxford University Press [English].
- Astor, R. A., Jacobson, L., Wrabel, S., Benbenishty, R., & Pineda, D. (2018). Welcoming Practices: Creating schools that support students and families in transition. New York: Oxford University Press [English].
- Astor, R. A., & Benbenishty, R. (2018). Mapping and monitoring bullying and violence: Building a safe school climate. New York: Oxford University Press. [English]
- Benbenishty, R., Astor, R. A., Shadmi, H., Glickman, H., Luke, E., Ratner, D., Segel, H., & Raz, T. (2020). The Israel Model: A centralized national and local system designed to achieve optimal school climate driven by monitoring on multiple levels. In J. Cohen & D. Espelage (Eds.). Creating safe, supportive and engaging K-12 schools: Challenges and opportunities around the world. Cambridge MA: Harvard Education Press[English].
- Benbenishty, A., & Benbenishty, R. (2015). Hope-building leadership: From theory to practice. Jerusalem:Geffen.[Hebrew]