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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of... participation

I write, hold presentations and workshops about democratic learning a lot. And when I do I always start with how I define democratic, because I feel it is so important that we have a collective understanding of what a word means... even if this interpretation is not agreed upon by all the listeners, it is important that there is an understanding of how I interpret it, so that my presentation can be understood in context of my interpretation.

I have found many times during my adventures in the early years world, that dialogues and discussion have occurred where our different interpretations of some of the words has resulted in a series of simultaneous monologues disguised as a dialogue - where basically we are in total agreement with each other.. only to find out a few days later that we are all doing different things because we had all interpreted the dialogue in our own ways.

We have some complex words in our EY profession - such as play, learning, democratic, tidy/clean (just for starters) that are often taken for granted that everyone knows exactly what they mean, and often leads to misunderstandings as they think these words are simple, when in fact they are all steeped in complexity...

Participation is, I feel, one of the important parts of democracy. To create democratic learning and play there needs to be an equality in the participation. In fact, I much rather focus on participation than the word inclusion (another word I feel is often misunderstood).

How do we design a play and learning space so that every child feels empowered to participate? Because if that is our focus, then inclusion will happen - for all children, of all abilities.

As a mother of autistic children, I have a passion to create play and learning groups that encourage all children to participate in their own unique ways. This is far from easy, and I want to briefly share my thinking behind what I do... so in other words the foundation I build participation on.

Children participate if they feel safe. Feeling listened to and valued is a huge part of feeling safe. So, creating a space where children learn to listen to each other, and value each other, encourages participation of all the group members, and not just the ones who have that innate ability and confidence to participate from the very start. For children on the spectrum I have found that there is seldom an equality to listening to understand, making it much more difficult for these children to participate as equals as is expected of a democratic learning community. It is often discussed that children with autism lack theory of mind... I would like to point out that most neuro-norm people lack an autistic theory of mind.

I like to visualise my thinking, I like the below diagram that I saw many years ago... this one I have just screenshot... (cylinder shadow perspective... google search)

Imagine that the majority of people look at this and can only see the square shadow, while people with autism only see the circle. Both are correct ways of seeing the world. But they are different.

Some children with autism are being told, and trained, to view only the square, as that is the correct way. Fortunately there are more and more understanding that it is OK to be able to see the square without giving up the circle. What we need to be doing much more of is teaching those who only see the square how to see the circle also. Just about everything I see is about how to help the autistic child adapt and become a part of the group based on the group being square-shaped. So the autistic child has to develop strategies to manage to see the the world from this point of view... this is very exhausting.

What I do with my groups is to help the group to also learn how to see things from the point of view of the circle as well... it becomes less exhausting if there are others that are understanding your perspective. it also becomes less scary when you understand the circle.

My son constantly complained how in school he was always having to adapt and change to fit into the social norms of the classroom... or be excluded, yet none of the other children were ever expected to adapt and change in order to try and understand him.

In my workshops I try to explain this with two diagrams...

This first one shows the classroom that my son has experienced, it is also the kind of space where children who are different and outside of the norm are expected to change (given support or training) so that they can be included in the norm. Hence the circles on the outside of the norm, with arrows pointing into it. They have to be less themselves to be included. This is like I wrote above, they have to do all the work of seeing the square to be accepted into the square.

Instead, we could expand the norm, by helping all the children (and adults) to be able to see the circles... therefore all children can be themselves within the square and the circles are valued.

There is an equality of squares and circles that allows full participation of all the children... which creates inclusion.

It also means that the entire group of children help each other out rather than the teacher always being the fixer, which often "others" children.

So, for instance, in my philosophy sessions we talked a lot about listening, and how we listen, and all our different ways of listening. So that listening to each other was not about sitting still and being quiet, but about finding strategies that enabled each child to listen to the best of their ability, and to also know how to help each other. Some children need to move to be able to listen, but that could disturb other children, (although in most of my groups I have worked with the children seldom seemed disturbed by a child who needed to move to listen, as there is a different energy coming from that child than there is from one who is moving to attract attention and disturb) - but if some necessary movements were disturbing we worked out together how to solve the problem... maybe it was sitting in specific places that eased that (so, not too close, and not opposite either) - or something small to fiddle with could be a good way for the child to move without impacting another child. There is never one way of doing this... we would try different things until we found the best way for the group to listen. The aim being that the children learned that we all have different needs, and that we can all adapt a little to help each other out with those needs, even if it takes a little practice at first. Not just one child having to work hard - and all their energy is being consumed trying to control themselves to be there and therefore nothing left to actually participate - but the whole group actively working together so that there is group participation.

Sometimes, especially in the early days with a group, I would get a comment or two that it was not fair that so-and-so got to this or that, but when I asked if they needed extra help with that they would say no, and then remind them of the extra help they got with something else; and they suddenly realised that fair was not about everyone getting the same, but that it was about everyone getting what they needed to be able to be active participants in the group.

My son was often not an active participant in the classroom (even though he could be vocal at times when the teacher did not want him to be). He was included in the lessons, in the classroom in the sense he was physically there, but he seldom participated in them, and in the end he gave up even trying to participate.

When one of my daughter's got her autism diagnosis the "expert" that diagnosed her said she was lucky because she had me as her mother that had been giving good strategies and that her autism would go away. I was shocked... and I replied (probably a little snappily) that autism does not go away, that it just becomes easier to mask it from the neuro-norm so that they feel more comfortable (the expert apologised, but if these experts are making such mistakes and miscommunications, of course its going to be hard for educators). There are many autistic people so great at masking (hiding) their autism that it appears that they only see the square and have no circle vision at all!! I would like to point out that this comes at great personal cost, usually exhaustion and anxiety (and other things too) and it would be so lovely if society spent more time not being so afraid of seeing life from the perspective of the circle.

Creating classrooms, and play-and-learning environments based on active participation of each child requires that you

1. understand each child so that you know how they can participate to the best of their ability, 2. understand the dynamics of the group so that you can scaffold the children to listen and value each other,


3. absolutely demands that you deal with your own bias and prejudices about autism (and all things that are not yet included in the norm) and learn how to see and value both the square and the circle.

My aim during this latter half of 2020 is to hold several online chats... small spaces of no more than 10, where we can chat about creating democratic play and learning spaces in early childhood. These can be arranged either as a group of individuals from various places, or as one setting with the entire staff meeting me for a series of chats (as I feel that one chat awakens reflections, and then following chats allow for deeper reflections based on ideas being tested out.) I will be sharing more information about this later this week. There will be a small fee, as I am starting to collect money to finance trips to the refugee camps in Palestine, and also in Greece, (and possibly other places) to hold workshops on play and learning there, once travel becomes safe from a pandemic point of view.

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