The content of this article was inspired by personal experience which is often the encouragement one needs to put pen to paper. Having observed and listened to people close to me whose children started at new settings this past September, I’ve been struck by the rollercoaster of emotions felt, and the eagerness (and at times desperation) for feedback from the practitioners who now spend almost every day caring for and teaching little people who not long ago were being rocked in arms and sleeping in cots, their every move anticipated and known.
And what came to mind is how central stories are in our relationships with parents, and how crucial they are in terms of building positive partnerships and community.
What is children’s learning – all our learning – if not a story? Interestingly. In New Zealand’s, Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum, ‘learning stories’ are, in fact, a technique used to assess children’s learning whereby teachers write narratives based on their on-going observations of the children: a particular incident, a period carrying out a certain activity or a group event, interpreting the children’s actions and resultant learning by considering their competencies and attitudes in these given situations. This documentation, often consisting of photographs or video, along with the composed learning stories, are shared with the child and their family, with this documentation also forming part of the child’s portfolio.
Viewing learning as a collective of stories and in fact, viewing life and others through what I call a story lens is an effective way to cultivate greater compassion and strengthen connection. It is simply a way of seeing the people around us in terms of their lived stories and as we begin to do this, it often changes the way we relate to them.
On a practical level, this means committing to:
- Honouring the stories of the children – Asking “what has their journey - to date - been?” My youngest niece was born at twenty-six weeks and endured a long battle for survival in an NICU unit. At merely a year old, she had already endured a vast range of medical procedures and physical trials. Her early years have been about overcoming many obstacles. What is essential in terms of her learning journey is that she is seen in the context of her whole story, for the hero that she is. Indeed, every child in a setting, no matter their cultural, religious or socio-economic background, brings with them a history, and rich knowledge of some kind. It is through respecting their life stories that we can begin to facilitate their learning to ensure the best possible journey for them.
- Honouring the stories of the parents – What has their journey with their child entailed? What emotions do they carry as their children attend school?
We cannot address learning and behaviour at school without some awareness of what life stories are being told outside of it. Importantly, what learning stories have been written in the lives of the parents? Are they negative tales that they wish for their child never to repeat? Or have they been fortunate characters in positive tales that they now wish for their child/children to experience and possibly emulate? Both visions require a balancing of passion – a strong communication of the child’s individuality, and a gentle reminding that this is a new story that is being crafted.
- As practitioners, identifying the collective stories of the child and their family, understanding that the individual children in our care form part of a far larger story as members of a family: with siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and of communities outside of the school itself. As the children grow and learn, they become individual contributors to a larger collective with the work of teachers having far-reaching effects.
- As practitioners, ensuring we share the stories of the children accurately – both the stories of success and of struggle. Having the courage to communicate truthfully whilst also employing hope which asks, ‘Can tomorrow be better than today? Is there a way to make it so? Can I stay the course to act to make it so?’ Parents are often aware that there may be challenges to face in terms of children settling in and socialising, learning, and achieving. What they require from us as practitioners is transparency. We know that time is of the essence in a child’s earliest years as we look to support their development, and early diagnosis of learning difficulties is key in obtaining the best outcomes. This therefore requires detailed observations taken over time, along with considered input gathered in consultation with other professionals working in the environment to be passed on with great wisdom and compassion. What we are looking to do, in every circumstance, is to work in partnership with parents to ensure that we implement the best strategies for their child.
- As adults in the lives of children, sharing stories of joy - the word ‘enjoy’ means to give joy and comes from the word rejoice. We need to ask ourselves, “Are the children enjoying learning?’ Are we facilitating this rejoicing in their discovery and their learning? Are they able to give joy to themselves and to others? Or are we rather sharing stories of should?” Where children should behave in certain ways and should meet certain standards, with these should stories often based on the cultural and traditional stories that we hold onto?
Some of the deepest learning of my adult life has been that the ‘shoulds’ we judge by often lead to shame on the part of the children in our care. And the antidote to this, the liberation of the children, is in the embracing of their uniqueness: in the acknowledgment of the precious stories they hold, and in the desire to walk along with them as co-learners as they uncover joy in their learning.
At this festive time, there Is much rejoicing and hope around stories that are sacred to us. May we be reminded of the sacredness of all stories, considering how deeply each person’s perspective matters, and may the narratives we tell be infused with these same qualities: those we believe about and tell the children and their families, and those we tell to and with our colleagues.
Wishing you stories filled with wonder as we look to the new year.
About the author:
Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.
She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners” and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.