by Didi Devapriya Deshaies
In October, the International Step by Step Association (ISSA) organized a conference for early childhood professionals with the theme “Early Childhood in Times of Rapid Change” that took place this October in Vilnius, Lithuania. The conference explored four main strands – Meaningful Learning for Children, Meaningful Preparation for the Workforce, Meaningful Support for Families, Meaningful Use of Technology. The conference sought to address the experience of rapid changes facing societies around the world, bringing together experts, researchers, practioners, policy makers and NGOs to discuss these themes in a variety of interactive sessions. There was a particular emphasis on the refugee crisis and several presentations shared strategies on addressing the needs of children and families affected by displacement and the traumas of war, natural disasters or economic crisis.
I was invited to present two Neohumanist Education projects: The “Pathways to Education” project for Syrian refugee children run by AMURT Lebanon, and the “We all have a Story” project promoting inclusivity in early childhood education that took place in Romania. I was able to participate, thanks to support from the Zonnelicht school. It was an excellent opportunity for Neohumanist Education approaches to gain visibility amongst leaders in the field, as well as to learn about innovative new developments in ECE and create new networking connections with like-minded organizations and people. A Dutch organization was particularly interested in exploring collaborations in working with refugees. Connections were also made for developing further projects in the integration of severely marginalized Roma communities.
A new term that was repeatedly used in the conference was “Generation Touch” referring to the impact of touch screen technology on children who are growing up in a world where they expect every object to perform like a screen, responding instantaneously to touch. This phenomenon was explored in several of the presentations I attended. Generally, there was a consensus that technology should scaffold and support, rather than replace other types of educational interventions, and that its use should be very limited in the earliest years of a child’s life, as it can affect neurological development. In her keynote speech, Professor Liz Goodman who teaches “Inclusive Design” in Dublin, also described innovations in the use of technology to support the inclusion of special needs children, such as an innovation that allows paralyzed people to move a mouse with their eye movements. She talked about how technology can assist in personalization of services as “one size fits one”.
I particularly enjoyed a lively peer debate on the appropriate use of technology in early childhood education. I was expecting to listen to a panel of experts debating the pros and cons of technology, so I was quite taken aback when I walked in through the door and the moderator asked me whether I was for or against the use of technology in Early Childhood education – I answered “It depends…” but we had to all choose a stand and then go through a formal debate process. I ended up on the anti-tech side and argued that the most important piece of technology we must teach children to master is our own body, heart and mind. However, in reality – I recognized that technology is very difficult to avoid, and it is simply a fact that we must learn to deal with in appropriate ways. Another conclusion that was also mentioned several times in the course of the conference, is that the increase in screen time, needs to be balanced by increased conscientious attention on developing empathy and relationships.
Another keynote presentation, by Nicholas Burnett, introduced the Lancet Series, which Advancing Early Childhood Development: from Science to Scale. The journal is a prestigious medical and scientific journal, which has gathered evidence to quantify the impact of early childhood education. The study shows that “children who are not nurtured properly in the early years may forfeit a quarter of their earning capacity as adults. The Series provides a roadmap to successful interventions in early childhood, along with evidence that such interventions contribute directly to ending extreme poverty, boosting shared prosperity, promoting healthy lives and learning, reducing inequalities, and maintaining peaceful societies.” The findings from the Lancet series emphasize “‘nurturing care’, especially for children below three years of age: multi-sectoral interventions starting with health – which can make a profound impact on families and young children through health and nutrition.” Dr. Burnett made a comparison with climate change – that a change in our individual behavior will not to seem to have any impact in the short term, but unless we take actions now, we will all be in much worse problems in the future.
Indeed, the Lancet series evidence has already proven useful in convincing policy makers to include investments in Early Childhood Education as part of the UN Millenium Development Goals and on more local levels. The conference concluded with the screening of a new documentary video “The Beginning of Life” which similarly can be very useful in supporting efforts to convince parents, policy makers etc about the importance of investing in early childhood education.
Asociatia Educatia Neoumanista (AEN) is a partner in the Erasmus+ project “Children in Permaculture”.
Children in Permaculture is a 3-year project funded through Erasmus+ Key Action 2: School Education. The partnership is across 5 countries: UK, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Italy.
CiP is an innovative project of international cooperation bringing together key educators (from different schools, nurseries, practices and countries) in order to cross-fertilise, share and synthesise ideas, which will strengthen the capacities of all involved.
This international exchange will develop, test, adapt and implement practices in permaculture education with children. It will:
Eric Jacobsen is the founder and director of a model Neohumanist Education school in Long Island, New York. Over the course of 15 years, he has been interviewing students who graduated from the Progressive School of Long Island to discover the impact of the Neohumanist “character-based education” on their long term development.
Their responses have been compiled, revealing a clear pattern. There are 13 character qualities that these young people, now in high-school, college and beyond, consistently report observing both in themselves, and in their peers from Progressive School. Although these qualities may exist in others too, they are seen with amazing frequency and to a high degree in those who benefited from the Neohumanist educational foundation. Eric calls these qualities “intangible gains” because they are not easily quantified. Yet they are the engine that drives academic and personal growth.
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The Gradinita Rasarit kindergarten was started in 1995 – so it has had its 20th anniversary in 2015!
The program is the first one in Romania to be inspired by Neohumanist Education philosophy and we are working on creating a new educational alternative based on this experience. Here is a photo album of some of the activities from the past year!
During the past two years, AEN’s president, Denise Deshaies has been travelling to Lebanon to lead trainings in Neohumanist Education for the staff of a project serving the Syrian refugee children there. In less than a year, the AMURT Lebanon Child Friendly Space (CFS) project has progressed considerably. Though it started out in a space that used to be a warehouse that was renovated above the original headquarters of AMURT, it has since shifted to Al-Mahaba School a large school building owned by the Catholic church in KfrNabrakh, with a spacious and well equipped sports field.
There has also been turnover in both teachers and children. Since the program began in April 2014, 310 children have benefitted from the CFS program. Currently, there are 50 new children integrating into the program. There are now 10 CFS facilitators, as well as an educational consultant and two psychologists involved in the psycho-social support program. Besides the CFS program, AMURT Lebanon also runs a Back to School support program which has given financial support to a total of 650 Syrian and Lebanese vulnerable students to cover school fees, transportation and educational materials. In February, AMURT Lebanon organized a Neohumanist Education training led by AMURTEL Romania’s president, Didi A. Devapriya to offer holistic education tools to the new staff.
The training focused mostly on understanding how traumatic stress effects children and their behavior, as well as practical methods for assisting the children in integrating into the child friendly space. The CFS is conceived of as a temporary, intermediate step to help children that have either never been in, or have been excluded from the mainstream educational system because of their refugee status. It helps children “normalize” after so many experiences of disruption, stress and instability. It also gives them a safe space to learn how to express themselves, to receive emotional support and coaching, as well as to gain practical skills for school readiness. One of the most important elements of the CFS, however, is to have fun and play!
It was chilling to see the drawings on the walls of the therapy room made by some of the children. There were so many vivid drawings of soldiers with guns, bullets, blood and dead bodies. These children have seen unspeakable things. And yet, they are still children and need the same opportunities all children need to grow and develop and heal.
Didi introduced yoga for children as a way to ground and learn to trigger relaxation responses to turn off the hyper vigilant stress system that traumatic situations leave constantly on alert. She also introduced story-massage, therapeutic story telling, persona dolls and lots of games. The group was particularly creative and invented many songs in Arabic, based on classic Neohumanist songs to use during quiet time, transitions, etc.
Since the training, the facilitators have introduced a morning “Circle of Love”, and use the songs that they created for the activities. They use story telling extensively and have already created several arabic persona dolls, which they plan to use to address sensitive issues around bullying and discrimination.
Here is a therapeutic story that Didi wrote for the training and reflects, through metaphor, the experience of these children:
A tiny tomato seed was planted in the warm, dark earth inside of a safe greenhouse. Soon, a tiny green shoot had sprouted through the earth, and began reaching up towards the sunlight. It grew, and grew…And then one day, a shovel came, and roughly dug into the earth next to her and in one sudden lurching movement, the tomato seedling was dizzily free of its familiar bed of earth. A small chunk of earth clung to her tiny hair like roots. Several of the roots stung as they had been severed when the seedling had been torn from the ground.
The seedling was crowded into a tray with many other little plants. They could barely breathe. And then a motor hummed, and suddenly the earth was moving underneath then and rumbling and jostling. They fell over onto one another, some of their fragile leaves snapped off.
A long time passed, and the little seedling just waited, huddled together. Most mornings they received a brief shower of water from above. But a long time days passed without water…they were so thirsty. The little plants couldn’t keep growing towards the sun. They began to wilt..some of the leaves were turning yellow. They cried out for water – they wanted to grow again.
At last their cries were heard. A concerned voice “Oh – these plants need to get into the ground!!! Who left them here?”
The little seedling again found herself flying through the air, and then she was settled into a carefully prepared hole, already soaked with water. The half covered roots were then snugly covered up with earth. The little seedling was happy – but so exhausted that she just slumped over onto the earth. She didn’t even have the strength to stand up straight – especially with the rays of sun beating down as the sun rose high into the sky.
There were other tomato plants nearby – strong and tall. They seemed to be laughing at the sadly wilted newcomers. Already they had yellow flowers brightly decorating their branches -that would turn into red tomatoes in a few more weeks.
That night when the hot sun set behind the stony mountains, a cool moon rose in the sky and gently shone its healing light on the little tomato seedling . The moon told the seedling – you are safe now and can let your roots stretch into the ground again. I will send morning dew for you to drink and grow strong, and soon you will catch up with the other plants and you too will have beautiful yellow flowers and lovely juicy tomatoes!”
The next morning, it wasn’t easy and the little seedling had to struggle, but already she was standing up a bit straighter. The farmer came and planted a strong pole next to her and gently tied bits of string to her stems to support her to grow nice and tall. Though she was smaller than the others and had to work hard to grow, day by day the little plant was climbing higher and higher thanks to the pole. The farmer took extra care to give her steady showers of rain and a little bit of extra fertile black manure so she could catch up. Soon the tomato plant was doing what tomato plants do – stretching her leaves up to the sun and growing, growing, growing.
Before long – yellow buds unfurled on its branches. In a few more weeks, when the flowers had dried up, they left behind small, round, green knobs that began to swell every day. The green tomatoes warmed in the summer sunshine, and began blushing into red. The little tomato seedling had grown into a tall, strong tomato plant just like the other plants, and offered its juicy, sweet, red tomatoes to the farmer.
The following resources are helpful for early-childhood education teacher training. They can be used to stimulate discussion and critical thinking and some contain practical examples for classroom use:
by Louise Derman Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards
by Trisha Whitney
This book introduces the “persona doll method” – an excellent tool for stimulating discussion in the classroom about issues such as stereotyping, exclusion, diversity etc. The teacher creates a realistic biography for a special handmade doll that is not used as a typical toy – but rather is introduced into the classroom as a friend and brought into special circle discussions by the teacher on a regular basis. Care is taken to include different aspects of diversity relevant to the children in the group when formulating the biography. The book gives hundreds of practical examples, directly from the classroom, of facilitating children to identify emotions, solve problems and increase empathy. The book can be bought online at Amazon. You can also learn more about this method, and order dolls from the Persona Dolls Training website. They also have a rich resource section, with many useful books and DVDs. In particular, the DVD “Storytelling to make a Difference” shows many examples of utilizing the persona doll method in the classroom, with feedback from the teachers as well.
by Tony Booth and Mel Ainscow
The Index for Inclusion by Tony Booth and Mel Ainsow is concerned with promoting values-led development for schools, kindergarten and other educational settings. It sees inclusion broadly as concerned with putting inclusive values into action and through its 70 indicators and 2,000 questions relates its values framework to the fine detail of settings and the activities within them. The most recent edition has been written by Tony Booth and can be obtained by writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available from the Index for Inclusion Network at indexforinclusion.org
This comprehensive resource offers an important tool for critical reflection to school communities that are seeking to improve their inclusiveness. It offers guidance in developing an inclusive school development plan, and offers a list of indicators that help to paint a clear picture of what an optimally inclusive environment would look like. It is designed to stimulate discussion between stakeholders rather than as a checklist.
Recent movements, such as “Gross National Happiness”, or the “Happy Planet Index” have shown the importance of “measuring what matters.” The process of doing so, helps us to define more clearly the future we are seeking to create. Clear goals and clear vision lead to better outcomes.
This Ted Talk, by Nic Marks further elaborates on the importance of having positive visions of change – with very interesting implications for the ecological movement as well. He begins his talk by saying that Martin Luther King, when inspiring the civil rights movement, did not start out his famous speech with “I have a nightmare” but rather with “I have a dream.”
More and more people are becoming aware of the need to emphasize well-being in early childhood education, rather than only looking at standard cognitive developmental benchmarks. This organization “Learning for Well-Being” shares many Neohumanist values.
The following video, “A Class Divided” is a documentary about a controversial experiment that a 2nd grade teacher, Jane Elliot, did in 1968, immediately after the shooting of Martin Luther King, in order to sensitize her students to racism by creating an experience of discrimination. The students were interviewed many years later as adults, and all of them felt it was an important life-changing experience that they wish more children could have so that they could learn to empathize with people that experience discrimination.
The Swiss organization, Proinfirmis, has produced several touching videos designed to help shift the way people view those with disabilities:
The following article is based on a talk given by Didi Devapriya Deshaies (president of AEN) during the panel discussion: “How can we transform our educational system to help construct a compassionate and more livable future?” July 11th, AB Tech Campus, Asheville, NC:
Since last year, I have been part of a project in Bucharest to train 100 kindergarten teachers in the “We all Have a Story Project”, which was designed to awaken positive attitudes towards diversity in both teachers and kindergarten children. The project is financed by the EEA Grants in the “NGO Fund” program and is is a partnership between the Centre for Partnership and Equality (CPE), AMURTEL Romania and Romano Butiq.
During one of the training sessions, we led a simple exercise. The teachers gathered in a circle, and while their eyes were closed, we placed colored post-it notes on their heads. Most received yellow post-it notes while just a few of them received green ones. When they opened their eyes, they could see the post-it notes on the heads of the others, but they could not see their own. At first they just walked through the room, greeting each other and giggling at the oddness of having something stuck to their head. However, we then told them to avoid those wearing green postit notes as they were not their friends. The change in the atmosphere of the room was palpable and a certain tension began rising. As everyone began to ignore and exclude those with green, the giggling took on a nervous quality, as nobody was really sure what color they themselves had. Eye contact became insecure, and the question “are the others excluding me?” was hanging in the air. Read More
by Didi A.Devapriya
Virginia Blackburn was a powerful and beautiful black African American woman working as a social worker at a women’s centre in a poor inner-city neighbourhood in the Midwest. She was a close friend and wise mentor for me in my early twenties. She invited me to different workshops on themes such as overcoming racism, classism, sexism and other types of isms. I was shocked to discover how these barriers had limited my ability to feel close and connected to others. I considered myself a liberal, open minded person. I had grown up in a multi-ethnic highschool and most of my best friends were non-whites – Korean, Chinese, Indian. I had even gone to a formal dance with a black friend as my date, and had to cringingly endure the loud and embarrassing comments of my somewhat deaf French-Canadian grandfather like “ Oh he is good looking for a black guy!” I was a good person and I was dedicated to principles of equality for all. I certainly didn’t see myself as a racist and would never consciously participate in hurting anyone because of their identity. And yet, in the workshops I discovered the extent to which I had still internalised racism and other isms.