“This is me, this is you, this is us”: Children’s identity work in early childhood education

Kate McAnelly and Michael Gaffney, University of Otago

New Zealand’s national early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, has as a core aspiration that children be able to realise an image of themselves as:

“competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society” (p. 5).

Disabled children are too often denied the right to realise this image and to practice identity work as empowered citizens within early childhood settings. This blog post shines a light on what identity work and citizenship looked like for a disabled child in a setting that deeply believed in inclusive education for all as a basic human right.

The importance of a competent image of the child

In 2016, Kate undertook an ethnographic case study of practice in one kindergarten, Ataahua (pseudonym; ataahua is the Te Reo Māori word for beautiful), as part of her Master of Education degree. This kindergarten was deliberately sought out for the inclusive ‘good news story’ it would enable Kate to tell. At Ataahua Kindergarten, a commonly held image of children as capable, strong, resilient learners who were rich in multiple intelligences and potential was visible – and Tama (pseudonym), the research focus child who had been diagnosed as being autistic when he was 2, was not excluded from this image. The powerful learning identity that Tama was able to realise as a consequence of this image was negotiated in community, where responsibility for inclusive pedagogy lay not just with teachers and families, but also the other children attending Ataahua. Accordingly, Tama (as for all members of the community) was supported to actively participate, learn and practice identity work within the setting.

Learning in the middle 

The democratic concept of ‘learning in the middle’ practiced at Ataahua Kindergarten is concerned with how the understandings of all members of a community of practice change and evolve through experiences of active participation. This evolution in understanding is achieved in a multi-dimensional learning environment comprising people, places, things, knowledges and practices. The focus on how this is achieved through intra-action between these elements within communities of practice enables ongoing reflection on how action, power and authority are situated within those settings. At Ataahua, this meant several factors were at play:

  • Living and learning were shared endeavours that all members of the community of practice, children and adults alike, were a part of.
  • All community members were supported to engage in moments of sustained shared thinking on topics that interested and motivated them.
  • The shared meaning making generated through intersubjectivity was important in developing and reifying the community’s mantra, ‘everybody in’, and making visible their inclusive thinking, values and culture.
  • Diverse emerging working theories, dispositions and funds of knowledge were recognised and honoured, as were alternative learning trajectories that arose from these.
  • Identifying and working within affordance networks of whanaungatanga and kotahitanga that supported inclusive practice were similarly important.
  • Finally, notions of modes of belonging and authoritative identity work were present.

Powerful learning identities for all children, including Tama, were thus realised.

Identity work in action

The following is an example of observational data from Ataahua Kindergarten that highlights Tama’s powerful learning identity in action.

Tama was outside playing in the long grasses with Derek, Punch and Jazzy (pseudonyms). They then decided to lie back on the grass with their hands behind their heads at Tama’s prompting, relaxing and looking up at the sky, which is something Tama really enjoys. They lay there for a while just quietly contemplating what they were seeing, when Tama felt something land on his face. He batted at it. “Wet, it’s the rain!” he told Derek, Punch and Jazzy, and pointed at the sky with urgency. They reached their hands up towards the sky to see if they could feel it too. “It is wet!” Jazzy declared. The conversation turned to “what is rain?”, a question Punch asked. Tama ventured the first opinion “rain … water coming from the sky”. The others agreed. Derek thought rain was “a Mum crying because her kids weren’t doing what she asked”. Tama found this hilarious and dissolved into giggles. No-one said anything else during this time and instead the others joined Tama in his giggling. The rain continued. Then Tama asked “we go in, stay out?” meaning should the group go inside or stay outside. They mutually agreed to stay outside and enjoy the feeling of “the soft rain falling gently on our faces” (Derek).

Breaking it down

There are several elements of this scenario that built on Tama’s sense of self as a capable, competent learner and a contributor to what went on around him.

  • The first of these is that it was common for Tama to be spending time with Derek, Punch and Jazzy, and these friends would frequently respond positively to Tama’s ideas and suggestions in the context of play.
  • Secondly, lying still on the grass was something new and different for Punch and Jazzy who generally preferred more active forms of play, but they understood that Tama engaged in it for a reason – a sense of “if he enjoys it, then we probably will too”.
  • Thirdly, out of the shared experience of the rain beginning, the children demonstrated their intersubjectivity in co-constructing meaning and working out a shared understanding of what was happening.
  • Fourth, through this period of joint attention, the children shared their funds of knowledge and their imaginings as well as simply enjoying the moment together.
  • Finally, Tama checked if the other children were happy to stay in the rain as he knew Jazzy, who was similarly neurodiverse, was often not comfortable with it. As a group, they decided to continue sharing the experience.

Children negotiating identity

In the Aotearoa New Zealand context, and using Te Whāriki as a basis for practice, there’s an expectation that early childhood teachers hold an image of children as being competent, able and full of potential. However, as the scenario above shows, the children at Ataahua Kindergarten were themselves also well versed in holding this image of each other regardless of disability or difference. This reflected the identity work that was continuously being negotiated amongst the children at Ataahua.

This identity work was carried out using a number of different means.

  • A pedagogy of listening (as per the Reggio Emilia philosophy that underpinned life at Ataahua) was key, as were respectful, unhurried approaches to practice from both children and teachers.
  • Valuing the diversity of the ‘other’ was embedded in the notion of democratic participation that underpinned living and learning at Ataahua.
  • The children also had a firm grasp on how identity resides in a sense of belonging (see also Anne Smith’s chapter in this book), and so the children supported each other to realise not just powerful learning identities, but the knowledge that Ataahua was their tūrangawaewae, a space where they mattered, were valued and had a rightful place.

Concluding thoughts

There is much that communities of practice across the education sector in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond can learn from Ataahua in terms of how children competently engaged in identity work, regardless of disability. At Ataahua Kindergarten, children demonstrated an intentionality around inclusive practice. This intentionality reflected how space had been made for diverse individual identities to come together as a collective.

The shared thinking of children and adults, in terms of ‘this is who we are, this is what we do and this is how we do it’, was crucial to developing the democratic notions of whanaungatanga and kotahitanga that underpinned practice at Ataahua. Ongoing meaningful democratic dialogue was also important – built on the belief that everyone must have a say in the things that affect them, including (and especially) children. Meaning and thus identity were negotiated in community, and all participants within it were seen as belonging to that community. This draws from an understanding of inclusive education as a basic human right.

In inclusive education settings, particularly in early childhood, children have traditionally been described as serving an apprenticeship in democracy. However, we argue that children at Ataahua were, in fact, fully fledged practitioners of democracy in that they were central partners in inclusive practice, active co-creators of powerful learning identities and, ultimately, empowered citizens.

Kate marae grad celebrationKate McAnelly is an early childhood teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Otago College of Education in Dunedin. Presenting at the 2017 NZARE conference (for which she was an NZARE student travel grant recipient) and writing this blog post are amongst the last pieces of dissemination work arising from Kate’s Masters research. She is looking forward to sharing some initial findings from her PhD research – on sensory environments in early childhood settings and how they afford the active participation and learning of autistic children – at the 2018 NZARE conference.

Michael Gaffney.jpgMichael Gaffney is a lecturer in early childhood education at the University of Otago College of Education in Dunedin, and has a long-standing research background in early childhood dating back to his time working with Anne Smith at the University of Otago’s Children’s Issues Centre. His other research interests include disability, childhood studies, communities of practice, and social and educational evaluation. Michael supervised Kate’s Masters research and has the privilege of being the primary supervisor for her PhD.

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