"Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders."
Mary Parker Follett
Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) has been referred to as the ‘Mother of Modern Management’. An American social worker, philosopher and pioneering management consultant, she believed that management was the art of getting things done ‘through people’ rather than by people, and that genuine power rests in developing ‘power with’ people rather than ‘power over’ people.
As a social worker, she advocated for participatory democracy and an ‘integrative society’ where all levels of society can participate.
Those of us who work in early childhood often find ourselves in a position of power, whether in a leadership position or when working directly with children. When we consider relationships and the potential power that exists between people, it is usually about control, where those with the power have an ability to make decisions about the environment and the actions of those around us.
It can be a natural instinct to exert power to ensure that our wants and needs are met. You can see power relationships happening in almost any room or interaction in an early childhood setting, and often it’s an unconscious act because teachers teach and leaders are in a position where they need to lead, and may not be thinking of the power imbalance that’s occurring.
How small actions can signal ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’
An example of this is taking infants out of their highchairs because you think they have finished eating, or discarding artwork because there is not a name on it. These small actions can be indicative of power over rather than power with (‘power with’ being where all individuals feel like they are valued). If we visualise an imbalance of power, it could be described as the measure of control and power between individuals. Not all relationships are equally balanced, I believe this can be said regarding the relationships we have with children.
How shifting power relationships can allow children to be active citizens
If we position children as equal partners in our pedagogical decisions what would that mean for you? Do you feel you already consider this?
If we genuinely want to know what children think, feel and wonder, then the balance of power needs to shift. We must believe that children will have things to tell us that we have not heard before, the ability to listen, pause and wait for a surprise or a wonderful new idea.
In her book ‘A sense of wonder,’ Rachel Carson talks about the concept of using all of your senses when interacting with children. She describes this by saying “Being with a child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. For most of us knowledge comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind.”
Shifting the power relationships to one side we open avenues for children to be active citizens and advocates for their own learning. There is also a provocation for us as teachers to learn from children, or to develop the art of listening and understanding that ideas are emergent and alive. It is about stripping back some of the preconceived ideas and beliefs of where we position ourselves as teachers.
The creation of our children’s council - a community of seekers
I came across the idea of a ‘children’s council’ a few years ago when discussing children’s rights with a curriculum leader. She mentioned that she was instrumental in the development of the children’s council at a service in Melbourne’s St Kilda. I was intrigued and fascinated to learn that children were making decisions, not only on a pedagogical level, but also on an operational and community level. I loved this idea of coming together as a ‘community of seekers’ and took it with me to Springvale Service for Children.
Our committee meeting table, complete with notebooks, pens and glasses of water for each member
Our children’s committee started towards the end of 2020 with just six children. The idea was that children who were going to be attending school the following year could leave a legacy for children who would attend the service in the future.
The setting for the committee meeting spoke of equality because we organised the environment just as we would for any of our leadership meetings. Glasses of water for refreshment, relevant documents to inspire, and a notebook for the committee members. Small yet significant gestures to acknowledge a feeling of deep respect for children.
Initially I didn’t know what to expect from the committee meetings. There were no agendas at first, it was all about using all our senses to listen and notice. My position as a teacher was one of a dancer, in which I traded turns as a leader and follower. Anne Pelo and Margie Carter (2018) refer to this in their book ‘From teaching to thinking’ as using research as a tool for listening with children.
It was interesting to hear the children’s thoughts of school during this first meeting and about what they would miss about kindergarten. These conversations gave confidence and inspiration to our younger learners, who were eager to have their say. The children’s voices were a powerful tool and were used to create the agenda for the next meeting. This would be a discussion about a planned excursion to the new community hub, something the children were eager to do, especially after the government’s recent lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
We provided the children with maps and talked about the risks and benefits of going on the excursion. The information would then be used to write the risk assessment for the outing.
A committee member expresses their thoughts around risks and benefits of our excursion
The impact of the global pandemic on children’s right to be active citizens within their community was something I took from that meeting as the discussion centred on what we could or could not do because of the Coronavirus. This included not getting too close to our friends while on the excursion and how teachers needed to wear a mask when going into the library.
The decision to bring quality improvement and operational elements to the children’s attention was a gesture made by one of our younger committee members who added a feather to our quality improvement board. This made me realise that children should be part of this process on a bigger scale.
Following this realisation, the children’s committee have played an active role in some of the big changes we have made this year, including restructuring our early years program and the decision to teach multi-age. The committee have also made headway in our philosophy review, which has seen the committee go to the National Gallery in the city.
Provoking thought and empowering children to make important decisions
The purpose of this visit to the National Gallery was for children to focus on the concept of light, an important principle for the many cultures represented at the service. Equipped with a map, children explored key areas of the gallery that would inspire thoughts and ideas, including a beautiful stained glass window.
The stained-glass window had intentionality in the thought processes we wanted to provoke, and a powerful installation that would provide us with amazing insights into children’s thinking. These thoughts and ideas were documented and were inspirational in our philosophy review, which is still ongoing.
The recent committee meeting looked at redesigning our dining area, whereby the children discussed what they would like to see in this space. Looking through several catalogues to see what was suitable for not only themselves but also infants and the teachers. The feeling of empowerment and the realisation that they could make important decisions, enabled children to express empathy towards their peers and teachers.
An invitation to design an ideal playground
Valuing the voices of children when considering operational changes also shows that we consider their thoughts as respected and valid. The children’s forum is a great example of children’s ideas being part of our vision for continuous improvement. We invited children along with their families to create their ideal playground. Wonderful ideas were put forward by the children who decided that hiding places, shelter and magic should be featured in our future playground. These ideas will hold permanence at our service and will inform future decisions when re-developing the outdoor environment.
It was suggested that hiding places should be an important part of the playground
A place of possibilities where every moment is valued
Anyone can become a member of the committee, we see our service as a place of possibilities, where knowledge and identity are co-constructed, and the process of learning is always done through relationships with others. Amelia Gambetti (2015) from the schools of Reggio Emilia reminds us that ‘our job is too difficult and too beautiful to do alone’ therefore the voices of children should be the catalyst in what we do and what we hope to achieve.
When we think of the everyday in early childhood, we often think of the routines that we revisit from one day to the next, however there is more to the everyday in the lives of children; our role as the pedagogue is to value the potential of the everyday or every moment.
The idea that children can actively be part of the systems and processes of a service can get lost in the need to get things done, however if we reflect on how we can create a space for invention and creativity, then our work in early childhood is revolutionary.