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The hear and now

Adults need to listen more carefully to young children. Diane Hofkins looks at a new pack of ideas from the Coram Family

Is this still a country where children are expected to be seen but not heard? And if they are heard, is anyone actually listening? A new pack from the Coram Family, Listening to Young Children, has been designed to help make sure that they are.

Aimed at people working with under-eights, it shows how to develop good listening skills and how to encourage children to express their ideas and feelings, especially through the arts. The Coram Family's Listening to Young Children project is working to overcome entrenched attitudes in which children are seen as their parents' property, unable to speak for themselves.

This attitude has had tragic and inexcusable results. Children's minister Margaret Hodge said that when she read the Laming report on the death of Victoria Climbie, "It does strike you that here was this little eight-year-old girl and in all that time, when she came into contact with a huge range of services, nobody bothered to listen to her." She added, "It's an indictment of all of us."

Other speakers at the pack's launch, at Coram Fields in London, also spoke up for children's self-hood. Gillian Pugh, chief executive of the Coram Family, said the 1989 Children Act had endorsed the need for children's views to be taken seriously, but the assumption that under-eights cannot answer for themselves remains.

Talking to parents was not the same as consulting children themselves and giving them honest information about their own lives. The project, she said, was about shifting the balance of power between even very young children and adults.

The pack's author, Penny Lancaster, and her colleagues, worked with 500 children during its development. The under-eights, she said, "are people already. They are not practising to become a person".

Supporting these ideas is Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which asserts children's right to be given information in matters that are important to them, and says that children have a right to express their views on these, and to have them taken seriously. It does not mean that adults' judgments are to be ignored, just that children's shouldn't be either.

One important component of the pack is the wish-catcher, which was developed by using young children as consultants. Practitioners use an actual net for catching the wishes. Children describe them in words as well as with clay, paint and collage.

"The wish-catcher was developed with the help of a young boy who came to my 'Have your say' stall during a fun day that I helped organise at a child contact centre," says a case study in the pack.

"He said with much emotion and conviction, 'I don't ever want to see my dad again'. He then took some paper, wrote some of his thoughts and attached it to one of the 'have your say' signs.

"I did not know how to respond so I asked him how I could show him I was listening, even though I could not initiate any change in his circumstances. He said, 'Just listen, let me say it, I know you can't do anything, just listen to me.' Even though he knew he had to see his dad again, he needed to be heard and to have space so that he could express his views and feelings about the court order that imposed the visits he did not want."

The wish-catcher, explains the pack, offers young children a chance to articulate what could be different or better in their world. It "provides a way to hear or hold children's aspirations while its defined, bounded space reflects the limitations of adults' ability to change a situation".

Children, the pack says, should be supported by having a variety of resources available, by being provided with space and time to ponder and ask questions, and being allowed choice - to participate or not, of materials to use, of activities.

So, it is all about respecting children as people - working with them, rather than doing things to them.

As Helen Moylett, head of Tamworth early years centre in Staffordshire, said: "It's part of a general approach to the curriculum that says that everybody matters."

The pack, for use in any setting for young children, including at home, includes a guide, a reader, a handbook, 11 case study booklets and a CD-Rom, and costs pound;125 from Open University Press.

Ways of listening

* Respond to children's needs sensitively and knowledgeably

* Respond at the time and do not sidestep

* Explain to chidren what you cancannot do

* Help children express their thoughts and feelings since they depend on adults to help them make sense of them

* Talk through what the child means by, for instance, "Shoot all the people"

* Work with parents

* Develop your capacity to respond by reflecting on your understanding and experience and that of others

* Get help if you do not know what to say

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