Barbara Piškur
Photo: Shirley Born

Time for tailor-made early childhood and compulsory education

Does this sound too good to be true? Well, scientific results say otherwise.

How do we make our early childhood and compulsory education classrooms inclusive places of quality learning and at the same time a place where everybody can feel at home? These two seemingly separate goals go hand in hand, according to the research project Politics of Belonging: Promoting children´s belonging in educational settings across borders. Barbara Piškur and the joint Swedish and Dutch Partnering4Change team that were a part of Politics of Belonging, argue that the growing diversity in classrooms asks for more tailor-made early childhood education.

Troubleshooting inside the classroom

Teachers today report a lack of knowledge, skills, resources, and provision to be able to provide support for children’s needs and their diversity. Partnering4Change (P4C) is a collaborative approach involving two experts (a teacher and an occupational therapist as the P4C expert) working alongside in the classroom. Together they try to find solutions for children facing challenges with school participation and belonging because of maybe being different, coming from another country, having difficulties to pay attention, not being accepted by the peer group, or any other reason.

The Partnering4Change Model is originally from Canada and when tested in Canada it proved highly successful. Barbara and her team were impressed and wanted to see if this model would work in the different cultural contexts of early childhood education and compulsory education in Sweden and the Netherlands. For twenty weeks they tried it out, which meant that an occupational therapists joined the teacher in their classroom for half a day a week. To lighten the transition and get ready, the occupational therapists followed online InterVision sessions to get familiar with the educational system and the P4C model. The goal was to enhance participation, foster belonging and inclusion of all the students.

"They did this with the help of some different approaches. They tried altering the physical and social environment with new strategies. And importantly, focusing on solutions targeting the whole group in the classroom instead of individual children: how can everybody benefit is the motto! We also tried to get the children involved asking them for input and stimulating them to find their own solutions, as well as involving parents more intensively", explains Piškur.

So, how does the P4C approach actually differ from current practice? Usually, when a child or group of children exhibits certain behaviour or shows a particular need, they are taken out of the classroom to receive individual or group treatment.

"Research indicates that children are not able to make the transfer from a treatment situation to a classroom situation. This approach creates exclusion by putting emphasis on differences between children and devalues the feeling of group belonging that is so important", argues Piškur.

Piškur and her team is also not shy to claim that the collaborative P4C model is a game changer.

"The teacher and the occupational therapist with their different backgrounds are better able to monitor and understand what is going on in the classroom and together come up with strategies to make children feel more part of the group, and consequently to support them to engage in (all) activities and experience inclusion", says Piškur.

Creating an environment of understanding

According to Barbara Piškur good quality observations are key to the success of P4C. Catching the moment and identifying when a group is not engaged, or somebody is excluded, or has difficulties to participate in the school activities, is essential. The teacher or the occupational therapist, can subsequently get involved and try to change the circumstances by using a variety of strategies.

"The strategies are focused on changing the social and physical environment. The strategies are worked out by an interaction and discussion between the teacher and occupational therapist, and this can happen in a number of ways", says Piškur.

For example, they can have a discussion on whether the way the teacher is giving instructions in reality works for each child.

"Providing instructions not only verbal, but also with pictures and other means can enable children that normally have difficulties following instructions understand things better and quicker. And not only that, all children can potentially benefit from alternative instruction strategies like this, says Piškur. Diversity in instructions means that no children are left behind. It creates an atmosphere that supports belonging of all children."

Another topic of discussion can be whether the current position of the furniture in the classroom (as arranged by the teacher) can stimulate or weaken the children’s feeling of belonging.

"Involving the children in reorganizing the physical classroom environment: position of the tables, chairs and play materials can be very positive. It makes the children part of the decision making and provide teachers with insights on why some children do not feel welcome in the classroom environment", explains Piškur.

Yet another discussion topic could involve the classroom dynamic, and whether more small breaks could benefit children that might have difficulties to concentrate for a longer period of time, or experience certain tasks as challenging.

"Applying short energizing breaks, where children for example can sing and perform dance songs, in our experience made the children much more alert and engaged. It also helped them when faced with more complex tasks, like writing", explains Piškur.

The Partnering4Change project has proved to be very positive and provided important insight into how children’s learning and well-being is dependent on belonging.

"Yes, it is very positive! This way of collaboration between experts creates many positive synergy effects. Both the group in Netherlands and in Sweden observed that the children who were more involved in their own problem-solving, also were increasingly capable of understanding their classmate’s situation and condition. Consequently, creating a foundation for belonging and a lesser chance of classroom exclusion. Additionally, teachers experienced less stress and felt more competent facing classroom diversity", argues Piškur.

Dream team

One of the success stories of the research project was the actual Partnering4Change teams. Both the teachers and P4C experts felt they evolved into a dream team.

"They went through a journey. From being a little bit afraid at first to become almost like a “dream team”. It was quite a journey! Remember, they first had to understand each other, then understand each other’s field of expertise, finally they had to develop strategies and constantly improve them", explains Piškur.

During the evaluations stakeholders in both countries were convinced that there it time for tailor-made early childhood and compulsory education.

And the project has been so successful that it is growing.

"We thought this was going to be a small-scale study both in Sweden and Netherlands, but very quickly there was so much enthusiasm at schools, that we decided to make the project bigger. In Sweden the implementation will continue from September this year. In the Netherlands we have started a PhD study and will do a national implementation study as well", says Piškur.

Now, you might wonder what this will all cost? But Piškur would like us to think of the benefits and how society can save expenses by creating less exclusion and better participation for children as well as increased knowledge wellbeing of teachers.

A shoutout to the Nordic collaboration

Piškur also has to praise the projects organisation. The research project Politics of Belonging: Promoting children´s belonging in educational settings across borders is funded by NordForsk and Piškur and her team is very satisfied with how they have been followed up.

"It has been excellent! It was the first time for us in the Netherlands to be part of a Nordforsk funded project and we have not been disappointed."

And she is really encouraged by how well the Politics of Belonging group has functioned.

"We have collaborated with Scandinavian countries before, but this is the first time we worked together in such a fruitful fashion. Even though there has been a pandemic. We have been supported so well. Right from the beginning. The Nordforsk people have followed us up constantly adding organization and communication skills to our team. I find it really fascinating what is possible when one brings researchers and others together so intensively. There were a lot of people involved and I’m surprised of how well it all has gone", Piškur concludes.


Siri Bjarnar. Photo: NordForsk

Siri Jørgensen Bjarnar

Chief Operating Officer