Transforming Transitions: International Transitions Research Conference
University of Strathclyde:
Symposium: Realizing the Right to Education in Multiple Contexts:
The interplay of universal rights and cultural relativism
Chair: Liana Gertsch
Project Illustration from the
Centre for the Advancement of Functional Capacities, Israel:
The Project of Children Friendly Kindergartens
Our Center for the Advancement of Functional Capacities" – implements the program: Children Friendly Kindergartens in many kindergartens in Israel, with the great assistance of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
One important issue we deal with is trying to ease successful transitions of children from home to school.
In my presentation I will briefly address 3 subjects:
1. Difficulties in the process of transition in Israel.
2. Our way in dealing with these difficulties – by implementing the Neuro-Developmental-Functional Approach (NDFA) – in the framework of Children Friendly Kindergartens, and
3. Some threats to this implementation.
Israel maintains a public school system where education is compulsory and at least formally equal for all children: girls and boys, children of Jewish and Arab origin, secular and religious, native Israeli and children of new immigrants.
But – there are some significant difficulties in the process of transition from home to school. I will mention two of them.
The most significant obstacle in the path of children's smooth transitions from home to school, that makes the educational process more and more difficult for educators - has to do with changes in society.
Modern life has changed the experience of childhood:
Therefore, children often reach school:
So, the developmental-environment children experience - has changed radically over the past decades - bringing a different child to school - whereas the school has failed to change accordingly.
The school system expects that children adjust themselves to existing school conditions, rather than the school adjusting itself to the changing children.
Too often - when such expectations are not met – children are sent to doctors to be helped by medications (Ritalin for example).
More than that:
In its struggle to prepare children for modern life, the educational system, supported by many parents, expects younger and younger children to take a heavy academic load upon themselves, which diminishes the opportunities for age appropriate play.
Paradoxically this harms the educational system's very own goals – because children's play is built on experiences necessary for enhancing learning, behavior and social competencies.
All this creates a major problem for smooth transition of children from home to school.
The second area of concern is the issue of mainstreaming developmentally challenged children into the regular school system.
Israel, over the past decade, has dramatically advanced its policy in this area. This important objective, however, often fails in providing educators with the appropriate tools necessary to contain those children within the mainstreamed classroom.
The educational system too often tries to tackle this problem by using a therapeutic approach: Individual treatment is given to children-in-need outside the classroom.
It is better to change the whole classroom experiential-environment to include function-building experiences that improve competence development in all children.
Such an environment enables more intensive activation of needed experiences with challenged children within the classroom, without any stigma.
Our program is set to achieve this kind of classroom environment - based on the Neuro-Developmental-Functional Approach (NDFA).
By doing so, our program complies with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 23) which states that
Children with special educational needs should have access to regular schools, and child-centred pedagogy should accommodate them, so that he or she can achieve “the fullest possible social integration and individual development.”
Our program applies a community-approach - in order to reach large populations, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods - via community-based institutions, such as the educational system.
Therefore, we address educational staff – who tend to the children on a daily basis, many hours every day, for long periods – and introduce them to the Neuro-Developmental-Functional Approach (NDFA).
In teaching the NDFA to educators, we have two goals:
The first is to increase educators' understanding of the child and the reasons for his or her behavior in terms of the child's development and basic functions.
Such understanding leads educators towards a better acceptance of the child, with a tolerant and empathic approach, and provides them with the ability to contain each and every child within the educational framework.
The second goal is to familiarize educators with the environmental- experiences that are needed to build and improve the child's basic developmental functions.
The educators use their pedagogic knowledge to integrate these experiences into the curriculum, to combine the necessary experiences with learning. All the children will encounter the important experiences, but the learning content will be in accordance with their cultural background (religious or secular, Arab or Jewish etc.)
Achieving these two goals – understanding and accepting every child, and providing a favorable educational environment – creates our children friendly kindergartens.
Although most of our work is with the educational staff, we also address parents by encouraging them to meet with their children's educators, visit the kindergartens, and attend special workshops together with their children.
A halo effect is created when parents learn the principles of the NDFA, and can apply them at home with the kindergarten child and his or her siblings.
This effort to create partnership of educators and parents "as duty-bearers in the realisation of the young child’s rights" – complies with General Comment 7.
The Children Friendly Kindergartens program is fully in line with the “child-centred” approach set out in GC1, and the emphasis in GC7 on children’s right to maximum development.
Our program - holding the faith in the potential every child has - aims to modify the educational experiential-environment - to make it suitable and enhancing for each and every child.
We prioritize and emphasize those play activities and sensations that are crucial experiences to the development of important capacities of the child.
These include the capacities that a school expects children to already have upon entering the first grade.
For example, the ability of the child to maintain:
School systems world wide expect a child to be equipped with all five capabilities when arriving at 1st grade.
Lack of, or weakness in, any or some of them - will most likely result in problematic transition – with difficulty to adjust to the new environment, and in the child entering a "Via Dolorosa" that can have a traumatic impact on hisher entire school experience.
I would like to briefly elaborate on two of the above listed capabilities - motor calmness, and interpersonal-social comfort and confidence.
1. A great many children have difficulty maintaining motor calmness, the most extreme being called hyperactive.
Their real problem is not their restless behavior – but their deficiency in regulating the intensity of the sensation in two sensory channels: proprioception – the deep muscle and joint sensation (feeling of the body), and vestibular – balance and movement sensation (located in the inner ear).
When such a child runs, jumps, spins and strongly activates his joints and muscles - in other words is hyperactive - he does what his brain demands from him: he supplies his brain with the missing sensation.
So, his hyperactive behavior is not his problem – but the solution to his problem!
When we wish to help such a child to calm down his restlessness - we don't treat his behavior – but involve him in sensory-motor experiences - that will help him increase his vestibular and proprioceptive sensitivity.
For example, through controlled vestibular activities in the classroom, such as somersaults, spinning, rolling and jumping, and proprioceptive activities including external activation and self activation of the muscles and massages, we are able to gradually intensify the child's attention in relation to the hypo-sensitive sensory channels - thereby decreasing the need for constant movement.
2. The other example has to do with effective interpersonal and social comfort and confidence. Lack of it means having a social problem.
Reducing the child's over-sensitivity to touch - contributes enormously to:
Numerous activities are introduced in order to increase the child's tolerance for physical contact such as sensory boxes for the child to play in, experimenting with substances of different textures, special touching games with other children, etc.
An important activity, which we have found to have great impact on increasing friendliness, and reducing interpersonal aggression and violence, is the following:
A child lies on a mattress in the class and the teacher touches him with different kinds of materials and textures.
The teacher asks "Is it pleasant or is it unpleasant to you?"
The child learns to identify various touches, to welcome pleasant ones, and to say no to unpleasant ones.
Then two children conduct the same activity with one another, at first under the teacher's supervision, each asking the other in turn, whether a specific touch is pleasant or not.
Through these two concrete activities, each child learns to become aware of his right over his own body, and to respect the other's feelings and right over his body.
He also learns that different people may feel differently – the base of accepting diversity.
The child's lesson is her right to be respected, as well as her obligation to respect the other.
In general, our program and NDFA principles have been well received by parents and educators alike.
However, we encounter two areas of concern:
A. The first is that economic difficulties are squeezing education budgets.
Also - it is often difficult to explain to public officials the importance of spending money on this work with young children in promoting academic achievements at later ages.
B. Other areas of concern are found in two "No risk taking" trends:
The first trend is "liability proof" educational activities.
Educational organizations are becoming too cautious about safety and potential legal liabilities.
There are more safety officers in schools and kindergartens, which tend to take large safety margins, and as a result remove any outdoor or indoor "unsafe" item or activity - from the children's playground.
Instead of enhancing safety awareness and discipline in the children, (as we do in our program), important items such as trampolines, sleds, and sand boxes are removed - depriving the children from much desired sensory-motor challenges and play.
The other trend is "no touch mandate": avoiding physical nurturing touch of children.
Kindergarten teachers are becoming more hesitant about touching children - fearful of sexual harassment or abuse lawsuits.
(It happens even while having parents' authorization, and ministry of education supervision - two mandatory conditions for our program).
This “no touch mandate” - seriously endangers the child's emerging ability to communicate, his sense of well-being and security.