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EECERA – virtual!

By: MAIRE CORBETT

Tuesday 03 November 2020

 

The European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EERECRA) conference each August/ September is a calendar fixture for many in the Early Learning and Care world. It is held in various locations around Europe; indeed, it has taken place in Dublin twice and attracts delegates, who share a passion for the education and care of young children, from all over the world. 

However, the arrival of COVID-19 across the world upset the plans for Zagreb, in Croatia, this September and so, last week EECERA became an online Convocation. The theme for the convocation was International Narratives about COVID-19 and Early Childhood and it consisted of 5 webinars examining various facets of the impact of COVID-19 on the lives and education of young children and families and of the educators and settings which they normally attend.  I ‘attended’ 3 of the webinars. Each webinar comprised of a guest presentation, a panel discussion and a Q&A from the worldwide audience. The Zoom chat function, whereby the audience can share their thoughts and perspectives on the presentation and discussion, was also well used.

The first webinar I tuned into was presented by Jan Peeters from the University of Ghent. The theme of this session was the Perspectives of settings and staff. The key points from the presentation, for me, were Jan’s view that ECEC settings across so many countries did a great job during the lockdown. He said the value of the ECEC sector was seen more when settings had to close. He expressed disappointment at a view sometimes expressed that it is easier now when parents are not in the settings and he hoped this would not influence how we work in partnership with parents in the future. I agree completely with this. He spoke about the importance of that secure base and warm environment for children and families. He reminded us that the right to learn is not equal for all children and that we must focus more on children in poverty. In the panel discussion for this webinar, the fact that the pandemic has had (and indeed continues to have) a disproportionate impact on those living in disadvantage was discussed. I was struck by comments about the need to recognise the ‘breadth of the ask’ on educators. As Susanna Mantovani said: ‘we need sweet and strong educators’ and Julia Atiles added that educators need to be ‘creative and balance all the roles’ but as Chris Pascal said: ECEC educators need the same rewards of other highly skilled professionals. This disparity spans many countries, unfortunately.

The second webinar was entitled Perspectives of Children. I loved Prof. Chris Pascal’s (EECERA’s President) presentation about the research she was involved in called ‘Capturing Children’s Voices’, a project which took place in settings in England, Scotland and New Zealand. It was founded in the belief that children have a right to a voice, they are citizens and are fully capable of reflecting on and expressing their thoughts about what is happening in their lives.  She spoke about the absolute delight of children at being back together when settings reopened. I was quite emotional, and I think others were too, at the story of a little girl who loves hugs who has found her way to manage social distancing: when she meets someone she wants to hug, she gives herself a hug and instructs the other person to do the same!  I look forward to the final report of this study. The panel discussion at this seminar spoke about ways in which children’s play changed post lockdown. It became more intense and extended. Linda Mitchel from New Zealand spoke about using storytelling techniques and drawing to help children explore their experiences, but Chris also said we need to value the silence and recognise not every child wants to talk about it. Silvia Blanch Gelabert from Barcelona spoke about how children missed friends and especially grandparents and Huili Hong, from the USA, said we need to make ordinary things extraordinary, exploring fantasy and letting children be children. And Chris Pascal echoed this, saying that for many the pandemic has slowed down the ‘manic pace of life’ and perhaps freed up educators to tune in more, due to this slower pace.

The final session I attended was on the theme of the Perspectives of Parents and Families. Chiara Bove from Milan gave a fascinating presentation. She spoke about the need to make the strengths of families more visible. The research project she described took place in late July/ early August after the Italian lockdown had ended. Her findings echoed the experience in many countries as she said:

  • Parents ‘did their best’ to cope in a challenging time
  • Children’s adaptation was high
  • ECE practitioners made great efforts
  • Parent to parent solidarity emerged.

She went on to speak about the need for cooperation between disciplines to increase, that public health and education need to work together more to support families. In the panel discussion, she spoke about teachers listening to parents more as a result of lockdown and that this presents an opportunity to reduce inequalities. She said, ‘When we change our perspective, we change our practice’. The panel all agreed about the importance of working more in an interdisciplinary way.

I was struck by the similarities of the experiences across nations:

  • Parents and families value the work done by this sector more after the period of closure
  • Children were delighted to be back and revelled in renewing connections and relationships
  • We have an opportunity to engage in more digital CPD (including mentoring), as educators need support but access to settings is restricted
  • For many, slowing down was good, while recognising that the impact was most severe on vulnerable families.

The research described at the convocation will be released in a special EECERA journal in early 2021 and I look forward to that.

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