Child Participation in Action - Every Child A Reader: Reading Communities

June 2022
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E.R. Murray reading to students at the launch of the library at Scoil na Croise Naofa

Last September, Children’s Books Ireland launched our Every Child A Reader: Reading Communities project, funded by the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal in partnership with the Community Foundation for Ireland.

Over the lifetime of this three-year project, four primary schools will each receivee a library of over 1,000 books for their school libraries and work with a dedicated Champion of Reading (an author or illustrator) on projects and initiatives that will inspire a love of reading and storytelling across the whole school community.

From the very early planning stages, we wanted this project to be as student-led as possible, with students even sitting on the interview panels for the selection of their Champions of Reading. In October, the book-gifting team at Children’s Books Ireland were supported by Hub na nÓg to attend their Everyday Spaces Capacity Building training on including children and young people’s voices in decision-making.

Following this, the Arts Council of Ireland funded Children’s Books Ireland to provide similar training to the Champions of Reading and teachers on our Reading Communities project, so that they could implement the National Framework for Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making.

About the National Framework for Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making

This Framework supports organisations to improve their practice in listening to children and young people and giving them a voice in decision-making. It is underpinned by:

  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)
  • The National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making

The Framework is based on the child-rights model of participation developed by Professor Laura Lundy, Queens University Belfast, which provides guidance for decision-makers on the steps to take in giving children and young people a meaningful voice in decision-making. This model has four elements – space and voice, meaning children must have safe, inclusive opportunities to express their views, and appropriate facilitation to do so; and audience and influence, meaning their views must be listened to and acted on, as appropriate.

We commissioned Anne O’Donnell, independent trainer, facilitator and child rights consultant, to develop and deliver tailored training which would allow students in the Reading Community schools to have their say in the activities and projects that would inspire a love of reading and storytelling in their own schools. Following this training, each school assembled student advisory groups. These groups developed voting sheets and led a whole school vote to decide their end-of-year project, which is student-led with the help of their Champion of Reading.

The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) funded a variety of supplies to support this process, from voting boxes to sticky notes.

Find out more about the National Framework for Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making by following the link below.

Here, one of our Champions of Reading, E.R. (Elizabeth) Murray, discusses her first-hand experience of implementing child participation training at her Reading Community school, Scoil na Croise Naofa in Mahon, Cork.

Case Study: Scoil na Croise Naofa, Cork – E.R. Murray, Champion of Reading

My initial reaction to the training was cautious excitement. I couldn’t wait to implement what we’d learned, but there was lots of information to digest and the steps were extremely detailed and specific. I wondered whether this might create rigidity and restrict possibilities, but I decided to trust in the experts and their research and dive in, with the support of two colleagues: Emily Daly from Children’s Books Ireland and Maeve Heaphy, the school’s Home School Liaison Officer and project lead. We were all fired up by the training and thanks to open communication with our trainer, Anne O’Donnell, we felt equipped and supported to put the training into action.

From the outset, we needed to be creative in our approach. Thanks to the additional challenges of Covid-19 bubbles and time limitations, instead of mixing ages for each advisory group as recommended in the training, the school created two groups: a Junior Advisory Group from Second Class and a Senior Advisory Group from Sixth Class, with pupils selected by teachers. We included Sixth Class specifically as we wanted them to experience the value of assuming responsibility and seeing their input put into action before moving on to second level education.

Tip: Inclusion of reluctant readers in the advisory groups meant that we had first-hand insight into the demographic we were trying to reach – groups of mixed ability and enthusiasm are recommended. 

Junior Advisory Group aka the Tiger Advisory Group
Junior Advisory Group aka the Tiger Advisory Group

In the first session, both advisory groups responded enthusiastically to brainstorming reading and storytelling-related activities that they and other children in the school might enjoy. The use of Post-Its and sticky dots helped to make the activities fun, engaging and energetic. We had three adults working with each group of six, which was higher than suggested in the training but felt like the correct ratio of adults to children for our project. Throughout the initial steps, it was clear that this was a new way of working for the children, but they quickly embraced the idea of being in charge.

As the steps progressed, we decided to record all the children’s activity ideas. The child participation system works like a funnel – the steps shift from specific activity ideas to general categories. By recording all suggestions, we could remind the children of their earlier ideas once the whole school vote had been completed, rather than instigating new ones and potentially influencing the outcome. This was not suggested in the training, but we found it a useful approach.

Junior Advisory Group categorising their suggested activities
Junior Advisory Group categorising their suggested activities

We also made the decision to stop halfway through the planned session 1 activities with both groups due to flagging energy levels. The high level of involvement meant that the children tired, so we decided to complete the rest of the activities on the following day. It turned out that having such detailed steps was a plus; it made our change in course easier to implement.

During session 2, the children found talking about the voting sheet, including titles, categories and instructions, difficult without context. So we reversed the order of the steps as laid out in the handbook and skipped to the design section first. I was particularly looking forward to this part as it was so visual, and the colourful design examples and mood boards we provided were an instant hit.

When we explained that their voting sheets would be designed by a professional designer, one of the children asked, ‘Is the designer really going to do what we ask?’. The overall reaction was disbelief, followed by excitement.

The design of the voting sheet involved lots of discussion about how colour choices, images and wording could help others to understand what was expected of them when the voting sheet was circulated. The junior groups requested images of people (and tigers – their chosen advisory group name) to represent their categories. This was to help younger children, especially those learning to read, understand their choices and see what was expected of them. Meanwhile, the senior group understood that their peers would be able to read and understand the instructions easily, so they requested striking lettering, to make their text stand out.

Contrary to the expectations of the adults involved, every child preferred pastels for the colour scheme. This is the perfect instance where adult-directed input could have steered things in a different, adult-centric direction. It was an excellent example of the value of listening as the children truly took ownership; and it made me seriously question the choices we often make regarding colour when making resources attractive for children.

Tip: Only 7% of communication is verbal, and so it’s really important to make sure your body language and facial expressions remain as neutral as possible so you hear what the children really want, rather than what they think will please you.

Once each group had styled their voting sheet, it was easier to navigate the instructions, and the children’s suggestions became both specific and intuitive. They liked the idea of representing their peers and took the role seriously. It was important to the children that the wording was 100% what they wanted. For example, the junior group changed their original suggestion of ‘Circle your favourite activity’ to ‘Circle your favourite fun activity’ because ‘that’s what we want … to make it fun so everyone wants to read.’

Receiving the professionally designed voting sheets was a definite highlight for the groups. At this stage, the groups worked with Maeve to discuss any necessary changes.

The impact of seeing their ideas professionally illustrated was so great that some of the children even asked how people become graphic designers.

Once everything was finalised, the advisory groups oversaw the whole school vote, from distribution to counting the results, and by the time I returned to the school to find out the results and help make the children’s wishes become a reality, both groups were buzzing with the responsibility.

However, after all the excitement, it was clear that both groups thought they’d done all the work necessary in their role and hadn’t expected further responsibility. With hindsight, there was a lot of work in a short space of time, so in future, I would maybe space the initial steps across three days. Some of the children were also disappointed that their own choice on the vote didn’t come top, but when reminded of all their effort, and how the system worked, they soon accepted the results and put their energies into creating a whole school project.

Both groups decided that everyone should make collaborative comics and so a plan was put in place; each class would create its own comic, supported by character workshops with myself, followed by comic workshops with writer, illustrator and comic book creator Alan Nolan.

When completed, the comics would be collected and sent off for publication, with class packs placed in the library, available for all to read.

One of the highlights for me was after explaining the plan we had come up with in response to their wishes, a child replied ‘I believe you right away this time.’

Tip: Although as facilitator you may lead the child participation sessions, giving children additional responsibilities without adult assistance reinforces the idea of giving children power over their decisions and it works really well. 

The sessions proved without a doubt that giving children control over their choices leads to an increase in motivation, and an interest in ownership over their own education and development.

When I started in this role, the children were calling anything related to their new library ‘Elizabeth’s project’; now, they refer to it as ‘our library project’, which I think speaks volumes.

I asked the advisory groups for their feedback, and it was resoundingly positive. Their advice to others taking on the role in future was ‘it’s a lot of work but it’s fun’ and ‘it’s like being a boss – you can make things happen’.

The impact of this project and the child-led approach is already huge, but with the removal of Covid-19 restrictions, I’m looking forward to exploring even further possibilities created by giving children power over their own decision-making. Things I’ll be looking out for next time include:

  • How will a mix of ages impact group dynamics?
  • What selection method will prove best?
  • Now that the impact of an advisory group has been experienced, how will this affect involvement and outcomes?
  • How effective will rotating advisory groups each term prove?

I look forward to discovering more as the Every Child A Reader Project progresses.

What’s next

Each Reading Community school is currently working on the project their students chose for the first year of the programme, with launches planned across June. Expect comic-making in Scoil na Croise Naofa, Cork; a library upgrade in Scoil Chroí Íosa, Galway; a bookish activity fair in St Brendan’s National School, Westport and a book scavenger hunt in St Joseph’s National School, Dundalk. As the Reading Communities progress over the next two years, student advisory groups will rotate in each school and we’ll continue to look for ways to include students in leading the project.

Working in depth with the Reading Communities over a long period of time will allow us the space and time to explore what works best when giving children the opportunity to enthuse their peers about reading. This will add a richness to other Children’s Books Ireland projects and, we believe, will make our programmes more successful by virtue of giving the children and young people we work with a leading role in our decision-making.

For more information on the National Framework for Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-Making, and for resources to support its implementation, visit the Hub na nÓg website at the link below.

With thanks to the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal, the Community Foundation for Ireland, Hub na nÓg, the Arts Council, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and Anne O’Donnell.