Ann Christin Nilsen has studied childhood for many years. Some years ago, she decided to have a closer look at a common assumption, namely that people’s life conditions might be improved if we use early effort to reach out to help small children.
“The county of Aust-Agder had initiated a pilot project with early effort in two municipalities. This was ideal for me who study childhood and meetings between families and public bodies such as kindergartens, NAV (the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) and the child protection service,” Nilsen says.
A GOOD START IN LIFE
Briefly, early effort is about giving every child a good start in life, and to even out social inequalities. The kindergarten has been identified as a particular important arena for early effort.
“But does this commitment to early effort have any disadvantages?”
“Yes,” Nilsen confirms.
Among other things, she has carried out individual interviews and focus group interviews with people working in kindergartens, the child protection service, the pedagogical-psychology service and the health centres. She has also participated in interdisciplinary meetings between these professional groups. Finally, she has interviewed local politicians who are behind this initiative in Aust-Agder and she has conducted a survey among staff in kindergartens and in health centres in two municipalities.
One of her findings is that more than nine out of ten employees in kindergartens have been worried about the development of a child. The same number of employees has worried about a child’s caring situation.
“Briefly, early effort is about giving every child a good start in life, and to even out social inequalities.”
RECORD-KEEPING HAS BECOME MORE IMPORTANT
In order to determine the children that have a normal development and a good caring situation and the ones we ought to worry about, the staff has to do evaluations. Many of them feel they don’t have competence in the area. Consequently, they often use tools when evaluating children. A big industry has developed making such tools, Nilsen tells.
“The kindergartens have been lagging behind in the professionalization, which in turn has generated a marked for different kind of models, ways of thinking and knowledge systems. But they cannot replace a professional judgement,” she says.
For those working in kindergartens, record-keeping is important to make them feel they are doing a good job; when something is documented, it’s as if it becomes «truer» and gives an impression of objectivity, even when that is not the case.
The record-keeping is among other things, important for an interdisciplinary collaboration. The consequence is an implicit standardization of children, childhood and parentship, she argues.
“The staff uses these tools both because they have to and sometimes because they find them useful.”
And within the limits of the kindergarten the use of them actually don’t represent a problem. The staff is concerned about – and believe it’s important – to do a complete evaluation of the children. The problems arise when the worries are conveyed to others. Because then the mappings become quite central.
Those who decide are situated outside the kindergarten, i.e. politicians and decisionmakers, and they use these tools as a basis for their resolutions.
MEETS CHILDREN FROM DISADVANTAGED FAMILIES
When she started the study, she was interested in how early effort is conducted. Gradually she became more interested in what early effort does.
“To be explicit, I saw how the alarms quickly were ringing for children coming from specific families. Often families where there had been changes, like divorces, unemployment or an addiction problem. You don’t worry so easily when a child comes from a socioeconomically advantaged family – high education, high income, no visible signs of problems. And that is mainly due to the fact that problems in these families are not caught up by the tools. In cases where there were worries about children from socioeconomically advantaged families, the staff found it difficult to do something. Does one accept more from them because it is harder to talk about the worries with them?” she wonders.
It is also difficult to do something with worries for children coming from immigrant families.
“On the one hand the alarm rings immediately for these families, and on the other hand the staff is very concerned about being tolerant and accept diversity. Therefore, they quickly justify a different upbringing as a matter of culture.”
CAN ALSO BE A GOOD SUPPORT
Tools for mapping children can be a good support when decisions are to be taken, Nilsen claims.
“There is little doubt that the evaluation tools spreading in the kindergartens, can be useful. The danger, however, is that they direct the sight in specific directions and that other things run the risk of falling out of sight.”
Thus, the tools ought to be used with a certain critical distance, she urges. Because they often seem to be objective. When something has been documented, we often tend to think that this is how it is. But we must not forget that the evaluation behind is subjective.
“Therefore, I think our confidence in these tools should not be too high,” she says.
The mapping of language skills, for example, uses specific goals to measure what each child ought to know at certain age levels. Many of them she interviewed know children develop differently. They believe that a lot will adjust little by little. That too is important knowledge.
“When something is documented, it is as if it becomes «truer» and gives the impression of being objective, even when that is not the case.”
ENCOURAGES CRITICAL THINKING
Over the last decades the kindergarten has changed from being a nearly invisible institution in society to become a very important one that the society wants to use to obtain different objectives. Nilsen thinks those working in the kindergarten ought to be more critical to this development. They should use their own professional self-confidence.
In general, people working in the kindergarten have a lot of knowledge about the children and their understanding of what is acceptable within the framework is extensive.
But the staff is loyal to the system and uses the tools anyway.
“Their education should provide them with the necessary knowledge enabling them to make many of these decisions without tools. Their professional work is a lot about protecting important values rooted in the care and appreciation of every child’s natural development. Roots that are not necessarily reflected in a management ideology built on a market logic where the aim is to produce good citizens,” Nilsen concludes.