Since 2017, more than 110 countries have experienced significant protests[i] and Australia is no exception. As COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to rise in Australia, anti-vaccination mandate protests have been growing in response to a perceived infringement of individual rights and freedoms. In Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, protests were similarly related to perceived infringements, although the reasons differed.
Internationally, a growing body of work is investigating the impact of the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of governments’ responses to the pandemic on families and children. Emerging research with preschool children suggests that children have experienced heightened anxiety, may have become more ‘clingy’ and may be concerned about getting sick or infecting others[ii]. Similarly, a growing body of research describes the impact of the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns on families and primary caregivers such as job insecurity or blurring of boundaries between home and work, changes to household income, and primary caregivers’ own physical and psychological responses to the pandemic.
To protest against a perceived infringement of individual rights and freedoms is an inherently political act. Children’s observations of significant people in their lives, like siblings and parents, grandparents and teachers, and people perceived to have authority in society, contribute to their developing political beliefs. Children’s exposure to protests may be from participating, or from seeing footage of protests on television or digital media. Primary caregivers play childcare first aid course an important role in explaining what is happening during these events. In this way, they mediate possible stress responses in children. However, if primary caregivers themselves are experiencing stress, this protective measure may not be operating effectively to support children. COVID-19 and its consequences have contributed to elevated stress in one way or another for most people.
Kindergarten children’s representations of the protests in Hong Kong were explored in 2020[iii]. Their drawings, and talk while drawing, revealed four themes: (i) perceptions of extraordinary events (which included traffic disruption, a solar eclipse and the COVID-19 pandemic); (ii) detailed knowledge of the protests, (iii) perceptions of protestors and police, and (iv) the impact on the home environment (which included images on television and conversations with and around them in the home). Some children drew pictures that were unrelated to the protests. Unsurprisingly, children who were closer to the site of protests CHC30221 Certificate III in Education Support were more likely to draw/talk about protests, but some children who were not in directly-impacted areas also drew/spoke about the protests. Findings from this small Hong Kong study demonstrate that children were well aware of events that affected their lives and that were prominent in the media.
Theories of development describe ways in which children’s learning and development are shaped: people, symbols and objects within their environments, and the environment itself, all contribute. Those people with whom children have the most face-to-face contact are highly influential, but it is important to remember that this influence is a two-way street. Children are individuals and active participants in relationships, communities and societies. They contribute personal capabilities, perceptions and insights to the learning process. Early childhood educators and primary caregivers need to be aware of how much children hear and see, and to help children understand the nature of protests including their causes and consequences. An important first step may be inviting children to share their knowledge of events. This gives adults a window into children’s perceptions of what has taken place, supports the child’s right to be heard and is the first step to responding effectively to (mis)perceptions of societal events.
When early childhood educators are attuned to children, and alert to children’s communication of their sense of identity, connectedness, wellbeing and learning, we are equipped to “identify children who may need additional support…providing that support or assisting Certificate 3 in Early Childhood Education and Care families to access specialist help” (EYLF, 2009, p. 19). This highlights the importance of trusting relationships between families and educators – it may emerge that primary caregivers are themselves in need of support. This process also sets up opportunities for conversations with children about appropriate conflict resolution strategies, caring for self and for others, and the rights and responsibilities associated with community membership and citizenship.
Difficulties are a part of everyone’s life. How we respond to them enhances or undermines our coping skills and resilience.