Practitioners are an integral part of meaningful child participation. Once the organisational environment is set, practitioners play a critical role in helping children to have their say. Practitioners who are engaging with children for participation purposes should consider:
- What skills and knowledge are necessary to meaningfully engage with children?
- Are there any limiting perceptions of children that need to be challenged?
- What can help to build positive relationships with children?
- When working with children, how can we ensure we meet children where they are currently at?
Skills and knowledge
Meaningful child participation relies on practitioners having the skills and confidence to engage children in this process (Gondek et al., 2017). Practitioners need to be knowledgeable about how to effectively engage children, and about the intended purpose of the engagement. They also need the ability to be creative in response to the unique needs of children, and flexible in their approach (Gondek et al., 2017). This could include giving a child options for when or where a meeting will take place, maximising their ability to successfully engage with the process. (See Practical strategies for practitioners wishing to engage children in service delivery for further practical ideas).
Practitioners may need training to learn the specific skillset required to facilitate meaningful engagement with children (NSW ACYP, 2019). This is particularly important when engaging with younger children and those who are non-verbal.
Perceptions of children
While it is crucial that children are protected from the harmful consequences that could come from participating in decision-making processes, it is important not to deny children access to this right (Powell & Smith, 2009). With the right knowledge and skills, practitioners can help children to achieve this balance.
Practitioners need to be aware of any limiting beliefs they hold, leading them to see children as innocent, vulnerable or lacking the capacity to engage. Adults may underestimate a child’s ability to express their views, particularly when they are not expressed in a typically adult way (Percy-Smith & Thomas, 2010; Gondek et al., 2017).
Acknowledging the unique skills and perspectives of children will increase their likelihood of engagement in decision-making processes. It is important to challenge the belief that adults have superior knowledge to children and are therefore more capable of assessing the interests and needs of a child (Cavet & Sloper, 2001; Phillips & Coppock, 2014; Lansdown, 1994). Children and young people are an untapped resource of skills and knowledge, particularly when they have experienced disadvantage and have had to adapt (Oliver, 2016). It is important to be aware of unrecognised strengths a child may have; for example, having innovative and informed ideas about decision-making and leadership (this may be more relevant to adolescent-aged children) (Oliver, 2016).
Practitioners may limit engagement if they see children as being vulnerable, as children with lived experience of serious adversity may be viewed (Powell & Smith, 2009). Similarly, infants, very young children and children with disability are often overlooked due to the perceived difficulties in engaging with them. Practitioners need to be aware of any limiting predispositions they have, and aim to engage in creative strategies to include all children’s perspectives.
For further information on the inclusion of vulnerable children, see:
- Children’s participation in decision-making processes in the child protection system
- Practical strategies for engaging children in a practice setting