The role of early childhood educators in preventing family violence

Published on Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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White Ribbon Day is a yearly reminder that our society is still plagued by violence against women. For too many people, a reminder is not needed. New Zealand has the worst reported rates of sexual and domestic violence in the OECD, and in Australia, family, domestic and sexual violence continues to be a major issue.

The problem is entirely preventable, but the origins lie much further back than the first time someone raises a hand in violence.

"A large body of evidence, from many different countries and contexts, overwhelmingly points to the link between adherence to rigid gender stereotypes and high rates of violence against women," writes Our Watch CEO Mary Barry.

Governments around the world are working on the approach that challenging those stereotypes early works.

The NZ "Family Violence, It's not OK" campaign highlights the need to change societal acceptance of violence from the ground up, while in Australia, the "Stop it at the Start" campaign, shows how violence against women starts with aggressive behaviour from boys towards girls.

"As adults we are allowing young people to develop these attitudes from an early age. Often unknowingly, we are perpetuating the problem," warned research commissioned by the Australian Government.

The research found the victim blaming mentality entrenched in boys as young as 10, while teenage girls were already blaming themselves.

Educational programs do have an impact. Research released earlier this year still found some disturbing attitudes among 16 to 24-year-olds, but their understanding of family violence had improved – and gender-based violence education in schools can take some of the credit there.

Before children enter the school system, it's early childhood centres and family daycare that are in a strong position to support children and their families who are experiencing violence.

As early childhood educators, this window is also a unique opportunity to be part of the long-term solution.

"Early childhood services are an ideal setting to develop a foundation of gender equity and respectful relationships in children that helps to prevent violence in the next generation," according to Emily Maguire, CEO of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria.

Psychologist Andrea Nair says non-violent communication is actually a learned skill. "Babies are wired to freak out when they need something and keep doing that until they learn to curb the powerful survival urge to shout, hit, flail, throw or bite."

That's not news to early childhood educators, who spend their days guiding respectful interactions, mediating disputes, and navigating potential conflict. But it's not always as easy to challenge the rigid gender stereotypes perpetuated and reinforced in early childhood learning settings. After all, educators and centres don't exist in a vacuum. Turning the gaze inwards and reflecting on practices and personal attitudes that unconsciously support the status quo can be difficult and, at times, confronting.

So, what can early childhood educators do to create change? Various international and local bodies have created resources targeting early childhood.

The City of Darebin (Victoria, Australia), for example, has created a local government resource entitled "Creating Gender Equity in the Early Years." They also spoke to early childhood educators to gather their advice on incorporating gender equity into their daily practice.

"There are lots of opportunities that educators can use to challenge ideas of gender stereotypes and inequity in early childhood settings," says Early Years Educator Rachael Bye.

"Early years are a crucial time for children because that's when they're role playing and trying out lots of different ideas about how they view the world and also about their identity,

"When they come to an early childhood setting and start to play, we start to see some of the stereotypes and ideas about gender that they have through their play," she says. "Some of them are really positive and that's fantastic, but some of them can be negative and it's our job to work on that and challenge that when we see it."

Early Years Educator Doug Fargher says, as a male in his profession, he's already challenging stereotypes. "People will look at a male and think, Oh it's great to have a bloke there because he'll be able to play footy, he'll be able to chop wood, he'll be able to rough and tumble."

But he says it's important that he doesn't do those things. "It's more important for me to have a dolly in my hand and to be patting it and playing like that, than it is for me to be kicking a footy," he says.

The physical environment in a service can also either reinforce, or break down gender stereotypes.

"Have a look around your service, or around your room and think about what it is that the children are seeing and engaging with," suggests Ms Bye.

Does the home corner only have dress-ups intended for one gender? Do you have only male dolls in the construction area? Do images of fire fighters only represent males? What kind of stereotypes are perpetuated by the books you have?

Mr Fargher finds that easier to do with outdoor play, which he sees as a more inclusive environment, and he tries to steer away from setting up areas that tend to be exclusively used by one gender.

Questioning kids about their assumptions can also lead to some interesting conversations. An example might be girls not allowed in the cubby, or boys excluded from play babies.

"When those things happen, we have a conversation about it," says Ms Bye. "We sit down and we say: Why? Why not? And we let the children come up with the explanations for it. Often they can't explain why not and they have to think about why it is that they've said what they've said, and how it is unfair and how it is stereotyped."

Language, of course, has an enormous impact. "Boys will be boys" is a stark example of language that encourages the tolerance of violent behaviour, but it's usually far more subtle, and constantly reinforces the distinction between boys and girls.

"Language is really powerful," says Ms Bye. "We really avoid using gendered language. "And things like getting children to line up in girls' lines or boys' lines and pointing out the gender difference all the time, because children notice that and respond to it. And then they'll repeat that in their own play and their own actions."

Early childhood education can't change everything – although sometimes it feels like the pressure for it to do so is immense. However, seemingly small changes can have a long-term, powerful effect when it comes to preventing violence against women.

"Working with children is only one component of the comprehensive life course approach that is needed," says Mary Barry, but "it is a strategy that is most certainly supported by the evidence."

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