Exploring social pedagogy in Danish practice - an EU Leonardo Mobility project
This EU-funded project aimed to provide a unique professional development opportunity around social pedagogy to 24 residential child care workers and fostering social workers from our partner organisations, Care Visions and Lancashire County Council. Over a period of 14 days, participants job-shadowed social pedagogues in two different institutions in Copenhagen, Denmark - a children's home, so as to deepen their understanding of social pedagogy in their own practice context, and a day-care centre working with a different target group, so as to learn about ways of working social pedagogically with children across a broader age range and in different contexts.
These experiences provided them with many insights into how social pedagogical values and theories are applied in practice and how social pedagogical practice is shaped by cultural influences, such as society’s views on children and their families, ideas about children's upbringing, as well as social welfare more broadly.
To ensure that participants can immediately reflect on their learning, put their experiences into context (i.e. understand the impact of differences in policies, systems, culture) and find ways of applying social pedagogy further in their own work, the mobility also included 3 reflective development seminars facilitated by ThemPra and our Danish partner organisation, Common View.
To share the unique learning experiences and reflections on how social pedagogy could be further developed within an English and Scottish context we've decided to publish the first group's participant reports here (in alphabetical order). We hope that you will find them an inspirational read.
Care Visions participant reports:
Gaynor Corrigan on her experience of her placements at the after-school club Stjerneskuddet and the children's home Allegården.
My first learning encounter came through the simplest tasks - returning to the club with the youngest children after they had been picked up from school. Unbeknown to me my mentor had instructed the two 5 year olds at the front of the line to take responsibility for the group and to help them cross the road, although not a major road my instinct was to automatically take on this task and stop the children whilst I checked for on coming traffic. My mentor explained that I was not to do this as he had already delegated responsibility which was duly taken up by the two children. My discomfort was palpable and the desire to take over was strong! The urge to intervene was present yet this simplest of situations helped me frame a context of how the pedagogues worked – the concept that children are competent and resourceful and capable and should be afforded trust and opportunities. Thus the interaction between adults and children is intrinsically equal within the context of a task and within this the practitioner has confidence within their risk management of the situation. This is a critical juxtapoint as ‘risk’ is always associated with social pedagogy to the uninitiated in the UK, which I believe distorts people’s perception of what the approach is about and creates the misconception that to be a pedagogue you allow children to do what ever they want; juggle with knives, jump off high walls, set fire to things. Social pedagogy for me is behaviourist in its essence but draws upon established and respected learning theories where mental wellness is gained through personally responsible choices. Culturally this is a very challenging learning opportunity for foster carers in the UK, and I appreciate for those who have not witnessed pedagogical practice it appear as metaphysical. I am a parent who did fret at the possible ‘dangers’ for my child and sanitised aspects of their care i.e. paper scissors, a non spill cup ... just in case. It’s certainly not about dismissing dangers and risks for children, but it is revisiting our understanding of what environments we need to create for self actualisation which may require a personal and cultural shift. The ethical orientation of this requires us to create relationships that preserves the other and creates conditions for dialogue, whereas in the UK there are remnants and habits that are authoritarian to education, social care and parenting still. However, pedagogical themes are present in most of the literature which influences our social work and education practice such as Maslow, Erikson and Bowlby (to name but a few) that are familiar to carers. For Maslow, for example, esteem is created through engagement that gives recognition and a sense of contribution. Cooper (1985) cited 7 areas that children need from parents; physical care, affection and warmth, security, stimulation, limits, skills learning and autonomy. We are familiar with these - pedagogy is not re-inventing the wheel, however I do think the biggest challenge in embracing pedagogical practices is our culture expectation of parents as authoritative, directive figures. For our young people predictability in aspects of their care is critical to a healing environment so we need to be critically objective about this and look at the semantics of security as it should refer to predictability, continuity rather than punitive approaches. In fostering this will require us to be proactive at the recruitment and preparation stage as carers will need to develop an expectation of creating therapeutic relationships with their foster children in a way that possibly requires them to deconstruct their expectations of parenting, this has been a general expectation for some time now in family placement but maintaining and supporting this requires more systemic changes within our services.
During my time at Den grønne giraf I was particularly inspired by one profoundly insightful tool/methodology that guided the nursery’s practice, “Non-Violent Communication” (developed by Marshall Rosenberg PhD) which has since assisted me in my professional and personal life. One of my most important findings was that the pedagogue should make observations not judgments. Within the context of the nursery this proved to be crucial in achieving its peaceful and harmonious atmosphere. If one child took another child’s toy, or ran into another, or caused any other person to become upset or unsafe Steve, the pedagogue, would make an observation on the child’s actions without jumping to the rescue unless immediate danger was present. This observation would always be factual, “look at what your action has done to the spilled glass of milk” or “Ben, please look at Rosie. How does she look now that you have run into her? Do you think she is upset? Maybe you could apologize and look out for her next time?” The absence of judgments and threats is crucial here. As I watched these mini lessons unfold before me I questioned whether I would have reacted in the same way or if I might have said something like “Don’t be so clumsy Ben”, or “If you do that again you will not be allowed to play anymore”. Especially once I considered that Steve had to repeat these same calm, mild mannered, positive, suggestions every day to countless kids year after year. I wondered if I could be so patient or if the frustrations might build and energy for the task drop as a result. I spoke with Steve about my reflections and he agreed that it would be very easy to become frustrated, as with children this age development is only seen over time and with repetition of key lessons. He stressed that it was important to leave yesterday’s baggage at the door with regards to any personal frustrations with individual children. Matching this with his vast knowledge on ages and stages of development allowed him to frame the child’s behaviour and de-personalise it, thus allowing him to maintain high energy levels and enthusiasm for the task at hand. To remain in the present was crucial and something that he encouraged the children to do also. He was constantly attempting to frame his communication with them so that the focus was on increasing the child’s own awareness of their actions and the consequences for themselves and others. He said that he was very well supported by the nursery’s management system and in particular supervision. He spoke of how the pedagogic approach encourages non-judgmental attitudes extending from pedagogue to child but also from management to pedagogue. This allowed him to express his stresses, concerns and frustrations without the fear of judgment from colleagues or bosses. He knew that his responsibility was to bring these comments with the desire and focus on a brighter future (not to off-load) and as such problems and challenges could be shared amongst the team with new minds bringing new solutions.
The quality of early years care is incredible, activities and play were designed to support the development of the body and mind, when children fell in the playground they were encouraged to get back on their own feet, rarely lifted by carers. Conflict between children was resolved through calm negotiation, it would have been easier to assume that the children wouldn’t understand as many were only in the early stages of developing speech. They did and we did even though we didn’t speak Danish. ‘We negotiate with two years olds here, life is negotiation and it’s important to start early’, we were told by one of the managers. The atmosphere in the nursery was joyous and happy, the children were encouraged to develop their own personalities and left to make up their own minds about what toys they played with. They sought out adult attention when they wanted or needed this, it wasn’t imposed upon them. If they were happy on their own they were left on their own. The very young children took a nap in the morning, they were left to decide when; this often depended upon their routine at home, the pedagogues could read the children and identified what they needed when they needed it.
I hadn’t considered how the early year experiences in schools and nurseries related to the young people accessing services in their teenage years. The similarities in approach and practice were an epiphany to me. This investment in services for children is crucial to the young people who are likely to be looked after away from home later in their lives.
It appeared to me that the Danish construction of childhood has a perception of respecting childhood as a stage in part of the life cycle of human existence. As such childhood has its own unique challenges that children will master as part of the developmental process. This should not be mistaken as training for adulthood but as part of the leaning undertaken by humans relevant to this stage in their life, and respect afforded to this accordingly. As such there is an emphasis on offering the children and young people experiences, where the young person chooses to engage and will be supported to learn from the experience or supported during the experience by the adults in their lives.
Within the setting of the after school club for the age group 6 – 12, I experienced this on a number of occasion but have chose the following two examples as these particularly stayed with me since my return home. The first was when I visited the arts and crafts room in the club. On entering the room the first thing that I encountered was a tool box that contained a hammer, various screwdrivers, a hack saw and a long saw. These were real, or adult if you like, tools. I then turned to the craft table where 5 hot glue guns, a Stanley knife and various sized scissors (and none of which were those useless plastic scissors I had to use when I attended primary school). My buddy and I were astounded at this and talked about the implications of the safety and managing the risk of the children using these as by that time we were aware that the children came and went within the club from each room and that only one pedagogue was allocated to each room. The pedagogue who was working in the craft room that day walked over and listened to our conversation and we posed our concerns to her. She smiled and just stated, “just wait and see”. After collecting the children from school they went about deciding where they would spend there time. It was remarkable to see how well the young people managed using these tools, aware of the potential dangers, supporting and sharing advice to keep each other safe. One young boy was becoming frustrated trying to saw the lid of a bottle with a hack saw. I was very concerned that he may cut his finger. The pedagogue approached the boy and commented that it appeared that he was struggling and asked if he would like some help. When the boy replied that he did the pedagogue gave him advice on how he could achieve his goal, but at no point took over and did the task for him. I advised the pedagogue that I had really struggled watching this piece of work and wanted to ‘fix it’ for the boy. The pedagogue stated that I would have been stealing an opportunity for the boy to learn. When I quizzed her about the boy being injured she pointed out that it was unlikely that he had the strength to cause himself significant damage and if he did get a small injury he would be comforted, give first aid and most importantly would not injure himself in the same way again.
At the end of my first day Martin told me that we would be going on a trip the next morning. I asked where we were going and what we would be doing, he told me we were going to climb a hill to roll down it. I thought this was wonderful and looked forward to taking part. On the second morning we all got our snow suits and boots on, me included, and congregated outside. Martin had a flag on a stick that he had made with a snail on as this was the snails group. We set off and several children grappled to hold my hands. We walked from the kindergarten through woods and sang as we walked. There was a smallish hill which we climbed up and I was told that a burial chamber had been discovered underneath this which was thought to be that of a druid or wizard. The pedagogues encouraged the children to get excited about this and told stories and made faces and noises to create a spooky atmosphere. The children loved this and screamed excitedly. We then continued to walk until we came to a steep woodland bank.
Mette (female pedagogue) and I climbed up the bank with the children, while Martin and Andus prepared a camp fire. At one point the bank was very steep and muddy and I found myself flat on my front and began slipping down. A little girl of about five on seeing this held a stick down to me so I could grab it and she pulled me up. I was touched by this gesture, and thanked her then when I was stable did the same thing to help up the others. It was a great example of team work, which was made even better by the fact that a five year old had introduced this method. When we were all at the top of the bank the children showed me how to slide down. We all just slid down on our bottoms without worrying about getting dirty. The children loved this; some did it again while some sat around the fire and ate a snack. The children seemed very happy and content and were enjoying being connected to nature. On the walk back some children picked flowers and foraged for interesting natural things to take back with them.
Today, we met with Birgitte, one of the Hybler, throughcare team. We had a long conversation with her in her office. After yesterday, I was feeling impatient to get out and meet with more young people but I was able to reflect later that this had been an important time, because it had helped to ground me again and allowed Birgitte to find out who we were and explain about her work, establishing our “common third”.
Birgitte first took us to meet with Britta, who lives in a flat. Birgitte explained that we would not be invited into the flat and said that it had taken a long time for her to earn Britta’s trust. When she used to turn up for meetings, Britta would make her wait for up to an hour, before coming downstairs and joining her. Birgitte emphasised that this was an important period, in which she was being tested by Britta. Birgitte’s approach to this behaviour was to never book another appointment after meeting with Britta and then to sit patiently until the young woman was ready to see her. This patience paid off and today Britta was ready and waiting when we arrived.
We were introduced and then went to a café to talk. The warmth between Birgitte and Britta was clear to see and Britta was very open about her life and the challenges she faces. She also acknowledged that it had taken her a long time to trust Birgitte and that Birgitte had been very patient with her. While we talked, the positive regard that Birgitte holds Britta in shone through and reminded me of a proud mother with her adored daughter. Britta told us about her musical aspirations and gave us the details of a website where we could view and listen to some of her songs. She also told us that she is studying to be a legal secretary, in case she cannot make a living from her singing. Although deeply hurt by the experiences of her childhood, Britta had a clear sense of future and realisation that it is her choices which will shape it.
What I feel I gained most from my two placements and my time in Denmark was the essence of social pedagogy being a personal journey. You feel pedagogy in your heart. This is what makes a good practitioner. What I take away is the sense of solidarity within both units; staff, young people and parents all working together toward a shared aim. What I hope to share with others is the sense of the whole child. What I began to understand is that we are good at what we do. We have some very good practice and very good staff who are committed to the work we do. What is evident in Denmark is that social pedagogy is a part of society; it is integral to how people live their lives. We are not going to change the whole of society but if, by being more aware, better educated and having a greater understanding, we enhance the life experience of the young people we care for then perhaps this is justification for making the changes.
Later on in the evening I began to meet the young people on the unit, who had begun to help to cook with the pedagogue. Again, there was a type of ‘flow’ in this coming together as a shared experience. The young people had not wished to eat what had been previously arranged for them. Rather than reacting negatively to this, Pere challenged the young people through choice, allowing them to move away from what was previously expected i.e. the allocated meal for the night but only as long as they agreed to source the produce and to help in cooking it, taking on responsibility for this change. The potential for learning independence skills was now enhanced and so the young people went to the shop, trusted with money, selected and thought out how much was needed for everyone and therefore intrinsically, had to think about and consider others. It seems almost patronising in needing to explain this but by appropriately challenging the young people’s negativity towards their meal, Pere opened up a creative social experience for us all; the young people’s self esteem blossomed because of this and the evening was set up around this otherwise potentially ruinous conflict of wills.
Instead when the young people returned they were tasked with preparing some of the food, which included the use of sharp and potentially dangerous knives, which they used freely, to great effect, preparing salad and sundries for everyone. The openness of the conversations which stemmed from this shared activity, and which continued right the way through into the meal itself and on into the evening, allowed me to get to know each young person, all of whom were a pleasure to spend time with and to talk to.
The team meeting we were part of was done in Danish - 3 hours in Danish. They spoke in Danish and Klaus kept summarising in English every now and then. He asked us afterwards to come to his office and tell him what we'd picked up. And there was a bit of tension in the team as one or two of the pedagogues' body language told much about how upset they were and who might need a bit of support. And we told Klaus that, and he was very surprised how much we'd picked up even though we'd not been able to understand it. One of the pedagogues had been a bit miffed about a situation where they'd involved Klaus and had to remove a lad. He said 'I would've been able to handle that without calling Klaus'. And it wasn't a matter that he would be big-headed about that, but when he spoke to us he said 'I really didn't want him [the boy] to get moved on because in three week's time he would've been moved to another place anyway'. He was concerned about the effect it would have on him with two moves in such a close time, which was nice to see that they were worried about the boy rather than saying, 'well I can't bloody sort that out', which is the attitude you sometimes get back home, people thinking it's like moving a bit of paper. So it was nice to see that he was actually concerned about what would happen to the young lad. We did manage to pick up quite a lot, even though we couldn't understand 90 per cent of it. And it was also nice to see how organised they are in their team meetings. It would've been nice to sit in a couple more, but compared to us where they are total chaos these were so respectful with each other, they actually listen to each other. These team meetings are worth having. They have a lot of them, I think, more team meetings than we have. When it's a lot about paperwork I'm not quite sure, that could be a bad thing, but these weren't.
Danny and I were placed with the youngest group of twelve children aged one to two and a half years. The ethos of the entire unit is to assist in the development of each individual by providing a healthy environment in which they can they can advance at their own pace mentally, physically and socially. Our role is to observe, guide, prompt and encourage them. All this needs to be carried out with the willing and understanding co-operation of their parents. The pedagogues are acting in partnership with them and they have regular access to the pedagogues to help and assist and share their knowledge of their child. The children’s basic physical needs are important. A sick, cold, tired or hungry child can not realise its full potential. The rooms of the nursery are bright and airy. There is a strong emphasis on time spent outside and outdoor physical exercise; large red prams are used for “nap times”, strategically placed on a veranda (with shelter from rain or too strong sunlight). The children are well wrapped in warm blankets if necessary.
Meals were taken together at tables and feeding and drinking skills were developed by using appropriate cutlery and little water jugs to help them to master pouring. The food was all healthy and organically grown and was served in suitable sized portions so it wasn’t over facing; the menu was designed and prepared by a dietician. The mealtimes were quiet and pleasant social occasions. The staff promoted independence and helpfulness amongst the children, sending them on small “errands” to find a toy or to fetch another child to join in an activity. The toys were chosen to develop fine motor skills, patience, and imagination and the children were invited or encouraged to participate rather than be “told” to take part in an activity. All staff understood how each child needed to learn at its own rate and when to intervene positively. There was a happy atmosphere which enabled every child to feel a valued member of the group. All communication was conducted simply and quietly, and this helped the children to understand that they didn’t need to shout or scream to get attention themselves or attract their friends.
We then cycled back to the other side of the city to a pedagogue seminarium where we ate lunch and chatted with Kristoff about his work and the different struggles he had faced along the way. We then met up with Martin a volunteer for Kristoff's sports scheme who runs martial arts classes having trained in many different disciplines. Martin introduced us to a young man called Charlie who gave us a demonstration on Kung Fu and showed us some Kata's he had been learning. We spent an hour learning and practicing the different techniques and having a laugh at the same time which was refreshing and a good way to quickly get to know each other within such a short space of time. We then went with Martin again across the city to another gym session where we met with Stina (a girl from the supported living at the home we where based) who we had met the night before and had tea with. Stina is currently working towards her personal trainer qualification on Kristoff's scheme and spent the next hour and a half putting us through a grueling gym workout and the fact that we had cycled 25 miles and already had 1 gym session and an hour's martial arts training didn’t seem to matter as this was just a normal day for her!!! It was great to see Stina be in control and to have so much confidence with the gym session she was delivering however broken and unconditioned our bodies felt.
I found even though the children are very independent and taught responsibility from a young age they still play like children. One of the things that is said back in the UK is children grow up too fast, giving them responsibility and independence at such a young age would take away their childhood. This I found not to be true: they still used imaginative play and were still children and played as such, they just appeared to have a mutual respect for each other. Two boys ran through the cafe area, and instead of saying ‘don’t run’ the pedagogue suggested it might be better if we walked fast through the cafe area, which the boys did. A good example of changing the way we say things, I know many children would have reacted differently if the saying was ‘don’t run’; it would have given rise to back chat. Offering the boys an alternative rather than being told what to do made them stop and think and comply. I will take a look at how I word things in different situations.
Going back to the children in the dress up section, they were talking to me and I found it hard to explain I did not understand. They found it amusing my hand gestures were obviously not that good; they were in fits of laughter. I was pulling faces in the mirror to which they copied. Another girl just sat there chatting away to me, and after lots of laughter and giggles I found out her name and I told her mine. She did seek a staff member and was talking to him, he told me she had said “why does she keep talking to me, I can’t understand her”. It got me thinking about my place of work. I work with children who have leaning difficulties and many communicate through picture exchange symbols (P.E.Cs). How must they feel when everyone around them is talking in a room and they don’t understand? I found it funny that the children in Denmark were having a laugh at my expense and I was the goldfish in the bowl, which I was glad about as it meant they were relaxed about me being there and didn’t feel like I was constantly watching them. But going back to the children I look after I could put myself in their place and I could have felt vulnerable, excluded and feeling of not belonging. That is something I feel I will be more aware of back in my unit.
We were also interviewed by Radio Edutalk about the mobility experience, so if you'd prefer to listen to the experiences rather than read about them please check out this link.
The Mobility Song: Don't Stop Believing by Maelor Hughes and Danny Henderson
The Mobility experience has also been immortalised in a song, which was performed at the celebration party in Hellerup. You can see the video of this amazing performance by Maelor Hughes and Danny Henderson here:
The participants would like to thank the children and young people, who allowed us to spend time with them; the pedagogues at the placements Allegården, Jens Jessensvej, Rymarksvænge, Den grønne giraf, Stjerneskuddet, and Stockholmsgave, who gave generously of their time and were endlessly enthusiastic throughout the time we spent with them (with particular thanks to Susanne, Klaus, Tina, Kristoffer, Steven, Kent, and Rasmus for many inspiring conversations); the project co-ordinators Gabriel (a man of seemingly endless patience, energy and encouragement), Charlotte (who was everywhere, our guide to the beautiful city of København and a most excellent ambassador for her country), and Christina (who taught us the subtle difference between a street and a goat and sings about LOVE); and many other Danish folk - too many to mention - who made it a real top experience! We'd also like to thank Care Visions and Lancashire County Council for giving us the opportunity to take part in the mobility and Danny Henderson and Anthony Moorcroft for bringing their enthusiasm for Social Pedagogy into the environments in which we work. And last but not least, a big thanks to all fellow travellers, each of whom brought something different to the mix!
On a less serious note, gratitude is also owed to the people of Christiania, Tuborg for coming up with Tuborg Classic, the Danish government for having the presence of mind to continue to allow smoking in pubs, and Bon Jovi who can probably do with the publicity :)
This project was funded through Leonardo da Vinci Mobility funding under the EU's Lifelong Learning Programme. You can read our official case study here. Further information about Leonardo Mobility is available at www.leonardo.org.uk.
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