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«Abstract Teachers face many competing responsibilities and barriers to protect children, which consequently also presents many challenges for ...»

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Teacher Preparation for Child Protection: A Strengths


Angela Fenton

School of Education, Charles Sturt University afenton@csu.edu.au


Teachers face many competing responsibilities and barriers to protect children, which consequently

also presents many challenges for pre-service teacher preparation. This paper reports on an Australian

doctoral research project that examined the use of strengths approaches in Higher Education with the

aim of enhancing pre-service teacher’s child protection understandings and skills. The qualitative research project charted teacher education students’ responses to a strengths-based child protection module that was newly developed for pre-service teachers by the researcher. The research findings confirmed the significant practical and moral demands of child protection education for pre-service teachers, as identified in child protection education literature. Additionally, the participants expressed that the strengths approach they had studied contributed to their increased awareness and confidence in child protection education both during and after the module. The participants reported a positive 'impact' when using strengths approaches upon graduating as teachers and an increase in their preparation and confidence to protect children.

The research developed and used a strengths approach to methodology. Qualitative data collection techniques of individual interviews, focus groups and electronic research were modified using strengths principles. Modifications were made in order to maximise collaboration and to allow participants to explore, demonstrate and share their own strengths whilst giving responses to key research themes. The data was examined by contextual and thematic analysis. Interpretations were shaped by principles articulated in strengths literature and research in the field of child protection and teacher education. One of the unexpected findings of the research was how a strengths approach also enhanced the research methodology particularly the design and use of a strengths-based electronic interview method, termed an EView.

This research indicated that a strengths approach to pre-service child protection training could provide a positive alternative, or addition, to the single, adjunct child protection workshop currently offered by most teacher education courses. The research findings suggest that an extended strengths approach assisted the cohort of pre-service teachers to understand, develop strategies and connect with child protection issues in their careers. Additionally, the findings suggest that a solutions-based, strengths approach helps to relieve the reported anxiety felt by teachers in dealing with child protection issues. Rather unexpectedly, using a collaborative, strengths-based researchprocess also provided an opportunity to develop and use new techniques to work with research participants.

Keywords Strengths Approaches, Early Childhood Education, Child Protection, Teacher Preparation Introduction The prevalence and negative effects of child abuse on children’s development and teaching practices are well documented, yet there is a conspicuous lack of literature on successful child protection education strategies. In contrast, the use of a strengths approach in social services yields positive results and this suggests potential for using the approach in education. The broad social context of complex child protection needs and the continued development of strengths approaches internationally were joint catalysts for planning and implementing the doctoral research project outlined in this paper. The research explored the potential for teachers using strengths approaches to 'make a difference' with children, families and communities, particularly those with complex needs such as children experiencing or ‘at risk’ of child abuse. Although the teacher-education program was a complex site for a change initiative (Bamber, Trowler, Saunders & Knight, 2009), the participants reported that the practical and conceptual tools of the Strengths Approach facilitated increased their understanding and confidence to engage with child protection issues.

Literature Review The prevalence and adverse effects of child abuse on children’s development and well-being are well documented internationally (ISPCAN, 2010; Pinheiro, 2006). In Australia, over 170,000 children were the subject of a notification about suspected abuse or neglect in the year 2011-2012 (AIHW, 2013). Educators, in contact with children on an extended and regular basis, are ideally placed to implement protection strategies (Briggs & Hawkins, 1997; MacIntyre & Carr, 2000). Yet, teachers report feeling under-prepared and lacking confidence in their child protection roles (Baginsky, 2003; Laskey, 2005; Singh, 2005). In the last three decades, researchers and practitioners have repeatedly called for enhanced child-protection preparation for teachers (Levin, 1983; McCallum, 2003; Watts, 1997). In Australia, compared to other curriculum areas, educators receive minimal preparation in this area, generally in the form of a theoretical, adjunct, obligatory-reporting workshop of a few hours within a three to four-year degree (Arnold and Maoi-Taddeo, 2007). These workshops do not typically include features that Biggs and Tang (2007) describe as vital to rich teaching and learning contexts in higher education such as a motivational context, formative feedback, and reflective practice (p. 92).

Strengths approaches emerged in social services and psychology from practitioners working with complex issues such as child abuse (Glicken, 2004; Saleebey, 2009). McCashen (2005) explains the Strengths Approach as collaborative and solutions-based, “a philosophy for working with people to bring about change … it acknowledges and addresses power imbalances between people working in human services” (p. v). The approach involves exploring issues with stakeholders, identifying strengths and resources to assist with developing strategies for solutions to issues. A guide for implementing a Strengths Approach is presented in a five-column table format, to guide practitioners applying the Strengths Approach and this is termed, The Column Approach (McCashen, 2005, p. 48) as shown in Table 1 (below).

–  –  –

Note. From The Strengths Approach (p. 48), by W. McCashen, 2005, Bendigo: Innovative Resources. Copyright 2005 by the St.Lukes Innovative Resources. Reprinted with permission.

Strengths-based approaches have been criticised as not being a discrete approach (McMillen, Morris & Sherraden, 2004; Staudt, Howard & Drake, 2001) as well as being are poorly, or not consistently, defined or applied (Epley, Summers & Turnbull, 2010). Hodges & Clifton (2004), however, claim strengths approaches have strong potential for improving social circumstances across traditional social-service boundaries, though there are few empirical research studies using strengths approaches in education contexts (Fenton, 2008a).

Context and Method Within the context outlined above, the research charted pre-service teachers’ responses to a strengths-based child protection module developed by the researcher. The author occupied the dual role of teacher and researcher. The research participants were a purposive sample group of 19 pre-service teachers. Participants were all enrolled, full-time, in a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood) degree and completing their third year, of a four-year degree programme, at a single university campus in Queensland, Australia. The thirteenweek module was designed for students to explore issues and perspectives of abuse and safety in-depth, learn how to identify their own and children’s strengths, and to formulate and practice teaching strategies for child protection. The module was integrated into a core child-development subject and linked to a practicum placement. Participant responses to the research themes of child protection, teacher preparation and the Strengths Approach were gathered in three phases: during module implementation (Phase 1), following professional-experience practicums in services and schools (Phase 2), and 12 months following the module completion (Phase 3).

The research developed and used a Strengths Approach to methodology. Qualitative data collection techniques of individual interviews, focus groups, and electronic research were modified using strengths theoretical principles. Modifications were made to maximise collaboration, transparency and to enhance “power with” rather than “power over” participants (McCashen, 2005, p. 48). Methods were designed to allow participants to explore, demonstrate, and share their own strengths whilst giving responses to key research themes. For example, to account for participants moving following graduation in Phase 3, an interactive, informal strengthsbased electronic interview (EView) technique was developed (Fenton, 2008b, 2013).

The EView is a strengths-based, email letter containing prompts to individual research participants inviting them to share perspectives on key research terms. Each email letter is individually written (typed) and is different for each research participant but guided by a template. The guide provides a consistent format to which personalised comments and slight variations could be added depending on previous interactions with participants. Comments are inserted into the template and the letter is sent as an email. The EView format uses a strengths-based focus in aiming to gather information and model strengths approaches in the correspondence. The format for the EView was influenced by key elements of strengths social work practice, such as developing a rapport and dialogue with stakeholders (Glicken, 2004, p. 51; Saleebey, 2009, p. 13). Liamputtong and Ezzy (2005) offer that “rapport and interaction between the researcher and researched can be better enhanced through online communication” (p. 232). Rapport is established in the beginning of the EView by giving brief relationship building comments such as recalling an event previously mentioned by the participant or mirroring a comment made in an earlier phase of the research. General reminders can given to participants in the EView introduction regarding research protocols, terms and progress. The prompting EViews then refers to the research key terms, drawing excerpts from previous transcripts of key research responses.

The data was examined by contextual and thematic analysis to elucidate meanings, understandings and implications of applying a Strengths Approach to education. Transcripts from all data collection methods were coded for the research themes, and the context of each phase was separately analyzed by the author, with reference to child-protection, higher education and strengths literature.

Discussion and Findings The research findings confirmed the significant practical and moral demands of child protection education for pre-service teachers, as identified in child-protection education literature (Briggs & Hawkins, 1997). For all participants the dialogue focussed initially around the issues of child abuse and protection as well as their personal needs and feelings when preparing to be teachers.

I don't really feel comfortable with teaching and addressing child protection. I guess that for a lot of people of [it] would be a very sensitive issue and sometimes easier to just “not go there”. Still, I think it is such an important issue that it cannot be ignored. (Participant 5, Discussion Board) Many participants confirmed the “emotional labour” (Singh & McWilliam, 2005, p. 118) of child protection roles.

Initially all I could think about were the stats - 53 million children killed! – 53 thousand boys having sex forced on them – 1 child abuse every 15 mins! – 1 child in every 2 classrooms! This was soooooo wow, like how can we possibly combat that!! How can people do that to children? I hate the thought of this, I hate that adults can have such power over young children. It’s heart breaking!! [Participant’s emphasis]. (Participant 18, EView) At the beginning of Phase 1, Participants affirmed the need for practical solutions to protect children and saw existing teacher preparation adjunct workshops as a barrier to protection (Arnold and Maoi-Taddeo, 2007).

Where do we as pre-service teachers (and eventually teachers) learn to deal with these matters?

... Are we at some stage thoroughly trained and taught how to handle the situation? (Participant 16, Discussion Board) During the module the participants welcomed and valued the opportunity to envision and explore the strengths, resources, and strategies presented in the extended module (McCashen, 2005). The strengths approach studied by the participants contributed to an increased awareness in child-protection education both during and after the

module. Participant 12 indicated on a picture scale her growing confidence in child protection:

When talking about our confidence in relation to the strengths-based approach I chose the thermometer scale. I chose this as I think it is more of hot or cold topic. I said that I was up towards the top of the thermometer as I have quite a good awareness of child protection and child abuse due to the information given [to] us. (EView) In Phase 2 after completing the strengths module, despite the pre-service teachers’ limited experience of working formally in education services, over twenty responses to the theme of abuse (more than one incident per participant) arose from a teaching practice, which lasted less than eight weeks. Participants were able to confidently identify possible indicators of physical, verbal, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect.

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