About the Author
Susan Waltham is a Senior Lecturer and the award leader for the BA (Hons) Childhood Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Caroline Bligh is a Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education and Course Leader for the MA in Childhood Studies and Early Years at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Ian Lloyd is a Lecturer in Social Work at Staffordshire University.
Sue Chambers is an independent early years consultant.
June O’Sullivan is Chief Executive at the London Early Years Foundation.
Jackie Musgrave manages the Early Years Foundation Degree at Solihull College.
Read an Excerpt
Well-being in the Early Years
By Caroline Bligh, Sue Chambers, Chelle Davison, Ian Lloyd, Jackie Musgrave, June O'Sullivan, Susan Waltham
Critical Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Caroline Bligh, Sue Chambers, Chelle Davison, Ian Lloyd, Jackie Musgrave, June O'Sullivan and Susan Waltham
All rights reserved.
An early years teacher's perspective on silent participation
Well-being may have been considered a subjective notion in the years prior to the Children's Society's unique research (2012a, b) that has deepened our understanding of well-being in relation to young children's learning and development.
The Promoting Positive Well-being for Children report states that school is a key area of children's lives where experiences vary greatly and negative experiences have a significant impact on well-being (Children's Society, 2012a, p 6). This key document states that children who felt they had been unfairly treated by their teacher on more than one occasion were four times more likely to have low levels of happiness at school than children who did not feel unfairly treated.
The Good Childhood Report supported these findings, revealing that school is viewed as a central component of overall well-being by children, and that of particular importance is satisfaction with the school environment, relationships with teachers and other children at school, and school work and learning (Children's Society, 2012b, p 39).
This chapter provides the reader with a case study through which to consider the well-being of a young bilingual learner in relation to her learning and development in an early years setting.
Drawing upon sociocultural research (Bligh, 2011), the reader is called upon to examine the emergent stage of English language acquisition, the silent period, through the silent experiences of a four-year-old girl of Japanese heritage called Suki. The silent period (in this research) refers to a specific time in the acquisition of English as an Additional Language, when, on entering an early years setting in England, the language of discourse and instruction (English) is not understood.
Suki, who has entered an English-speaking early years setting, is an emergent bilingual learner. The terms silent, young bilingual learner; emergent bilingual learner; and English Additional Language learner commonly refer to a young child between three and six years of age who is in the initial (non-verbal) stage of additional-language acquisition. Suki is learning English as a new and additional spoken language within and beyond the early years educational setting.
This case study aims to challenge your thinking as you are invited to 'listen in' on Suki's silent experiences. In attempting to unravel the complexity of the silent period, you will share this narrative account of Suki while she negotiates her learning trajectory through the English-speaking practices presented in the early years setting – a Reception class. I was Suki's Reception class teacher.
While teaching, I first encountered Suki as a four-year-old girl of Japanese heritage in a Reception class in a large city in the north of England. She did not speak in class, neither had she in the day nursery that she had previously attended for two years. My perception of Suki at that time was that of a 'bewildered' child, whose facial expression appeared to remain 'fixed' and unsmiling at all times. Her limbs were held stiffly and her movements appeared restricted. To my dismay the children would lift Suki's arms up and down and say Look, Suki is just like a doll!
Within the Reception class, spoken English was both the language of instruction (spoken by myself) and the primary spoken language of the majority of Suki's peers. Indeed, most teachers and early years practitioners in England are monolingual English speakers. Regardless of their heritage language (mother tongue), children in England are taught through the medium of spoken and written English in and through all curriculum areas in both the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2012b) and the Primary National Curriculum (DfE, 2012a).
Unfortunately, in the misguided belief that nurturing more than one language puts a child at a disadvantage in the development of their spoken English, the child's mother tongue may be disregarded in school, or even be actively discouraged. However, in Wales and Scotland there is less emphasis on integration into spoken English; both Welsh and Gaelic are supported in their development as indigenous languages alongside spoken English.
Silent participation at home and school
... before we left Suki's house for the ten-minute walk to school, Suki showed me her Japanese lunch box with all its beautifully sectioned compartments that contained a selection of her favourite foods. As we passed the front of Suki's house in the direction of school, she proudly pointed out the Japanese radishes that were growing in her garden, while both she and her mother attempted to converse with me (in English). Throughout the journey Suki was holding my hand. However, as soon as the school gates came into view, Suki let go of my hand and 'stiffened up'. Her face became almost 'mask-like' and she stopped speaking. Her mother and I both attempted to converse with Suki, but there was no response from her until she left the school building at 3.15pm.
At home, Suki was an adept and confident speaker in her mother tongue. However, Suki was a novice and newcomer to the (English) language awaiting her within the boundaries of the school environment. From the moment the school was in sight, Suki stopped speaking and appeared as if concentrating hard – to gain mastery of the school's unfamiliar practices and make meaning of her new world.
Unwittingly in class, I focused my attentions intensely upon Suki in an attempt to 'tease' her out of her silence and 'include' Suki as a central character within the Reception class practices. I would not only impose my gaze upon Suki and constantly ask questions of her, but also actively encourage her to participate in activities presented on the interactive white board and to present her completed pictures and models to the rest of the class. However, Suki did not want to be a central character, and preferred to seek out safe spaces that provided her with a secure 'look-out post' from which to absorb the practices of the class. As confirmed by Lave and Wenger, Suki required lessened intensity, lessened risk, special assistance, lessened cost of error, close supervision, or lessened production pressures (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p 100).
Suki was not withdrawing from participation when she released my hand as we walked closer towards the school gates. On the contrary, she was drawing upon her unspoken mother tongue (Vygotsky, 1978, pp 56–57) as a tool through which to observe closely and listen intensely to the practices within the early years setting. Suki watched and listened to the Reception class practices, but her participation remained limited within the confines of the school.
In contrast to school, Suki's home was surrounded with known and shared cultural signs, symbols and tools that empowered her not only to practise spoken English, but also to 'rehearse' increasing levels of participation – without feeling pressured to do so. Suki's home provided her with safe domestic spaces (Hancock and Gillen, 2007) through which to rehearse the unfamiliar practices of the early years setting – through which to learn.
During one of my visits to Suki's home, I observed her playing 'schools'. She appeared happy as I watched her at play, rehearsing the practices that she had observed and listened to in class. One such activity was Suki acting out the role of a Reception class teacher. I observed her reading a story to and asking questions of the 'children', which in reality were her dolls and soft toys. Suki's home provided her with the necessary security, cultural knowledge and agency through which to participate with confidence. Her concentration on learning the practices of the early years setting was reflected through this active role of apprenticeship (Rogoff, 1990, p 90). Actively copying what she had seen in class was of great importance to Suki as a means to increase her participation.
Akin to Lave and Wenger's description of how newcomers gradually build sketches of the practices within a learning community (1991, p 95), Suki's experiences at home and school were a means to 'sketch' participation – as a sociocultural practice.
The silent period
Not every young bilingual learner encounters a silent period like Suki, because not every child invests many of their hours, days, weeks and years in an environment where their mother tongue may be disregarded (Bligh, 2011).
A diagnosis of selective mutism –an extremely complex expressive communication disorder (SMIRA, 2007) – is sometimes confirmed as little as one month into the silent period. In fact, some Education Authority Ethnic Minority Achievement Services advise teachers that it is crucial children are diagnosed and treated as early as possible (HEMAS, 2003, p 2).
Although there is much conflicting information regarding the acceptable length of time within which a young bilingual learner should experience the 'silent period' or 'silent phase', many researchers (Clarke, 1996; Tabors, 1997) view the experience of passing through the silent period as a normal stage in additional-language acquisition. It is suggested by Tabors (1997) that silence is chosen because the bilingual learner prefers to communicate non-verbally. Saville-Troike's study into private speech described this period as linguistic development that has gone underground or, if the child is using private speech (speaking only to themselves), social speech that has turned inward (Saville-Troike, 1988, pp 568, 570).
Many factors may or may not have an effect upon the speed at which a child passes through the silent period, including the consequences of psychological withdrawal or an interruption in the child's expected language acquisition processes (Parke and Drury, 2001). Kagan (1989) suggests that children who are temperamentally inhibited will be more cautious, less sociable and perhaps less willing to try; they may be fearful (with no one to share their mother tongue) of making a mistake, therefore prolonging the transition through the silent period.
At that time I was initially concerned with the complexity of Suki's experiences that might be restricting her participation in the Reception class collaborative learning activities. Of particular concern was whether this prolonged period of silence might position her as an 'outsider' (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and restrict her from sharing 'insider' participation. For this reason I referred her to the speech and language therapist in an attempt to articulate her 'condition'.
The speech and language therapist interpreted Suki's silence as selective mutism. She referred Suki to the educational psychologist. After 'interviewing' Suki (she remained silent throughout) for approximately 20 minutes, the educational psychologist gave a confirmed diagnosis of this anxiety-based disorder.
At that time, I was relieved that a medical diagnosis had been achieved for Suki, because I assumed that a diagnosis would help solve her 'problem'. Suki's mother was also happy that a reason for Suki's silence had been established. However, I soon came to realise that pathologising Suki with a condition disregarded not only sociocultural factors affecting her whole person (Engel, 1980) but also labelled her negatively ... as a deficit medical model (McConkey and Bhurgri, 2003).
Reflecting upon this episode in Suki's life-world, I realise I had unwittingly treated her with benign neglect, because I was accepting the medicalisation of Suki's silence. A deficit medical model (labelling) provided a quick-fix solution (programme of treatment) and, more importantly, a just reason for accepting Suki's behaviour as a condition. Following on swiftly from her initial diagnosis as a 'selective mute', a stimulus-fading programme of treatment (Croghan and Craven, 1982) was prescribed by the educational psychologist. Something that has disturbed me greatly is how quickly, on diagnosis, a child like Suki can be relabelled solely on the basis of their condition. Rather than being a girl with specified barriers to her learning and participation, Suki was now the selective mute.
At this time, the relevance of my position in Suki's learning was beginning to emerge. How could I, a white, monolingual (English-speaking) teacher, bridge-build between Suki's familiar 'world of home' and the unknown and possibly distrusted 'world of the school'? But, how, as a white, monolingual, adult English speaker, was I to interpret silent experiences when I was unable to share the signs, symbols and tools embodied within the young learner's mother tongue? How could I make the intangible tangible?
After gaining consent from the head teacher of the school and Suki's mother it was agreed by all parties that I should begin visiting Suki in her home twice a week before school to try and re-establish 'new beginnings' between the school, Suki and her family.
When I visited Suki in her home, she 'came alive'.
At 8.30am, when I first arrived at Suki's house, I was met at the door by a very different girl from the four-and-a-half-year-old girl (of Japanese heritage) that I had encountered in my Reception class. Suki appeared at the door as animated and smiling. She immediately greeted me by jumping up and down, saying excitedly, 'Mrs Bligh, Mrs Bligh!' She held my hand and guided me quickly through the hall. Suki's mother welcomed me in, opened the door to the lounge and offered me a seat ... I found it hard to believe that Suki (who was now singing happily in her mother tongue) was the same young girl who would remain 'motionless' and silent in my Reception class. She brought me her school reading book, sat next to me, and attempted to read it to me in English.
Among the family's culturally shared signs, symbols and tools, Suki chatted to me with excitement and showed me her favourite toys. She walked happily with me to school, holding both my hand and that of her mother until she was in sight of the school gates: at which point her speech and facial expressions froze – and did not 'thaw' again until she left the school gates at the end of the day.
I can only imagine the initial frustration felt by Suki at being unable to draw upon and present her wealth of social, historical and cultural understanding – her funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 2005) – through which to make meaning of her new world. Moll et al. (1992, p 133) interpret funds of knowledge as the historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being. Teachers/practitioners may be guilty of neglecting bilingual learners' rich cultural and cognitive resources nurtured within home environments, and therefore overlook valuable opportunities for culturally responsive and meaningful teaching and learning practices.
I return to Suki's 'diagnosis' in attempting to differentiate between selective mutism and the silent period. What is this condition that was attached to Suki?
Afasic UK defines selective mutism as referring to children who are able to speak freely in some situations but do not speak in others. The 'problem' presents in school where there are concerns that a child has not spoken for two terms or more (Afasic, 2004, Glossary 6).
The school speech and language therapist who had observed Suki had described selective mutism as an expressive language or communication disorder, while the educational psychologist referred to selective mutism as a psychiatric, anxiety-based condition. Speech Disorder UK (2010) suggests that selective mutism occurs when a child who has the ability to both speak and understand language fails to use this ability in some settings – the child appears to freeze and be unable to speak.
Afasic UK (2004) provides an introductory 'picture' of selective mutism.
Selective mutism is a relatively rare condition; the best estimate suggests that fewer than 1 child per 1,000 is affected.
Selective mutism is usually reported between the ages of three and five years.
Girls are affected slightly more frequently than boys.
Children who come from a bilingual background are slightly more likely to display selective mutism.
Children with selective mutism are more likely to have other speech and language difficulties than other children.
The majority of children with selective mutism are of average or above-average intelligence, but some show moderate-to-severe learning difficulties.
Excerpted from Well-being in the Early Years by Caroline Bligh, Sue Chambers, Chelle Davison, Ian Lloyd, Jackie Musgrave, June O'Sullivan, Susan Waltham. Copyright © 2013 Caroline Bligh, Sue Chambers, Chelle Davison, Ian Lloyd, Jackie Musgrave, June O'Sullivan and Susan Waltham. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMeet the authors,
Introduction to critical thinking,
Introduction: challenging assumptions and misconceptions about well-being in the early years,
1 An early years teacher's perspective on silent participation CAROLINE BLIGH,
2 The parents' and extended family perspective CHELLE DAVISON,
3 A health professional's perspective: children's nursing JACKIE MUSGRAVE,
4 The social worker perspective IAN LLOYD,
5 The early years professional perspective: men in childcare SUE CHAMBERS AND JUNE O'SULLIVAN,