Equilibium’s Family Centre (FC) in Rousse is an interactive family centre operating “in the world of early childhood” created for the benefit of families, pedagogues and social workers. The centre is the result of the project: Parenting Creatively – Creation of Bulgaria’s first Early Childhood Resource Centre (Serving Families + Educators + Childcare Professionals)
This evaluation aims to answer the following questions:
- What is the benefit to users that comes from contact with the FC? Do the project components provide true value to those users?
- Hasthe “meeting place” model been successfully implemented in Bulgaria?
- Do the various activities included in the project succeed in giving a clear benefit to the parents?
- Does theenvironment and the approach adopted provide a proven benefit for ALL small children (including those with developmental problems)?
- Does the FC provide a rational and valid approach to improving the knowledge of pedagogues and professionals in childcare/ educationalfacilities?
- Does the project offer a meaningful answer to the shortcomingsidentifiedin early years’ care and education in Bulgaria? Does the Rousse centre provide a structured, reasoned and practical answer?
(As outlined in the report – “Early Child Development in Bulgaria. Research on Systems Supporting Early Childhood Development, Interrelationships and Interaction with Children and the Parents, 2018)
- Is the approach introduced by the FC in Rousse a coherent, structured and meaningful model that can be clearlydefined and demonstrated to stakeholders in the field of early years’ care and education?
- Is the FC model replicable? Is there scope for expansion and significantimpact?
- Can the FCconcept be transferred to other townsto play a role in the development of family support structures?
For the purposes of this Independent Assessment the following actions were undeetaken:
- 10 semi-structured interviews with parents who are FC userswith childrenaged between 11 months and 6 years old
- 2 semi-structured interviews with Equilibrium and FC supervisors.
- 1 focus group with professionals working in/ in association withthe FC.
- Analysis of video materials presenting 3 children attending the FC(aged between 26 months and 32 months)
- Analysis of written materials presenting the idea of the project
Analysis of interview results, focus group and videos responds to the questions asked.
Consideration of the results from two parent focus groups hosted by David Bisset and a number of parent feedback sessions organized over the last year
Consideration of a video interview with the project monitor. Meeting with this person
Equilibrium Family Centre in Rousse: a meeting place for parents and children
What is the idea?
The idea for creation of a family centre is the result of deep reflection and development of the diverse experience of Equilibrium in the provision of services and support for children and parents from different social groups as well as from contact with professionals from outside Bulgaria who work with parents and their young children.
When interviewed, David Bisset (project leader) says that the idea of a FC arose as the natural result of both research and growing involvement in working in the sphere of early childhood development in Bulgaria. Having played a leading role in the closure of large residential institutions for infants and children with disabilities, what did Equilibrium feel it needed to focus on while supporting development of alternative services and family support structures? (Equilibrium is a powerful advocate for universal family support.)
The initial inspiration for setting up a centre for young children and parents comes after a meeting with professionals from the Swedish system of risk prevention and early intervention. In Sweden, they have developed family centres where every expectant mother is referred. It is noteworthy that in this Scandinavian country, health and social affairs are combined in a single government ministry leading naturally to the management of facilities where health and social welfare overlap. In these centres, parents have access to a variety of professionals (eg psychologist, social pedagogue and social worker) over and above the medical team that provides pre and post-natal care for mother and baby. There is inevitably am “open preschool” group at every family centre and its distinctive feature is that parents attend with their children. This approach provides social contact for parents and gives informal access to advisors. An increasing number of parents are young or socially excluded. Many come from other countries.
This leads us to focus on a ket concept – making professional support available to all parents and ensuring there is no stigma that arises when they ask for help or advice. Professionals tend to observe parents and children in a non-intrusive way. Parents who need specialized help can be directed to other services. The family centre should not be too large so as to preserve the intimacy of working relationships and communication. The aim is for children and parents to have straightforward access to the multidisciplinary team at the FC.
The development of Equilibrium’s family centre (FC) is also the result of experience gained from working with kindergartens in Rousse around the issue of positive parenting. This venture was not totally successful. By way of contrast, in the Ruse Social Services Complex (managed by Equilibium) there are mixed ability play-groups for the parents of young children with special educational needs and those who do not. Parent-and-child playgroups are also a successful component of work in Roma communities. Parents are dynamically involved in a learning environment that impacts on both adults and children. They contribute in a meaningful way.
Here is how David Bisset reveals the impact of institutional practice in early years’ education:
“In the end, the positive parenting campaign produced literature and interactive methods of working with parent groups that we continue to use. They work well for us.
In the spring of 2016 we actually told the Velux Foundation – our project donors – about efforts to work with a small number of Rousse kindergartens in the context of the new project (the family centre). We wanted to distribute questionnaires to parents to help us gather information on the types of thing the new facility needed to offer. Almost 250 questionnaires were returned to us.
We also hosted a number of discussion groups in informal settings around town and talked to clients of the social services centre. We asked the same questions that were contained in the questionnaires.
Analysis of parental opinion revealed a significant contrast between the results from our focus groups and those gathered via kindergartens. We distributed the kindergarten questionnaires to a team of 8 people for commentary. Some had worked with kindergartens as part of the positive parenting initiative.
It was clear to everyone that kindergarten directors and personnel were creating a significant distortion by dictating parental responses. All documents were returned to us in absolutely pristine condition. Written replies in many questionnaires were virtually identical. They even used the same words and expressions. Large groups of people contradicted themselves in the same way suggesting that the breakdown in logic derived from a single source.
How this happened and why it was done is a matter for conjecture. However, it says something quite clear about institutional control over the parental voice. It helps explain why parents feel anxious and pressurized.
Back in 2016, it clearly demonstrated the challenge that lay ahead of us.”
David added the following –
“Actually, we encountered a similar phenomenon when we distributed different questionnaires to groups of kindergarten teachers during discussion groups. Often people (and, most especially, senior personnel) gave the same abstract responses, using virtually the same words.”
The story about the parent questionnaires gives an extreme example of institutional disregard for parental opinion. We should not judge a system on the basis of a single example. However, I was to discover that members of the team at the FC had listened to other disturbing accounts from parents. Referring to his experience from working in child protection, Dabid said the following –
“On several occasions, I have supervised cases in which those in the education system have closed ranks against a vulnerable family. Their concerns are treated dismissively or with disdain. Educators do not see themselves as accountable to parents, only the educational authorities. There is no ethos of public service.”
In the development of the FC, its creators use play-oriented methods that they also use in mobile work with Roma parents. They note that – when parents are not “advised” and “trained” – they are keen to stay with their children and share the experience.. This contrasts with the normal actions of preschool educators and to many specialists. Too frequently, “parents are kept apart from their children” leaving them in nursery / kindergarten. Equilibrium team members notice that, during their conversations with parents, they say they worry about their child when they attend the institution where parental access and communication are very limited. In addition, mothers can experience a genuine crisis when their maternity leave is about to expire and they need to return to work. Their child needs to go to nursery to be cared for by nursing staff. (In Bulgaria, creches are controlled by the Ministry of Health and are not seen to be part of an early learning framework.)
Distinctive feature of the Family Centre (FC)
At the start of the project activities aiming towards the development of thd FC, two fundamental points were defined:
- We are scientifically oriented, not ideological (there is a difference);
- We prioritize our principles over adherenceto a particular methodology
David Bisset says, ” Understanding of child development changes rapidly. We want to pursue excellence and do this we must be comfortable with change. The early childhood centre exists in order to evolve. I don’t like it when people refer to ‘best practice’. It encourages complacency. There is always better. We just don’t know what it is yet.”
David’s attitude embodies what psychologists call” tolerance to uncertainty”. Tolerance to uncertainty is a characteristic of the creative approach and thinking out of the box. According to David, the problem with the highly ideological approach is that you will inevitably encounter children “that don’t fit”. The shortcoming is in your approach, not the child.
“In Bulgaria. we see a lot of practices transferred in a copy-and-paste manner and claimed to cure all ills. Equilibrium has developed its own approach….” (Lora Sarkisyan, programme monitor)
David and his colleagues identify five principles that they adhere to when implementing the project and developing a FC:
- Use of developmentally appropriatepractice as currently understood;
- Respect for the autonomy and identity of each child;
- Rich and diverse opportunities for free play;
- Effective screening for delays in developmentand learning difficulties;
- Genuineinvolvement of parents / guardians.
The FC project is not inspired by a single practice of method.
David Bisset points out that – on the basis of the current climate and new trends and in early years’ education – people often ask if they use Montessori methods in their direct work with children. Equilibrium has trained Montessori practitioners and they use their training. The Edinburgh kindergarten that is a project partner adheres to Froebelian practice. Equilibrium is not “devoted” to either approach.
The team admires the San Miniato experience in Italy and there are aspects of Reggio Emelia practice they like but, as stated, they are not ideological.
A great deal of inspiration comes from Sweden: an approach that is “flexible, responsive and sensitive”. “We have been inspired by the Swedish system of family centres and, in particular, the open pre-school, but we have to be sensitive to local needs and cultural trends” says Bisset. The Secretary General of the Swedish Association of Family Centres kindly provided the document ‘Pre-school curriculum 98, revised in 2010’. According to David Bisset, this document is not a curriculum in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a political statement describing the key considerations for the development and implementation of curricula both in regular pre-school groups and in open pre-school -(parents and children meeting in family centres. (In Sweden there are two type of preschool.) This document is a declaration of “democratic principles” that are essential in a country that is becoming more and more ethnically mixed and multicultural and in which the traditions and norms of parenthood are developing. The system should be “flexible, responsive and sensitive” in response to the diverse social and cultural needs as well as the individual needs of children.
Last, but not least, the FC project is inspired by the Platonic idea that psychologist Barry Schwartz refers to as “practical wisdom”. It basically means – DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE AND NOT WHAT YOU ARE TRAINED TO DO OR INSTRUCTED TO DO.”
In the implementation of the idea of FCs PARENTS participate.
“We visited the play group and we were together with a group of parents and this gave us ideas on what this centre would be like. We were looking forward to it a lot. I like the idea of free play – children feel free to express themselves in play and to learn this way. I accept the idea that children should grow up with a sense of freedom and this is something that needs to be promoted. Do not have these restrictions in your head as adults “(mother of girls 6 years and 1 year 6 months).
What do parents say? What are the benefits of their visits to the FC for their children and for themselves?
All parents that were interviewed indicate that a prominent reason for their visits to the FC was that “children play freely”. The opportunity that the FC provides for children to play without restrictions is a leading motivation for parents to visit. “Children feel great, free to play at will” (mother).
Besides the children playing freely and developing, their parents can relax: “My child is engaged and she enjoys it. I can rest and unwind” (mother). This parenting statement very clearly directs us to the nature and type of space the mother feels she needs. The parent can rest because the child is committed to playing, fascinated and fully engaged. This provides relief to the mother, which she refers to using the word “rest”.
Another motivation for parents to attend the FC is that they have the opportunity to meet with many people, including professionals and other parents with whom they communicate and talk. “I communicate with many parents and their children” (father).
“There is someone to talk to. I talk a lot to N. (psychologist). She calms me down. I have a bond with her. It is very important for a mother to have someone to talk to who genuinely listens. I am of the opinion that every child is different, has a different character, and it is very important for me to approach my child individually according to his needs. They (the professional team) know this and help the children.” (mother).
The words of this mother give us a clear idea of the support she finds at the FC and what it offers (listening, responding, conversation). The effect of this support is therapeutic, reducing anxiety. The reduction of anxiety on its part makes it possible for the mother to calmly watch her child while he is playing freely, discovering things she has not yet noticed (in a more pressurized environment), enjoying communication with him, which is critical to the quality of the relationship between them and the way she speaks and communicates with him.
“He plays and creates new friendships. Learns to cooperate and share “(mother).
Explaining their motivations to attend the FC, parents often refer to its unique atmosphere which they experience as friendly and welcoming. “Very nice atmosphere, different, impacts well on everyone” (mother).
Some of them use the expression “convenience”: “Extremely convenient, for little children with nowhere else to go. Here they can play with otherchildren, prepare food, sleep. If I have sometimes forgotten to bring nappies or moisturizer, they provide them and there is always someone who can help me. Here is the only place where I can come alone and stay for as long as I want “(mother).
At the FC, parents meet each other, communicate and share experiences. A parent community is created. “It is very important to mothers and fathers who are not Bulgarian and have no friends and relatives, and here in the family centre they find a welcoming environment. Their children communicate with the children of other parents “(pedagogue / art therapist FC)
For parents The FC is a place where their child plays freely. This reduces their anxiety and constant vigilance and they have people to talk to and share with.
We asked the parents a question, “While you are at the cntre with your child, are you able to do anything that you can’t do anywhere else?”
They all responded positively. The key answer is: “Here, I can calmly pay attention to one child and then the other. I have the opportunity to communicate with my children, feeling safe. I have space and time for both children, one and then the other “(mother). The words of this mother very clearly tell us that, through its various activities, the FC reduces her maternal anxiety, reassures her and gives her the opportunity to experience her relationship with her children in different ways, to enjoy them, feeling relaxed in her supportive / responsive role.
The parents interviewed point out that the ability of children to play freely is a unique feature of the FC. “There are rules and prohibitions in all other centres in the city. Children can’t play freely there. “
This leads to the question of where and how a modern parent manages and observes his / her child at play. We can ask whether, outside the FC, parents can accumulate understanding from watching and sharing the free play of the child. It seems as if, in the modern world, there are too few places and situations in which the child plays freely and it is logical that parents frequently have no experience to derive important impressions about the behavior and experiences of their child when playing spontaneously and freely.
Another thing that parents refer to as a unique feature of the FC is the way in which conflicts between children are resolved. It is a well-known fact that, in the early years, bringing together children of much the same age (with a difference of no more than 6 months) generates the potential for conflict. “Sometimes there are 8 to 9 children and confrontations often occur. Some become aggressive, others are easily upset when they cannot share a toy, for example. In many places – and even in kindergartens – people do not understand this. Just being among the kids and joining the games, the staff in the FC team closely monitor the situation and keep control “(mather).
Here is a major difference between the FC and kindergarten identified by parents in the approach to child conflicts and challenging behaviour. It operates on two levels: 1. understanding the nature and inevitability of conflict between children and 2. the manner in which adults respond and cope.
Another unique feature of the FC that parents see and share is that there are always two or three adults among children. They join the play. ” Seeing this informs us about the different role of the adult at the FC: they play with the children. The adult at the FC is a partner of the children and their parents, and he / she is included in the play. They are an equal participant in the game.” (mother)
Some parents say that they can be with their children and, at the same time, relax, meet other parents, talk to specialists. All of this happens at the same time and in a non-intrusive way that does not require great effort on their part. All the parents interviewed feel relaxed at the FC. This is fully in line with one of the initial ideas shared by David Bisset about the approach.
Conclusion: The operation of the FC produces a result that matches the ideas that inspired it and the goals set in the project.
What do the parents say about their children when they are at the FC? What change do they notice in their child since they starting coming to the FC?
We asked the parents these two questions, because their answers provide an idea of what we call “parental attitude”, influencing the way – the difficulty or the ease – with which they deal with raising and educating children. From the answers to these questions, we understand the activities with which their children are engaged in the FC, those which they respond to most and what features of the environment the child pays attention to. It is also becomes clear what the values of parents are in raising and educating their children: levels of parental sensitivity and what in the development and behaviour of the child show trust and attachment to the parents.
A mother of an adopted boy aged four says: “Before coming here, he did not know how to play with other children. He would not share his toys. He constantly struggled for the attention of adults. He has now already learned to play in a group and has real friends that he cannot wait to meet. “
Here the change in the child described by his mother’s words clearly identifies the development of his ability to communicate with peers and to enjoy this social engagement.
In a similar way another mother refers to her daughter’s social development saying that she “gets used to social contact, discovers new games and friends.”
In some of the children, parents see progress in speech development: “Last year, she (her daughter) was in the first group in the kindergarten and hardly came here at all (to the FC). She did not talk much, hardly at all. We were advised to approach a speech therapist at the kindergarten. In the summer we were able to visit the FC almost every day. When she returned to kindergarten in the autumn, they could hardly recognize her – she talked a lot, told stories about things. Maybe here with the books and the conversations with N. (psychologist) and the fact that we spent more time here, I can truly say that there is this progress. In the summer she relaxed a lot, became more confident, believed she could do it.”(mother).
Parents also appreciate the large variety of activities in which children have the opportunity to get involved in the FC:
“We read books and study animals and objects through picture books; build fantastic puzzles; play with both younger and older children, We make “obstacle courses” and climb. Playing with water is one of the favourite games. We have made various baking recipes and the children are the bakers; he started aking pictures with paints, pencils, play-dough, pastels … In the summer we played loads of games with buckets of soap suds, water balloons, and so on. And many other activities which have left a real impression. It’s about development, growth and change. “
Conclusion: Rich wariety of activities and the opportunity to grow and develop among natural materials enrich the child’s life experience, promote his / her overall physical, social and speech development.
What have the parents discovered or understood about themselves since they started coming to the FC?
Here the details that the parents’ share are particularly valuable because they give an idea of the unique functions of the FC and, in addition, an illustration of what the expression “change of attitudes of the parents” actually means. They share the personal revelations they have been able to make thanks to the FC. Each of these different discoveries gives us an accurate idea of what kind of support is needed for today’s parents:-
- Clear benchmarks among thehuge flow of confusinginformation that overwhelms the modern parent: “Parents see risks and problems everywhere, and I think what we read in the media makes us worry. There are many sites and books for “good parenting”, “positive parenting” or for a healthy lifestyle. It is quite confusing and makes you paranoid. I try to trust my own judgment “(father);
- The child’s development does not require the clutter of objects: “It is not necessary for the child to have lots oftoys to develop and use his imagination” (mother).
- Being with your child among other people can be enjoyable: “It is much more enjoyable to spend time with the child in company” (mother);
- Having a place where you are welcome with your child makes it possible for the parent to hear the opinion of the specialists: “Here is a great place, with an incredible staff without which this place would not be the same. Their opinion is important to me “(mother);
- Recognizingdifferent points of view: “I understand that each parent has a different view of what is right and what is not, which is best suited to his child; about methods and means of education “(mother);
- Feeling accepted and supported at the FC, allowing the parent to hear and accept the opinion of the specialists about their child.
“For example, they had a discussion group with a speech therapist. I was really worried that my daughter was not talking. I love this speaker because she explained to me how to communicate with her, watching a movie or reading a book, what to emphasize, what things to practice, that helped me a lot. /…/ My daughter was saying words in English. But the therapist explained to me that I should not be too concerned or try to stop her Because she obviously likes those words. Simply, if I look at something, I will tell her what we are looking at in Bulgarian “(mother).
The story shared by this mother shows the difference between the way the FC and other educational and social services operate. In the other places, the emphasis is very much on the weakness or problem with the child leading to counseling and specialist intervention etc.
We see that the FC functions in another way: it provides hospitality to the parent and his / her child. Children have the opportunity to enrich their life experiences and learn by playing freely mostly with natural materials. Both the child and the parent are supported by the FC team in an unobtrusive and non-prescriptive way. It is especially important for a parent to have someone to confide in and to talk to about their child. This builds a relationship of trust and empathy with the FC team. This is what makes it possible, when confronting a child’s specific problem, for a parent to be able to hear and accept what is being said.
“This is a learning envieonment for adults, parents and professionals. Specialists do not provide direct consultation for the family but interact informally in an intimate environment that can be described as a ‘meeting place’ “. (Lora Sarkisyan, programme monitor)
Conclusion: The support that the parent finds in the FC counteracts anxiety and resistance. Against the backdrop of general comfort and enjoyment of being with his /her child at the FC, the parent is able to hear and adopt the guidance and advice of professionals when the child has a problem.
What is most useful from the point of view of parents since they started coming to the FC?
The parents’ responses focus on building parent-child communication in the centre which enhances the child’s autonomy, his / her development through play and independent activity. In a sense, the parent and the child seem to become naturally “detached” from one another and this allows the child to explore what is interesting to him as a unique, autonomous individual. The parent can simply relax nto the experience of watching his / her child at play or communicating with other adults while play is in progress.
“When I spend time with my son, I do not need to be a teacher or a tutor. I can just watch him while playing and help him when he needs something. I can answer his questions “(father).
“There are interesting meetings for parents and we can communicate in English with D.” (mother).
“Relaxation and diversity, children are doing their own thing” (mother).
“That my child is allowed to play and is not constantly in my hands” (mother).
“Most useful to me is that I can communicate with professionals and that I can get feedback and advice from people here” (mother).
What do parents think their child needs most to grow and develop?
The answer to this question gives us an idea of what the parent attribute value to in terms of child development and growth, that is, about the “value system” of parents. Also, the role of the FC in the evolution of this value system is clearly demonstrated. For example, a mother shared the following: “I thought it was important for my son to learn numbers and the alphabet and how to be polite. I now see how children learn more while playing directly with different objects and with other children. Books and stories are important, but children do not need cool toys. It is important for them to play outside. Children are curious and need to explore. “
Conclusion: This parent’s reflection shows the change in her attitude towards learning and the way the child learns. Through her experience at the FC, this motherr discovers a young explorer whose driving force is childhood curiosity.
Among the things the parents list as being important and necessary for their child’s growth and development are: attention, being heard, freedom to explore without prohibition and instruction, a calm environment, independence, affection, exploratory play, acknowledgement and communication.
In the emergent value system of parents, freedom, exploratory play and communication are significant:
“The play here also liberates me. At one point – in a water fight – shutting off all my concerns and reservations to join the game… Well, it’s mother’s therapy. In their busy everyday life, people forget to play. This is a kind of meditation “(mother).
Conclusion: Visits to the FC lead to a change in parents’ attitudes and values about what is important for raising and educatinlg their child.
What do parents need most to feel comfortable?
This is a key issue because the practice of professionals working with children (psychologists, social workers, doctors, teachers … ) shows that parents’ peace of mind and security are paramount to the successful fulfilment of their parental functions. In addition, the mother’s (and also the father’s) anxiety is passed on to the child in many ways, even with a simple touch or a gesture.
Parents say that in order to feel comfortable they need “quality information and access to people who really understand how children grow and develop”; “support, understanding, calm people who enjoy spending their time in a cosy , nurturing environment; “support by feedback on how I manage as a parent and how my child develops.”
For some parents the FC is the only place that truly provides peace of mind:
“I do not have access to my children’s grandmothers, they are in the United States and England. I do not even have 5 minutes to leave the children. And the main goal is to be calm, so your children are also calm. This is something I get here. There are options and opportunities and this helps you not to get stressed ” (mother).
In the domestic environment, parents receive support and advice, but as one mother says, “I decide whether to listen to them …”. Parents seek help without pressure.
The result can be summed up with the following words of another mother: “It is very different. It is different from all other children’s centres. /…/ This is an indispensable help where I have never received help elsewhere.”
Conclusion: In the words of the parents we hear that the uniqueness of the FC is provision of peace of mind, lack of pressure and intrusion. A key factor in this process is the staff of the FC, the people who meet and work with the parents.
The analysis of parental responses suggests that an extremely important factor for a FC to function as a unique and very special place for all of them is the “staff” – responsive, supportive professionals.
What do the professionals say? How do they partner with parents and children in the FC?
Participanta In the focus group with the professionals:
Social worker (FC and social services) / Psychologist (FC and social services) / psychologist (permanently at FC / ocuppational therapy student (animator / play-leader at FC) / Equilibrium progeamme director / therapist and pedagogue (permanmtly at FC).
The programme director supervises social services and related external projects. She has been involved with with FC since the very beginning (the time of “hatching the idea”) together with David Bisset (who leads the early years’ team) and Galina Bisset (who acts as consultant and advises on the crossover with social services). She was inspired by the experiences borrowed from Sweden and Scotland. The purpose is strategic, organizational, and, as she says, “linked to sustainability”.
At the time of the focus group, those working exclusively in the FC had all been engaged since the start (a period of 14 months).
The responses of the FC team illustrate what David Bisset refers to as a scientic approach that is free from ideology and the prioritization of principles over rigid methodology.
As a professional who has been working for decades with a focus on individual children, adolescents and adults – something that requires a complete individual effort and is difficult to fit into a strict methodology – I found this statement and professional awareness of David Bisset very intriguing. I decided to check how it materialized in the work of the FC specialists and asked them the question: “Is there a particular methodology that you follow? What are the principles of work in the centre?”
Here are some of the answers:
“I would not say there is a specific methodology. Here the idea is for children to engage in play with their parents that is something they may not spend much time doing at home. I observe the process of engagement between parent with child “(social worker).
“We only have guidelines on safety and things like that that we convey in a subtle way. Parerents are often worried about what exactly can happen here and, therefore, impose restrictions on their children. We tell them that children are playing freely. We reassure them saying ‘Leave them, give them space’. We say that play should not be organized and controlled. We supervise and intervene if necessary. The situation is always very dynamic “(psychologist).
“The basic principle is not to instruct children in their play. This informality allows parents to share, to discover. They do not receive instructions (from us), but only guidance especially through the what they see happening ” ( art-therapist).
“On the walls we have written 15 very simple but profound principles taken from a book. The team follows them and encourages parents to adhere to them. /…/ Parents admit that each one hints at the right direction and they will try not to impede the child, not to try to shape him, only to support his dreams.” .(at-therapist).
“I would add that there is no methodology to structure the centre’s activity. Rather, we are guided by basic principles. We use the theories of Friedrich Frödel, but not only those theories. We accept things that promote these principles and adapt them to work in our centre. I personally wonder what works best: whether the free play of children and the free interaction of children and parents id best or – perhaps – a slightly more structured environment for activities that is still consistent with the principles that lead us.” ( prpgramme director ).
How do you recognize that parents rely on you as professionals? Give an example.
This issue is important because it provides information on whether the specialists achieve their goal of allowing parents to openly seek professional support and that children take the opportunity to play freely to learn and develop in a non-prescriptive way, relying on their own imaginative and driven by their curiosity.
The psychologist says that parents are starting to share a lot of personal things and bringing up the problems they have and are making some decisions on the basis of the things they learn. “There is a balancing act between informality and intimacy and causing parents to start to question our professional position.” Earlier David had told me that although parents had asked for informality, it would, nevertheless, take them time to get used to it when it was provided. Even when smiling and holding a coffee cup a professional remains authoritative.
The example that the psychologist gives below relates to the child who spoke in English (see above) and confirms our conclusion that in the FC the parent feels welcomed and relaxed. They develop intimacy with the professionals. Their function is obviously related to being a trusted confidante to whom the parent directs his or her concern to be heard. When the parent has this opportunity, then she is able to properly “hear” an outside expert and take advice from him / her.
“One child had spoken in English. When we speak in Bulgarian, she is silent. And we became close. And I simply told the mother in a sensitive way that the simplest thing is to say the word in Bulgarian when the child speaks in English. When we organized a discussion with a speech therapist, the speech therapist said the same and the mother acknowledged it “(psychologist).
Conclusion: FC practitioners direct their work towards creation of a learning environment and succeed in providing parents with guidance through demonstration and simple advice..
The function of FC is specific. Specialists communicate with parents informally and in a non-authoritarian way. This reduces their tension and anxiety. It gives them the opportunity to feel relaxed and not pressurized. This is the environment in which they are able to truly hear and appreciate the guidance and recommendations of outside specialists.
What are the main topics parents share with you as issues and difficulties in raising their children?
Answers to these questions allow us to understand the dynamics of change in parenting attitudes, this time from the point of view of the FC staff.
“… we notice that many children come to us shortly before the age of 1 and others at, say, the age of 3. In the second situation, the third year is very difficult. Parents’ questions are about how to set boundaries, how to deal with the child’s opposition. It is difficult for them to understand that this is is a question of age and emerging independence.
Children who are regular visitors and come with their mothers nearly every day feel the space as their own. The common parenting model is extremely prohibitive and dominating, they do not know how to deal with the emotions that arise. For example, a child starts theowing himself on the ground (during a tantrum) and the question is, ‘What to do in this situation?’ They seem to want an answer from us at that is precise – how to stop the precise behaviour. We work with the child and show a completely different way in which to respond and he calms down “(psychologist).
Team members say that the parents sometimes expect instant answers. They come with many expectations to develop and educate their children. “It’s as if the parents are in a competition with each other. They have the expectation of something specific to happen and the child to deliver. This is a challenge. “(psychologist).
In the case of very young children, FC specialists coach the child and the parents around the time of the first separation when the child goes to the crèche. The moment when the mother goes back to work and the child goes to nursery is emerging as a common source of anxiety. Sometimes, the child responds with a set of disturbing symptoms – he starts stuttering for instance. Sometimes, the little one does not let the mother leave. Shyness and introversion are significant issues. Parents ask whether to take their child to nursery or to find an alternative (which is very difficult)..
The methods that specialists use when working with parents are directed towards securing their close attention and commitment and towards the creation of a friendly and supportive atmosphere. The result is that parents “are liberated because they know we will not judge them. We listen to them more than giving advice. We give them clues mainly via demonstration. We give a point of view, not a ready prescription. “(art-therapist)
If we can summarize the methods of work of specialists in the FC, they open up different opportunities that allow the child to explore her talents. And here it is about developing the child’s talent, not someone telling him how to draw a rainbow, and what he draws comes from inside … then you get the best results. ” (art therapist)
Spaces instead of programmes
“The music we play is not necessatliy children’s songs. Rather, we play music for meditation and relaxation. It does not excite or over-stimulate the children as they play. There is a quiet and cosy space which leads to the parents talking quietly and not raising their voices at the child. The children do not scream or shout either. “(psychologist).
“I wanted to mention this modern idea of an informal ‘workshop’. We simply make cookies. It is simply a question of sharing an activity. Parents and children. Too often parents asked ‘What do you have planned? They expect an organized and structured programme to train and develop their child.’ (art therapist)
The analysis of videos shows the pleasure that children ( including those with special educational needs) gain fron exploration and play with different natural materials: they touch, paint, potter around and experiment. This is heard in the words of parents and is idenitified as one of the special contributions of the FC.
From the analysis of all the papers included in this assessment, we can distinguish more spaces: symbolic (books are read, theatre and multimedia bring ead fairy tales to life; fine motor skills (puzzles, dressing dolls, knitting etc.).
The specialists notice that young children under 1 and 6 months who come to them and have not yet begun to visit a nursery or kindergarten benefit spontaneously and without difficulty from the range of natural materials and the opportunity to freely experiment and play with them. Conversely, children who are already going to kindergarten and then come to the FC expect to receive instructions and do not automatically initiate anything on their own. They can be over-excited and even destrucitive.
Conclusion: The methods that FC specialists use are not listed in a pre-determined manual or programme. They encourage the child’s free play, his curiosity and imagination by providing variety and space in which he can use all his senses, the pleasure of movement accompanied by a caring adult and very often by his mother / father who partners the child without instructing or imposing limitations.
What kind of change do the FC experts notice in the way the parent communicates and talks about their child and with their child?
According to the programme director “there are things we see at the FC that are characteristic of the culture of the Bulgarian parent”. She refers to the intolerance that some parents exhibit when the child gets dirty, playing with sand and water, making mud pies. Most often, the parent reacts with “Don’t splash the water”” or ” I have to change your clothes. ” In some cases, there are parents who stop coming to the FC because of this.
The psychologist states that there are many parents who challenge this resistance in themselves. “This freedom of the play intimidates some parents and they say, ‘ I don’t not want to look’ but they keep coming to the centre.”
Other cultural feature encountered by FC experts involve an unhealthy “fixation on food” and “healthy eating”. “The child will sit down to eat. And we’ve noticed that several kids around the age of 3 guard their plate and do not want to share. Ultimately, the child will become very nervous and tremble. We see food-related problems in other children. We have space for eating and we want children to share the experience. “
Obviously, in the communication between parents and very young children, food has acquired a dubious status that the FC team responds to.
Another observation of the specialists is the fact that some parents say my child “does not bother others” when playing freely and independently with sand or water (as if to suggest they are accustomed to confrontation between their child and others). Parents are reassured when they realize that free play with natural materials is part of the norm in the FC. The result is that parents begin to relax and give their children freedom.
Specialists also report the common difficulty experienced by young parents to interpret their child’s behaviour when (s)he is still not able to communicate very well in words.
“We are trying to show them or gently explain a different way to communicate with the child, and they are beginning to apply it. When they see that our way is effective, we see a change in them. I am referring to those who are part of our parent groups at the centre. They really start asking questions and changing. They seek change in order not to transfer their inherited pattern of upbringing to their own child.” (psychologist).
Another parenting problem identified by the specialists is how parents react to defiance or when conflicts arise between children. “It is very difficult for them not to interfere with children’s disputes. Everything is seen as ‘life-threatening’ “(art-therapist). The psychologist says they have decided that the better way is for children to learn and solve their problems is to sort it out among themselves (at least among the slightly older children). It teaches emotional intelligence and empathy. The position of the specialists is: “We observe and if it becomes dramatic, then we intervene” (psychologist).
We asked the FC experts whether or not they direct parents who come to the FC to other services and, if so, which services?
Facinating responses are provided in response to the question: Have you noticed some change in yourself since you work here?
The FC and social services managed by Equilibium send families in BOTH directions. The FC is a good place for those about to foster or to adopt a child to get to know the child in a non-institutional, supportive environment.
It turns out that for specialists who meet and accompany parents and children, the FC is also a place where they learn.
“From the beginning I learn from my colleagues because I am a mother of a 6 year old daughter. I am more careful with the things I say and speak more carefully.. I find it interesting to continue learning. I am a person who finds is difficult to reveal myself to people and be among people” (She has overcome her shyness) ( (art-therapist)..
The psychologist says working with parents in the FC environment is a “big challenge.” She says, “But I think that as they learn from us and we must we learn from them. They reveal their vulnerabilities and their strengths. But children teach us the most. They provide us with constant challenges and you have to give a great deal. So we become more creative “(psychologist).
The two social workers working both in the centre for social support and the FC say that “if we can manage the cases we work with (in social services) here (at the FC), we would achieve better results.” The art therapist has also observed that “children coming from the centre of social support to the FC behave more naturally and colleagues can see things they can’t detect in the other service.”
From conversation with the specialists in the FC team it became clear that a great source of motivation for them was their visit to Scotland: “a kindergarten with 50 children, such peace and harmony. Why? Because small children are left to play freely. They are not criticized, they are not forced to sleep according to a schedule. If they fall asleep they curl up in a quiet corner. The pedagogical team – one makes home-made play-dough, another bakes cookies, the third keep watch. But also you rarely hear the loud voices of the teachers. They will intervene if there is a risky situation. It has greatly affected me and inspired me ” (art therapist).
“At Cowgate kindergarten (which she visited in Edinburgh) there is an outdoor play centre in a forest. A little outside the city and on a hill. Children go there every day. What most impressed me that every child runs in the forest, does whatever he wants. They do not return to the city from the forest until the children decide. The group was from 5-6 children with one adult. We are very keen to apply this here. When we have the opportunity to do this and go to do activities in the park “( animator).
This visit played an extremely strong motivating role for FC specialists because they were able to experience a way of working with children based on free play and freedom of choice for the child. For some, this experience has allowed them to overcome their own fears and anxieties.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
- The analysis of interviews and videos shows that it is extremely useful for all parents and children to visit the FC. All components of the project providevalue for the users.
- For all parents the FC is a good place to meet. They receive, on the one hand, unobtrusive professional support from the centre’sspecialists, reducing their anxiety, providing reassuranceand creating a sense of tranquility and comfort. On the other hand, they all have the opportunity to meet other parents and develop a sense of belonging to the parent community. For some, it is the only community to which they have a sense of belonging.
- For all children, the centreis a place for free play and in this sense theydevelop their imagination, creativity, autonomy and motivation. This includes children who are adopted, accommodated in foster families and / or with special educational needs.
- The functioning of the FC demonstrates the effectiveness of the ioriginalideas that have inspired its creation. Team specialists say they are constantly learning both from parents and children. They not only accumulate professional experience and qualifications, but are in constant developmentin an environment that encourages reflection and demonstrate a high degree of tolerance of uncertainty which guarantees the continuous pursuit of creative solutions.
- The project, which resulted in the creation and operation of the FC, offers a meaningful answer to the shortcomings identified in the care and education ofyoung children in Bulgaria. This is evidenced by the parents’ responses, my sbservation of the childrenand the conversation with specialists working in the centre and related services.
- Visits toFC lead to changes in parentalattitudes and values concerning the important aspects of raising and educating their children.
- Visitsto the FClead to changes in child development. The ability to play freely with natural materials and to engage in diverse activities with gentle and unobtrusive supervision yields positive benefits. In the presence of specialists and parents who are not anxious, children develop imagination and self-esteem. The environment helps them to flourish developing social skills, language and physical dexterity.
- The work at the FC is experienced as satisfying and motivating by the specialists working there.It provides the opportunity for self-development.
- The FC provides a rational and valid approach to improving the knowledge of pedagogues and other professionals working directly with children from an early age.
- The close and trustful relationship between professionals and parents enablesthe professional to be heard and believed in the course of delivering gentle guidance and imparting lessons through demonstration.
The analysis of the interviews and the materials included in this evaluation shows that the Rousse FC has introduced an approach of support for parents and children at an early age, which can be seen as a coherent, structured and essential model that can be meaningfully defined and demonstrating to stakeholders in the field of early years’ care and education. The Rousse FC provides answers and solutions to existing gaps and difficulties in the organization of early childhood care in Bulgaria, as established by the representative study “Early Child Development in Bulgaria. Research on Systems Supporting Early Childhood Development, Interrelationships and Interaction with Children and the Parents “(2018), implemented by the Association” Child and Space “and the Institute for Human Rights at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The study was undertaken in partnership with” For Our Children “Foundation as part of a project aiming to create a Strategy for Early Childood Development in Bulgaria.
For example, according to this study, the family-oriented approach turns out to be one of “the toughest but – at the same time – the richest of ‘food for thought’ topics in this survey.” One of the conclusions in this connection is that in order to make the child’s care at an early age individualized, adequate, effective and stimulating, it must take into account the family’s needs, potential and constraints. The principles behind the operation of the Rousse centre, its flexibility and continuous evolution, as well as the high tolerance of uncertainty (which largely derives from the choices made to follow principles rather than a strict ideology) correspond precisely to this necessity. The Rousse FC gives a good example of how the family-oriented approach is a way to individualize the approach for children at an early age, “because their individual needs cannot be addressed without taking into account what is happening in their families” (same study).
- The analysis of the materials reviewedunequivocally proves that the successful functioning of the FC is guaranteed by the observance of shared principles rather than a strict methodology.
- The experience of Equilibriumin Rousse is criticalto the development and preparation of the Early Childhood Development Strategy in Bulgaria and the understanding of universal services that are needed to support parents of young children and to promote the development of young children. It supports work on prevention of risk while creating opportunities for early intervention.
- The experience of the FC may be spread to other towns and citiesin Bulgaria,. This mayinclude using the Early Childhood Centres established under the new regulations for social services. Equilibrium has registered courses with the Ministry of Education. They are designed for kindergarten teachers. The material has a broader application. There is significant portential for it to be used as a basis for training and the adaptation of the cultures in nurseries, kindergarten and pre-school environments in conjunction with health and child protection facilities.
- The experience of FC is of key importance for the development of effective services for young children and their parents in Bulgaria at this time,due to the adoption of a new Social Services Act, which provides for and allows the development of so-called“publicly available services”. For the first time, provision is made in the social sphere for the development of services and support for children and parents outside theregime of protection measures that are only imposed when there is a recognition of significant risk to the child.
“(This project) is a blueprint for reforming care and learning in early childhood.”
(Lora Sarkisyan, programme monitor)
Author of the assessment:
Vesela Banova, Ph.D., Sociologist, Psychoanalyst, Clinical Psychologist.