Volume:9, Issue: 3

Dec. 27, 2017

The child’s acquired power to act through education
Trudel, Hélène (Sioui) [about]

KEYWORDS:  education, power to act, shared responsibilities, just society, circle of the child.

ABSTRACT:  Through shared responsibilities and a learning process that favors self-advocacy and self-determination, the author describes the Circle of the Child, a mediation model used in community social pediatrics in Montreal, Canada, that empowers the child and her/his family to act seeking for solutions to issues faced by the child.  

The child’s acquired power to act through education

When countries like Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children’s rights’ advocates felt a new era was promised to ensure the protection of the children’s inherent dignity as human beings.  Countries would strive to meet children’s needs regardless of the neighborhood in which they are born and raised. Education was casted as a fundamental right and advanced as essential for children to grow as healthy adults living a full and satisfying life.2

Schooling is only part of the answer.  It cannot, by itself, achieve this noble goal. The responsibility for education must be shared between the State, the family, and the community to provide children with a broad range of experiences.  

This paper presents the model of the Circle of the Child,3 an amicable alternative dispute resolution mechanism I have developed over three years, with a number of partners (including children), in two disadvantaged communities in Montréal, Canada.4 It is designed to help children and families who come into conflict with the education system.  To better understand how this model really works, I will expose Susana’s case (the name is fictional, of course).  Through learning, the child develops critical analytical tools that help her understand her rights and become a meaningful participant of the process. The child also gets empowered to act and feel free to find solutions that meet her needs.

The case of Susana

Late in February, Susana’s father called the community social pediatrics center.  He insisted that his daughter should see our pediatrician right away.  He explained the reason saying that the school principal had called his house several times. Apparently, his brilliant daughter was demonstrating a highly oppositional behavior by fully ignoring teachers when they were speaking to her.  Susana, 13 years old, was at risk of failing her junior high.

A few days later, the social pediatrician and his team welcomed Susana and her father. Susana’s parents had separated a few years earlier when the girl was an elementary school student.  As they could not share the same space, the mother did not accompany them. At this first meeting, we learned that Susana had failed in mathematics, French, and fine arts.  She had categorically refused to do her oral presentations in both French and fine arts classrooms, and there was no explanation for her poor performance in mathematics.  We also learned that Susana’s parents blamed each other for her difficulties in school: the mother was not providing enough guidelines; the father was far too strict.

The medical exam revealed no physical abnormality, but there was something peculiar about Susana: she only expressed herself in a non-verbal mode and through her father.  He asked his daughter to be respectful towards the social pediatrician and his team, and he nearly lost his temper when his daughter continued to remain silent.  When asked whether she wanted to speak to the doctor in the absence of her father, Susana shook her head, which meant no.  Was she shy? Again, no!  Why was she refusing to speak out?  She simply shrugged her shoulders. Susana was looking at the pediatrician with a grin and a twinkle in her eyes, so it seemed.  The enigma continued. 

With the help of the social worker, we kept on searching for a clue.  We found out that Susana had been a bright student before she started her junior high school.  She kept a few good friends and she still spent her time socializing with them.  However, her father mentioned that Susana had never spoken to his girlfriend and to the other three children over the last few years, even though she kept saying that she appreciated their presence at home.

It became clear that Susana was possibly suffering from a selective mutism disorder without sensory processing disorder (DSI)5. She was not demonstrating disrespect or behavioral problems at school.  She was simply not capable of expressing herself in certain social settings. The principal and her teachers had to be made aware of Susana’s conditions and to become part of the solution.

When we met Susana’s mother, she refused to concede that her daughter might suffer from any disorder.  According to the mother, the problem was the father who was overly controlling and disciplining.

Over the next year, a child psychiatrist who prescribed medication and play therapy accompanied Susana.  Meanwhile, her parents continued to debate whether or not their daughter had any need for treatment. With Susana’s consent, we proposed to resort to a mediation process, bringing together everyone involved in her problems and potential solutions.  

Here is how we structure this mediation process called the Circle of the Child in community social pediatrics.

The Circle of the Child

Children who attend the community social pediatric center usually come from a single-parent family, headed by a young mother with a low level of education, a low socioeconomic status and often having suffered of severe abuses in her own childhood, and of significant exclusions and even bouncing from one foster care home to another.  In other communities, families might have immigrated to Canada recently, and their low socioeconomic status is not necessarily due to a low education level of the parents.   Although ill-treatments suffered by these children may find its sources in certain values and cultural beliefs that normalize violence, they more often come from traumas associated with war and immigration.  It is not rare to meet a family that has been displaced and had to move from country to country before finding itself in a poor neighborhood. Regardless of their origin, disadvantaged children see their development compromised by the presence of toxic stress arising from difficult living conditions in which they are born and raised.

Some parents cannot meet social expectations regarding their responsibilities to address their child’s needs and to form a “protective circle”. Implementing established measures for the best interest of their child, even with their consent, can become a hazardous task for these parents, when one considers the alarming disparity of resources and opportunities given to children from various communities, and the strong probability that community resources are overloaded, limited or simply nonexistent. The problem becomes even more complex when outraged parents and annoyed workers debate the best interests of the child in the education system or before the Court prior to having mobilized the resources of the family and social networks.  

When children like Susana suffer from an incomplete diagnosis or a false one, the injustice is flagrant, especially when she is not involved in the process.  In our practice, we observe that children are exposed to as many diagnoses, prognoses, and services as there are professionals and individuals (parents included) involved in the child’s life.  How can we make sense of all these parts of the puzzle in order to help children like Susana?

The process of attaining social justice is complex. It entails actions that are “democratic and participatory, inclusive and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change.”6 However, the usual way for professionals is to share their expertise, and most often in a silo approach.  Quite simply, trained physicians look for signs of child morbidity, while the psychologists and child psychiatrists work on mental and emotional health aspects.  Social workers jump in trying to make sense of the psychosocial environment, while the school will come to a conclusion based on its direct experience with the child. Although there might be a clear value in allowing the child to actively participate in the decision-making process affecting her life, it generally makes adults quite uncomfortable, and the child is excluded for her own good.7  In Susana’s case, she demonstrated oppositional behavior towards her teachers and peers, and she did not have the power to intervene.  

While everyone might hold a piece of Susana’s story, the problem is that they rarely put their knowledge and expertise together.  What is certain is, children are not necessarily involved in looking for the source of their problem and the solutions based on this finding.

We had to find a way to create a space to consider children as bearers of rights and full-fledge citizens. A process was needed to ensure that they truly participate in the decision-making process that impacts their lives. It had to focus on the strengths of children, their families, and communities. 

Over the next three years, guided by my knowledge of the philosophy of aboriginal people, I began designing a model.  I also considered models in participatory justice, the practice of community social pediatrics, as well as comments and suggestions received from partners (including children), observations, and critics of existing projects. I reviewed several documents explaining various mediation projects, as well as the family group conferences in Canada, United States, and other places in the world.8

I hoped to demonstrate the advantages of adapting a flexible, impartial, and independent process that facilitates the sharing of information regarding the strengths of the child, her family, the community, and public institutions. Through the process, children needed to learn self-advocacy and self-determination.9 Like community social pediatrics, the model had to mobilize resources and services to integrate and adapt them to the child’s needs and interests in the respect of her rights.

Finally, in partnership with and through a process that borrows tools from the family group conference model and the mediation model10, the Circle of the Child, was born.  It gathers around the same table, every person who may intervene in a positive manner in the child’s life, because of the partial information and solution they each hold, and because of the responsibilities they all share to ensure the child’s global development and the respect of her rights. 

The process meets four major objectives.  First, it favors active participation of the child, her family, and social network in the evaluation of her needs, interests, and strengths.  Second, it facilitates the collection and sharing of information relevant to the strengths and resources of the child’s family and social networks.  Third, it favors a shared responsibility and partnership between all individuals who are concerned and interested to solve the issue affecting the child while providing support to the family in its role in raising the child. Finally, it rapidly ensures the deployment of integrated resources and services adapted to the child’s needs, interests, and strengths to fill the gaps of the natural environment.

Everyone works to identify, integrate, and adapt services and resources from the child’s natural environment to better meet her needs and interests.  More specifically, the responsibility for the implementation and the follow-up of the action plan agreed to by the members of the Circle is shared by all and is not left solely to the child and her parents. Together, they ensure a “protective circle” for the child that allows for the development of her capacities at all levels and provides her a chance to take a new path in life and to fully realize her own potentials.

The model we have established aims at creating a protective circle for the child who finds herself on a difficult path, whether or not she is the object of a report to the youth protection department.  It aims at diminishing the child’s vulnerability by focusing on her strengths and those of her family and her environment, while mobilizing services and resources of the community and public institutions. It addresses all issues relating to the life plan of a child engaged on a difficult path.  However, the process may not be transformed into a family therapy.

We thus invited Susana to help the mediator put in place her own circle to solve issues she was facing at school.  She nodded yes, again with a smile on her face.

Putting in Place the Circle of the Child

The first meeting with Susana took place at her mother’s home.  The mediator explained to both Susana and her mother the purpose of the Circle of the Child, as well as the process.

The Circle of the Child is put in place at the initiative of the community social pediatrics center, the Child Aid Society or the tribunal. It is not limited to the sole preoccupation of putting an end to and preventing the recurrence of a situation in which the security or development of the child is in danger.  As such, the model constitutes an important aspect of community social pediatrics. It always includes the child, members of her family, and social networks, as well as team members from the community social pediatrics center.  Other significant individuals from the child’s environment are invited according to the issue faced by the child: her teacher, school principal, school social worker, psycho-educator, community police, representative of the youth protection department, and a medical doctor.11 Lawyers are not part of the Circle, but their client will forward the action plan resulting from the process to them.  It may be filed in Court, if applicable.

The participation of all parties must be on a voluntary basis. As the child will also participate in either the whole Circle or just one part of it, unless there are serious counter-indications in respect to her security, the child’s physical and emotional security must be ensured throughout the process. All participants must have the capacity to actively and fully participate in the process.  If before the Court, the issue submitted to the Child’s Circle should not be reserved by the tribunal.

For Susana’s circle to work, it was essential to mobilize both parents, members of the extended family (the father’s girlfriend and children), the community (in Susana’s case, her music teacher), and public institutions (education and health).  After some discussions, the mother agreed to participate in the process as well. 

In order to produce interesting results during the meeting of all participants and to favor a partnership between the family and the social networks to come to a consensus, an important work preparation is required prior to holding the Circle.  The mediator will contact key persons proposed by the child and her parents to schedule a meeting with them. So, I spent the next few days meeting with all participants, preparing them for Susana’s Circle. 

In general, each session takes about an hour. During this meeting, one-on-one or in a group, the mediator explains her role, the process of the Circle and the reasons why their presence is important.  She explores their point of view on the issue, the child’s needs and her strengths. She will list all the key persons for the child, that is, names and contact details of her family members and her social network, and who, according to the parents and the child, may contribute as solution partners. Finally, she also makes sure that the security of the child, and of any person who will be present at the Circle, is discussed and ensured. She obtains written consent to disclose confidential information, if they agree to participate.  For the persons who cannot be present, their point of view on the child’s situation may be obtained in writing and read to the participants.

Once everyone has been met, the Circle may be formed.

While ensuring that all participants have the opportunity to be heard in regard to their preoccupations on the issue affecting the child, the mediator walks them through the phases of the Circle, in an impartial and independent manner. The discussion focuses on the child’s needs, interests, and strengths, the search for integrated and adapted solutions, the implementation and the follow-up of these solutions. 

Through a process that borrows tools from mediation and family group conferences, the Child’s Circle model presents seven phases: 1) opening of the Circle; 2) sharing any available information regarding the issues affecting the child, her needs, and strengths; 3) separate and private meetings with both - the family network and the social network to identify objectives and means to meet the child’s needs based on her strengths and the resources of the child and her family network; 4) putting objectives in common; 5) sharing a meal; 6) identifying means to meet the objectives, thus starting to work in partnership; and 7) closing of the Circle and sharing the action plan. These phases of the Circle demand a whole day (6-7 hours). 

Everyone must learn how to build trust with one another to better contribute to the development and the implementation of the child’s action plan that will allow the child to develop at all levels.  In Susana’s case, her Circle took place in a community center. Her family network included everyone she had invited.  Her main teacher and the school principal also participated.  The social pediatrician and the social worker attended the Circle along with the child psychiatrist. 

In Susana’s case, the process of the Circle of the Child not only contributed to a better understanding of her condition, but also facilitated the search of integrated solutions adapted to Susana’s needs and interests.  The school personnel changed attitudes and favored the rapid implementation of solutions to help Susana succeed.  In addition, her family members no longer felt rejected by Susana due to her incapacity to speak to them.  They agreed to play their roles in accompanying Susana towards a better future.

Conclusion

The Circle of the Child is a mediation process that ensures the overall development of any child who is going through a difficult phase in life.  The efficiency of the Circle depends on the development of a partnership between the family network and the social network that enables them to share their understanding of the issue, to combine their strengths and resources, and to adapt them to the child’s needs and interests. The responsibility for elaborating the child’s action plan belongs to the family network that is supported by the social network.  However, the implementation of the child’s action plan does not only rests on the parents’ shoulders.  This responsibility is shared by all the members of the Circle to ensure that the child is allowed to develop her capacities on all levels in her natural environment.

The Circle of the Child is based on the belief that the most crucial element in fostering the well-being of children remains their meaningful participation in the decision-making process and on the group of adults who make sure that action is taken in the child’s environment – the family nest and social networks, with all the strengths and weaknesses that this may imply. Itfavors the involvement of certain people that would never have been invited to be part of the solution in the decision-making process of the family, education, and health systems.  The supportive involvement, mobilization and skills of these people are all very advantageous. Through them flow influence, identity, knowledge, and in general, the most helpful interventions. 


1 Hélène (Sioui) Trudel, C.Q. (Chevalière, National Order of Quebec), Master of Law, General Director and Senior Legal Advisor, Foundation Dr. Julien.

2 See: OCHRC, General Comment No.1, and Article 29 of the UNCRC.

3 Trudel (Sioui), Hélène, Anne-Marie Piché et al. (2009).  The Child Protective Circle.  5th World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights.  World Trade and Convention Centre, August 24, 2009, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

4 Piché, Anne-Marie & Trocmé, Nico (2011). Le Cercle de l’enfant – Évaluation Phase 1: Septembre 2008-Mars 2010, Rapport final, Juillet.

5 To better understand the nature of selective mutism in children, see:  https://selectivemutismcenter.org/whatisselectivemutism/

7 Lansdown, Gerison (2011).  Promoting Children's Participation in Democratic Decision-Making. UNICEF, ISBN 88-85401-73-2, February 2001, Innocenti Research Center, Florence, Italy; cited in:  Head, Brian W., Why not ask them? Mapping and promoting youth participation. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(4), 541–547.

8 The author would like to acknowledge and thank Madam Justice June Maresca, Ontario Provincial Court, and Dr. Nico Trocmé, School of Social Work at McGill University, for their comments and help in developing this mediation model.

9 Fiedler C. R., Danneker J. E. (2007). Self-advocacy instruction: Bridging the research-to-practice gap. Focus on Exceptional Children, 39(8), 1–20.

10 The model borrows the following definition of Jean-Louis Talvat, mediator and communication expert: (unofficial translation). Mediation is the art to cultivate peace, values attitudes and respectful behaviors. Mediation is the philosophy of dialogue and comprehension.  It favors social interaction and revives sharing of ideas. It is based on the principles of liberty, justice, and diplomacy.  Mediation offers the fruit of the main acknowledgement of the other.  See: www.office-de-mediation.org

11 This objective is supported by Canada, who as all signatories to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, acknowledges that “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”







Salvador Lukianov (Oct. 26, 2018)
The importance of causes like The Circle of the Child is increasing day by day due to parent(s) not being well-informed about complex conditions that their child might face during perhaps one of their most psychologically heavy periods of life. I believe the awareness about this method should be spread further, in social media and the like, to be in some way adopted or at least considered as a viable way of bringing people together and working on a way to solve problems and deepen the important bonds between each other.
Kuznetsova Mariia (Oct. 21, 2018)
The author considers very important problem - child's relationship in society. I think the method "The Circle of the Child" is effective for this problem solving. Also, it is necessary to point that this method allow to educate parents. Parents are the closest people for the child. Parents' attitude to children is key for their future life.

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