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Monday, June 6, 2011

Notes for Early Childhood Educators: Australian Aboriginal inclusion

I went to a wonderful workshop today run by Bev Grant Lipscombe.  It was full of wise advice on how to understand and teach indigenous children.  I'm just going to pop my notes up here in case any of you would like to read them.


  1. Learning environments and classroom practices

The idea is to have your room reflecting the Aboriginal culture even before you have aboriginal children enrolled. This means that the other children won't be faced with sudden changes, but aboriginal children will feel they belong when they arrive.

Get help from aboriginal elders in your local area to discover what will be appropriate for the aboriginal children of your region. There are VAST differences between 'mobs' in everything from cultural practices to art styles (no, not all aborigines use dot painting!). Try to gather art and artefacts which are relevant to the local aboriginal community. Supply and read Dreamtime stories, preferably those from your local area.

Know a bit about the artworks and artefacts and talk to the children about them. Aboriginal paintings are full of symbolism and tell a story- for example a wavy line moving across the picture may be a 'songline' (the path of the story) or a bush track or both. Circles mean a meeting place or waterhole.

Make this learning environment live by referring to it in your practice, not just leaving it around without comment. It is okay to let the children try to reproduce aboriginal art techniques to tell their own stories, or just let them gather natural materials as tools and experiment with the methods- but do steer clear of cross-hatching as it is a sensitive issue for some 'mobs' with emotional meanings such as birth, death etc.

Use circles at meeting times. Circles include all present at the same level. Nobody is at the back, the front, higher, lower. This is the way it is done in aboriginal culture.

Make tapping sticks from wooden dowel and let the children decorate them and use them to accompany singing. Use a 'talking stick' to indicate whose turn it is to talk within your circle- if you're not holding the stick, SHHH! Familiarise the children with some local aboriginal words- some stories and songs will contain words which the children will learn quicker than you do, if you repeat them a few times!

Cook damper. Find out about local bush tucker. Get in touch with the environment. Invite local elders for 'incursions' to demonstrate music, art, dancing, bush tucker and storytelling. Use written signs in English and local aboriginal language.

If this is your normal practice, aboriginal children will have a better chance of 'belonging' in your service from the start.

  1. Discipline

Before you judge an aboriginal child's behaviour, remember that this child's parents may not have had parenting role models and so may lack basic parenting skills which we take for granted. The impact of the Stolen Generations is that many mothers, for example, have never had a nurturing relationship with their own mother. Some have never been cuddled. Some have been violently abused by those who were meant to care for them. This means that one, two or more generations may have passed with no mothering skills handed down.

Traditionally, aboriginal children learn through consequence. (Let them fall out of that tree and find out that it hurts.) Shaming and humiliation is used with adults but should not be used with young children. Rules become stricter as children get older, but young children learn through cause and effect.

Standing over them to reprimand them is unacceptable- get down on their eye level. But don't expect or demand eye contact, as this is sometimes considered disrespectful, and sometimes distracts the child from effective listening as it is too intense.

Don't use put-downs! Build rapport and understand the nature of the child and what is usual for his/her culture- for example, a rest time in the middle of the day is foreign to aboriginal children (unless they happen to be particularly tired and just fall asleep)- their natural routine is to run around all day, then sleep long and soundly at night. Make rules WITH the child, not FOR the child.

Remember that aboriginal children are susceptible to severe ear infections and hearing loss. A child may not have heard what you said, or may have misunderstood you. An aboriginal child may take a long time to answer you. They need thinking time- this is normal for them. If English is not their first language they may need translation time (and of course this also applies to parents. Note that elders don't tend to like answering a lot of questions, so avoid 'grilling' parents and grandparents!).

Remember that outdoors is an aboriginal child's natural day-long environment. Long periods indoors may cause stress and behavioural difficulties.

Reinforce positive behaviour, ignore negative behaviour unless it's dangerous, use natural consequence and be a good role model. Use guidance rather than 'discipline'.

The extended family system means that grandparents, uncles and aunts may be considered to have as much priority in the child's life as mum and dad- something to consider when you need to talk to a parent about an aboriginal child's behaviour.

  1. Learning styles and teaching hints

Please learn an aboriginal child's body language before you start trying to guide development and learning. They may be very shy, somewhat 'aggro' or outgoing. They may use lots of silences and/or avoid eye contact. These factors need to be considered when teaching and communicating and not used for judging the child. Again, consider the historical factors which have affected family structure and parenting skills.

Aboriginal children traditionally learn by listening, seeing, doing.

They need time to observe, then time to practise at their own pace.

They need hands-on experience.

They need freedom to explore.

Humour will help aboriginal children to learn. Smile and laugh with them.

Aboriginal children are used to learning in family groupings. This is what would happen in their normal society.

A classroom is an unnatural learning environment for an aboriginal child. Take the children outside to learn as much as you can.

Sit in circles, stay at their eye level, use the talking stick; expect them to listen, watch and then do.

Use non-verbal language, and watch their own non-verbal language.

Keep inviting those elders in- parents, grandparents, local elders and experts- to show traditional activities and interact with the children; stamp the ground with the children and explore the local environment- these are the things that come naturally. They are good at more than sport!

Do trust activities, like being led along a balance beam blindfolded. Teach hygiene. Encourage nose-blowing every day.

Remember that some 'mobs' will have a cultural sensitivity to images, voices and uttered names of dead aboriginal people. Give warnings if your activity involves using images or names of dead people (just like you see and hear on TV) and allow sensitive people to withdraw.

Try to raise the aspirational ceiling for aboriginal children. Many will not aspire to more than their families have achieved- a touching anecdote concerned an aboriginal foster child who, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, answered that he would try to only go to remand once and then learn his lesson. Give them dreams and hopes. Show them possibilities. Build self-esteem and confidence.


  1. This is all great but I have recently learnt that if you non-indigenous then you are not allowed to teach the aboringinal language to other aboriginal and non-aboriginal children. Only an Indigenous person that can speak the language clearly and fluently can teach this. it is ok to have words displayed around the centre/care environment though for the Indigenous families that attend.

    1. Thanks Anon- I was given this advice by an Aboriginal elder at a workshop. As with so many things, acceptance may vary from region to region and we need to be familiar with local expectations and sensitivities. I would never attempt to 'teach' an Aboriginal language as such, but to welcome indigenous children by saying 'jingewalla' rather than 'hello' in our region is well accepted, and to draw them in by saying things like 'Billi's family call fish 'jullum', don't they, Billi?' is fine too.

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