Inclusive Broadcasting: N. Ireland’s Media Initiative for Children

Guest, Prof. Paul Connolly Queens University, Belfast
February 15, 2017
Portrait of a young girl with a painted flag of Northern Ireland. © djem, 123RF Images
English      Season 2019, Episode 2

Professor Paul Connelly, Professor of Education and Dean of Research for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland, joins host, Yale Professor Rima Salah. Professor Connolly discusses his work which investigates conflict and an innovative early childhood development program in Northern Ireland, as well as plans for expansion of the program into other countries.

Executive Dean of Faculty of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences
Ulster University
Former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the U.N. mission in Central African Republic and Chad, served on the United Nations High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, Assistant Clinical Professor Yale Child Study Center
ECPC Chair (Yale Child Study Center; United Nations & UNICEF alumni)

Broadcasting Inclusivity: Northern Ireland’s Media Initiative for Children

Guest, Professor Paul Connolly, Queens University

Dr. Rima Salah: I am Rima Salah, Chair of the Early Childhood Peace Consortium, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Yale Child Study Center, Former Deputy Director of UNICEF, and interviewer for the Early Childhood Peace Consortium online platform. Today, I have the pleasure and honor to be speaking with Paul Connelly, who is Professor of Education and Dean of Research for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. He’s also Director of the Center for Evidence and Social Innovation that supports the development and rigorous evaluation of programs in education, social care, and public health, including a significant number of early childhood development programs. Professor Connelly is known internationally for his research on issues of diversity, inclusion, and young children. For the last 15 years, Paul has been researching the impact of the conflict in Northern Ireland on young children’s attitudes and awareness. His research has also directed supported the development of a preschool peacebuilding program in Northern Ireland, The Media Initiative for Children, that is now being adapted for delivery in a number of other conflict-affected countries including Serbia, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Professor Connelly, welcome and thank you for joining us.

Prof. Paul Connelly: Thank you indeed and thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be able to talk today.

Salah: Could you tell us about how and why you first became interested in researching young children’s attitudes in Northern Ireland?

Connelly: Yes, certainly. My research really began when I did my PhD in the early 1990s in England and I was focused then on young children and racism, racial prejudice. And I moved to Northern Ireland in 1994, actually the year that the cease-fires were announced. And it was a very interesting time because when I looked at the research literature, we were being told very clearly that children in Northern Ireland don’t notice, they are not aware of the conflict around them. In terms of racism, children notice skin color from a very early age. But because everybody looks the same, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, then children don’t really notice those things, don’t notice the differences and division until an older age. And yet when I talked colleagues who worked in preschools, they came back to me and said, “Well that’s just not true. Everyday we see children coming into our settings repeating sectarian prejudice things that they hear, reenacting marches and cultural traditions and events that they are involved in their own communities. And so I felt that there’s a sort of research gap in terms of what we knew, in terms of academic research and then of what people on the ground working with children and families were actually telling us. And that’s really where we started our first piece of research which was a big survey of children ages 3 to 6 years.

Salah: Your research has included supporting the development and evaluation of a major new peace building program for preschool children in partnership with Early Years, the lead early childhood development (ECD) organization in Northern Ireland. Can you tell us how you first came to work with Early Years and a little bit about the program?

Connelly: Yes. Well the first research we did was back in 2002 and that really followed on from what I was saying the lack of evidence around how the conflict was impacting young children. And we did a big survey of children ages 3 to 6 and we just listened to the voices of children, listened to what they were telling us. And then we analyzed and reported that and it was the first time in Northern Ireland that we had evidence that actually children were being impacted by the violence. And I’ll just give you a couple of facts. At the age of 3, for example, we found the children were already picking up the cultural habits of their own communities. So in Northern Ireland we have two big traditions, a British tradition and an Irish tradition. And at the age of 3, the children were already showing a preference for the flags of their own tradition. So Catholic children favored the Irish flag, protestant children favored the British flag. Also at the age of 3, children were very clearly supportive or not supportive of the police force, which was seen at that stage as being on one side of the divide. In terms of marches and parades and things, children were also reporting that they preferred certain marches and didn’t like others. And yet when we asked them at the age of three to tell us what they knew about the flags or the marches, they couldn’t tell us anything. So it was a very important finding that really from the age of 3, even though the children haven’t gotten any cultural knowledge, they already are picking up the habits and the disposition of their own communities. But certainly by the age of 6, we found that a third of children in Northern Ireland found themselves as being on one side or the other. They knew that there was an “us” and a “them” and one in six children were openly making prejudice sectarian statements about the other side.

So we had that research, it was published in 2002 in the report called “Too Young to Notice.” And that was at the time where Early Years, the organization that you mentioned, an umbrella organization of preschool settings across Northern Irelands. They were going through a period of reflecting upon their role in Northern Ireland post-conflict. For many years, they thought it was a priority for them that their early year settings were neutral and safe spaces. They kept all the politics out of the settings and they were non-sectarian. And yet with the peace process, they had the opportunity to start thinking, “we need to do more than this.” And Siobhan Fitzpatrick, the leader of Early Years, when I’ve talked to her many times, she’s explained that really they felt that was the time, the peace process started, that they could take risks for peace. They could start have their settings become proactively promoting diversity, promoting peacebuilding, so being anti-sectarian rather than just non-sectarian. So when they were thinking, “well how do we do this,” and fortuitously that was the point when our research hit the media headlines, they heard about our work, and that’s how we came together. So it really serendipity sometimes in these things is important. And we had a number of wonderful meetings where we started to talk about how do we take this forward. And they were very strong about the need for an evidence base. So they really welcomed the evidence that we could provide and as researchers we really welcomed the opportunity to work with people on the ground.

And really that’s where the Media Initiative for Children was born. And the program itself started small scale, we did a small program, we pilot tested it, and then we built it up over the next number of years. But in essence it is a program that has a number of components to it. So one component are a number of one-minute media messages, cartoons which depict children in a playground and they address various instances of exclusion, some around religious differences but some around gender, some around ethnicity, race, disability. But all of the messages highlight the issue of exclusion but then model out for the children how they can respond to that and be inclusive. And those media messages are broadcasted on television regionally, but they are supported then by a whole curricula resource pack. And that includes dolls, so they use persona dolls where the dolls from the cartoons are available in the preschool settings for children to play with and model out behavior. There’s jigsaws and a whole range of different games and activities for the children. Importantly, for what we are trying to achieve, those jigsaws, those games reflect cultural diversity.

And for a highly divided society for Northern Ireland where 95% of children go to either Catholic of Protestant schools, so people don’t mix still in Northern Ireland, what you find then are we have cultural resources, we have jigsaws depicting events and parades from communities on the other side. Now in the old days in Northern Ireland, when the conflict was full stage, you’d never have thought that you’d see a British flag for example in the Catholic Folds Road or a Irish flag in the Protestant Shankle Road, very sort of iconic heartlands of the two communities in Northern Ireland. And now through this, we have cultural diversity. For the first time, children are becoming aware of, engaging with, interacting with the cultures and traditions of the other side.

Just very briefly, the other parts of the curriculum, the program itself involves a strong component with parents. Parents are engaged at a very early stage. They come to a number of events where they are encouraged to reflect upon their own childhoods and their own attitudes and experiences and on a cross-community basis. So it’s very challenging for the parents but they really do engage with the process. And there’s strong training and support for the teachers as well. And there’s a very clear belief that you can’t expect teachers to help children to address prejudice unless they are encouraged to address their own prejudice. So the training involves the opportunity for people to reflect upon their own history, traditions, and attitudes as well as learning obviously how to deliver the resources.

Salah: Thank you. Research is so important but you translated it into programs that made the difference in the lives of children, their families, and their communities. So what are the next steps for the program in Northern Ireland?

Connelly: Well what we’ve found really [is that] our early research informed the development of the program. A few years ago we did the pilot tests, we then used the research findings to inform the further development of the program. And we’re very fortunate to get funding just a few years ago to do a full evaluation. And that involved 76 preschool settings across Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland, and 1,000 children. We did what is called a randomized control trial where half the children receive the program for a whole year and the other half of the children were a control group so we could very scientifically measure the effects of the program. And we found very positive effects, we found actually over a whole year, the program increased children’s social emotional development, increased their awareness and understanding of different cultural traditions, increased their interest in playing and participating in other cultural events.

So we found really strong evidence that it was effective and that was used with the Departments of Education in Northern Ireland to advocate that we need to obviously carry on that program. But we need to do two things, we need to work backwards to an earlier stage. So this a program for 3 to 4 year olds but we can do something with 2-year-old children in terms of just basic social emotional skills that could be a precursor to the major initiative. And importantly, we could also use the major initiative to push upwards into the school curriculum. And we’ve had success now with primary or elementary schools piloting a later stage version of the Media Initiative. So we’ve really seen the program itself is not just a program for 3 to 4 year olds but is a real driver for change in the system. And I think nearly all preschool settings in Northern Ireland now have the program and so we’ve got almost universal coverage. And we’re hoping it does really drive forward change going upwards into the school system, so we’ve got a life course approach to this. We can’t solve the problems with just a silver bullet at the ages of 3 and 4, we do need to carry on working here.

Salah: And I know that you have plans to adapt this excellent program in other countries, such as Tajikistan and other countries. Can you tell us a little about these plans?

Connelly: Yes, well there has been a lot of interest. Siobhan and Early Years are involved in an international network and that brings colleagues and NGOs from a range of countries, and that’s Israel, Palestine, Columbia, Serbia, Kosovo, Indonesia – so many countries where there has been conflict. And Siobhan and our group now are part of the broader Early Childhood Peace Consortium. So we are delighted to be involved in that broad initiative. But for some countries, they’ve looked at our program and thought that if it could actually be adapted so that it is culturally relevant to their context, it could have a real role to play. So at the moment, there are plans to develop the program in Columbia. Certainly [there is] ongoing work in Serbia and we are now talking to colleagues at UNICEF in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to do something similar. An important thing is that we are not promoting the program, it is not a very specific program you have to follow and use the actual resources, but it is a process using evidence to inform the development of the program, understanding and listening to children’s voices, working with parents and communities.

So it’s an approach really and for us we found that in Northern Ireland that the media element was important because that really reached out to communities. When we met with parents for the first time, they could have been intimidated by hearing about a program for their 3-year-old covering anti-sectarianism and we are able to say, “Have you seen the cartoons on the television?” And they were very friendly, very non-threatening, and it was a real way of reaching out to parents and communities. So for us, the media as a component has been very important. So some of these other countries that I’ve mentioned have seen the beneficial aspects of that as well but each program needs to be developed to its own context. And we would certainly hope to with our colleagues at Yale, Harvard, and New York University to support through the research network, to support that important work now.

Salah: We thank you for also helping us in the Consortium, the Peace Consortium, in strengthening the evidence and particularly the link between investing in the early years and peacebuilding. And we believe that communities, families, and children can be agents of change. Can you tell us about it?

Connelly: Yes, well, in terms of parents being agents of change, one of the things from our own research in Northern Ireland is that we didn’t just measure the impact on children, but we measured the impact on the parents. And we wanted to know if their children are involved in this program, what happens to the parents attitudes after the year? Because they have been involved in the training, the children have come home with activities and drawings and things. And what we found was some encouraging evidence that the program was actually having an effect on the parents, they were becoming more aware that their children are affected by divisions at an early age, but most importantly developing what we called “self-efficacy,” a confidence in the belief that they can make a difference. And I think sometimes for teachers, for parents, they can think the effects of the world around them are so huge that there is just nothing you can do, you can’t counter the media, the rest of society. And yet what we found with our program was that parents became more confident that they could make a difference, that they could play a role.

And I think going forward with the Consortium, I think we have a process here and each early childhood program will be different, they will be addressing different issues in different countries in different contexts. But it’s a real opportunity for the ECD program not just to be providing support for the children, but we have to see that the support for the children involves supporting the parents that involves the parents working together in their communities. And we already think ECD, we know all the evidence obviously that high quality early childhood programs and a nurturing environment will produce real gains for children into adulthood. So that in itself is very important in areas where there’s conflict, where there is often poverty as well. But we also think that actually the added ingredient in here is there’s something about early childhood development programs themselves where parents will take a bigger risk, they’ll take a step forward, they’ll bring parents and communities together. So we can do peacebuilding at the local level but if you can imagine it’s just not a local level, it’s across the country. If we can get government’s involved, we can have national early childhood programs, you’re doing that in communities across the country and you really are building social cohesion and peace.

Salah: Thank you very much, Professor Connelly, and thank you for your devotion and commitment for the children of Northern Ireland but also the children of the world to bring peace to the families, to the communities, and to the children as agents of change. Thank you very much.

Connelly: Thank you very much.


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