Dear reader,

this Toolbox aims to promote learning, discussion and the testing of participation practices in the field of early childhood education services, especially by families and the community.
The instrument stems primarily from work developed by a group of educators and teachers with the support of researchers and policy makers, in the context of the Erasmus+ strategic partnerships project EQuaP (Enhancing Quality in early childhood education and care through Participation). These stakeholders observed, discussed and tested a number of participation models, developing a format that makes them accessible to the greatest number of colleagues possible and transferable across different educational settings and schools.

Would you like to build a stronger partnership with parents?
Are you, or your educational team, interested in feasible and realistic ways for co-educating children, doing, thinking and deciding together with families?

The different aspects described in this introduction, might be useful for learning about and using the Toolbox in a flexible way, based on individual priorities, interests and needs.

Short presentation of the EQuaP Toolbox

The tool presented in this document is the main product of the EQuaP project (Enhancing Quality in early childhood education and care through Participation), a three-year Erasmus+ strategic partnership project (2014-17) which involved educators and teachers of pre-schools for children 0-3 and 3-6, public and non-public service providers, researchers, and policy makers belonging to 11 partners from 7 European countries (IT, SE, PT, SI, BE, LV, GR).
The overall objective of the project was to help and improve the quality of early childhood education and care services by promoting participatory practices that make parents, or other family members that accompany their children in the education services, become co-authors, alongside teachers and operators, of a project about children’s education.
This means turning family participation into an element for the development of quality childhood care services, without excluding the involvement and resources offered by the children, operators and the community as key elements of the overall system.

Specific aims of the project:

  1. identify, test and integrate innovative methods and participation practices, particularly in contexts of diversity (socio-economic and cultural diversity, minorities, etc.);
  2. improve teachers’ skills regarding strategies and approaches for parental involvement, learning from the experiences of colleagues from other European countries;
  3. improve integration and interaction between the various elements of the system (children, professionals, researchers, families and communities);
  4. address the issue of participation in the system of early childhood education and care as a process, which is becoming more effective through the adoption of specific quality indicators.

The project has involved in transnational activities about 140 participants, representing three key target groups of professionals:

  • pre-school educators, teachers and managers;
  • representatives of local authorities;
  • University researchers and trainers.

The three main areas of activity were:

  1. research related to participation in the education and child care system;
  2. identification and exchange of best practices in participation; and the activity of job shadowing held by preschool and kindergarten educators and teachers to develop the conditions for cross-experimentation and adoption of participation practices within the partnership.
  3. development of quality indicators suitable for participation as a process.

The purpose of the tool and its possible uses

This Toolbox intends to help keep the debate alive on processes, projects and participatory practices related to quality in the ECEC system. In the Toolbox you will not find replicable ready-made recipes, one-suits-all solutions, or a collection of participation best practices, but occasions to learn about experiences and participatory practices that can activate and support the work of educational groups with families and communities.
In fact, the tool can be used in several ways depending on experiences and contexts. However, we indicate three possible uses:

  • Firstly, the tool can be used to learn one or more of the fifteen practices described and to test it/them in your context; by adapting it/them through designing, re-contextualizing, monitoring and evaluating;
  • Secondly, the tool can suggest a specific “format” – articulated in the steps listed in the participation practices below – through which designing, analysing, building, redesigning and evaluating old and new participation practices in in your specific working context.
  • Thirdly, the tool can be used as an opportunity for reflection, discussion, and debate on participation issues both within a given ECEC service workgroup service and/or among services, families, policy makers and community members.

Regardless of the use of this toolbox, attention should be paid to the questions that accompany the descriptions of the Practices: they can suggest reflection and comparison processes on your own as well as on others’ choices when planning educational practices about participation. The EQUAP toolbox also opens up space for reflection within the educational teams on what is feasible and under what condition, by overcoming the resistance that often curbs processes of change and the renewal of ways of doing and promoting education and participation in ECEC services. In this sense, the Toolbox can be considered a training tool useful to raise questions to the educational teams on how participation can be understood, contextualized and put into practice.

In general, the Toolbox adopts the idea that participation is translated into different levels (organisational, managerial, educational, pedagogical and political) and in relation to different actors: children; their parents and other family members who deal with their care and education daily; all the professionals involved in the services (educators, pedagogical coordinators, assistants, pedagogues, managers and officers…). To sum up, a large social network made up of all the actors that share the territory.

Other educational services for children, other types of services, from all neighbourhoods and the whole community (OECD, 2012).

In particular, the Toolbox is founded on an approach to participation that considers families and ECEC services as allies and co-authors of a common educational project for the child, within which they think, decide, plan and act together. Their active and dynamic collaboration is essential not only for the children’s growth and learning but especially for a process of democratic participation within the community, in which everyone can actively contribute with their resources to the free and responsible co-construction of an educational project for children that is of political, social, pedagogical and cultural interest.

Analysis of practice experimentation and stakeholders’ feedback process

The practices included in this Toolbox are the result of a job shadowing process: an in-service training method based on observation, which consists of following a colleague during his/her work (like a shadow). The method is also used in the professional development of teachers and practitioners. These activities were a fundamental phase of the whole project.
The Job shadowing activities involved a total of 45 educators and teachers from 11 services in 5 partner countries. The job shadowing process has been divided into two main phases:

  • Hosting foreign guests;
  • Visiting pre-school services abroad.

During the hosting phase, each participating country receives a delegation of colleagues from other countries in the partnership and hosts them in the local services whose participation practice had previously been presented.

The visit to services abroad has been divided into three moments:

  1. Preparation, during which operators (of each country that takes part in the job shadowing activities) defined – initially at an international meeting and subsequently in their services – the objectives and a detailed plan for the visit. At this stage, operators alongside university researchers co-constructed the tools to support the job shadowing process.
  2. Development, which consisted of pairs of colleagues from the same service traveling abroad to visit the services of the partners that they have previously hosted in their own country. During their stay abroad, educators and teachers critically observed and analyzed the participatory practices adopted locally, paying particular attention to their contextualization, design, implementation and evaluation within the institutional, political and educational system in which they were designed and developed. These practices were identified and considered by the individuals involved as relevant and innovative from an educational perspective, deserving to be tested in their context of origin and transferred. Throughout the observation phase, educators used an observation sheet and wrote a daily report on the activities carried out.
  3. Self-evaluation of the job shadowing process was undertaken by the educators and teachers, using a specific qualitative tool.

The stages above were followed by the adaptation and testing of the family participation practices observed abroad which were considered innovative and worthy of being transferred and adapted.
Overall, 25 Paticipation practices were observed and tested, 15 of those practices were selected as the most significant by the interdisciplinary and international project coordination group and included in this Toolbox.

It is worth noting that the 15 practices presented here could legitimately appear already familiar or, at first sight, less significant if adopted in certain contexts and certain perspectives (pedagogical, social and cultural).

It should taken into consideration that the concept of an interesting and innovative participation practice from an educational point of view does not have to be understood in absolute terms. It should be done in relation to the knowledge and experiences shared by the groups of educators who have experienced the job shadowing activity;, the know-how of other ECEC services in Europe; the specificity of their social, educational and cultural context, and of their culture of participation.
This means that a significant portion of the added value offered by the toolbox lies in the processes that led to the identification, design and contextualization of such practices, as well as in the educational and training processes that such practices may trigger in new contexts where they might be implemented.

The experimentation phase was monitored and evaluated by the teams of researchers, within each partner country, gathering data through: semi-structured questionnaires to educators and parents, observation, analysis of documents developed by educational teams and focus groups.
During the project’s final phase, the Toolbox and its contents were analysed by different stakeholders identified locally and nationally by each partner.
Numerous opportunities aimed at deepening stakeholders knowledge and analysis of the Toolbox have been created in the various countries, through presentations in plenary sessions, sessions in individual ECEC services, and discussions between small groups of ECEC professionals.

These meetings, albeit organized and conducted differently in the project’s partner countries, had the common goal of gathering feedback on the Toolbox from its potential readers and users.

The result of this analysis and evaluation process was the overall collection of feedback, comments and suggestions made by stakeholders on a first draft of the toolbox and the modification of some parts of its aspects.

Altogether, the Toolbox has received very positive feedback, in particular for its inspirational power for ECEC services working groups services in terms of:

  • Reflection, comparison, self-training on their ideas and practices about family participation.
  • Analysis and review of their participation practices and, more generally, their approach to the design of educational practices in services.
  • Experimenting with new family participation practices through motivation to look for viable ways of work contextualized and tailored to their needs, resources and educational goals.

This process has led to a revised version of the toolbox which got enriched by the substantial number of suggestions and inputs that make it relevant, operational and explorable in the daily activities of ECEC services throughout Europe.

The Equap Coordination Team