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Children’s Voices Need To Be Heard In Health Ed

Children’s Voices Need To Be Heard In Health Education

The views and opinions of children need to be considered more closely when developing health education for classroom teaching, says a Waikato University health education lecturer who has just completed a research study with primary and intermediate school children for her PhD.

Margaret Scratchley’s research was conducted at a primary school and involved children from Year 3 to Year 8. More than 60 children took part in informal conversational interviews, along with more than 60 parents and six teachers. Children and parents were from a wide range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

“The children brought up a wide range of issues regarding their health education needs, including how to protect themselves from self-harm, body image issues and alternative medicines,” says Margaret.

“Some of the children in the study were already sexually mature and active and were asking for more information about sex than was covered in the pubertal change programme at school.

“With drugs and alcohol, education is often aimed at telling children not to use substances, whereas one nine-year-old boy wanted information on how to stop smoking while another wanted to know how to seek help in the event that the overuse of alcohol resulted in physical harm to others at home.

“By and large the health curriculum taught to children in New Zealand schools is the right one. But adults need to listen to children and work in partnership with them so that learning is both relevant and real to the children.

“There appears to be a tendency to forget that our children are growing up in the 21st century and old adult ideas of what is appropriate for children to learn may be outdated.

“Children today have increased access to adult knowledge through sources such as the internet, their social worlds are more complex, and the issues they face are also more complex than in previous generations.

“Today’s children no longer wait until parents and teachers decide what they should know and at what age. Many of them have access to sophisticated adult knowledge while still at primary school.

“In particular, we need to listen far more closely to what children are telling us about the knowledge they need to keep themselves healthy and safe. It is time for adults to take note of children’s extended knowledge and ask their views about the content of health education they feel they need. If we don’t, adults may well get it wrong and not meet the needs of children.

“If health education is not relevant to what children really want to learn they are likely to switch off or, at worst, sabotage the lesson.”

Margaret Scratchley suggests a number of ways of better gathering children’s views about health education: Children’s health forums in local areas. Using new methods that allow researchers and teachers to work with children about health education planning for the classroom. Asking children what they know already and what they want to know more about and building on that.

“Obviously, there are wide-ranging issues concerning exactly what information we give children about such matters as sex, drugs and other sensitive health topics. I am not advocating an open slather approach. However, health education does have to address the reality of the level of children’s knowledge today and it should take into account what they say they need.”

Margaret Scratchley says she will be asking the Ministry of Education to put more funding into primary school health education so that teachers become more skilled in the health areas which fall outside their “comfort zones” at present.

She would like to see her limited research with primary and intermediate school children extended into a national project, as has been done in England, and she has also applied for funds to do similar research with secondary school students.

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