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Children's drawings speak a thousand words in their transition to school.

Introduction

Historically, secondary sources reported children's early experiences and understandings (Morrow & Richards, 1996), with their views only sought 'to atomise and process them through the grid of adult designed research' (Alderson, 1995, p. 40). The consequence was interpretation of children's perspectives through adult eyes. With the introduction of the United Nations Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989), children have the right to be educated, involved and consulted, and their opinions heard and recognised as valid on matters that affect their lives. This shift saw researchers accessing children's knowledge, perspectives and interests through interactions with them (Holliday, Harrison & McLeod, 2009; Mason & Danby, 2011) to understand children's worlds and to support change that is relevant for their wellbeing and development (Shier, 2017; Tatlow-Golden, O'Farrelly, Booth, O'Rourke & Doyle, 2016). Active involvement of children in research has progressed, and it has repositioned them as subjects rather than objects in research, legitimising their views (Mason & Hood, 2011; Shier, 2017; Tatlow-Golden et al., 2016). In the transition to school, children's views have provided valuable insights into practices and processes that can support them and promote their positive transition experiences (Wong, 2014).

This article discusses the ethical and methodological considerations of researching with children using the collection and analysis of drawings in the 'Starting School Study' (Kaplun, 2013).

Children's rights

Young children are competent, are capable of reporting their ideas and opinions on subjects and activities that are important to them (Clark, 2011; Holliday et al., 2009) and can express their fears, joys, dreams, pain and ideas about their worlds through drawings (Farokhi & Hashemi, 2011). Children are unique individuals with different competencies, requiring researchers to use diverse and innovative techniques for data collection (Fane, MacDougall, Jovanovic, Redmond & Gibbs, 2018).

Children exercise their understandings and rights to participate in diverse ways (Crane & Broome, 2017). They may exercise control indirectly by displaying subtle and overt 'resistance' in how they approach and complete research activities (Yee & Andrews, 2006), by responding quietly, briefly answering in monosyllables or rushing through activities. A child's choice not to participate must always be respected (Crane & Broome, 2017).

In this study, the use of a drawing activity created an opportunity for children 'to exert high levels of control over their participation in the activity' as they could 'express as little or as much as they wish[ed]', without the need for a 'rapid response' (Dockett & Perry, 2004a, p. 2). Visual research methods have been used successfully in supporting children to express their views (Clark, 2011; Lomax, 2012), and have been employed in research to understand children's interests and perspectives (Kukkonen & Chang-Kredl, 2017). Drawing can increase the verbal information children share (Woolford, Patterson, Macleod, Hobbs & Hayne, 2015).

Power disparities

'The biggest ethical challenge for researchers working with children' (Morrow & Richards, 1996, p. 98) is addressing and overcoming power differentials between adults and children (Harris & Manatakis, 2013). Initially, the researcher engaged children in interviews in a comfortable and familiar environment (the home), to reduce some of the adult power. The children proudly showed the researcher around, showing off toys, personal belongings and/or where they slept and played, demonstrating their comfort with the researcher.

School contexts are 'adult spaces where children have less control' (Punch, 2002, p. 326) and are required to follow adult instructions, rules and routines without questioning, as a sign of acceptable behaviour (Felzmann, 2009). Choosing appropriate settings for interviewing within the school environment can be challenging (Darbyshire, Schiller & MacDougall, 2005; Jones, 2008) when spaces afford children 'different types and levels of participation' (Malone, 2006, p. 19) and when time is limited (Kellett, 2010). In research, drawing activities are a way of reducing power differentials that exist between children and adults (Bland, 2018; Hall, 2015), allowing the focus to be on 'how we [as adults] can talk to children in order to find out their opinions' (Delfos, 2001, p. 33) in respectful and appropriate ways, while meeting time constraints. Using a drawing activity accounted for children's differing levels of development, attention, recall and concentration, compared to adults, along with differences in personality, with some more outgoing and talkative than others (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011).

Study overview

This study investigated the transition to school for a cohort of children after their mothers had participated in a randomised controlled trial of home visiting (see Kemp et al., 2008). At follow-up, the children were interviewed and drew about their early experiences of school.

Vygotsky saw drawing as a mediating tool, like speech, that could be used by children to express experiences and thoughts to others (Vygotsky, 1962). 'The creation of a drawing involves all of the child's past and present experiences as well as imagination and emergent thinking' (Brooks, 2009, p. 6). The children's drawings in this study were seen as an expression of their meaning making. The researcher focused the children's attention on their early experiences of school using a draw-write-tell method (Angell, Alexander & Hunt, 2015). The drawing and the child's explanatory narrative were thematically coded and analysed using a social constructivist framework to determine what was important to the children in their transition to school. Results support drawing as a useful tool for assisting children to express and make sense of what is happening in the transition to school, and exploring their understandings of this.

Participant recruitment

The children were recruited just before school entry, after their mothers had participated in a randomised controlled trial of home visiting (Kemp et al., 2008). The mothers (average age 27.7 [+ or -] 5.9 years) were proficient in English and had been identified as at risk and living in a disadvantaged area (in the bottom 10% of areas nationally) as indicated using SEIFA indices (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). The mothers had experienced at least one of nine criteria of risk, including being an unsupported parent, experiencing a major stressor, depression and/or a mental illness, having a maternal age of under 19 years, receiving late antenatal care (after 20 weeks' gestation) and/or current substance misuse (see Kemp et al., 2008). Eligibility to start school in kindergarten in New South Wales means children must turn five years old on or before 31 July in that year, and by law must be enrolled by their sixth birthday (Department of Education and Communities, 2014). Fifty-seven children (28 females, 29 males) between four and a half and six years of age were recruited. Ten children identified as having a non-English speaking background. Four children had a formal diagnosis requiring additional school support.

Method

Ethics approvals were obtained for this study. The researcher talked with each child and answered questions about the study, believing a verbal explanation was important to their understanding (Alderson & Morrow, 2011). The children's assent for participation was obtained prior to each interview (Tait & Geisser, 2017) and on resuming after breaks to respect the children's rights as active agents (Sammons, Wright, Young & Farsides, 2016). The children understood the information they provided would be shared but they would not be identified. Fifty-seven children participated in two interviews: (a) prior to school start (between October and January); and (b) after starting school (between April and July). Each interview involved the draw-write-tell activity focused on identifying the feelings, factors, people and involvement that had an impact on the children's transition to school. The drawing activity was adapted from research involving children's recollections of their first year at school (Dockett & Perry, 2004b) and demonstrates successful use of drawing to explore children's feelings and views (Deguara & Nutbrown, 2018).

The children's explanatory narratives, including the emphasis on and importance of objects, people and other elements, were noted to assist accurate interpretation. The children's expression was supported while recognising that some children may be 'inhibited by a lack of artistic competence' (Punch, 2002, p. 331) and may not feel comfortable drawing, or sharing their drawings (Einarsdottir, Dockett & Perry, 2009). The researcher remained aware of the children's body language to acknowledge and respect any sign of their dissent in exercising their right not to participate (Spriggs, 2010) and also offered breaks if the children seemed disinterested or restless.

Parental permission, legally required in Australia for children to participate in research, was obtained but no legal requirement exists to obtain children's assent. The researcher operated under the ethics approvals for this study and the Early Childhood Australia (2008) Code of Ethics. In respecting and advocating for children's participation rights (United Nations, 1989), the researcher sought assent from the children (Oulton et al., 2016) as a 'primary key to ethical research' (Harcourt & Conroy, 2005, p. 569).

The first interview

Conversational, open-ended interviews were conducted in the children's homes, with one exception that took place at a coffee shop. Interviews occurred approximately 2-3 months before the children started school and were audio recorded with parental and child permission. The children were asked about starting school and given the option to draw what it would be like. A large sheet of plain white paper and coloured pencils were provided, with children free to draw 'what they know' in their own style (Farokhi & Hashemi, 2011, p. 2220). While the children drew, the researcher talked with them about starting school, inviting them to think and talk about prior-to-school settings, things they may need or already had for school, friends, teachers and things they would like or dislike about school.

The second interview

The second interview started with a school 'tour' and a neutral conversation about things unrelated to school, such as pets, to re-establish the researcher's connection with the child. Activities were conducted away from the classroom to create distance between the interview and school work. The children were also shown their first drawing to reconnect them with the research activities. The use of drawings as a concrete and specific retrieval cue for children's memories has been shown to be reliable and effective (Salmon, 2001). Potentially, viewing their previous drawing may bias children's responses, but this was outweighed by wanting the child to feel comfortable and familiar with the interview activities and the researcher. A large sheet of white paper was folded down the centre, creating two sections, with a prompt written at the top of each section. The researcher read the prompt to the child. The left hand side read, 'On my first day at school I... ' and the right hand side read 'Now I... ', encouraging the children to reflect on the changes that had occurred since they started school.

Opportunities that encouraged the children to have control and agency in the interview, such as being free to move around, sit where they wanted and take breaks during the activity, helped the researcher to 'move beyond constructing and reconstructing children's experiences based upon adult-centred ideals' (Balen et al., 2006). The children were encouraged to participate not because an adult had asked them to but because they held the knowledge and experiences of transition to school and their understandings were valuable and important to help others understand. The children's explanations and comments were noted during and after the drawing activity. The child retained the drawing, with the researcher taking a photograph.

Analysis

The children generated some 'rich visual illustrations which directly show[ed] how children see their world' (Punch, 2002, p. 331). The drawings and explanatory narratives were the-matically coded, assisted by NVivo software (QSR International Pty Ltd, 2008), at three time points: prior to starting school (prestart); the child's first day (retrospective view); and after the child had started school (now). The children's explanatory narratives were used to determine the personal meanings and social connections they assigned to drawing elements and to address issues of accuracy in adult interpretation (Alderson & Morrow, 2011; O'Rourke, O'Farrelly, Booth & Doyle, 2017). Thematic codes placed the objects and people identified as important by the children into groups/subcategories that were built into main categories for similar elements. Five main categories were formed: (a) buildings and contextual items; (b) feelings; (c) people; (d) personal elements; and (e) other important elements. Categories and subcategories recorded the total number of children identifying a particular element, indicating the most utilised elements and the meanings children attached to these in their drawings. Where appropriate, the children's responses were coded into more than one subcategory; for example, one child's comments on the school buildings and the playground were dual coded accordingly.

Results and discussion

Buildings and contextual items

Buildings and contextual items related to the features the children identified in their drawings concerning the physical (classroom, playground, school buildings) and practical (children writing names or drawing symbols, or copying writing from objects, such as signage, in the school context) elements of school. This category also included objects that related to activities children participated in at school, such as: (a) working at a desk or playing in the playground; (b) bringing important items, such as homework, books and lunch, to school; or (c) wearing school clothing, for example, their school uniform. Of the 57 children, buildings and contextual items were recorded for 29 children (prestart), 31 children (at start) and 39 children (poststart). An example is shown of a child's prestart drawing, showing the buildings that were important to her (Figure 1).

The child has drawn the school building (top left) and her home (bottom right). 'My mum bought a house near the school... we live there with Nanna and it looks like a rectangle.'

In poststart interviews, the changes that occurred for children over time can be seen (Figure 2).

This child initially focused on the playground when drawing the first day at school. Later, he added details of his desk at school and him sitting and working on the computer. The children also placed greater emphasis on the playground in their poststart drawings. This reflects their growing understanding of the school context (McCann, 2014).

The children expressed their growing awareness of the physical layout of the school by the addition of school buildings and features in their poststart drawings. They mapped areas of the school that were important to them such as the classrooms, playground and pathways, climbing equipment and entrances. The children's drawings reflected their developing knowledge, understandings and experiences. Mapping can also reflect the process the children were going through in constructing connections with the school environment (McCann, 2014).

Feelings

The children spoke about feelings they connected to elements of their drawings. Of the 57 children interviewed, feelings were talked about by 4 children (prestart--P), 19 children (at start--A) and 17 children (poststart--Po). The children spoke of feeling happy (P = 1, A = 12, Po = 8) or drew items they linked to feeling happy such as flowers, rainbows or the sun (P = 3, A = 7, Po = 9). The children also reported other feelings, for example, feeling sad (P = 0, A = 1, Po = 1). Figure 3 is an example of a child's drawing in which a rainbow tree was used to show her happy feelings about school.

This child described standing under a rainbow tree in the classroom. 'I was happy on my first day and my friend was happy too but that is when she didn't know me and I told her my name.' The first letter they studied together for phonics was the letter 's', which is drawn on the tree.

Figure 4 is an example of a child's drawing in which he felt scared when he started school.

This child stated, 'I was scared when I had to say goodbye to my mum [at start drawing] but I'm not scared now [poststart drawing].'

More of the children spoke about happiness in reference to their poststart representations compared to earlier drawings. They related their use of bright, strong colours in their drawings with happiness and liking school. Children have been shown to use black or brown for negative topics or tasks, primary colours for baseline or neutral topics, and primary and secondary colours for pleasant things (Burkitt, 2018; Burkitt, Barrett and Davis, 2009).

Figure 5 shows a child's use of colour to show her feelings for her teacher.

On the first day this child was happy with her teacher who helped her find her seat in the classroom, 'I like her. I love her. I like her clothes, too, what she wears.' The child referred to the dress as her 'rainbow dress', with the teacher's dress being the same but bigger. Another study successfully used children's drawings to verify their feelings towards their teachers (Harrison, Clarke & Ungerer, 2007). This child used the same bright colours for the classroom in her 'now' drawing to represent her present happiness at school. Children's use of colour has gained much attention in research with mixed associations reported (see Burkitt, 2018; Burkitt et al., 2009; Crawford, Gross, Patterson & Hayner, 2012; Pope, Butler-Coyne & Qualter, 2012; Zentner, 2001), so care should be exercised when drawing conclusions about children's colour choices, particularly if interpreted independently of the child's interpretation.

The children were able to articulate links between elements and colours used in their drawings and the feelings they experienced at each time point as they managed the transition to school.

People

The children often incorporated other people into their drawings who referred to family (P = 7, A = 10, Po = 2), friend/s (P = 6, A = 10, Po = 9), mum (P = 5, A = 8, Po = 2), bullies (P = 0, A = 1, Po = 1) and teacher/s (P = 2, A = 4, Po = 3). The following figures show how the children saw others in the school context. Figure 6 shows a child who felt very unsafe when he started school.

This child spoke about the trouble he had with 'bullies' at the school when he started (Slee & Skrzypiec, 2016), 'I'm just drawing how many school bullies there are trying to get me' and 'This is how many school bullies tried to beat me up' and now 'this is me and my friends [drawn in pink].' With the help of his teachers and parent he worked through his fear to make friends and settle into school.

The children also drew their friends engaged in activities with them. Figure 7 shows the child and a friend building a castle on her first day.

And now, with more friends, skipping together in an activity they enjoyed during lunchtime. 'I am playing with my friends, we are skipping on the softfall near the classroom.'

The children incorporated other people into their drawings as a means of demonstrating the changing roles these people played during the child's transition to school. The initial distribution of focus on members of the family, their mother and friends at the start of school shifted over time with more focus on friends and less emphasis on family and their mother in poststart drawings, representing their growing independence.

Personal elements

Of the 57 children interviewed, personal elements were discussed by 17 children (prestart), 9 children (at start) and 13 children (poststart). These items were coded according to six subcategories with the children reporting the following items at the three time points: age (P = 1, A = 1, Po = 6); attire (P = 6, A = 2, Po = 2); ideas about school (P = 4, A = 0, Po = 2); pets (P = 1, A = 0, Po = 0); physical features of self (P = 7, A= l,Po= 1); and toys (P = 1, A = 5, Po = 4). The children described or spoke of physical features in their drawings such as how they would have their hair for school (Figure 8) or depicted the need to have 'listening ears' at school (Figure 9).

In Figure 8 the child spoke of having 'his hair spiked for school.' He thought that was funny and laughed. He also tugged at his ears, telling the researcher he had to 'have his ears on' at school to listen.

The children incorporated toys into their drawings by carrying them or showing them nearby. The different ways personal elements were incorporated into drawings supports the personal nature of the transition to school and highlights the important aspects of the transition for each child. The children in this study did not emphasise their school uniform in their drawings, and only a few of them spoke about their uniform in interviews. After they started school more of the children emphasised their age, suggesting it became important to some of them once they started school, perhaps when finding similarities with peers.

Other important elements

Holliday et al. (2009) described six features of drawings used by children to express meaning: (a) facial expressions; (b) accentuation of body features; (c) portrayal of talking/listening; (d) colours; (e) addition and choice of others in the drawing; and (f) sense of self. Some of these elements were used by children in the 'Starting School Study' (Kaplun, 2013). For example, in his drawing (Figure 9) this child demonstrated the need to have 'listening ears' when starting school.

He received an award for his listening skills (portrayed by his large ears) on his first day at school. There was no need for 'listening ears' in the 'now' drawing, as he explained, 'Don't need them. Know where to go. Know what to do.' The child had to listen at first to learn about the school but now he felt more confident with this acquired knowledge.

The size and proportions of drawn objects, people and the child are often compared in interpreting children's drawings (Farokhi & Hashemi, 2011). It has been proposed that children may draw themselves smaller if they consider themselves less important or less valued (Farokhi & Hashemi, 2011; Holliday et al., 2009). The children in our study spoke about drawing themselves smaller in comparison to others because they were either physically smaller in stature or they were the youngest in their family. The importance of consulting children is fundamental to obtaining a meaningful and accurate interpretation of children's intentions in their drawings.

The children also used facial expressions in their drawings to express their feelings and emotions. Although most of them showed a happy or smiling face, a few of the children drew sad faces to display their contrasting emotions about school. The children in this study also used colour and the addition of other people in their drawings as a powerful way of expressing negative experiences in the school context (Burkitt, 2018). In Figure 6, several figures drawn in red were referred to as 'bullies' by the child. The drawing of his first day reveals three small faint figures standing together to the left of the main group. These three figures are the child and his two friends, children he had met and befriended on orientation day. The child used the larger darker figures to depict the bullies and the smaller lighter figures to represent himself and his friends, consistent with other research on children depicting bullying (Slee & Skrzypiec, 2016). The child stated he was scared of the bullies. In other research the use of red has been associated with anger (Zentner, 2001), indicating this child may have perhaps felt anger towards these other children. The child drew the bullies slightly larger than his friends and himself, possibly reflecting their power over him (Slee & Skrzypiec, 2016). However, in his 'now' drawing, he reported that the children in pink were the bullies, who had become his friends now, with other red 'bullies' being fewer in number and drawn much smaller than his friends and himself, showing the progress he had made in feeling more secure and making friends. Drawings like this one show the child's progress in working through the social issues he faced at school. This method may be used to assist and monitor other children who are experiencing similar issues at school. These images, with the child's permission, were discussed with the parent, who was unaware the child was continuing to experience difficulties with the older children, and appropriate support was sought from school staff.

Limitations

This was a small study of 57 children about transition to school with results relevant at the local level. Based on the findings, the drawing method could be applied more broadly to explore children's ideas and feelings in other contexts. Conducting this activity within the school presented some limitations. School is an institutional space and this may have influenced what the children revealed in their drawings about how they felt and their relationships with others in the school. Where possible, these issues were addressed by establishing a rapport with the child, reinforcing the confidential nature of the activity and by finding school spaces that were comfortable and frequented by the child, with freedom within that space to control the activity. Over the course of the research power relations changed and the children took more control during activities. For example, they took charge of the activity by organising the area and materials, sometimes interviewing the researcher, showing their growing comfort with the researcher and the school. The children explained how the interview would proceed, informing the researcher of the steps involved and when breaks would occur for drinks or going to the toilet, or of the order of activities.

It was important to provide the children with choices when they engaged in the research activities and to allow them time to decide if and how they would like to express their ideas and knowledge (Einarsdottir et al., 2009). The children approached the drawing activity differently, requiring the researcher's flexibility, adaptability and understanding of the school context. For example, some of the children started drawing immediately, but others did not attempt to draw at all without a reminder. Two of the children did not complete the interview, but provided information about their drawings. Initially, two more of the children were happy to talk, not wanting to draw, but after a short time they decided to draw. One child expressed her disappointment in her drawing skills, stating she was not good at drawing, and another child scribbled out parts of the drawing and then redid them, stating they were 'not right'. Two of the children stopped mid-interview to return to class, then requested to complete the activity once they had seen what classmates were doing.

The drawing activity was time consuming, particularly when accommodating the children's different ways of participating, and sometimes took up to an hour to complete. However, the children's drawing data were a rich source of information. Fitting in with usual classroom activities can also be difficult. An awareness of the constraints of conducting research within the school context (Konza, 2012), and establishing a good relationship with principals and classroom teachers are vital when engaging in this type of research.

A final limitation was the coding of the children's descriptions of the drawings. To overcome issues of reliability due to just one researcher interpreting the children's explanations, a sub-sample of randomly selected drawings was dual coded to check coding consistency.

Conclusion

The children's drawings demonstrated their growing comfort with school. As they made sense of this context and learned their way around, their drawings included more elements of the school environment. The children identified the classroom and the playground as the most important elements in their drawings, with changes showing their perceptions of important areas in the school (O'Rourke et al., 2017) and their growing familiarity with their school. In the 'now' image, the children were accustomed to and knowledgeable about the school and continued to emphasise the classroom and playground, the two areas where they spent most of their time. The children's feelings were reflected in their drawings (Deguara & Nutbrown, 2018) and the changing roles people played in their lives as they moved from home to school were also depicted, with friends and sometimes teachers becoming more important than family members as a source of support at school.

In summary, this study provides additional support for the use of drawings combined with narratives (O'Rourke et al., 2017) for gaining a deeper understanding of children's knowledge and perceptions of their experiences of transition to school. The children's drawings in this study echoed their interview data about what was important to them in the transition to school, further strengthening the use of drawings as an effective research method with children (O'Rourke et al., 2017; Jadue Roa, Whitebread & Guzman, 2018). The drawings also revealed changes that occurred in children's knowledge, friendships and feelings about aspects of school and home and documented their growing awareness of school life, consistent with other research (Dockett & Perry, 2004a; O'Rourke et al., 2017). The focus on particular elements at specific times in the transition showed how drawings captured the changes and adjustments the children made and their developing agency and comfort. The children's drawings showed how they managed the physical context, achieved greater independence, developed friendships and became more familiar with the school environment over time. Using drawing methods offers teachers and researchers a useful tool for exploring children's feelings, understandings and ideas in order to identify ways of assisting them to feel more comfortable as they navigate and adjust to the school context.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Funding

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The researcher received an Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry) on ARC Discovery Project DP0770212.

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Catherine Kaplun

Western Sydney University, Australia

Corresponding author:

Catherine Kaplun, Western Sydney University, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith, NSW 2751, Australia.

Email: C.Kaplun@westernsydney.edu.au

DOI: 10.1177/1836939119870887
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Title Annotation:Article
Author:Kaplun, Catherine
Publication:Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Article Type:Report
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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