Implementing child rights in early childhood



One basic human rights principle laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 is that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Article 1 UDHR). However, specifically vulnerable groups such as women, indigenous people, and children have been assigned special protection by the UN legal framework (Henry J. Steiner & P. Alston, 2000).

The UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, 1989 remind us that children, whilst retaining their entitlement to the full range of human rights, are often marginalised or excluded, and represent a special case required additional safeguards (Defence for Children International (ed), 1995). Therefore, the Committee on the Rights of the Child have also adopted about twelve General Comments (in addition to two Optional Protocols) guiding States on specific issues such as HIV/AIDS, the aims of education etc (Committee on the Rights of Child-General Comments). The Committee in 2005 adopted “General Comment 7 (GC7) on Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood” (The Committee General Comment 7 of 2005). GC7 recognises that in implementing the UNCROC States parties have often overlooked young children as rights holders (GC7 para.3). The Comment seeks to redress this by clarifying State obligations for UNCROC implementation with respect to all children “below the age of 8” (GC7 para.4). The UNCROC regards young children as active meaning makers with “evolving capacities” (Art. 5) requiring age-appropriate guidance and support whom, both as individuals and as a constituency, have a voice which must be given due consideration. Parents/Caregivers and States are reminded to balance control and guidance with respect to evolving capacities of the young child, and of the obligation to facilitate genuine participation of young children in the process affecting their development (The Committee General Comment 7, 2005).

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In this 21st century, when we Australians are busy counting our economic and political success both at national and international level, still is much needed to be done to improve the status of children in Australia for the coming future (Nyland, 1999). In this essay, I have tried to discuss the role of early childhood settings in enacting and promoting the children rights such as participation, protection and provision and in making these rights available to Australian children.

Children's Rights: Setting Standards

Legal conceptions of children

The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child marked a fundamental shift away from past conceptions of children and childhood to a new one. Until then, the law had seen a child as property - the property of the father - to be dealt with and disposed of as he saw fit (Hart et al, 1991). However a conceptual shift took place during the 19th century, based on the perception of children as vulnerable and so in need of protection from poverty, the voices of industrialization, immigration and urban living. In addition, to being considered property, the child began to be considered as a resource to society (Hart et al, 1991).

The human rights movement of the 20th century, previously focused for adult rights was extended to children (Hart et al, 1991) though children were still seen as vulnerable and in need of protection but this status was subsumed in a broader understanding of children as full human beings with all the human rights and fundamental freedoms that all human beings have. Their need for protection was transformed into a right to protection. They had a right to be free from exploitation, abuse and neglect of any kind. Seeing children as rights-holders (The Committee GC7, 2005) had implications beyond child protection, however. It meant that, like all human beings, they were also entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and belief, freedom of association, the right to education and to the highest attainable standard of health, and so on.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the universal statement of this new conception of rights-holders. The United Nations General Assembly on Nov 20, 1989 adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). In 1990 Australia ratified the UNCROC and to date 191 countries have ratified the Convention, while US and Somalia have become signatories (Berenice Nyland, 1999). The Convention is considered to the most comprehensive and complete international legal document on children's rights concerning their protection development and welfare (P. Alston, 1991). The Convention deals with the child-specific needs and rights. It requires that states act in the best interests of the child.

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The Convention's objective is to protect children from discrimination, neglect and abuse and serves as both a rallying point and a useful tool for civil society and individual people, working to protect and promote children's rights (Berenice Nyland, 1999). In many ways, it is an innovative instrument.

Categories of rights under the UNCROC

Greenwood suggests that the rights set out in the Convention fall into three categories (Module 1. Topic 2: The Convention on the Rights of the Child);

  • Provision: this category includes the right to posses, receive or have access to the right to life (Art. 6), a name and a nationality (Art. 7), health care (Art. 24), education (Art. 28), adequate rest and play (Art. 31), special care for disabled children (Art. 23), an adequate standard of living (Art. 27), care after abuse (Art. 39), and respect for the cultures from which the children come (Art. 30).
  • Protection: it grouped the right to be shielded from harmful acts and practices such as; separation from parents (Art. 9), sexual exploitation (Art. 34), and physical abuse and neglect (Art. 19).
  • Participation: this class encompasses the right to be heard in discussion affecting the child's life so that the child has freedom of expression (Art. 13), freedom of thought and religion (Art. 14), and the right to be heard in court (Art. 12).

The UNCROC, 1989 formally-agreed standards cover: provision rights (to necessary, not luxury, goods services and resources); protection rights (from neglect, abuse, exploitation and discrimination); and participation rights, when children are respected as active members of their family, community and society, as contributors from their first years (Alderson, P. 2000).

The effect of the Convention for Children in Australia

Since the ratification of the UNCROC in 1999 by Australia till 2010, we can say that the Convention has realised neither the brightest hopes of its supporters nor the most dire fears of its opponents (Butler, B., 1993). The ratification of an international instrument by Australia, such as the Convention, does not ipso facto make that instrument part of domestic law hence the UNCROC is not part of Australian domestic law. Therefore, it has not revolutionised public policy making for children, nevertheless it has led to many very significant initiatives and reforms (Module 1. Is the Convention enforceable, p 29). It has provided a new basis for examining the situation and treatment of children, bringing a rights focus to what previously were seen as purely welfare issues. The effect of this is that the Convention has been declared an international instrument relating to human rights and freedoms for the purpose of Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 (Cth) (Module 1. Is the Convention enforceable, p 29). Consequently, the Convention has provided the legal and conceptual basis for the establishment of children's commissioners in most Australian jurisdictions.

Children's rights and early childhood settings

Early childhood, the period from birth to 6-8 years, is a significant and unique time in the life of every individual. Every child needs and has the right to positive experiences in early childhood. As with every other phase in life, positive supports and adequate resources are necessary for meaningful development.

In their everyday lives, children largely stay within and relate to three settings - their home, schools and recreational institutions (Rasmusen, K. 2004). These environments have created by adults therefore quality early childhood practice is built upon the unique role of the adult. The competencies, qualifications, dispositions and experience of adults, in addition to their capacity to reflect upon their role, are essential in supporting and ensuring quality experiences for each child (Wyatt, S., 2004). This demanding and central role in the life of the young child needs to be appropriately resourced, supported, and valued. Therefore, quality early childhood care and education must value and support the role of parents (Thorpe, R., & Thomson, J., 2003). Open, honest and respectful partnership with parents is essential in promoting the best interests of the child. Mutual partnership contributes to establishing harmony and continuity between the diverse environments the child experiences in the early years. The development of connections and interactions between the early childhood setting, parents, the extended family and the wider community also adds to the enrichment of early childhood experiences by reflecting the environment in which the child lives and grows (Thorpe, R., & Thomson, J., 2003).

Basing early childhood services on children's rights

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Children's rights are relevant to early childhood education and care. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is directed towards the well-being of every child and the full development of every child to her or his full potential (Butler, B., 1993). Early childhood education and care shares that direction and commitment. The Convention states that the first objective of education is “the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” (Art. 29 (1)). Early childhood education and care contributes to the full personal development of children.

Early childhood institutions contribute to implementation of the requirements of the Convention in relation to the child's right to the highest attainable standard of health care (Art. 24), the right to education (Art. 28), the right to protection from exploitation, abuse and neglect (Art. 19), the right to play and recreational activities “appropriate to the age of the child” and to participate in cultural life (Art. 31). Institutions also have particular regard for the specific needs and rights of particular groups of children specified in the Convention: refugee and asylum seeker children (Art. 22), children with disability (Art. 24), children of ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous children (Art. 30), children placed in alternative care (Art. 20), children who are the victims of abuse and neglect (Art. 39) (Alderson, P., 2000).

In Australia, the importance of children's rights to early childhood care and education is recognised in many of the key documents that express the values and goals of the sector. The first commitment to children in its Code of Ethics is to act in the best interests of the child and the second commitment is a more general one, to “respect the rights of children as enshrined in the UNCROC and commit to advocating for these rights” (ECA Code of Ethics, 1990). Its policy positions are based on principles that “reflect adherence and commitment to” the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ECA position statement consulting with young children). They are expressed in rights terms: “All children have the right to access and participate in early childhood programs and services” (Inclusion of Children).

Children's rights issues for early childhood institutions

Early childhood education and care institutions address children's immediate needs and well-being, that is, children's lives as children (Rasmusen, K. 2004). They provide children with opportunities for learning, play and socialisation. They provide the foundations for literacy, numeracy, later learning, and future life opportunities. They also focus for addressing the rights of disadvantage and particular groups of children such as indigenous children, refugee and immigrant children, children with disabilities, children from poor families.

The way children's rights are interpreted and acted upon in early childhood institutions it has some cultural/social implications (Berenice Nyland, 1999). For example, when children interact in the complex cultural environment of a day care setting that can provides us with insights into how they construct their views of the world and culture. Therefore as adults we should observe children very closely in order to understand what they are trying to tell us about their surroundings.

Mostly caregivers based children developmental activities on observed activities of children focusing mainly on the individual child and areas of development and divide children into developmental areas - which is a problem because one area or dimension can not exist by itself. Therefore the practitioners should be motivated to plan for the different areas of development and therefore move away from play-based curriculum since tasks are developed to aid a particular area of development and overlook or neglect the ideal of whole child (Nyland, 1999). Another constraint of current mode of recording children behavioural observation is that we record observed behaviour - meaning something already has been done by a child (Nyland, 1999) so we look at the child of yesterday and not at the child potential (Vygotsky) in upcoming future.

In a child care centre caregivers can create an environment focusing to strengthen child development in a more holistic way which will give to the caregivers a better understanding of the physical and social settings of children from where they belong. In the child care centre the caregivers can also identify culturally regulated customs and can use it as a culturally niches (Nyland, 1999). The adult/caregiver's role in these developmental niches/physical and social settings is one of scaffolding the child experiences (Valsiner, 1987) through an environment that is carefully considered in relation to three metaphorical zones (Cole, 1996).

These metaphorical zones make up the developmental niche and consisted of three zones i.e. zone of free movement (ZFM), the zone of promoted activity (ZPA) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Valsiner, 1987). ZFM is understood as the child's access to the environment, objects, events and ways of acting (Cole, 1986). ZPA covers a child's particular action, or response which encouraged him/her to give by a more competent member of the culture or from the same physical environment (Nyland, 1999). But when the ZPA is matched to the child's present development state which guides further development then it is referred as ZPD (Cole, 1996).

In early childhood setting the caregiver's role is more important and dynamic since s/he can use the metaphorical zones as guide for designing and providing space, objects and interactions. The caregiver own role can be deliberately designed for enhancing the perceived developmental potential in an articulated cultured environment. The cultural activity where development is most likely to occur in a cultured environment is known as leading activity and such activities can be accomplished through manipulation for infants and spontaneous play for children (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

For better understanding of the role of early childhood settings for the protection of children rights, Berenice Nyland (1999) in article “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Using a concept of rights as a basis for practice”, quoted a 20 minutes observation period took place in a day care centre between two babies of under two years, with no spoken language. Kallina started the play by putting a nappy on a doll. She was thoroughly engaged and her physical moments were free. She had mental picture of folded nappy because she tried many times to match reality with mental event representation. Another baby Claudia joined the play, took a doll and wrapped a nappy around it. Claudia just matched the nappy and made no effort to fold it or put it on the bottom half of the doll. Similarly Claudia found another undressed doll in the same place and take out a nappy from a nearby clean clothes basket and draped it around it. The observer was asked to put the nappies on to prevent them falling off. Claudia then took a plastic play gym from an immobile baby and placed it to the book corner. She then placed the dolls underneath the play gym, so they ‘could play'.

The role of caregiver in this exercise is the children's actions affirmed the suitability of the available environment created by the caregiver relating to the freedom of moments (ZFM) for the babies and they had access to inside and outside. They were having free choice of space and toys, and also access to domestic equipments such as clean clothes basket. The children initiated ZPA by themselves and there was no need of adult intervention or guidance. Scaffolding and learning in the ZPD occurred between children, as they were engaged in intentional goal oriented behaviour hence established their ZPA. Such zones should be dynamic and constantly being renegotiated.

This exercise shows that observing children in such expressive way - and to see their development within the context of relationships existing in the physical environment of the setting, cultural artifacts, and social interactions - gives a comprehensive way of individual child. At one hand it demonstrates a child's competence for understanding changes and on the other hand the early childhood setting as a learning environment. Such an approach moves away from the straitjacket of areas of development and affords the child a voice while giving the caregiver a more meaningful role within the relationship (Berenice Nyland, 1999).

Early childhood workers as leaders in children's rights advocacy

We then are needed as advocates for children's well-being and not only advocates but leaders in advocacy. The basis of our advocacy should be children's rights, as recognised in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why we? Because as early childhood professionals, we have responsibilities and opportunities that require we to be advocates. Our responsibilities come from our role as workers with children. We know them and their needs well (Nyland, 1999). We know what promotes their development and their happiness. We know the importance of services for them being of the highest quality. We also know the consequences of children not receiving the services and support they need for their full development and the consequences of poor quality services. Advocacy cannot be left to others when we have so much expertise and experience (Module 4. Topic 1: Advocacy for children. p 5).


The legal obligations of the Australian government under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are still to be realised, almost 20 years after its ratification. We can move beyond frustration, anxiety and despair and embrace the possibility of hope - or the audacity of hope, as Barack Obama (Quote for the Hope) calls it - if we are willing to do so. Children have few choices. We adults and professionals have many. The challenge is to choose to place ourselves at their service and in the service of their rights.

Children have the ability to construct their own images and now its upto the society how seeming it. The early childhood practices, like child study, provide a strategy for listening to the very young. A belief in children's rights and an understanding of children's strength and competence can be used as a basis for improving the quality of children's daily lives (Berenice Nyland, 1999). By this our early childhood institutions would provide to the children with opportunities for learning, play and socialisation.

So the emerging vision is one of an actively participating and socially competent young child. This young child is ecologically situated: within family and caregiving environments; in relationship with peers; as part of a community; and as a member of society. This young child is to be considered holistically: as a being whose emotional, social physical and cognitive capacities are evolving in various social and cultural settings (The Committee GC 7). Therefore require us to reconsider young, active, participant children in the broadest possible sense, both as individuals and as a constituency.