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 (Steiner & Alston, 2000). The UN Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), 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 (DCI, 1995).
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In this 21st century, the status of children in Australia needs to be improved nationally and internationally for economic and political success in the future (Nyland, 1999). Teachers and caregivers have opportunities to incorporate “rights education” into any part of their program that creates openings for teaching children about rights (Waters, 1998). In this essay, I will discuss the role of early childhood settings in enacting and promoting the children rights envisaged in the UNCROC 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 & Pavlovic, 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 & Pavlovic, 1991).
The human rights movement of the 20th century, previously focused for adult rights was extended to children (Hart & Pavlovic, 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. Now children are considered as rights-holders (CRC GC7, 2005) like adults.
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 USA and Somalia have become signatories. The Convention is the most full and complete international legal document on children’s rights, covering their protection, growth and wellbeing (Alston, 1991). The Convention deals with child-specific needs and rights, and requires that states act in the best interests of the child (Nyland, 1999).
The objective of the Convention is to protect children from discrimination, neglect, abuse and to promote children’s rights and serves as a focus point and a useful tool for civil society and individual people (Nyland, 1999). The widespread ratification of UNCROC by the international community has made it a powerful catalyst for action on behalf of young children and has gradually become embedded within the policies and practices of all who works with children. According to Arnold (2004) “The CRC has more signatories than any other international convention, and it is important for us to recognize the legal implications of this achievement in how we position our work” (p.4).
The effect of the Convention for Children in Australia
From the ratification of the UNCROC in 1990 by Australia until the present, we can say that the Convention has realised neither the brightest hopes of its supporters nor the most terrible fears of its opponents. 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. Thus for the purpose of human rights and equal opportunity, the Convention has been affirmed an international instrument relating to human rights and freedoms (Alderson, 2000). 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. Children mainly stay at home, schools and recreational institutions in their everyday lives during these years (Rasmusen, 2004). These environments have been created by adults therefore adults play a powerful and unique role in building quality early childhood practice. Quality experiences for each child are supported and ensured by the experience, qualification and competencies of adults, in addition to their capacity to reflect upon their role (Wyatt, 2004). This challenging and vital role in the life of the young child needs to be appropriately supported, resourced, and valued. Therefore, quality early childhood care and education must value and support the role of parents as well as that of the staff (Thorpe & Thomson, 2003). The best interest of the child is promoted by the open, honest and respectful partnership with parents.
Basing early childhood services on children’s rights
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, 1993), and early childhood education and care settings share 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)). Quality 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, 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, 2006). 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).
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, 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 particular groups of children such as indigenous children, refugee and immigrant children, and children with disabilities.
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The way children’s rights are interpreted and acted upon in early childhood institutions has some cultural/social implications (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 support children’s developmental activities on observed activities that focus 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 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 in upcoming future.
In a child care centre caregivers can create an environment focusing on strengthening children’s 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 (Nyland, 1999). The adult/caregiver’s role in these developmental areas/physical and social settings is one of scaffolding the child experiences through an environment that is carefully considered in relation to three metaphorical zones (Cole, 1996) 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, 1996). 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).
For better understanding of the role of early childhood settings for the protection of children rights, 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).
At one hand the role of caregiver 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 (Nyland, 1999).
Early childhood workers as leaders in children’s rights advocacy
Early childhood educators have a vital role in advocating children’s rights by taking a proactive approach for recognizing their rights and responding appropriately to policies and systems which adversely affect children’s rights. Child advocacy emphasizes on giving due status to children, increasing their self-determination and the responsiveness and accountability of institutions affecting them (Melton, 1987).
We (caregivers), 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. Since children cannot look after their own interest and grossly disadvantaged in protecting their interest, rights and freedoms, therefore, they need advocates (Australia. LRC. HREOC, 1998).
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 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 it is up to society to help them realize these images. 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 (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 (CRC GC7, 2005).
Therefore require us to reconsider young, active, participant children in the broadest possible sense, both as individuals and as a constituency.
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