Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Children’s Rights, Early Childhood, Sociocultural Contexts

  • Sarah Te OneEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_93-1


Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC, United Nations 1989) was adopted in 1989, it has had a pervasive influence on the way we think about children and childhood in relation to legislation, policy, and practices. As Anne Smith (2016) observed, rights-based thinking changes the perspectives of those who work directly with children because the UNCROC is based on a view of the child as actively engaged, with a claim to individual and collective rights. She noted that UNCROC:

… provides a holistic, unifying vision of children’s rights that provides child advocates, professionals working with children, and policy makers, with a direction and moral imperative for improving policies and practices for children. (p. 155)

When the UNCROC was finally agreed to, it was almost universally adopted. It differed from previously agreed to human rights treaties in its conceptual depth and breadth. As a framework, it is not without problems, and the premise of children having rights remains contentious in the context of socioeconomic diversity and across differing sociopolitical views on citizenship. Like all international instruments, reaching consensus about what constitutes children’s rights was a compromise. As Michael Freeman comments, “it is a beginning, rather than a final word,” a convenient benchmark and useful tool that continues to show that the world is failing children (Freeman 2009, cited in Smith 2016 p. 15).

How then can this tool be used by teachers to advocate for children’s rights to a quality of life where their contributions in both the private and public sphere are acknowledged as valuable? And what do teachers need to know about the Convention so they can be those advocates? This entry begins with a brief overview of the UNCROC and the reporting process before discussing it as a framework for teacher advocacy. The entry also introduces “constructions of childhood,” concepts basic to childhood studies, and the sociology of childhood.

The Architecture of the Convention

Consisting of 54 articles, the UNCROC is founded on four general principles, referred to as General Principle Articles. These are:
  1. 1.

    That the articles in the Convention include each and every child (Article 2)

  2. 2.

    To act in the best interest of the child (Article 3)

  3. 3.

    To ensure the child’s right to life, survival, and development (Article 6)

  4. 4.

    To respect the views of the child in all matters that concern him or her (Article 12)


The first principle means that the UNCROC is universal in application as a whole, to each and every child regardless of political status, religion, gender, ability, ethnicity, culture, or economic status. All 54 articles of the UNCROC apply to all children, all the time, from birth to 18.

The second principle requires those responsible for children to act in their best interests. This has been controversial. Critics argue that this implies a degree of paternalism. Very young children especially are dependent on adults to care for them and protect them. This requires those adults to make decisions about the child which if enacted without reference to the other principles and articles diminishes children’s ability to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect them.

The third principle promotes children’s survival and development across all the domains or categories of the Convention. These concern, for example, their rights to family life and their access to high-quality health services and to an education that allows them to reach their potential.

The fourth article is about respect for children’s views. This particular right has had an enormous impact on how children are regarded by society – as active citizens with a voice. Article 12 in particular has cited widely those working for or with children, based on a view that if the child is included and feels part of the process, he or she will have a sense of ownership and commitment to the project or the policy (this article will be discussed in more depth later in this entry). Article 5 is sometimes included as a principle article. This article acknowledges the role of parents and families as central to children’s lives, offering age-appropriate guidance and support as they mature.

As well as the General Principle Articles, there are a cluster of articles referred to as the general measures of implementation. These act as markers for State Parties (countries’ governments) to evaluate their progress between reporting cycles. Central to implementation is Article 4 which states that governments have a responsibility to take all available measures to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled “to the maximum extent of their available resources” (United Nations 1989). The foundational principle articles apply across all remaining articles and are intended to underpin a holistic, interdependent, and indivisible approach to complying with the UNCROC.

Making It Manageable

The UNCROC, in its formal edition, is not particularly user-friendly. To make understanding and using the UNCROC easier, its articles are sometimes grouped into three types of rights:
  • Protection rights: these rights are about protecting children from harm, abuse, including substance abuse, discrimination, exploitation, violence, injustice, and conflict.

  • Provision rights: these rights are about children’s access to social services, education, family life, justice, health care, recreation, play, and culture.

  • Participation rights: these rights refer to children’s civil and political rights, to a name and identity and to be consulted on matters that affect them, to information, to a point of view, and to be part of decisions made about them (Smith 2016, p. 7).

Children’s rights in UNCROC are holistic in intention and application. No one right is more important than another, and, while a right may be invoked (say in a legal situation), all the other rights still retain some authority.

How the UNCROC Works

The UNCROC is aspirational, and implicit in the general measures of implementation (Articles 41–44) is the notion of progressive implementation. Once a State Party has ratified the UNCROC, it is expected to ensure that all its legislation, past, present, and future, is compliant. Even if a State Party complies, there is an expectation that more can be done. This set of articles also act as safeguards to prevent complacency and ensure continual progress (Te One et al. 2017).

So how is compliance evaluated? All State Party governments are required to report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee) on the progress toward fully complying with the UNCROC as a whole every 5 years. The UN Committee also wants to hear from the nongovernment organizations with an interest in children and their rights, including children themselves. The NGO report is referred to as the alternative report. The process for reporting is iterative and can be described as a formal dialogue facilitated by the UN Committee. All parties are expected to comply with the reporting guidelines and report to the cluster headings, although this process could change.

Cluster groupings for reporting the relevant articles

General measures of implementation

Articles 4, 42, 44(6)

Definition of the child

Article 1

General principles

Articles 2, 3, 6, 12

Civil rights and freedoms

Articles 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 39

Violence against children

Articles 19, 24(3),28(2), 37(a) 34, 39

Family environment and alternative care

Articles 5, 9, 10, 11, 18, 20, 21, 25, 27(4)

Disability, basic health, and welfare

Articles 6(2), 18 (3), 23, 24, 27 (1–3), 33

Education, leisure, and cultural activities

Articles, 28, 29, 30, 31

Special protection measures

22, 30, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37(a, b, c, d); 38, 39, 40

The process is cyclic, and in a reporting year, it takes between 12 and 24 months before the UN Committee issues its Concluding Observations report to the State Party government (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The Reporting Process. (Adapted from Child Rights Connect, 2017, cited in Te One et al. 2017)

The formal reporting process ends with the UN Committee’s report: the Concluding Observations. This report, also succinct, summarizes their understanding of the State Party’s child rights issues and contains recommendations for future work toward full compliance with UNCROC (see Te One et al. 2017). This report is also an advocacy tool that teachers can use to increase an awareness of children’s rights to learn and develop and reach their potential.

Awareness and Support: Being an Advocate

All children are rights holders, and all adults are responsible for upholding these rights. Advocating for children’s rights is recognized as a professional responsibility for teachers, but in many countries, pre-service teacher training and professional learning and development programs tend to treat UNCROC as a topic or assume that the intent and purpose of UNCROC will become evident in curriculum and assessment processes. Generally speaking, there is an overall lack of awareness about UNCROC as a whole among adults who work for and directly with children (Te One et al. 2017).

Because UNCROC is aspirational and conveys a sense of moral obligation to children, many have critiqued its articles as ambiguous, without “teeth,” narrow in scope, and open to interpretation. Granting children social, economic, cultural, and political rights, as UNCROC does, generates debates which can be divisive and are largely unhelpful. Some would argue that the age and maturity of the child preclude them from being responsible rights holders entitled to have a point of view. Advocates on the other hand argue that children exist and experience the present. Their rights matter at all stages of development, especially when they are young and dependent, but, as children grow and learn, the balance of power shifts from the adult to the child. Degrees of dependency, like different stages of maturity, are not valid reasons for denying anyone their rights. Ultimately, children’s rights, like all human rights, are based on respect for the rights of others dignity, integrity, and equality.

Agency and Voice: Interpreting Children’s Participation Rights

Currently, there is a great deal of interest in children’s agency and voice. To promote rights effectively recognizes that children are entitled to an opinion about matters that concern them. Less well understood are the nuanced implications of genuine participation such as giving children a choice about whether or not they join in with the process. The General Principle Articles are not always cited in plans or reports, and so, to a large extent, the potential of implementing a child rights framework is lost. Seeking children’s views is central to the idea of participation rights, but unless voice is located within a rights discourse, listening becomes an option that adults can choose to endorse or not. That is a criticism of the current iteration of UNCROC; while there is an obligation to listen, there is not an obligation to endorse. Too often, seeking the views of children stops after a short, discrete consultation. What happens to their contributions next occurs in adult spheres of influence where a space for children to have additional input is nonexistent. It is important to remember again and again that the articles of UNCROC do not exist in isolation but are to be considered as a whole and that they apply to all children, all the time.

Childhood sociologists recognize children as competent and no longer consider it acceptable for the adult to claim to know the view of the child if they do not consult with the child. This view also recognizes that children are meaning makers. An ongoing dilemma that has challenged researchers, practitioners working with children, and policy makers is that fully comprehending a child’s perspective remains elusive. The irony is that children are the most observed, examined, and evaluated population group yet their views remain “othered.”

Adults’ motivations to include children’s perspectives still have to resolve fundamental issues such as where children’s views are heard, why, and on whose terms (Lundy 2007). Listening to children’s voices alone will not necessarily afford adults new insights because adults tend to view children’s views through their often uncritical understanding of what childhood is or should be.

Sociocultural Theories and Constructions of Childhood

How childhood is understood is an enduring dilemma for scholars and advocates alike, but recent scholarship now recognizes that even though children are immature, they know best what it is like to be a child. Children’s rights, especially their participation rights, generate an ambiguous agenda, and theorizing rights have been under discussion by leading academics in the field for some time. Both childhood studies and childhood sociology promote a view of children as being in the present rather than as a becoming (Qvortrop et al. 2009).

Tensions between needs and rights have been very visible in the early childhood education sector where lingering images of children have a focus on concern (need) (Stainton Rogers 2009). This potentially confuses the role of the teacher as caring (protecting and providing) for the child but at the same time ensuring that their rights to participate are protected. Young children are “emerging,” a term used in UNCROC, in their understanding of the world around them, and they do this in relation to others (see UN Committee on Rights of the Child 2005).

One way to reconceptualize this tension is through sociocultural theories about learning and development. Children learn about their world by participating in the cultural processes of everyday life. Alongside more experienced peers (e.g., other children, family, and teachers), children come to gradually understand the routines and rituals that underpin particular communities of learning, practice, and ultimately, inquiry. In early education this happens when the environment offers them rich experiences which build on their interests. This requires keen attention from knowledgeable, responsive teachers who have the child’s best interests at heart. In early education services, the onus is on the teacher’s knowledge of the child, to notice an interest and recognize what this implies in the context of that place. Finally, their role is to respond accordingly, to the experiences a child brings from home, local knowledge of the community and significant places therein, as well as theoretical analyses of pedagogical documentation. The interactive relationship between what the child brings to an interest and the teacher’s interest in that child leads to a shared understanding that deepens engagement in the culture of an early education service.

There is synergy between these theories and children’s rights (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child 2005). An obvious one is that a sociocultural lens on learning has a focus on the ways in which a child participates in the day-to-day experiences offered in an early education service. For the child, this is led by their interests. At the same time, the role of the adult or teacher is to enable engagement not just via responsive, respectful interaction but also through an awareness of the wider environmental influences which include the physical, the social, the temporal, and the spiritual. Rather than the teacher controlling what is learnt, the balance of power shifts toward the child – both parties are teacher and learner – the child “teaches” the adult about his or her interests; the adult “learns” from the child about what to “teach” and how in an environment that values free and spontaneous play.

Concluding Comments

Children actively make sense of the world, shaped by the cultural beliefs and values of their families and communities and through relationships with others. This has implications for teachers in their professional capacity to stay up-to-date with theories of learning and development as well as with other significant thinking about children and childhood. The pervasive influence of UNCROC as setting a benchmark for children’s well-being overall is worthy of closer study. UNCROC reconceptualizes the power relations between children, adults, and the state and is particularly relevant for teachers whose day-to-day work is with and alongside children and families in the context of early learning services, schools, and communities.

UNCROC strives for a balance between acting in the child’s best interests and listening to the child. Advocating for young children especially assumes crucial importance, and how to minimize the power imbalance between children and adults is a common question for many with an interest in children’s rights which is why implementing the UNCROC remains a challenge for State Parties and NGOs alike. The last words are left to Tobin (2011, p. 89, cited in Smith 2016, p. 164):

The mainstreaming of children’s rights is a deeply political project with potentially transformative consequences for the way in which children are viewed and engaged with by all actors in society … It is this potential that inspires and motivates advocates for children to actively embrace the rights based approach as a means to making the invisible visible, giving the silenced a voice…

Despite good intentions, consultations with children remain tokenistic, and very little consideration is given to long-term dialogue between adults and children. The desire to listen to children remains high in rhetoric but limited in reality. The questions remain: How do adults interpret children’s perspectives, and importantly in the context of enacting children’s rights, how are they then represented to other audiences? Unless teachers are familiar with, at the very least, the general principles of UNCROC, its potential is undermined as is teachers’ potential advocacy for children.

Note: sections of this entry are reproduced with permission from New Zealand Council for Education and from Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CORE EducationWellingtonNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sue Stover
    • 1
  • Valerie Margrain
    • 2
  1. 1.Auckland University of Technology, New ZealandAucklandNew Zealand
  2. 2.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesKarlstad UniversityKarlstadSweden