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Advocating for infants’ rights in early childhood education

Sarah Te One
Abstract: 

Advocating for children’s rights in early education is an important role for teachers. This role has many challenges, not least of which is understanding what children’s rights are and how they can be used effectively to support children’s learning. This article reports on how teachers in an early care and education centre advocated for children’s rights. Even though these teachers considered themselves advocates for children’s rights, this role was complex and challenging because, at times, it was difficult to balance children’s rights with teachers’ and parents’ responsibilities.

Advocating for infants’ rights in early childhood education

Sarah Te One

Introduction

In a society that is not used to giving weight to the views of children of any age, we will need to be strong advocates in minute particulars if children without the voice of mature language users are to be listened to and taken account of. (Pugh & Rouse Sellack, 1996, p. 121)

Perceptions of children’s rights can be contentious, and provocative. Discussions about children’s rights (Do they have any?) highlight societal assumptions, which tend to confirm the low status of children, and of childhood. Introducing age-related categories reveals that infants’ and toddlers’ rights are on the lowest rung. Drawing on part of a wider qualitative, interpretive research project seeking to understand perceptions of children’s rights and address a gap in the literature, this article reports on how the teachers in a care and education centre (crèche) for under-two-year-olds advocated for children’s rights to a quality early childhood experience.

Data were collected in the crèche by observing the teachers, infants and toddlers in the field; interviewing individual teachers; holding focus group interviews with the teachers before and after the field work; and undertaking a document analysis of key policies in place at the crèche. Parent-users of the crèche were not interviewed, and, because of the age of the children (all under two years old), neither were children.1

The research concludes that teachers’ self-appointed role as advocates for children’s rights was not as effective as it might have been because the audience for their advocacy was limited to the crèche community. Had this advocacy been directed towards the political arena, this may have had beneficial outcomes at a societal level, where improving the quality of life for children and families by recognising children’s rights is not reduced to individual circumstances, but is a political responsibility and imperative. This perception is supported by research (Howe & Covell, 2005; Mitchell, Wylie, & Carr, 2008; Stainton Rogers, 2004) indicating that implementing children’s rights has long-term benefits for all.

This article begins with a discussion about children’s rights and advocacy, emphasising the importance of listening to children as a pathway to realising children’s rights. The article then illustrates how teachers in the crèche advocated for children’s rights. These teachers believed it was their role to protect children’s rights as a way to empower children to participate in the crèche’s routines and activities. However, this was a complex interpretation, and difficult to achieve for a range of reasons, such as the conflicting commitments that surfaced when a child became ill while at the crèche and a parent needed to leave work to care for the child. The article concludes by arguing that because early childhood services are subject to wider political, economic and social forces, including national educational aspirations, teachers’ advocacy for children’s rights to high-quality early childhood education would be more effective if it were more politically focused and directed towards policy makers.

What are children’s rights?

The release of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, henceforth “the convention”) (Child Rights Information Network, 2007) prompted questions about what the term child’s rights meant in theory and in practice. Researchers and professionals with an interest in children have grappled with interpreting the convention and implementing rights for children at the international, national and, more recently, local level. The convention outlines minimum standards in the areas of health, welfare and education and provides an ethical framework for what nations should aspire to achieve for their youngest citizens. As a states party,2 New Zealand is expected to promulgate and discuss the rights of children and to align domestic laws with the intention of the convention.

Debates and interpretations of the convention abound; however, one useful interpretation identifies three main types of rights: provision rights, which entitle children to minimum standards of family life, education, health and social security; protection rights, which include the rights to be safe from abuse and discrimination; and participation rights, which entitle children to be informed and consulted about decisions that affect them (Alderson, Hawthorne, & Killen, 2005; Hammarberg, 1990; Lansdown, 1994; Stainton Rogers, 2004). Advocates for children’s rights promote these as holistic in intention and application (Freeman, 2007; Smith, 2007; Te One, 2006, 2008). No one right is more important than another, and, while a specific right may be invoked (say in a legal situation), all the other rights maintain authority. Research (Mitchell et al., 2008) “confirms that participation in good quality early childhood education benefits children and families [… and] access to good quality early childhood education is seen as a right of all children” (Mitchell, personal communication, 2009).

The convention provides the rationale for governments to support high-quality early childhood services. Citing Articles 18, 28 and 29 (Child Rights Information Network, 2007), General Comment 7 (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2005) argues for states parties to support parents, to encourage child-centred practices that include participating in early education, and for early childhood professionals to develop partnerships with parents to realise the intent of the respective articles. Article 28(1) establishes the right to education, progressively, and “on the basis of equal opportunity” (Child Rights Information Network, 2007), and Article 29(a) entitles children to an education “directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” (Child Rights Information Network, 2007). These articles have direct relevance to the programmes offered in early childhood settings, and afford purchase for the sector to stake claim for children’s rights to access affordable early education of high quality (Mitchell et al., 2008; Noonan, 2001, 2003; Veerman & Levine, 2000; Verhellen, 2001). Very young children actively make sense of the world, shaped by the cultural beliefs and values of their families and communities, and through relationships with others. Their experiences as participants include care and education arrangements, and, therefore, early childhood teachers and parents using early childhood services have a responsibility to advocate for early experiences of high quality. This requires listening to children as a way to support their rights to participate actively in early childhood services.

Children’s participation rights—listening to children

A compelling argument for advocacy for young children is found in Article 12 of the convention (Child Rights Information Network, 2007), which articulates children’s participation rights—their rights to be informed and consulted about decisions that affect them. Article 12 directs adults to respect children’s views or, at the very least, consider them respectfully. Many comment that Article 12 is the most contested and problematic article (Lundy, 2007; Veerman & Levine, 2000). Prout (2003) observed a degree of empty rhetoric and noted that, “for children’s voices to be really heard, even when the institutional arrangements create a notional space for it, requires change in the way that children are seen” (p. 22). Peter Moss identified risks to listening, implying that merely being willing to listen is “a tokenistic gesture” that serves management accountability: “You need to want to listen in the first place and no amount of bullet points will help you if you don’t have a culture of listening” (2006, n.p., citing a personal communication with Olé Langsted).

Ambiguous attitudes to children’s status, and to childhood, potentially confuse understandings about children’s rights, often resulting in questions about children’s entitlements (Quennerstedt, 2009). Are children entitled to the same types of rights as adults, or are children’s rights different because they are children? For example, perceptions of infants and young children as needy and vulnerable abound (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 2007; Stainton Rogers, 2004). A discourse based around children’s needs has been “a powerful theoretical device for constructing images of childhood, prescribing for care and education, and judging the quality of adult– child relationships” (Woodhead, 1997, p. 79). There is a case to support a children’s rights discourse as an alternative to a needs-based one. While not a new idea, there is an argument suggesting that children’s rights include the right to have their needs met by the adults who are responsible for them—and that these adult responsibilities include respecting children’s rights to express a point of view, and in so doing, assert their rights to be involved in decisions that affect them. The unavoidable fact that infants are dependent on others, some argue, does not mean they have foregone their participation rights (Smith, 2007; Te One, 2008).

A children’s rights perspective argues that children are entitled to have their needs met, and that adults are responsible for this. However, as this article will illustrate, this is complex because the parents’ employment contexts often put the responsibility for supporting children’s rights onto individual families, who then share this with early childhood professionals. The greater responsibility rests with government to provide the regulatory framework to ensure children’s rights are met.

Children’s rights and advocacy

Effective advocacy by early childhood teachers can make children’s rights more visible at the political, policy-development level, particularly children’s rights to a quality early childhood experience. And, at the centre level, teachers’ advocacy can raise the overall awareness of children’s rights in an early childhood service. Essentially, advocacy is concerned with changing social attitudes and political imperatives “to expand the moral arena of early childhood education into the family, greater society, and government” (Fennimore, 1989, pp. 2–3). Article 12 marks a seminal difference between previous children’s rights documents and the current convention (Child Rights Information Network, 2007), and, as a result of this, child advocacy (for example, UNICEF, 2005, 2006, 2008) has increased the visibility of children “in political arenas from the village development council … to the UN General Assembly” (Lansdown, 2005, p. v). Advocacy for children’s rights to active participation has shifted the focus from promoting child development and protection to a “rights-based analysis of children’s lives” (p. v). Instead of taking a deficit view of children as needy, a strategic advocacy approach focuses on a commitment to improving their quality of life. The “quality of life discourse” (Stainton Rogers, 2004) argues that advocacy for changes in individual, familial or organisational circumstances must take place in the political, policy arena. This seems particularly relevant to early childhood advocacy for children’s rights because research (Te One, 2008) has revealed that teachers feel hampered in their implementation of children’s rights because of their perceptions of powerlessness and a lack of status for early childhood.

Advocacy for children’s rights in the crèche

The crèche teachers’ perceptions of rights appeared to coalesce around their role as advocates, protecting children and protecting children’s rights. The evidence suggested that the participants foregrounded protection rights as a way to facilitate children’s participation at the crèche. Protection rights were understood in two ways:

1.&;&;The teachers believed that acting in the child’s best interests (Alston, 1994a, 1994b) protected children’s rights (Article 3, Child Rights Information Network, 2007).

2.&;&;They believed in protecting children’s rights to survival and development (Articles 6 and 29, Child Rights Information Network, 2007).

Their perceptions were tinged with constructs of need, dependence and vulnerability, but the conventional understanding of protection rights was reinterpreted by these teachers to mean rights concerned with belonging and wellbeing in early childhood settings (Carr, 2001; Carr, May, & Podmore, 1998; Ministry of Education, 1996). Belonging and wellbeing are strands from Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), both of which can be traced to attachment theories and notions of trust. The teachers’ focus on wellbeing and belonging was influenced by the age of the children (all under two years old). Consequently, they felt their role was to protect children’s health and wellbeing by meeting their needs, as well as advocating for their rights to be heard—a participation right but with a concomitant responsibility on the teachers to protect children’s rights per se. The examples presented in the following section focus on how the teachers perceived themselves as advocates for children’s rights to health and wellbeing, and how this created some difficulties for all concerned: the teachers, the parents and the children.

Health advocates—a conflict of interest

A prevalent theme for advocacy in the crèche was infant health. Two reasons emerged as significant here. First, the ages of the children (from two weeks up to 24–25 months old) meant that they were vulnerable to health problems and could develop serious illnesses very rapidly; and, second, teachers believed that attending to the welfare of the child was in the child’s best interests. Stainton Rogers (2004) suggests “best interests” are understood in multiple ways and “the practical consequences for children of different viewpoints … alert us to … issues, for example, of power” (p. 126).

Health advocacy issues were discussed regularly at the crèche, not only at staff meetings, but also during the day. If a child became unwell, teachers acted promptly and, depending on the nature and severity of the illness, rang the parents, seeking permission to administer medication or requesting that they come and collect their child. Parents were asked to keep children at home if they were already ill. According to the staff, parents usually complied willingly and the teachers attributed this to their positive relationships with them. However, there was also evidence that responding to some requests from the crèche could create problems for parents, and that made it difficult for teachers, not to mention the children concerned.

Below is an example from the first focus group interview, illustrating how the teachers advocated for children’s health, something they perceived as supporting children’s rights, and how this caused tension in the parent/teacher partnership and raised some issues of power— who wielded power and where this resided:



Peggy:

We will advocate very strongly for the child’s health, which can be very stressful for the parent …

Harriet:

Yes … today we had to ask the parent to take a sick child to the doctor to have some tests done, but we haven’t had those results back, and so, until we have the results back, well … (Shrugs, meaning the child cannot come back just yet.)

The teachers felt it was not in the interests of the child to come back to crèche because they cannot provide suitable care for a sick child. However, this meant that a conflict of interest arose because, for the parent, having a sick child meant time off work. The teachers were mindful of the implications of this for the parents’ work environments:



Christine:

Well, the parent does have needs and the parent often gets really distressed—it creates enormous stress, but we still feel we must advocate for the child.

Peggy:

You feel for the child but you also feel for the parent … Because maybe they’re working or something, and suddenly they have got a sick child, and what are they going to do because they hadn’t planned to have a sick child.

The dynamics are complex in such situations— teachers were aware of how a sick child would affect the work situation for parents, and were genuinely sympathetic, but equally, they were clear about their professional advocacy role:

Olivia [mother] arrives to pick up J (14 months), who is clearly not well. Loretta has been nursing him and had rung Olivia about 15–20 minutes beforehand. ‘I don’t know what will happen next. I can’t take any more time off with kids. I have organised Mum for tomorrow …’ Loretta comments that other children have had something similar and it has only lasted a day or two: ‘Tomorrow is Friday and so J will probably come right over the weekend.’

The impact of ill health on the immediate family was a concern, but the teachers had to consider the implications of illnesses for the wider group, too, so it was not only an individual child’s rights they advocated for, but also other children’s rights:



Harriet:

You see, we also have to advocate for the rights of the other children at the centre … You’ve got the rights of the sick child, but for babies, who [don’t have the] communication skills and go down so quickly we must advocate—and [sometimes] we may be wrong … But often the parents are actually quite grateful, aren’t they? They come back and thank us— they may have been stressed at the time, but they do realise that we are speaking for the rest of the centre children.

The teachers’ advocacy in these situations depended on active and effective communication. There was clear evidence that the teachers made efforts to maintain a dialogue with parents over health issues:



Loretta:

I think it’s a communication thing. We’re advocating for the child here, but also for outsiders as well. Like if something like diarrhoea is going around, like an outbreak, well, some families will ring in and say the child is not coming today and sometimes I might just ask ‘Are they OK?’, and sometimes they may say, ‘We had diarrhoea over the weekend’, and we might say ‘Oh, well, we’ve had five cases today.’

The supervisors spent time communicating to parents and informed them about policies and procedures related to health concerns. Wherever possible, the parents’ wishes were followed in relation to their child’s health needs, but this caused some ethical dilemmas, which the teachers felt compromised their professional status as educators, and created a barrier to participation for the child:



Katrina:

Oh, well, you know, when children have got runny noses and might not be feeling the best and parents still bring them to crèche but don’t want them to do water play, which is something we don’t feel comfortable about—you know, the child doesn’t really have a right to choose because they are not feeling well. That is kind of a sticky one. What does the child want? Is it their right to play where they want?

On the other hand, some health issues could be dealt with in ways that avoided these problems. For example, administering medication was, in some instances, a group occasion that generated intense interest:

P (20 months) has just woken up and Loretta carries him into the main play room. ‘It’s time for your asthma medicine now’ she tells him. C (21 months) toddles over to P’s bag and pulls out a plastic box, which she takes to Loretta. P helps Loretta open it up and, apart from R, all five children in the room gather around P and Loretta. She talks to them all about the inhaler and the spacer and then encourages P to begin. The children are fascinated and P looks relaxed and pleased by the attention.

In this example, administering P’s medication was accepted as a routine part of his and other children’s experiences at crèche. Dealing with children’s health needs and, at the same time respecting their rights to participate in the crèche, was resolved in the above case.

The “quality of life” discourse

The problems and difficulties experienced by parents illustrate the complexities teachers faced advocating for children’s rights in an early childhood service. Using the example of advocating for children’s health and wellbeing, the issues raised in this article can be seen to: be related to broader labour market policies, like conditions of work that entitle parents to leave work (or not) to look after sick children at a moment’s notice; directly influence how children’s rights are implemented and experienced at the centre level; and highlight issues concerning government responsibilities to provide services that support families.

While the teachers were extremely effective advocates for the children at the centre level, their advocacy stopped with the parents. Employers may or may not have understood the stresses on the child and parent in situations requiring unexpected absence from work. Sometimes appearing to be torn between two competing power dynamics (the workplace and the crèche), parents were in an unenviable situation. Teachers’ advocacy for children did not reach parents’ workplaces at an organisational level but remained individualised and discrete, targeting the parents concerned.

Early childhood services do not exist in isolation, but are connected to the macro system (Bronfenbrenner, 2005) and as such are subject to social, economic and political forces, including educational and cultural aspirations. Sadly, however, some children, especially very young children, remain invisible, and consequently their rights are not well understood, as evidenced by the stress experienced by parents having to balance caring for sick children with workplace commitments. Stainton Rogers’s (2004) “quality of life discourse” shifts the lens from one of blaming the individual, and expecting a family to find solutions to manage when, say, a child is unwell and not able to attend an early childhood service, to a focus on advocacy directed at a national policy level. One could conclude that effective advocacy for children’s rights must be for the individual, and, at the same time, the messages need to be aired nationally.

Governments are obliged to ensure families and others caring for children can do so. The discourses of needs and rights “do not merely ‘describe’, they also carry moral invectives. They prescribe action (what should be done), and agency (attribute responsibility for action)” (Stainton Rogers, 2004, p. 130). Children’s rights invoke responsibilities (notably Articles 4 and 5 of the convention). Teachers’ advocacy role was not overtly understood as activism in the political arena, but rather as advocacy on behalf of an individual child, or a group of children, to the parents, to other colleagues or to other children. The crèche teachers’ intentions were to advocate for a quality experience in their particular setting, but more support is required to make their advocacy visible in the public arena. Advocacy for quality provision of services is critical, particularly in the current political climate where so many markers of quality have recently been cut, or severely compromised. What we have are strong, centre-based advocates; what we need are strong “quality of life” advocates who can argue for children’s rights in early childhood settings in the national political arena.

Notes

1&;&;The full research project was based in three different early childhood services: a sessional kindergarten, a parent/whānauled playcentre and the crèche. Parents and children in the playcentre were interviewed, as were teachers and children in the kindergarten. For a full account of the research see Te One (2008).

2&;&;States party is the term used to refer to countries that have signed the convention.

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Sarah Te One is a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington where she is currently teaching childhood sociology and children’s rights and researching parent support and development in early childhood services.

She has been involved in several major research projects including Centres of Innovation. Sarah’s interests are in children’s rights in early childhood education and research.

Email: Sarah.TeOne@vuw.ac.nz