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Children’s Rights in Small Places


Tuesday 23 May 2017

Valuing the ECEC professional – Children’s Rights in Small Places

Many ECEC practitioners working in early childhood settings in Ireland will have some awareness of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the Government of Ireland in 1992.   If you were to hold a full copy of the UNCRC in your hand, and I would suggest that you do, you may at first, find some of the provisions vague or perhaps too abstract or even irrelevant to early years practice.  You might even think that in a developed, ‘rich’ country, like Ireland, all children’s rights have been guaranteed by the various national laws and policies, which have been passed in recent decades, and so we don’t even need to think about the barriers that might exist in translating these principles into practice.  Or perhaps you think that knowledge of children’s rights and working in an early childhood setting are two sides of the same coin, and that somehow we enact children’s rights daily in our practice through implementing Aistear, without having to think too much about the broader children’s rights framework.  Or maybe you use words like choice or voice or play to describe children’s rights in early years’ settings, without really thinking much further on the kind of knowledge, values and practices you might need to fully enact children’s rights or implement Aistear, in a rights-respecting way.

Children’s rights education, as part of an early childhood practitioners’ formation, asks us to take the time to critically reflect on ourselves, our practices, our policies and our decision-making.  This is a slow process.  Abstract concepts and principles inherent in the children’s rights discourse like dignity, respect, evolving capabilities, participation, best interests, all need time to be ‘unpacked’ and critically evaluated for relevance to the theories that inform our practice, and the practice that informs our theories.  Our own childhoods and experiences in education equally need to be looked at, as we sometimes unconsciously reproduce the approaches of our own teachers from the past. We also need to look at the mentoring we received when we were forming as professionals and the environments that this took place in.  The attitudes and actions (or inactions) of our mentors and other practitioners can be more influential than any theory or law that we may have read, on how we practice.   To ‘really’ know children’s rights, before we can enact them ourselves in our own practice, we have to see and experience an explicit children’s rights based approach in action, and that in itself requires resourced, respected, valued educators working within a broader, competent early years system.

The language of rights, can therefore become a powerful and effective language to use when advocating for young children, enabling ECEC practitioners to confidently articulate the rights of young children, not as favours to ask of the Government, but reminders of the promises the Government has made to young children.  Critical to the realisation of these promises, is the education and training of professionals who relationships with young children ensure that children’s rights are realised in all relational processes, in line with Aistear.

“Help me to learn about my rights…Model fairness, justice and respect when you interact with me.  Involve me in making decisions.  Let me share my views and opinions with you about things that matter to me.  Help me to understand that others may have different views and opinions”.

In spite of inadequate funding to-date for implementing the national curricular and quality frameworks, or for the initial and ongoing education and CPD of ECEC professionals, ECEC practitioners challenge inequality, exclusion, sexism, racism, homophobia, and ablelism, in all their various disguises in the child’s environment on a day to day basis.  They step in when children’s interactions are harmful, respecting the dignity of both the hurt and the hurter.  Through a play-based, unhurried and emergent curriculum, they look and listen as children’s interests emerge.  This ensures not only that children engage in learning that is meaningful, hands-on and intrinsically motivating, but also, when captured and extended by a knowledgeable, sensitive practitioner, it becomes, thorough respectful dialogue, participation in action, a guiding principle of the UNCRC.  ECEC practitioners play a key role in educating parents about children’s rights through learning stories that capture and make visible a child’s decision making and perspective on their learning, play, relationships and environment. The child’s keyworker through their partnership approach with parents, ensures that young children, are nurtured in line with Aistear, ensuring that the child’s rights to health, privacy and family guidance are respected, while adherence to the legislative and regulatory framework ensures the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration of the ECEC practitioner. They are vociferous advocates of the rights of young children with additional needs and children from minority communities and work to connect children and families with the services they need.  


ECEC practitioners therefore, in their everyday practices and pedagogies, not only protect, promote and take action for the rights of the young children they educate and care for, but they also help the Government to fulfil its international legal obligations under the UNCRC.  As ECEC practitioners become more fluent in the language of rights, they can utilise the UNCRC, to not only to continue to advocate for the rights of the children that they educate and care for, but also to emphasise to the Government their identity as valuable, credible and autonomous professional ECEC practitioners and children’s rights educators worthy of recognition and respect for the work that they do.

Where after all do human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small, that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…such are the places where every man, woman and child, seeks equal justice, equal opportunities, equal dignity without discrimination.  Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.
(Eleanor Roosevelt)

How are you promoting children’s rights in your setting?

Further Reading

Early Childhood Ireland (2012) Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education and Care. Dublin: Early Childhood Ireland

  Dr Sheila Long has been a lecturer in both Early Childhood Education and Care and Social Care at Institute of Technology Carlow at undergraduate and postgraduate levels for the past five years, and has previously worked as a tutor with Early Childhood Ireland, with committed ECEC practitioners working towards gaining qualifications in ECEC at level 6.  As a practitioner Sheila has worked for over ten years with children in a variety of contexts, including Sub-Saharan Africa, and has studied European early years approaches, in particular those of Denmark and Italy and took part in an invaluable study tour with ECI to Norway in 2015. She has recently completed a Doctorate in Childhood Studies, on Children’s Rights Education for Early Years, at Queen’s University Belfast, from which she has developed a model for incorporating children’s rights education into the professional formation of ECEC professionals.



1 comments Comments

One Response

  1. Ann Keating O'Neill says:

    Excellent piece

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