Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Child Rights Education: Framing Your Pedagogy the UNICEF Way

By Daniel Sadowsky — April 21, 2016 6 min read

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF works for the survival, protection, and development of children worldwide through advocacy, education, and fundraising for UNICEF’s work. Their Education Department contributes to that mission with TeachUNICEF global citizenship education resources, which are uniquely constructed to assure the dignity of children as rights-holders. Your pedagogy can also focus on this, as Daniel Sadowsky, Assistant Director of Education, explains.

The language of child rights has its origins in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by the United Nations in 1989. Up to that point, children were covered by the same international bill of human rights as adults—primarily the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—but they were still seen widely to be inferior in rights to adults. The CRC changed that. For the first time, children were seen as rights-holders at every age because they are human beings. They do not suddenly become human beings—and therefore rights-holders—at the age of 18.

The CRC is an unusual document in many ways. For one thing, there’s its universality. It was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly, and it has been ratified by more state parties than any other treaty in history. (There’s only one country that has not ratified; more on this later.) For the first time, those governments were legally bound to protect the full range of human rights. The CRC also serves as one of the guiding documents for UNICEF, making its work not just about doing right, but ensuring rights. It also does more than simply enumerate rights; it established a set of overarching rights, what we call umbrella rights (see chart below). The fact that the CRC says these things, and more, makes it a truly a remarkable document.

Children as Equals
The CRC also compels action through a “child rights approach.” This involves both treating children in accordance with human rights standards and laws, as well as casting children as co-equal partners with responsible adults in the effort to assure their rights. UNICEF actually sees itself not as a charity organization, but as a duty-bearer with the responsibility to uphold children’s rights, even when responding to emergencies.

So what can teachers do to fulfill their obligations to help children claim their rights? At TeachUNICEF, we look to UNICEF for our inspiration, and specifically its toolkit for child rights education, or CRE. Like the more widely-known discipline of human rights education, CRE involves learning about rights. Students learn that they have civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in common with children worldwide, and that those rights are not always protected.

It also involves learning for rights, that is, taking action to realize rights. As in human rights education, CRE helps students understand that they have a sense of agency in the world, that they can claim rights for themselves and help their global peers to do the same.

Learning as a Right
Where the CRE approach really differs from human rights education is the third type of learning it entails; that is, learning through rights, or using rights as an organizing principle to transform the culture of learning. Imagine a learning environment in which the right to a quality education is truly realized: The curriculum is broad, relevant, and—crucially—inclusive. Students can fully realize their rights to respect and dignity. There is true respect for children’s participation rights as well.

We can think of the framework of learning about rights, for rights, and through rights as three main branches of a tree. But if these are the branches, what is the trunk of the tree? In CRE, the trunk is the overall context of learning as a right, the right of access to education. CRE as such is clearly a whole-system approach to education.

In fact, UNICEF promotes Rights Respecting Schools as a model for making CRE and the child rights approach central to everything a school does. These schools are most prevalent in the United Kingdom, and the outcomes are extraordinary: Over 90 percent of school leaders associated participation with positive student impacts on relationships and behavior, respect for themselves and others, engagement in learning, and attitudes toward diversity and overcoming prejudices.

However, CRE can inform any educator’s work, including individual classroom teachers and teams of teachers. For example, if you are producing a teaching unit on climate change, you could take a CRE approach. The unit could be grounded in the spirit of the CRC:

Article

Commitment Made by State Parties

Learning Objectives

4

Work to respect, protect, and fulfill all the rights children are entitled to

Explain that governments are obligated to help children realize their rights, even in the face of climate change

2

Accept that all stated rights apply to all children without exception, and promote those rights in a nondiscriminatory fashion

Explain how climate change disproportionately affects poorer children/children with disabilities/children in vulnerable climates

3.1

Act in consideration of the best interests of the child in all their actions concerning children

Assess whether government action to address climate change is in the best interests of the child

6

Ensure children’s survival and development

Explain how climate change affects children’s rights to life, survival, and development

12

Protect the right of children to express their opinions freely; take those opinions into account in any matter or procedure affecting children

Take action on the issue of climate change and evaluate the degree to which government authorities take heed

We also encourage your curriculum development teams to take a similar approach in their work. They can actively involve duty-bearers and rights-holders in the development of curricula, and structure the pedagogy to truly build their capacities in the child rights relationship. And they can scrutinize whether the processes or language of the resulting resources is inclusive toward all children.

To an ever-increasing extent, this approach guides our process of developing resources at TeachUNICEF. It is certainly evident in our flagship resource, UNICEF ACT, a biannual set of instructional resources on a topic of global concern, such as nutrition and immunizations. The current edition, “Children on the Move,” provides a comprehensive and child-friendly look at the global refugee crisis. UNICEF ACT communicates to our student readers that they are rights-holders, and it conveys to our teacher audience that they bear the duty of helping their students claim their rights.

We aspire to embrace the child rights approach even more going forward. Admittedly, the bar was set very high by UNICEF and others when they developed this model of child rights education, and it is not realistic for every initiative to undergo the full CRE treatment. But it is very possible—and desirable—for all educators, at every level, in every discipline, in every country, to be knowledgeable in CRE and to challenge themselves to apply that knowledge to their pedagogy. (It’s even desirable in the United States, where the efforts of a relatively small group of vocal opponents has led to us being the only UN member state still not to have ratified the CRC. You and your students can do something about that, though!) We see CRE as a solid foundation for assuring respect for the dignity of children as rights-holders in our work, and a worthy model to aspire to meet at deeper and deeper levels.

Follow Dan, TeachUNICEF, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo: Students from the third grade have a group discussion during classes at Bairy Harin Mary Government Primary School, Bangladesh. Credit: © UNICEF/UNI155190/Kiron

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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