In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education

  • Introduction
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Right to Education and Right to Development
  • Nondiscrimination Principle
  • Right to Language and Culture
  • Participation Rights
  • Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Early Childhood Policy in a Global Context
  • Research Respectful of Children’s Rights

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Education Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education
Anne B. Smith, Nicola J. Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0178


Children’s rights in early childhood education have provided a new and different lens for how we view and treat young children. Rights are entitlements that every human being has, that are considered essential for their optimal development (Veerman 1992, cited under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC]). That children are human beings with rights has become recognized since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (cited under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC]) in 1989. When children’s rights are realized, they are provided with a better quality of life, opportunities for healthy development, and fulfillment of their potential. Children’s rights thinking is transformative, changing the power relations between children, adults, and the state; this is so that children are seen as active subjects rather than the objects of socialization or the chattels of their parents (Tobin 2011, cited under Theoretical Foundations). The UNCRC defines a child as a human being below the age of eighteen. Definitions of early childhood vary in different countries according to the organization of preschool and elementary school systems, but early childhood education is defined here as any center, school, or home-based program catering for the education and care of children up to the age of eight. It is impossible to separate care and education for young children, since caring relationships are an essential influence on children’s learning, so early childhood education includes childcare centers, nursery schools and classes, kindergartens, parent co-operative programs, language immersion centers, Headstart classes, Montessori or Steiner programs, family daycare schemes, and beginning school classrooms. Implementing children’s rights for infants and young children is particularly important since during these early years, children are most vulnerable to rights violations, and they are most able to benefit from their rights being catered for. For example, there is substantial evidence to suggest that children in disadvantaged circumstances achieve much better social and educational outcomes if they have participated in high-quality early childhood education programs (Smith 2015, cited under Early Childhood Policy in a Global Context). This bibliography demonstrates the relevance of the UNCRC for early childhood education, shows the theoretical basis of rights thinking, and focuses on five key areas of children’s rights—education, nondiscrimination, language/culture, participation and curriculum/pedagogy. Finally, it shows how children’s rights have been applied to global early childhood policies and to designing research that is respectful of children’s rights.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

To understand children’s rights, the first prerequisite is to become familiar with the UNCRC. The UNCRC is a wide-ranging treaty that was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and applies to children from birth to eighteen years of age. The Great War of 1914–1918 exposed children to widespread suffering, and this was a major impetus for the development of children’s rights (Fass 2011). Early-20th-century pioneers of children’s rights include Ellen Keys, Eglantyne Jebb, and Jan Korczak, who suggested alternative perspectives on childhood and focused on the impact of injustice on children (Veerman 1992). Early conceptualizations of children’s rights tended to focus on welfare, but more recently children’s agency and participation rights have been emphasized (Freeman 2009). The UNCRC was developed by an international UN Working Group that included both welfare and human rights organizations, so the final document reflected a hard-won consensus (Cantwell 2011). The UNCRC has been ratified by 195 countries, including all members of the United Nations except the United States. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the progress of ratifying countries, who must produce a self-review report after two years, and thereafter every five years. The quality of the data used in UNCRC reporting has, however, been criticized (Ennew 2011). The UN Committee responds to each country’s report with a set of concluding observations. The fifty-four articles of the convention fall into three main categories of rights: provision, protection, and participation. Provision articles refer to the right of children to be provided with health care, education, an appropriate standard of living, family life, and other services. Protection articles state that children must be safe from discrimination, abuse, exploitation, substance abuse, violence, injustice, and conflict. Participation articles refer to children’s civil and political rights, to a name and identity, to be consulted on matters that affect them, to have access to information, to express their views and take part in decisions. United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2005 highlights the importance of children’s rights for young children and argues that governments should adopt a positive agenda for early childhood education and shift away from traditional beliefs viewing early childhood as a time for socialization, and urging recognition and respect for children as social actors.

  • Cantwell, Nigel. 2011. Are children’s rights still human? In The human rights of children: From vision to implementation. Edited by Antonella Invernizzi and Jane Williams, 37–60. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    The history of the UNCRC shows that individuals from human rights and child welfare-oriented NGOs worked collaboratively in its development but that there are current tensions between a human rights and child rights approach.

  • Ennew, Judith. 2011. Has research improved the human rights of children? Or have the information needs of the CRC improved data about children? In The human rights of children: From vision to implementation. Edited by Antonella Invernizzi and Jane Williams, 133–158. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    Criticizes the UNCRC reporting mechanisms and associated research, which has resulted in little improvement, so that nothing is done to improve children’s lives, and poor data is used as a basis for policy development and programming.

  • Fass, Paula S. 2011. A historical context for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Annals of the American Association of Political and Social Science 633:17–29.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716210382388

    Provides a historical context for the development of the UNCRC, starting during the First World War and Second World War, which exposed children’s vulnerability, forming the basis for a new sentimental attachment to children and the championing of their rights.

  • Freeman, Michael. 2009. Children’s rights as human rights: Reading the UNCRC. In The Palgrave handbook of childhood studies. Edited by Jens Qvortrup, William A. Corsaro, and Michael-Sebastian Honig, 377–393. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Justifies viewing children’s rights as human rights, since not supporting children’s rights suggests we regard children as less than human. Answers some of the critics of children’s rights and sees the UNCRC as a beginning not final word on children’s rights.

  • United Nations. 1989. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.

    The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) consists of a Preamble and fifty-four articles, setting out children’s entitlements to the provision of services (such as education), protection from harm (such as abuse), and to participate in society (to have their views heard and acted on).

  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. 2005. General comment no 7: Implementing child rights in early childhood. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.

    This United Nations General Comment documents a day of discussion on children’s rights in early childhood education. It encourages recognition that young children are the holders of rights and that early childhood is a critical time for the realization of rights.

  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. 2006. A guide to general comment 7: “Implementing child rights in early childhood”. The Hague: Bernard Van Leer Foundation.

    This volume describes the background of the UN Day of General Discussion on child rights in early childhood education. Contains extracts from the approximately three dozen papers that were submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child by diverse organizations, before the discussion.

  • Veerman, Philip E. 1992. The rights of the child and the changing image of childhood. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martin Nijhoff.

    Contains a comprehensive history of the UNCRC; an account of the contribution of activists like Eglantyne Jebb and Jan Korczak; the founding documents like the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child; and details of the negotiations during the 1980s drafting process.

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