Date: 
Thursday 6 October 2016

Author

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner

Early Childhood Australia conference

Introduction

Good morning and thank you for joining me today. 

I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, the Larrakia people, and pay my respects to elders past, present and future. 

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here today at Early Childhood Australia’s biennial conference. Having participated in this conference before, I am always inspired by the calibre of educators in attendance. All of whom are committed to delivering the best possible care and education to young children in Australia. 

In this, your work is closely aligned with my role as National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In this job I seek to promote and advocate for the rights of children and young people, in line with Australia’s international human rights obligations. In this workshop, I will explore how educating young children about their rights enhances the health and wellbeing of children as they grow and develop and how this complements the requirements of the Early Years Learning Framework: Australia’s first national curriculum guide for early education and care (the Framework). 

I would also like to provide you with a sneak peak of some new early childhood resources that the Australian Human Rights Commission has developed, which I will formally co-launch with Senator Malarndirri McCarthy at tomorrow morning’s plenary session.

About the Convention on the Rights of the Child

For those who don’t know me, I’d like to begin by explaining a little bit about my role and the work that I do. I was appointed at Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner in 2013. As part of my statutory requirements, each year I submit report to Australian Parliament on the state of children’s rights in our nation.

Each year, I focus on a particular area in need of national attention. In previous years in my Children’s Rights Reports, I have focused on suicide and self-harm amongst children and young people, and the distinct impact of family and domestic violence on children. This year I am looking at children and young people in Australia’s youth justice system.

As I said earlier, my role is to promote and advocate for the rights of children and young people. In doing this I seek to educate both adults and children. Each year, along with the release of my Children’s Rights Report, I publish a child friendly version of the report.  This is to ensure that children and young people are also able to access information about how well their rights are being fulfilled in Australia. 

As National Children’s Commissioner, the work I do is guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a human rights treaty which defines the rights of children in international law. The Convention makes clear that children have the same human rights as adults, but additionally they are entitled to special protections because of their unique vulnerabilities and attributes as children. Significantly, the Convention is the most ratified international human rights treaty in the world. I think this says a lot about how the world values its children (at least, in theory). 

By formally signing and committing to the Convention in 1990, Australia promised to protect and uphold the rights of all children in our country. In order to fulfil this goal, it is critical that children themselves are made aware of their own rights, as well as the responsibilities that they have in respecting the rights of others. This is set out in article 42 of the Convention, which states that governments should make the Convention known to adults and children and that adults should help children learn about their rights. 

Children are never too young to start learning about their rights. As you know children’s learning experiences shape their thinking and values. Children who grow up knowing they have rights will carry the messages of respect and dignity that accompany this knowledge into adulthood. 

This is an idea that has been was emphasised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international monitoring body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Committee has outlined the developmental reasons why early childhood is such a critical period for the realisation of children’s rights. (1)

As you will all be aware, early childhood is a time when:

  • children experience the most rapid period of growth and change in both their bodies and brains.
  • children form important relationships with other children where they learn to negotiate and share, resolve conflicts, keep agreements and accept responsibility for others.
  • children explore the physical, social and cultural dimensions of the world they inhabit, learning progressively from their experiences and interactions.
  • in doing this, children are laying down the foundations for their physical and mental health, emotional security, cultural and personal identity. (2)

The Committee on the Rights of Child highlights the need to view the very young children in our society as people in their own right, stating the need to: 'shift away from traditional beliefs that regard early childhood mainly as a period for the socialization of the immature human being towards mature adult status.' (3)

The Committee points out that 'young children are acutely sensitive to their surroundings and very rapidly acquire understanding of the people, places and routines in their lives, along with awareness of their own unique identity.'

This reverses the traditional view of children being 'citizens in waiting', and instead positions them as citizens and active agents in their own right. For these reasons, it is essential to embed an understanding and appreciation of rights early on in the lives of children in order to ensure their long-term well-being. This includes not only ensuring that children are aware of their own rights, but also of the responsibilities that go along with them, and their role in respecting and protecting the rights of others.

Early Years Learning Framework

Encouragingly, this idea has been strongly reinforced in the Early Years Learning Framework, Australia’s first national curriculum guide for early education and care. In its introduction, the Framework makes specific reference to the principles laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as a foundation for early childhood education. It states that ‘early childhood educators guided by the Framework will reinforce in their daily practice the principles laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention)’. (4)

It goes on to refer to the right to education contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all children have the right to an education that lays a foundation for the rest of their lives, maximises their ability, and respects their family, cultural and other identities and languages. (5)

Furthermore, the language woven throughout the framework reinforces the ideas of young children as rights holders. For example, Outcome 2: ‘Children are connected with and contribute to their world’ requires that ‘children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active community participation’. (6)

The Framework, and its underpinning themes of ‘Being, Belonging and Becoming’, does an excellent job of elucidating the linkages between respect for children’s rights and child wellbeing.
And there is much to be commended about the way that the Framework seamlessly integrates core children’s rights principles – such as respect, non-discrimination, and participation –  into the framing of the early childhood curriculum.

Children’s rights in practice 

However, while it is important to see children’s rights enshrined in high-level policy documents such as the Framework, in order to make these rights part of a lived reality they need to be incorporated into day to day practices. So what does it mean for early childhood pedagogy? How can early childhood educators bring children’s rights into their settings? 

Speaking to educators, we often hear that teaching about human rights is a daunting undertaking for many. People tell us that the lofty moral ideals and principles contained in international human rights treaties can seem abstract and far removed from the world of the classroom. However, in response to this I would suggest that teaching about human rights –particularly children’s rights - is fundamentally interwoven into the work you do as educators and is undoubtedly something that many of you already do in your day to day practices. 

At a basic level, the values that we aim to teach children from a young age, such as respect for others, equality, justice, these are fundamental human rights principles. In the work that I do, I seek to support the work of educators in upholding children’s rights. Including through promoting education about children’s rights. In 2015 I worked closely with Early Childhood Australia and an advisory group of early childhood educators to develop a Statement of Intent to assist early childhood educators in supporting young children’s rights. Some of you may be familiar with it already. 

This Statement was created as a practical tool to help early childhood professionals understand Australia’s obligations to children, and to help inform and build on the great work that they do. Building on this, this year the Australian Human Rights Commission developed its first resources for early childhood educators and younger children, which, as I mentioned, will be launched tomorrow. These resources are designed to support educators to encourage respect for cultural diversity and address instances of racial prejudice. 

The need for anti-racism resources 

I would like to go into a little bit of detail as to why the Commission chose to focus on this subject matter and in doing so I’d like to hear a bit from you about your experiences talking to young children about cultural differences and racial diversity. 

By way of background, at last year’s Early Childhood Australia’s Reconciliation Symposium, the Australian Human Rights Commission heard from a number of early childhood educators that while issues of cultural diversity and racial prejudice are prevalent in the early childhood context, limited resources exist to enable educators to appropriately discuss and address these issues. These accounts were further reinforced in the findings of a large-scale national survey conducted by the Commission in October last year, which sought to capture the views and experiences of early childhood educators on cultural diversity and racial prejudice in early childhood settings.

The Commission received 476 survey responses and there was a strongly identified need and desire among respondents for resources on educating about the issues of cultural diversity and prejudice.
I would like to break down the data from the survey in more detail now. Based on the survey responses, the Commission found:

  • 72% of respondents reported that there were challenges to educating about cultural diversity
  • Furthermore, 43% of respondents reported that there were challenges to addressing prejudice.

When asked to elaborate about these challenges, the issue that was recurringly raised was prejudicial attitudes –in relation to children, families and staff within early childhood settings. 
Educators frequently provided examples of difficult conversations and attitudes they’d encountered from both children and their families.

Prevalence of prejudice and discrimination (amongst children) 

77% of respondents indicated that a child had asked a question about their own or another person’s racial, cultural or ethnic background.

This, in and of itself, is not a problem, and the examples that educators provided us highlighted how children are naturally curious about the world around them and the differences they perceive between themselves and others. However, 43% of educators told us a child had said something negative about another person’s racial, cultural or ethnic background.

Prevalence of prejudice and discrimination (amongst families)

In addition, 49% of respondents indicated that they had heard or witnessed a parent saying something negative about another person’s racial, cultural or ethnic background. Interestingly, in our survey a high proportion of educators told us that that they mostly felt competent educating about or responding to issues of cultural diversity and prejudice.  However, this was more the case in regard to responding to negative comments or questions made by children, as compared to those from parents (79-83% compared to 57-68%).

When asked to identify the types of challenges that arose from educating about cultural diversity or responding to prejudice, educators identified three key areas: lack of knowledge, lack of confidence and negative educator attitudes.  

  • Almost one fifth of respondents indicated that levels of educator knowledge and understanding of cultural diversity represented a challenge. (This is despite 61 - 82% of educators rating themselves as quite or extremely knowledgeable). 
  • Around a third of respondents talked about educators’ fear of “getting it wrong” or addressing the topic of cultural diversity in a stereotypical or tokenistic manner (i.e. lack of confidence).
  • Approximately one quarter of respondents raised the attitudes of educators when discussing challenges (i.e. prejudice, apathy)

Building Belonging resources

Based on the information provided in this survey, the Australian Human Rights Commission set out to develop a series of early childhood education resources that provided practical information of tools for educators. Which include interactive and engaging resources for young children. 

To do this, we worked in consultation with representatives from the early childhood sector as well as a number of other key stakeholders, including Reconciliation Australia, SNAICC, Early Childhood Australia, Sydney Daycare Network, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, and the Ethnic Community Services Co-operative. 

The result is the ‘Building Belonging’ resources. Building Belonging is a comprehensive toolkit of resources which includes an ebook, song with actions, educator guide, posters and lesson plans, focussed on encouraging respect for cultural diversity and tackling racial prejudice in early childhood settings. 

I will be formally launching these resources tomorrow morning, along with Senator Malandirri McCarthy, in her keynote presentation. However, having just discussed all the challenges that can occur when teaching about cultural diversity and racial difference, I wanted to provide you with an example of some of things educators can do to overcome these obstacles.

As you can tell from the title, the resources are closely based around the Early Years Learning Framework theme of ‘Belonging’ and are designed to explore how cultural difference and diversity is a fundamental part of life in Australia and is something to be respected and appreciated. 

In the e-book, we created a cast of characters from different cultures and ethnicities. The story involves the central character, Pax, comparing herself to her friends and exploring their similarities and differences. You’ll see these characters are continued throughout the resources. All of the resources are linked to learning outcomes under the Early Years Learning Framework and the Australian Curriculum and support other learning standards and frameworks, such as the National Quality Standard and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Drawing on what we learnt from the survey, the resources aim to provide educators with simple and practical ideas on how to handle challenging or confronting questions about racial differences, while also offering children stimulating activities and games to engage them with the ideas around cultural diversity.

Conclusion

Today’s Australia is an undeniably multicultural society. It is therefore of crucial importance to address racial prejudice, and encourage respect for diversity, from the earliest possible age. Early childhood education provides the ideal setting for children to learn about different cultures and form friendships across a wide range of backgrounds. Encouraging young children to understand and appreciate different cultures will assist them to build positive relationships and connections with their community.

While it is not without challenges, there are many things early childhood educators can do to promote respect for cultural diversity and difference and address racial prejudice. Through engaging with these resources, we have opportunity to shape positive pedagogical practices and provide all children in Australia with an early sense of their value, agency and belonging. In doing this, educators can assist children to develop empathy and respect for others and play a key role in shaping a just and cohesive society in the future.

References

1. Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 7, Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood, UN Doc CRC/C/GC/7/Rev.1 (2006), 3 [6]. At http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f7%2fRev.1&Lang=en (viewed 1 October 2016). 

2. Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 7, Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood, UN Doc CRC/C/GC/7/Rev.1 (2006), 3 [6]. At http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f7%2fRev.1&Lang=en (viewed 1 October 2016).

3Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 7, Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood, UN Doc CRC/C/GC/7/Rev.1 (2006), 3 [5]. At http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f7%2fRev.1&Lang=en (viewed 1 October 2016).

4. Australian Government, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace, Being, Belonging and Becoming: the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (2009), 5. At https://docs.education.gov.au/node/2632 (viewed 1 October 2016).

5. Australian Government, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace, Being, Belonging and Becoming: the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (2009), 5. At https://docs.education.gov.au/node/2632 (viewed 1 October 2016).

6Australian Government, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace, Being, Belonging and Becoming: the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (2009), 26. At https://docs.education.gov.au/node/2632 (viewed 1 October 2016).

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