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Opinion: a focus on children’s rights and strengths serves them best

The EYLF, the National Quality Framework and ECA’s own Code of Ethics all position children as active agents in their learning and base high-quality pedagogy on individual strengths and rights. Such an approach has been used in community work for decades, and it resonates strongly with what we understand to be high-quality practice in early childhood.

An approach based on strengths and rights arises from our commitment, as early childhood professionals, to ensure that children’s rights are met. The focus is not on what children do or don’t do, or what they lack, but rather on what we as professionals will do to ensure children’s rights are met and to use their current strengths to do so.

In my book, I suggest that we reframe Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to become a framework of rights. We can ask ourselves: how are children’s rights for food, shelter and warmth met, how are their rights to safety met, etc. It is likely that at these lower levels many of children’s rights are met by their families but we have a responsibility to know these rights are being met (for example if a child is at risk of abuse we would have to take action). We cannot close our eyes and pretend that these rights are not our responsibility.

Our planning then focuses on what we have to do to ensure children’s rights are met. We might, for example, plan to support a child who is learning to eat with a spoon so we can ensure rights to nutrition are met. We might plan to build a relationship between a child and a new early childhood professional so rights to relationships are met. We might ask the child to look after another child who has just started in the group to ensure rights to validation are met. And, ultimately, when the child’s rights at all the previous levels are met, we might offer some literacy learning opportunities to ensure rights to self-actualisation are met.

What we do to ensure rights are met is where the strengths-based approach becomes important. We might want to focus on literacy through exploiting a child’s interest in space. We’d use the interest as a strength and build on that. We might want to ensure the child’s right to nutrition is met by focusing on independent spoonfeeding. But if the child comes from a family where it is important for older siblings to help with the younger, providing learning opportunities to encourage independence may well not support the older sibling’s rights to validation through having an important role in the family, and run counter to the strengths evident in the family (where all the children have their rights to nutrition met, just in a different manner than we might want for our own families).

An approach based on rights and strengths is not difficult. We just have to change our mindset to think about children’s rights rather than their needs. By doing so, we offer the best possible learning environments for our young children.

Margaret Sims is professor of early childhood at the University of New England.

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