Child rights in the classroom - perspective from a teacher


I got into teaching as my way of having children around me, we had tried for years to have our own children and been unsuccessful. I wanted an all consuming job that championed the curiosity and enthusiasm of children; teaching seemed perfect. Spending time with other people’s children, my nieces especially, had shown me that learning comes in all forms and that excited me. I’ve always been interested in sharing, helping and learning together. I thought this is what teaching would be every day!

I have 17 children in my class, ranging from six to eight years old, and I feel really fortunate that the school I work in has some progressive values it tries to uphold. For example, we know that homework is not needed or wanted. Research shows that it is of no benefit to student’s learning and that there is a detriment to relationships and social skills as kids miss out on being kids in favour of finishing their homework sheets. However, there are other teachers that can still be quite old school!

Making room for bodily autonomy in the classroom
I know of teachers who think that students should only ever go to the toilet during their breaks and make no allowances for them going during class time. All that I have seen happening here is that children don’t drink so as to not need to go which is unhealthy and doesn’t support comfort in any way therefore learning can’t happen, it adds to the stress of the day.

Personally I feel that anybody, child or not, who cannot use the bathroom when they need to or without permission is such an infringement on their rights.

I encourage parents to raise this with their child’s teachers – there are ways for us to cope with children exercising bodily autonomy! For example; I have to know where students are in case of emergencies so I ask students to let me know that that is where they are going but they are not asking for permission. They know to let a friend know so that they are accounted for if needed.

We used to have a teacher policing the lunchboxes and making students eat ‘another half of a sandwich’ before they were allowed to play but we’ve talked about this infringing their rights and their need to understand what their body needs. To balance the requests from parents that there is a set ‘eating’ time the first 10 mins of lunch is a sit down time, kids that want to eat do and those that don’t don’t, they can stay and keep eating or pop back to their lunchbox after this but this is our compromise. To me it feels like a form of control and I see students from other classes stashing food after this time or to eat while outside as and when they can. I worry about their relationship with food but other staff members justify it by saying that they are preparing students for jobs with break times.

Parents can and should advocate for their children
The really crucial thing is for parents to be visible and in school. Make appointments to see teachers even before your child starts school and throughout their school life. Be honest and open about how you expect your child to be treated. Getting to know your child’s teacher will have a really big influence on what happens for your child, it shouldn’t but it does; teachers are human and knowing where they stand, what is expected of them gives them confidence in their interactions with students.

Society as a whole doesn’t treat children with dignity and respect and parents who encourage those conversations are out of the norm. I wish more parents came to me to advocate for their child!

For those parents that do care, that do want to support their child’s rights and dignity, I implore them to spend some times in their child’s classroom and to have lots of conversations with the teachers, asking ‘why?’ or ‘have you thought about?’

The system needs to change
Teachers can be hard on ourselves; beating ourselves up and wanting to do better by each and every child every day. We know when things aren’t perfect and we try our best to manage constraints that often don’t marry practically with ensuring each child gets exactly what they need when they need it. I know that I feel as though I am fighting everyday to protect the rights of my students and it can be exhausting.

If I was in charge of the education system I’d change three things.

Firstly, I’d drop the National Standards and measures of learning; every child is different and this testing can lead to children being put into boxes. National standards do not recognise the many talents, traits and values that are so important to being a happy person. Things that aren’t able to be measured can begin to be excluded from the curriculum further constraining children and adding to the burden that fitting in can cause. National standards does not align in any way with healthy development of children. The expectations are unrealistic and come with a trade off. For me the the trade off is one that is not worth making and therefore I oppose national standards and get very creative about how I report against them as I have a legal obligation to do so.

What upsets me as a teacher as that society still in general wants these checks and measures. They do not trust children’s ability to know what they need and to learn without force and direction. I have asked parents of children in my class to let me know if they don’t want to receive a report against National Standards. One third of them said that they didn’t but when it came to it, they wanted to know where their child was in relation to others nationally. They wanted it! As I write reports for my students I focus on them, as people, what I notice and observe and the interactions that I have with them. As a parent I want to know that my child’s teacher knows them, not school them but them as a person and that what they value is valued in their classroom environment so I write with that in mind.

I’d also change it so that kids don’t start school until seven – there is literally no need to, what I notice in my class with students who are around five to eight years old is that there is no academic benefit to students starting school before seven. The expectations of students within these first 2 years of school are unrealistic and do not account for each child having their own strengths and desires for learning.

What happens instead is that their little selves seem to get squashed and moulded into a school form and the things that made them who they are are pushed further to the side.

Our brains are malleable but this form of conditioning at such an early age in my opinion leaves us with empty people who seek external recognition and are never satisfied with themselves.

Starting schooling later gives kids more time to be kids, to discover things about themselves that will be true for life, their real skills, their passions and enough resilience to maintain these things through a school system. Currently I ask the parents of the children that I teach to trust me and know that their child will learn ‘what is expected’ when they are ready and that that time is usually around seven or eight. New Zealand as an amazing Early Childhood Curriculum called Te Whaariki; the recommendation is that as children transition from early childhood centres into school that Te Whaariki forms the basis for learning and exploration until at least 6. While most new entrant teachers agree that freedom and play are valuable I have met few who follow this recommendation for the reason that children have National Standards to meet in Reading, Writing and Maths by the end of their first year at school. The standards, in my opinion, allow little room for true self direction and exploration. The two ideas do not coalign and it takes a strong person to fight the ‘norm’ in order to be an ally for children and their right to learn as and when they need to or want to.

Finally, I’d shorten the school day – kids need far more time to relax and have free play. Kids need time in nature and in community. They need to build relationships with people of all ages and make connections with like minded people (who may happen not to be their age). Children need time to be bored, to have time to think and try, experiment without direction.

We need to listen to, and trust, children
I would love to see schools having a conversation with children, really hearing them and hearing about their experiences and needs. Not the kids who have been at school for years but the kids who are new to school. They are the people who are the most authentic and less influenced by the system that they are in.

Students can only be empowered in places where their voice is truly valued, where they can make decisions that influence the way that things take place.

Laura Bartram is a primary school teacher from New Zealand and a parent ally. 


  • Nazneen Rahim September 27, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you for this! I would love to connect with you, my blog is RElearn Education, on Facebook there is a link to my website. I hope we can all work together for respectful schooling, it’s great to find teachers who have an open attitute.

  • Helena Jones September 28, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    I agree with everything you have said, I thought that teachers with such great attitude had long gone. Thank you.

  • Helena Jones September 28, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Everything that you have said I agree with, this is a discussion that I have had with all my Children from the time they started school and still do now as they are now adults , my eight year old on a daily basis always brings up how unfair it is that the children are not allowed to take a toilet break unless it’s in their break. In my opinion it’s disgusting that they have to hold their bladder for such long periods of time, it is not good for their health on so many levels. As for homework they do enough work in school for hours, end of school day should be their childhood time. My Daughter also asks me what i think school times should be, my answer is start at nine in morning and finish at 1:30 the latest. Also I would shorten the amount of days to at least 4 days so there is a 3 day break for all the children. Too much stress with all the tests there is no need for them. I have had a discussion with the head teacher about his policy on uniform,as the children are being told that they have got to wear school uniform it is a primary school so is not compulsory, my daughter is now getting fearful of wearing everyday clothing to school. This is not what I want for my child to fearful of wearing everyday clothing. My discussion has fallen on deaf ears unfortunately. Lunch boxes to me is a total invasion of rights. Sorry that I have gone on a bit,it’s just that in my opinion it is an invasion of their rights. Also agree too young an age starting school.


Leave a Comment