Volume:9, Issue: 3

Dec. 27, 2017

Adopting a holistic approach to education based on children’s rights
Trudel, Hélène (Sioui) [about]


In the wake of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights,3 the international community was fostering a sense of hope for children. Hard work has led to the proclamation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the “CRC”)4 by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20th, 1989.  Since then, some 196 States have signed and ratified this international covenant.5

Canada also embraced the CRC and made major reforms, especially in the delivery of education.  It ranks 8th out of 41 rich countries, according to the 2017 UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 14.6  In the province of Quebec, where I work as a lawyer interested in children’s participatory justice, an array of highly developed programs is designed to support children and families, with the goal of seeing that everyone enjoys good physical and mental health:  daycare services are widely available at relatively low costs; education and health care are provided mostly free of charge; and children whose development and safety hang in the balance are monitored and protected by powerful watchdog agencies.   

Despite all these important efforts, some 26% of Canadian children are still not ready to successfully enter kindergarten, because of either speech and language delays, or lack of social, emotional and cognitive skills. This rate is even higher (34,9%) in communities where living conditions are harsh [1], and based on our practice in community social pediatrics; we estimate that this rate is closer to 50%. 

This situation raises questions as to the universal access for all children to quality basic education. Far too many children appear to be ignored, forgotten or left to their own devices in early childhood, before they happened to be screened by health care or education professionals.  I trust this situation is a reality shared by several other countries. In the end, it appears as a pure violation of children’s fundamental rights to education.  It must be addressed very seriously.

In this paper, I explore how a holistic approach to education based on children’s rights offers an interesting way to contribute to the respect of the CRC as a whole. I first discuss the danger of violating children’s rights by failing to address the source of their learning problems.  I then present the main features of a holistic approach to quality education based on children’s rights.   

Two main features of a holistic approach to education based on children’s rights

A holistic rights-based approach to education was favored by the drafters of the CRC, who understood the importance of the relation between social determinants of health8 and the fulfillment of children’s rights.  Such an approach must respect two main features: a comprehensive reading of the CRC and a conception of the child as a complete human being as advanced by Janusz Korczak.9 I will consider each of these features in turn.

A. Reading the CRC as a Holistic Document

The CRC addresses the social determinants of child health, such as education, early childhood development, health services, culture, food insecurity, housing, and social exclusion [6-7]. These social determinants have been translated into some 41 rights that represent civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights for children around the world [8]. As such, the CRC provides a normative framework that gives an impetus for assessing children’s needs based on an interdisciplinary and trans-systemic strategy [5]. To provide a quick reference for professionals, I have regrouped children’s rights enunciated in the CRC into the following 7 principles [9].

  • Children are born equal and free from discrimination.
  • The superior interest of children governs decisions that concern them.
  • Children enjoy civil rights and liberties.
  • The community is involved in helping families raise their children.
  • Children are born and grow healthy.
  • Children learn, play, and are open to the world.
  • Children are protected.

An effective reading of the CRC as a holistic document leads to an assessment of the child’s needs that is informed by each of these 7 principles [5]. The assessment thus covers all factors that may affect the child’s capacity to learn.  It does not only consider the interrelation of health, education and child protection, but it also includes information concerning the family networks, financial, physical and environmental factors, access to culture and leisure, the child’s identity and other civil rights and liberties.  

To access this information, a trust relationship must first be established with the principal caregivers, the child’s family, and social networks.  In addition, professionals from different systems (education, health, law, social work, youth protection) must work in co-intervention with the child, family and community members, based on each other’s strengths and in a non-threatening and non-adversarial forum.

In Askan’s case, this process would aim at identifying the child’s rights that are not met, while encouraging teamwork that is necessary to meet the corresponding human rights’ obligations [5]. People around Askan would strive to identify the underlying and structural causes of the problems she faces. This assessment of her needs would result in a shared understanding of what constitutes her best interests.  In addition, the design of the action plan and its implementation would address causes for denial of her rights based on the 7 principles of the CRC, while the interventions would also help Askan’s parents so that they can finally meet the demands of parenting, if any [5].

However, engaging in such a multifaceted analysis to understand the child’s reality is not sufficient. One must also examine the role of the child in this process. 

B. Respecting the Child as a Complete Human Being

The holistic approach to education based on children’s rights cannot be given a meaningful expression without the voice of children themselves.  They must be allowed to participate and be heard in the decision-making process that concerns their wellbeing.  To proceed this way demands that the Western concept of childhood be drastically modified and that serious attention be given to decoding their language [10]. But first, let us see how it has developed through time to better understand the reason why every child must be recognized as a complete human being.

In Western societies, the concept of childhood really appeared with the invention of the printing press during the Renaissance, according to Neil Postman [11]. Children were then effectively excluded from adulthood based on their competence in reading. They formed a separate class and their vulnerability became more apparent, contributing to a clear consciousness of the distinctness of childhood. Since then, children have been perceived as needing prolonged nurture and protection from harm, given their vulnerability, ignorance, and incompetency [12].

The perfect child of the 20th century, according to Berry Mayall, needed to be “flexible, adaptable, sociable, self-regulating” [13]. By then, child development researchers had indexed more than 300 pedagogical and moral childhood diseases and some 100 curative medical pathologies [14]. In the 1930s, for instance, the Australian psychiatrist John Williams classified the “difficult-to-manage toddlers” (mostly boys) as having behavior disorders with a high probability of becoming troubled adults. He also decried the fact that doctors were ignorant in the field of child development and could only treat the child for physical illnesses [15].  Scholars began studying possible causes of these diseases and anomalies in character. They turned their attention to understanding how the cultural milieu of children could have an impact on their development [16]. Several childhood diseases and pathologies were determined to be preventable by properly responding to children’s needs. From then on, health and social workers, and educators teamed up to control and monitor the behavior of both children and mothers as the regular primary caregivers. Child psychologists developed an expertise regarding re-educating children, trying to achieve the best ‘fit’ between children and their environment [13]. Children were monitored both at school and at home, to secure their normal development based on the normality dictated by the dominant culture [16]. They needed to be raised and educated to become productive, social, and well-adjusted adults.  

Today, researchers argue, as Korczak did at the dawn of WWI, that adults should listen to children [17-18-19]. Korczak had a firm belief in children’s capacity to make independent and fair decisions.  He treated them as complete human beings, not as human to ‘be come’ [20] who are gradually recognized as entitled to exercise their rights as they grow older.  For Korczak, the world would be improved through education based on a different construction of childhood. This world would entitle children to the universal right to live in dignity and humanity, and to be actors in a democratic society. More importantly, each child’s individuality would be acknowledged [20].

In this regard, Gabriel Eichsteller remarks that Korczak’s concept of childhood promotes children’s right to take an active part in the decision-making process and to express themselves, without restrictions based on their capacities [20]. Indeed, a comparative analysis of practices of raising children across the world has shown that the deficit model based on the incapacity of the child is not essential [12]. Thus, a holistic approach to education based on children’s rights requires that the Western concept of childhood should be revisited for children to be truly regarded as complete human beings [17], and to be able to truly participate in the decision that concerns their lives.

In community social pediatrics, children of all ages take part in the evaluation of their needs, as well as in the search for solutions that are required to ensure the respect of their rights in the spirit of the CDRE.


Professionals in education share the passion to accompany children through positive learning experiences.  However, too many children, especially in poor neighborhoods, have a negative learning experience.  They are not ready to successfully enter kindergarten, because of either speech and language delays, or lack of social, emotional and cognitive skills or competencies. In the practice of community social pediatrics, we observe that reasons underlying their difficulties are not always fully assessed and understood.  In this case, the intervention plan may often be inadequate, and it may even present the danger of violating children’s rights.  At least 26% of children experience this reality. This situation represents an important issue regarding the universal access for all children to quality basic education.  We must consider very seriously the disquieting desolation that sets children apart in the education system (and in the society at large), and various situations that lead to the violation of their rights.

In this paper, I have explored how a rights-based approach to education offers an interesting way to fully assess and understand children’s needs when they present learning and behavioral difficulties in class. Engaging in such a comprehensive assessment requires a reading of the CRC as a whole document, respecting each of the 7 principles in identifying the sources of these difficulties and in finding the solutions that fit most both the child and the family.

Most importantly, adults must acknowledge and respect the child’s right to a meaningful participation in the decision-making process that impacts his or her life.  This requires that professionals learn how to decode the child’s verbal and non-verbal language.

Finally, the assessment process should consider how the intervention plan is designed and implemented. It demands concrete ways of bringing together those who are part of the child’s circle in different spheres – parents and members of the extended family, the community, resource people, and other professionals from the social and legal network.  Without a global effort and real cooperation of the entire society, including politicians, the future of children born and raised in difficult living conditions will be mortgaged due to the scant resources offered to them.  Clearly, the school environment must become an active partner in helping disadvantaged communities redress social, health, and economic disparities so that all children may develop their full potential. This is the path we must take to safeguard the best interests of all children, especially those who are born and raised in harsh living conditions. 


[1] Institut canadien d’information sur la santé. Enfants vulnérables dans certainsdomaines de la petite enfance: un déterminant de la santé des enfants (2014). Ottawa, ON: ICIS.

[2] Centre de recherche de l’UNICEF (2017). Construire l’avenir : les enfants  et les objectifs de développement durable dans les pays riches, Bilan Innocenti 14, Centre de recherche de l’UNICEF. Innocenti, Florence.

[3] Fondation du Dr Julien. Document de codification: Pédiatrie sociale en communauté – Document de travail (2013) [Unpublished and archived at the Foundation of Dr. Julien].

[4] Shonkoff, J.P., Garner, A.S. (2012). The Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, & Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), e232-246.

[5] Tobin, J. (2006). Beyond the Supermarket Shelf: Using a Rights-Based Approach to Address Children’s Health Needs, International Journal of Children’s Rights, 14(3), 275–306.

[6] Mikkonen, J., & Raphael, D. (2010). Social determinants of health: The Canadian facts. Toronto: York University School of Health Policy and Management.

[7] Dahlgren, D., & Whitehead, M. (2007). World Health Organization (WHO). European Strategies for Tackling Social Inequalities in Health: Leveling Up Part 2. Available from: http://www.thehealthwell.info/node/91930 [Accessed: August 26, 2017].

[8] Freeman, Michael. Why it Remains Important to Take Children’s Rights Seriously. In Michael Freeman (Ed.), Children’s Rights:  Progress and Perspectives. London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff, 2011, 5.

[9] Julien, Gilles & Hélène (Sioui) Trudel (2009). Tous responsables de nos enfants: Un appel à l’action. Montréal: Bayard Canada.

[10] Julien, Gilles (2017). Enfants à livre ouvert. Montreal, Canada: Trécarré.

[11] Postman, Neil (1982). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

[12] Alderson, P., Hawthorne, J. and Killen, M. (2005). The participation rights of premature babies. International Journal of Children's Rights, 1, 31–35.

[13] Tyler, D. (1997). At Risk of Maladjustment:  The Problem of Child Mental Health. In Alan R Petersen & Robin Bunton, (Eds), Foucault, Health and Medicine. London, UK: Routledge.

[14] Dekker, Jeroen, J. H. (2011). The Century of the Child Revisited in Michael Freeman, (Ed.), Children’s Rights:  Progress and Perspectives. London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff,  477.

[15] Corbett, Bob (1962). Centuries of Childhood, Book Review of Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Ariés.  New York: Vintage Books.

[16] Mayall, Berry (2011). The Sociology of Childhood in Relation to Children’s Rights. In Michael Freeman (Ed.), Children’s Rights:  Progress and Perspectives. London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff, 429.

[17] Korczak, Janusz (2009). The Child’s Right to Respect. In Janusz Korczak: The Child’s Right to Respect, translated by E P Kulawiec.France: Council of Europe.

[18] Tobin, J. (2011). Understanding a Human Rights Based Approach to Matters Involving Children: Conceptual Foundations and Strategic Considerations. In Antonella Invernizzi and Jane Williams, (Eds), The Human Rights of Children: From Visions to Implementation. UK: Ashgate.

[19] Hammarberg, Thomas (2009). Children Have the Right to be Heard and Adults Should Listen to Their Views. In Janusz Korczak: The Child’s Right to Respect, translated by E. P. Kulawiec.France: Council of Europe, 81.

[20] Eichsteller, Gabriel (2011). Janusz Korczak: His Legacy and its Relevance for Children’s Rights Today. In Michael Freeman (Ed.), Children’s Rights:  Progress and Perspectives. London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff, 496.

1 This article draws from an unpublished essay I have written for my Master’s Degree in comparative law under the supervision of Professor Kirsten Anker of McGill University, as well as from the introduction of the book Tous responsables de nos enfants: Un appel à l’action, co-authored with my husband Dr. Gilles Julien and published in French by Bayard Canada in 2009.

2 Hélène (Sioui) Trudel, C.Q. (Chevalière, National Order of Quebec), Master in Laws degree, General Director and Senior Legal Advisor, Foundation Dr. Julien.

3 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III).

4 CRC, 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3 (Entered into force September 2, 1990; Ratified by Canada in 1991, by Russian Federation in 1990).

5 The United States of America signed the CRC on February 16, 1995, but has not ratified it yet.

6 UNICEF (2017). Child Wellbeing in a Sustainable World.

7 Interview with Dr. Gilles Julien, community social pediatrician, taken by Hélène (Sioui) Trudel, lawyer and accredited mediator (8 August 2017).

8 According to the WHO, these are “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.  These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems,” online: < http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/250221/3/9789241549745-chapter12-eng.pdf?ua=1> at 1.

9 For more information on Dr. Korczak, see: http://www.januszkorczak.ca/; http://korczakusa.com/; http://korczak.fr/.


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