Promoting Democratic and Participatory Behaviours In Young Children

It is now thirty years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was globally ratified by nearly two hundred States, recognising education as being a fundamental right.  In 2005, The UN Committee clarified the practical application of Article 12 by saying that a child’s right to express their views should be recognised in the development of teaching, policies and services stating that ‘Without the child’s contribution, no interaction of the child with other persons can be established, and no relationships can emerge.’ (UNICEF, 2006:33).  As a result, ongoing educational research into this area has been heavily focused on the notion of citizenship, exploring how the curriculum can support children’s participation in a democratic society (Jans, 2004; Cockburn, 2013; Bath & Karlsson, 2016).

A research piece by Lansdown (2001) suggested that a number of fundamental principles should underpin any activity that wishes to promote children’s democratic participation.  These principles are still highly relevant today and over the years I have used them as thought-provoking starting points for discussions on children’s participation in both nurseries and schools.  For this article I have selected two of the key principles to discuss in more detail.

  1. Children must understand what a project or process is about and their role within it.

If information isn’t provided and children aren’t aware of the purpose, then adult actions can be seen as tokenistic or decorative.  Examples of tokenistic acts can involve situations in which children are consulted but only after the decision has been made, or when their opinions are gathered yet these have no apparent impact on the adult decisions that follow (Lundy, 2018).

A common example is when an educator gets their class to choose a reward or golden time incentive, but in reality, can’t deliver it due to resources, staffing, time etc.  Another example might be cultural tokenism, which is when an educator’s personal beliefs, unconscious bias or lack of wider cultural knowledge fails to recognise cultures adequately.  This can happen when welcome signs, books and artefacts are placed on display without teaching children about why they are there and the associated traditional values and protocols (EYLF, 2010).

  1. Power relations and decision-making structures need to be transparent.

Children need to be aware of who they are answerable too and be clear about their levels of involvement.  Imagine how frustrating it would be to start leading a new project at work, only to discover half-way through that another colleague gets the final say.  Situations like this can lead to lack of trust and resentment, so why should this feel any different for children?

School councils can provide excellent opportunities for children to contribute and shape educational policy.  However, Whitty & Wisby (2007:4) suggest that children’s engagement is only meaningful when consultation by the adults is genuine, and not merely used as a means to support the school or settings current or preferred agenda.

In summary, the promotion of democratic and participatory behaviours can be best achieved through:

  • Linking projects and learning to children’s day to day experiences.
  • Setting realistic expectations of tasks and opportunities by providing adequate time and resources.
  • Reflecting on personal knowledge and attitudes to become more culturally competent.
  • Listening to children’s priorities, this does not always mean giving children what they want but it does mean treating them with respect and giving what they have said proper consideration.
  • Consulting authentically by informing them about limitations and decision-making structures of projects. By doing this, children will not become disillusioned and will fully understand the reasons for failure.
  • Allowing yourself to be challenged and not underestimating the child. Children will have their own ideas which are likely to take discussions and plans off course.  For engagement to be meaningful time must be allowed for this to happen. After all, children, like adults, are often fully aware when they are being patronised or ignored.

So next time you are planning a lesson, activity or event consider how you can challenge your personal and societal attitudes towards children to provide authentic opportunities for them to actively participate and become competent and capable citizens.


Bath, C. & Karlsson, R. (2016) The ignored citizen: Young children’s subjectivities in Swedish and English early childhood education settings. Childhood, 23 (4), pp.554–565.

EYLF (2010) Cultural Connections Booklet. [online] Available from:

Jans, M. (2004) Children as citizens: Towards a contemporary notion of child participation. Childhood, 11(1), pp. 27–44.

Lansdown, G. (2001) Promoting Children’s Participation in Democratic Decision Making. UNICEF.

Lundy, L. (2018). In defence of tokenism? Implementing children’s right to participate in collective decision-making. Childhood25(3), pp. 340–354.

Whitty, G. & Wisby, E. (2007) Real Decision Making? School Councils in Action. DCFS Research Briefing. London: DCSF.

UNICEF (2006) A Guide to General Comment 7: Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood. United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. United Nations Children’s Fund & Bernard van Leer Foundation. [online] Available from:

UNICEF (2005) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). [online] Available from:

Nicola Masters,

Associate Lecturer (ITT Primary & Early Years)

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