[Editor’s Note: This article is a special post outlining how UNICEF Canada addresses anti-bullying through rights respecting education, its research, and their vision for parents, teachers and students everywhere.]


Teachers know that bullying doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Key elements can create a culture that either builds a caring, compassionate and rights-respecting environment that discourages bullying behavior or one that allows bullying to occur.

You can create a classroom environment that sets kids up for success and these 4 steps can help!

By ensuring that children are brought up with an understanding of their rights and how to respect the rights of others, we can help create more equitable societies with engaged citizens. There is no better place to foster such a culture of respect than in our schools.

UNICEF Canada’s Rights Respecting Schools (RRS) is an initiative that uses the framework of children’s rights to support whole-school change in Canada. Schools that are exploring this initiative are addressing one of the biggest concerns facing our schools today: bullying.

The positive impacts have been proven: research on more than 1,600 UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools in the United Kingdom demonstrates a reduction in bullying.

Also, by exploring rights everyday, students become engaged in their education by learning how to voice their opinions, participating in decision-making and resolving conflict more constructively.

So how can you do your best to provide the basis for a rights respecting environment?  There are a few suggestions below, and if you want to read more about RRS check out www.rightsrespectingschools.ca.

1. Understand that children’s rights make a difference

Rights aren’t just for adults; they are also for children. You can read more about specific rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Teachers can play a key role in advocating for the rights of children when they actively work to create an environment in which all students feel included and respected.

Research, such as that from the University of Brighton, shows that there are multiple benefits and long-term positive impacts to our schools, and ultimately to society, that occur when children learn about their rights in a supportive environment.

Relationships and behaviour were considered to have improved due to better understanding by pupils and staff of how to be rights respecting… There was little or no shouting, and pupils and staff both considered incidents of bullying to be minimal and that pupils were more likely to resolve conflicts for themselves.… Staff and pupils also reported experiencing a strong sense of “belonging” to the school.

Many Canadian teachers are already exploring democratic pedagogy in their classroom, and understand the value of allowing children to play an active role in their own education and participate in decisions about their learning.

2. Reinforce the connections between students’ lives at school and home

Education should be a collaboration with parents/guardians and teachers. Families have a responsibility to ensure that their child’s rights are protected. (as stated in Article 5 in the Convention)

It is essential that a strong link be made between the home and the school environment. Doing so shows the child that their positive actions and behaviour connect to all areas of their lives, and that they are supported in these areas.

Demonstrating this can provide your students with the knowledge that there is a strong supportive and active network there for them. If they are being bullied they will know where to turn. Or, if they are engaging in bullying behavior, they will know that the links between different aspects of their lives are there, and that adults will be there to help guide them.

Teachers have access to wonderful resources that could be of great use and interest to parents, and providing specific resources can help reinforce the idea that everyone is working together in the best interests of the child (Article 3).

For example, many students may be spending a great deal of time online both at school and at home, and being aware of their safety while online is important to both parents and teachers:  UNICEF’s 2011 report, Child Safety Online: global challenges and strategies may be of interest to parents.

The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights released an important report for Canada’s children, Cyberbullying Hurts: Respect for Rights in the Digital Age which emphasizes the importance of prevention. It produced a wonderful resource for parents, providing a good overview of this issue and the importance of adults helping children and young people understand how to respond to cyberbullying.

“[T]here is no conclusion to what children who are bullied live with. They take it home with them at night. It lives inside of them and eats away at them. It never ends, so neither should our struggle to end it.”

– Sarah, 17, quoted by Prof. Shelley Hymel

3. Give your students an understanding of their rights

All children and young people have the right to go to school and exist in an environment in which they are free from harm. You can help them understand what that means and that this IS a right. This knowledge can help those students who are being bullied and the perpetrators better understand what is involved in feeling safe.

You most likely know of the many policies and laws set out in schools across Canada to address this, but using the language of children’s rights to talk about it with young people allows it to resonate. It is addresses them in a supportive and child-friendly manner.

For example, Article 19 states that all children shall be protected from abuse and neglect. This means that adults have a duty to promote children’s well-being inside and outside the classroom.

As a teacher, you can build capacity within your classroom by modeling democratic practices, and by encouraging your students to report bullying, abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities, informing them of the justification and process for doing so.

Pupils (in the UK Rights Respecting Schools) reported a sense of security within their schools brought about by a consistent school-wide approach in terms of the RR language used and in terms of the expectations of behaviour placed on them by adults in the school. The increased capacity of pupils to resolve their own disagreements was also frequently mentioned.

4. Model rights respecting behavior for your students

Though this may not immediately jump out at you as a way to combat bullying, democratic pedagogy is an effective participatory and action-oriented approach that  involves creating a space in which children’s rights are modeled, upheld and respected, and the learners are active participants in the classroom.  This student centred and participatory approach  can result in students that are more willing to tackle conflict resolution themselves, and in a very effective way.  For example, including children in decision making in the classroom, such as when they collaborate to create a classroom charter, helps nurture a positive classroom atmosphere and shows the students  that they have the capacity to provide meaningful input into how the classroom is run.


(A picture of a Kindergarten Charter at Chartwell Elementary in West Vancouver, British Columbia)

UNICEF Canada is working with Canadian teachers to explore how such teaching practices, and using the adoption of children’s rights as the guiding principles shared by students, teachers, and school administrators can create a sense of community and become the values framework students use to make decisions and choose behaviour. The lessons learned and research from the 3000 Rights Respecting Schools in the UK have proven invaluable in our collaborations with schools.

As one of the teachers in our very first Rights Respecting School in British Columbia stated, “When children know their rights it empowers them to make a difference in their community. They become leaders. They end up becoming more responsible for their actions for leadership, friendship, and in relationships. They’re not so much me-centered. It all comes from kids knowing they have rights.”

What questions do you have about rights respecting education? Post them below!