Several years ago, I provided technical advice to an education ministry and while meeting with the officials, our discussion moved to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the goal of protecting children. One of the officials mentioned it not being relevant to their context because children were physically safe in the country’s schools – yet safeguarding minors is vital globally and instances of abuse are documented worldwide. While I wasn’t an expert, I also felt that the UNCRC has other dimensions in addition to the important goal of keeping children and teenagers safe. I intended to find out more, but as is often the case, I got busy.
Fast forward to November 2021 and I noticed that the IATEFL YLTSIG 35th Anniversary Web Conference was featuring Language Learners’ Rights and Child Protection as one of the strands. I recalled my conversation with the ministry official and something clicked: children and teenagers have the right to be safe in the English language classroom (and everywhere), and this is one of their many rights. When I shifted to a rights-based perspective, I realised how this extends beyond physical safety, encompassing other rights such as to use one’s own languages when learning English.
In this post, I’d like to share my reflections about this strand, as having sound awareness of protecting children’s and teenagers’ physical and emotional well-being is essential for the TEYL community.
Be the adult that makes the difference: teachers’ roles in protecting children – María Vérgez Muñoz
In her Inspire session, Maria Vergez Munoz shared her experience as a Regional Safeguarding Manager for the British Council in Europe. She opened with an example of the story-based training that British Council teachers receive. It was a vignette of a teacher’s reflection on a student’s signals of distress. María elicited how this situation made participants feel, which was a great way to approach the topic since it makes many people uncomfortable. The participants were hesitant to share at first, but once a few responses appeared in the chat, others joined in. I especially appreciated the way her session developed, moving beyond the UNCRC to addressing why children or teenagers may not disclose abuse and why teachers sometimes do not intervene, and finally providing practical information.
María gave attendees some key techniques that could enable teachers to be the adults who make a difference in their students’ lives. She pointed out that educators can’t control children’s or teenagers’ lives, but organisations and schools can enable their teachers to be supportive, leading to a safe English language classroom environment that builds trust. You can watch the recording of the talk here.
Integrating a rights perspective: children’s language learning rights – Gail Ellis
To open her plenary, Gail Ellis asked to what extent participants implemented children’s rights in the classroom. One of the attendees replied in the chat, “The curriculum doesn’t include such topics.” I was pleased that Gail chose to share this comment because it reminded me of a conversation I had with the ministry official all those years ago. It was a valid point, but it only touched the surface of the issue. Gail replied that we should look beyond topics to consider actions as well. This reframing to focus on actions is crucial as when we consider behaviours, we need to consider the multiple factors behind these. Gail outlined cultural, educational and socio-political factors as well as organisational constraints that all impact behaviours and the extent we may or may not implement children’s rights and promote their agency in the English language classroom.
Gail then offered examples from very different parts of the world involving children of different ages to show how English language teachers and schools / organisations have implemented children’s rights, notably Articles 12, 13, 19, 30 and 31 from the UNCRC. She shared the three guiding principles from UNICEF: provision, protection and participation, offering concrete examples for each in relation to children’s English language learning rights. One example showed how a class rules commitment created by children in a primary classroom in France helps create a safe, positive learning environment to prevent and protect children from potential emotional abuse. This activity relates to Article 19.
Children’s multilingual rights: my languages, my identity – Nayr Ibrahim
The talk by Nayr Ibrahim introduced attendees to the distinction between linguistic bullying and linguistic well-being. I had never heard the term ‘linguistic bullying’ before, but this is an excellent description of what happens when multilingual children and teenagers are forced to adopt a monolingual mindset. Nayr explained how multilingual children and teenagers are making conscious choices when mixing languages, not simply mixing randomly. She went on to demonstrate how multilingualism is an integral part of children’s and teenagers’ identities and offered ways for educators to create an inclusive ELT classroom by supporting children’s and teenagers’ multilingualism.
Creating an English language learning environment that also fosters linguistic well-being is something all educators should do and Nayr shared some practical ideas for this. For example, she suggested dual-language picturebooks, e.g. Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Sara Palacios (Lee & Low Books, 2011), that are great resources for promoting multilingual awareness and acceptance. You can watch a recording of the talk here.
‘I’m an English teacher, not a social worker!’ – Natasha Sharp
Natasha Sharp is British Council Thailand’s National Safeguarding Manager and brought her background in international human rights law and safeguarding to give attendees a different perspective. She emphasised that there are little things teachers can do that can make a big difference in children’s and teenagers’ lives. To show why doing these little things are so important, Natasha shared some research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), categorized as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.
Natasha explained that research shows how most children and teenagers can absorb one or two ACEs without negative outcomes. Three or four ACEs lead to a child or teenager being three times more likely to have a negative outcome, and five or more ACEs indicate that a child or teenager is six or seven times more likely to suffer negative outcomes. The negative outcomes she showed were wide-ranging, but she emphasized that teachers and educators have the greatest ability to influence a child’s or teenager’s participation in education.
She highlighted that while teachers cannot remove ACEs, they can act as a buffer. The main takeaway being that teachers can do little things to make children and teenagers feel safer, valued, respected and cared for, all of which help them to cope with ACEs. Natasha gave several examples, including class management techniques that focus on the positives instead of negatives. A simple instruction such as “Don’t run” can be reframed as “Please be careful”, and “Don’t speak your language” can be rephrased as “Please, can you speak English for this activity.” You can watch a recording of the talk here.
The future of digital challenges in education – Boris Radanović
Boris Radanović spoke about an area which is becoming increasingly more important in English language education: technology. He highlighted how teachers need to be online and digital role models because online safety is not an issue only for parents / caregivers or governments. Boris then shared some eye-opening research: teachers spend more meaningful time with children and teenagers than their parents / caregivers do. Even parents / caregivers who are involved with children’s or teenagers’ lives only engage with them meaningfully for about 10 minutes per day, which really surprised me.
To underscore the importance of teachers being comfortable with discussing online safety, Boris also shared some research from 2020, showing that 43% of all children who had been bullied online did not share the full extent of this bullying with their parents / caregivers. He emphasized that while teachers couldn’t solve these problems, they need to be aware of them and feel comfortable addressing them when possible. I liked his use of the image of the bridge in thinking about the digital divide between learners and teachers / other adults. You might like to think about how wide the digital gap is between you and your own English language learners.
Finally, Boris shared some useful websites with free resources for teachers to learn about digital safety and incorporate this into their English language lessons. These resources are available at www.swgfl.org.uk and www.projectevolve.co.uk. You can watch a recording of the talk here.
The strand overall
I’m pleased that I attended these sessions and wish I had had this information when talking to the ministry official years ago. I could have reframed the conversation to affirm how children’s and teenagers’ rights related to their physical, emotional and mental well-being are intertwined with other rights. I could have shared some of the research about the small changes to teacher actions which can improve children’s and teenagers’ self-esteem. This strand offered practical principles for making reasonable adjustments to English language education which help children and teenagers feel protected, valued, and above all, positive about themselves both as language learners and as people.
Susan Iannuzzi is an educational and publishing consultant from Pennsylvania, USA. She has worked in ELT for 30 years, mainly within materials writing, curriculum design and teacher education. She has written several courses for children learning English and has advised ministries of education throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. She holds a master’s degree in linguistics and a juris doctor in law.