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Child participation is recognised and promoted as a fundamental right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It states that children have the right to the freedom of expression and the right to be heard in all matters that affect them.
Research shows that engaging children in decision-making processes, when done successfully, can benefit all involved. It is an important aspect of promoting children’s rights, ensuring their well-being, and creating a more inclusive and democratic society.
What is child participation?
Child participation means that children are included and involved in all matters that affect them. This includes family matters, school, family law and social care involvement, legal matters, community decisions and government policies. It is about giving children the opportunity to express their opinions, contribute their ideas, and actively participate in the decision-making process. It places importance on the child’s voice and that children have the right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters that concern them.
It is a concept that is prevalent in children’s social care and the family court system when making any decisions about a child. In section 8 of The Children Act 1989 it provides the checklist of all the factors the court must take into account when making any decision concerning a child. Top of the list is ‘the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child, in light of their age and understanding’. This does not mean that the child will be making any decisions, but that their wishes must be considered in the light of their ability to understand.
A definition of participation can sometimes be difficult to achieve as people may use the terms ‘involvement’ and ‘consultation’ and believe that this achieves child participation.
The terms do have slightly different meanings.
- Consultation involves gathering children’s or young people’s views on a particular issue or question.
- Involvement is where adults give children and young people opportunities and support them to take part.
- Participation is children and young people joining in in the decision-making process.
Two key components of child participation are that:
- It is a process and not a one-off event.
- It enables the child or young person to have an influence over their outcomes.
Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People’s (2013) definition of participation is “ongoing processes, which include information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes.”
Why is child participation important?
Child participation is important for both children and society in general.
There are many reasons why child participation is important including:
- It empowers children and gives them a sense of agency over their own lives.
- It recognises the importance of children being active contributors in decisions that affect them.
- It helps children to feel more valued and respected, and more confident in expressing their opinions.
- It increases self-esteem and self-belief.
- It helps children develop critical skills such as communication, problem-solving, negotiation and leadership.
- It encourages children to express themselves, think critically, and engage in constructive dialogue with others.
- It helps children to feel able to voice their views, concerns and opinions and feel listened to when they do so.
- It increases ownership and responsibility over decision-making.
- It places importance on involving children in considering their own needs.
- It leads to more informed, inclusive and effective decisions that take into account their needs, interests and rights.
- It helps children to be involved in the way in which services and support are provided to them.
- It ensures children feel able to challenge the quality of a service without fear of it having any negative consequences.
- It leads to more positive outcomes for children.
- It helps children to learn about rights and democracy.
- It has a positive impact on community engagement and encourages active citizenship.
- It promotes positive relationships between adults and children.
- It encourages services who work with children to keep the child at the centre of any decision-making and policy changes.
Benefits of child participation
When decisions are informed by the perspectives and needs of children, they are more likely to be relevant, effective and sustainable.
It is also important to consider the potential harm for children being exposed to situations that may be harmful to them, for example where there is adult conflict. The right balance needs to be struck in ensuring that children are safeguarded while also having their voice heard. It is important for practitioners to have the right skills and knowledge to be able to do this. Child participation should always be age-appropriate, respectful, and guided by ethical considerations.
Some benefits of child participation include:
- Enhanced decision-making.
- Makes children feel valued and respected.
- Improves children’s self-esteem and self-worth.
- Creates a more inclusive society.
- Helps in achieving better outcomes overall.
- Improves the quality of services.
- Helps services become more child-centred.
- Challenges the thinking of staff and decision-makers.
- Generates enthusiasm and creativity.
Practitioners need to be aware of any biases they may have about children and their ability to engage or the value of them engaging. Adults may underestimate a child’s ability to express their views or fail to see the value of them engaging within a process, particularly when their views are not expressed in a typically adult way. Children’s voices can be expressed in many ways, some of which may not be verbal. Practitioners need to be proactive in the inclusion of children, especially when interpreting and including non-verbal communication.
The Council of Europe (2012) state that particular efforts should be made to enable participation of children and young people with fewer opportunities, including those who are vulnerable or affected by discrimination. Hearing children whose lived realities are different from the majority may require more time, resources and, particularly, knowledgeable practitioners.
It is important to challenge the belief that adults always know best and are therefore more capable of assessing the interests and needs of a child without any input from the child themselves.
How to promote child participation
Child participation relies on the ability of adults to build positive relationships with children. Children are more likely to express their views if they feel safe and trust the adults around them. Giving practitioners the time to establish a trusting and stable relationship with the child is vital. The process of building a trusting relationship cannot be rushed.
Understanding the child’s unique capabilities, developmental stage and capacity while being mindful of children’s evolving capacities is also an important part of the process.
Practitioners who work with children are a vital part of meaningful child participation.
Although building a positive relationship with the child is an important first step, other things for practitioners to consider include:
- What skills and knowledge do you need in order to meaningfully engage with the children you work with? You may need to engage with specific training in this area, particularly when working with young or non-verbal children.
- What can help you build positive, trusting relationships with the children you are working with?
- What tools could help you when engaging with children? You may wish to consider role play, storytelling and being creative with artwork, or with the use of technology.
- Think about ways in which you can be creative in response to the unique needs of the children you are working with.
- Be flexible in your approach.
- Ensure you use age-appropriate communication, tools and resources when engaging with children.
- Ensure there is information material adapted to children’s needs.
- Use child-friendly language.
- Actively listen to the child. Actively listening is one of the most important parts of communication, as if we actively listen we can truly engage with the person talking to us.
- Provide information in easily accessible formats and suited to the individual child.
- Use child-friendly activities in order to make them feel at ease.
- Encourage active involvement. Involve them in planning activities, projects and events that affect them. This could include school issues, community initiatives or family decisions.
- Use Effective Questioning. This is a technique that is mostly used in the classroom or a learning environment to open up conversation and debate and promote interaction within a group of students.
- Create a supportive, inclusive and safe environment where children feel valued, respected and empowered in the process.
- Ensure open communication, active listening and constructive feedback.
- Create child-friendly settings for children where children feel safe and empowered enough to express their views.
- Encourage the development of leadership skills. This could include organising clubs, youth groups or committees where they have responsibilities and make decisions.
- Avoid leading or misinterpreting children’s responses.
- Educate other adults. This may include raising awareness among parents, caregivers and educators about the purpose and importance of child participation. This could include providing training and resources to help equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary to facilitate child participation effectively.
- Recognise the valuable insights, knowledge and skills children have to offer.
- It is important that practitioners foster mutual respect with children, ensuring they know that their participation is voluntary and taking a genuine interest in what they say.
- Incorporate child participation in policies and programmes.
- Ensure that the child’s voice is central to any discussions or decision-making.
- Acknowledge the unique skills and perspectives of children which will increase their likelihood of engagement in the decision-making process.
- Do not limit engagement with children who have experienced adversity, children with disabilities or very young children or infants. Your approach may need to be more creative; however, it is important that all children have the same opportunity to have their voice heard in a way that is appropriate to them.
- Consider translating supporting documents into other languages for use by children where English is not their first language.
- Consider if children would prefer to work with an adult of a specific gender, ethnic background or age.
- If a child is struggling to express themselves, particularly within a group setting, consider how they can be included, taking into account their individual needs.
- Ensure that children and young people receive meaningful feedback following their input.
- Ongoing monitoring, reviewing and evaluation to support the development of participation practice.
For further reading about different methods of communication, please see our knowledge base.
If a child cannot express themselves by using verbal communication, some things to consider are:
- Choose activities and ways of interacting that they enjoy and which are suited to their skills.
- Encourage non-verbal interactions, including pointing, waving, nodding or shaking their head.
- Place an emphasis on activities that do not involve speaking.
- Encourage communication via other means such as with the use of technology or artwork.
- Do not avoid including them. Child participation in these circumstances may be more complex; however, it is just as important.
Types of child participation
The type and level of child participation may vary depending on many factors, for example, age, their maturity, cultural context, and the specific issue that is being addressed. The way in which you engage with a child should depend upon their developmental stage and the context in which they are being engaged.
Types of child participation include:
- Child-led initiatives – where children are given the opportunity to lead and initiate projects and initiatives. They are encouraged to take on roles of responsibility and make decisions about the project’s goals, activities and outcomes.
- Informing and consulting – this is where children are informed about decisions that affect them and are able to provide their suggestions and opinions.
- Advocacy and campaigning – this is where children are given the opportunity and are supported to raise awareness about issues that affect them. This may involve being involved in public speaking, media campaigns and community outreach in order to influence public opinion and decision-makers.
- Creative expression – giving the opportunity for children to express themselves through creative arts. This includes music, theatre, visual arts and digital media. This can serve as a way for children to express their views and raise awareness, as well as advocate for change.
- Involving children in research – this could include involving them in data collection, analysis of findings and interpretation or providing insights that inform decision-making and policy development. This gives children the opportunity to explore their own needs, experiences and aspirations.
When considering the importance and benefits of child participation, it is also important to address the potential obstacles and difficulties that may arise. By actively addressing these obstacles, child participation can contribute to better and more inclusive decision-making processes, improved policies in general, and a better, more thorough understanding of children’s needs and rights.