The Experiences of Rainbow Students in Relationship and Sexuality Education

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

The Experiences of Rainbow Students in Relationship and Sexuality Education

Lucy Morrison and Maria Dacre –
Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Morrison, L., & Dacre, M. (2021). The Experiences of Rainbow Students in Relationship and Sexuality Education. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


Discrimination within the school environment can significantly impact a rainbow student’s academic outcomes and wellbeing. Rainbow-inclusive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) can act as a protective factor against discrimination. Previous literature has focused on the challenges rainbow students face in the education setting. The literature has adequately outlined the role of curriculum, pedagogy, and policies that positively and negatively affect rainbow students. A paucity of literature exists on rainbow students in the relationships and sexuality education classroom. There is no existing research that examines Article 2 (non-discrimination) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN General Assembly, 1989) and rainbow students in Aotearoa New Zealand. The purpose of this study was to explore the lived experiences of nine rainbow secondary school students in the relationships and sexuality education classroom of New Zealand (aged 13–17). The study also sought to understand how the participants’ experiences uphold Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The exploration employed a qualitative approach to answer the question, “how do rainbow students make sense of their lived experiences of relationships and sexuality education?” The study found that the essence of RSE was heteronormativity, and this appears throughout the three superordinate themes, exclusion and silencing, interpersonal relationships, and rainbow topics for inclusion and visibility. In addition, the participants’ experiences demonstrated that further affirmative action must be taken to uphold rainbow students’ rights to Article 2 of the Convention.

Keywords: student voice; inclusive education; LGBTQ+; child rights


Development during the adolescent years can be a challenging and complex time for all young people. However, those who identify as gender or sexuality diverse can lack some protective factors that support young people through this period of their life (Birkett et al., 2009). A key challenge for rainbow students’ is the pervasive societal assumptions of heterosexuality as ‘normal,’ described as ‘heteronormativity’ (Smith, 2015). This notion exists throughout the school climate, curriculum, and practices within educational institutions and can influence the marginalisation and silencing of rainbow students’ voices (Gunn, 2015).

The Ministry of Education in New Zealand recently released the new curriculum policy document Relationships and Sexuality Education – A guide for teachers, leaders, and board of trustees (Ministry of Education, 2020) as a revision of Sexuality Education: A guide for principals, board of trustees, and teachers (Ministry of Education, 2015). The policy document exists alongside The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) and assists in shaping the delivery of relationship and sexuality education (RSE) as a curriculum learning area within the health and physical education curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). The revised policy offers increased attention towards celebrating diversity and a clear direction towards rainbow-friendly education. The guide acknowledges gender and sexuality diversity amongst students and recognises the necessity for education and advocacy on diversity in learning (Ministry of Education, 2020). In principle, the policy outlines a consistent, inclusive, and holistic approach to RSE. In practice, the responsibility of implementing and delivering inclusive RSE lies within the school, boards of trustees, and the broader community, indicating that learning opportunities vary across schools. There are no obligations that require educators to teach all learning aspects recommended within the new policy guidelines, and schools can ‘opt-out’ of teaching RSE (Fitzpatrick, 2018). The literature demonstrates that rainbow students’ who receive rainbow-inclusive sexuality education feel more supported and safer within the school environment. This can be a crucial factor in supporting young people. In addition, comprehensive RSE promotes positive sexual health outcomes and empowerment for young people (Haberland & Rogow, 2015). Exclusion of RSE or important topics such as gender and sexuality could be detrimental to all students learning and wellbeing (Ministry of Education, 2020).

Throughout this paper, various terms and abbreviations are used to describe gender and sexuality diverse individuals. These terms include, ‘rainbow’, ‘gender and sexuality diverse’, ‘LGBTQIA+’, ‘LGBT+’, ‘LGBT’, and ‘LGB’. These reflect the evolving understanding of the rainbow community and the shift towards increased visibility, recognition, and equality (Nababan & Debineva, 2019). The umbrella term of ‘rainbow’ and ‘sex, sexuality, and gender diversity’ is used throughout. These terms refer to individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, transgender, trans, non-binary, and, further, any individuals whose identity differs from heterosexual and cisgender.


The RSE guidelines (Ministry of Education, 2020) acknowledges New Zealand’s obligation to maintain and teach human rights within education under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948). It aligns with the educational obligations to action strategies that uphold the rights of children and young people as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN General Assembly, 1989). The Convention advocates and seeks to ensure that the New Zealand Government considers the best interests of all children throughout the decision-making process in policies or services involving children. The United Nations recognises the 54 articles within the UNCRC as vital for a child to survive, grow, participate, and reach their full potential. Four fundamental principles within the UNCRC embody the overall attitude towards children and their rights and provides a foundational component for implementing these in matters concerning the child – Article 2 (non-discrimination); Article 3 (best interests of the child); Article 6 (survival, development, and protection); and Article 12, (participation). Article 2 identifies that the child has the right to be protected against any form of discrimination and that affirmative action should promote these rights.

General comment no. 5: General measures of implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC, 2003) outlines the duty to recognise children “whose rights demand special measures” and address discrimination through “legislation, administration, and resource allocation, as well as educational measures to change attitudes” (p. 4). Article 12 expresses that educational decisions should be informed through student participation. Understanding students’ opinions and beliefs in educational matters support safe, supportive, and effective learning environments for all students (Lundy, 2007). Article 12 should not be deemed optional within educational matters but as a legal obligation.

Student Voice in Education

The literature argues that regard for student voice in educational practice assists in the “indivisibility, interdependence and interconnectedness” of children and young people in their environments (Lundy, 2007, p. 932). Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation guides the implementation of Article 12, ensuring due weight is given to student voices and informs matters affecting them. Lundy (2007) acknowledges that children are more capable than we perceive them to be. It is recommended that Article 12 be considered in conjunction with Article 2 of the UNCRC in a way that ‘builds self-esteem’ and prepares disadvantaged and marginalised students “to take responsibility for their own lives” (Lundy, 2007, p. 933). Several studies emphasise the significance of considering children’s perspectives as part of the decision-making process where matters affect the child (Bourke & MacDonald, 2018; Lundy, 2007). In support of Article 12 (UN General Assembly, 1989), the literature confirms that children’s and young people’s opinions should be valued and reflected within schools and school policy (Bourke & MacDonald, 2018; Lundy, 2007).

A large-scale quantitative design was implemented to understand the impact of student voice on a young person’s educational experience concerning a specific wellbeing programme in secondary schools (Bourke & MacDonald, 2018). The study found that empowering student voice increased student engagement in their learning. Additionally, it was established that students can influence educational decisions such as policy and pedagogical approaches when provided with the platform to share their opinion (Bourke & MacDonald, 2018).

An international study that included New Zealand explored student voice within education. The extensive study imparts significant insight into student voice through capturing authentic views using open-ended surveys. The researchers established that students felt willing and capable to share their perspectives of local contexts across all five nations and wanted to be a part of planning matters that affect children’s futures. Students also felt underestimated when their voices were not heard, communicating that their developmental, social, and academic expectations and experiences were invalidated when unheard. The students wanted adults to gain insight into their dissatisfaction and use this to improve the outcome for others, acknowledging their perspectives (Sargeant & Gillett-Swan, 2015).

The current literature affirms the necessary and essential role children’s rights play in a learning environment. The literature identifies that the embodiment of Article 12 in education creates empowerment for students and improves outcomes. Conversely, the literature highlights that the absence of student voice can cause unfavourable outcomes for students. The following section moves on to consider rainbow students’ rights within education, focusing on children’s rights and non-discrimination.

Discrimination of Rainbow Students

The concept of non-discrimination emerges within much of the literature on children’s rights and gender and sexuality. Currently, there is limited research investigating rainbow students’ right to Article 2 of the Convention. Sandberg (2015), a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, indicates that the UNCRC fails to state gender and sexuality diverse individuals as a marginalised group in Article 2 and sheds light on the problematic effects this could have on upholding rainbow rights. They also argue that the Convention’s lack of recognition does not reflect the rights of the rainbow community although, non-discrimination applies to all people.

Formal equity (policy and legislation) does not consistently translate to successful measures of substantive equity (values, beliefs, and actions) for rainbow students (De Wet, 2017). De Wet’s (2017) international survey determined that students are less aware of substantive equality and the heteronormative and heterosexist ideas and practices that underpin educational settings. This corresponds with the existing inconsistency between formal and substantive equality within the beliefs and actions of students. Students believe in rainbow equality but demonstrate subtle discrimination towards the rainbow community. De Wet (2017) states that the “language of sexual equality should be heard in policy, curriculum, discourses and all other aspects of teacher education…” (p. 129). We must address discrimination through the law and policy and transformative action that addresses an individual’s values and beliefs.


Heteronormativity within the School Environment

The universal construct of heteronormativity exists as a global phenomenon throughout the education system. Numerous studies suggest that heteronormativity underpins the pedagogy, curriculum, and climate of a school (Birkett et al., 2009; Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2009; Dessel et al., 2017; Meyer et al., 2015).

The pedagogical role of the heteronormative environments impacts rainbow students’ wellbeing. The literature indicates that 84.9% of teachers support LGBTQ-inclusive curricula; however, in practice, only 61.8% demonstrate this within their pedagogy (Meyer et al., 2015). These results concur with Taylor and colleagues’ (2016) study, which found that teachers who value and acknowledge the importance of LGBTQ inclusion within their practice may still fall short within this area of their practice. Additionally, some teachers did not support LGBTQ rights, and these beliefs reflected their practice. The research argued that enhanced implementation of LGBTQ-inclusive teacher training, LGBTQ-inclusive policy, as well as anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic policies across all schools increased student safety and wellbeing (Taylor et al., 2016).

Studies employing student participation determine that non-discrimination and harassment policies can act as protective factors for the wellbeing and safety of rainbow youth (Birkett et al., 2009; Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2009). Chesir-Teran and Hughes (2009) determined that rates of perceived victimisation, intolerance, and LGB-harassment amongst peers exist primarily in schools that lack inclusive policies and programmes. In contrast, rainbow-inclusive policies, practices, and resources combat heterosexism in schools. Building on Chesir-Teran and Hughes’ (2009) work, Birkett and colleagues (2009) suggest that rainbow-inclusive policies and practices actively model inclusive behaviour and create supportive school environments. This has the effect of lowering the rates of alcohol use, truancy, feelings of depression, and suicidality that arise from homophobic teasing, bullying, and questioning sexuality diverse students (Birkett et al., 2009).

The literature highlights the benefits of LGBTQIA+ inclusive curriculum (Meyer et al., 2015; Millett, 2019; Snapp, Burdge, et al., 2015; Snapp, McGuire, et al., 2015). Implementing a curriculum that reflects gender and sexuality diversity provides the opportunity for valuable conversation on systematic oppression within the LGBTQIA+ community, providing a platform to challenge the existing heteronormative education system (Millet, 2019; Snapp, Burdge, et al., 2015).

Snapp, McGuire, and colleagues’ (2015) large quantitative study (n= 1232) sought data across different curriculum areas on LGBTQ-inclusive education. The study found that the health curriculum had the potential to provide the safest school environments for students. Snapp, Burdge et al. (2015) highlighted that queer and social justice frameworks support LGBTQ students by questioning heteronormativity and creating learning that reflects LGBTQ identities (Snapp, Burge, et al., 2015). Millett (2019) reinforced these ideas by arguing that introducing LGBTQIA+ ideas allows students to challenge their thinking around gender and sexuality identities, disrupting heteronormativity.


Heteronormative School Environments in New Zealand

The literature within New Zealand supports the international evidence that heteronormativity underpins much of the educational system. The voice of ten queer and questioning high-school students demonstrated the negative impact of heteronormative social practices at school. The participants reported that being ‘out’ at school prompted teasing, bullying, and homophobia, and as a consequence, some students ‘hide’ and ‘silence’ their queer identities. When these issues are addressed at school, students report that such practices are no longer an issue (Sexton, 2012).

Denny et al. (2016) report a correlation between school climate and depressive symptoms and suicidality rates amongst rainbow students. The study determined that LGB students were at lower risk of mental health concerns when they experienced supportive educational environments.

In a study by Dessel et al. (2017), gender and sexuality diverse students reported that their teachers’ use of oppressive language led to mistrust, feelings of victimisation, and exclusion in the school environment lowering self-esteem and academic outcomes. The study emphasised that teachers must be equipped with inclusive vocabulary and implement anti-LGBTQ harassment policies to create equal opportunity for all students.

Hidden heteronormativity also exists within New Zealand’s curriculum (Carpenter & Lee, 2010). The research suggests that the lack of LGBT+ visibility in the curriculum can create unsupportive and exclusive learning environments (Carpenter & Lee, 2010). Similarly, Sexton (2012), demonstrated students felt unsafe and uncomfortable being ‘out’ about their sexuality with peers at school because of discrimination (Carpenter & Lee, 2010). In a later study, Lee and Carpenter (2015) further added that heteronormative practices could be explained by inadequate teacher preparation on rainbow diversity.

Sexuality Education Curriculum

The literature concludes that sexuality education does not meet the needs of all students (Abbott et al., 2015; Jarpe-Ratner, 2020). Two former studies by Allen (2005, 2009) reported student’s perceptions of sexuality education in New Zealand. Although the results were skewed towards heterosexual participants’ (91%), several significant findings were distinguished. These findings demonstrated that students would like a wider breadth of topics (including rainbow diversity), more time on the subject, with competent and confident teacher practice (Allen, 2005). Allen’s (2009) study then considered the student’s views of teacher practice of sexuality education and what best practice looked like to them. Allen’s (2009) study confirmed that students perceive competent pedagogical practice as knowledgeable, relatable, and experienced.

More recent literature suggests that sexuality education has begun progressing towards rainbow-inclusive education (Abbott et al., 2015; Jarpe-Ratner, 2020). However, Abbott and colleagues’ (2015) discursive analyses propose that the current strategies applied by British teachers to account for LGBT+ inclusivity instead isolate and problematise the LGBT+ community. The heteronormative lens subsists in the participants’ experiences of sexuality education which fails to match the experiences and needs of rainbow students (Abbott et al., 2015). Jarpe-Ratner (2020) identifies that truly inclusive curriculum practice demonstrates rainbow topics throughout the entire curriculum rather than a one-off session. Moreover, educating effectively requires the appropriate knowledge, skills, and attitudes on sex, sexuality, and gender. As a result, students feel safer and more supported (Abbott et al., 2015; Jarpe-Ratner, 2020).

Sexuality Education Curriculum in New Zealand and Rainbow Students

Coleman and colleagues (2010) reveal where gaps remain in sexuality education across schools in New Zealand. Most relevant to rainbow needs was the absence of sexuality diverse messages. Students discerned that their teachers were uncomfortable teaching rainbow sexuality education and thus, avoid discussion on rainbow topics within the classroom. They further perceived that the heterosexist climate of their schools provoked hostility and uncomfortable moments between teachers and students, which restricts student learning.

Young bisexual women in New Zealand secondary schools are experiencing misrecognition and bi-misogyny because of their sexual identity in the sexuality education classroom (McAllum, 2018). Bisexual students experienced peer exclusion once ‘out’ about their sexuality, felt unsafe in sexual education due to teacher attitudes, and felt a sense of ‘straight pressure’ or ‘heteroconformity’ at school. McAllum (2018) gathered data through focus groups, reflective journals, and individual interviews on young bisexual women. This research was able to capture the issues faced by these young people. Further, the thematic analysis created a platform for quality discussion on the attitudes and practices of students and teachers in health and sexuality education, demonstrating the impact this has on a young bisexual woman. McAllum’s (2018) research highlights the responsibility teachers have in ensuring that their teaching is relevant and inclusive for all students, and thus appropriately trained and qualified teachers are needed to teach health and sexual education.

The Present Study

A substantial body of literature reveals the discrimination and adversity that gender and sexuality diverse students face in educational contexts, including in the sexuality education classroom. In addition, the literature identifies that the implementation of rainbow-inclusive curriculum, pedagogy, and practice promotes rainbow students’ learning and wellbeing. However, it does not appear that rainbow students are experiencing inclusive education. Studies have identified that New Zealand schools’ heteronormative assumptions and attitudes create unsupportive and discriminatory learning environments for rainbow students. New Zealand’s literature falls short in addressing relationships and sexuality education for rainbow students. In addition, no current literature exists about how schools currently uphold rainbow rights under Article 2 of the Convention. Based on this gap within the literature, this research explored the lived experiences of rainbow students in New Zealand’s RSE classrooms, using the lens of Article 2 of the UNCRC.


This study involved interviewing nine young people to explore their lived experiences that included an attempt to understand their personal and social worlds (Creswell & Poth, 2016).

The present study’s design explores rainbow students’ lived experiences (Year 9–13) of RSE (Ministry of Education, 2020) in secondary schools in New Zealand, aiming to understand how rainbow students’ experiences of Article 2 of the Convention are upheld in RSE. The overarching question of this research is “how do rainbow students make sense of their lived experience of RSE?”

The recruitment process aimed to recruit participants who identify as a part of the rainbow community with lived experiences of RSE. The study participants (n = 9) consented to voluntarily participate in this study. Participants were recruited through the RainbowYOUTH organisation and schools nationwide. Massey University Human Ethics Committee (2017) granted ethics approval before the study commencement (Ethics Notification Number: 400022296).

The researcher (first author) provided an information sheet outlining research aim, involvement, duration, and confidentiality. All participants provided written consent to participate in the research and were given opportunities to withdraw from the study at any time throughout the research process. The participant and researcher engaged in ongoing consent before the data collection.

Nine semi-structured interviews were conducted on an individual basis. All interviews took place either at school or over video call and lasted between 30 – 60 minutes. The researcher used a digital audio recorder to record all responses.

Data Analysis

Analysis was conducted across five phases. Phase one involved reading the raw data multiple times and forming the written transcripts (Smith et al., 2009). Phase two investigated the semantic content and language use within the transcripts. The researcher marked any meaning units identified within the statements and made additional memos about meaning shifts within the transcript. Next, the researcher established all data across participants’ transcripts for analysis, drawing upon relationships, processes, places, values, and principles (Smith et al., 2009).

In phase three, the researcher determined emergent themes within the data using a ‘hermeneutic circle’ process (Smith et al., 2009). This process allowed the researcher to recognise significant parts of the text while still understanding it as a whole. Emergent themes were grouped accordingly with concise and meaningful statements.

Phase four located patterns and connections across the emergent themes. These were put in chronological order (most to least meaningful), and some were discarded. The most meaningful themes (superordinate and subordinate) were interpreted and identified across the transcripts using the following strategies – abstraction, subsumption, contextualisation, numeration, and data function. By utilising these strategies several patterns and connections were identified to capture the participants’ experiences (Smith et al., 2009).

The first four phases for each participants’ data were then repeated. Then, the researcher began to search for patterns across all nine cases. The researcher then rearranged the data into superordinate themes and subthemes that represented the data set as a whole (Smith et al., 2009).


Participants described heteronormativity as being at the heart of the RSE experience. The three superordinate themes, exclusion and silencing, interpersonal relationships, and rainbow discussions for inclusion and visibility, will be presented as the sub-themes. These themes formulate the essential structure of the participants’ lived experiences.

Exclusion and Silencing

For participants, heteronormative messaging in RSE functioned to exclude and silence rainbow students from the classroom. Participants felt their teachers demonstrated a bias towards cis-heterosexual students’ needs. While listening to one student, you can hear the frustration in their voice:

It kind of makes you feel like they’re trying to pander to like, you know, the class was filled with a lot of like, very straight boys at the time. And it kind of felt like they were trying to please them instead of include us (Francis, Year 13).

Participants believed their teachers and peers were uninterested in rainbow topics in RSE. Exclusion of rainbow topics manifests distress, shame, and confusion about sexual orientation:

Like, it’s kind of depressing because it’s like, you know, it’s when people act like your existence isn’t appropriate for everyone. And it’s like, you know, there’s nothing wrong with me for existing []. At first, I was like ashamed of myself, and I was like, I shouldn’t have to be ashamed for my existence, and it’s like, I’m mad about it and slightly bitter about it. [] It’s like, you know, just when you get tired and stuff kind of builds up and it’s like, you can tell people are just trying to ignore aspects of you. And then it’s like you can’t erase me, I’m here! (Mary, Year 13)

Participants struggle to comprehend how the RSE content related to them. They dismissed this learning as irrelevant and unhelpful: “I can’t really say anything regarding that concern… in fact, there’s not a lot of material that we learn about regarding [rainbow topics]” (Talia, Year 12). Participants also felt there was not enough time to comprehensively discuss important topics and assumed the time shortage meant rainbow discussions became secondary to the rest of the curriculum.

Gender-inclusive, gender-correct language and respecting students’ chosen names influenced an inclusive environment in RSE. Rachel (Year 12) noted the importance of this, highlighting her teacher’s effort to use ‘they’ pronouns in RSE not only “makes everyone feel better”but it also educates students to do the same. In contrast, another participant described disrespectful language as harmful – (it) “makes me not feel good… in like, a space underneath my ribcage. It just feels nasty” (Alex, Year 12).

Interpersonal Relationships 

Interpersonal relationships within and outside RSE affected the participants’ RSE experiences and determined how comfortable students felt attending and participating in class discussions. Participants reported negative teacher attitudes towards the rainbow community. One participant expressed that their teacher made jokes that “can definitely hurt people like, emotionally” (Louise, Year 12). Another articulated the mishandling of rainbow discrimination, “the school doesn’t handle it the greatest, it’s definitely more about appearance and not what the kids feel” (Stephanie, Year 10). Others felt their teachers were misinformed and ill-educated on the rainbow community. One participant stating a teacher’s “childish mentality” towards rainbow people (Louise, Year 12). These experiences contributed to an unwillingness to participate in classroom discussions.

Participants (6/9) stated overall satisfaction with their peer relationships. However, 9/9 participants described some form of prejudice or queerphobia at school but expected and tolerated this. One participant stated it “just makes normal school life harder” (Stephanie, Year 10). One student described his belief behind the transphobia he experienced as:

There’s lots of people who don’t accept transpeople, but there are more people who do. And it’s not that people go, “ahhh I hate transpeople”, they go, “oh, I’m very ignorant, and I don’t know what to say about this topic” So it’s not that I’m being harmed by intentional hate, it’s people’s ignorance, like accidentally stepping on a pin (Alex, Year 12).

Participants perceived having supportive friendships as a safeguard in the RSE classroom:

In health class, when [] there were things that weren’t quite accurate. And I would tell my friends, on occasion, my friends would speak up for me and say those things for the teacher. And that was really positive. I really liked that (Alex, Year 12).

Additionally, participants established their friends make them feel included, visible, and accepted:

People [friends] let me talk, basically and like, you know, when we talk about things, like when we talk about relationships and stuff like I had a girlfriend for a year, and I could just talk about it and that was nice (Mary, Year 13).

Rainbow discussion for inclusion and visibility

Participants indicated rainbow topics and discussions within RSE were highly valued and considered essential for all student’s learning:

[relationships and sexuality education is] crucial. It’s such an important topic for everybody. Umm, important relationships and our relationships with other people, define us as people. And when we don’t have healthy relationships with other people, then our own lives… They… [sighs] the opposite of benefit. They suck (Alex Year 12).

Rainbow discussion was seen by participants as a means of inclusion, visibility, and advocacy and expressed they were pleased to see some rainbow topics in RSE. Although most were not pleased that this was in a one-off lesson rather than included in all lessons. Participants’ felt more supported at school when teachers were comfortable discussing rainbow topics. Most participants believed normalising rainbow topics in the curriculum would enhance feelings of inclusion and visibility. Currently, students feel the delivery of rainbow topics as ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’.

It wasn’t great. Like it was they didn’t go near any depth of it at all. But that it showed me like the first sign of like, like rainbow inclusion and sex ed, and technically the only but it yeah, it showed a little bit of it. It just was like, okay, at least they’re including something that makes you feel included (Rachel Year 12).

The RSE classroom was viewed as one of the only places at school where people “willingly bring up the gays”. In contrast, ‘tokenism’ of rainbow topics in some student’s experiences reinforced heterosexism – “it feels forced because they have to [talk about it] because they, everyone’s so used to just not talking about it. It’s like, you can have a conversation” (Mary, Year 13).


This study explored the lived accounts of RSE through the voices of nine rainbow students in New Zealand. The study aimed to understand better how rainbow students make sense of their experiences of RSE. The study also aimed to understand how these experiences uphold Article 2 of the UNCRC.

The study revealed three superordinate themes which reflected this group of rainbow students’ experiences of RSE: exclusion and silencing, interpersonal relationships, and rainbow discussion for inclusion and visibility. The identified themes are interconnected and together reveal the reality and meaning of the participants’ lived experiences. The study determined that discrimination often goes undetected in RSE predominately due to the focus on heterosexuality in practice, curriculum, and attitudes. Accordingly, the RSE classroom does not fully uphold the participants’ rights in Article 2 of the UNCRC.

Contributing factors that construct rainbow students experiences in RSE

The findings indicate both the affirmative and unfavourable measures that occur within the participants’ experiences of RSE throughout curriculum, pedagogy, and interpersonal relationships. These factors intrinsically influenced the attitudes, behaviours, and perceptions that rainbow students have of the RSE classroom. Notably, the participants’ experiences highlighted that rainbow students feel safer, more supported, and included in spaces where their identity is acknowledged, valued, and given equitable weight to their cis or heterosexual counterparts. Rainbow-inclusive RSE acts as a protective factor for rainbow students at school. Overall, these findings align with Snapp, McGuire, et al. (2015), and McAllum (2018).

Rainbow students’ rights to non-discrimination

The participants’ experiences outline the various characteristics of RSE, which uphold or abandon rainbow students’ rights to non-discrimination (Article 2) of the UNCRC (UN General Assembly,1989). Schools in New Zealand are responsible for ensuring all appropriate measures are in place to protect students from discrimination within education. The findings confirm that many schools attempt to provide rainbow content within the RSE curriculum; however, heterosexuality remains a privileged position in the RSE classroom. Participants raised concerns about current classroom practices, which were insufficient in supporting rainbow students. Participants view their teacher’s position in shaping the classroom as essential to the deconstruction of heterosexuality and the segregation this causes between them and their cis-hetero counterparts.

Participants did not feel overtly discriminated against but instead experienced mostly covert discrimination concealed by unsatisfactory pedagogical practices and curriculum content. While participants acknowledge and appreciate when their teachers attempt to include rainbow inclusive topics, there is a sense of disheartenment in most teachers’ lack of knowledge and skill in teaching these topics effectively. These findings build upon the literature of Allen (2005, 2009) and Jarpe-Ratner (2020) and further reiterate the importance of teacher training, knowledge, and skills.

Rainbow students are acutely aware of their teachers’ attitudes and perceptions of the rainbow community. Even though some participants believed their teachers’ attitudes towards the rainbow community were negative, some participants identified that their teachers’ do not necessarily have ill-intent to make students feel excluded, invisible, or devalued but instead do not have the education to support them in the classroom. These results reflect previous studies’ findings that determine the inconsistencies in teacher attitudes and practice of rainbow-inclusion (Meyer et al., 2015). Furthermore, results from this study may contribute to previous findings, which suggest that whilst teachers support rainbow-inclusive education they might not be comfortable teaching on such topics due to their lack of education and fear of offending or exposing rainbow students (Taylor et al., 2016).

Rainbow Inclusive RSE

This study brought meaningful insight into what RSE means to the participants and why the subject is important to them. The participants’ experiences recognised RSE as significant to their wellbeing, participation, and learning. The participants were not only concerned with their learning but of their questioning and cis-heterosexual counterparts. The international literature concurs with the participants’ views, demonstrating value in challenging heteronormativity in the classroom and implementing rainbow topics throughout the curriculum (Meyer et al., 2015; Millett, 2019; Snapp, Burdge, et al., 2015; Snapp, McGuire, et al., 2015). Implementing a rainbow-inclusive RSE curriculum can construct more equitable learning environments (Snapp, Burdge, et al., 2015).

Rainbow students recognise rainbow-inclusive practices and curriculum as a measure of advocacy for the rainbow community. Rainbow students believed they may encounter fewer experiences of discrimination if individuals received appropriate rainbow education. They want to feel and be treated as equal to their peers. Gunn (2015) describes how the curriculum can be used as a tool to advocate and empower gender and sexuality diversity beyond the ‘heteronorm’.

The findings from this research study demonstrate an optimistic development for the future of RSE in New Zealand if schools continue to expand their measures towards rainbow-inclusion. In this study, schools have begun to consider rainbow-inclusive learning in RSE. This is in contrast to Lee and Carpenter (2015), who expressed that rainbow students’ experiences were inadequate and unsafe, and no indicators of rainbow discussion were evident. Furthermore, the participants’ experiences drew attention to rainbow inclusive RSE to measure visibility and demarginalisation.

This study has demonstrated that participants’ experiences in RSE does not fully empower rainbow students to embrace their identities and form healthy and respectful relationships. These experiences highlight a gap within the implementation of RSE. Palkki and Caldwell’s (2018) study recognised the power of rainbow-inclusive education for the rainbow students and the perception of safety and visibility this adds. Comprehensive RSE empowers marginalised young people to perceive themselves as equal within society, protect their health, and become capable, active members of society (Haberland & Rogow, 2015).

It could also be suggested by the time allocated to the subject that many schools do not value RSE in the same way they do other subject areas. The participants view the lack of time to teach RSE as problematic and feel that perhaps more time would create space for rainbow discussion.


This research allowed the voices of nine rainbow students to share their lived experiences of RSE. The study investigated these experiences in line with their right to non-discrimination, as stated in the UNCRC. Heteronormativity was the essence of the nine students’ experiences and was found throughout the three superordinate themes, exclusion and silencing, rainbow discussion for visibility and inclusion, and interpersonal relationships. The study found that participants did not perceive their experiences of RSE to be overtly discriminatory but act to marginalise, exclude and silence the students in subtle ways.

Therefore, rainbow students’ rights under Article 2 of the Convention were not being met in several ways. These being teacher practice, the curriculum, and interactions with others. The rainbow students’ experiences shed light on the issue that schools continue to provide RSE that primarily considers the needs of heterosexual students. Rainbow students desire to be seen and considered within RSE and perceive RSE as important for their learning and wellbeing. However, the current lack of conversation around gender and sexuality education in the classroom reinforces marginalisation. For this reason, schools must choose to recognise how their curriculum and practice disempowers rainbow students’ and actively work to change this.


The current research indicates a positive shift in attitudes towards the rainbow community compared to prior research findings. The participants predominantly feel accepted in their classroom climate and have protective peer relationships. These factors appear to assist the mitigation of overt discrimination in RSE. However, heteronormativity remained the dominant narrative within RSE, presenting itself as a silent form of discrimination (Fitzpatrick, 2018). This study focused on student voice to provide significant insight into improving RSE in New Zealand’s schools. It is valuable to understand the experiences of RSE through the perspective of rainbow students as it is their learning and wellbeing that must be considered. This research gives confidence that continued and increased advocacy and conversations that disrupt heteronormative thinking will enhance acceptance and belonging and move from tolerance to inclusion.


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Perspectives of Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Enabling Participation in Voice Research for Adolescent Children with Characteristics of Autism

Rachael Franklyn and Vijaya Dharan –
Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Franklyn, R., & Dharan, V. (2021). Perspectives of Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).

Abstract: Although New Zealand is one of the 196 countries that are signatories to the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), many young people remain marginalised in the education system. This article explores the importance of affording children their rights to an education that develops their talents as outlined in Article 29 of the Convention. With an emphasis of students who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who tend to have poorer academic and social outcomes compared to their peers, this article explores their experiences in school settings. Although international research includes the voice of students with ADHD in terms of their school experiences, their perspectives in New Zealand remain relatively unheard. This article draws from a study that explored the learning experiences of ten Year 9 and 10 students diagnosed with ADHD. Using semi structured interviews, the results showed that the students were very attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses to learn, and were also aware of the supports that would be helpful for them to learn at school. Students reported that they were most involved in learning when teachers were innovative and creative in their teaching approach. Teachers who had an understanding of the implications of ADHD on learning gave them choice and agency over their learning, and believed in their ability to learn. This study contributes to the discussion on the variation in the way young people with ADHD experience, and value, school.

Keywords: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Student voice, Pedagogy


In Aotearoa New Zealand, every child has a right to education. Under the New Zealand Education and Trainings Act 2020, schools have a mandate to be inclusive of all learners, with attendance being compulsory from ages 6–16, and free from ages 5 to 19. The National Educational Goals set by the Government, stipulate that state schools are responsible for: enabling all students to reach their full potential, providing equality of educational opportunity; removing barriers to achievement and respecting the diverse ethnic and bi-cultural heritage of New Zealand. Yet, students with ADHD have poorer academic, social, and vocational outcomes than their typically developing peers (APA, 2013; DuPaul et al, 2011; Rapport et al, 2013).

More recently, there has been an active shift globally towards considering the rights of children in all matters concerning them, particularly since 2005, when the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted its importance. The 54 Articles of UNCRC firmly anchors the rights of children under the ambit of Human Rights (Human Rights Commission, 2010). Article 12 of the Convention, explicitly gives all children the right to form and freely express their views on all matters and procedures which affect them, and for their views to be given due weight in relation to their age and level of maturity. As a further safeguard to be dismissive of the views of children, Article 3 stipulates that children’s best interests must be ‘a primary consideration’. This places the onus firmly on adults to listen to children and ensure that their views are considered seriously and acted upon (Lundy, 2007).

Children with ADHD and rights to education

ADHD is a developmental, neurological disorder characterised by inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, resulting in functional impairments. It is often associated with decreased levels of self-application to tasks, reduced school performance and academic attainment and early school leaving, resulting in poorer vocational, social, and mental health outcomes (American Psychiatry Association, 2013). In New Zealand, the prevalence rate of ADHD is 3-5% of all children (ADHD New Zealand, 2020). Hyperactivity combined with limited impulse control and difficulty with sustained attention are key barriers to learning for students with ADHD resulting in negative school outcomes. Ministry of Health (2001) statistics note that medication improves both the core symptoms of the condition such as attention span, impulsivity and disruptive behaviours, and increases academic focus and performance for 70 to 80% of children. Though medication may help concentration, for some it reduced cognitive flexibility and creativity (Brady, 2014). Brady’s study of 6-15-year olds highlighted that students were able to clearly understand the implications of taking medication and the effect it had on their thoughts, actions, decisions, and self- identity.

Difficulties in the executive functions (EF) of the brain is a causal factor for the academic and social difficulties for students with ADHD (Banich, 2009; Molina et al., 2009; Rapport et al, 2013). The impairment of EF results in specific difficulties such as: prioritising and sequencing tasks, inhibiting distractions and maintaining focused attention to complete tasks, all of which are essential aspects for successful academic outcomes (Banich, 2009; Brown, 2006). Their impulsivity often stands in the way of interpersonal relationships and ability to resolve conflicts with peer groups (MOE, 2015), impacting on their friendships. Often children and young people with ADHD are astute and have a heightened awareness of their learning and social difficulties, which affects their self-esteem and self-worth (Barkley, 2015). Findings from 445 participants from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research study in New Zealand found the link between reading ability and teacher reports of students with ADHD at age 7 and their academic self-concept (ASC) at ages 9 and 11, with antisocial behaviours in their teen years (Pisecco et al, 2001). There was a stark message from this study on the importance of successful educational experiences for children and young people with ADHD, to ensure positive life outcomes.

Given that children in New Zealand are required to be at school for at least six hours a day from ages 6 to 16, education has a profound impact on the lives of children. UNCRC emphasises that education should promote respect for human rights and cultural identity and be “child-centred, child-friendly, and empowering” (UNICEF, 2006, p.1). As a signatory to UNCRC, all children in New Zealand , including children with ADHD, have a right to education that will develop their  “personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest extent”(Article, 29 (a). Studies of children and young people with ADHD highlights aspects that both supports and prevents their learning. The perceptiveness of children and young people of their difficulties as well as their solutions are evident in the few studies that included children as participants.

Supportive learning environments

A review of the literature identifies key teaching practices that contribute positively to the learning and participation of students with ADHD in schools. Well scaffolded instructions and activities that do not require sustained periods of sitting at a desk, combined with  small group work often had better academic outcomes (Hart, et al., 2011; Martin et al, 2017; MOE 2015).

Teachers play a critical role in successful outcomes for students with ADHD. In a study of 17 students aged between 11-16 years in the UK highlighted the importance of strong teacher student relationship as being critical for the learning of students with ADHD (Travell & Visser, 2006), as was teachers’ knowledge of the neurological implications of the condition (Kendall 2016). Studies in UK and USA also found that teachers who understood the characteristics of ADHD were able to incorporate multi-modal instructions, have clear expectations and provide positive feedback (Kendall, 2016; Singh, 2011; 2012), all of which contributed to the learning of students.

Though seldom acknowledged, students with ADHD are perceptive of factors that supported their learning. A study of twelve 10-15 year olds in UK,  found that students were able to identify precise classroom level supports such as clear instructions of learning tasks, access to teacher aides, having frequent breaks, and having objects to ‘fiddle’ discretely to increase their concentration, as well as wider supports such as increased awareness of ADHD in their school communities, and for teachers in training (Kendall, 2016). They are also perceptive of needing support to improve their interpersonal skills and friendships (Puvanendran & Nagaraj, 2014). Their insightfulness was evident in a study of 151 young people aged 9-14 in the UK and USA by Singh (2011, 2012), two thirds of whom had ADHD and conducted over a three year period from 2007-2010. Students with ADHD situated themselves in two distinct categories – Good conduct and Good performance. The former category was associated with behaviours such as physical aggression and bullying, while they associated the latter with doing well in academic tasks. Interestingly, the researcher found that students who identified themselves in the Good performance category preferred to keep their diagnosis secret from their peers, although both groups found medication helpful to stay focused. Classrooms where teachers were creative in managing hyperactivity and distractibility, had a positive effect on them (Singh, 2012).

Conversely, studies show that when teachers had limited understanding of ADHD, their handling of behaviours had an impact on students’ self-esteem and learning (Kendall, 2016; Stamp et al, 2014; Singh, 2011; 2012; Travell & Visser, 2006). A disturbing trend was the levels of aggression and bullying students with ADHD experienced from both peers and teachers (Singh, 2011).

In Aotearoa New Zealand, teachers have an obligation to acknowledge the nation’s bicultural foundations and deliver a curriculum that upholds the Tiriti O Waitangi principles of participation, partnership and protection (MOE, 2020). These principles are inclusive and places all children at the centre of teaching and learning. One of the underlying  principles of teaching from an indigenous perspective is the notion of ako, meaning that learning and teaching are reciprocal processes. Ako suggests that the teacher is also the learner, and the learner is also the teacher and there is a mutual relationship of respect for each other’s culture, beliefs, and environments. This reciprocal approach to teaching positions teachers to make a genuine effort to understand all students in their classroom, an aspect students with ADHD have emphasised across the reviewed literature.

While medication can be helpful, the evidence points clearly to teacher knowledge and pedagogy as critical factors for the learning of students with ADHD. To become successful learners, these students require more reciprocity in teaching and learning situations, instructions that are innovative and motivating ; a high degree of structure, and a deliberate focus on fostering positive social interactions (Kendall, 2016; Reeve, 2013). Supportive learning environments that had the most positive outcomes, had teachers who understood the implications of having ADHD on learning , and firmly believed in the capabilities of the students to learn

The current study

This qualitative study explored the educational experiences of ten Year 9 and 10 students diagnosed with ADHD across 12 schools. Understanding the educational experiences of young people with ADHD is a relatively under-researched field in New Zealand. So, Senior school leaders of Year 9 and 10 students (i.e., 13-14 years old), Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and Learning Support Co-ordinators were approached in 12 Secondary schools in Central North region in New Zealand. At the time of the study (2020), schools were experiencing the effects of Covid-19 lockdown, and this made it difficult to access the required number of participants through schools. Therefore, the National Co-Ordinator for ADHD New Zealand was contacted and with approval from ADHD NZ, their social media website was accessed to e-mail members to obtain participants. The first 10 students (8 boys and 2 girls) who agreed to participate were included from various parts of the country. Semi-structured interviews of up were conducted through Zoom meetings.

As the study involved working with children and a vulnerable population, all aspects of the study were carried out in keeping with the Massey University Revised Code of Ethical Conduct (2017). Personally (first author), having a son with ADHD  who struggled through the New Zealand education system meant that a reflective journal was kept throughout the study to reflect on the researcher’s values, assumptions, beliefs, and closeness to the research topic to try to mitigate researcher bias and subsequent impact on data analysis. Interview transcripts were sent to students for checking for accuracy, and the collective data from the 10 participants were analysed thematically. All students were on some form of medication, and they accepted this was an inevitable aspect of their condition. Nine students said that medication improved their focus in the classroom and decreased distractibility. While most participants discussed medication in terms of their learning, one of them said that ADHD is part of his personality and that although medication makes a difference, he recognises that ADHD is part of who he is.

You can’t get rid of ADHD, you know, you’re gonna have to deal with it. You’re gonna have ADHD. And, that’s just, it’s just you. With my medication  and ADHD I feel like there’s things to help it but it’s still going to be there. (Owen)

What the students reported

The students talked about group work, teachers, friendships and their own levels of motivation. They had a mixed opinions for group work, with some showing a strong preference especially if there were “right” people in the group, while two of them preferred to work alone as they were less likely to be distracted.

I prefer to learn in a group … it’s, I’m not pressured if I can’t get something right, because most of the time someone else in the group will know about it and they can just tell me what we’re doing. (George).

I find it easier to process things alone I’d say. And like, working with myself I can be more connected to it. Yeah, working in groups I can get quite side-tracked. (Abby)

Teacher dispositions and attitudes featured prominently when the participants talked about their learning. The teachers they liked were caring, supportive and believed in them.

People always have different opinions, but if you’re told by someone that you’re good at something, it makes you want to do it more. Like for maths, if I was told by my teacher “you’re doing good”, I want to keep doing better, because I was told I’m doing good. (Owen)

The teacher characteristic mentioned most often in terms of supporting their learning was one  who could make learning fun and innovative, and showed an understanding of the impact of ADHD.

A good teacher is one that explains things in different ways, and also a teacher that shows you how to do things. (Grayson)

But the funness also means that … say she does like a dance to something to help us memorise it. And then we laugh so much, like we laugh at it so much, along with her of course, then we remember that better than if she just tells us. (Ethan).

Last year, I had a teacher, and he was like incredibly engaging and would give us like half an hour to ask questions and would embrace our difficulties and differences. (Abby)

Some understand ADHD better than others. The difference is they don’t immediately give me a detention. They kind of understand what I’m going through and that it’s not easy. (George)

Friendships in the classroom was critical in supporting both their learning and behaviours, particularly friends who understood the condition. Seven students said it was very important for friends to know about ADHD and its effects on their behaviours. Half of them had friends who also had ADHD, and they spoke of being more connected with each other due to the similarities.

I help my friends when they need it and they help me … in class if they don’t know how to do something and I do, I’ll tell them how and they will tell me how if I don’t understand something. (Lucas)

When I’m going off task my friends can rein me in and tell me to get back on task … some of my closer friends, they calm me down whenever I’m being agitated … they’ll just talk to me or play a game with me. (George)

There were challenges for their learning in the classroom which they felt were due to inflexible pedagogy and lack of curriculum adaptations. This was seen as a result of their teachers’ lack of knowledge around the nature of cognitive and physical implications of ADHD. For example, half the participants had difficulty with taking notes, especially on paper.

And when I do write with paper, it’s extremely hard to get my ideas onto the paper. But with a computer, I guess it’s more instant, and I can instantly do it as soon as they come to my head. And then arrange them. And spelling and grammar can kind of be sorted. So that’s handy. Definitely. (Abby)

Other challenges included the length of time they were expected to be seated to do work,  difficulty in remembering tasks, and noise levels. Often their concentration span declined during subjects they did not enjoy, or when there were distractions in the classroom such as the temperature level of the room, or other students’ talking.

Sometimes if it’s too loud it stops me from working and I can’t concentrate on my work. (Grayson)

I get distracted very easily. Um like, say someone laughs at something, I’ll try my hardest to find out what it is. And sometimes I get distracted by something and not someone. Like in Science there’s always this heater … When it’s cold, I always just lean up against it, and sometimes I can just get lost in the heat and not focus. (Ethan)

Another common difficulty mentioned by participants was difficulty in understanding the tasks they were asked to do. Not being able to comprehend the purpose or meaning of what they were learning affected their motivation and the amount of effort they put into completing the tasks. The lack of having choice and input into their learning was highlighted as a significant barrier. The students were unanimous in saying that they were not involved in making decisions related to their learning, other than choosing their elective subjects. Half the participants wanted to have more input into how subjects were taught, and more choice, for example, selecting books to read in English, or the type of sports they played during PE. Similarly, two participants said students should be able to make decisions about timetabling, and six wanted input into learning contexts such as who they worked with, and where they worked. Most participants identified choice as being motivational, as it was typically linked to fun and interests, and the appeal of the activity.

I’d look forward to the choices I’d make rather than doing something I was really not …. didn’t want to do … I’d find school a lot more enjoyable, having decisions there. (Abby) 

Well, you know, just so it’s suitable for me. So that I don’t have to be sitting there and just be like “but I’m confused” and be like, “What am I supposed to do?  But when I get to choose, I can just be like, “Oh yeah, I know how to do this, it’s easy.”  (Jackson)

In contrast, there was a sense of agency and independence among them when speaking about out of class activities such as sports teams and clubs, to the extent that they did not feel it was necessary for the extra-curricular staff to be told that they had ADHD. Half of them reported that their interest, and the fun and enjoyment of the activities meant they were more focused.

No. I don’t need any [supports]. I’m just treated like the rest of the other people at Scouts. (James)

Well, I do a lot of sports. And I’m driven towards it because it’s something I enjoy, so it makes me want to be good at it.  (Sara)

With sports, you just learn as you go and then just do it. We listen. We mostly forget it but during the game you learn the rules. (Lucas)

It is worth noting that ADHD traits that could be challenging in a classroom setting were their strengths during out of class activities. For example, when asked what he was good at in school and why, George replied: “PE. Probably my height and I don’t normally run out of energy that fast, so I can run around a lot more than others”.


In New Zealand, schools are responsible for ensuring all students reach their full potential, for removing barriers to achievement, and to individualise the curriculum (MOE, 2020). Further, as stipulated in Article 29(a), children have the right to an education that develops their personality, talents, and physical and mental capabilities to their fullest extent, and optimising students’ learning opportunities is one of the foundational imperatives of schooling.

Consistent with existing literature, students in the study reported that difficulties associated with their condition such as impulse control, following instructions, staying organised, planning tasks and distractibility were barriers to their learning. The majority of participants reported that attentional difficulties interfered with their learning especially if there were other distractions such as a noisy environment, or non-preferred subjects and tasks (Banich, 2009; Kendall, 2016). To alleviate their anxiety caused by these barriers and in an attempt to stay focused, these young people actively developed strategies such as listening to music, fiddling with objects and taking breaks, talking to friends; and using devices rather than writing (Andreou et al, 2016; Kendall, 2016). Although there are debates around the pros and cons of medication, it enhanced these students ability to focus and learn (Kendall, 2016; Singh, 2011, 2012).

The role of friends was identified as important, and experienced as an enabling aspect of their learning and well-being in school.The young people had developed strong friendships, in contrast to earlier international studies where students with ADHD were found to have difficulty in making and keeping friends (Puvanendran & Nagaraj, 2014; Stamp et al, 2014; Travell & Visser, 2006). Instead, similar to the findings of Singh (2011), half the participants discussed the importance of friends in helping them manage their behaviours and supporting their learning.

Perhaps not surprisingly, characteristics of teachers featured prominently when these young people spoke about their educational experiences and who they considered to be a ‘good’ teacher. The characteristic mentioned most often was ‘innovative’ teachers who  were able to engage them in learning. These teachers included movement and actions in their teaching sessions, used multimedia, incorporated online games, encouraged questions, used humour and linked learning experiences to their interests. When learning was fun, the young people reported increased motivation and ability to stay on task longer and also were more likely to retain what they had learnt. While engaging pedagogy was seen as important, even more critical to their learning was the caring attitude of teachers and their belief that young people with ADHD were capable learnersThese aspects are well  embedded in the indigenous Māori concepts of Mana motuhake (teachers caring for students’ performance); Wananga and Ako (teachers engaging in effective interactions and relationships with their learners).

Overall, this study showed a heightened sense of  self-awareness among these students of a number of factors that would support their learning. They identified both personal and ecological factors that facilitated their learning and participation both in and outside the classrooms. The personal factors included their interest levels in a subject, the ability to use self-identified strategies for managing distractions, having agency of their learning, and taking medication regularly. The external factors that enhanced their learning were working with friends, and pedagogy that accommodated the characteristics of their condition. But, the most important factor that supported their learning were teachers who were responsive to the implications of having ADHD. As Vygotsky observed, learning involves interactions between individual, social, and contextual factors which impact motivation, resulting in both cognitive growth and actions. This calls for teachers to be more informed about the individual student’s needs, and reach out to the affordances that multi-media can offer for classroom learning situations. More importantly, listening to students must be at the heart of planning and teaching.


Better academic outcomes is directly proportional to positive self-efficacy and relational supports (Martin et al, 2017). The young people in this study showed that although they had a strong sense of awareness of the impact of their difficulties on learning, they were less understood by their teachers. The participants described being motivated at school when they were interested in a subject and felt they were good at it. However, they were most motivated when they were able to choose what and how they learnt.

This study reiterated the importance of giving children and young people opportunities to make decisions about their learning to enhance their sense of agency and autonomy. Although students in this study had good insights into what works for them in and out of classrooms , they had little or no opportunity on a daily basis to have a voice in deciding how or what they learn (Elwood & Lundy, 2010). As UNCRC Article 12 states, educational outcomes can be meaningfully enhanced if students’ opinions are sought and actioned, as they are capable and perceptive of how they learn best. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers foster a sense of agency by providing choice of learning activities that are motivating and creative (Bandura, 2006; MOE, 2015).

In New Zealand, children with a range of additional learning needs have been particularly vulnerable to marginalisation and having their rights ignored (Kearney, 2011). Expectations and practices are often geared to fit these students into existing systems of ‘normal’ schooling. However, the National Educational Goals require schools to enable all students to reach their full potential by providing equal opportunities and removing barriers to their learning. So, schools have a legal mandate to be inclusive of all students including those with ADHD. More importantly, as a signatory of UNCRC, New Zealand government is committed to work towards, and report on, how children are being consulted about matters that concern them. MacArthur and Rutherford (2016) encourage schools to be responsive to and value diversity, by focusing on children’s strengths, interests, and capabilities. A rights-based approach to education they argue, will focus on equity, and in developing children’s capabilities to their full potential. Such an approach to education will allow for more equitable learning opportunities for children and young people with neurological differences such as ADHD to develop their personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities (UNCRC Article 29a). This study serves as  a reminder that a holistic development, learning and care for young people in school settings irrespective of a particular identified disability or need, requires an integrated focus on academic, social and life events for these young people.


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Enabling Participation in Voice Research for Adolescent Children with Characteristics of Autism

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Enabling Participation in Voice Research for Adolescent Children with Characteristics of Autism

Emma MacRae and John O’Neill –
Institute of Education, Massey Univerity, New Zealand


Citation: MacRae, M., & O’Neill, J. (2021). Enabling Participation in Voice Research for Adolescent Children with Characteristics of Autism. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).

Abstract: The study on which this paper is based concerned children’s sense of belonging at school. Their experience of inclusion within formal education was explored from a child rights perspective using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a guide. Most research to date has focused on the inclusion of children with autism in education from the perspective of adults not children. As children are ‘experts’ in their own social worlds, for this study the views of children were sought directly from them regarding their everyday experience of being at school, what they believe supports their sense of belonging at school, and what aspects of their everyday schooling could be improved. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with seven children all of whom had characteristics of autism. The focus in this paper is methodological, specifically the decision framing and decision taking of the researcher about how to provide an enabling and inviting research participation experience so that children with autism feel sufficiently comfortable and encouraged to express their views. Two key considerations in the design of this study concerned: (i) participant recruitment; and (ii) interview process and procedures.

Keywords: secondary (high) school students, autism, interviews, belonging, participation


The right to an education is specified in Article 28 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC can be divided into protection rights [i.e. from discrimination], provision rights [e.g. to education] and participation rights [i.e. to have their say on matters affecting them]  (Alderson, 2018). Alderson argued that for children’s right to education to be realised, it cannot be seen in isolation from other UNCRC rights. Realising the right to education involves respecting a child’s right to non-discrimination (Article 2) and to have their views heard on matters affecting them (Article 12). With respect to education, providing opportunities for all children to voice their views is necessary as what is important for one child may be different for another (Alderson, 2018). Children with learning support needs have as much right as any other child to be heard. Moreover, failure to adequately consult children can be viewed as a breach of their right to have their say (Article 12), the right to opportunities within education (Article 29), and their right to have decisions made in their best interests (Article 3). The first half of the article considers the functional relationships between the right to education, inclusive education provision and the personal feeling of belonging at school for children with characteristics of autism. The second half of the paper discusses issues related to appropriate design of the research to facilitate recruitment and participation of the children in the study.

The right to education for all

The former UN Special Rapporteur Katarina Tomasevski proposed four standards to judge enactment of the right to education: availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaption (Klees & Thapliyal, 2007). Availability of education involves parents’ right to educational choice within a system where education is compulsory and free. Accessibility refers to a child’s right to have educational decisions made in their best interests. The acceptability of education refers to the provision of quality education that meets the child’s needs. Lastly, adaption involves modifications made to the curriculum when required to meet a child’s needs.

The UNCRC entered into force in 1990, since then there have been several significant global and national developments with respect to children with learning support needs. In 1994 the Salamanca Statement came into effect, asserting that the provision of education should be designed to provide for the unique characteristics and abilities of all children not just the majority; and that all children should be accommodated within a child-centred pedagogy within mainstream schools. It affirmed the commitment of governments and international organisations to the objective of ‘education for all’ regardless of individual difference. Further support for the UNCRC right to education (article 28) was provided by the 2008 Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). Article 24 of the CRPD stated that children should not experience exclusion on the basis of disability or failure of schools to provide accessible learning environments (Goodall & MacKenzie, 2019). Progress in this area has been both significant and variable.

In the last thirty years there has been a move towards greater inclusion within mainstream schools of children with learning support needs in New Zealand where this study was undertaken. The Education Act 1989 section 8(1) affirmed the right of all children to attend their local school. From 1993 the introduction of the New Zealand Human Rights Act section 57 made it more difficult for schools legally to deny, restrict, or enrol students on less favourable terms based on reasons related to their learning support needs. However, even with stronger education rights legislation in place it has been argued that exclusion on the basis of learning support needs still regularly occurs in New Zealand mainstream schools  (Kearney, 2016). In terms of attendance at mainstream schools, in 2004 of the 1% of students classified as having ‘very high needs’, 33.5% were educated in special schools. The remainder attended either mainstream classes exclusively or special education classes situated within mainstream schools (Mitchell, 2015). By 2019 it was estimated that 99.5% of children with learning support needs attended their local school (New Zealand Government, 2019).

The recommendations of the United Nations third universal review of New Zealand’s’ Human Rights Records included developing policies and strategies to support children’s right to education, and strengthen school inclusive education practices (New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019). Most recently, the Education and Training Act came into effect 1 August 2020 which increased New Zealand’s policy alignment to our UNCRC commitments. Clauses 32 and 33 of the Act state that all children should have their right to education honoured, which includes the right to attend school full time, free of charge.

Children with autism

The term autism reflects a broad heterogeneous and diverse group of people all with unique strengths and challenges. Accordingly, the term children or young people with autism was used throughout this research report rather than reference to sub-classifications of autism (Scott-Barrett, Cebula, & Florian, 2019). Language can be powerful, therefore describing children as being on the autism spectrum was avoided as this can have negative connotations. Those described as high functioning may simply be better at masking or compensating for their challenges. Use of the term high functioning may have the effect of underplaying difficulties experienced or a person’s need for support (Goodall, 2019). Equally describing someone as having low functioning autism can ignore the person’s strengths. Both terms can potentially be seen as negative stereotyping rather than viewing a person’s diversity as something positive (Goodall, 2019). All children with autism can be described as both low and high functioning depending on the situation and circumstances. For example, children with autism can have in-depth knowledge about specific topics so instead of viewing their thinking in terms of rigidity it can be seen in terms of clarity of thought that allows intense focus, reliability, dedication, determination, honesty, and original thinking (Winter & Lawrence, 2011).

Autism is thought to have a strong genetic component but as there are no biological indicators behavioural criteria are used for diagnosis (Sturmey & Fitzer, 2007). As a group, children with autism often experience challenges interacting socially, communication, and flexibility in thought and behaviour. Additional challenges can include poor motor skills and displaying a lack of empathy as children can find it difficult to understand what others might be thinking (Scott-Barrett et al., 2019; Winter & Lawrence, 2011).

Although there are commonalities, no two people with autism present with exactly the same symptoms, in the same way, or to the same degree. This can be attributed to approximately 70% of children with autism experiencing comorbid conditions such as ADHD, OCD, anxiety, or depression (Scott-Barrett et al., 2019). In terms of diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) there is a gender bias with four males to one female diagnosed (Baron-Cohen, 2008). Girls tend to be underdiagnosed as they often have more developed expressive behaviours and some argue are better at camouflaging their autism when around others (Goodall & MacKenzie, 2019). In America, one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. In the United Kingdom this rate is estimated to be 1 in 100; making autism one of the most common childhood conditions (Connor & Cavendish, 2020).

There is some debate over whether Asperger’s (AS) should be included on the ASD spectrum. AS often has a later onset when compared with classic autism. Those with autism will often avoid social contact and be preoccupied with repetitive motor activities. Children with AS can also seem preoccupied but intellectually rather than with objects, and they will seek social interaction with others but often in an awkward manner. For this research study the term autism was used to include children with the full spectrum of autism including AS (Scott-Barrett et al., 2019).

Children as rights’ holders

If children do not have the opportunity to exercise their rights they cannot be seen as a rights’ holder (Fortin, 2009). Children can be enabled to be holders of rights by giving their voices due weight. Within the realm of education, children can be seen as experts of their own experience (Goodall, 2019). Seeking children’s views on school and education policy, and providing avenues for genuine influence, can undoubtedly provide education better suited to their needs (Goodall, 2019). Policy and school practices affect a child’s sense of self. Therefore it is important that children help to inform the policies and practices that are meant to serve them (Bourke, O’Neill, & Loveridge, 2018).

Lundy (2007) developed a model of participation to support children’s right to have their say. It includes four key terms: Space for children to express their views, Voice; the opportunity to speak, Audience; listening to the child’s views, and Influence; acting on these views where appropriate. A report of the New Zealand Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2018) found that children would like greater consultation on school matters that affect them. Children’s right to have their views heard (Article 12) is considered to underpin all UNCRC rights and is integral to children realising their convention rights (Sargeant, 2018).

The right of children to inclusive education

Inclusion within education can be defined as educating all children including those with learning support needs within the same classroom. However, presence within a classroom does not automatically translate to educational inclusion (Ainscow, 2005). Children with autism, like all children, have a range of academic abilities. A mainstream school environment will not automatically suit a child’s needs even when academically able. Teacher understanding and knowledge, sensory needs, social aspects, and the layout of the school environment are some factors that can act as barriers to student inclusion (Goodall, 2019).

Integration involves placing students with learning support needs in mainstream schools and expecting them to adjust to existing norms and practices, whereas genuine inclusion involves principals, teachers, and support staff translating macro-level educational policy into micro-level school practices and values. These micro-level changes in how educators think about students can be observed in teacher’s language and daily teaching practices (Rutherford & MacArthur, 2018). Inclusion requires treating all children equitably, avoiding discrimination, marinization, and celebrating differences where all children are considered to have their own individual “special needs” (Alderson, 2018).

Genuine inclusion may require structural changes to the physical school environment and modification to teaching methods not simply placing children with learning support needs in mainstream classes (Goodall, 2018). Alderson (2018) suggests that the existence of special schools provides mainstream schools with the opportunity to send students somewhere else when they are not fitting in, instead of the necessity to explore ways the school culture and practices can change to become more inclusive.

Not all researchers share this view. Goodall (2019) suggested that the existence of special education schools provides learners with a choice as to the type of environment that best suits their needs. He suggests that the sensory and emotional needs of some students are better served in a special school environment. For some students, this environment can result in greater engagement with learning which in turn can result in students experiencing a greater sense of personal wellbeing and positive attitude to school.

Children’s experiences of inclusion and belonging

To date autism research looking at the right of children to inclusion within education has focused largely on the views of teachers and parents (Goodall, 2019). To gain greater insight into what inclusion at school means to children and what their everyday experience of being at school is like it is essential to hear directly from children (Ellis, 2017).

In a study by Goodall (2019), twelve students aged 11 to 17 children, who all attended a special education school, described inclusive education in terms of how they felt at school rather than a specific type of school. They described inclusion in terms of feeling respected, valued, and accepted by other children and teachers. They felt that when they compared their experience of attending a mainstream school to the special school they currently attended, the special school environment provided a greater feeling of inclusion. The children acknowledged that although not always possible, their ideal was to attend a mainstream school effectively set up to cater for their needs.

One of the key insights from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2018) Education Matters to Me report was that not singling out children in terms of a deficit or label supported their positive sense of belonging at school. Children reported that it was important for them to be identified in terms of being a child rather than a label or deficit. This finding was supported by MacArthur et al. (2007) who interviewed 11 to 14 year old children with autism on their experiences of school and self-perception. Children described themselves as any other child would in terms of their appearance and personality. They actively tried to emphasis their similarities to peers rather than differences, to the extent that some children avoided using materials such as computers that marked them apart. Some of the ways students perceived themselves as different included being asked to complete lessons in separate classrooms, with a specialist teacher, and having a teacher aide help with work. Kelly (2005) also interviewed 32 children with learning support needs about self-perception. Some students viewed themselves as different due to learning support needs, how they acted, or their appearance, while other students perceived themselves in terms of typical personal characteristics such as being overweight or not having ears pierced.

Children with autism identified low teacher expectations as a barrier to their sense of belonging at school. MacArthur et al. (2007) found that this negatively affected the self-perception of children with learning support needs. Some children reported they felt different from their peers as their teacher gave them less challenging work. Others wished their teachers would provide challenging work and more support to enable them to extend their learning. The study found some teachers were good at supporting children to extend their learning. With other teachers’ students reported instances where they felt they had to prove their academic ability to counter a teacher’s presumption of low academic ability.

Several positive teacher characteristics that support inclusive teaching practices were also identified by children. Forty American high school students with Individual Education Plans were interviewed by Connor and Cavendish (2020). Characteristics identified by interviewees included teachers who were ready to help, were non-judgemental of students, did not expect all students to learn in the same way, were positive, and provided students with time. Two thirds of students thought that a good teacher was able to teach concepts in a variety of ways and was firm yet fun. Students also identified that good teachers could ask questions to check student understanding, provide individual student attention, present learning plans visually as well as verbally, and allow for different mental processing speeds by not going too fast when teaching new concepts. In semi-structured interviews with children who have autism, interviewees said teachers providing access to breaks when required and allowing for lessons to be structured around their interests helped them to maintain focus when completing learning tasks (Zilli, Parsons, & Kovshoff, 2019).

One of the key findings of the New Zealand Education Matters to Me research conducted by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2018) was that for children with learning support needs large numbers of students in a class acted as a barrier to learning engagement as this often resulted in too many distractions which made it hard for these students to concentrate in class.

Students in research conducted by Rutherford and MacArthur (2018) expressed a desire for greater privacy from their adult helpers as they felt their presence interfered with their peer relationships. Relatedly, Watson et al. (2001) found that although children with learning support needs can find school work challenging they like autonomy when interacting with peers during break time.

In terms of experiencing a positive sense of belonging at school social relationships with peers was found to be extremely important. Children with learning support needs commonly reported a lack of friendships, bullying, and feelings of social isolation outside of school (Sproston et al., 2017). In interviews conducted with two teenage girls with autism Goodall and MacKenzie (2019) reported similar findings. Both girls reported finding mainstream school difficult as they felt excluded, unhappiness, anxiety, and isolated. According to the interviewees large class sizes, noise, having to attend school for full school days, and finding morning tea and lunch times stressful due to the unstructured social time were all factors they identified that lead to their negative feelings around school. In addition, bullying was their top worry whilst at school. Both tried to build relationships with peers, but bullying led to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Research conducted by Humphrey and Symes (2011) supported the importance of social relationships for children with autism. Challenges interacting socially placed them at greater risk of negative social outcomes, resulting in this group being 20 times more likely to be socially excluded than children without autism, up to three times more likely to be bullied, face social rejection, and feel unsupported by other children (Humphrey & Symes, 2011).

Research design

The methods used directly affect how children with autism are understood and ultimately supported to participate in research (Brown, Peña, Broido, Stapleton, & Evans, 2019). The personal views and experiences of children with autism were sought about what supports their sense of belonging at school and what could be improved for them. A well established and important aspect of qualitative research involves the ability to build relationships, trust, and rapport with all types of participants including children (Cridland et al., 2015). Understanding participants preferred means of communicating, strengths, and needs leads to the development of methods that are more appropriate for participants which ultimately results in the collection of richer data (Goodall, 2019). Maintaining an awareness of the power imbalance between the interviewer and participant and thinking about ways in which participants can be supported to feel more comfortable and taken seriously as experts on the interview topics (Goodall, 2019).

Semi-structured interviews were used to allow for conversation to develop and flow, and to gain insights into participant’s experiences, opinions, and beliefs (Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008). The research was initially discussed with learning support co-ordinators (LSC) at several potential schools in terms of children’s inclusion. After feedback from one LSC it was decided to frame the research in terms of belonging rather than inclusion because the LSC stated that “children at their school only know about being at school not inclusion at school” (LSC, personal communication, June 18, 2020). The design considered how to optimise participant accessibility by thinking about needs that are common to children with autism in order to support and enable the participants to communicate and have their views heard (Fayette & Bond, 2018).

Provision of appropriate information about the research in advance was a major consideration. Written information about the research study was provided to potential participants (i.e. children and their parents or caregivers). This also contained a link to a ‘Belonging at School ‘YouTube channel specifically created by the researcher to provide additional visual and verbal modalities by which children could access information about the research. The video included a demonstration of some of the interview activities. Children with autism often experience social and environmental barriers in situations, so knowing what to expect during the interview and the opportunity to see the interviewer in advance on YouTube was intended to help to minimise these barriers (Cridland, Caputi, Jones, & Magee, 2014).  In addition, the support organisation Children’s Autism Foundation (CAF) agreed to set up a ‘Supporting Research into Autism’ page on their website. The webpage provided details about this research, a copy of the information sheet, and a link to the Belonging at School Research YouTube video. A link to the YouTube video was also provided in a post on the CAF Facebook page.

Criteria for participation in research included students having characteristics of autism but not necessarily a formal diagnosis. Participants recruited from schools were identified by the school learning support co-ordinators or teacher. Self-identification was allowed for with children who decided to participate after seeing information on the CAF website or Facebook page. To be eligible for participation in the project it was also an expectation that participants were able to understand and verbally respond to the research questions.

A copy of the semi-structured interview questions was provided before the interview to give students the opportunity to read through the questions and clarify anything they might be unsure about before the interview (Sachse et al., 2013). This can help some children with autism feel more secure and be beneficial for participants who require greater mental processing time. Participants could also contact the researcher in advance of the interview with any questions they may have related to the interview or interview process.

The combination of factors that make up an ideal interview space for children with autism were also considered. Factors included sensory noise, lighting, privacy, strong odours, and sitting at eye level but not making constant eye contact as this can be too confronting (Cridland, Caputi, Jones, & Magee, 2015). As the interviewer was a visitor to the schools where the interviews were conducted, control over the interview space was limited. Even so it was helpful to reflect on the potential needs of participants when entering an interview space.

The pressure of the interview situation can be an additional barrier to participation in research for children with autism. To address this, multiple means by which the children could express themselves during the interview were provided. It was thought that providing different options for responding could help some participants minimise anxiety they may have when they are only given the option to respond verbally (Bagnoli, 2009). Honeybourne (2015) believed that interview schedules consisting solely of open-ended questions are not necessarily an effective way to elicit information from children. The provision of multiple response modalities can also provide a joint focal point for the participant and interviewer, as it can take the emphasis off face to face verbal communication (Goodall, 2019). Additional means of responding selected for this study included options to point to answers, physically moving around to stand on A4 numbers, and writing or drawing responses. For, the ‘How do you find being at school?’ question students were invited to bring a drawing to the interview. This was not only done to aid in building rapport but also to help prompt conversation if required for other interview questions. Children who did not bring a drawing had the option of drawing or writing about how they see themselves at school in addition to answering verbally during the interview.

The Interview schedule

Several activities were purposefully incorporated into the interview as doing so has been found to reduce the intensity of the interview process for some children (Mauthner, 1997). The interview schedule consisted of open-ended main theme questions and subsequent follow up questions designed to clarify initial answers or prompt for additional information when required (Kallio et al., 2016) (Picture 1). Warm up questions were based around non interview topics. These were used to ease into the interview questions and minimise participant nervousness.

Picture 1: Interview schedule

  • Tell me about who is in your family?
  • What sorts of things do you like doing?
  • What other things are you interested in?
  • How else would you describe yourself?
  • Would you say anything else if you were describing yourself to a new teacher?
  • What do you think about school?
  • Participant can give a score out of 10 – this can be interactive with the participant standing on big numbers set out on the floor or verbally giving a score out of 10.
  • What is being at school like for you?
  • Children were asked in the information sheet to bring to the interview a drawing showing what being at school is like for them. This was optional. For children who did not bring a picture they had the option to draw a picture during the interview. It is also suggested that they could add words around the drawing. For children who did draw a picture they are asked to explain and describe their picture from their perspective.
  • The next question is interested in your views of what makes school a good place to be.
  • What do you think is a good word to use when you feel school is a good place to be?
  • If the participant come up with their own word use this in place of the word “belonging”.

For the next question you are welcome to draw or write your respond as well as verbally tell me what you think.

  • What does belonging mean to you?
  • Follow up question if needed: What else needs to happen for you to feel a sense of belonging when you are at school?
  • The next questions are interested in hearing about what your think your teachers do well and potentially could do more of to help you with your learning.
  • What do your teachers do that helps you with your learning?
  • Is there anything that you would like your teacher to do more of?



Comment on interview schedule

A capacity building favourite food theme activity was used to familiarise the participants with the top three ranking activity (Goodall, 2019). Top three activities were included as an interactive tool based on research conducted by Clark (2012). It was decided this activity would be modified from ranking nine items in Clark’s study to choosing three top items from a menu of nine laminated cards set out using a consistent format in rows of three (Picture 2). Focusing on a smaller number rather than nine items was judged to be helpful for students with auditory and visual processing difficulties, something that can accompany autism (Kallio et al., 2016).

Findings from the literature review as to what can be ‘supportive’ and ‘potential worries’ at school were used to determine which items to include in these activities. After conducting the pilot and first participant interview and thinking about the question “What is the child making of this?” it was decided to change the labels of the activities as these participants seemed reluctant to engage in the activity when framed in terms of worries (Westcott & Littleton, 2005). The “supportive aspects” label was changed to “items for your tool kit for school”. And “potential worries” was changed to, “If your Principal could give you superpowers what would you take away from school?”. Students also had the option of adding their own thoughts if the cards did not show things that in their experience acted as potential worries or supports at school.


Picture 2 Laminated cards for choice activity

Now we are going to move on and do a top three ranking activity. First, we will start off with these nine types of different food. The cards are… (go through the cards with the participant).

Can you please pick your top three favourite foods?

This first ranking activity is designed as a capacity building activity.

Food options provided:

Ice cream Chocolate Pizza
Spaghetti Bolognese Fish and Chips Sushi
Hamburger Indian curry Toast & Scrambled Eggs


If you could ask your principal to put three of the following cards in your tool kit for school which cards would you choose?

Having friends at school My teacher understands my needs When feeling stressed or anxious I have a safe place to go
During break and lunch time I have activities to do Work in class based around my interests Able to take breaks from class work when I need to
Having visual supports and schedules at school Low numbers of children in my class People understand me for who I am


The next activity is also a top three activity but this one involves superpowers.

If your school principal could give you superpowers, and you could take three of the following cards away while at school, which cards would you take away?

When stressed not having a quiet place to go The classroom being too busy and noisy Lunch time and other break times at school
Being bullied Not been given the space to socialise with other children at school Being in the playground
People having low expectations of my academic ability Being at school for full school days (9-3pm) Too many children in my class


In the interview, children were also asked to rate how they found being at school out of ten on a Likert scale. They had the option of providing their answer verbally, by pointing to their rating on an A4 printed sheet, or by moving around and standing on the equivalent rating number card on the floor. In addition, a laminated ‘break’ card was placed next to participants during the interview. They were told they could pick up the card up at any time if they wanted a break.

Piloting the interview

A pilot interview was conducted with a student ‘Siena’. Although she did not have characteristics of autism, she fitted the inclusion criteria in other respects; she was in the same age group as the adolescent participants and was able to verbally understand and respond to interview questions. Siena suggested it would be good for students to have something to do with their hands during the interview, she thought it would be useful to have a Rubik’s cube or other items to fiddle with. As a result of this feedback a variety of fidget toys were purchased and put into a small box to make available to participants during the interviews.

She also provided feedback on the interview schedule. She liked the “pick your top three” activity as these questions suggested possible answers, instead of it being expected participants come up with responses in their own words. In terms of the top three activities through the process of conducting the trial interview it was decided the wording of the questions for these activities should change. During this pilot interview it felt awkward presenting the top three activity questions in terms of worries and supports and the participant seemed reluctant to answer this question perhaps has the interviewer did not know the participant that well. This was especially true for the question regarding worries. As a result the interview questions were changed so that they were framed in less personal terms; instead of reference to “supports” the question was changed to being in terms of a “tool kit for school”, and “superpowers” instead of “worries”.

As a result of the feedback from the pilot interview a box of sensory toys was available to the participants during the interview. This provided the participants with something to do with their hands which took the need away for sustained eye contact and gave the interview participants something other than the interview questions to focus attention on.

Conducting the interview

The interviewer maintained an awareness of space during the interviews. It was not possible to control the location of the interviews as this was determined by the family or LSC. One interview was conducted in a café. Similar to the research conducted by Beteta (2009), the child seemed a bit distracted by the background noise and had to ask the interviewer to repeat a number of the interview questions a few times so that he could hear the questions being asked. The other six interviews were conducted in school meeting rooms. These rooms were good places for the interviews as the student and interviewer were the only people present which meant that focus was able to be sustained on the interview process and student confidentiality could be maintained.

In terms of interview techniques the interviewer tried to maintain a slow verbal pace when asking questions; this has been found to suit the processing speed of participants as it facilitates accurate interpretation (Sachse et al., 2013). Some participants needed the same questions repeated two or three times, so they were able to understand what was being asked. One of the students would sometimes be in the middle of thinking about his response and would lose his train of thought. He would then need the question repeated so he could refocus on what was being asked. For the multichoice top three activities the interviewer would offer to read out the nine items for each question. It was not assumed that all participants had the ability to read; several the students preferred having the items read out as perhaps they could not read them independently.

To build rapport other interview techniques included the use of humour, repeating back the participants viewpoint, and maintaining a friendly manner with participants was used. Remaining silent where appropriate to allow the participants more space to think aloud was another interview strategy used (Kallio et al., 2016). The interviewer writing notes during the interviews was also used as the note writing provided a focal point that did not involve making eye contact which may have helped some interviewees feel more comfortable.

With regards to the additional modalities for answering questions none of the students brought along a drawing of themselves at school or wanted to draw one during the interview. Drawing paper, pens and pencils were on the table available for the participants to use during the interview but none of the participants choose to use them. The “top three” item activities provided an additional means by which participants could communicate their answers and took the emphasis off just responding verbally (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). The cards also acted as a tool that was helpful for stimulating conversation (Clark, 2012). For the ‘How do you find being at school?’ question none of the students used the floor version of the one to ten Likert scale. In the café it was not appropriate to lay it out as there were other patrons there. It was also not appropriate to use the floor Likert scale in the interview rooms provided by the participating schools. These rooms were small and the floor space was not big enough to lay it out fully.


          By listening to children, the current study identified aspects of schooling that support the inclusion of adolescent children with autism, as well as some areas of everyday practice and experience that could be strengthened for them. This study was interested to find out from participants what ‘belonging’ at school meant to them.

This study used the UNCRC as a guide and viewed inclusion from a child’s rights perspective. Inclusion was viewed as the practical application of every child’s right to education (Article 28). Children with autism are underrepresented in research related to inclusion. Supporting this group to have their say was therefore a key goal of the study. UNCRC Article 28, the right to education, was viewed in conjunction with Article 12, children’s right to have their say on matters that affect them. In relation to Article 12, Lundy’s (2007) conceptualisation of this article in the form of the Model of Participation was referred to throughout the research process to consider this group’s needs and what steps might be taken to accommodate and support these students to express their views. For this group of participants, specific attention was given to sensory considerations, mental processing speed, and providing advanced warning of what to expect during the interview so that the interview process did not seem too daunting for the participants.


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The Impact of Innovative Learning Environments on Sensory Processing Difficulties: Students’ Perspectives

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

The Impact of Innovative Learning Environments on Sensory Processing Difficulties: Students’ Perspectives

Rachael Busch & Vijaya Dharan – Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Busch, R. & Dharan, V. (2021). The Impact of Innovative Learning Environments on Sensory Processing Difficulties: Students’ Perspectives.  International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


New Zealand’s education policy and practice is fast moving towards innovative and collaborative approaches to learning, to improve outcomes for all students. One of the ways to achieve this has been creating learning environments that foster acceptance of diversity, build relationships, and enable the active participation of students through Innovative or Flexible learning environments. Current literature, however, suggests that the move to collaborative learning spaces and the introduction of Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) has been inconsistent, with a lack of understanding of the pedagogical nuances to fully realise their inclusive capacity. This article draws from a study that examined students’ participatory rights under the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) with a focus on Article 23.1 in enabling students with Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD) to actively participate in their learning. Using a qualitative design, the study explored the perspectives and experiences of 10 secondary school students with SPD in an ILE setting. The findings highlighted the positive impact of ILE and the social benefits of schooling. The students showed a strong preference for ILE over traditional classrooms, as it created a learning environment that afforded more opportunities to work with their peers. These social affordances were at times constrained in ways the physical spaces were utilised, without due consideration to their acoustic sensitivities. One of the key implications of this study was the need for a more sophisticated pedagogy that would maximise the benefits that ILEs offer, to enhance the participation of students with SPD. The study demonstrated a high level of perceptiveness and insightfulness of the students that must be heard and acted upon as a matter of their rights to actively participate in their learning communities.

Keywords:learning environments; sensory processing, student voice; pedagogy, children’s rights


Over recent decades, New Zealand Education policies and practices have shifted to being inclusive of all learners. The Education & Training Act (2020), provides all students, regardless of ability or disability, the right to attend their local school. In accordance with national and international legislation and imperatives, the New Zealand education system has embraced a rights-based inclusive model of education that ensures every child the right to access quality education. Central to this inclusive notion is the holistic approach to student well-being, that fosters acceptance, builds relationships and enables students to be active participants in their learning community (MacArthur & Rutherford, 2016; Ministry of Education, 2020).

Meaningful participation of all children require school policies and classroom practices that upholds and supports the learning of all children. However, as MacArthur and Rutherford (2016) argue, current policies in the New Zealand education system continue to marginalise some students, and call for more equitable, inclusive systems that are responsiveness to the needs of all children. Equitable access is about the participation, and agency of children and young people in their learning. At the core of participation is active engagement in educational experiences that are essential for every individual’s development and well-being. Being actively involved in their learning can be challenging and is influenced by personal and environmental characteristics for many children with diverse needs, one of them being inadequate teacher knowledge and skills to facilitate learning that supports and nurtures the capabilities of all students (Florian, 2014). Schools have an ethical and legal obligation to recognise student diversity, to value their unique contribution to society and preserve every child’s fundamental right to participate (Florian, 2014; MacArthur et al., 2018).

The premise of Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) is that they encourage students to be active players in their learning (Charteris & Smardon, 2019; Quinn & Owen, 2014). Despite growing research on ILEs, the perspectives of students with SPD in them is relatively sparse. This article is based on a study predicated on children’s rights and explored ways in which Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) supported the right of students with sensory processing needs (SPD) to learn. Sensory Processing Difficulties or SPD (also referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction), is a collection of conditions that relate to difficulties in the central nervous system (CNS) to detect, interpret, modulate, and respond to internal and external sensory stimuli. Sensory processing difficulties often occur as a co-morbid condition in individuals with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Dunn, 2008; Ghanizadeh, 2011), auditory processing difficulties and anxiety (Khare & Mullick, 2009). Participating in classrooms can be challenging for students who have difficulty in processing sensory information. Thus, the shift to both inclusive and innovative schooling rests on the planned use of the physical space, as well as a well-tailored pedagogy that will enable the participation of all students (Khare & Mullick, 2009). As there is limited research on the perspectives of students with SPD, their experiences of learning in an ILE can contribute to educators’ knowledge of how these future focused learning environments both enable and create barriers for students with diverse needs.

Innovative Learning Environments and SPD

In New Zealand there has been a shift from traditional teaching to new innovative ways of learning in line with the changing 21st-century world that requires digital literacy, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving (Cardno et al., 2017; OECD, 2015). In response to these changing paradigms, traditional classrooms are moving to be Innovative Learning Environments (ILE), also referred to as Modern Learning Environments and Flexible Learning Environments. ILEs are flexible learning spaces that foster an inclusive learning environment that is student-centred, self-directed, and more attuned to individual difference (Ministry of Education, 2020). ILE are designed to afford schools and teachers to modify and adapt the physical, social, and pedagogical context of learning in a bespoke manner to be responsive to all learners.

The conception of innovative learning was founded in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) project, and aimed at understanding the modern child, their fast-changing world, especially in the digital age, and its implication for their education and learning. A second and possibly crucial driver for the research into learning was the worldwide economic push to identify the capability of education systems to develop and maintain “knowledge, skills and capacities” (OECD, 2015, p.16). With this came a shift from knowledge acquisition to learning about learning and innovative systems—systems that proactively adapt and change with the world children live in, equipping students with the necessary skills to become powerful learners, skilled workers and engaged global citizens (OECD, 2015).

ILEs are interconnected ecosystem of people (learners, educators, whānau, wider communities; pedagogical practice; and the physical space where learning takes place (Ministry of Education, 2020; OECD, 2015). Learners become the centre of teaching and learning through flexible classroom teaching and the flexible spaces in them are designed to maximise learning opportunities for all students (Ministry of Education, 2020). Flexible learning within ILEs utilises multi grouping of students and facilitates social and collaborative learning to where students learn with and from their peers (Ministry of Education, 2020; OECD, 2015). In short, the social context of learning in ILEs is geared up to promote self-directed and self-regulated learners (Ministry of Education, 2020; OECD, 2015).

Independent Learning Environments has many affordances conducive to student-centred learning, but it has not been without its critics, or concerns. Central to the effectiveness of ILE is a sound understanding of its foundational focus on student-centred learning (Kedian & West-Burnham, 2017; Smardon et al, 2015). A study by Bradbeer et al. (2017) suggests a lack of evidence in the suitability of ILE and 21st-century learning to support the significant investment in ILEs. There are still significant amounts of teacher-centric pedagogy in ILEs (Bradbeer et al. 2017). While there is a willingness to modify physical spaces, there is less understanding of the pedagogical nuances of ILE, and the systemic changes required to ways of working (Byers et al, 2018).

At a conceptual level, it would appear that the physical space and pedagogy of ILE would support the needs of students with SPD. However, research seeking the perspectives of school leaders, teachers and parents suggest that while the collaborative nature of ILEs do offer ample opportunities for collaborative learning and social interactions, it also increases anxiety levels for children with SPD who have difficulties in communication and social interactions (Khare & Mullick, 2009). While the large open spaces of ILEs provide a range of physical options for learning activities, other variables such as larger class sizes and constant movement of students, acoustics and lighting can be over stimulating and challenging for those with SPD (Jones et al, 2020; Khare & Mullick, 2009; Stackhouse, 2017). After nearly a decade of the introduction of ILEs in New Zealand, there remains varying degrees of teacher knowledge and professional learning (Cardno et al., 2017; Kedian & West-Burnham, 2017; Smardon et al., 2015).

Child Rights and Education

At the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC), the United Nations adopted the comprehensive Human Rights treaty that recognised, defined and enshrined universal principles and standards for the status and treatment of children in international law. The UNCRC acknowledges that children and young people are both members and stakeholders in society (Lundy, 2007; MacArthur & Rutherford, 2016). Accordingly, the UNCRC recognises child’s rights inherent to all humans, and defines universal principles and obligations for the treatment and protection of children and their well-being. The fundamental principles of the UNCRC are the provision of growth and development through housing, food, education, and leisure; protection against exploitation, abuse, and discrimination; and participation.

Of the 52 articles identified in UNCRC, it is largely Article 12 that lays the foundations for the commitment to develop systems and practices that provide children and young people with opportunities to exercise their rights to voice their views and participate in decision-making (Lundy, 2018). Furthermore, Article 2 of the UNCRC protects children’s rights without discrimination of any kind, including that of the rights of children with disabilities to actively participate in their community. The UNCRC convention sets a clear mandate to ensure that children with diverse needs are afforded equal opportunity to voice their perspectives and be able to exercise their right to actively participate in their learning community. Further, as a signatory to the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (The United Nations, 2006), New Zealand has a legal obligation to ensure that educational institutions and schools promote and protect the rights of children with diverse needs to help them reach their full potential (CRPD Article 24). Yet, voices of children and young people are significantly underrepresented, although they can provide insights that are very different from those of teachers and school leaders (Hafen et al., 2012; MacArthur & Rutherford, 2016). Children must be viewed as competent and valuable social actors whose experiences and views provide valuable insights and information (Smith, 2016). Failure to include their perspectives amounts to overlooking their rights to contribute to matters that are relevant to them. Lundy (2007) calls for upholding the legal and ethical obligations of the UNCRC’s Article 12 by moving beyond tokenism and create genuine spaces for students to be heard and influence decision-making.

The fundamental building block of ILE is the active construction and social negotiation of learning that embraces learner agency, where students are active participants in their learning.


This study explored the affordances and barriers of the social and physical dimensions of ILEs on the active participation and learning of students with Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD). Five girls and five boys with Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD), or co-occurring SPD, aged 13–15, in Years 9 and 10 at school participated.  The qualitative approach of semi-structured interviews enabled the exploration of contextual relationships and individual realities of the students who learn in an ILE (Braun & Clark, 2013; Punch, 2014). The perspectives of the students on their learning were insightful in both the social and physical contexts of their learning environment. The participants were identified by the school and consent to participate was obtained from both parents and the students.  Data were collected through individual face-to-face interviews using semi-structured, open-ended questions (Braun & Clark, 2013), that allowed for flexibility and in-depth responses from participants that provided insights into their experiences of learning in the social and physical dimensions of an ILE.  Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework was used to explore the interconnected relationships between the dynamic structures of the social and physical space of an ILE and how they interact with, and impact on, the learning and development of young people with sensory processing disorder.

Social Learning Context

The findings reflected the students’ experiences and preferences for independent and group work, and the positive aspects as well as challenges they experienced in the ILE. A founding principle of ILE is the belief that as humans we are social and collaborative beings, accordingly learning must be social (Ministry of Education, 2020; OECD, 2015). Within the social context of learning, three key ideas emerged: preference for learning; collaborative learning; and friendships, which enhanced their learning and participation.

In the socially demanding setting of their ILEs, the students were provided opportunities to work independently as well as in a group. Some of the students had difficulties working independently because they could not learn from their peers when tasks were difficult. For them, the context of group work afforded mutual support for learning from one another.

There’s less work if I get partnered with a really good person we get a lot of work done because we split it up and manage it easier […] you also have different skills in a group, someone might be really good at designing posters and someone might be good at finding information. (Sara, Year 10)

Because if my friend is doing work then I want to do it. My friends always want to do work and they tell me to do it; they help me focus. (Austin, Year 9)

On the contrary, for some, group work was difficult and distracting. For these students working independently afforded a sense of greater autonomy.

Usually when I’m in a group of people I have to step up and be the leader to get them to focus because most of the kids in my class, they can be a bit silly…it’s very hard for me to focus so I get distracted or distract others sometimes. (Mark, Year 10)

I always know how to write things and when other people do it it’s confusing and it confuses me sometimes. (Kim, Year 9)

Last year I worked with a few of my friends on a group project, it was social studies and we had this presentation thing and I was the only one person doing work while the others were just playing games. (Ethan, Year 10)

Joshua (Year 10) expanded on how he copes with the distractions of group work, “if people are distracting me, I will carry on doing my work on my own and just not participate in the group”.

The students felt there was less pressure when working independently as they need not have to worry about letting their group down.

There’s no one else trying to put their opinions in or ideas. It can be exactly what I want. Also, there’s a lot of pressure because we have to set our own deadlines sometimes and I might not be able to finish it by then and I’m letting my group down. (Sara, Year 10)

Despite the advantages of working independently, there was a strong preference for working with friends. Friend groups significantly enhanced collaboration and supported their learning, as they knew and understood each other’s capabilities and differences.

My friends help me lots because I find school really hard work. (Jack, Year 9)

I usually engage with learning with people I know like my friend group because it’s awkward talking with other people. I get to work beside someone and I can rely on them more. (Hana, Year 9)

Impact of Physical Space

A feature of ILE is the shared space of large open classrooms, which these students found both supportive as well as being a barrier to their learning. Two inter-related subthemes emerged on the impact of the physical space on their learning—Noise and Class size.

The most significant and commonly discussed challenge of the ILE was ‘noise’. All the students liked the freedom of the large open spaces and breakout rooms to learn, but at times the acoustics was a major source of distraction, given their auditory sensitivity. Children reported distractions arising through the open space of the classroom. Physically, acoustically, and visually the classrooms were distractive, as were the large number of students within these spaces.

It’s awkward and spacious and more people. Everyone is moving. It gets loud a lot. (Hana, Year 9)

As soon as one teacher can’t get control of the class that class gets noisy and then another class starts to get noisy and then no one is doing their work. And then there is all the noise and distractions, and I can’t focus on what I’m doing. (Sara, Year 10)

Noise levels had a direct impact on their ability to focus and concentrate:

Noise, lots of things going on at one time. I can only focus on one thing usually, so it’s very hard for me to focus when there are lots of people around me and lots of people talking. (Mark, Year 10)

When it’s noisy I just sit there. (Jack, Year 9)

I don’t really do anything, I just sit there. (Anahera, Year 9)

Learning for long periods of time in a noisy environment was tiring and had an impact on students’ energy levels. Gloria (Year 9) reported she felt exhausted after school, “because I struggle filtering out noise and so lots of people in the space is so tiring”. Some of the students went to closed rooms and used headphones with music playing to filter out the noise.

Despite their sensitivities to noise, an important finding of this study was that many of the participants preferred the open design of an ILE to their traditional classrooms. With this preference came the key message from the students to not overcrowd ILEs.

I do think I prefer the open space than the old small ones. But don’t merge three other classes half the time, you feel lost. (Joshua, Year 10).


ILEs are designed with multiple spaces including breakout areas that promote social interactions and enables students and teachers the flexibility to use areas in different ways (Ministry of Education, 2020). Key features of pedagogy in an ILE is the use of collaborative working patterns, aimed at utilising both teachers’ and students’ strengths and expertise. ILEs are designed to provide flexible learning opportunities for students to work both independently and in social groups to meet the needs of students.

Despite a general assumption that students with SPD and other conditions that are characterised as having sensory sensitivities struggle in socially demanding ILEs, half of the participants preferred to work in collaborative groups, and found it to be a positive learning experience as seen in earlier studies (e.g., Magen-Nagar & Steinberger, 2017). The flexibility of learning tasks and the space afforded choices for students to work either in groups, or independently. Hafen et al. (2012), suggest that autonomy and a sense of control over one’s choices are deeply influential in promoting engagement and participation of adolescents; the social environment of ILE’s provided opportunities for these students to exercise their autonomy and their preference for working. The dynamics within the social contexts of the classroom played a pivotal role in determining the extent to which they were involved in, and engaged with, their learning. Overall, the findings suggest that social, collaborative learning and flexibility of group work enabled the students to engage meaningfully with their learning.

The physical space of a classroom organisation has a sizable influence on students’ learning (Jones et al., 2020). The notable finding of this study was the impact of noise level on participants’ given their sensory sensitivities. While for some working independently was a confidence booster, often they worked independently not by choice, but due to inadequate considerations given to their acoustic sensitivities. It resulted in learner distraction, disengagement, and fatigue, with students experiencing sensory overload (Foxe et al., 2020; Ghanizadeh, 2011). Simple ecological adaptations by teachers such as allowing them to use devices like headphones to filter noise levels, alleviated distress, and decreased distractibility in the learning spaces.

The Ministry of Education (2020) require ILE classrooms to have specific architectural design elements to reduce noise. However, in addition to best designing, pedagogical practices of teachers must undergo some transformational changes as ILEs will not function adequately without suitable pedagogy (Kariippanon et al., 2019; Whitlock, 2016). One of the key features of ILEs is the co-sharing and co-teaching of classes in a common space. Therefore, crucial to student participation is teachers’ competence in capitalising on the affordances of the physical space, understanding the specific learning requirements of students and developing practical and authentic strategies to mitigate environmental challenges. More importantly, schools have a legal obligation to promote the active participation of children and young people in all aspects of their learning by acknowledging their right to be heard on what supports their learning (Lundy, 2007; Quinn and Owen, 2014).


The study explored the impact of ILEs on students’ rights to actively engage in their learning community in accordance with UNCRC Article 23.1, which states, “a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community”. The findings suggest that ILEs are successful in providing autonomy and choice, and in developing citizenship by affording students the opportunity to be actively involved in their learning. Although sensory challenges can become barriers to learning, students with SPD thrive within supportive and carefully structured environments, where teachers play a critical role in providing carefully considered collaborative learning experiences. The preference for independent and group learning even within this small cohort of students, offer valuable insights as to how teachers can support students with SPD within the context of an Innovative Learning Environment (ILE).

When students identify class sizes and noise levels as barriers in ILEs, it highlights the fact the need for paying more attention to the pedagogical adaptations required in these learning environments. In an attempt to remain future focused, ILEs are capable of evolving and adapting to enable students to actively participate in their learning. Yet, the conceptual ideals of ILE pedagogy is still work in progress. It is possibly due to the affordances of flexible learning spaces are viewed from teachers’ perspectives and benefits of collaborative planning and teaching. While what remains largely unexplored is the impact of noise levels and effective use of the physical environment (Kariippanon et al., 2019). Students with SPD have identified their difficulties in coping with noise levels and large class sizes. Therefore. to ensure that learning environments are equitable, it is vital to respond to their concerns through practical ecological adaptations. This study has shown that irrespective of their sensory challenges students are insightful of what supports their active participation and learning. They can contribute to ways in which their learning can be further enhanced in Innovative Learning Environments, which was preferred over traditional classrooms. Young people’s voices must inform the designing of pedagogy in these future focused learning spaces.


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Kia Manaaki te Tangata: Rangatahi Māori Perspectives on Their Rights as Indigenous Youth to Whānau Ora and Collective Wellbeing

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Kia Manaaki te Tangata: Rangatahi Māori Perspectives on Their Rights as Indigenous Youth to Whānau Ora and Collective Wellbeing

Catherine Page & Sarika Rona – Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Page, C. & Rona, S. (2021). Kia Manaaki te Tangata: Rangatahi Māori Perspectives on Their Rights as Indigenous Youth to Whānau Ora and Collective Wellbeing.  International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


Recognition of children’s rights to participation, voice and influence on what wellbeing means to children has increased in recent times in Aotearoa New Zealand. This article argues that rangatahi Māori offer unique perspectives and solutions for the wellbeing of whānau Māori. Taking a kaupapa Māori methodological and theoretical stance, this report explores how urban rangatahi from Te Ōnewanewa conceptualise whānau ora and understand their rights as tāngata whenua to whānau ora. The findings from this study suggest that the rangatahi participants view connection with whānau, to ūkaipo, to their Māoritanga, and to wairua as integral factors that contribute whānau wellbeing. Relationships underpinned by aroha and manaakitanga support whānau ora and are supports and indicators that their whānau are well. This report supports previous research which asserts that whānau are essential to wellbeing of rangatahi, and also highlights how rangatahi are rangatira of today within their whānau, hapū and iwi.

Keywords: Indigenous, youth, rangatahi, Māori, children’s rights, wellbeing, whānau ora


Traditionally, the development, participation, and survival of mokopuna Māori was protected through cultural practices, processes, rituals and knowledge (Mead, 2016). Tikanga grounded in a ‘collective ethic of care’ (Simmonds et al., 2019) were exercised by whānau, hapū and iwi (Moeke-Pickering, 1996). Waiata, oriori, mōteatea, pūrākau and whakataukī highlight the treasured status of mokopuna as rangatira. This article is based on this premise, advocating that rangatahi are insightful, creative and have solutions for transformative change now, as well as future aspirations for their whānau (Tawhai, 2016).

Within the context of recent neo-liberal reforms, social indicators in youth suicide, youth unemployment and the increase in youth homelessness indicate that tāngata whenua rights to wellbeing are not being met.  This social crisis has impacted Māori youth significantly, who are overrepresented in national statistics in these areas (Housing First Auckland, 2018). The Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2015) has expressed the urgent need to address the wider economic, political and systemic issues, which result in a disproportionate number of Māori and Pasifika children living in poverty. Given the historic failure of government interventions for wellbeing, tāngata whenua rights-based advocacy is necessary for meaningful progression.


Tāngata Whenua Rights

Government wellbeing measures and rights-based frameworks focus on the individual and fail to recognise that “the wellbeing of tamariki Māori is inextricable from the wellbeing of whānau (Māori Affairs Committee, 2013, p. 5).” Tāngata whenua rights-based frameworks disrupt the dominant discourse, recentring kaupapa Māori collective understandings of wellbeing (King et al., 2018). Children’s rights advocates are challenged to decolonise the prominent western notion of ‘rights.’ King, Cormack, and Kōpua (2018) argue that only when tāngata whenua rights are realised, can international human rights be useful.

The Oranga Mokopuna framework by King et al (2018), affirms that tāngata whenua rights originate in whakapapa and tikanga, the soil and roots of te pā harakeke. He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene (He Whakaputanga) and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Te Tiriti) are the founding documents between Māori and the crown and represent the mātua. He Whakaputanga recognises that Aotearoa is an independent state, where rangatira and hapū have full sovereign power. Te Tiriti further affirms He Whakaputanga, and articulates mokopuna Māori rights to tino rangatiratanga, and kāwanatanga over their whānau wellbeing and their status as protected taonga in legislation.

Mokopuna Māori rights to collective wellbeing are supported by international conventions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) is one of many international safeguards that supports the wellbeing of whānau. King et al (2018) and Libesman (2007) note how Article 30 guarantees collective cultural rights of Indigenous children. Espejo and Yaksic (2018) suggest that a more representative conceptualisation of Indigenous children’s best interest is emerging, where collective rights are jointly acknowledged. This is reflected in Article Five which states

that ‘family’ … refers to a variety of arrangements…including…the extended family, and other traditional and modern community-based arrangements… (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child., 2005).

 Rangatahi Voice

Rangatahi Māori have always held important roles and contributed to the wellbeing of whānau, iwi and hapū. Traditionally their voices were heard, their mana was recognised, and they were active catalysts for change (Tawhai, 2016). Today rangatahi are at the forefront of issues on housing, te reo Māori revitalisation, climate change, and hapū and iwi advancement. Yet the mana of youth is often overlooked in research, which has typically highlighted deficits and positioned rangatahi Māori as problems to be solved (Smith, 2012). A tāngata whenua rights approach to whānau ora changes the dialogue from what is the matter with rangatahi, to what matters for rangatahi.

In Tāmaki Makaurau, Māori make up 25 percent of the total Māori population. Within this population over half are aged under 25 years and nearly a third under 15 years (Auckland Council Research and Evaluation Unit, 2020). Although rangatahi make up a significant percentage of the Māori population, rangatahi voice is often missed or overlooked when drafting policy and legislation (Landsown, 2011).

Rangatahi are often weaved into narratives that emphasise ‘future potential’, and policy and practice are promoted as being in ‘the best interest’ for their ‘futures (Tawhai, 2016).’ This article argues that rangatahi live in the past, present and future within their whānau, hapū and iwi. Drawing strength and inspiration from their tūpuna, rangatahi are creative problem solvers for issues we face today, for the wellbeing of future generations.


Whānau has always been the foundation of collective and collaborative life. Moeke-Pickering (1996) notes that traditionally it was within whānau, where members learnt tikanga, and ture. An ethic of care (Simmonds et al., 2019) underpinned whānau practices and protocols. Responsibilities and obligations were maintained, and behaviour was controlled through tapu and makutu. Any action that disrespected the mana of an individual, also harmed the wider whānau. This resulted in a restorative process of appropriate redress, to restore the mana of those impacted. Child rearing practices are captured throughout mōteatea, waiata, oriori, whakataukī and pūrākau. Traditionally tūpuna had the most influential and important role in guiding the whānau, who were informed by the atua and tūpuna stories passed down through generations. Tūpuna had the primary parenting responsibilities, however raising tamariki was collective. This mātauranga is captured in the whakataukī ‘Matua Rautia’ to raise your children collectively (Simmonds et al., 2019).  Whānau are positioned within a wider whakapapa of physical and spiritual relations. Walker (2013) suggests that whānau is a continuum that transcends both vertically and horizontally. This definition recognises the importance of whānau relationships with the spiritual realm. Marsden (1992) supports this view, stating that Māori walk between two worlds, “with roots in the earth and crown in the heavens (p.12).” The intrinsic connection between these social institutions, where whānau is the centre which spreads out to hapū, iwi, and te ao wairua, highlights the interwoven nature of the Māori worldview.

The impacts of colonialism and subsequent urbanisation of Māori whānau completely disrupted whānau dynamics and wellbeing (Metge, 2014). The raupatu resulted in hapū and iwi losing 95% of their land. Moeke-Pickering (1996) notes how this devastation reduced Māori opportunity to experience living, working, learning and developing economic and social prosperity from their tribal lands. Smith (2012) highlights how this shift away from whenua and traditional ways of living fostered the decline of te reo Māori, cultural practices and the colonisation of thinking and knowledge.

Another major disruption for the whānau unit was the state enforced process of urbanisation. Away from papakāinga and support networks, whānau had become smaller, and the responsibilities of individuals within whānau increased (Moeke-Pickering, 1996). These changes in familial structures coupled with the confiscation of land, suppression of traditional rongoā and healing practices, and forced assimilation of culture and language, eroded traditional Māori wellbeing. The intergenerational effects are seen today in entrenched inequities across the health, housing and education sectors (Durie, 2011).

Despite the destructive impact of colonization in Aotearoa New Zealand, the whānau unit remains as the cornerstone of Māori culture. In response to rapid urbanisation whānau have adapted as two main groups, kaupapa whānau and whakapapa whānau (Metge, 2014). Whakapapa whānau relate to whānau based on ancestral descent, whereas kaupapa whānau relations are connected through a common purpose. Durie (2011) suggests that whānau engagement in cultural practices remains strong despite the evolving terminology. Edwards, McCreanor, and Moeke-Barnes (2007) research with urban rangatahi Māori supports this. Some participants lived in single parent homes, however whānau members continued to look to extended family relationships first for advice and support. Edwards et al argue (2007) that these examples highlight the robustness and durability of whānau, in the face of adversity.




Whānau Ora

Māori wellbeing is underpinned by the collective premise which is reflected in all aspects of Te Ao Māori. Whānau health and wellbeing is literally translated as whānau ora.  Lawson Te Aho (2010) and Boulton and Gifford (2014) argue that the translation of whānau ora, fails to capture the contextual, multi-dimensional, concept that stems from distinctly Māori values. Furthermore, Lawson Te Aho (2010) adds that whānau ora is indivisible. For example children’s mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing is influenced, supported, and contained within whānau relationships.

Whānau ora is both an outcome and a determinant of individual wellbeing (Durie, 2011). In the national research project ‘What Makes a Good Life’ children reported that whānau should be well for children to be well, and whānau should be involved in making things better (Office of the Children’s Commissioner & Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children, 2019). The Māori Affairs Committee (2013) stated that “acknowledging the importance of collective identity for a Māori child is a first step in realising the potential of a whanau-centred approach to their wellbeing (p. 5)”.

Simmonds et al (2019) emphasise that we need to have measures and frameworks that we understand and know when we have achieved good health. Several Māori researchers have presented frameworks to capture the various determiners of Māori wellbeing (Cram, 2019; Durie, 2011; Pere, 1997; Whānau Ora Taskforce, 2010). While authors highlight how determiners can differ between whānau, hapū and iwi, there is some consensus among the frameworks. Most literature reports how Māori wellbeing is interconnected, intergenerational, multi-dimensional and contextually defined.


Mokopuna Māori rights

Several researchers have noted the complexities between Indigenous peoples and human rights (Doel-Mackaway, 2019; Espejo-Yaksic, 2018; King et al., 2018; Libesman, 2007; Mikaere, 2007; Paton, 2017). Mikaere (2007) notes that the ideology behind the United Nations bestowing rights upon Indigenous people is problematic in itself. Lundy (2019) recognises this critique, stating that the development of the UNCROC was a flawed compromise, but it remains flexible to those who want to challenge discrimination and inequality. Despite this, King et al (2018) argue that when considering mokopuna Māori rights, there needs to be caution and awareness of these tensions.

King et al (2018) offer a framework to contextualise children’s rights in Aotearoa. Their framework, Oranga Mokopuna, recentres Indigenous perspectives, and frame mokopuna Māori rights, within tāngata whenua rights. Oranga Mokopuna draws on mātauranga Maori understandings of how wellbeing is protected and positions international conventions as additional supports. Mokopuna are positioned as future rangatira, who blossom when the harakeke is supported to grow.


Rangatahi Voice

In Aotearoa, several authors have contributed research focussed on mokopuna Māori rights, participation and voice. Berryman and Eley (2018) have highlighted rangatahi voice on their rights to culture, education, and discrimination. Their findings suggest that rangatahi Māori wellbeing is being undermined by underlying discrimination in English-medium schools. Rangatahi Māori reported that despite government efforts their rights are not being fulfilled across the education sector (Berryman & Eley, 2018).

Similarly, McRae, Macfarlane, Webber, and Cookson-Cox (2010), have included rangatahi Māori voice in their work, in relation to identity, culture and educational success. Their model, Ka Awatea Mana, outlines determiners for rangatahi Māori success from Te Arawa. This project is iwi specific and relates how general determiners such as relationships, wellbeing, values, and identity are explored within Te Arawa context. Webber (2011) has written extensively on identity, race, ethnicity, culture and how this impacts rangatahi Māori. However, within the whānau ora space there appears to be a gap exploring whānau and rangatahi voice.  Boulton and Gifford (2014) note that there is a “dearth of empirical material” exploring what constitutes whānau ora from the perspective of whānau (p. 3). Their research attempted to fill this gap, and found that there was a degree of alignment between whānau perspectives and the whānau ora taskforce indicators. There was consensus from whānau that tamariki wellbeing and the wellbeing of future generations was a key motivator to keep working towards achieving whānau ora (Boulton & Gifford, 2014).

More recently, Simmonds et al (2019) completed a project titled, Te Taonga o taku Ngākau. Their research explores how whānau ancestral knowledge contributes to the wellbeing of tamariki within whānau. Their findings assert that intergenerational ancestral knowledge within whānau, are powerful interventions that support collective wellbeing. While both projects directly link to this project, their participants included whānau collectives. This article is an addition to literature, through the addition of rangatahi voice in the whānau ora space.


This study is a kaupapa Māori qualitative exploration of rangatahi perspectives within the Te Ōnewanewa school community. Te Ōnewanewa serves a diverse urban Tāmaki Makaurau community, who whakapapa to many hapū and iwi and different cultures. Te Whānau is a tikanga Māori centred, kaupapa whānau, and formclass within the school.

My (Catherine Page) whakapapa connections to Pare Hauraki, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, and Ngā Puhi and my position as a Māori whānau member, previous staff member, and tuakana, locates me in the community of interest. The importance and relevance of the research outcomes for the local Māori community participating, provide the basis for undertaking kaupapa Māori research. Positioning oneself as a researcher challenges the western notion that researchers need to be objective and disconnected from ‘who’ and ‘what’ they are researching (Bishop, 2011).

Kaupapa Māori refers to Māori understandings which underpin research and values, as well as the importance of Māori ways of operating. Born out of political struggle for tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake, this approach asserts by Māori for Māori research (Smith, 2012). In this space, the Māori worldview and cultural assumptions are privileged, and traditional deficit theories are actively criticised and repositioned (Pihama, 2016). Pihama (2016) notes that kaupapa Māori research has an overarching cultural lens, and challenges the assumption that researchers are a-cultural and objective.

Rangatahi Voice and Participation in Methods

Indigenous research methods assert the importance of knowledge sharing strategies that are co-designed with communities. The staff and rangatahi at Te Ōnewanewa had direct input during the planning phase. The rangatahi wanted to know the interviewer, and be with their friends in a familiar environment. Having worked at Te Ōnewanewa with the rangatahi and grown up in the area, I had previously established relationships. Hui were chosen to respect the rangatiratanga of the rangatahi and to encourage wānanga. Knowledge sharing through wānanga “cuts across relations of power” fostering relationships within the process (Smith, Cameron, Pihama, Mataki, Morgan, & Te Nana, 2019, p. 1).

Three hui were conducted kanohi ki te kanohi and followed tikanga Māori. Each hui had karakia, mihimihi, wānanga and finished with kai. The rangatahi decided when the hui would take place, what kai we would share, and the time duration. Bishop and Glynn (1999) argue that this form of whakawhanaungatanga fosters participant driven research practices. Furthermore, there was no set allocated time for the focus group. Durie (2011) notes that in kaupapa Māori methods dedicating time is more important than being ‘on time’.

The name of the report, ‘Kia manaaki te tangata’ is an acknowledgement of the rangatahi who contributed to this research as well as Te Ōnewanewa. This whakataukī guides the philosophy of the school and was a strong theme throughout the hui. To acknowledge Te Whānau, the whakataukī that underpin their four pou tikanga guide themes in the results section.



Ngā Hononga – Foundations for Whānau ora


Whanaungatanga has many meanings, such as relationships, kinship, and a sense of family connection and belonging (Mead, 2016).The rangatahi interviewed come from diverse whānau and backgrounds. Some live close to or with several members of their whānau, while others lived in what is considered a more nuclear family arrangement with connections to their wider whānau. All of the rangatahi considered their friends to be in their whānau as well as whakapapa relations.

All rangatahi talked about the importance of fostering relationships and connecting with whānau now and for future generations. The rangatahi also expressed that they would like to spend more time with their whānau.  Rangatahi rima said

Probably just like being around each other and like making lots of memories so our kids can tell them what we do, and so it like just keeps going.

Furthermore, the hui process highlighted tuakana-teina relationships within Te Whānau and the wider school. When asked who was in their whānau, rangatahi waru said the whānau class. Rangatahi whā said she loved school, because I like know everyone.


Ūkaipō refers to the sustenance of a mother’s breast milk and is parallel to the deep relationship between humans and land (Pere, 1994). Eight rangatahi spoke to experiences on their own marae or whenua, while rangatahi ono spoke to visiting marae through marae noho. Rangatahi iwa spoke about how she felt happy, learning about her tūpuna and visiting her whenua for the first time.In contrast, rangatahi rua knows everyone at the marae and told stories about his whānau there. Rangatahi rua spoke about how his tūpuna were buried there.

Rangatahi whā emphasised the importance of belonging. She said

Yeah I just feel like I belong there, more than like any other place. And it’s like my family so it matters.

Furthermore, the rangatahi talked about kaitiakitanga through the enjoyment of gathering, hunting, and diving for kai to feed everyone.


Identity and culture is a key determiner of Māori wellbeing (Whānau Ora Taskforce, 2010).The rangatahi have varying connections to their Māoritanga, some confident on the marae, others talked to how Te Ōnewanewa and Te Whānau supported their Māori identity. All rangatahi are currently learning te reo Māori. Rangatahi waru talked about the importance of keeping te reo Māori alive for future generations.  Five rangatahi spoke about the importance of keeping traditions alive.

Rangatahi waru feels good learning traditional arts and crafts. Her Māoritanga connects to her tūpuna. She said

Whenever I am doing anything that is with my culture I just feel really special and safe and I just feel like they are all cheering me on, watching me, and I feel like they are really proud of me. That’s what I feel like.

 The rangatahi all reflected on the collective nature of Māori wellbeing within te pā harakeke. Rangatahi iwa reflected on how it is like the plant is depressed when the parents are taken away from the rito, but they would sacrifice anything for their children, even themselves.




One translation for wairua is two waters, or the balance between positive and negative streams (Pere, 1997; Valentine, 2016). From a Māori worldview, everything and everyone has a wairua which is eternal. The rangatahi spoke about the wairua of our tūpuna and how they felt went their whānau were well. Rangatahi whā felt comfortable around the photos of the tūpuna and felt it was important to talk to them to let them know that she is okay. Three rangatahi explained how when they see their whānau feeling good, they felt better. Rangatahi whā mentioned how her whānau have had to live with mental illness, and when she saw them doing well, it made her feel good. Rangatahi rima said “I feel like when I’m with certain people from my family it’s kind of like nothing else matters, it’s just kind of like you are there”.

In contrast, rangatahi waru and whitu explained how when one person was in a bad mood, the whānau was off. Rangatahi rua reflected on how everyone on the street next to his marae had passed, including his Nan, Pop and aunties and uncles. This had impacted his own wellbeing making him feel like ratshit.

Ngā take pū whānau – Supports and Indicators for Whānau ora


Ngā take pū whānau are values underpinning tikanga Māori practices and are protective factors for whānau wellbeing (McLachlan et al., 2017).  The rangatahi spoke about how manaakitanga, and aroha underpinned their relationships in their whānau. Manaaki is active, reciprocal (Jones, 2019) and involves “acknowledging, supporting and strengthening one’s individual and/or collective mana” (Lee-Morgan et al., 2019, p. 29).

Rangatahi toru said the best thing about his whānau was the help. Rangatahi tahi mentioned how employment could position him to manaaki his whānau. When asked why it was important to have a job, he responded to look after everyone. Rangatahi tahi and rua received support during the rāhui from iwi and Māori health providers. Rangatahi tahi spoke about how his whānau were given food parcels and boxes with hand sanitiser and other health necessities from the local iwi health provider. Rangatahi rua talked about how his marae exercise manaaki at the marae through kai. He said

We were at the marae and there was a funeral. People just come down and drop off pigs in the bloody chiller, and they still got the skin on them and not even been gutted, and my uncle’s like ‘ohh far out’.

The rangatahi viewed their tūpuna as protective and supportive for the wellbeing of whānau and talked to the manaaki between tuakana/teina.  Rangatahi ono talked about how her nan’s place was where people gathered, and rangatahi rua said everyone was always welcome at his nan’s house. Nine of the ten rangatahi mentioned the manaaki between tuakana and teina. When asked what dreams or aspirations they had for their whānau, rangatahi rua replied that he would buy his younger cousins a dishwasher to save them having to do all the dishes at home.

Lastly, the rangatahi spoke about how the staff manaaki them Te Ōnewanewa. Seven rangatahi spoke of how kaiako Māori contributed to the wellbeing of the kaupapa whānau positively. Rangatahi waru said

Yeah cos they are really important to us as well, they like help our wellbeing a lot. They contribute to it.

In contrast, rangatahi whā also mentioned how some teachers did not recognise her mana and therefore their manaaki failed to support her. She said

Yeah I think they (teachers) support me in the way they want to support me, but not the way I want.

The first hui discussed the lack of manaaki from the government. Rangatahi tahi said that it would be easier to live in Australia than in Tāmaki Makaurau as all your money goes on rent. Rangatahi rua said

You know if you are homeless, wouldn’t it be smart just to go to prison, like just go rob a bank or something, because then you get a bed, get a shower, get some bros, the TV.


Aroha is also a uniquely Māori concept. It stems from the kupu aro and hā, to turn towards and to share breath. The rangatahi referred to aroha, as love and respect in this study. When asked what was important in his whānau rangatahi tahi said each other because everyone has each other’s back. When asked what was celebrated in their whānau six rangatahi responded with everything. The importance of unconditional aroha was highlighted by rangatahi tekau who commented on how whānau have their ups and downs. Rangatahi iwa defined whānau as aroha and as her kaupapa whānau.  In contrast, rangatahi waru commented on how sometimes whānau support was not always well received, but it always came from a place of aroha to make you better. She said

They could be really supportive, or say something to offend you, but they are only trying to make you better, and like get you places, so they are just providing support in a different way.

In one hui the rangatahi talked about how aroha, attention, and positivity support their whānau to be well

I think we just need some more positive energy around us. To be positive you need positive energy around you. So just as long as you have that surrounding you, you can be positive as well, which is good for your wellbeing.

The rangatahi talked about how they had the capacity to contribute to the wellbeing of their whānau today and in the future as mātua and tūpuna. Rangatahi whitu and iwa would like to whāngai tamariki in the future. They spoke about the importance of treating their tamariki as equals, to make them feel loved. While they all agreed that self-care is important, they also commented on how this was not always possible without the support and aroha of whānau.


The importance of whanaungatanga, ūkaipō, Māoritanga, and wairua are recognised as determiners of whānau ora (Whānau Ora Taskforce, 2010). Furthermore, the interconnection of these concepts is recognised across all Māori wellbeing frameworks. Relationships within whānau are where the wellbeing of tamariki can be protected and nourished. Although some of the rangatahi noted that their whānau sometimes faced stressful circumstances, the findings align with Edward et al’s research (2007), who found that rangatahi Māori want to spend more time with their whānau.

The rangatahi all saw whanaungatanga as a key determiner for whānau ora in the past, present and future. The rangatahi see their best interests as collective and the deep connection between their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their whānau. This study challenges the ideology behind ‘child focussed policy’. Their voice directly challenges western psychology and ‘child centred’ government approaches, which target scientific inquiry and intervention at individuals (Whanau Ora Taskforce, 2010). The findings reaffirm the literature arguing for collective rights to wellbeing to be foregrounded, and that by building capacity within whānau will directly impact the wellbeing of our mokopuna Māori and the wellbeing of hapū and iwi (King et al., 2018).

Connection to ūkaipō was varied for the rangatahi, reflecting the diverse realities of Māori (Durie, 2011). Regardless of their connection to their ūkaipō, the spiritual connection to papatūānuku supported their whānau wellbeing. For rangatahi who had been denied these rights, they received this nourishment through marae noho, or going camping and being in nature with their kaupapa whānau. For those who have strong connections to their hapū and iwi, visiting the urupā and learning about where their tūpuna once lived, and being kaitiaki of their whenua was important.

The sense of belonging, connection, and spiritual guardianship are well documented as determiners of wellbeing, for Māori. These findings reaffirm the interconnected nature of whānau ora (Whānau ora Taskforce, 2010). When whānau reconnect to their ūkaipō and can exercise their kaitiakitanga, this provides opportunities for whanaungatanga within their whānau, which rangatahi felt was the most important determiner of whānau ora.

There is a growing evidence base supporting the importance of culture, and how culture supports wellbeing (Ministry of Education, 2016). For some students, their main connection to Māori culture is through their te reo Māori class or Te Whānau. Alongside teaching, kaiako Māori are often responsible for crafting the identities of many rangatahi at Te Ōnewanewa (Lee, 2005). Smith (2012) notes that the responsibilities for kaimahi Māori, extend into the beyond the classroom to teaching identity and culture. The rangatahi voice was clear in this study, Māori and Pasifika kaiako are key supportive factors for wellbeing.

Ngā take pū whānau

Although tikanga has adapted over time, the core principles of whanaungatanga, aroha, manaakitanga, tapu, mana and pono remain integral for the survival and flourishing of our people and relationships. During the hui, these tikanga were described in English, using words such as support, love, care, connection, and being genuine. Whereas, the practices and interactions they described indicated their whānau were exercising manaakitanga and aroha.

Being able to manaaki others is recognised as a wellness indicator within literature. Manaaki promotes positive cohesive social interaction and protection against isolation (Whānau ora Taskforce, 2010). This study aligns with research that suggests manaakitanga is reciprocal, active (Jones, 2019), intergenerational, and exercised by kaupapa whānau, and whakapapa whānau, hapū and iwi (Lee-Morgan et al., 2019). Penehira (2019) reminds us that we have the capacity to lift others’ mauri and wellbeing. Across the hui the rangatahi were rangatira in this regard, serving and activating manaaki within their whānau, and had collective responsibilities.

Previous research indicates that supportive relationships are a key ingredient to educational success (Ministry of Education, 2016). Positive teacher-student relationships are protective factors for resilience, increase student achievement, and promote behavioural and emotional investment in school (Bishop et al., 2007). Two hui noted that the kaiako Māori supported them in ways they wanted to be supported and recognised their mana. These findings reaffirm the importance of having kaiako Māori, and a safe space such as Te Whānau for Māori within English-medium schools.

Manaaki is a two-way process of giving and receiving (Mead, 2016). The rangatahi also articulated situations when adults in their lives, including teachers, had attempted to support them. Yet, this support failed to recognise their mana, therefore, their actions were counterproductive. When adults failed to recognise the mana of the rangatahi, they felt that their ahua was not pono or tika and they were disingenuous.  This paradox highlights the gap between what teachers and students perceive as emotional support (Liebenberg et al., 2016). For all schools, this point highlights the importance of listening to rangatahi, acknowledging their rangatiratanga, and involving them during the support process.

The notion of positivity as a determiner for whānau ora is an important finding. This was mentioned as an aspiration by one rangatahi, after three rangatahi discussed how judgemental society is in general. Put downs, racism and deficit ideologies are the opposite of aroha and trample the wairua and mana of a person and their whānau. Whānau and Māori parenting has been viewed through a deficit paradigm and this has created systemic barriers for wellbeing (Pihama & Cameron, 2012).

Some rangatahi alluded to the idea that simply being Māori is viewed as a deficit variable. There is scarce recognition of systematic and historical issues that have contributed to systemic disadvantage (Simmonds et al., 2019). Young people, and in particular rangatahi Māori, have voiced that discrimination is a major problem in Aotearoa (Office of the Children’s Commissioner & Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children, 2019). Government agencies, educators, researchers, and psychologists need to adopt and advocate for strength-based, mana enhancing, non-discriminatory approaches in their practice to support whānau to flourish.


This article is a contribution to kaupapa Māori research which argues that whānau are ‘sites of wellbeing’ and presents useful findings for how English-medium schools can directly influence the wellbeing of whānau within their communities (Pihama et al., 2017). While the findings are important for the whānau, hapū and iwi within the research context, this study has only scratched the surface of what whānau ora means to the rangatahi at Te Ōnewanewa. Further research could widen the study to the other year levels, rangatahi Māori not taking te reo Māori, to other schools in the surrounding area, and to include the voices of whānau collectives.

This article has provided an opportunity to present rangatahi perspectives within my community. The majority of rangatahi felt that their friends in Te Whānau and the wider school were part of their whānau, and that their kaiako Māori were key supports for their wellbeing. Their views reaffirm the need for tikanga Māori, whānau based supports at English-medium schools.The rangatahi perspectives reaffirm that wellbeing is interconnected, spiritually grounded, multi-dimensional, contextual, and collective. They spoke about connection within whānau, or whanaungatanga, connection to ūkaipō, connection to Māoritanga, and connection to wairua. In addition, they discussed the important tikanga that underpin relationships such as pono and mana, however practices based on manaaakitanga and aroha were the most frequently mentioned.

The rangatahi in this study understood when their whānau were well and appeared to have their basic needs for wellbeing, defined by them, met. Māori wellbeing is interconnected, therefore until all whānau, hapū and iwi are thriving mokopuna Māori rights to wellbeing cannot be realised as a people.  Jackson (2019) explains how this discussion is more than reclaiming long denied rights, but rather it is the pursuit of a Māori understanding of ‘rightness.’ Only then can relational justice be restored.

The wānanga process demonstrated how rangatahi are rangatira within whānau, hapū and iwi. They are inspired by their tūpuna to address and overcome issues facing their whānau today, in the hope that this will support the wellbeing of future generations. Pohatu (2013) states, we have the explanations and the solutions; we are mokopuna and tūpuna, and kaitiaki of each other. Rangatahi tekau captured this sentiment in her kōrero about her hopes and aspirations for her whānau. They are beautiful words to end on:

My dreams and hopes (are for my whānau)… to be themselves, and not to be someone that you are not… to embrace your culture … in one shape or form, the way you want to do it. Be healthy, be honest, like if there is something wrong, tell me, and I’ll help you, no matter what.


Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud. makutu: to inflict physical and psychological harm through spiritual power. pūrākau: myth, ancient legend, story.
aroha: love, respect, compassion, empathise. mana: spiritual vitality, proximity to the divine. rāhui: to put in place a temprorary ritual prohibition
atua: god, supernatural being. mana motuhake: autonomy, self-dertermination independence. rangatira: high rank, chiefly, noble.
hapū: to be pregnant, group of people from a common ancestor, subtribe. manaakitanga: hospitality, kindness, respect, support, care for others. raupatu: land confiscation.
He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene: Declaration of Indepence of New Zealand. māoritanga: Māori culture, Māori practices and beliefs, Māoriness, Māori way of life. rongoā: remedy, medicine.
hui: meeting, gathering. marae noho: marea stay. te ao wairua: spiritual world.
iwi: largest social group in Māori society that are made up of related hapū. mātauranga: knowledge, wisdom. te pā harakeke: flaxplant.
kai: food. matua: father, parent, uncle. te rito o te pā harakeke: The center shoot of the flaxbush.
kaiako: teacher. mātua: parents. Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Treaty of Waitangi.
kaimahi: colleague. mauri: physical vitality, lifeforce. teina: younger sibling.
kaitiakitanga: guardianship. mihimihi: pay tribute, thank, acknowledge. tika: to be correct, fair, accurate.
karakia: pray, ritual chant. mokopuna: Grandchild. tikanga: correct procedure, custom
kaupapa: Plan, purpose, theme, topic, agenda, matter of discussion. ngā hononga: connections. Tāmaki Makaurau: Tāmaki of a hundred lovers.
kāwanatanga: governance, government, authority, governorship. papakāinga: original home, home base. tāngata whenua: People of the land
kōrero: talk, to speak. pono: to be true, valid, honest, genuine. taonga: treasure.
tapu: restriction, sacredness. ūkaipō: source of sustanance, origin. whakawhanaungatanga: to make connections.
tino rangatiratanga: sovereignty, self determintation, autonomy. wānanga: to meet, deliberate, consider. whānau: extended family, birth, to be born.
tūpuna: ancestors, grandparents. whakapapa: ancestory genealogy. whānau ora: collective wellbeing.
whāngai: adopted child, a customary practice. whakataukī: proverb. whanaungatanga: connections, relationships between people.
whenua: land, placenta.    



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Students’ Experience of Decision-making at School

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Students’ Experience of Decision-making at School

Catherine Harris & Roseanna Bourke
Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Harris, C., & Bourke, R. (2021). Students’ Experience of Decision-making at School. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).

Abstract: Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out children’s right to be heard and have their views given due consideration in matters that affect them. This article reports on a qualitative research study undertaken in Aotearoa New Zealand to explore the experiences of ten Year 9 and 10 students (13 and 14-year-olds) from two New Zealand secondary schools. The research explored how these young people perceive and experience their ability to have a say in their everyday school life. Semi-structured interviews focused on the students’ lived experiences of being able to influence their learning and lives within their school environments. The results of this research show that these students recognised and appreciated the opportunities they were offered by teachers and schools to direct their learning in terms of optional subjects, activities within class, and extra-curricular activities. In addition, when issues relating to privacy and having sufficient information to reach an informed opinion were overcome, the students’ positive relationships with their teachers enabled a safe responsive environment where opinions could be expressed. However, the results also indicated that the students perceived barriers to their ability to express their opinion at school. Those barriers included a lack of knowledge of how to access decision-making processes and a limited ability to determine the matters about which student voices are sought. These findings are analysed through Lundy’s (2007) framework to present students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of spaces created by the schools to facilitate student voice and influence. This research concludes that teachers could more intentionally and effectively create space to enable students to exercise their rights under Article 12 of the UNCRC.

Keywords: children’s rights, decision-making, choice, UNCRC


Aotearoa New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) in 1993 and recognises the rights of all children. The convention defines a ‘child’ to be a person up to the age of 18. The aims for children’s education under UNCRC include developing their potential skills and abilities, and developing respect for human rights (Articles 28 and 29 UNCRC, 1989). New Zealand provides for these education-linked rights through the provision of free compulsory education until the age of 16 and as a result, most adolescents spend approximately 30 hours per week on the New Zealand curriculum, and largely at New Zealand secondary schools (Education Act, 1989; Education and Training Act, 2020). Therefore, how schools and teachers enable or hinder students’ ability to learn the skills needed to function and contribute to society may have a significant influence on them and on New Zealand’s compliance with UNCRC.

While schools can initiate structures and curriculums that provide information about children’s rights, there may be barriers to those rights being exercised. In New Zealand the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) is required to raise public awareness about children’s rights, and it accomplishes this in part through raising the awareness and accountability of government agencies in respect of UNCRC (Article 42 of UNCRC, 1989; Children’s Commissioner Act, 2003). In particular, in order to educate children about their rights, teachers must know about those rights and should demonstrate respect for them by enabling their exercise (Lundy, 2007). Where those rights are not respected, the children are left learning about matters that will only affect their future lives and may become disillusioned with an educational system that provides contradictory information due to the conflict between the messages given and the actions taken (Cook-Sather, 2020; Lundy, 2007). Such disillusionment can lead to children disengaging from learning at school (Mitra, 2018). Supporting the expression of children’s voices at school is also good pedagogical practice, if the UNCRC rights are to be effectively implemented (Lundy, 2007). However, creating spaces that support the expression of children’s voices may require changes to school policies and practices that restrict those rights, and could entail a change in staff attitudes and a school’s culture (Cook-Sather, 2020). For these reasons it is appropriate to consider how young people experience the way in which schools and teachers enable their rights under Article 12.

Background to the study

When children are afforded their rights, a range of associated benefits are identified including levels of respect, gaining a sense of belonging in a place, increasing self-esteem and self-efficacy, refining communication and metacognitive skills, and experiencing autonomy in one’s life (Holdsworth, 2000; Percy-Smith, 2010). Further, Lansdown (2011) identified that taking into account children’s views can make decision-making processes more robust, improve outcomes due to the additional data, and increase decision-makers’ accountability. Consequently, giving children an opportunity to express their voice can be transformative for them and those living within their environments, if those views are given due weight. Conversely, children experience a number of disadvantages where their participation rights are denied, including that the child’s self-belief and wellbeing can diminish (Bishop et al., 2009).

Lundy (2007) proposed a framework for conceptualising Article 12 through the four elements of voice, space, audience and influence (Lundy’s Framework). For children to meaningfully participate in a matter all four elements of Lundy’s Framework need to be satisfied: to have a voice, children need information about the topic and help developing the research and analysis skills needed to form a view; to have space, a space must be created in terms of time, location and subject matter, so children can share their ideas with others in an emotionally and physically safe, and supportive environment; to have an audience is where someone listens and responds to that child’s voice; and to have influence  requires meaningful participation through the power to potentially change one’s own life or environment, whether directly or indirectly.

However participation through exercising the right to be heard is a complex and multifaceted concept (Anderson, Grahan & Thomas, 2019). Contextual factors affect how a child’s rights are enabled and constrained. For example, a young child’s ability to express themselves is limited if only written views are heard. Participation must also be meaningful through the topic being important to the child or the child’s role being valuable to the community (Holdsworth, 2000; Percy-Smith, 2010). In Ireland, Horgan et al. (2017) interviewed 94 children, between 7 and 17 years old, and 34 adults to discover how children participated in their homes, schools and communities. The authors found that both space and audience for children’s views were created through trusting relationships. Further, in terms of everyday matters, that study identified that children felt they had more ability to participate at home than at school or within their communities. So, children understand from prior experience that certain environments support or inhibit their participation.

While New Zealand schools are expected to teach within a curriculum framework, Holdsworth (2000) queried to what extent a school’s environment teaches beyond that curriculum. Each school’s hierarchical structure is supported by rules and practices, so that adults have power over students and students’ ability to direct their own learning is limited (Bourke & Loveridge, 2016; Kidman, 2014; Mayes et al., 2019). Similarly, school assessment processes attribute value to some forms of learning over others, and may not recognise some strengths and prior knowledge, which can limit a child’s perception of learning and their identity as a learner (Bourke, 2017; Charteris & Smardon, 2019). Therefore, despite educational theories acknowledging that a child’s active engagement and involvement is necessary for learning to occur, the school environment restricts how and when a child has the opportunity to participate in school-based learning, and what is perceived to be valuable to learn.

Despite such restrictions, when students experience some degree of control at school, the influence they have is appreciated (Graham et al., 2018; Horgan et al., 2017). For example, Graham et al. (2018) interviewed 177 students and 32 staff across secondary schools in New South Wales, and their results identified how important students found it to be given choices about their classwork.

Enabling Students’ Voices

Research has recently turned from formal initiatives in schools and the community to how children experience their participation rights in their everyday lives (Horgan et al., 2017; Percy-Smith, 2010). Percy-Smith (2010) found that it is through everyday experiences that children are included and participate in groups and communities. Further, Horgan et al. (2017) found that children felt their home environment, rather than school or community environments, provided more opportunities to practice forming and expressing views, and to participate in everyday decisions. Supportive familial relationships were found to provide a context that mirrors the reasons why participatory research projects were found to effectively enable student voice. Consequently, Horgan et al. (2017) provide an example of how supportive relationships can provide an informal way to facilitate participation.

This shift in focus from formal to informal mechanisms mirrors the increased recognition of learning outside the school environment, where that informal learning (as with informal participation) is often unrecognised beyond the setting in which it occurs, and is unmonitored by external reference points (Bourke et al., 2018a, 2018b; O’Neill et al, 2017). For both informal learning and informal participation mechanisms the relationship between the child and adult provides the space for the learning to occur or the voice to be heard (Horgan et al., 2017). In both instances, it is the ongoing relationship that enables the adult to recognise the child’s ability to act autonomously in a particular context, and allows the adult to act so as to respect that child’s capability (Berryman et al., 2017; Horgan et al., 2017). Specifically, as a consequence of a child being heard, the child feels included, the child’s rights are respected, and the relationship is strengthened (Bishop et al., 2009; Cook-Sather, 2020). These consequences highlight the importance of the adult’s perception of the child’s capability to act or express a view, as their attitude is determinative of whether the child is respected. Despite research having identified ways student voice could be enabled within the classroom, New Zealand children have indicated they would like more input into their education (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, OCC, 2018). Given the importance of affording children a voice in their own education and their desire to have a greater say, this research explores the everyday lived experiences of a selection of Year 9 and 10 students in New Zealand.


The purpose of this research was to explore how ten Year 9 and 10 students at two New Zealand secondary schools experience having their views heard at school.

  1. What does it mean to Year 9 and 10 students to ‘have a say’ in matters affecting their lives at school?
  2. How do Year 9 and 10 students consider that they can influence their school life?

Those research questions enable this research to report on how Article 12 rights are experienced by ten Year 9 and 10 students in their everyday school lives based on data gathered through one-on-one semi-structured interviews. The research adopted a case study design involving one-on-one semi-structured interviews as the method for data collection. In addition, for Māori and Pasifika cultures, face-to-face interviews are more consistent with their cultural traditions relating to interactions, oral communication preferences, and are reflective of the importance of relationships (Macfarlane et al., 2014).

The semi-structured interview schedule was created to ensure that the research topic would be adequately addressed during a single interview with each student. The questions were designed to gain the students’ understanding of the topic in the form of qualitative information, thereby enabling a thick and rich description of the phenomenon to be uncovered. The questions were open-ended, and enabled the students to use their own words to describe their experiences. A draft interview schedule was piloted with two other Year 9 students. Following that pilot, the interview schedule was modified to provide additional prompts, and the language was altered to make the questions more understandable for Year 9 and 10 students (i.e., young people around 13–14 years old).

By obtaining informed consent, the students indicated that they willingly provided their data and knew they could stop participating at any time. That knowledge enabled the students to control the information that they were disclosing during the research process. The research was assessed as being of low risk and complied with Massey University’s Code of Ethical Conduct for Research, Teaching and Evaluations involving Human Participants (Massey University, 2017).

The research involved 13–14-year-old young people in Years 9 and 10, and this means both schools’ agreement was obtained to access each school and to invite students from their respective schools into the research. The research was explained to a Year 9 class at one school and a Year 10 class at the other school. The students were provided with consent forms and the information sheet. The participating students self-identified as Māori (n=2), Sri Lankan/New Zealand (n=1), Indian (n=1), and New Zealand European (n=6). These Year 9 and 10 students have transitioned from primary to secondary school, and have had their life disrupted during the New Zealand 2020 COVID-19 lockdown (when all schools were closed). In this regard the students could be seen as typical pupils who are establishing relationships with peers and teachers at their school within an educational environment affected by the pandemic risks that existed in 2020.

Semi-structured one-on-one interviews were audio-recorded with the participating students over 4 days and ranged from 20 minutes to an hour in length. The interviews were transcribed verbatim, and the transcripts were read through repeatedly to identify the major themes. That iterative, inductive process was undertaken to code and thematically analyse the interview data, with those codes being derived from the data. The iterative process was important as the students used different terms to describe similar concepts, and some students answered questions in different orders and supplemented their initial thoughts later in their interviews. The iterative process allowed similarities to be identified, codes to be simplified, and themes to be streamlined.


Two major themes emerged from the interview data that focused on how students participated in decision-making and their own perceptions of genuine opportunities to do so. Every student identified some opportunities to participate in decisions affecting their school life. For example, the schools’ use of optional subjects allowed the students to select some of their areas of learning. However, the findings were less clear about whether these students experienced a genuine ability to identify and address their learning needs and interests in an authentic way within the school environment. For instance, some students chose not to express views as they thought they could not influence the situation, or did not know with whom or how to discuss the matter. Some students were also fearful of what other people might think of them, and felt the issues raised by the school were not relevant to them. Together the two themes addressed how, why and about what students may want to influence in respect of their school life.

Participating in decision-making

The theme of participating in decision-making included the context of the decision, the ability to influence, and the processes supporting participation. For these students the subject matter or context of the decision affected whether they would take up an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Where a decision affected the student personally and they were provided with a genuine choice, these ten students indicated that they were more likely to engage in the process. For instance, alternatives provided for optional subjects or choices connected to assignments were contexts these students appreciated as opportunities to influence their learning. Sophie, a Year 9 student, decided her optional classes were important enough to her to send her Dean a letter requesting her subjects be changed. Similarly, Bella recognised that choices within classes allowed her to adopt her preferred learning approach, and to deepen her understanding as she wished.

It’s that you can choose to work by yourself if you want to. Because I know I have worked with people who weren’t really that enthusiastic about it, and I was getting right into it because I really enjoyed learning about whatever it was. But they didn’t want to do as much. So, it is cool that you can choose to work by yourself about something you want to learn about and not be held back I guess. (Bella, Year 10)

Likewise, while recognising he had no ability to influence the curriculum content, Carter, a Year 10 student, thought he could alter how that content was delivered by choosing between the alternative teaching formats offered by the school administration. However, where the student is uninterested in the context a chance to influence what happens will not be meaningful to the student, and may result in them not expressing their views. For example, offering a student uninterested in sport a chance to select the game is irrelevant, even though a sport-loving classmate may find that choice engaging and motivating. Ben, a Year 10 student, highlighted his appreciation of the genuine choices provided by teachers or the school as they gave him some control over his school experiences, rather than his school life being regulated by school rules and the curriculum.

The likelihood of altering the outcome is another factor that six students identified as influencing whether to participate in the decision-making process. For instance, although feeling disgruntled about hair rules, one student chose not to send the email he had drafted to his principal. His decision in part related to his assessment that “it was kind of a pointless topic ’cause he [the principal] would tell me to cut my hair or something” (Parker, Year 9). Whereas two other students felt more confident participating when the context affected the school environment as experienced by students, rather than contexts that had a potentially significant impact on the whole school community. These two students identified that such significant topics were matters they did not want to get involved with as the likelihood of their views altering the outcome was minimal:

I wouldn’t say how it’s run, because it is not exactly kind of our say. There’s a lot more politics in how the school is run. Just small things like someone wants a table here or whatever, things that make the school more enjoyable for a student. (Carter, Year 10)

Students expressed disappointment that their opinions were not given due weight or due regard when their selection of subjects were overridden by school operational constraints; surveys were undertaken, but no changes resulted nor feedback given; or their opinions appeared to be brushed aside when no reasons are given for a decision.

My group class is right behind that building, it is just going to be a new learning centre. Well it is going to be a little inconvenient. To be honest like no [we cannot change the situation], there’s like 1100 kids in the school and it’s like the campus is as small as it can be. And it is like tough luck, they did try to keep like each class in one group, English classrooms there, social studies in another corridor, but you like do end up having classes in other places – like I have a social studies class in a science room. (Ben, Year 10)

These students did not identify any ways they could influence the timetable and physical space constraints imposed by the school, rather these constraints had to be worked within, as demonstrated by Sophie changing her optional subjects. Similarly, these students expressed a limited desire to change what was being taught, other than one student wanting more language options and another student wanting less direct instruction style teaching. From this research it is difficult to say whether this apparent acceptance of the school environment comes from not having considered the matter before, a perception of having no ability to influence it, or a lack of interest on the part of these students.

This limited ability to influence how, when and what is learnt at school can be contrasted with the students’ experience of online learning during the COVID-19 Lockdown. These students recognised that during the COVID-19 Lockdown they had controlled their learning through choosing what, how and when to study. For example, one student chose to engage with school work in the morning, forgot to attend some classes, and learnt photography from his father.

It was very nice I got to wake up 2 hours later, which was very helpful. So I would wake up and just make breakfast and get like a hot chocolate. After I had finished that I would just like come into my room and get ready, and then do the classes, and if we had a meeting well I tried to write to when my meeting was and then I just forgot about it. I tried photography, it was really cool. I learnt a whole lot of things about the camera and how it works. I finished in like 3 hours, ’cause with the home learning you weren’t blocked by anything, you could do whatever you want, whenever you want, how fast you want it. So like it’s the exact same as like walking into class finishing all your work and then leaving 30 minutes earlier. (Parker, Year 9)

Being unable to identify to whom and how to communicate about a matter was identified by six students as inhibiting their ability to participate in decision-making processes. Using a petition is an example of how some students attempted to participate without knowing specifically who they want to hear their opinions, how to gain access to that person, or being able to address the concerns that underpin the proposed change due to a lack of background information. In contrast, two other students outlined how not knowing the identity of the relevant audience and the appropriate manner in which to communicate to that audience results in students being unable to access the decision-making process. Where that decision-making process is perceived to be inaccessible, the student is rendered unable to participate in that process.

I feel like they [the student councillors] do kind of make themselves known. But you are still not sure how to approach them – would you do it during lunchtime and interval, where you find them, what can you say to them, how can you give them the full aspect of your ideas. ’Cause some people are just too shy to talk to like the big cheese prefects and stuff, and the student committee, they don’t want to talk to them but they want their ideas heard. It’s something about not knowing the teachers like if you know the teachers – you know they will probably listen to you. Like yeah [the more you know them] the easier it is to talk to them absolutely. (Bella, Year 10)





Students’ Perception of a Genuine Opportunity

A student’s perception of whether an opportunity or choice is genuine influences that student’s assessment of their ability to effectively influence the decision. To perceive a genuine opportunity the student must identify that opportunity and decide to act upon it. Further, that perception is affected by the student’s prior experiences and environmental factors.

The first step to participating is identifying that an opportunity to participate exists. From the interviews a student’s perception of opportunities arising in the school environment appear to be proportional to their level of involvement in school life. For instance, one student, Carter, was a Year 10 Junior Leader, member of the student council, band member, and played in school sports teams. He recognised these roles afforded him opportunities to have a say simply through being involved in many groups at school. Similarly, Max, another Year 10 student, was a Class Ambassador representing his class in a school-wide group and had participated in a student-organised anti-bullying forum. He wished other students would take up the opportunities provided to influence how the school operates and the school environment.

As [Class Ambassador] you say the idea, bring it to your tutor class – they think it is terrible or something like that, or its just your class doesn’t listen they want to talk about the next game of Fortnite. [It would] just be nice if people listen for like two minutes ’cause it is on our school – it is important to our school, you can worry about home stuff at home, this is school. (Max, Year 10)

The students recognised that choices offered in class by teachers enabled them to partially control their own learning. These choices included how the teaching was delivered, such as digital classes; and how projects are undertaken, such as group or individual work, or selecting the topic for speeches or assignments. Such choices were appreciated by the students as they could adapt their learning to topics that drew on their strengths, skills and interests. In addition, the school system offered optional subjects providing a way for students to connect their school-based learning with their personal interests and future career aspirations. The importance of such system level choices was identified by two students whose selection had not been honoured by their schools. For David, this affected his impression of the school’s genuineness in giving the students’ choices and lowered his expectation of doing his chosen optional subjects the following year. Conversely, Sophie described how she changed her optional subjects to something that interested her within the options available according to the timetable. Similarly, extracurricular activities provided the students with opportunities to connect their school life with their interests. Many extracurricular activities were offered to students through their school’s clubs and other groups, including sports, shows, chess, debating, choirs, kapa haka, and representatives on the School Board or Home and School Committee. Students reported a greater degree of control and influence over their school lives when talking about their optional subjects, within class choices and extra-curricular activities that are allowed within the parameters established by the school.

Even where an opportunity exists, a young person must still choose to take up that opportunity. To be able to take up the opportunity these students recognised that they needed to be able to communicate their opinions effectively, be aware of who the audience is at a particular point in time, and have the skills to deliver their opinion in an appropriate way. Five students were reluctant to express opinions to teachers in front of other students. They preferred using emails or one-to-one informal conversations outside of class time. Further, they preferred to speak to teachers with whom they had an established relationship, as they knew those teachers would listen. In addition, one student noted that being polite and respectful increased the likelihood of being heard.

Two students recognised that their lack of knowledge about how and to whom opinions could be given prevented their participation in decision-making processes. Knowing the appropriate process can therefore enable participation in terms of making the decision-making process more transparent and by enabling students to take up the opportunity to communicate their views. The relevance and importance of the particular subject matter to that student also affects whether a student will choose to take up an opportunity. For example, one student spoke out about the unfairness of a proposed rule change at a meeting. In doing so that student had identified and chosen to act upon an opportunity to communicate his views about a matter significant to him. Consequently, the context of the decision helps to motivate students to choose to take up an opportunity.

Further, factors within and unique to each student affect their ability to take up opportunities to participate in decision-making processes and influence their school lives. Along with being sufficiently interested in the subject matter, these factors included shyness, confidence, and a fear of being judged for holding certain views. One student described how she held many opinions, but would not speak out when she knew others in the class held strong views, or where she supported the school’s current rule, as she feared that others would think less of her. For this student the fear of being judged was sufficient to prevent her from expressing her opinions, unless they could be expressed anonymously. This notion of controlling who hears your opinion was raised by five students.

Exploring the ability to create space and choice for student voice

With the interconnections of Lundy’s framework (voice, space, audience and influence), the idea of space to enable student voice is now discussed in light of the themes arising from this research. Consistent with studies undertaken by Horgan et al. (2017) and Graham et al. (2018), this current research shows that spaces to enable student voice can be created in many ways. Those spaces may be created by schools or students. A variety of such spaces are considered below in terms of their effectiveness for enabling Article 12 rights.

Seeking input from children is one way to enable children’s voices (Mitra, 2006). This research identified that schools use a variety of ways to seek student input in connection with school life. The ways these students identified included having student representative bodies, teachers informally seeking comments on issues from students individually or in class, optional subjects, and extra-curricular activities. Each of these ways is a space created by the school or teachers that allow students to modify how they experience the school environment and direct their own learning. Within those spaces the audience needs to listen to students and afford the students the influence intended by those spaces to avoid students disengaging from their learning and diminishing their trust in school systems and teachers.

Further, the themes from this research identified that factors specific to each student helped students identify what matters are meaningful to them and if they are motivated sufficiently to express a view. In considering whether to express a view, students think about where they can make a difference by expressing their views or how their responses will be perceived by others. In addition, the participating students identified only limited spaces for expressing views about the school’s operational practices, teaching pedagogy, specific curriculum content or assessment practices, if they wanted to be involved. These spaces included spaces created by students, such as strikes or petitions, or by questions asked by teachers or the school through surveys or ad hoc questioning. In this way students had limited avenues for expression about such matters, if they wanted to be involved. Consequently, and consistent with the OCC (2018) finding that students had limited input into their learning, this research found that these ten students could only identify a limited range of opportunities for Year 9 and 10 students to ‘have a say’ about their learning.

In contrast, this research identified many opportunities for students to alter what they did outside of class time through the wide variety of available extra-curricular activities. However, even those activities are constrained by the school rules and timetable, including the COVID-19 health-related restrictions. This research highlights how secondary schools can create spaces that enable students to alter their school environment to align with their personal interests, career aspirations and learning preferences. Those spaces may be created through offering optional subjects, choices within classes, or extra-curricular activities. Consistent with the findings of Horgan et al. (2017) and Graham et al. (2018), this research found that students appreciated choices that allowed them to direct their school life and learning.

However, like agendas being established by teachers for student councils, these school-created spaces identify matters that adults think interest students (Cook-Sather, 2020; Graham et al., 2018; Holdsworth, 2000). Further, it is not clear from this current research the extent to which such spaces reflect matters that students identify as important. For instance, how are the extra-curricular activities offered selected, and can students start new activities within the school that address their interests? It is appropriate to consider such questions when creating spaces for student voice within the school environment to increase the likelihood of a space being used by students.

In addition, this research demonstrated how students are affected when teachers or school leaders do not honour their commitment to let students influence their learning. In that situation the student must choose between holding the school accountable for its promises by speaking out, or accepting the school’s rejection of that student’s preferences. If students do not speak out, this research identified that students’ expectations of being treated respectfully in the future are lowered and their trust in the school systems diminish. Thus, this research reflected some of the disadvantages that arise when rights are not respected (Cook-Sather, 2020; Quinn & Owen, 2016). Based on this current research, the choice to speak up is affected by the importance of the matter to the student, and the student’s perception that the space offers a genuine opportunity for the student’s view to be given due consideration. This demonstrates how the elements of Lundy’s Framework must work together to effectively enable Article 12 rights.

Opportunities arising from the COVID-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 Lockdown enabled these students to experience the flexibility offered by online learning. That flexibility gave them an opportunity to develop and refine organisational and time management skills, and accept more responsibility for their learning. These students recognised they had lost this flexibility and control since returning to school. By being able to contrast their two school-related experiences, these students gained new insights into how they learn and how to influence their school lives. For instance, students identified spaces they had not chosen to use or did not appreciate previously, such as seeking help through emails or being able to communicate immediately when confused in class. In addition, some limitations arising from school systems and practices or teaching practices previously unnoticed were identified as barriers to ‘having a say’, particularly concerning identifying the relevant audience, and how classroom practices can limit opportunities to direct one’s own learning. These insights varied between students depending on their personal experiences during the COVID-19 Lockdown, including their home situation, the responsiveness of teachers within the online learning environment, and the student’s level of self-motivation.

The development of self organisation and time management capabilities are examples of students’ informal learning during the COVID-19 Lockdown. Such capabilities, similar to those identified by Bourke et al. (2018a, 2018b), need to be taken into account by teachers when determining the knowledge and skills a child brings to the school’s learning environment. Such recognition would demonstrate respect for the students and raise teachers’ expectations of their students’ abilities consistent with the concepts of manaakitanga (compassion) and mana motuhake (self-determination) under the effective teacher profile (Berryman et al., 2017; Bishop et al., 2009). It would also be consistent with implementing an approach aligned with the principles of ako (interconnectedness of teaching and learning), where the teaching and learning roles are modified to take into account the learner’s prior knowledge and skills. Consequently, the informal learning that occurred for these students during the COVID-19 Lockdown illustrates why it is important for teachers and schools to regularly reassess their beliefs and assumptions about students’ capabilities. Such a reassessment would ensure that they are appropriately giving due weight to students’ views and have appropriately taken account of their existing abilities in connection with their learning. Consistent with the findings of Horgan et al. (2017) and Graham et al. (2018), such a reassessment is consistent with removing barriers to student participation created by adults’ attitudes and beliefs about those students’ maturity and abilities.

Enabling student voice

The students in this research identified few opportunities to direct their own learning, as teachers were perceived to control learning in the classroom. At the same time, consistent with Graham et al.’s (2018) findings, these students did appreciate the limited choices provided by teachers and the school administration as they had some ability to align their learning with their own interests and career aspirations.

However, this research showed how New Zealand secondary schools could enable students’ voices to be heard more effectively. To effectively enable Article 12 rights, students must be provided with opportunities to express their opinions, perceive the opportunities as safe spaces in which to express their views, and find the matters on which opinions are sought relevant and meaningful. For example, a caring, responsive teacher-student relationship may be a safe space for students to share their opinions. This finding expands on the value and importance of the teacher-student relationship highlighted by the effective teaching profile (Berryman et al., 2017; Bishop et al., 2009; Macfarlane et al., 2014). In addition, schools could use surveys or a suggestions box to create a safe space for the expression of opinions to address students’ need for privacy and fear of being judged by those listening. Further, this research highlighted that there were reasons (sometimes subtle) why students do not identify, or use, spaces created for student voice within the school environment. Those reasons included the students finding the matter raised within a particular space to be irrelevant to them, or thinking they cannot influence the outcome through expressing their opinion. As a result, such spaces may not effectively support the exercise of children’s rights due to the absence of one or more of the elements of Lundy’s Framework. Consequently, this research illustrated how Lundy’s Framework can be used as an analytical tool to provide insights into how to create genuine spaces for students to effectively have their voices heard, in accordance with Article 12 of UNCRC.



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Young Persons’ Rights to Influence Learning in their Everyday Lives

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Young Persons’ Rights to Influence Learning in their Everyday Lives

Amy Owen & Roseanna Bourke – Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Owen, A., & Bourke, R. (2021). Young persons’ rights to influence learning their everyday lives.  International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


Informal and everyday learning is becoming a prominent focus for educational and psychological research because of the increasing value it holds in informing theories of human development relative to diverse sociocultural contexts. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that every child has the right to have their views given due weight in all matters that affect them, including learning. Due to ambiguous conceptualisations of the meanings of the phrases within Article 12, the provisions have not been understood or fully enacted by signatory countries to the UNCRC, including Aotearoa New Zealand. This qualitative study explored ten young people’s (13–15 years) perspectives and lived experiences of how they engage with and influence their decisions around what they learn when they are not at school. A thematic analysis identified two overarching and interconnected themes ‘relationships’ and ‘identity’. The findings show that young people influence their decisions around learning through intent participation with others, embedded within the interacting ecological systems of their sociocultural environments. In this way, they expanded their perspectives and developed knowledge and skills in areas of interest to become self-determining individuals. The research suggests that for Article 12 to be fully understood and enacted, young people’s unique participation in their everyday lives can be better utilised in formal learning contexts. Implications for educators include the importance of building on young people’s diverse sociocultural backgrounds to inform learning, and to address power imbalance issues between adults and young people so that their voices are heard and given due weight in educational contexts.

Keywords: children’s rights, participation, informal learning, student voice/ pupil voice, UNCRC


Young people participate in, and contribute to all aspects of society afforded to adults, yet have traditionally been positioned as an uninformed, irrational, incompetent and a vulnerable uniform group (Cassidy, Conrad, & de Figueiroa-Rego, 2020; Hammersley, 2017). Increasingly, young people are being understood to be social agents, thinkers, and expert informants about their own lives (Christensen & James, 2017). In Professor Laura Lundy’s (2007) seminal paper “Voice is not enough”, she argues that ‘cosy’ phrases commonly used in reference to the article such as ‘pupil voice’ and ‘student voice’ diminish its impact. Furthermore, Lundy (2007) identified several barriers to implementing Article 12 such as the cooperation of adults, limited awareness of the provision, and the marginalisation of young people. Subsequently, the provisions of Article 12 have not been understood or enacted in its entirety by United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) signatory countries around the world. This is a particular concern for the field of education given that young people spend a large majority of their time in formal learning contexts; an environment that should facilitate young people’s capacity to develop and share their views, have them listened to, and given due weight to support their development as flourishing members of society.

Lundy (2007) developed a framework of participation to better conceptualise the ambiguous meanings of the phrases encapsulated within the Article to support policy makers, educators, and ultimately young people themselves, in fulfilling their right to participate in decision making processes on matters that concern them. This framework incorporates four key integrated areas for conceptualising Article 12 including ‘space’ (access to participation), ‘voice’ (children being facilitated to form and express their views), ‘audience’ (children’s voices being listened to), and ‘influence’ (children’s views being acted on). The model focuses the influential decision-makers on the distinct, albeit interrelated, elements of Article 12 that can only be understood in conjunction with other relevant UNCRC provisions. In essence, Lundy’s model places emphasis on taking action to understand and enact children’s rights.

The concept of participation has mostly been researched in formal learning settings (Horgan, Forde, Martin & Parkes, 2017). Informal and everyday learning is becoming a prominent focus for educational and psychological research because of the increasing value it holds in informing theories of human development relative to the ever-changing sociocultural contexts of society. Given that young people are spending more time learning outside of school, than within school, developing perspective around how they engage with and influence their decisions around what they learn in their everyday lives is needed to understand the pragmatic realities of Article 12. Informed by Laura Lundy’s (2007) notion that having a ‘voice is not enough’ for the provisions of Article 12 of the UNCRC to be realised in full, exploration of the question “how do young people engage with learning, and influence their decisions around what they learn when they are not at school?” highlighted several issues surrounding young people’s right to participate in decision making processes in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Background to the study

Every young person around the world has a right to have their voice heard and given due weight on all matters that affect them (Lundy, 2007). In 1993 Aotearoa New Zealand became a signatory to the UNCRC. This meant the government is now legally accountable and responsible for ensuring that all young people are not discriminated against, that decisions made concerning them are in their the best interests, that they have everything they need to survive, develop, feel protected, and are able to participate in all matters that concern them (Unicef, 2020). The children’s right agenda and the professions of education and psychology stand to benefit from increased academic attention towards understanding how learners make sense of their world in everyday and informal contexts to ensure children are effectively and respectfully supported by adults in their lives.

As a signatory country to the UNCRC, gaining the perspectives of young New Zealander’s is imperative to conceptualising how Article 12 is understood and enacted in Aotearoa New Zealand and to inform international comparative research. The study aimed to hear and include ten New Zealand young people’s voices aged between 13 and 15 years authentically by emphasising their views, opinions and ideas in an illustrative narrative that captured the essence of their perspectives regarding their influence over informal learning and participation (Cassidy et al., 2020).

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UNCRC is a human rights treaty that was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession in 1989 (Unicef, 2020). It proposes that every child, regardless of diversity or unique differences, has fundamental human rights that are essential for their personal development. The UNCRC is governed by four principles that support interpretation of the articles. Namely, non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, survival, development and protection, and participation (Unicef, 2020). The 54 articles of the Convention are conducive to the civil, political, economic, educational, social, health and cultural rights of children and young people (Unicef, 2020). Signatories to the treaty are obliged to do their utmost to protect children (Human Rights Commission, 2010). The New Zealand government ratified the UNCRC in March 1993 making New Zealand legally accountable and responsible for ensuring that every child has everything they need to survive, grow, participate, and reach their potential (Unicef, 2020).

Article 12 recognises children as full human beings who have integrity, personality, and the ability to participate freely in society (Lundy, 2007). Since the ratification of the discursive framework, academic thinking, discourse, political interest, and commitment to advocating for children and their rights has grown. Signatory countries have gradually subsumed Article 12 into policy and legislation which has increased emphasis on children’s right to participate and actively discuss their views in all matters that affect them (Bourke & O’Neill, 2018). The growing interest in research on student participation at school is connected with improved outcomes regarding wellbeing, self-esteem, decision-making, academic success, life skills, safety and protection, social status, democratic skills, citizenship, student-adult relationships, school ethos, agency, belonging, and competence (Anderson, Graham & Thomas, 2019). Subsequently, student-centred pedagogies, principles and approaches that were popular in the past (e.g., Dewey, 1918) are being re-experienced in contemporary educational developments and reforms that centre student voice (Bourke & O’Neill, 2021).

Despite the increased consensus of the importance of student participation, having a ‘voice’ is not enough for young people to be acknowledged and recognised as functioning members of society (Groundwater-Smith, 2016; Lundy, 2007). For example, in the United Kingdom, legislation and policy requires schools to actively seek and listen to the views of pupils (Hill et al., 2016). However, children’s rights have been ignored and underplayed as a result of listening to ‘pupil voice’ which negates the entirety of the provisions of the article to be fully implemented (Lundy, 2007). In Canada, there has been a drive towards actualising ‘student voice’ through activities such as student representation groups to inform policy development (Groundwater-Smith, 2016). Although, these have been regarded as tokenistic and fuelled by hidden agendas due to power imbalances which deny space for children’s rights to be enacted (Groundwater-Smith, 2016).

Bourke, O’Neill, and Loveridge (2018) found that children’s conceptions of learning in everyday contexts vary in sophistication across different categories including culture, relationships, identity, strategies, purpose, and affect/emotion (the CRISPA framework). Callanan, Cervantes, and Loomis (2011) also argue that informal learning can be highly socially collaborative, and embedded in meaningful activity. Informal learning is identified as non-didactic, initiated by the learner’s interest or choice and not externally assessed (Callanan et al., 2011). Hedegaard’s (2012) conceptual analysis suggests that children learn through the demands they meet and through the demands they put on others as they interact across and within different social settings and activities in diverse institutions. The social constructionist perspective supports Hedegaard’s (2012) notion that children are social agents capable of shaping their own lives and in turn the lives of those around them including society (Horgan et al., 2017; Wood, 2016).

Participation in learning

Participation plays a vital role in identity formation as it is developed in social practice (Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte, Cain, 1998). Rogoff (2003) emphasised the role of participation in transforming both individuals and cultural communities, stating that they “mutually create each other” (p. 37), resonant with Hedegaard’s (2012) argument that factors connected to the sociocultural conditions of individuals concurrently influence children and communities. Contemporary views of learning incorporate participation and reflect a relational conceptual understanding that foregrounds collaboration and meaningful activity (Horgan et al., 2017). In some ways, research on young people’s influence over their learning in formal education settings supports prominent participation ideology. For example, Holdsworth’s (2000) work on citizenship and education emphasises students having a valued and recognised role within school governance and curriculum. Mannion, Sowerby and I’Anson’s (2015) research highlights children’s value of autonomy and the importance of good relationships for participation in school to support achievement and attainment. Anderson, Graham and Thomas’ (2019) Student Participation Scale encapsulates important elements of participation identified by students including working together, having voice about schooling, having a say with influential people at school, having voice about activities outside the classroom, having influence, and having choice. However, a lot of research has aimed to conceptualise participation of students in terms of educational research. Examples include Hart’s (1997) ladder of participation, Holdsworth’s (2000) student participation ladder, Shier’s (2001) five pathways to participation and Mitra’s (2006) pyramid of student voice. These models outline facets of participation in hierarchically structured frameworks and place students in different roles from being researched ‘on’ through to becoming research partners (Anderson et al., 2019).

While these studies highlight essential components of participation and encourage shared understandings of participation, they reveal several limitations of student participation in educational contexts. For example, the idea of students becoming active in their learning creates tension because it confronts traditional teaching practice (Holdsworth, 2000); young people have more opportunity to participate in decision making, power sharing, and linking with their communities through participation (Mannion, Sowerby & I’Anson’s, 2015). The concept of participation is complex, multifaceted and understood differently across sociocultural contexts (Anderson et al., 2019).

Furthermore, research (e.g., Anderson et al., 2019; Holdsworth, 2000; Mannion et al., 2015) fails to evidence learning through participation. It remains unclear if all the provisions of Article 12 are being fulfilled because participation is assumed to be something that children experience or learn in formal contexts which accentuates the power imbalance between adults and children in decision-making processes. Quantifying participation exemplifies how institutions value student voice in terms of statistical significance to please political agendas. How the data is disseminated and used to benefit the students should be the priority.


Out-of-school learning: understanding the subcultures 

Translating the essential characteristics of participation across contexts is difficult because communities are increasingly diverse. However, having the space, voice, audience, and influence for young people to participate in all matters that affect them is every child’s right and must be acknowledged regardless of context (Lundy, 2007). Horgan, Forde, Martin and Parkes (2017) discourage generalisations of participation, emphasising the interdependency between children’s participation, their sociocultural environment and complex social realities of their everyday lives. Moving away from dominant performative definitions of participation, the authors argue that ‘lived’ participation must acknowledge how children interact with and influence their daily lives (Horgan et al., 2017).  Research into youth subcultures emphasises the diversity of participation in the everyday lives of young people (Petrone, 2010). Petrone’s (2010) study into power relations within a skateboarding community highlights how participation influences learning through the navigation of symbolic, social, and ideological tensions within a community of practice. Hedegaard (2012) also supports the idea that tension and conflict between demands of more capable participants in an activity setting and an individual’s intentions or motives informs learning and development. It is evident that participation and learning cannot be generalised because they are complex phenomena’s that continuously evolve relative to the social and cultural environment.

Research with Young People

The inclusion of young people’s voices in social research has increased in recent decades, specifically around the issue of how children should be positioned and included in research (Cook-Sather, 2014). Traditionally, the views of childhood and young people’s everyday lives and experiences have been explored, analysed, edited, and sanitised under the guise of adult interpretations and understandings of these views (Christensen & James, 2017). Adult perspectives that have adopted a deficit conception of children have excluded young people from the research process rendering them as objects of inquiry to satisfy adult agendas (O’Reilly, Ronzoni, & Dogra, 2013). Subsequently, young people have been perceived as an irrational, incompetent and vulnerable uniform group (Cassidy, Conrad, & de Figueiroa-Rego, 2020; Hammersley, 2017).

The current study

A total of ten participants were recruited for this qualitative study to ensure thorough and credible information elicited insight into the lived experiences of the participants. Three school Principals from secondary schools were contacted by email providing a written explanation of the research. One school agreed and communicated the details of the research to students in Year 10. Ten pupils were invited to participate and ten agreed to take part. Participants were aged between 13 and 15 years. The  individual interviews were audio-recorded involving the ten female students.

A qualitative approach was used to explore the social and contextual experiences of participants with regards informal learning, decision making and their rights. Semi-structured interviews were utilised as the primary data source to elicit rich, holistic and inferential information to respectfully describe the meaning of the participants lived experiences of participation and informal learning.  Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic occurring at the time of the research, Aotearoa New Zealand went into lockdown in March 2020 (all schools closed), and students participated in home learning over the course of four weeks. The extenuating circumstances of the COVID-19 Lockdown is relevant to the current research because the formal and informal learning contexts for the participants became integrated as they were expected to continue their formal education in their home environment. Subsequently, a question connected to learning during the COVID-19 Lockdown was included in the semi-structured interview schedule.

Thematic analysis was applied to identify and analyse patterns and repeated meanings across the data set to inform the interpretation of the participants perspectives on how they influence their learning when they are not at school. Braun and Clarke’s (2013) six phases of thematic analysis were applied including familiarisation with the data, coding, searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes and writing up. This systematic and deliberate inductive method provided a structured procedure to coding and theme development.  Ethical guidelines support the aims of research to produce knowledge and truth and serve as mechanisms of protection against harm and exploitation for the participants involved during the research process (O’Reilly, Ronzoni, & Dogra, 2013). A low risk ethics application was completed and approved from the Massey University Human Ethics Committee (Ethics Notification Number: 4000022296).

Trustworthiness of research entails that criteria and strategies are employed throughout the research process to ensure systematic rigour of the research design, credibility of the researcher, believability of the research findings and applicability of the research methods (Rose & Johnson, 2020). Four sets of criteria were used to establish the trustworthiness of a piece of qualitative research including credibility through the technique of thick, rich data (Rose & Johnson, 2020), transformability through rich description dependability by triangulating techniques of close peer monitoring throughout the research process, and confirmability was achieved through reflexivity by clarifying researcher bias.


Two key themes: ‘relationships’ and ‘identity’, emerged. Combined, these constructed the participants’ experiences of their learning and decision-making when they are not at school. The overarching themes of relationships and identity are interconnected. The relationships the participants have with others influences their choices for personal pathways and supports their growth in developing understandings of perspectives that are different to their own. In turn, this supports the participants in becoming self-determining individuals. Therefore, the interconnected themes of relationships and identity are conducive to how the participants influence the decisions around what they learn when they are not at school. By altering the varying aspects of their peers support, understanding different perspectives and creating choices, they also change the connections between relationships and identity.


Relationships was one of the overarching themes that explained how young people engage with learning and influence their decisions around what they learn when they are not at school. All participants constructed relationships in several ways, which were for the most part largely positive. Support from more knowledgeable others in their lives was important for all the participants. Through others’ support they were able to learn through observation and participation in different activities relative to their interests and familial experiences. For example, Joy described how the established trust with her parents nurtured her knowledge and skill development connected to her interest in working on the family farm.

We kind of get some instructions and then the adults just leave us to do it cos they know we won’t quite mess it up that badly. We’ve seen it since we were little, sitting on the back of the motorbike with our parents driving us around pointing stuff out and we just pick it up. (Joy).

All the participants reflected that their choices for personal pathways were influenced by their family and peer interests as well as positive affect responses because of involvement in different communities. For example, Louise’s experience of learning on the farm alongside her father has supported her interest in developing her own flock of sheep.

I’ve got my own ewe’s and a flock, and my dad is helping me sort out the year on the sheep calendar which is helping me basically sort all of the sheep and everything. I’d always loved doing that and we set up a plan and dad will teach me things along the way. (Louise)

Finally, understanding different perspectives was an underlying pattern reflected by all participants to support their development of communication skills and understanding of how other people live in comparison with their own lives. For example, Laura described that she was interested in joining the Student Volunteer Army because it would support her in developing collaboration skills she perceived as important for working with peers at school.

They’re (people in elderly care) quite interesting. Like you just hear about their lives and you can get some advice from them, they teach you stuff. If you’re volunteering or something you have to interact with people and get along and you know just figure out how people work and I think that helps in the class if you have to like work together and stuff. You have to learn to engage with people. There are lots of different people with different beliefs and they might have different lifestyles you could say. It probably makes you more open-minded in a way as well. (Laura)



Identity is the second overarching theme that explained how young people engage with learning and influence their decisions around what they learn when they are not at school. The participants constructed identity through their developing understanding of the supports and restraints that influence who they are becoming which underscores the decisions they make in how they engage with learning. For example, Lulu reflected an urge to be exposed to different experiences to ensure she is prepared for the challenges young people face today.

A lot of people say, oh that’s not for you, you’re still young. And I feel like we should learn it at a young age because the earlier you learn it the more, how much easier it will be to react to the situation later in life. Or just deal with it. Because I feel like the stuff we are experiencing now, they only experienced it in their twenties. It’s much beneficial for us to learn about it at a young age. (Lulu)

Becoming self-determining was emphasised by the participants’ awareness of the moral obligations instilled in them through the different communities they are a part of. Laura highlights how the participants constructed self-determination as being influenced by those around them while encapsulating a view that they have choice in what learning they take from their participation within different communities.

Probably like with your morals. You know because obviously you’ve got certain values that you live by or believe in like it’s not as you know, totally traditional, you don’t go out and do every single thing they (parents) do but you take what you think is right and do it. Like being respectful and things, perseverance and stuff like that. (Laura)

Finally, understanding different perspectives contributed to the identity formation of the participants which in turn influenced their choices for personal pathways. For example, Rachel wants to “become a script writer, that’s my main goal,” which supports her involvement in the local drama league. Laura aspires to consistently ‘get on the court’ so she understands she needs to be fit to ensure she is chosen on the team: “If you want to be on the team you’ve got to do the work and so you know what to do, you want to be playing, it’s not much fun watching.” Such comments exemplify why young people engage in learning and make decisions around what they learn when they are not at school because they are thinking about who they want to become.

For the participants, learning through intent participation with others was conducive to their engagement in everyday learning. Similar Rogoff’s (2014) understanding of learning by observing and pitching in (LOPI), the participants emphasised collaborating with more knowledgeable others through participation in meaningful learning alongside them to achieve mutual goals (Bourke et al, 2018; Callanan et al, 2011). The collaborative process of learning alongside a more knowledgeable person who recognises and supports the participant’s development is shown in these results. The findings suggest that assessment through the form of immediate and ongoing feedback is relative to everyday learning consistent Callanan et al’s (2011) notion of informal learning not being externally assessed because it occurs in the moment relative to the participant’s ZPD. Furthermore, like the findings of Rogoff (2014), timely assessment through feedback during the endeavour contributes to both the endeavour and the participants feelings of acceptance, appreciation, or correction of the efforts as productive contributions. Overall, the participants engagement in learning outside of school was influenced through collaborative participation with others that supported their contribution to the different communities they are a part of because they felt acknowledged, respected and motivated to engage with and develop throughout a learning process.

The findings of the study demonstrate how relationships within young people’s sociocultural environment interact and influence decision-making, engagement and identity formation reflecting a deep connection between culture and cognition. Consistent with Hedegaard’s (2012) view that young people are social agents capable of shaping their own lives and the lives of those around them including society, this study foregrounded these connections of time, space and people within these young people’s lives. Similar to Callanan et al’s (2011) notion that participating in diverse learning experiences through collaboration with others plays an important role in supporting the development of appropriate social and cultural behaviour, the participants described embodying characteristics, morals, and beliefs from others to develop their own identities through observation and immersion within different groups. Complimenting Petrone’s (2010) argument that tension and conflict are conducive to understanding social norms and ideals of groups within a microsystem, participant’s sought out exosystemic influences that presented ideas that would challenge the ideals of their communities. For example, engaging with different media such as ‘Tiktok’, international texts and musicals with underlying themes distinct from the participants own sociocultural worlds, such as illegal drug taking, abuse, and sexual assault references, allowed them to express autonomy, difference and distinction to mainstream society to create meaningful worlds for them to participate in. However, the participants perceived their parents and teachers to view these as distractions, obstacles or negative influences on learning and behaviour. Overall, the findings reflect the complexity of the interacting relationships within a young person’s sociocultural environment and the associated challenges they impart on individual development.

Intent participation with others embedded within the interacting ecological systems of the participants sociocultural environments allowed them to expand their perspectives to become self-determining individuals, reiterating the relational nature of learning that foregrounds social interaction as a vital component of developing preparedness for life (Freeman & Mathison, 2009; Rogoff, 2014). Consistent with Petrone’s (2010) argument that power relations within a community influences learning by creating understandings around the norms of participation, the participants shared experiences of tension and conflict which taught them more about the social expectations of their friends and parents. For the most part, the participants autonomy was supported, however, three participants reported that they felt misunderstood or held back from pursuing topics of interest because of their age. The findings of this study suggest that young people, if afforded the opportunity to become self-determining, despite their perceived readiness assumed by adults, choose to become involved in diverse social settings that extend beyond their sociocultural environment to develop understanding of other people’s lives to ensure their preparedness for life. These findings are consistent with Lundy’s (2007) notion that young people have not been recognised as full human beings with integrity, personality and the ability to make informed decisions regarding their participation in different learning experiences. Subsequently, young people are denied their right to influence their decisions around learning because their unique forms of participation are neglected based on misunderstood representations of their capacity to participate in society as full human beings. Thus, their ability to become self-determining individuals is in some cases restricted by adults.

Developing knowledge and skills in areas of interest was identified by the participants as a contributing factor to participation in different communities. The participants’ articulated an awareness of the various demands placed upon them due to societal expectations to achieve well at school and recognised that their involvement in different groups complimented their formal learning experiences and supported academic achievement. The findings suggest that young people integrate their interests to support achievement in formal learning contexts. The COVID-19 Lockdown period presented a unique opportunity for the participants to reflect on how they balance social expectations and interests. The dichotomy between informal and formal learning was exaggerated through this process because they were forced to balance school expectations with their interests independently daily. For the most part, the participants reflected that they were able to efficiently complete their schoolwork leaving the rest of the day open to engage in learning through their interests. These findings are consistent with research of Horgan et al (2017) and Lundy (2007) who suggest that young people are able to overcome curriculum constraints, power inequality, and marginalisation when they are given the opportunity to hold influence over learning.

Finally, the findings of the study suggest participation in diverse communities is influenced by young people’s future aspirations reflecting Bourke et al’s (2018) dimension of ‘purpose’ as an important conception of informal learning and Holland et al’s (1998) argument that identity formation is conducive to participation in social practice. Horgan et al (2017) and Lundy (2007) also premise meaningful activity as a key motivator for engagement in informal learning experiences. Subsequently, this study suggests young people are goal oriented and are aware of how their choices supports them in becoming self-determining individuals.


The findings reflect that young people want to be recognised as full human beings who have character and motivation to actively participate freely in society and they want to be supported by adults in their communities, including school (Lundy, 2007). Young people’s valuable learning through their participation in diverse communities when they are not at school could be better recognised and utilised in formal learning contexts. Rogoff’s (2014) concept of learning through intent participation exemplifies the unique and valuable knowledge young people gain through their interactions with others and through the contributions they make to the different communities they are a part of. For example, the results show that young people value learning through unique experiences, they enjoy solving real-world problems relative to their sociocultural environment and they feel respected and acknowledged when working collaboratively with more knowledgeable others because they guide them throughout a learning process to support their development and identity formation. Today, formal learning contexts emphasise student achievement relative to prescribed learning outcomes that conceptualise what learning is important from the perspective of the majority Western world view (Bourke & O’Neill, 2018). It is no wonder young people infer segregation between informal and formal learning contexts because formal learning environments are often very different to the experiences young people participate in outside of school. Subsequently, the differences between young people’s engagement with learning at school compared to learning outside of school is twofold; informal learning is more enjoyable and practical whereas formal learning can be less enjoyable and at times, lacks meaning.

Aotearoa New Zealand is a progressively multicultural and multi-ethnic society and our education system should be more inclusive of young people’s diverse social and cultural backgrounds (Bevan-Brown, Heung, Jelas, & Phongaksorn, 2014). The findings reflect that young people are eager to learn about perspectives within and beyond their interacting ecological systems so they can apply this knowledge towards their development as functioning members of society. Young people’s experiences in school often provide them a narrow perspective of the world which is why they engage in diverse communities outside of school; to broaden their perspectives. Providing young people with opportunities to enact their rights, develop agency and influence over their learning in formal learning contexts by incorporating their unique social and cultural experiences outside of school, is an important area of consideration for educators.

Finally, addressing power imbalance issues prevalent in the current formal education system will support the provisions of Article 12 being upheld in Aotearoa New Zealand. The findings reflect previous research findings that young people learn through the demands they meet and through the demands they put on others as they interact across and within different social settings and activities in diverse institutions (Hedegaard, 2012). By learning through intent participation in the diverse communities, young people are a part of young people are able to influence their own lives and in turn the lives of those around them including society as a whole (Horgan et al., 2017). However, at school, adults define the learning outcomes, expectations, and experiences resulting in the construction of an environment that does not reflect all the members of the community. For formal learning communities to be mutually created by all its members, young people must be afforded their right to have influence over their learning.

The findings from this study reflect that the provisions of Article 12 of the UNCRC are being upheld in many ways through young people’s participation in learning experiences in their everyday lives. For example, young people engage with learning and influence the decisions around how they learn when they are not at school through intent participation with others embedded within the interacting ecological systems of their sociocultural environments to expand their perspectives. Young people and their sociocultural environments mutually create each other because young people influence their own lives and those around them. Finally, positive affect responses inform young people’s decision-making processes for engagement and participation in informal learning experiences. Many of these conclusions lack efficacy in formal learning contexts simply because young people are being denied their right to having influence over their learning. Young people can be afforded their right to influence their learning when they are at school by recognising and utilising young people’s unique ways of learning in their everyday lives in formal learning contexts, ensuring our education system is inclusive of all young people’s diverse social and cultural backgrounds and by addressing power imbalance issues prevalent between adults and young people.




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Adolescents’ Understanding of Their Rights and Experiences of Autonomy

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Adolescents’ Understanding of Their Rights and Experiences of Autonomy

Emma McCluskey & John O’Neill – Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: McCluskey, E. & O’Neill, J. (2021). Adolescents’ Understanding of Their Rights and Experiences of Autonomy. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


Article 42 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that children’s rights must be widely known by children and adults alike. Research on children’s rights has found that children and adolescents often have limited or incorrect knowledge and understandings of rights and how they apply to their everyday lives. Despite New Zealand ratifying the convention in 1993 it appears that children may continue to have little knowledge about rights. This research explored adolescents’ knowledge and understanding of their rights and UNCRC, where their knowledge and understanding come from, and how student experiences of autonomy may influence these understandings. Semi-structured interviews were used with 10 secondary (high) school students aged 14-15. Thematic analysis revealed that students may still hold limited and varied knowledge and understanding of their rights, and sources of this knowledge include inconsistent education at school, and television. It was also found that rights may not be a common discourse among adolescents. Teacher and government responsiveness towards adolescent students, and choices offered to them appeared to have an impact on student experiences of autonomy. These findings could have important implications for government policy and legislation, and rights education within New Zealand schools.

Keywords: adolescents, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, understandings, autonomy


Children’s rights are promoted within New Zealand law and public policy. However, children do not necessarily know they have rights or may have inconsistent or incorrect knowledge of their rights. Yet, to exercise rights, individuals must know that they have them. UNCRC recognises the rights of children and adolescents aged from birth to eighteen years old (United Nations General Assembly, 1989). UNCRC is a core human rights document and is the most universally ratified human rights treaty (UNICEF, 2020). The 42 articles in the treaty describe the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children and outline what every child needs for a safe and happy childhood. UNCRC rights address four general principles: survival, development, protection, and participation (UNICEF, 2020). Survival rights relate to living standards; development rights relate to healthy mental, social, physical, and spiritual development; protection rights provide protection from abuse and neglect, torture, and exploitation; participation rights relate to participation, having a say, and being involved in society (UNICEF, 2020).

While New Zealand has adopted the principles of UNCRC into law through ratification in 1993 and has agreed to respect, support, and promote the rights of children, the UNCRC rights themselves have not yet been adopted into New Zealand domestic law (Children’s Convention Monitoring Group, 2018). UNCRC Article 42 states that governments must ensure the convention is widely known by children and adults (United Nations General Assembly, 1989). Every five years the New Zealand government must report to the United Nations and demonstrate they are ensuring children’s rights are advocated for and supported (UNICEF, 2020).

An important participation right within UNCRC is Article 12, which refers to children expressing their views and for these to be considered in any matter and decision that relates to the child (United Nations General Assembly, 1989). Consequently, this study explored students’ knowledge and understandings of children’s rights and where their knowledge and understanding come from. Limited research about children’s knowledge and understanding of rights has been conducted since 1993 in New Zealand despite the evidence which suggests that knowledge of rights can support learning and development in children and adolescents (Covell, 2010) and, moreover, that autonomy supportive learning environments can build understanding of rights and how they can be enacted (To et al., 2017).

Are Children and Adolescents Aware of their Rights and UNCRC?

Most children do not know they have rights, even in adolescence. Alderson (2000) surveyed 2,272 British and Northern Ireland students aged 7-17 years and found that only five percent of students stated that they had heard about UNCRC ‘a lot’, and 19% ‘a bit’. The remaining 76% of the participants had not heard about UNCRC. Gwirayi and Shumba (2011) interviewed secondary school students in Zimbabwe, and examined children’s awareness of their rights and UNCRC, and knowledge of various organisations that advocate for children’s rights. Many young people were not aware of UNCRC or of their rights. Youth also lacked awareness of advocacy organisations. The right to education was the most frequently mentioned. Many participants lacked awareness of other UNCRC rights.

A similar picture emerges in New Zealand. Research conducted by Gilbert (1998) explored what New Zealand children knew about their rights and UNCRC. She found that 23% of children had heard of UNCRC. In another study, Taylor et al. (2001) surveyed 821 New Zealand students and found that 15% of students had heard of UNCRC, 63% of students said that they had not heard of UNCRC, and 22% were ‘not sure’. More recent research by Save the Children New Zealand and UNICEF New Zealand reported comparable findings. These organisations ran workshops with 1,198 young people aged from 15-20 years from schools across New Zealand. Many adolescents had some knowledge about human rights in general and were able to name some of these rights but had limited knowledge of UNCRC and specific child rights (Riak et al., 2016). The report also states that 62% of children had knowledge of some rights, which mainly related to human rights. The remaining 38% were unable to answer or did not know any children’s rights. Being aware of and knowing about rights is essential to being able to claim and respect rights (Alderson, 2008). If children are aware that they have rights in their everyday lives, they can discuss and enact them, and also advocate for the rights of their peers.

Children and Adolescents’ Understanding of their Rights

Article 42 states that governments are obligated to ensure that children and adults know about the principles and provisions of the convention. However, even if children know about UNCRC, they may not necessarily understand the convention, their rights, and how these relate to their lives. Understanding why children have rights and the responsibilities one has as a right holder is a more psychologically complex idea. Understanding requires connecting experiences, observations, fusing new and previously learned knowledge together, and involves having opportunities to test current thinking (Bereiter, 2005).

Research exploring children and adolescent understandings of human rights is inconsistent. Melton (1980) interviewed American children of different ages (6 – 13 years old). Melton found children’s knowledge of their rights coincided with their age and that as age increased, children’s understanding of their rights increased. For example, younger children associated rights with being given by authority, whereas older children could explain that rights were entitlements. Some older children discussed fairness, self-determination and advocating for rights of other children, indicating that older children can have the capacity to know and understand their rights. Children from a higher socioeconomic environment had more positive views towards children’s rights compared to those in lower socioeconomic conditions. Melton suggested this may be due to children from a higher socioeconomic status having greater opportunities to have their rights upheld.

Ruck et al. (1998) explored Canadian children’s perspectives and understandings of their rights by interviewing 169 children aged 8-16 about rights and then presented a real world hypothetical story about a child who wants to exercise a right against the wants of an authority figure. The authors found that some older adolescents linked rights to concrete rather than abstract thinking around rights, for example, connecting the notion of having rights with something given by authority. This was not consistent with Melton’s finding that understanding of rights progresses with age. Ruck et al. (1998) also concluded from their research that children’s understanding of rights in general influences their knowledge and understanding of their own rights in real world situations. This appears to suggest that it may not be age, but rather the maturity and capability of youth that assists with knowing and understanding children’s rights.

Alongside capability, maturity, and knowledge of general human rights, other factors may influence children’s understanding of their rights. Ben‐Arieh and Khoury‐Kassabri (2008) found nationality and ethnicity appeared to play a role in explaining differences in early adolescent understanding of rights. Differences in the importance placed on various rights by students and teachers may also impact on the way children and youth make sense of rights. In one study, New Zealand secondary school students placed importance on participation rights, while teachers placed importance on children’s provisional and protection rights (Taylor et al., 2001). Rizzini and Thapliyal (2007) also found a disconnect between adults and youth understanding of rights and suggested that rights need to be promoted in ways that relate to the contexts of children.

Children have reported they would like more education on UNCRC and their rights and suggested this could be achieved through school or television (Gilbert, 1998). Youth also seem aware of why having knowledge of rights can benefit them in their lives. Children and adolescents that do know about UNCRC and rights stated that they think all children should know about UNCRC and the rights that they hold so they can defend and protect themselves (Akengin, 2008). Research also indicates other factors may influence children’s awareness of their rights. Phillips (2016) suggests that adults can have knowledge around how to access UNCRC and other information around rights whereas this may be less clear for children. Schools may also not be doing enough to support children in their knowledge and understanding of their rights. Taylor et al. (2001) suggest that schools could be more proactive with rights education.

Culture may also influence children’s knowledge of UNCRC and their rights. A criticism of UNCRC is that it assumes Western worldviews and individual rights as the norm (Hayes & Bradley, 2009), which may contribute towards a child’s limited awareness of their rights under UNCRC. Not all countries that have ratified the convention have an exclusively individualistic culture, for example, a collectivist culture also exists in New Zealand (Podsiadlowski & Fox, 2011). Therefore, it is flawed to assume that a rights framework underpinned by individualistic thinking is also appropriate for children from collectivist cultures. This may then be reflected in research showing children may not be aware of, or understand their rights outlined in UNCRC because these children may not connect to them.

Rights Education and Autonomy in Adolescence

Rights education teaches students they are important right-holders and citizens within society and teaching them about their specific rights as a child and human (Covell et al., 2010). One approach to rights education that appears to have had a positive impact in Canada is the Rights, Respect and Responsibility (RRR) initiative. Covell and Howe (2008) introduced the RRR initiative as a rights education framework in 2003. This initiative taught children their rights under UNCRC, ensured their rights are respected at school, rights were integrated into school policies, and schools prioritised opportunities for children to participate in decisions and activities that affected their schooling. Schools that adopted RRR reported greater student engagement, participation at school, enjoyment of school, rights respecting behaviours, and supportive relationships and school environments. Compared to schools where RRR was not as well implemented, these children also appeared to show an increased understanding of rights and how they relate to their lives and were able to distinguish them from related concepts such as responsibilities (Covell & Howe, 2008).

Furthermore, in research by Covell et al. (2011), schools that implemented RRR could be better placed to mitigate potential negative effects in children with social disadvantages. These students appeared to show higher school engagement, increased optimism, and self-concept, and decreased social issues such as bullying. Covell also used the Young Students’ Engagement in School Scale to examine student’s self-reported levels of school engagement. Covell (2010) found that students from schools who implemented the RRR initiative, compared to schools that have not implemented this initiative, reported increased school engagement, for example, participation.

Knowledge of rights has also been linked to increased wellbeing. Casas et al. (2018) explored the relationship between knowledge of rights and subjective wellbeing. They surveyed children aged eight, 10 and 12 years old from 18 different countries and found children who indicated they knew about their rights reported higher subjective wellbeing than children who did not know about their rights. Casas et al. (2018) also reported a positive relationship between the perceptions of adults’ attitudes towards children’s rights and knowledge that children had about their rights. Furthermore, Kosher and Ben-Arieh (2017) found a positive relationship between children having knowledge of their rights and wellbeing.

Comprehensive rights education can empower students and support their developing self-determination and autonomy, especially in schools that both teach and model children’s rights. To et al. (2017) explored attitudes towards self-determination and nurturance rights in adolescents in China. They used self-report questionnaires to examine the impact of school and familial environments, for example if autonomy was supported, on children’s endorsements of their own rights. They found environments with higher maternal responsiveness, teacher and maternal autonomy support, and a democratic climate (e.g., involvement in decision making), correlated with children reporting higher levels of support for nurturance and self-determination rights. These environments were associated with psychological benefits and supporting awareness of their own rights. It appears that supporting autonomy supports rights education and vice versa. Autonomy support in both home and school environments appears to be a tool that can assist with the development of awareness, knowledge and understanding of rights for adolescents.

Autonomy Supportive Teaching

Autonomy supportive teaching encourages students and teachers to work together as equals. Reeve (2009) suggests that there are three important aspects of successful autonomy supportive teaching: Acknowledge and embrace the perspectives of students; encourage and seek the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of students; and support the development of motivation and self-regulation. Cheon et al. (2020) examined the effect of autonomy supportive classroom structures on student learning and motivation. They randomly assigned physical education teachers to either use autonomy supporting teaching styles or continue with their regular teaching. It was found that students receiving autonomy supportive teaching reported higher classroom engagement and learning. Therefore, teachers can have an important role in creating environments and conditions where students can learn and practice autonomy and self-determination.

Offering choice appears to be an important factor in creating autonomy supportive environments. Evans and Boucher (2015) found by providing meaningful choices for students, teachers can support the development of autonomy, motivation, and engagement at school. Teachers, schools, family/whānau and environments that support autonomy appear to foster positive student learning and development, school engagement and several wellbeing benefits for children. Autonomy is also an important component of adolescent development. Children’s rights education supports children’s development by supporting self-determination and autonomy. Self-determination refers to the intrinsic motivation behind the process of controlling and making decisions about one’s life (Deci & Ryan, 2012). Students need opportunities to be competent, autonomous and show self-determination. These dispositions are extremely important for social and emotional development in adolescence as youth navigate their identities, personalities, values, and morals (Santrock, 2012).

Article 42 of UNCRC can also be thought of as a partnership between the government, youth, and adults in children’s lives as governments actively work to ensure that the convention is widely known, and that children’s rights are being upheld. If children and adults have little to no knowledge of UNCRC and the rights of children, it raises the concern that the partnership between children, adults and the government may be weakened.

Study Design

This study adopted a broadly phenomenological approach to explore the experiences of students with regard to rights and autonomy, and how they make sense of these experiences (Teherani et al., 2015). The study employed a semi-structured interview using a guide based on Adams (2015). The interview protocol focused on the participants’ knowledge and understanding of children’s rights, including UNCRC, where this understanding originated from, and the influence of student experiences of autonomy on these understandings (Figure 1). Interview questions were open-ended and used follow up probes if required.

  • What is your favourite thing about school?
  • Do you feel like you are listened to in your class? Tell me about a time you were listened to?
  • Do you feel like you can make decisions about your learning at school and at home? Tell me about a time where you felt like you could or could not make a decision about your learning?
  • Do you feel you have control over your life and the way you want it to go?
  • Do you think your teacher/government/family cares about what you think? Do you think they support you making decisions about your own life?
  • What do you think a right is?
  • Have you ever heard of UNCRC the Convention on the Rights of a Child?
  • What different types of rights do you know about?
  • Tell me about a time where you learned about rights or you heard about rights?
  • How confident do you feel in talking about rights with your friends, teachers, and family?
  • Do you and your friends think that the government in New Zealand is doing enough to ensure that adults such as parents and teachers have a good understanding of children’s rights?
  • (If applicable) Do you think that learning about your rights has helped you make decisions about your life?
  • Do you have the freedom to do what you value?
  • Describe your school to me like you would to someone of your age who might be thinking of enrolling there?
  • What year are you in? How old are you?

Figure 1. Interview protocol

Ten secondary school students participated in this study, six female and four male, with an age range of 14-15, who were in Year 9 or 10 in secondary school. Nine students identified as New Zealand European, and one student identified as Australian/New Zealander. Interviews were conducted face-to-face at the participant’s home or through video chat. Participants could choose to have their parent or caregiver present for the interview. Interviews were recorded. Semi-structured interviews with open ended questions allowed for building rapport, flexibility, gathering information about lived experience and thoughts, and provided a confidential and safe space (Adams, 2015). Interviews lasted for approximately 30 minutes. Data analysis utilised a five-phase thematic analysis similar to Braun and Clarke (2006).

Knowledge and Understanding of Rights and UNCRC

Most participants commented that rights are universal and that every human is entitled to them, “Something that doesn’t have to be earned, it’s just like there in place that every human has, and we should just respect it no matter what”. While most participants discussed issues of entitlement and universality, some also talked about laws and morals, and legal ages as part of their knowledge of rights. Both specific and general rights were mentioned. Freedom of speech, to be listened to, privacy, education, safety, needs (specific rights) and human rights, legal rights, and consumer rights (general rights) were discussed. A few talked about general rights such as “legal rights, consumers rights, people’s rights”. More than half talked about specific rights, including human needs, right to education, safety, and freedom of speech, for example, “I guess like getting food and water… maybe like going to school”.

Knowledge of rights came largely from school and from television. Over half the students specifically mentioned learning about rights in their classes at high school, several of these from a social studies module on human rights. One student learned about human rights through Amnesty International group at school and two from previous learning at primary school. Three students identified television, especially the news: “I guess a lot of my learning about rights comes from tv and you hear about freedom of speech or you watch the news, and you hear about that you have the right to do something”. Another two said they had not learned about rights at school.

Three participants said they felt confident in talking about rights, but it was not a topic that comes up in conversation. As one student explained, they were not confident because they did not know much about rights:

Not very confident, like if I had to explain to someone or if it was a test of name all the rights that you have I wouldn’t be able to do that, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the rights that I could do, I’m not very clear on it.

Four students suggested that government could be doing more because “no one talks about children’s rights specifically” and that there is “no clear stuff about children’s rights”. Two students suggested that the government was doing enough to make sure that UNCRC is widely known. One student suggested teachers know about some children’s rights but not about others. One placed the responsibility for learning about rights on the general population: “Yes, it’s whether or not the people actually listen, you still have child abuse or abuse in general going on and those are the people who just don’t give a crap about anyone else”.

Experience of Autonomy

Data came from questions around being listened to in class, making decisions about learning, having control over life, and having the freedom to do what you value. More than half the participants commented that some teachers listen and some do not. Students thought teachers listened when students were: included in conversations, able to decline to answer a question, given time to answer questions, given opportunities to ask questions, actively listened to in their questions:

I particularly like my English teacher; she is just really open and caring and she listens to the answers that I give in class and she can give really good feedback.

Participants who did not feel listened to mentioned: not being given attention, teachers not understanding what the student is asking or saying, and not asking questions because they did not want to appear wrong:

My food and nutrition teacher listens to my questions, she gives me enough time to ask, like other teachers don’t really give time, they just want you to not have questions because if you don’t they think you understand kind of thing. So, I don’t really ask questions in that class, I just try to figure it out myself.

Most students observed that the amount of effort that teachers put into their teaching reflects their ability to care and listen to their students.

A majority of participants felt that government does not listen or care about what they think. Two students believed that there is no opportunity to have a say until they are legally allowed to vote, “I don’t really get a say in government issues. It’s 18 and then you can start making a change”. Half explained that they would feel confident in talking about rights with friends and family but not with teachers because they felt like they might be wrong, or that teachers have expectations that students should know more than they do.

In terms of freedom to make decisions, half the students shared stories about being able to pick a subject they enjoyed, and two experiences of not being able to pick a subject. Most students stated that they felt they had control over their lives and the way they want it to go, and two were unsure. Six participants indicated that parents or school affect the their feeling of control over their life. One participant stated that he felt as though he did not have control over his life as there was family pressure, “No, ’cause Mum wants me to go to uni… I’m still thinking”. Another was affirmed by parental support, “I think I have control over my life, my family supports me in what I want to do… they listen to my ideas and tell me that I can study what I want”. Some participants referenced school influences on their decision-making, for example, “Academically I can choose whether to participate, and I can put in the hard work… but I can also choose to not put hard work in and deal with the consequences”.

Eight of the ten participants said that knowing about rights influenced their decision making around minor decisions in their lives, for example, going to the bathroom:

Not major decisions but minor ones, like, for example, when I ask to use the bathroom and the teacher says no and I really have to go, they can’t really tell me I’m not allowed to cause it’s a right to use the bathroom.

Other minor decision making included not associating with someone who had infringed their rights, “I know that I have a right to be treated well and if that’s broken then I might make a decision to not be around that person…”. Two participants spoke about their awareness of other people having rights which informed their own decision making, “It makes you respect others more, knowing that they have a right as well”. Another student explained that rights guide her by knowing she has a voice and freedom. In contrast, two students stated that knowing about rights had not helped them make decisions about their lives.


While participants seemed to have limited knowledge and understanding of UNCRC, they demonstrated the capacity to link rights to being human and to the law. This suggests that even though young people may not be able to explicitly define rights, they may still have some implicit understanding of rights. Early adolescents in the research by Melton (1980) were able to link their knowledge and understanding of rights to being an entitlement. In this study, entitlement was a common word used to convey understanding of a right. Melton (1980) also indicated that knowledge of rights may coincide with age of the child. In this study, some students held the view of rights being universal and an entitlement, others linked their knowledge of rights to laws and legal ages (e.g., driving a car, purchasing alcohol).

Participants stated they learned about rights at school, however, where they learned about rights differed (e.g., tourism or social studies subjects). This appears to show there is no comprehensive rights education in high school for year nine and ten students even though the New Zealand Curriculum includes learning about human rights within the social sciences subject (Ministry of Education, 2015). A key part of the success from the RRR initiative has been consistent education around specific rights of children and embedding this within school policy where children can have input (Covell & Howe, 2008). It appears that teaching specific children’s rights and UNCRC may not be happening in the first two years of secondary school. There is also the possibility that rights are being taught in abstract ways that do not provide opportunities for students to negotiate and enact them. This may, in part, account for why some students have only an implicit understanding of rights.

These findings appear consistent with Taylor et al. (2001) who suggested that schools should be more proactive in educating students about UNCRC, and with the recommendation by Riak et al. (2016) that government must take the lead in fulfilling their responsibilities under Article 42 by incorporating rights education in school curriculum more effectively.

Many students said their learning about rights had come from television. Participants talked about seeing a particular situation where rights were or were not upheld. Other participants talked about legal rights (e.g., Miranda rights). This may be concerning because television and other technologies can portray incorrect information (Allen et al., 2020), which could misleadingly influence children’s understanding and knowledge of rights. However, technology can also be a significant resource for learning (Chauhan, 2017), therefore these results could indicate that television is an effective way for children to learn about rights. This appears consistent with Gilbert (1998) who found that children wanted more information on UNCRC which could be achieved through television.

Participants indicated that rights are not a common discourse; they do not talk about them with friends or information was not readily available. Again, this could be concerning and may help explain why adolescents seem to have limited and inconsistent knowledge around children’s rights and UNCRC. If children’s rights are not a common discourse, then it can create difficulties for young people to know and exercise their rights. Some participants in this study struggled to connect their knowledge and understanding of rights to decision making about their lives. Furthermore, participants indicated that they do not feel confident in talking about rights with teachers. This finding is consistent with Riak et al. (2016) who recommended that UNCRC should be discussed more frequently and openly to embed it within New Zealand culture.

Children’s rights not being a common discourse could relate to a disconnect between adult and youth understanding of rights, and these current findings appear consistent with previous research. Taylor et al. (2001) found that teachers placed importance on children’s protection and provisional rights, while students placed importance on participation rights. Rizzini and Thapliyal (2007) suggested there is an incongruence between adult and youth understanding of rights. Differences in the perceived importance of particular rights may contribute to children’s rights not being a common discourse.

Teacher and government responsiveness appeared to influence students’ experiences of autonomy. Participants thought the government does not listen to what they have to say. Participants also highlighted the lack of opportunity to voice their opinion. Some indicated this cannot occur until voting age. Participants also held the view that government cares about schools but not individuals. This appears to indicate that youth want the government to listen, which is not a new concept. A key finding from the Mai World Child and Youth Voices Report (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2017) was that youth wanted a say in issues important to them and indicated interest in politicians visiting their school or communities. This report also highlighted youth perceptions around the inability to vote, thus not being able to have a say in their future. Having a say and listening to children’s views in decisions that affect them is part of upholding Article 12 of UNCRC; governments must consider the views of children before making decisions that concern them. Participants in this study indicated limited opportunities to have a say in decisions that affect them.

Government responsiveness to youth and New Zealand as a whole could potentially encourage an autonomy supportive environment. Participants in this study thought the government was not doing enough to ensure that adults know about children’s rights. This is concerning as it is the responsibility of adults to teach children about their rights (Liebel, 2012). There is limited information about the implementation of Article 42 in New Zealand’s fifth periodic report demonstrating the implementation of UNCRC. This report states that information about UNCRC is readily available on Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Youth Development, Ministry of Justice, and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner websites (United Nations, 2016). There appears to be limited knowledge and understanding of UNCRC among youth (and adults) because they may not know how to access this information or even know that it exists. This research appears to indicate that technology could assist with implementing dissemination and raising awareness about UNCRC and the implementation of Article 42.

Teachers can have a profound effect on student experiences of autonomy. Acknowledging and embracing student perspectives is important in autonomy supportive teaching (Reeve, 2009). The present study appears to support this notion. Participants mentioned if their teacher demonstrated that they were caring then they felt like their teachers listened to what they had to say and think, which suggests this may influence their perception and experience of autonomy environments. Teachers that show care towards their students, and what and how they teach can have a positive impact on how students perceive them, build rapport, and in turn can have a positive effect on student engagement at school and learning (Meyers, 2009). Participants in this study appeared to indicate that caring teachers were able to create experiences of autonomy where students felt listened to and given opportunities to make decisions.

Additionally, participants discussed not feeling confident enough to talk about rights with their teachers. This appeared to be related to not wanting to be judged or wrong. This could reflect differences between adult and child perceptions of rights which may inhibit experiences of autonomy where rights can become common discourse. This could then influence the perception of participants in the current study where they believe the government may not be doing enough to ensure that adults in their lives know about children’s rights. Again, this brings up the idea of a weakened partnership between children, adults, and the government in terms of children’s rights. Given that partnership is an integral part of Te Tiriti o Waitangi it could potentially raise concern.

While there appears limited opportunity for young people to have a say in things that affect them, there seems to be environments which support experiences of autonomy. Having the opportunity to choose subjects was indicated by participants to be a situation where they could make a decision that influenced their learning. When choice was impacted, it appeared distressing and frustrating. Providing choice to support autonomy and learning at school is not a new idea; Evans and Boucher (2015) suggest that providing meaningful choices for students supports the development of autonomy, motivation, and engagement of students at school.

The results also seem to indicate the knowledge that students have about their rights and UNCRC can support minor decision making. Freeman (2007) suggests that youth learning about children’s rights assists with them developing the capacity to be agents and decision makers. In this study, participants could link their knowledge on rights to minor decision making, but not bigger decisions.


This purpose of this research was to explore adolescent students’ knowledge and understanding of UNCRC and rights, where this knowledge came from, and how their perceptions and experiences of autonomy may influence knowledge and understanding. Previous research has investigated youth knowledge and understanding of human rights and found that many students hold inconsistent and incorrect knowledge of their rights. From previous research there also appears to be a positive link between autonomy supportive environments and enhanced knowledge and understandings of children’s rights and how these can be applied to everyday life, especially for adolescent development. There have been several years between previous research and this current study, and it appears students still have inconsistent knowledge of their rights. The qualitative data suggested that knowledge comes predominantly from school and technology (e.g., television). Results indicated that even in the school environment, the source of knowledge and understandings of rights differed between students.

Students indicated having an experience of autonomy support in their home and school learning environments. Participants also suggested that several factors may influence this environment. This can include teacher responsiveness especially if they show that they care, and through offering choices for students to have opportunities to make decisions about their learning. Confidence in talking about rights with teachers did not appear as high compared to talking about rights with peers or family, which was an unanticipated finding. Another finding that was unanticipated, but could have important implications for New Zealand government, education, and policy, is that New Zealand as a whole, could be an autonomy supportive environment. This may support children in having their say about decisions that affect them. The present study also appeared to highlight that there are limited opportunities for youth that are below voting age to voice their opinions to the government, which could be further explored in research or reviews. This study contributes to existing research in this area by providing further evidence of students holding inconsistent or limited knowledge and understanding of children’s rights and highlighted how student experiences of autonomy can influence knowledge and understandings of children’s rights. The findings from the present study supports growing evidence that New Zealand needs more robust and comprehensive ways to teach children about their rights under UNCRC.

This study has helped reveal important perspectives and experiences around child rights. An important experience revealed was students wanting to have a choice and say in what they do. This could inform ways in which children can be given additional authentic decision-making opportunities in their everyday lives in the classroom and school. Subsequently it may influence experiences of having autonomy and the way they want things to go in their life.


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Secondary School Girls Speaking Out on Their Rights to Have a Say in Schools

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Issue 1                     IJSV, Special Issue                           April 2022

Secondary School Girls Speaking Out on Their Rights to Have a Say in Schools

Eleanor Morfett & Maria Dacre – Massey University, New Zealand


Citation: Morfett, E., Dacre, M (2021). Secondary School Girls Speaking Out on Their Rights to Have a Say in Schools. International Journal of Student Voice, 7 (1).


Article 12 of the UNCRC, one of the four guiding principles of the Convention, states that children have the right to have an opinion, to express their views freely in all matters which affect them and to have their views heard. ‘Participation rights’ are often interpreted as ‘student voice’ in schools. Research has highlighted the positive impact of hearing the views of children and young people in schools. However, evidence suggests that young people continue to feel that they are not heard. Research also highlights the intersectional marginalisation of girls within the categories of women and children. However, there is very little research focusing specifically on girls’ accessing their Article 12 participation rights and literature searches failed to find any in the New Zealand context. This study explored female voice through the perceptions of girls in Years 9 – 13 attending schools around New Zealand. Semi-structured interviews gave voice to ten girls, providing the opportunity to discuss how well they felt they experienced participation rights. Findings highlighted a continuum of experience with only two out of the ten participants fully experiencing their Article 12 rights. All except one of the participants noted equality in participation rights, stating that gender inequality is a thing of the past. However, contradictions in these post-feminist narratives suggested the need for greater education on social and gender issues. Secondary findings indicated a breach of Article 42 of the Convention as there was little to no knowledge of the UNCRC.

Keywords: gender equity, female voice, student voice, participation rights, children’s rights, UNCRC.


The focus for this research is how well girls in New Zealand secondary schools are accessing their Article 12 participation rights as outlined within The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989). The research also explores how female voice is perceived in New Zealand’s schools and whether there are any gender differences in the ‘right to be heard’. Article 12 of the UNCRC has been the subject of much debate as well as extensive research since the treaty was adopted in 1989 (Krappman, 2010). Commonly referred to as ‘participation rights’, Article 12 is one of the guiding principles of the Convention and the first clause states that:

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. (United Nations General Assembly, 1989).

The UNCRC is a legally binding treaty which has been ratified by 195 countries around the world and was signed by New Zealand in 1993 (Osler, 1994). It is therefore the legal right for children within New Zealand to participate in the decisions which affect their lives and to express their views freely on the matters which are important to them (UNICEF, 2014).

In schools, children’s participation is usually defined as ‘student voice’ and research has shown the wide benefits of ensuring students are heard. This includes the connection between student voice and their well-being as well as the development of respectful relationships between students and teachers (Anderson & Graham, 2016; Cook-Sather, 2006; Mitra, 2014; Roffey, 2015). Improvements in teaching, learning, attainment, and behaviour in schools can also be achieved through student voice where processes of open and honest dialogue are in place (Lodge, 2005). Furthermore, student voice is also likely to lead to learning which is more responsive to the needs of the students (Kennan et al., 2018).

Despite the research highlighting the positive impact of student voice, evidence suggests that children are often not listened to and student voice in schools is often narrowed and tokenistic (Lewars, 2010; Lundy, 2007). Evidence exploring power dynamics in schools also indicates that student voice is regulated and lacking authenticity (Ladkin, 2017; Nelson, 2017). Freeman (2009) argues that although participation is central to human rights and respects the autonomy of the child, there is a distinction between having this right and being allowed to exercise it, particularly as the ‘age and maturity of the child’ component of Article 12 means that adults decide whether participation is in the child’s best interests. Tisdall (2017) highlights the concern that children’s rights have not necessarily been taken into consideration when developing school councils; rather, they hold symbolic value and children are often not afforded genuine opportunities to impact decision making in schools. Freeman (2009) suggests that when judged against the Convention, children are being failed.

To address some of these concerns, there have been numerous proposals for enabling participation. However, recognising children as autonomous individuals has been a slow process and Lewars (2010) notes that many schools do not take the wider possibilities for student participation into consideration. There are also problems with tokenistic opportunities for engagement which indicates that children and young people are not being heard (Lundy, 2007). The impact of promising students a voice without listening to them can be highly damaging, leading to alienation and disconnection from schooling and is reflective of unequal power relationships in schools (Ladkin, 2017; Mitra, 2018).

Models of participation have been developed to provide adults with pathways for facilitating and recognising different forms of participation (Cahill & Dadvand, 2018). Hart’s (1992) ladder, for example, highlights the differing levels of participation with manipulation, decoration and tokenism at the bottom; consultation and information in the middle; and young person and adult shared decision-making at the higher levels. Bahou (2011) suggests the highest form of student voice work occurs when students and teachers work in partnership to achieve the former’s goals, (i.e., the top rung of the ladder).

Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation attempts to capture the legal obligations within Article 12 by focusing on four separate but inter-related factors: Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. ‘Space’ indicates an adult’s responsibility in creating opportunities for children to express their views, encourage their involvement and avoid solely adult initiated discussions or initiatives. ‘Voice’ highlights the need to find appropriate ways to involve children and enable them to express their views freely as indicated in Article 12. ‘Audience’ refers to the right within Article 12 for children to have their views given ‘due weight’. This suggests that children must be listened to and involved in decision making processes. The final factor within Lundy’s (2007) model is ‘Influence’ and the complexity of giving children’s views due weight is considered. Lundy (2007) suggests that if children’s views are to be taken seriously, then it is important for adults to keep children informed as to how their views have been given consideration and to ensure feedback is given.

Female Voice

Despite the considerable attention which has been given to girls’ achievements in education, research indicates that there are misconceptions of gender equality with clear disparities between post-feminist rhetoric and the realities faced by many girls (Osler & Vincent, 2003; Tyrie, 2013). The research by Pomerantz et al., (2013), for example, highlights girls who identify with ‘girl power’ narratives of feeling strong, and competent; mechanisms which are effective in creating positive feelings of empowerment. However, when faced with sexism in schools, these narratives can deny girls the opportunity to explain the sexism they face or take feminist action (Pomerantz, et al., 2013; Taft, 2004).

A similar view of marginalisation is embedded within Taefi’s (2009) use of intersectional theory. This approach suggests that girls are marginalised within the categories of women and children and as a result they are denied their rights. Further to this, the experiences of girls in the developed world are often dismissed (Taefi, 2009). Tyrie (2013) also highlights the concern that there are misconceptions of gender equality. Through a large-scale mixed-methods study in Wales, Tyrie (2013) found numerous gender disparities including girls tending to have higher rates of depression, worrying more than boys and feeling more self-conscious. Boys tended to have higher self-esteem than girls and fewer issues with anxiety. While the data indicated no gender inequalities in the right to be heard as including girls out-performing boys academically, the perception was that teachers are sexist and reinforce gender norms.

The research indicates numerous gender inequalities. However, there is also evidence of strong female voice and leadership. This includes many young women in activism, making their voices heard in the matters of importance to them. In her book ‘Rebel Girls – Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas’, Taft (2011) foregrounds girls who have forged activist identities with the desire to create change and make the world a better place through involvement in various kinds of action groups. These girls are empowered citizens who provide a contrast to ideas of youth apathy.

Malala Yousafzai is a notable example of a girl-activist coming to global prominence in 2012 after being shot by the Taliban for voicing her views on girls’ right to education in Pakistan (Sadaf, 2017). For this activism, Malala has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (2013), the Simone de Beauvoir Prize (2013), and she became the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate in 2015 (Sadaf, 2017). Malala’s role is undoubtedly one of active participation with a strong public image in Western media. Greta Thunberg is another example of a high-profile young female activist who rose to prominence after going on school strike in her home country of Sweden to raise awareness of the climate crisis. She was thrust further into the limelight following her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Jung, et al., 2020). Sophie Handford has also played an important role as a youth environmental activist in New Zealand, making use of social media to draw together thousands of young people of varied ages and locations across New Zealand for the school climate change strikes in March 2019. The New Zealand Sustainable Development Report (2019) described Sophie’s activism as reflective of many youth movements which focused on empowering and including individuals. Importantly, the strikes gave a voice to many young people concerned about the future of the planet.

In contrast there have also been polarised reactions to adolescent female leaders in the media. Greta Thunberg’s presentation in social media has been analysed by Jung et al. (2020) noting that Twitter users criticised Greta in relation to her gender, ethnicity or age with attempts to belittle her with comments such as ‘little girl’ and ‘child’ (Jung et al, 2020, p. 6). At the other extreme, Greta has been supported for being inspirational and brave. Media responses to Malala have also revealed polarised views praising her bravery on the one hand but on the other, there have been suggestions that she has been exploited as a tool for political propaganda (Ryder, 2015).

Eckert (2014) notes that adolescents and women often experience the trivialisation of their concerns. Taft (2011) also highlights the problematic intersection of age and gender with the girls she interviewed commenting on their experience of sexism and not being taken seriously as activists. These concerns are reflected by Switzer et al. (2016) who note that whilst girls may appear hyper-visible, they also hold a precarious position as rights holders, suspended between women’s rights and children’s rights agendas, effectively negating their visibility.

Research has therefore emphasised the importance of gender equality education. Archard (2013) focuses on the importance of encouraging female leadership with recommendations for providing adolescent girls with a broad range of leadership opportunities which should incorporate communication, interpersonal skills, and critical reflection. As well as this, Archard (2013) suggests that developing their understanding of gender issues and increasing their social awareness will help prepare them for their futures. Farvid’s (2017) research focuses on gender inequality in New Zealand in terms of issues such as gender-based violence, the gender pay gap, and the lack of women in leadership and highly paid executive positions. She highlights the need for gender equality education as a way of addressing these broad societal issues of gender inequality.

Background and Rationale

A review of the literature highlighted sparse research specifically into the effects of gender on access to participation rights in schools and searches found no literature on this subject in the New Zealand context. The majority of literature tended to focus on the ways in which girls can be marginalised. Taefi (2009), for example, focused on girls being denied access to their rights due to their intersectional marginalisation as both women and children with issues of gender inequality for girls in the developed world often being ignored. There are, of course, many high-profile girls expressing the views which are important to them but, as already stated, they can experience polarised views in the media (Jung et al., 2020). The literature also highlighted concerns surrounding dominant post-feminist discourses. These narratives may empower girls on the surface with narratives of equality, strength, power, and success. Ironically, the narrative of gender inequality being a thing of the past removes the power for girls to be active in pointing out sexism and does not provide girls with the language to discuss gender disparities (Pomerantz et al., 2013).

Tyrie’s (2013) broad focus on gender and the rights of children and young people in Wales was the most closely related to the topic for this research, highlighting young people’s perceptions of teachers as sexist, as well as an indication of many other gender disparities. Whilst Tyrie (2013) did not find any inequalities in the right to be heard, the research concluded by stating the need for continued work and broad societal changes in the area of gender equality.

The following research questions were therefore selected to address the gaps and limited literature in this area: (i) In what ways are female voices heard in New Zealand’s secondary schools? (ii) How is female voice perceived in New Zealand’s secondary schools? and (iii) How are female voices heard in comparison to male voices in New Zealand’s secondary schools?

Methodology and Methods

The Constructivist Grounded Theory (CGT) methodology was chosen for this research with interpretivist epistemological assumptions which support the importance of giving voice to the participants, remaining grounded in their views, experiences and perceptions. The focus within CGT is gaining insight into the participants’ lived experiences as well as interpreting how participants construct their realities (Breckenridge et al., 2012). This approach therefore enabled an understanding of how the ten girls within the study experienced their UNCRC right to participate as well as their perceptions on issues of gender.

The sample consisted of ten female students from Years 9–13 (13–17 year olds) across a range of secondary schools. Six participants attended girls’ schools and four participants attended co-educational schools.

Volunteer sampling was used to recruit the first two participants. Both girls were Year 10 students attending a co-educational school and highlighted differing perceptions of participation. The next three participants were recruited using a theoretical sampling approach. They were all in Year 10 of a girls’ school and were members of the school’s Amnesty International group. This provided an opportunity to direct the data collection with girls who were active in student voice initiatives. The next set of participants were recruited following an advertisement placed on the researcher’s Facebook page, a Year 9 girl attending a girls’ school, a Year 11 girl attending a coeducational school and three Year 13 girls, two from girls’ schools and another girl attending a coeducational school. Given the wide variety of contexts and ages of the participants, the interviews provided opportunity hear a range of views, an important component of the CGT methodology. Following the ten interviews, no new codes or categories emerged leading to theoretical saturation (Charmaz, 2006).

Data Collection and Analysis

A semi-structured interviewing process was chosen for this research with the aim to produce an inductively driven theory grounded in the data. The process involved constant comparative actions to develop the categories and codes which formed the grounded theory. As well as coding the data, the grounded theory process includes writing memos whilst gathering the data, and a purposive or ‘theoretical’ sampling approach to direct the data collection to gain varied perspectives and “as full a picture as possible” (Charmaz, 2006, p18). This is done until theory saturation is achieved, (i.e., when no new categories have arisen from the data collection).

The two face-to-face interviews were recorded using a voice recording application on the researcher’s phone. The remaining interviews were recorded on Zoom video conferencing due to the need for social distancing under Covid-19 restrictions. All recordings were stored on a password protected device and deleted at the close of the research. Pseudonyms were used and identifying information such as school names were removed during transcription.The researcher transcribed these interviews, allowing for full immersion and a deeper understanding of the data. The coding process followed immediately. The initial coding focused on defining what the data was about by categorising, summarising and analysing each section of data (Charmaz, 2006). The coding was done by hand using a line-by-line approach to name each segment of data and understand the participants’ views without imposing pre-existing ideas onto the data.

Focused coding was the next stage in the process and involved a close analysis of the emerging core categories. This involved reviewing, refining and drawing together codes to form more abstract concepts and categories (Chun Tie et al., 2019). The final theoretical coding stage followed this, and the researcher integrated the codes by exploring the relationships between concepts, data, and the emerging over-arching conceptual categories.


Three core categories were developed to form the constructivist grounded theory: ‘Space and Freedom to have a Voice’; ‘Importance of Being Listened to and Taken Seriously’ and ‘Female Construction of Participation’. As noted in the figure 1 diagram, the categories were developed in line with Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation which captures the legal ramifications of Article 12 within four key components: Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. As noted by Krappmann (2010) the right to participate is often viewed as the most important characteristic of the UNCRC which is reflected in Article 12 having overarching status on the diagram.

Figure 1 Overview of findings and the connection with Lundy’s (2007) model of participation

A continuum of participation, reflective of Hart’s (1992) ladder of participation (figure 2) was also developed, indicating the varying levels of participation identified by the participants. These ranging from tokenism through to empowerment, agency and influence.

Figure 2 Continuum of participation

Space and freedom to have a voice

In line with the ‘Space’ and ‘Voice’ components of Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation, this category reflects the opportunities for students to express their views and understand how well this had been facilitated.

Relationships with both teachers and peers was noted as an essential component in the feeling of being heard with this view consistent across all participants. Surekha (Year 10), for example, stated: “I’m pretty good at voicing my opinions especially like if I’m with like friends.” Comparative with many other participants, Surekha’s comment reflects the sense of being empowered and confident in expressing her views, particularly with the support of her peers. Zara (Year 13), however, highlights the more negative impact that peers can have on student voice. For example, she noted that the fear of receiving “hate” on social media can silence students.

The power of teachers to either regulate student voice or empower students at either end of the continuum was also a predominant factor in the participants feelings of being heard. Philippa (Year 13), for example, felt leadership and participation was actively encouraged: “any year group can kind of start anything they want” highlighting empowerment and having influence in her school. However, Hannah (Year 11) felt like there was a lack of mutual respect between teachers and students: “…they kind of don’t pay the respect back to me” and commented that she did not have any genuine influence in her school.

Importance of Being Listened to and Taken Seriously

This category is in line with the ‘audience’ and ‘influence’ components of Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation and links to how well the participants felt they were listened to in their schools and whether their views acted upon. The views of the participants also align with a continuum of participation with two participants who provided examples of their views being given due weight at the empowerment, agency and influence end of the continuum. The remaining eight participants felt that they had very little influence.

Tokenistic engagement was highlighted in the comments made by seven of the participants. Sarah (Year 13), for example, spoke passionately about the problems of her school’s “constricting” uniform as well as unequal treatment between boys and girls but she could choose the “song for house singing” and the “costumes for fashion show”. Amelia (Year 10) noted being part of an environmental group where she could “talk about different ideas” however, there were no clear outcomes suggesting a lack of influence or being taken seriously.

 There was a clear connection between allowing students influence and their positive feelings towards school as well as their sense of well-being. For Philippa, this related to being able to “make change in the school”. For Bethany, it was the feeling of being heard: “every single time I have had an issue, they have listened.”

However, the negative impact of not listening to students was a sense of disconnection and being made to feel like “we didn’t matter” (Kate). Zara reflected a feeling of resignation that the teachers in her school felt students were “not mature enough to have a voice.”

Female Construction of Participation

Active participation was a key feature of this category. The entirely female sample highlighted the ways they use their voices to develop their identity, particularly in relation to active participation. For Zara, it was important for her to “educate” others by highlighting important issues on social media. Eight of the participants referred to the importance of using voice and participation to ‘make a difference’ as exemplified by Surekha: “We’re Gen Z. We want change; we want equal rights for everyone.”

Nine participants stated that there were no gender inequalities in the right to be heard as characterised by Bethany: “I actually think it’s pretty equal at our school. We have a Head Boy and a Head Girl, and they are both equal.” There were some exceptions to this view, reflecting the continuum of experience, most notably, Sarah’s comments on sexism in her school; the perception from another participant that boys can dominate in the classroom; and Surekha’s view that stereotypes of girls and women still exist: “stereotypes against women, misogyny.” However, generally the feeling was of gender injustice being irrelevant.

In contrast, gender inequality was highlighted by Sarah who commented on the roles of Head Boy and Head Girl in her school: “he’s got more of a profile and more of a show at the front” but the Head Girl does “most of the work”. Her perception was of an oppressive and unequal distribution of power: “…she’s, she’s backing him with his decisions and getting it done, like, he’ll, he’ll say something and she’ll do it, you know. Yeah, I feel like that’s more of the relationship.”

Empowerment was drawn from sources such as positive perceptions of female voice and leaders. For example, Surekha stated: “I’ve seen a lot of changes with Jacinda Ardern and, like, it’s empowering more females to go into that type of career as well, like a trail blazer.”

Hannah’s comments reflect the views of most participants with the opinion that there are no longer any gender inequalities: “it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female… I don’t really think that we care about what gender it is.”

Perceptions of female voice were generally positive with comments such as “powerful”, “strong”, and “inspiring” in relation to prominent female leaders. However, Sarah felt that Greta Thunberg might be perceived as a “joke” by some boys. When Bryony was asked whether perceptions would be similar or different for a boy, she commented that female voice stands out more in the media because it is “not as common”. Of course, this raises the question as to why this may be perceived as something more unusual and reflects the othering of female voice. Even Hannah who dismissed the idea of gender inequality, stated that Greta is “complaining rather than…taking action”, a less than positive view of a young female voice.

Secondary Findings

It was clear that none of the participants had been taught about the Convention in any kind of comprehensive way despite Article 42 of the UNCRC stipulating that State parties should be ensuring wide knowledge of the Convention:

State Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike. (UN General Assembly, 1989)


Utilising a Constructivist Grounded Theory methodology, the overarching but interlinked categories were developed by aligning the participants’ experience and views of participation in their schools to Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation. ‘Space and Freedom to have a Voice’ was connected to ‘space’ to be able to voice opinions and ‘voice’ to be facilitated to express views (Lundy, 2007). ‘Importance of Being Listened to and Taken Seriously’ was connected to ‘audience’ and ‘influence’: to be listened to and have their views acted upon as appropriate (Lundy, 2007). ‘Female Construction of Participation’ reflected the female participants views on gender and participation and their preferences for participation. All three categories are linked to Article 12 of the UNCRC as they all reflect how the participants are heard. This discussion will focus on responding to the core research questions.


In what ways are female voices heard in New Zealand’s secondary schools?

For the participants in this study, their voices were heard in varied ways in their schools. This is represented as a continuum of participation and experience with participants responses reflecting tokenistic roles whilst others felt they had agency and were empowered in their participation.

Within the ‘Space and Freedom to have a Voice’ category, the participants identified the importance of their relationships with teachers. Some participants shared concerns about the lack of mutually respectful relationships between students and teachers. This finding is reflected in the literature relating to power dynamics in schools. Lundy (2007) notes that some teachers have concerns about participation and how it might destabilise the school environment as well as affect teacher authority and control. Ladkin (2017) also highlights issues relating to unequal power relationships within New Zealand’s schools and suggests that hidden power structures can affect the authenticity of student voice.

Relationships with peers was also raised as an important feature of participation for the young women in this study. Being able to collaborate, discuss and have the support of peers enabled confidence to express an opinion, resulting in meaningful participation. Whilst this is not a finding reflected widely in the literature, Ladkin (2017) highlights the importance of building students’ identities and supporting discussion between peers to build a more democratic environment which can help to diminish power imbalances. Lundy (2007) also notes the importance of having safe spaces for students to express their views.

Through the conceptual category: ‘Importance of Being Listened to and Taken Seriously’, the participants’ comments highlighted the thin veneer of democracy provided by student voice initiatives (Mitra, 2008). Seven of the participants commented on teachers or senior managers not being genuinely interested in listening. This is likely to be because participation is often adult initiated and of little interest to most young people (Head, 2011; Lundy, 2007).

How is female voice perceived in New Zealand’s secondary schools?

This question was addressed through the conceptual category: ‘Female Construction of Participation’. The participants indicated the view that female voice is perceived positively, stating that women and girls are empowered to have a voice and to express their opinions. There were also feelings that strong female leaders in the media were inspiring and added to their sense of empowerment. This is a view reflected in the research by Archard (2013) who advocates for greater education into how female leaders contribute to society as well as the need to deconstruct gender roles. Archard (2013) notes that learning about female leaders is a motivational tool for young women and encourages them to take on leadership opportunities within their schools. The participants certainly reflected this with positive views of Jacinda Ardern, Chloe Swarbrick and Alexandria Cortez amongst others. They also stated that it is important to have leadership opportunities in their schools.

However, there were some contradictions to this view suggesting that female voice can also be perceived negatively. Taft (2011) notes young female activists can experience sexism with adults not taking their activism seriously. Zara, for example, felt that being young was a barrier to being listened to. The participants also commented on stereotypes of women and female leaders in the media. The conversation, for example, turned to perceptions of Greta Thunberg being perceived as “grumpy”, “a joke” to boys, and “just complaining”. Eckert (2014) suggests that age-related ideology and gender-ideology are inseparable, as well as noting that women and adolescents share the trivialisation of their activities and concerns.

Despite some of these negative perceptions, it was clear that the participants wanted to be perceived as active, engaged and empowered in their participation. They want to make a difference, speak out, voice opinions on global movements and share messages on social media, as well as “educate” others. These factors were identifed as important features of the way that the girls in this study wanted to participate.

How are female voices heard in comparison to male voices in New Zealand’s secondary schools?

This question was also addressed within the conceptual category: ‘Female Construction of Participation’ and allowed for an exploration of participants’ views on their right to be heard as well as their perceptions of gender issues.

The broad view was that there are no gender inequalities in the right to be heard. Four participants commented on issues of sexism in general. However, overall, the participants comments reflected a sense of strong female voice and empowerment. These views are in line with post-feminist narratives which centre around inequality being a thing of the past and girls feeling strong, and competent (Pomerantz et al., 2013). As a mechanism, Pomerantz et al. (2013) suggests that post-feminism can be effective in creating positive feelings of empowerment, but this discourse can also be unstable as these narratives do not provide a way of explaining sexism or inequality. This view is supported in the inconsistencies or unstable statements highlighted by the participants in this study. They recognised broad issues of sexism in society and misogynistic stereotypes but did not necessarily feel that these were issues which affected them. The overwhelming view was that participation rights were equal and yet one participant stated that boys can dominate in the classroom and this might affect the way that girls speak out in class. Contradictions also arose in some of Sarah’s statements which reflected sexism, particularly the perception that boys were given a higher profile in her school than girls, and yet collectively, she felt the girls in her school had strong voices and could make themselves heard. Farvid (2017) suggests that schools need to embrace gender equality education and support greater critical thinking in relation to gender. This would help to address some of these contradictions, debunk some of the gender myths and ensure greater flexibility and inclusivity (Farvid, 2017).

The participants in this study had limited knowledge of the UNCRC and in some cases had never heard of the Convention. There was certainly no indication of any kind of comprehensive human rights education which is in breach of Article 42 of the UNCRC whereby the principles and provisions of the Convention should be widely known (Mitchell, 2005).

Implications of this Research

All participants were aware of student voice initiatives within their schools which supports the Article 12 rights of children and young people. However, there were questions around how effective these initiatives were and concerns were raised in relation to power imbalances. Reflecting current literature, the participants expressed ways that these imbalances could be addressed to elicit more authentic views from the students, for example, through peer collaboration and allowing students the opportunity to ‘make a difference’ through active participation. There is also much that can be learnt from the two participants who experienced their Article 12 rights in full through all four components of Lundy’s (2007) Model of Participation: Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. Foregrounded in their comments was the importance of respectful partnerships between teachers and students.

Research suggests that setting up dialogue between students and teachers should help to diminish powerful/powerless binaries and the view that student voice is a challenge to teacher authority (Cairns, 2001; Lundy, 2007). It was therefore important to provide opportunities at the higher rungs of Hart’s (1992) ladder of participation which the participants identified as the opportunity for open discussions, the chance to develop leadership skills, be active participants and have influence. These leadership skills may be developed in a variety of contexts, not just formal student councils and can therefore incorporate students who may not typically fit the profile of a council member (Head, 2011). Examples given included joining groups such as Amnesty International and a female empowerment group in one school. This view is reflected in Archard’s (2013) recommendations for girls to experience both formal and informal opportunities for leadership.

Improving communication with students about the outcomes of student voice as well as ensuring purposeful participation is also important in avoiding tokenism, something which the participants identified as a major problem (Hinton, 2008). The literature was reflective of the participants views on how they wanted to enact their Article 12 rights. This included allowing students to influence their own learning (Ladkin, 2017); develop active strategies of participation such as leading groups and providing opportunities for girls to make a difference (Archard, 2013; Taft, 2011). Additionally, acting on ideas of importance to them to create positive feelings towards school and a sense of well-being was also highlighted (Roffey, 2015). In line with the research by Farvid (2017), the findings demonstrate the need for a comprehensive programme of gender education. Archard (2013) and Pomerantz et al. (2013), support this view and promote the need to increase students’ understanding of social and gender issues. Education of these issues will allow students to recognise and label gender injustice which dominant post-feminist discourses fail to do.


The findings within this study demonstrate the relational nature of Article 12; it is one thing for children to be able to express a view, but adults also need to listen and give those views due weight. The participants’ comments reflected this, recognising the importance of positive relationships with both teachers and peers in realising their participation rights. A key implication for this finding is therefore to base participation around dialogue rather than powerful/powerless consultations to enable young people to not only voice their opinions but to also be taken seriously (Bahou, 2011; Cairns, 2001; Cook-Sather, 2006; Mitra, 2008; Roffey, 2015). Furthermore, understanding girls’ preferences for active participation as well as the need to provide education of gender and social issues was an important finding of this study as was the need to recognise their changing capacities and capabilities (Archard, 2013; Farvid, 2017; Pomerantz et al., 2013).

The importance of ensuring full participation rights in schools is reflected in the words of one of the participants: “Knowing that your voice is being heard is like making it seem like you matter”.


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