How School Violates Children’s Human Rights

You may have heard about children being bullied at school.

Or having their phones confiscated by teachers.

Or being punished for expressing themselves with their clothing or hair.

Maybe you’ve wondered whether these things are violations of children’s rights. The answer is yes — but the violations go much deeper than that, in ways you might not have noticed.


Why do we not notice? Because we take it for granted that young people should be controlled by adults, obedient to adults, and made to work for adult agendas.

If we throw off the notion that children are inferior to adults, and recognize that they are humans with human rights, what rights violations might we uncover in schools?

1. Students are micromanaged

Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, conducted surveys of U.S. teens and found that they are “subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.”

He also performed research which showed “a positive correlation between the extent to which teens are infantilized and the extent to which they display signs of psychopathology.”

In other words, excessive restrictions make teens anxious, depressed, and antagonistic.

This is teens we’re talking about, though of course the same restrictions are placed on children of all ages.

What are these restrictions?

  1. Students are forced to sit in chairs all day, when their bodies were designed to move. 
  2. They aren’t allowed to interact with their friends, when their brains are wired for huge amounts of social interaction.
  3. They aren’t allowed to speak their minds.
  4. They are told where to go, what to do, and where to sit, every minute of the day.
  5. They are told what to learn, even if it’s something they aren’t interested in.
  6. They are required to follow directions exactly, with little or no room for creativity.

Like all people, children hate to be micromanaged. Science has even shown that a lack of autonomy is damaging to people’s mental health, regardless of age.

2. Students are forced to work

Let’s be honest.

School isn’t really about learning, it’s about work. Maybe a student learns something by doing three pages of algebra problems (and maybe not) — but they aren’t graded on how much they learned or how much they know. They’re graded on whether they did all the problems.

School is work. Hence the terms “schoolwork” and “homework.”

There are many justifications given for this. Some say, “Adults have to work, so kids should have to work too.” Or, “Kids need to work so they’ll learn how to work.” Or even, “Kids need to do boring, unsatisfying work, so they’ll be able to do boring, unsatisfying work as adults.”

No matter how you rationalize it, it’s still child labor, which I thought we outlawed a century ago. 

Gradually over the last few decades, students have been assigned more and more schoolwork and homework, and now we’re to the point where many kids have to work more hours than their parents.

For no pay.

Even more ironically, most of the work students have to do in school today is more rote and menial than the factory jobs we saved them from in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, most 21st century jobs involve creativity, problem-solving, self-direction, and independent judgment, which makes them interesting and satisfying rather than rote and menial. A good modern job is just as much play as it is work, yet schools allow little or no time for children to play.

Which brings us to…

3. Students aren’t allowed to play

In 1989, the United Nations drafted a document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of the rights the UN claims children have is the right to play:

States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Pediatricians have also come out recently saying that play is vital for children’s mental and physical health, their development, and their educations. The American Academy of Pediatrics even advised that doctors write literal prescriptions for play.

Alas, recess has all but disappeared from the upper grades in school, while the lower grades are sure to be next. Kindergarten seem to be the last bastion for children’s play in school, and even there it is already rare. Dr. Peter Gray wrote recently about how policymakers are doing battle with Kindergarten teachers to squeeze out the last remnants of play-based education from school and replace it with more reading and math instruction.

4. Students have no voice

The concept of voice is the bedrock of our democratic society. This means not just that people can vote in elections, but that they can speak their minds without incurring retribution. They can criticize the government safely. They can publish an article saying that the president has a stinky butt for a face.

Taking the long view of history, this is quite a peculiar fact about our country! But it’s our only defense against leaders who are incompetent or tyrannical or simply don’t care what people want or need.

Now consider the following examples, from the forum website Reddit, of students who were given detention for questioning authority:

  • A student openly disagreed with their English teacher about the meaning of the phrase “I could care less.” Detention.
  • A student rolled their eyes at a math teacher while she was lecturing her class about politics. Detention.
  • A student asked their algebra teacher a serious question which the teacher thought was sarcastic: “If we’re always making one side of the equation equal to zero, what’s the point?” Detention.
  • A student told the teacher that his text was wrong. The text was wrong. But still, detention.

What’s more, student governments in most schools are a joke. They don’t actually decide anything of importance, and the school administration can just override their decisions anyway.

True democratic schools, like The Open School, have proven that students can be given authentic input into school policy and still have a smoothly functioning school. As a side benefit of student voice, democratic schools are unlikely to come up with policies that violate students’ other rights.

Did I miss anything? What does students’ rights mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

8 comments on “How School Violates Children’s Human Rights”

  • Nice article, totally agree. I wrote a book about it in case you are interested:

  • Harminder says:

    How about if a child has dysl,adhd, anxiety and can’t cope yet is forced into an isolation room in his own.

  • Aaron,
    An absolutely fantastic piece!! I have been posting and sharing it on FB liberally. If it is ok with you I would also like to post it, as back up to our POV, on
    Btw, you might like the video from the Child Friendly Communities Conference: Honouring Children’s Rights, it is posted near the bottom of the homepage. We appear to be singing from the same song sheet.

    Your in solidarity,

  • Rikki Slonce says:

    You make great points, but there is MUCH more that needs to be said.

    1. Embedded/systemic racism
    2. Unequal force or punishment for disabled students of all kinds
    3. Forced medications on false diagnosis suggest but teachers NOT medical or psychological professionals.
    4. Corrpural punishment and emotional abuse as tactics of “order”
    5. Cover-ups of sexual and physical abuse (Happened at my old HS A LOT)

    There is so much more, but these are just some of the issues they have; and when combined with a lack of mental health services, legal protections, accountability, and horrific communication skills….it’s truly a dystopia for all students. Yet nobody seems to bat an eye as we kill ourselves just to escape the pain, run away to live on the streets when all else fails; when we cry ourselves to sleep from the active shooter drills, pressure to get good grades, imperfect test scores, panic attacks and PTSD and so much more. Thank you for shedding a light on this–I hope that one day society sees us as human beings, not pawns to their schemes.

  • Samuel says:

    I agree, great article.

  • Monica says:

    This is a great article! Spot on! Especially with issue #4. The reply that mentions systematic racism! AGAIN – spot on! Currently dealing with both. Anyone have any resources or suggestions of where to start the fight?

  • Rayner says:

    Yeah. School is like INGSOC from 1984. And GoGuardian is like Big Brother. And the teachers are like the thought police.

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