Citizenship Education (Definition and 11 Teaching Ideas)

Citizenship education is designed to teach children about citizenship as well as teaching them how to do citizenship.

Teaching about citizenship often involves teaching the fundamentals of democracy, while teaching how to do citizenship involves getting students to be democratic participants in the classroom.

Some examples of how to do citizenship education include:

  • Encouraging voices to be heard
  • Establishing formal avenues for representation
  • Teaching conflict management
  • Recognizing the legitimacy of elections you lose
  • Giving students democratic power

Below, I look over more of these examples as well as some background details into the fundamentals of what citizenship means.

1. How Should I Teach Citizenship to my Students?

Something to keep in mind when teaching citizenship is that we shouldn’t only teach about citizenship, but we should also teach children how to do citizenship.

In other words:

  • Teaching about citizenship: giving a definition of citizenship and looking at case studies in books, etc.
  • Teaching how to do citizenship: providing students with opportunities to speak up and make change in their communities.

Below I outline several strategies you can use to teach children to be active citizens. Some of these strategies teach about citizenship while others teach how to do citizenship.

2. Citizenship Education in your Classroom: 11 Teaching Ideas

  1. Teach about how to have respectful relationships with one another and encourage students to practice respectful relationships;
  2. Teach students how to manage conflict in ways that respect the individual liberties of others;
  3. Teach about how to be respectful of the property of others;
  4. Encourage students to sit on representative councils;
  5. Collaboratively make school rules with students (without any prejudice or predetermination of what the rules will be);
  6. Teach students the importance of following rules that have been democratically agreed upon;
  7. Support students when they want to lawfully agitate for changes that will positively affect the lives of children;
  8. Teach students to give back to their community by using fundraising drives, etc.;
  9. Undertake projects that emphasize the importance of living in harmony with our environment. Use the principles of education for sustainable development (ESD);
  10. Read books and critique the citizenship virtues of characters in the books;
  11. Teach about the history of citizenship if your students are old enough!

citizenship education

3. What is Citizenship?

The concept of citizenship has been around for over 4000 years. There are four types of citizenship.

a) Aristotle’s Idea / Greek Citizenship

Aristotle thought of citizenship as a right for members of a society. He believed citizens should:

  1. Have the right to participation in social affairs like government; and
  2. Be free to pursue the good life.

Aristotle claimed that citizens should rule themselves democratically so that the ‘common good’ would be established within a society.

However, Aristotle excluded many groups in society – the old, the young and slaves – from his version of citizenship. He believed that young people were unable to make rational decisions so were therefore not allowed to be citizens.

So, as long as citizenship has been around, young people have been excluded from exercising its full benefits.

b) Enlightenment / Liberal-Democratic Citizenship

The Enlightenment in Scotland in the 17th Century and, later, 18th Century Europe and the United States, brought about a ‘liberal-democratic’ notion of citizenship.

For scholars of the Enlightenment, citizenship was characterised by:

  1. Individual property ownership;
  2. The right to self-governance; and
  3. The right to the pursuit of one’s own self-interests.

So, you can see that this model of citizenship is a lot like Aristotle’s one.

However, these people of the enlightenment strongly believed that the government should be restricted in order that the individual citizen can be protected from tyranny of queens, kings and dictators.

You can probably see that the United States still holds firmly to this model of citizenship.

c) European Social Citizenship

Post-war Europe came up with its own model of citizenship.

Marshall (1950) identified three key pillars of post-war European citizenship:

  1. Civic rights: The right to individual liberty and to own personal property
  2. Political rights: The right to vote and stand for election.
  3. Social rights: The right to healthcare and education.

You can see here that there are certain social rights that you might associate with Europe: healthcare and education.

Here’s a quick contrast between the liberal (US) model and the social (European) model:

  • Liberal Model: A focus on restricting the government from harming people. A strong emphasis on individual liberty.
  • Social Model: A focus on using the government to provide services to citizens. Citizens have collective responsibility to contribute to society in the form of taxes to ensure rights are maintained.

4. What is Childhood Citizenship?

Here are some ways our ideas of childhood citizenship have evolved over the years:

a) Citizens in the Making

For most of human history, children have been seen as ‘citizens in the making’ or ‘future citizens’. Even today, we don’t allow children to exercise the full rights of citizenship like buying land, voting or standing for elected office.

b) Protected Citizens

Childhood citizenship is a concept that has been around since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was agreed upon by most nations in 1989.

Since then, there has been an increasing push towards seeing children as citizens with their own unique rights.

c) Citizens with a Voice

The UNCRC also enshrined in international law the importance of providing children with a participatory voice.

Now, signatories to the UNCRC (which is most nations, except the United States), have an obligation to allow young people to speak up and participate in everyday affairs that affect them.

Even in the US hasn’t ratified the UNCRC, it is still widely accepted in US Education that children should have a say about what happens to them.


5. Core Principles of Children’s Citizenship

The core principles of a children’s citizenship approach include:

  1. Children have the right to a participatory voice;
  2. Children deserve unique protections;
  3. As the future of the world, children’s opinions matter;
  4. Children should be taught how to behave in an ethical manner to contribute positively to society.

Scholarly Sources

If you’re writing a report or essay on student or childhood citizenship, I encourage you to cite scholarly sources.

Related Post: How to find Scholarly Sources Online

Here are a range of scholarly sources I used when writing this piece:

  • Arthur, R. (2015). Recognising children’s citizenship in the youth justice system. Journal of social welfare and family law37(1), 21-37.
  • Bacon, K., & Frankel, S. (2014). Rethinking Children’s Citizenship. The International Journal of Children’s Rights22(1), 21-42.
  • Bath, C., & Karlsson, R. (2016). The ignored citizen: Young children’s subjectivities in Swedish and English early childhood education settings. Childhood23(4), 554-565. Doi:
  • Cohen, E. F. (2005). Neither seen nor heard: children’s citizenship in contemporary democracies. Citizenship Studies9(2), 221-240. Doi:
  • Cordero Arce M (2015) Maturing Children’s Rights Theory: From Children, With Children, Of Children. International Journal of Children’s Rights 25(1): 283–331.
  • Devine, D., & Cockburn, T. (2018). Theorizing children’s social citizenship: new welfare states and inter-generational justice. Childhood25(2), 142-157. Doi:
  • Faulks, K. (2000). Citizenship. London: Routledge.
  • Grindheim, L. T. (2017). Children as playing citizens. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal25(4), 624-636. Doi:
  • Hart, S. (2009). The ‘problem’ with youth: young people, citizenship and the community. Citizenship studies13(6), 641-657.
  • Jans, M. (2004). Children as citizens: Towards a contemporary notion of child participation. Childhood, 11(1), 27-44.
  • Larkins, C. (2014). Enacting children’s citizenship: Developing understandings of how children enact themselves as citizens through actions and acts of citizenship. Childhood, 21(1), 7-21.
  • Lundy, L. (2007). ‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. British educational research journal33(6), 927-942.
  • Marshall, T. H. (1950) Citizenship and Social Class London: Pluto Press.
  • Millei, Z., & Imre, R. (2009). The problems with using the concept of ‘citizenship’in early years policy. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood10(3), 280-290. Doi:
  • Raby, R. (2008). Frustrated, resigned, outspoken: Students’ engagement with school rules and some implications for participatory citizenship. The International Journal of Children’s Rights16(1), 77-98.
  • Stasiulis, D. (2002). The active child citizen: Lessons from Canadian policy and the children’s movement. Citizenship Studies6(4), 507-538.
  • United Nations General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. New York, NY: United Nations. Available at:

All the above citations are in APA format. If you need to change it to a different format, read our advice on how to reference in an essay.

Related Post: How to Write a Quality Essay

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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