Important lessons about race, diversity, and equity can and should be taught to children in early childhood and preschool settings.
In July 2016, Pennsylvania State University took over direct supervision of the Child Care Center at Hort Woods, an on-campus preschool and early learning center that had been run for the previous five years by an outside provider. But the challenge for those of us who work at Hort Woods wasn’t just to adapt to new management; we also had to adopt a new mission. Penn State had just begun a universitywide campaign to become a more diverse and inclusive community, and the administration expected no less from the Child Care Center.
The effort to learn about and implement a race-conscious, antibias approach to early childhood education got under way in the fall when we began meeting regularly to discuss our own experiences with race and diversity. Over several weeks, we also participated in professional development activities led by Penn State’s affirmative action office. Further, we received technical assistance from experts such as Andrew Grant Thomas of EmbraceRace — a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization — who met separately with parents, administrators, and teachers to share research findings and practical tips for educating children about race.
Taking our cue from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and other leaders in the field, we chose to adopt an antibias education framework comprising four essential goals:
#1. To promote the development of children’s positive social identities;
#2. To help children learn accurate language to describe human differences and develop caring, respectful relationships with others (including those who differ in terms of race, gender identity, family structure, religion, socioeconomic class, and ability);
#3. To recognize unfairness and understand that it is hurtful; and
#4. To empower children to respond to situations that are unfair (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010).
However, we soon found that while it is one thing to voice support for such principles, it is something else entirely to bring them to life in the classroom. Teaching practices are notoriously slow to change, as are deep-seated beliefs and assumptions about race. Moreover, we found it particularly challenging to have productive conversations about these issues during fall 2016, given the racially divisive tone of the presidential campaign under way at the time. Nor did the demographic makeup of our workplace make those conversations any simpler. Because of its connection to a major university — which attracts students, faculty, and staff from all over the country and the world — Penn State’s enrollment is fairly diverse, including many students of color (18%) and international students (15%). Hort Woods’ enrollment is even more diverse. However, nearly all of us who work there are white, and many of us grew up in the mostly white and rural part of central Pennsylvania that surrounds the university.
Finally, while discussions about race can be difficult for many educators, they tend to be especially difficult for those of us who work with very young children. Children are often presumed to be “innocent” of racial biases, and many adults worry that by talking about race, they might inadvertently lead them to biased views. In fact, though, research suggests that children as young as 15 months old already notice race and express racial preferences; by the time they enter kindergarten, children tend to display racial prejudices that are similar to those of the adults in their lives (Dunham, Baron, & Banaji, 2008; Katz & Kofkin, 1997; Killen, Crystal, & Ruck, 2007).
In our own words
Below, three of us offer firsthand accounts of our experiences to date as we begin to implement a race-conscious, antibias approach in an early childhood setting.
Jennifer: Living up to our commitments
We have many signs posted around our classroom, but only one of them sits in a big wooden frame by our cubbies. Titled “All Children Belong Here. This Is Our Promise To You,” it ends, “We are in this together, working for a world where every child is protected and honored, exactly as they are” (excerpted from Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2017). Even more than a sign, it is a commitment, a love letter, and an inspiration for our curriculum and instruction. We promise to nurture children, value them, teach them to be friends with others who are different from them, resist unfairness, and uproot our own biases as adults. Ingrained in this commitment from the educators to the children is the work we each must do on a personal level to examine our own thoughts, feelings, and dispositions so that we are ready and able to make good on our promises.
When we posted the sign, we had no idea where the educational journey would lead, but we wanted children to feel and understand the promise as fully as possible. Over the past several months, we have wandered down many curriculum paths in our classroom with children who are 3 to 5 years old. We studied the colors of our skin, mixed paint to match it, and looked closely in the mirror to notice and draw our features. We learned about racial injustices in U.S. history (and those still occurring today) and talked about what it feels like to be kept out or treated unfairly. And we made a time line with photos of the first single cell organisms, dinosaurs, prehistoric humans, and — almost all the way to the end of the time line — separate drinking water fountains, illustrating just how little time has passed since segregation was legal in this country.
Discussions about race can be difficult for many educators, but they tend to be especially difficult for educators who work with very young children.
While it has been easy for the children in my classroom to notice and list their differences, they are still learning to recognize and appreciate their similarities. In class, we wrestle with questions such as: What do all people need? Does everyone have rights, and what are they? Often, we reread the sign by our cubbies, reminding ourselves why we are discussing these themes. And I get the sense that the lessons are beginning to sink in. Recently, for example, we welcomed a new child into the classroom. A few days later, at circle time, another child shared his thoughts about the newcomer: “Everyone is welcome here. If you have black skin, you are welcome here, just like (our new friend). He has black skin, and he is welcome here.” I can’t say how much our curriculum contributed to these heartfelt words of welcome, but I do know that we are creating a safe and fair classroom for everyone from our oldest friend to our newest friend.
I still have a lot to learn, too. Growing up in a small rural town in a school system with very few people of color, I received a one-sided view of our country’s history, and I’ve had to challenge my own ways of thinking and interacting with people. But this effort to become an antibias educator has been some of the most essential and rewarding work I have done in my 17-year career.
Katherine: Giving kids the words they need
People disagree as to whether very young children understand concepts like diversity. But in my work with infants and toddlers, I have learned that even at these early ages, children need to learn that differences are OK and that everyone should be comfortable in their own body. Children are always looking, listening, and taking in information from the world around them, so it’s important to make the classroom environment as accepting as possible, including by offering a diverse range of toys, pictures, and books.
We started our conversations in my mixed-age infant/toddler classroom about race and diversity by reading Karen Beaumont’s book I Like Myself (Harcourt, 2010). While we were reading and discussing the book, I suggested words and phrases for the children to use, such as “I like myself” and “I’m proud I’m me,” and I asked them to name specific things they like about themselves. Also, I took various pictures of each child, focusing on their hands, eyes, and mouths. We looked at the photos and talked about the differences they saw, like skin tones and the shapes of kids’ mouths. Noticing the range of eye colors in the pictures, one child blurted out, “Kate, our eyes are different!” I took that as an invitation to read aloud Todd Parr’s book It’s OK to be Different (Little Brown, 2009), which led to a discussion about how some people are blind, some use a wheelchair, some speak another language, and on and on.
I grew up in a time and place where such conversations were hushed, and nobody talked about these kinds of differences. It took me some time to understand how important it is to give children the appropriate language to talk about these things. But I’ve become hopeful, like all the teachers here, that these conversations will have a lasting impact on these children and that they will learn not to be colorblind but, rather, to understand and use their language to accept and appreciate the differences they see in this diverse world.
Laurie: Talking about race with other adults
As the supervising teacher in a mixed-age preschool classroom, I know that every child, parent, student, and teacher has been shaped by their own life experiences and perceives the world through the filters created by race, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, family structure, religion, and political affiliation. Given how divided our society is along these lines, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the decision to implement antibias education practices would spark a debate, testing the cohesiveness of my three-person teaching team.
My first glimpse of the struggle ahead came one afternoon in October 2016. A 4-year-old boy in dramatic play was wearing a blazer and a pearl necklace. “I’m Hillary Clinton, and I’m going to be president! Will you vote for me?” he asked. “I have some problems with my emails, but I’m going to be a good president!” I delighted in seeing this young boy take on the persona of a strong female role model, but the moment ended abruptly when another child yelled out from across the room, “Lock her up!” These children had not escaped the bitter politics of our era, I realized. Nor could their teachers agree on what to do in response or whether it should be their role to intervene when children bring political views into the classroom. Further, because this happened right around the time that we began to focus on issues of race and diversity, our teachers came to associate the theme of antibias education with political debate.
Over the following months, politics continued to seep into the classroom. For example, in March 2017, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, a 4-year-old in our class was left to wonder whether his grandfather’s much anticipated visit would be postponed. Preschoolers take the issue of fairness very seriously, and they were consumed with questions about whether the president was being fair. One child announced that she would be going to Washington, D.C., “to fight Donald Trump.” During a read-aloud about frogs, another child said, out of the blue, that “Donald Trump is not a good friend,” to which a classmate replied, “Yeah, because he isn’t fair.” In the teacher team, we continued to disagree over whether it was our role to engage the children in discussing politics, but we eventually came to agree on a strategy: We would explain to them that Americans can make things fairer by coming together to talk about their feelings and decide whether to change the law.
The harder challenge was to guide teachers in reflecting on certain beliefs and values that have been taught to them and reinforced throughout their lives. Anybody who takes an honest look at themselves will have to admit that they’ve behaved in ways that are insensitive or hurtful to members of other groups. But it can be difficult to talk about these things. To challenge our own assumptions about colorblindness, we have to raise issues and use language that probably seems taboo. It’s tempting just to remain silent, even though this means denying the struggle that people of color, including many of our children and families, face every day.
For weeks, I worried that the teachers in my team wouldn’t make it past this hurdle. Our conversations boiled over into arguments, and it looked like we’d never be able to resolve our conflicting beliefs about politics, gender, and race. Every day, I worried that the teachers would give up on implementing the antibias teaching model and that resignation letters would appear on my desk. I knew an action plan was desperately needed that could help us to grow professionally and rebuild trust and recreate a once-supportive work environment.
I read dozens of articles related to antibias education and race and, at my team’s curriculum meetings, asked teachers to read the most powerful articles, think critically, and engage in deep conversations. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes conversations were hard to navigate, and sometimes we walked away with hurt feelings. Each time, I hoped that we would work through this and that we would be stronger for having taken this journey together.
After weeks of debate, my team finally found a simple answer to our dilemma, allowing us to move forward. Antibias education, we agreed, is not tied to a particular political party or value system. It is a nonpartisan tool for supporting children’s social-emotional development, affirming their self-worth, addressing race and culture openly in our classrooms, treating all children fairly, and encouraging them to think critically about the problems that our society faces. Through this lens we all see the value of the work ahead.
It can be a daunting task to figure out exactly which language will resonate with particular age groups, but it is essential to do so.
Lessons to date
In some respects, our implementation of an antibias education model has only just begun, and we hope to deepen the work in all of the Child Care Center’s classrooms. However, after pursuing this approach for more than a year, we’ve already learned a number of important lessons about incorporating antibias teaching, particularly about race and diversity, into a preschool setting:
#1. Try not to jump to conclusions.
In an infant/toddler or preschool classroom, teachers have to be exceptionally careful to slow down and avoid making snap judgments when kids talk about complex topics such as race. Young children tend to be very literal, and adults often read much more into their words than they intended. At Hort Woods, for example, a white child recently called a classmate with dark skin a “dirty man,” which immediately raised alarm bells among the teachers: Was this child repeating a racist comment heard outside of school? Was an intervention required? As it turned out, the first child had noticed the second child touching some eggs at the lunch table, and he was concerned that his friend might be exposed to salmonella.
When adults are eager to confront racial bias, they can become too quick to see a teachable moment in every remark. In this case, though, to jump on the comment right away would have been a mistake, needlessly signaling anxiety about the subject of race and potentially causing the children to shy away from it.
#2. Look for subtle cues and nonverbal behaviors.
As teachers, parents, and supportive community members, we need to make a conscious choice to engage in courageous conversations with young children. This requires us not just to overcome our own biases and discomfort but also to encourage kids to ask questions, let us know what’s on their minds, and show us what’s troubling to them. Young children often express their curiosity in subtle and nonverbal ways, so one of us (Misty, our curriculum specialist) has been helping other staff members learn how to be close observers of children’s behavior around issues related to race and difference. For example, while many older preschool children have the verbal skills to ask direct and probing questions, toddlers may simply point to someone who looks different than them, or reach out to touch another child’s hair or skin. Each of these situations is an invitation for caring adults to scaffold children’s learning and help them learn to appreciate differences in others.
#3. Adapt to the age group.
Children of all ages are constantly trying to make sense of the confusing world in which they live. But when teaching about diversity — as with teaching about every other topic — the age of the kids matters a great deal. The words you choose, the concepts you introduce, and the depth of conversation you aim for should all be calibrated to fit the given children. It can be a daunting task to figure out exactly which language will resonate with particular age groups, but it is essential to do so. When it comes to their understanding of race and diversity, a class of infants and toddlers is in a very different place and needs very different kinds of lessons and explanations from a class of 4-year-olds. Relying on a process of reflection to think through topics and conversations one might have with children gives us time to choose our words carefully, evaluate concepts by judging their developmental appropriateness, and translate the subject into words and concepts young children will understand.
#4. Build community.
EmbraceRace talks about the importance of raising racially literate children in community. We have focused on connecting with families, and one of us (Erica) has hosted a series of brown bag discussions to provide parents an opportunity to ask questions about the curriculum and learn about related resources. This has also extended to a recently adopted statement of diversity for the larger network of Penn State child care centers, which lends important institutional support for teachers doing this work and communicates to current and prospective parents the value placed on antiracist, antibias education. The importance of support from leadership is a critical foundation to attain the benefits of diverse classrooms (Hawley, 2007), and it is especially important now, given current societal tensions over issues related to race and immigration.
#5. Be patient with colleagues.
Having peers who can support each other’s professional growth is an essential part of taking on antibias education. Supportive coworkers help move us forward to be courageous in leading conversations about diversity and inclusion. Even Laurie’s difficult conversations with colleagues ultimately led toward professional growth. The act of working through topics that are challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, helps us assess our biases and allows the opportunity to dive deep into conversations that influence our practice. Because our teaching team is composed of white women, our initial lens during conversations about race and American institutions comes from a perspective of privilege. By acknowledging racism and systemic oppression, we teach children ways to counter them by explicitly teaching social-emotional skills, breaking down stereotypes, building empathy, and coaching activism.
A concluding thought
This journey can be challenging for early childhood educators, especially for many of us who were raised to be colorblind and to avoid explicit discussions of racial differences. Teachers are always choosing which lines of inquiry to scaffold and extend. It can be tempting to shy away from some of children’s more challenging questions and embarrassingly loud declarations. But if these are used as learning opportunities, instead of treated as disruptions, powerful lessons about race can be shared with children of all ages (Kuh et al., 2016).
Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J.O. (2010). Antibias education for young children and ourselves. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J.O. (2017, March-April). Living our commitments: A pledge to all children and families. Exchange.
Dunham, Y., Baron, A.S., & Banaji, M.R. (2008). The development of implicit intergroup cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 (7), 248-253.
Hawley, W. (2007). Designing schools that use student diversity to enhance learning of all students. In E. Frankenberg & G. Orfield (Eds.), Lessons in integration: Realizing the promise of racial diversity in American schools (pp. 31-56). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Katz, P.A. & Kofkin, J.A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S.S. Luthar, J.A. Burack, D. Cicchetti, & J.R. Weisz (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 51-74). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Killen, M., Crystal, D., & Ruck, M (2007). The social developmental benefits of intergroup contact among children and adolescents. In E. Frankenberg & G. Orfield (Eds.), Lessons in integration: Realizing the promise of racial diversity in American schools (pp. 31-56). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Kuh, L., LeeKeenan, D., Given, H., & Beneke, M.R. (2016). Moving beyond antibias activities: Supporting the development of antibias practices. Young Children 71 (1).
Originally published in February 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (5), 61-66. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.