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Teaching Young Children to Understand and Accept Differences

Through anti-bias education, early childhood educators can create learning communities that support human differences. Discover how you can foster a more empathetic classroom.

Toward a More Just and Empathetic Classroom

Anti-bias education involves creating a community that supports all dimensions of human differences, including culture, race, language, ability, learning styles, ethnicity, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, and socioeconomic differences. It introduces a working concept of diversity into the classroom that addresses the impact of social stereotypes, bias, and discrimination in children’s development and interactions. In addition, it empowers children by giving them the tools to foster confident and knowledgeable self-identities, empathetic interactions, critical thinking skills, and activism. 

Early Childhood educator and Lesley faculty member Dana Bentley relates her experience:

Knights and Princesses: Anti-bias Work in PreK Classrooms

It is early morning and we are all circled on the rug for morning meeting, as we always do. We are reading the book The Princess Knight (Funke, 2004), a tale of a young princess defying social expectations, and becoming a powerful knight. As I read, I can feel the unrest in certain areas of the classroom and I wait for it, anticipating its arrival. Then:

“Hey! That’s not right! Princesses can’t be knights! Girls aren’t knights!”

It is in this moment that the work begins. This is the moment when a bias might be solidified, or upended through our work with young children. As teachers, we have a choice in this moment. Our instincts often tell us, “Shut this down. Explain, ‘We don’t talk that way in school’ and move on.”

But that well-intentioned instinct halts the conversation, halts a discussion that has the potential to support young children’s anti-bias work. And so, our story continues.

I stopped reading the book in that moment, and the class looked up at me with bated breath.

“Ooh! He’s in trouble!” their eyes and bodies told me. So often this is how we handle bias, with an immediate shutting down, a quick teacher dictate that limits children’s meaning-making. Instead I said: “Hmmm, that makes me feel a little sad. I’m a girl, and I like to be a knight sometimes. I also like to be Luke Skywalker when I play Star Wars. What do you all think? Are there rules about what boys and girls can do?”

The class erupted into conversation, sharing thoughts about their play, fairness, and all of the things they liked to be. As the teacher, I posed questions, highlighted the children’s thoughts, and shared stories of my observations of their play. This discussion spanned several morning meetings, as we shared our thoughts, and read new books to open up possibilities around gender roles. The ultimate statement, made by four-year-old D’vonte and agreed upon by the class was:

“There’s no such things as what boys can do or what girls can do, because that’s not fair. There’s just what people can do, and they can choose. That’s how fair works.”

It is difficult to encapsulate anti-bias work with young children in a few paragraphs.  It emerges through play, through trusting relationships, and through deep talk.  It evolves from the belief that children have the ability to develop an anti-bias stance through their own meaning-making.  Our starting place is always the children, and our faith in their ability to do this critical work with us.  When we believe in the children, and open up the question rather than shutting it down, we will collaboratively arrive in a place where:

“People know what they want to play in their bodies. Like in their hearts. That’s not for just boys or just girls.”

Five Teaching Strategies to Create an Anti-Bias Classroom:

  • Keep a library of anti-bias picture books in your classroom at all times. These books offer great opportunities to spark discussion, and to support long-term anti-bias thinking.
  • Realize and accept that you may feel uncomfortable when embarking on these discussions. This should not deter you from the work.
  • Practice problem-solving and critical discussions with your class about other, easier topics. Once you have that discussion format, it offers a space for anti-bias work.
  • Use the children’s words to frame the class discussions (perhaps in your morning message or to begin morning meeting). “I remember that Emma said that girls were storm troopers too.  What do you all think?”  Starting with the children’s words empowers the individual and the group, demonstrating that you are building meaning with them as a group.
  • When these moments occur, open up the conversation rather than shutting it down. Ask questions. Share stories. Allow the children to build an anti-bias stance through their thinking as a group. 

Above all, have faith in the children and your classroom community to carry this anti-bias work together. With each conversation, each small step, we frame young children as advocates who will shape the world.

Anti-bias leadership requires that early childhood professionals reframe how they view the nature and purpose of conflict, as well as the disequilibrium and emotions it evokes. When people feel supported in their learning, disequilibrium and discomfort can lead to real growth.
Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs
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A Resource for Early Childhood Education Leaders

Though many resources are available to help teachers think about and implement anti-bias curriculum in the classroom, very little has been written about what program leaders can do to create the culture for anti-bias work.

To help fill that gap, Debbie LeeKeenan, a former Lesley visiting professor, wrote Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, which helps to expand current ideas on leadership practices in early childhood education. Published in October 2014 by Teachers College Press of Columbia University, the book is co-authored by colleagues Louise Derman-Sparks, international anti-bias education expert, and John Nimmo, early childhood consultant.

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