By Brianna Holmes, MA
Brianna Holmes, Professional Development Manager at the Center for Technology in Education, leads strategy and operations for the Early Childhood Comprehensive Assessment Systems projects, the professional development curriculum, and trainings on early childhood assessment initiatives for teachers, providers, and administrators.
Racial inequality is an issue at the forefront of American society today. We are constantly exposed to incidents of hate and racism, which contradicts what we teach our children. In schools, we expect children to treat their friends equally and with respect, but when do we teach acceptance, diversity, and inclusion?
Early childhood is the perfect time to start multicultural education, as children are aware of skin color differences and label people accordingly by the age of three. In a yearlong study, Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) found that three- to five-year-olds in a racially and ethnically diverse daycare center used racial categories to identify themselves and others, to include or exclude children from activities, and to negotiate power in their own social/play networks.
When my son was in Pre-K, a girl would not let him play with her group because his skin was not “light” enough. This was heartbreaking for my son because he did not understand why he couldn’t play with his friends. I told my son that he has the ability to be great no matter what, and encouraged him to not let incidents like the one on the playground break his confidence. This was my first encounter as a parent educating my son about racism and it was hard. I had to have an adult conversation with a five-year-old. This incident caused me to reflect on some things:
- How can we continue to build a sense of confidence and dignity among young children to help strengthen and build resiliency?
- When do we begin talking to our children about inclusion and diversity?
Children need to feel a sense of confidence and positivity when they associate with and compare themselves to others. A positive self-image allows them to feel more comfortable when having hard conversations or faced with exclusion.
Young children are likely to be surrounded by people of the same race and ethnicity, so it is critical to help them form bias- and stereotype-free understanding of diverse races and ethnicities in a developmentally appropriate way. The media exposes children to so much that it is imperative we begin having these conversations at a young age. These conversations are dependent upon a child’s developmental level as well as their race. Having a black son forced me to have the conversation earlier because of his exposure and inability to understand what was happening.
When I began looking at Pre-K programs for my son, I wanted to make sure he was in a diverse environment where he would be exposed to children who may and may not look like him. Here are five key factors to look for when selecting a diverse and inclusive program:
- Diversity among staff: Do the children have an adult they can connect with that may be of the same race, culture, gender, ethnicity? The provider/child relationship is essential in creating an environment where a child feels welcomed and helps to build a sense of security within them.
- Utilization of an anti-bias curriculum: Are children taught about self-awareness, race, and culture? Children should be exposed to and learn about others in a way that is developmentally appropriate and free from bias. Children should be able to learn about their own self-identity and those around them.
- Parent engagement opportunities: Are there opportunities for families to connect, meet and learn about each other’s values/expectations? Having support from families is imperative in ensuring that children are accepting of others. When families show the value in appreciating diversity, they communicate that to their children.
- Program’s policy on diversity and inclusion: How does the program address diversity and is it inclusive of all students? The program should have opportunities to address diversity in the classroom and as a whole program.
- Diverse environment: Are there culturally diverse pictures and images throughout the program? Does the school include meals that are reflective of different cultures? Children should be exposed to positive images of people that are reflective of them or who they can identify with is helpful in promoting self-awareness. Children are more likely to be inclusive when they are surrounded by images that are positive and equal.
Building up confidence helps to build resiliency, and finding a learning environment that is truly inclusive and diverse plays a major role in this process. When a child is confident in who they are as a person, they will become more confident in their decision-making and actions in the face of adversity.
 Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism and the developing child (pp. 53–71). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
 Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
 Kim, S., Wee, S., & Lee,Y. (2016) Teaching Kindergarteners Racial Diversity Through Multicultural Literature: A Case Study in a Kindergarten Classroom in Korea. Early Education and Development. Vol.27, NO.3, 402-420.