Most of us are aware, especially those who have been keeping up with current events, that there has been a lot going on in our world around the topic of diversity. As early childhood educators, we are expected, and for some topics mandated, to participate in trainings about diversity, culture, and inclusion. While these trainings are extremely important and help providers to understand and be inclusive of the religious, racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic status of the children and families we serve, they often are missing one piece: teaching these concepts to children.
Children are growing up in a diverse society and it is our job as educators, now more than ever, to empower them with answers to their questions and natural curiosity. Children have questions, lots of questions, and sometimes hard questions. It is crucial that children feel comfortable asking these questions but also crucial that we feel comfortable answering them.
As early as age two, children start to recognize and explore differences, by age three, children start to develop ideas about society and social norms, and by age four, children start individualizing their ideas based on their knowledge from home and outside sources. Sometimes it is a wonder how such big questions come out such little people, but as child development research has shown, children develop a sense of diversity early. As early childhood educators, here are five things to remember when talking to children about diversity:
- Remember that diversity refers to much more than the color of our skin. The term “diversity” is used broadly to refer to many demographic variables, including but not limited to, race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, and education. Children will have questions about people who are different; they are in an exploring stage early in their lives.
- Avoid the “tourist approach” when teaching children and do not teach solely through celebrations and food. Race and culture should be taught according to subject matter rather than race and social holidays.
- Don’t get mad when they get curious. Often, adults jump to worrying about offending or upsetting “others,” someone who is different. It is natural for a child to be curious, and questions are an opportunity to talk with them. A sense of fear, shame, or embarrassment is not what we want to instill in children when they encounter someone who is different, but rather comfort, confidence, and knowledge.
- Let them know that being different isn’t a negative thing. Instead of putting a “sad story” spin on why a person has a disability or different lifestyle, use terms like “it’s okay” or “the world is full of people who are different.” Let children know that it is alright to be different, and guide them to understanding our differences as well as our similarities.
- Be careful how you, yourself, react. Instilling racial and cultural understanding in children takes awareness of our own biases, our own unawareness. Quite often, children are “monkey see, monkey do” and learn from the actions of us, their adult mentors. Feeling nervous, awkward, afraid, or judgmental around people who we feel are different can make children feel the same way; try to be conscious of your reactions and set them aside in the best interest of the children.
Just like every other piece of your early childhood education program, understanding diversity begins with your own training. To nurture awareness and understanding in children, you may have to begin with examining your own biases or reactions, and then prepare lessons and answers for the children you teach.
Children’s reading resources around diversity to add to your library:
Different Just Like Me, by Lori Mitchell
Handa’s Hen, by Eileen Browne
It’s Okay to Be Different, by Todd Parr
YWCA Rockford provides a number of trainings and resources to help individuals, childcare providers, and the community explore and understand race, culture, biases, and civil rights. For more information or an early childhood educational session on this topic please contact Abby at 815-484-9442 ext. 208