Let's End the Ism's in Education
Many studies show that children form their attitudes towards racism and sexism by the time they are five years old. Those who work with young children—whether in a classroom as a parent or as a volunteer—need to see that the children receive accurate, non-stereotyped information about various cultural and ethnic groups of people. This is important for all children, not just "minority" children.
As an early childhood professional, I have heard fellow teachers articulate that because they don't have many "minority" children in their classroom, that they don't need to teach inclusively. What I fail to realize is that these adults realize that these are the children that are especially in need of this information so that they can learn about the real world? In my opinion, all children need to see a variety of nationalities in leadership roles.
It's also important to teach students about minority populations throughout the entire curriculum. For instance, if you have a two week unit on Native Americans, Asians or Somali populations, what (or whose) perception are you teaching all of those other weeks of the year? The point should be to help children understand that ALL people are important, regardless of race, gender or abilities. Everyone contributes to society in some way.
Rather than having certain days or weeks set aside to talk about various cultures, be more inclusive by including cultural games during regular math, science, art or music times in the daily curriculum. This also avoids the "tourist approach" that some teachers use, by only bringing up various cultures during holiday times, or using foods to discuss ethnicities.
Another thought… When dividing children into groups for an activity, think about how many ways you can separate the classroom other than by gender. Type of shoes, color of clothes, food preferences and arbitrary counting are all great ways to divide a classroom in groups. Look at the group of children are all great ways to separate groups within a classroom. Having certain things that are for girls and certain things for boys limits the child's choices. This, in turn limits their creativity and individuality. This leads into the classroom and girl and boy toys and environments, such as who can play in the block/truck area and who can play with dolls and the housekeeping area. I'm still surprised that this is an issue today at some sites that I visit. Boys need to learn to nurture babies, and girls need to learn to build and use their math skills.
Language is another way we can be inclusive with children. If the adult says "WE do this, and THEY do that," what if one of the children is one of THEM? What does this say to the child? This further divides the children and puts up an unnecessary barrier in the classroom.
Stereotyping occurs when you characterize an entire group of people in specific ways; and then attributes those characteristics to all individuals who belong to that group. Stereotyping distorts our perception of groups of people, degrades cultures, and perpetuates racism.
Children can learn about customs, holidays, and traditions without celebrating them. They need to learn that some people celebrate "x" holiday, and some do not, and that people have different beliefs. We can learn to feel comfortable with our own family's customs, traditions, and rituals; and appreciate others as well.
It's very important for children to learn accurate and non-biased information because it is much more difficult to unlearn cultural misconceptions later in life. Some adults simply haven't thought about the phrases they say or racist or sexist comments they make and how they can be perceived by children. Yes, some of these comments are intentional, but often the adults simply don't realize the comments they may make will have a negative impression on children.
An example of sexist comments is as follows: I once heard a teacher tell some children that they were only going to use the "pretty" colors for their art project, so they put dark colored crayons away." There were a few children with very dark skin at the table, and after the teacher said this you could see the question on one girl's face. Children are very literal. One child had asked me why some teachers thought dark colors weren't pretty because she was brown, so I knew what this child was thinking. I made a comment to the teacher that some children might want to use the pretty browns and blacks along with the other colors, too—that they were all nice to use all together. The child smiled.
Think for a moment about our use of language and how "white" is good and "dark" is bad. There are numerous articles written on this topic, but I'll just caution you, as an ECE educator to be aware of stigmatizing specific colors in your classroom.
Check out your classroom. Are people with various abilities shown in photographs or in books? Are men and women shown in non-stereotyped roles in pictures and books? What about elders? How are they portrayed? Do you have books that talk about a family that has two mothers or two daddies? What about families that are made up of a group of people who live together and share child raising responsibilities? Families are composed in a variety of ways, with the thread of nurturing, caring and loving each other. We need to support children and their families, however their family is composed.
What ECEs do is critical to the development of the child's core being as they grow physically, mentally, and emotionally. ECE's should give students the tools they need to appreciate all people and living things.