George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A young black girl is laying down on top of about 300 books stacked together on top of each other, looking up at the camera, smiling.

When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word "stereotype." She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the "girl stuff" was pink and the "boy stuff" was blue. Because there's no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who's Different and What's Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We've somehow decided that little kids can't understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they're five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we're exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children's desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children's notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It's also important that adults in children's lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be "colorblind" to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people's identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people's differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children's literature.

There's a wealth of children's books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it's about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed -- like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story of Misty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history -- are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children's social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it's helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children's interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it's about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girl who was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of "helping others" (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it's useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including the NEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the "systemic patterns of inequity -- racism and educational injustice -- that impacts our students," and that educators and school leaders "receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination."

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.

Was this useful? (3)

Comments (6) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (6) Sign in or register to comment

Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Great article! I used the NPR story your picture came from as a follow-up to class discussions about American history, the Civil Rights movement, and making a difference. Although students understood the girl's concerns and thought she was right, when a few picked projects of their own to try (charitable fundraising, a shoe drive, and donations to an animal shelter) they chose things that resonated in their own lives, and that was great.

Jinnie Spiegler's picture
Jinnie Spiegler
Director of Curriculum, Anti-Defamation League

That's fantastic. The projects should always come from the students and address an issue or problem that they most care about.

Leticia Andrews-Cox's picture

I think the phrase it begins 1st at home is important to understand with this concept. Most children will look as far as the school they are in. How many Asian, Black, or Latino teachers are there that they can look up to or admire and how are these teachers valued in the school system? Then children look to their peers, how are their minority peers treated? Most teachers have unconscious biasness where maybe the one black student will be given more detentions where as a white student will be given advanced studies or a chance to shine as a star student. Most of us as adults have seen what racism looks like and it is important that our children know too. The little girl in the picture that you used for your article did not see herself in literacy or the books that were being offered within her curricula. Most of the books chosen for an English unit are from a Caucasian perspective omitting other races as the main focal character. She was bold enough to point that out, but for other students who are Caucasian they neglected to see what the issue was, or worse that there was an issue at all with the curriculum and books being selected for class readings. Unfortunately, until we have a real honest look at how we handle diversity in our hiring, schools, colleges and our own metacognition then we will never understand biasness.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

An older friend of mine wrote a book, once a well known staple, now probably out of print, called "Dizzy from Fools." It's lovely! All about a little princess who aches to be the court jester, but the job is only open to boys. She dresses up like a little boy and gets the gig! I wrote a song called "Said the Princess" based on the book and studio recorded it years ago using the voices of my own students. Funny thing? Little boys, over the years, have really loved singing my liberated Princess song as much as little female students. Moms sometimes worry: "I don't know why, but my boy really loves singing your Princess song!" ... but I believe it's a good sign.

I'm so happy to read all you've written here. It has never been more important for teachers to include these issues in lessons. We are the world, gender bias is a dated idea, and we need to move forward in our country and on this planet - or we're doomed! Thank you for covering such an important topic and inspiring us all.

And since you asked... I don't just teach the Princess song to tikes and share that lesson, I cover topics in other lyrics that range from social skills agenda to promoting world peace through deeper understanding.

Neat thing? Kids hold their hearts and really "get" those kinds of deep message lyrics at a much earlier age than I ever imagined they would. I don't know if this is good or bad news - the whole maturing early thing, but do believe we need to recognize what's going on and pay attention to what little tikes are soaking in. I'm so glad to see you've addressed all that here. Thanks again! Will pin/tweet/share :-)

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

This is why I love Edutopia. There is so much to learn from such wonderful articles!

Gillian Judson's picture
Gillian Judson
Professor of Education, Co-Director, Imaginative Education Research Group

Really enjoyed this. And I couldn't agree more--teaching empathy, compassion, otherness should begin as early as possible. I will look into these resources, thanks! I feel like the idea of 'recognition' weaves its way through this article and the topics it contains. What do you think of the idea of "recognition" as a framing tool for these discussions?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.