Teaching Children About Stereotypes

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

When my daughter was three years old, I introduced her to the concept of stereotyping. The fact that she was just learning to string words together into sentences, had already determined that pink was most definitely not her favorite color, and had asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and all the “boy stuff” was blue was a source of consternation for her mother. Because there is no 3-year-old version of a phrase that describes why colors are gendered in our society, I reasoned that sowing the seed will likely bear fruit in due course. In a surprise turn of events, I was proven correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

Discussions regarding bias, diversity, discrimination and social justice tend to take place in middle and high schools, both as a society and within our educational institutions. We’ve somehow concluded that small children are incapable of comprehending these complex issues, or we want to avoid exposing them to injustices for as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

Young children, on the other hand, have a deep sense of, and a strong desire for, justice. They demand that the right overrule the evil and that the just overrule the unjust. And they are unafraid to point out disparities without apologizing or feeling uncomfortable.

Children’s racial identity and attitudes begin to develop at a young age, with 2- and 3-year-olds becoming aware of the differences between boys and girls, beginning to notice obvious physical disabilities, becoming curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and becoming aware of ethnic identity. Children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong when they are five years old and can examine the spectrum of differences within and between racial and ethnic groupings by the time they are in kindergarten. In terms of bias, white children in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe begin to express preferences for other white children by the age of 3 or 4. Furthermore, the current study reveals that when infants as young as three years old are exposed to prejudice and racism, they prefer to embrace and accept it, even if they do not understand the feelings that are being expressed.

However, if we’re encouragingly exposed to diversity, we can unlearn or reverse our biases. This is great news! Understanding and capitalizing on young children’s need for justice and using it as a springboard for discussion about bias and discrimination is not a difficult leap, but it must be made explicitly and with training. They are also not apprehensive about making observations about observed differences. According to decades of studies, even if parents and adults do not discuss race or other differences with their children, children are nevertheless aware of these differences and biases. Unless we teach and discuss race and differences in our schools, children’s ideas about race and differences will continue to grow uncontrolled and will most likely become even more established in their minds.

Adults in children’s life should avoid instilling in them the notion that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shushing them when they observe someone with a disability, as this might lead to negative consequences. Adults may do this because they are uncomfortable discussing differences with others, or because they believe that seeing differences indicates that you are biased in some way. At the same time, we want to encourage children to detect differences since they do so inherently, while also honoring people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences, as described above. In other words, recognizing distinctions among people is natural; yet, when adults assign judgments of value to these differences, prejudice can develop in early childhood.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is an ideal time for this kind of dialogue to take place. Teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children if they are taught with the appropriate tools and resources and engage in activities that are developmentally appropriate for their age group. This will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they reach the tween and teen years.

In this article, we will cover five real strategies to incorporate discussions about bias and diversity into the primary school setting.

1. Introduce bias, diversity, and social justice through children’s literature: There are a plethora of children’s books that may be read aloud and independently to introduce the concepts of bias, diversity, and social justice. The reading of books, whether it’s a book about people who are different from your students (window books), a book that affirms their identity (mirror books), a book that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and thus a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Make use of the news media: Look for issues and news items that bring these themes to light, discuss them in the classroom, and use them as the foundation for future reading, writing, social studies, and mathematics classes. The story of a 9-year-old boy who was barred from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was a source of bullying, or the story of Misty Copeland becoming the first African-American to be appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in the organization’s 75-year history, are both excellent teachable moments that can be used in the classroom to raise awareness of bias.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons: We understand that all instructors are faced with a slew of everyday demands on their time and attention. Nonetheless, because children’s social and emotional development is a critical component of the elementary curriculum, and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is based on identity, it is beneficial to the classroom climate to set aside a specific time each week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Once social and emotional skills development lessons are established, teachers can move on to lessons about identity, differences, bias, and how bullying and discrimination can be addressed both individually as well as collectively.

4. Utilize well-known examples: Take advantage of children’s interest in books, television shows, toys, and video games, and use these as chances to study diversity, bias, and social justice issues. The stories of toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girl who was weary of seeing books about white guys and dogs, or a new line of dolls with disabilities can all be used to expose children to how bias is present in the media and everyday things that they use.

Rethink the concept of helping others (via service-learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to incorporate discussions with children about the injustices that contribute to the problem and measures that can be taken to alleviate it. As an example, while it is important to provide food to the homeless, we want to deepen the discourse with children to express a social justice perspective as well as a more global perspective. As a result, address the stigma and misconceptions associated with homeless individuals, learn about discriminatory housing rules, and consider solutions that would permanently reverse the problem and inspire students to take action.