Children notice physical differences, such as skin color, among their peers before the age of six months, and they begin to categorize people by race and express racial biases by ages three to five. These social and racial constructs are learned by observing the world around them – through books, films, interactions with peers and adults, what they see in media and school curriculum – sometimes leading to inaccurate and damaging conclusions. A 2006 study found, for example, that in a class of children ages five to ten, 26% believed that it was illegal for black people to be president; not because a parent or caregiver taught them so, but because at that point, all U.S. presidents had been white.
Although some environmental influences are outside of a child care provider or caregiver’s control, there are many ways in which providers can make a difference when racism shows up in the classroom. It is the job of CCR’s Early Achievers coaches to point out these opportunities to the child care providers they work with.
CHANGING WHAT WE TALK ABOUT
Helping children explore their perspectives through skillfully asking questions and providing thoughtful guidance can result in new ways of thinking and making sense of their world. How adults respond to questions about racial difference also helps teach children what these differences signify, and can solidify or challenge existing racial and cultural stereotypes and biases in our society. At as early as three years of age, children use race to include or exclude peers from group activities and play circles. One study from 2001 observed in multiple interactions, white children who used race as a justification to assert power over children of other races, illustrating that even from a very young age, children understand and play out racial hierarchies with their peers of other races. When this behavior continues without being addressed, it normalizes the racial power dynamic at play; moreover, later in life when children see these types of patterns manifest in interpersonal interactions, or in the structures that govern our communities, they may not see the need to challenge them.
One of our coaches in Pierce County, Marie, brought eggs from her farm into one of her programs to share with the children and providers. Upon seeing the variety of colors of the eggs, one of the children asked Marie why the eggs were different colors. “Look around the room,” Marie responded. “All of us have different color hair, and different color skin.” The provider asked Marie with some surprise if it was okay to talk about race with children this young. Marie assured the provider that it was healthy for children’s development to talk about race and acknowledge what they already notice about themselves and their peers.
CHANGING WHAT THEY SEE AND HEAR
While working at a child care program that she supports, CCR Early Achievers coach Laura noticed a series of posters meant to bolster the use of Social Emotional Curriculum, which portrayed positive emotions – happiness, calmness, empathy – with photographs of white children, and negative emotions – anger, sadness, frustration – with photographs of children of color, particularly black children. Laura pointed out her observation to the provider, who then reflected on the bias displayed in the seemingly benign classroom materials meant to teach children to be accepting of different feelings. The solution? The provider removed the posters and made a concerted effort to find posters that represented children of many different races displaying a range of emotions to reflect the reality that children of all races experience happiness, anger, sadness, and empathy.
Classroom materials provide an opportunity for caregivers to reinforce or challenge racial norms and stereotypes – books, dolls, and games depicting primarily white characters, culture, and family structure do not allow children of other races to relate to the stories told and played out in their classroom with their friends. They also don’t assist white children to understand that their community is filled with rich diversity from which they can learn. Children’s conscious and unconscious absorption of racial biases in child care environments (like children of color are sad/angry/frustrated, white children are happy) do not foster an expectation of success and a sense of belonging in an educational setting for children of color, launching a lifelong achievement gap – one that is narrowing far too slowly – across grade levels and career opportunities.
CHANGING THE WAY WE DISCIPLINE
Children of color experience discipline at a far higher rate than their white peers. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education found although black children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment, they make up 48% of the children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; by contrast, white students make up 43% of enrollment, and only 26% of those receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. These patterns carry into kindergarten and beyond. The U.S. Department of Education report also found that in grades K-12, students of color are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white peers; and black students, representing 16% of student enrollment, represent 31% of school-related arrests.
CCR Early Achievers Coach Mike broached this subject on a recent child care site visit by asking two of the assistant directors about their program’s discipline policy, and also asking them to reflect on how discipline actually plays out on a daily basis. How often were kids kicked out of the program? For what reasons? What triggered expulsion? The women concluded that black boys were expelled from their program at a higher rate than their peers. “I think we’re too quick to come down hard on the black boys and think they need to leave,” answered one assistant director. Through the conversation, the two women realized that their own racial backgrounds, parenting styles, and upbringing all informed their teaching style and disciplining behavior. With greater self-awareness, the two providers could better inform their program’s policy on expulsion and discipline, and were more self-aware in the way in which they dealt with behavioral problems in children of different races. While they are working on changing their program’s expulsion policy, they have also elected to have Mike facilitate further conversation with staff around implicit biases, teaching practices, and making every child feel welcomed and valued.
If caregivers are aware of the implicit and explicit biases in their classrooms, within themselves, and among their colleagues, they can act to ensure that all children in their care are treated equally, and are fairly represented in instruction, play, and conversation. CCR helps make that happen. Mike says that in his work, it’s important that child care program staff “figure it out” themselves. When he sees problematic behavior or patterns, he has the provider ask themselves, “Is this child’s behavior a problem because it negatively affects him- or herself or other children? Or does the behavior bother you for other reasons? Do those reasons include your perspective on race?”
Myriad historical patterns, societal norms, and governmental systems make tackling racial inequities challenging and overwhelming. But in the child care classroom, where social understanding initially forms, asking a few simple questions can often make a difference, setting a more positive and equitable foundation for children into the future.
Photos in this section by Lisa Bontje.