We all need to talk about social justice — and it’s never too early to start. Even preschoolers aren’t too young to notice race and give it thought. Adults often worry that talking about race will plant bias in children, but actually the opposite is true.
Educators can help the youngest children form better attitudes towards race and the firm belief that all lives matter — but we have to talk about it with them first.
And early childhood educators did talk about it to children this month during the yearly Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. The campaign took place in schools nationwide, where educators promoted a set of demands based on the Black Lives Matter Guiding Principles, an affirmation of black folks’ contribution to society and their resilience in the face of oppression. The goal was to get children of all ages to grapple with issues of bias that persist in our communities and lives.
In Washington, DC, 350 educators and schools undertook this mission with guidance from Teaching for Change, a national nonprofit whose goal is “building social justice starting in the classroom.” Teaching for Change helped educators compile lessons, make book lists and find resources to improve the school experience for students from preschool to high school, especially those of color.
Educators also got information and inspiration from the District of Columbia Association for the Education of Young Children (DCAEYC).
“We sent all the week’s materials to our members so they could absorb and implement them,” said Robert Gundling, president of DCAEYC who’s also Professional Development Specialist (PDS).
The educators were keen to put the lesson plans in action since “DCAEYC is a very inclusive organization,” Gundling said. “Many of our members are very sensitive to the importance of equity in education for children, especially children of color. Black children need more opportunities to learn about their culture. They need to know they can do everything they want to do and be everything they want to be.”
For that to happen, Gundling pointed out, we need to provide more access to early childhood education in under-resourced neighborhoods.
“Early childhood education is the key to closing the achievement gap,” he said. And one of the ways educators can help children reach their potential is by gaining the knowledge and know-how that come from earning a CDA.
The credential also gives educators the skills they need to reach the young in talking about bias and discrimination.
“Black Lives Matter,” he said, “connects with so many functional areas of the CDA: designing an environment to promote development and learning, helping all children flourish, selecting developmentally appropriate materials for children, reflecting and educating with intentionality and reflection.”
CDA training helps educators pass on values like empathy, equality and peace, according to Jackie Whiting, a CDA holder for three decades and a teacher at the School for Friends in Washington, DC. There’s a close fit between these Quaker values and the goals of Black Lives Matters at School Week of Action, as Whiting explained.
“We accept children of every race and try to build a loving, caring community among them,” she said.
During the week of action, she brought the message to toddlers by having them play with baby dolls of different colors and reading to them from books like Happy, Pharrell Williams’ celebration of children across different cultures. Whiting also had the children crack open brown and white eggs to help them see that “everybody is the same inside.”
Books and role play like this also feature in Makai Kellogg’s class for 3-year-olds at the School for Friends. For example, her class read Miss Tizzy, a book about an older, black woman who engages in fun activities with neighborhood children. When Miss Tizzy gets sick, the children try to cheer her up by baking cookies, making puppets, having a dress-up tea party. And Kellogg’s preschoolers also enjoyed the same activities as the children in the book.
Fun activities like these helped get the children engaged in Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. But Kellogg knows that facing bias is no fun and she’s dead serious about fighting it as the school’s equity and diversity coordinator.
“As a Quaker school,” she said, “we have a strong anti-bias curriculum, so we’re constantly stepping in to interrupt bias.”
And she knows it’s never too early to start.
“Infants as young as 6 months are already noticing differences between people of different skin colors and refusing to play with dolls who don’t look like them. So we step in before bias sets in. Then our goal is for the children to call out playmates when they show bias, too,” Kellogg said.
It’s a challenge, Kellogg admitted, because “children see bias all around them.” So it isn’t enough to just broadcast the message during one special week in winter.
“This is work that should be done all year long,” Kellogg said. She knows we need to give our children something to talk about: how black lives matter every day.