By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Black History Month may be over, but we need its lessons all year long—this year more than ever.
The death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others shook us up and sent us out to protest in streets all over America. As a result, their deaths led to important victories over hate crime in the courts.
But if we as a country are going to deal successfully with hate and racism, we’d be well advised to begin at the beginning—with young children, who may already be developing bias before the age of 5. For teachers that means recognizing our own biases and understanding how they impact our attitudes and behavior.
Like the children in our care, every teacher is different. We come from different contexts and cultures, and everything we think, say, and do is processed through the filter of our own culture. Culture affects more than just food and holidays. It influences our values and beliefs, our gender roles, family structures, language, dress, etiquette, approach to disability, child-rearing practices, communication—and yes, our teaching style.
But because culture is not explicitly taught but is instead silently absorbed from birth onward and passed down from generation to generation, we’re seldom aware of how it shapes our identity and provides us with ground rules for interpreting and acting in the world. Even very experienced teachers probably don’t realize how their unconscious attitudes guide their interactions with children, their expectations, and their appreciation of children’s skills, abilities, and behavior.
What lens are you looking through?
Needless to say, children also see and understand the world through the lens of their culture, which may be different from ours. This makes it essential for us to see and understand our own culture. Only then can we comprehend how the cultures of the children we teach influence their behavior. And only then can we give every child a fair chance to succeed.
Think about it: In what ways has your culture determined who you are today? How were you required to behave when you were a child? What were the adult-child relationships like in your family? What behavior was expected in your school? How has your upbringing influenced your view of children’s behavior and your connection with their families?
Your culture also dictates how you communicate with others. Do you listen carefully, or do you interrupt? Do you stand close to the person you’re addressing or far away? Do you gesture or do you touch one another? Are you comfortable talking about feelings? Do you think not just about what you’re saying but also about how you’re saying it and how your message is being received?
What lenses filter children’s behavior?
Most children don’t come to child care or school knowing what you expect them to do, and you may not be aware of their cultural and behavioral expectations at home. But each child brings his or her own set of culturally based scripts, skills, talents, and values into the classroom.
Children begin to construct their identity from understanding their place in their own family and culture and by responding to how others relate to them. To form a positive self-concept, children must honor and respect their own family and culture and have others honor and respect them too. If your classroom doesn’t reflect and validate the culture of the children you teach, they are likely to feel invisible, unimportant, incompetent, worthless, and ashamed of who they are.
But when you use culturally competent teaching strategies, children do not have to change who they are in order to fit in. Your teaching style, expectations, and program take every child’s culture and learning style into consideration.
Bear in mind that what children know when they first enter your classroom is a reflection of the opportunities they’ve had and the skills they’ve needed to function within their own cultural group. It doesn’t indicate what they’re capable of doing and learning.
The world’s lens
Anthropologists look at culture in terms of individual versus group orientation. People in most of the world have different cultural values from White European Americans, but our schools and early childhood centers utilize and teach European American values: individualism, independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness.
However, other cultures emphasize interdependence—being closely connected, first and foremost part of a community where self-esteem is based on contributions to the good of the whole, not on individual achievement.
These different cultural orientations have clear implications for teaching young children and clarify why children from diverse cultures may have trouble learning, understanding the rules, and following directions. These differences can appear in instruction, language, and behaviors, such as moving around in class, shouting out thoughts during circle or meeting time, placing the trains and the blocks in the same bin at clean-up, chatting with a neighbor during nap, and going to the bathroom without permission.
Although these behaviors are usually unacceptable in a White European American classroom, they may be totally normal and acceptable in the child’s home culture. As a result of these differences, in many cases the teacher sees the children through a deficit-based lens and treats them as disruptive or attention seeking.
Play time is over. You say, “Joey, can you please put away the blocks?”
Joey replies, “No.”
You think he’s being defiant, but the truth is probably different. In almost every non-European American culture, parents don’t ask their children to do something. They tell them straight out what to do: “Joey, put away the blocks.”
Look again at that request of yours. It was in the form of a question. Joey honestly believes that you’re giving him a choice and it’s up to him to decide what he’ll do.
So is this child being insolent? And what do you think you should you do?
As you get to know your own culture you may begin to recognize some troublesome areas.
Microaggressions. More than just insults or insensitive comments, microaggressions are specific remarks, questions, or actions that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages based on a person’s group membership. They seem to be compliments or jokes, but in reality they contain a hidden insult. Part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they occur casually, frequently, and often without intentional harm. In an early childhood setting, a typical microaggression frames children’s differences as deficits rather than assets (“We don’t do it that way here” when a child wants to do something the way she does it at home) or mispronounces or substitutes a child’s name (“Your name is so hard to pronounce. Can I call you Mary?”).
Implicit bias. All of us have implicit biases—that is, automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. Despite the fact that they influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, they are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t know they’re there.
Implicit bias is one of the reasons that young African American children—especially boys—are suspended and expelled from school and child care at a much higher rate than young White children. An experiment by Yale psychologist Walter S. Gilliam revealed that teachers often expect Black boys to misbehave because of their race, an assumption that is completely false.
Fortunately, with conscious effort we can reduce our implicit biases by recognizing them, using self-reflection, empathy, and mindfulness, and learning new information about children’s families and cultures. To check out your own biases, take the Harvard Bias Test.
Structural racism. Racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic and part of our culture. That is, it’s embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, electoral system, health care, housing, military, water supply, socio-economic status, and more—and has been since the United States was founded. The racism and inequities that people of color face today are the legacy of our country’s structure and its history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws.
Inequitable opportunities, privileges, and life experience based on economic class deeply affect young children’s lives. Although a family’s income doesn’t determine how much they love their child or how skilled they are at parenting, poverty can make the fundamental necessities for their children’s healthy growth and development (such as safe housing, nutritious food, regular health care) very difficult or impossible to get. How does this reality impact your relationship with the children and their families, the opportunities you offer, and your expectations of children’s ability and behavior? What can you do to change things?
Cross cultural competence
Understanding your own culture and the culture of the children you teach offers an important step toward better care and learning. So how can you acquire this understanding?
Cross cultural competence is something we all should be striving for. It is the key to working effectively with all children and their families and requires us to:
–be self aware—to understand ourselves, our culture, our biases, and our level of curiosity about getting to know others
–have an open attitude and awareness of others and be able to appreciate differences as well as similarities
–develop a knowledge and understanding of the cultures of the children and families we teach
–be able to adapt our communication and teaching style to different individuals, groups, and cultures
Cross cultural competence is an asset-based approach. At its heart is the belief that every child is unique and interacts differently with the world, and it embraces the idea that all children have knowledge, beliefs, and patterns of interaction that teachers can build on to teach new concepts and skills.
So how do we recognize and teach children with different skills, knowledge, and abilities if what they’ve learned so far in their home culture doesn’t apply to ours? Your interest shows you care about them. When you make positive observations and ask questions about things that are unique to them, you help them to become more open to learning.
Equitable is an adjective that means fair or impartial, and equitable practice means providing the support that each child and family need. Equity in early childhood education requires eliminating obstacles to opportunity regardless of children’s gender, family background, language, and economic status. Knowing each child’s preferences and strengths will allow you to offer a program that reinforces and integrates the children’s interests and strengths. Do you know what engages each child? Where each one’s talents lie? Whether they feel comfortable in structured settings? In large or small groups?
Families are a powerful source of information—they naturally pass along the ways that people in their culture use to survive and succeed. Children’s interactions with their family often act as the archetype of how to behave by demonstrating a variety of cultural rules, expectations, and taboos. Try to find out what’s important to each family—their cultural norms, values, traditions, and goals. What do they want their child to learn?
It is up to you to ensure that children think differences are positive. Spend time modeling and teaching them how to notice, appreciate, and support others. Fill your shelves with books featuring diverse children and families and encourage open discussion about the similarities and differences among the children in the class. Teach them that it is our differences that make us special.
Be aware of the children’s interactions. Are they treating each other differently based on race, ethnicity, or gender? Work with them to resolve the issue and use these situations to inspire your story selection, activities, and projects. When the children know that difference is a good thing, they feel more comfortable asking questions and talking about the differences they notice in themselves and in the people in their lives. And when you discuss race, ethnicity, disabilities, LGBTQ families, and even issues like weight and poverty, you are working to prevent biases from forming.
Understanding the impact of your own cultural background as well as that of the children is a process, and it will take time to recognize and work through your patterns of thinking. The ultimate objective is to make sure that every child comes away with a strong sense of self-awareness and pride in who he or she is.
Photo by Heather Locke, Fort Campbell Courier, FMWRC, U.S. Army 100820
“Hidden Figures”—the Oscar-nominated film about three Black women mathematicians working at NASA in 1961 (that is, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964)—contains plenty of examples of explicit bias and discrimination.
But it also has a splendid illustration of implicit bias, which is far more subtle.
Toward the end of the movie, Mrs. Michael, a White manager (played by Kirsten Dunst), semi-apologizes to Dorothy Vaughan, an African American woman in NASA’s computing pool (played by Octavia Spencer), by saying, “I didn’t mean you any harm.”
Vaughan’s response outs her supervisor’s unseen prejudice: “I know. And I’m sure you believe that.”
What exactly are implicit biases, and who has them?
According to Walter S. Gilliam, the Yale psychologist who’s been studying them for years, implicit biases are automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. All of us have them—they are natural and pervasive.
Despite the fact that they shape our expectations and behavior and influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, these biases are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t even know they’re there—just like Mrs. Michael.
Is there implicit bias in schools and child care centers?
Gilliam’s interest in implicit biases dates from his discovery in 2005 that African American children—especially boys—were being suspended and expelled from state-funded prekindergarten classes at an alarming rate, much higher than White children and children in K-12 schools.
Why are Black boys at such high risk?
These statistics made Gilliam ask, why are Black boys suspended and expelled so often? From his 2005 study, he knew some of the risk factors:
- Children of color often live with more stressors than White children.
- They frequently attend poor-quality child care programs.
- Because of their difficult lives, their families probably need more child care than most families, and as a result their children’s daycare day is very long.
- Four-year-olds are more likely to be expelled than three-year-olds, perhaps because they’re bigger and teachers fear they’ll harm the other children.
- Teachers who are depressed or experiencing job stress are more apt to suspend and expel the children in their care.
But Gilliam also suspected that an implicit bias lay at the root of these findings, and he set up an experiment to find out.
Gilliam recruited 135 early childhood educators and told them he was studying how teachers detect challenging behavior, sometimes even before it appears. Then, using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, he showed them a video of four preschoolers—an African American boy, an African American girl, a White boy, and a White girl.
The result? Even though the children were actors and the video contained no challenging behavior, the teachers spent more time watching the African American boy, who they said required the most attention. That is, they expected him to misbehave because of his race.
In the second part of the experiment, Gilliam asked the teachers to rate the behavior of a child in a written vignette. He manipulated the child’s race and sex by using different names—DeShawn or Jake; Latoya or Emily. The ratings suggested that both Black and White teachers had a stereotyped belief—that is, an implicit bias—that Black children are more liable to misbehave.
Some participants also received a description of the child’s family life, and their own race seemed to guide their reaction to it: If teacher and child were of the same race, the teacher could empathize with the child and the behavior seemed less severe. On the other hand, when they were of different races, the teacher considered the child’s behavior harder to deal with.
Researchers hypothesize that Black teachers are better able to understand Black children’s lives and culture and use that knowledge to respond to their needs.
What can we do about this?
Children with challenging behavior who are harshly disciplined and suspended and expelled from prekindergarten, preschools, and child care centers are missing out on a vital opportunity to prepare for—and succeed in—school. Luckily there is now some evidence that reducing our implicit biases and increasing our empathy can give them a much better start.
Of course this is easier if we have the support and guidance of early childhood mental health consultants, professional development, or crisis counselling, but too few teachers have access to such help.
So most of us are largely on our own. We have to hold ourselves accountable and rely on what we and our colleagues can do together. As Carol Brunson Day put it at the last NAEYC conference, “We must all work continuously to insure unintended consequences don’t come from our behavior.”
Here are some suggestions
- The key is to know yourself, and self-reflection is our number one tool. There is no shame in having biases—everyone has them—but before we can change them we have to admit that they exist. This takes courage, but if we stick with it and fight the urge to run away or hide, we will make progress. We could help one another by pointing out an action or a response that seems due to bias—or by observing a colleague who has a particularly easy relationship with an African American boy.
- How else can you discover your own implicit biases? Take the Implicit Bias Test.
- It’s extremely important to build strong relationships with all the children we teach and use every interaction to show how much we care about them and believe in their ability to succeed. Little things mean a lot, for example, saying their names correctly. Mispronouncing or changing a child’s name insults the child, the family, and their culture and can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-image and world view.
- Get to know the children’s families and learn about their lives and culture, paying special attention to those whose beliefs and experiences are different from yours. Head Start has shown us that family involvement and home-school collaboration improve children’s behavior at school. Home visits open doors, both literally and figuratively.
- Make a point of connecting with people who are different from you. This can be hard because many of our neighborhoods are segregated, so use your ingenuity. Invite guest speakers into your classroom, attend a service at an unfamiliar church, or follow the example of Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, and arrange a meet-up for families in a park or playground.
All of this enables us to challenge our stereotypes. Arizona teacher Cheryl A. Redfield put it this way: “We tend to characterize a whole people group from a few encounters. We don’t challenge our conclusions. So rethink, reflect, and resolve not to succumb to the convenience of overgeneralization, especially when it comes to people. They can surprise you.”
Whenever they do surprise you, your horizons expand, your empathy and compassion grow, and your biases lose some of their power.
Over to you
Have you had any experience dealing with implicit biases, either your own or others’? How did you become aware of them, and did you have any success in changing them?