What Does Critical Race Theory Have to Do with Early Childhood Education?

By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky

You’ve probably heard of critical race theory (CRT for short), and you may even know that it’s causing shouting matches and threats of violence in meetings of school boards across the country—school boards that are recalling and replacing their members in record numbers. 

Why are they so upset, and why is this such a contentious issue? 

When civil rights reforms like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) failed to eliminate racial inequality in the United States by the 1970s, academics at law schools wanted to know why. Their conclusion, now known as CRT, was that racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic. That is, racism is embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, elections, economy, health care, housing, military, water supply, 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. 

This notion of systemic, structural racism displeases many conservatives, from Tucker Carlson to former President Trump to parents fed up with the pandemic and angry at having their children out of school. Although CRT remains an academic subject taught almost exclusively in higher education, they have misinterpreted it and turned it into a catchall phrase for any initiative that advocates improving outcomes for children of color in elementary, middle, and high schools. 

Many states are passing laws to outlaw what they are calling CRT; banning books, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice, social emotional learning, and curricula that focus on different cultures; curtailing training to reduce implicit bias; and forbidding anything that could make White students feel “discomfort or guilt” because of their race or sex. 

But what does CRT have to do with child care? 

But, you may ask, how does this affect young children? Why would we teach 3- and 4-year-olds about slavery? And yet, because eliminating racism and inequality is so important, some schools are doing just that. 

Learning about racism and inequity has become more urgent since the death of George Floyd and many others and the Black Lives Matter movement has taken hold. But schools, school districts, early childhood organizations, and early childhood centers nationwide recognized some time ago that children of color were being treated unequally, and the profession began taking steps to remedy the situation. In 2019, the National Association for the Education of Young Children adopted a position statement on advancing equity in early childhood education, and Exchange Press put out “Focus on Race.” This year the NAEYC published a comprehensive book on the subject, Advancing Equity and Embracing Diversity in Early Childhood Education.

Children pick up clues about race and racial bias from their environment at an early age. At 3 months, babies prefer people who are the same color as their caregivers, and by 4 or 5 years White children may say they don’t want to have friends who are Black. As they get older, children hear biased remarks on the bus and in the classroom, see racial violence on television, observe that everyone in their school is the same color, note that there are very few people of color in their textbooks and among their teachers, and may even notice that when a Black child and a White child commit the same infraction, the Black child is more likely to be suspended.

All of this is very confusing, and the research shows that colorblindness is not a solution. The issue is not about avoiding differences; it is about appreciating them. Although some educators want to restrict discussion of race and racism, many others believe it is their job to teach children to be critical thinkers and understand the world. Without help, children may invent their own false explanations of what’s happening, for instance that children of color are suspended because they aren’t as smart as White children. On the other hand, open conversations about race can reduce prejudice in White children and raise self-esteem in children of color.


Tackling Race

Many teachers need training and practice in focusing on racial issues in the classroom, says Diane Hughes, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. She and other experts provide these tips:

  • Talk about race directly, not just about equality and kindness. Be intentional about what you want children to know. Frankness helps them to identify bias more easily. (An activity for young children might be one where they mix paint to create a color that looks like their own skin color. When they paint their hands with it, they can see how it matches and realize that everyone’s skin is a different color.)  
  • Choose and discuss books, videos, and movies with characters from many backgrounds. When all the characters are White, say so and ask why. Why doesn’t this represent our world? What was the writer thinking? Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is missing from the story?
  • Create opportunities for children of different races to learn about each other and respect the gifts each of them brings to the classroom.
  • If children make racist comments, ask them for more information before you respond. What did they mean? What did they think they were saying? Where did they learn to say this?

What can we teach?

Under new state laws, talk of race and racism may be prohibited. So what can we do? 

We repeat: Early childhood educators aren’t teaching CRT or discussing structural racism, and it isn’t clear when it would be appropriate to introduce these issues. At what age can children grasp them? (It seems unlikely that Piaget and Vygotsky have an answer to this problem.) 

The subject of slavery, for example, is far too complicated to make sense to young children. How could we possibly explain that White people felt they had the right to enslave others? Frighteningly, the result might be that the children pretend to be slaves and slaveowners (as happened in a high school in Traverse City, MI).

As human beings, educators should know about systemic racism. But perhaps what’s even more important for creating equity in the classroom is for teachers to be culturally competent themselves—to be aware of their own culture, of who they are and where they come from and their own implicit biases, as well as the culture of each child they teach. In this way they can build relationships and an inclusive community where all the children feel they belong, thereby enabling everyone, regardless of skin color or cultural background, to feel respected and safe, a necessity for learning.

In actuality, best practice in early childhood that emphasizes social emotional learning is already doing this. ECEs should be—and are—teaching what is essential to creating equity: to respect others and their differences, to recognize and appreciate the differences in the colors of their skin, the languages they speak, and the abilities they have. Early childhood educators can make a difference when they encourage children to recognize everyone’s strengths; when they teach them to empathize, to be kind, to be caring, and to acknowledge and believe that everyone has rights and everyone can make a contribution to society.

Further reading

Strasse, J., & Coplin, L. (2021). Beginning (or continuing) the journey to a more equitable classroom. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 21-24.

Weir, K. (June 2, 2021). Raising anti-racist children. American Psychological Association, 52(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/anti-racist-children

Wright, B. L. (2021). Now read this: Books that promote race, identity, agency, and voice. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 25-27.