Bennett Day School News

What Anti-Bias Education Looks Like in Early Childhood

As we embark on the journey of nurturing young minds, it's crucial to recognize the profound impact that an Anti-Bias education can have on the development of our children.

Written by: Meg Fitzgerald, Director of Early Childhood
Posted: January 29, 2023

This content was originally shared with Bennett Day School parents/guardians on January 25, 2024.

Why Anti-Bias Education is Essential

As we embark on the journey of nurturing young minds, it's crucial to recognize the profound impact that an Anti-Bias education can have on the development of our children. At Bennett Day School, we are committed to being anti-bias educators. This work requires focused conversations amongst faculty, active planning and mapping out of curriculum, and classroom environments that are set up to encourage curiosity and equity.

Additionally, we must unpack our own implicit bias as individuals that can get in the way of this work or contribute to the problem of inequity. On this note, I am proud to share that over half of all faculty at Bennett have voluntarily participated in SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training outside of the school day as of this year, with more on the anticipated enrollment list for next year, and others already involved in the second tier of this work. 

In school programs, there is a broad continuum of diversity education. These approaches can range from the following:

  • Differences denial approach: an approach that avoids diversity in the teaching and learning environment 
  • Tourist approach: an approach where differences are overemphasized and exaggerated; where children learn superficially about different cultures
  • Non-biased approach: an approach that avoids stereotypes and focuses on an authentic learning environment where similarities and differences are acknowledged

While the non-biased approach is important, it is missing essential components of anti-bias work: action and justice. At Bennett, we look at Anti-Bias education as an active approach that respects each child and family’s background and experiences, while incorporating diversity conversations that directly address the impact of social stereotypes, bias, and discrimination in children’s development and interactions (Derman-Sparks, LeeKeenan, Nimmo, 2015).

According to decades of research, children begin to show racial awareness as young as three months old. This infographic below, from the Children’s Community School, nicely highlights how quickly children notice differences and begin to draw conclusions based on what they see, if they are not guided in intentional conversations about diversity. 

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Create Spaces That Embrace Curiosity

The first step we take in our classrooms, and discuss as educators routinely, is creating a space where curiosities, questions, and wonderings about similarities and differences are embraced. In early childhood, these curiosities often come out as a question or statement that may cause adults to cringe, freeze up, or be inclined to shush or scold a child for the comment (e.g., Why does she talk funny? Look at that man in the wheelchair (pointing). She has the same skin as [insert name].).

How we respond as adults sends a very strong message about differences. We can reinforce that it’s not good to ask these types of questions, and in doing so send a message that there is something wrong or undesirable about those that are different from us, OR we can acknowledge the child’s observations and discuss the differences with them. People are people and all people deserve respect and dignity. Our goal in discussing difference is that children take this value of dignity and respect for humanity with them. 

Use Accurate Language & Avoid Stereotypes

Using accurate language and avoiding stereotypes that generalize a large group of people is essential. Britt Hawthorne, an anti-racist early childhood educator and consultant, reminds us that, “stereotypes are shortcuts where we attribute traits or tendencies to an entire group (good or bad). They are important to be aware of because it’s easier for us to “notice” the stuff that fits our ideas of people.”

In a recent read-aloud with Senior Kindergarteners (SKers) this month, I read the book, Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. In this story, CJ and his grandmother ride the bus every Sunday to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Prior to getting to the last stop on their bus, CJ and his grandma have a beautiful conversation about gratitude and appreciation for what you have and how illuminating the world can be when you open your eyes to not what you don’t have, but what you do. As we neared the end of the story, I asked the students if they knew where CJ and his grandmother had arrived. The illustration showcased many people sitting down to eat at similar-shaped tables, with a few people, including CJ and grandma, standing near the food line.

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“I think it’s maybe a place where you eat soup. Maybe it’s a restaurant.”

“It kind of looks like a cafeteria with the same tables.”

“I think CJ and his grandma are helping make the soup.”

With some more scaffolding, the children realized that this was a place for people to get a warm meal that they may not have had access to at that time. What was critical in this conversation was a comment that followed:

“I think that’s a place for poor people and homeless people.” 

As the adult in this conversation, I experienced that moment I referred to above. I took a breath and knew this was an important time to address a stereotype. I explained to the children what it meant to be food insecure and that at this moment in time, the people in that soup kitchen were having trouble getting enough food that they needed. This didn’t mean that they were poor, un-housed, or without a permanent home. In fact, most people who are unhoused are temporarily experiencing homelessness and places like this soup kitchen and other shelters can help people in that moment in time, so they can still get to their jobs, get their kids to school, etc.

This led to a great conversation about the love fridge outside of Bennett on the corner of Hubbard and Morgan, and other ways that they, as young people, can take action to combat food insecurity in their community. 

PreK-12 educators at Bennett have worked hard over the past few years to develop, tweak, and implement our own Anti-Bias framework, modeled from the Learning for Justice K-12 standards. This framework is separated into four domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. The Learning for Justice domains are based on Louise Derman-Sparks’ four goals for anti-bias education in early childhood. As an early childhood educator, I find it very validating and important to note that the work of Derman-Sparks, who is a foremost authority in this field of anti-bias education and early childhood, has been an essential building block for anti-bias learning across the continuum of all grades, PreK-12.

Anti-Bias Framework: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action

Identity

Beginning as young as our Bambini students, we see identity work in early childhood as the foundation for anti-racist learning. Providing windows and mirrors into the rich tapestry of identities and experiences of ourselves and others can help lay the foundation of inclusivity and compassion. This is a time when children are forming their sense of self. The more we understand and learn about ourselves and others, the more we all feel connected and have a sense of belonging to a larger community. This work is seen in trimester self-portraits, family shares, and bringing personal cultural celebrations into the classroom.

Self portrait

This month in our Bambini program, after reading the book Our Skin by Jessica Ralli, students were prompted to share the color of their skin and something they loved about their skin. Children learned that we get our color from something smart inside our bodies called melanin which protects our skin from the sun. Everybody has just the right amount of melanin for them. To build on this work, the students explored skin-colored pastels and worked to mix colors together to create their perfect shade.  Students shared, “Look Ms. Dahlberg, I’m making my skin. It’s golden.” “My color is tan.”

BambiniParent visit

Diversity

Diversity is not just about differences; it's about recognizing and valuing those differences. Introducing children to a variety of perspectives and experiences helps broaden their understanding of the world. Creating an environment that reflects the diversity of our global community ensures that every child feels seen, heard, and included. We use the concept of “Windows and Mirrors” when referencing the classroom environment, with a focus on children’s literature (Sims Bishop, 1990). With this way of thinking, Sims Bishop states that books should be, windows into the realities of others, not just imaginary worlds, and books can be mirrors that reflect the lives of readers.” Approaching children’s text in this way prioritizes diversity, honors cultures, and fosters empathy in readers.

Anti bias blog quote

Student work

Justice

Teaching young minds about justice involves instilling a sense of fairness and equality. It means addressing the disparities that exist in our society and encouraging empathy. Through age-appropriate conversations, we can help children develop a keen awareness of social justice issues, nurturing their innate sense of right and wrong. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was a recent opportunity to talk about social justice and Dr. King’s dedication to fighting for it. In classroom conversations, children were easily able to identify obvious wrong-doings and inequities, voicing their dislike for injustice.

Weekly in Senior Kindergarten (SK), teachers choose a prompt from a Diversity and Inclusion Box. These prompts promote group conversations about fairness, knowing yourself, and doing the right thing. A recent prompt asked how children could take action to support fairness at school. Conversations ranged from helping to support a friend in the classroom, to larger-scale actions of marching to support justice and fairness.

Doing the right thingDiversity and inclusion prompt cards

“If me, Leo, and Theo were playing and Greer didn’t know where the cars were, I would help her.” 

“I would march for a vote.”

Action

Education is a powerful tool for change. When children are seen as capable and competent, they are given opportunities for empowerment, such as classroom jobs, social problem-solving, and the chance to practice being upstanders. In our early childhood classrooms, our learners are told they are change makers and therefore are eager to take action and have their voices heard.

Taking action involves not only imparting knowledge but also actively promoting inclusivity. By incorporating diverse stories, experiences, and role models into our curriculum, we are equipping our children with the tools to become compassionate advocates for justice and equality in the future.

Throughout the year in Junior Kindergarten (JK), the class celebrates advocacy superpowers, beginning first with defining the word and making advocacy mind maps of ways children can be advocates for others. They listen and learn through stories about many people in history who were advocates, then create their own advocacy superpower capes, highlighting how they as Junior Kindergarteners (JKers) can be advocates and why this work is important. 

Advocacy

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What can a citizen do

Actionable Steps: How to Help Promote Anti-Bias Learning at Home

By embracing an anti-bias approach to teaching in early childhood, we are sowing the seeds for a future where our children appreciate, respect, and celebrate the uniqueness of every individual, and are empowered to be agents of social change. Below are some steps you can take in your own parenting journey towards anti-bias learning at home. 

Diversify Your Child's Library

Introduce books that showcase BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) characters experiencing authentic cultural representations of joyful childhood moments. Extend your library beyond texts that highlight differences, but rather choose those that present children’s literature with authentic representations of people.

Check out Inclusive Books for Children to browse a wide range of books that are inclusive for all ages. We also love the Equal Opportunity Book Box subscription which features inclusive books delivered to your door monthly, while also donating those books to a school in your nearby community. 

Open Dialogues and Hold Critical Conversations

Foster open, age-appropriate discussions about diversity/inclusion, and encourage questions with honest thoughtful answers to help shape children's understanding. When someone says or does something that is rooted in discrimination, otherness, or exclusion, ask yourself, "if I don’t say anything will this continue, or might I have the chance to impact change here?"

Cultural Celebrations

Explore cultural celebrations and traditions together. This can be through stories, crafts, or even virtual visits to cultural events.

Community Engagement

Connect with diverse communities within and outside of the school setting. Attend neighborhood events, participate in activities, and build authentic relationships that reflect the rich diversity around us. 

Model Taking Action

Find opportunities with your child to help better your community and/or the lives of others who may be in less fortunate situations than your own. We love the Honeycomb Project, Chicago’s go-to organization for family volunteering, putting kids at the heart of social change. 

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