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Five Anti-Bias Education Strategies for Early Childhood Classrooms

Here are a few strategies and resources that can help you begin anti-bias education, or go deeper into it, in your classroom by incorporating messages of affirmation, fairness and empowerment into all aspects of learning.
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Editor’s note: The author of this article is also the author of a resource listed below.

Too often, educators only offer activities about bias and racism on particular days, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But anti-bias education is most effective when it’s woven into everyday classroom experiences, rather than only taking place on special days. For children to internalize messages of affirmation, fairness and empowerment, anti-bias strategies need to be incorporated into all aspects of learning.

Several children raise their hands in a classroom.
Several children raise their hands in a classroom.

But how to begin? Few things interest young children as much as themselves! Anti-bias education works best when we start in our own classrooms. Although it might not seem like it at first glance, every group of children is at least a little bit diverse.

It’s a good idea to design classroom experiences with diversity (race, gender, family structure, social class, language, religion and disability) in mind, especially the diversity represented by your particular students.

These strategies can help you begin anti-bias education, or go deeper into it, in your classroom.

Incorporate Diverse Books That Tell Stories About Children Experiencing Everyday Life

Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw, authors of “Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms,” encourage educators to incorporate Native stories into existing preschool units such as homes, families and communities. This helps young children understand that Indigenous peoples are living in the present day — not just the past.

Jones and Moomaw stress this idea because most non-Native children are only aware of American Indians as peoples of the past. The principle of focusing on present-day life and ordinary experiences is important when talking about other groups of people as well.

Books that are explicitly about bias shouldn’t be the only diverse books that children experience. Young children are especially interested in daily activities and topics such as food, play, families and work. One crucial anti-bias strategy is to provide many diverse books on these subjects.

For example, a unit on families might feature these books:

2. Create Activities That Allow Children to Share and Celebrate Their Identities

Providing art materials such as crayons and construction paper that can match many different skin tones helps children to feel seen.

Educator Katharine Johnson explores skin tones with her young students by reading Katie Kissinger’s “All the Colors We Are/Todos Los Colores de Nuestra Piel: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color/La Historia de Por Qué Tenemos Diferentes Colores de Piel,” which helps children understand why we have many shades of skin. In circle time, Johnson provides a variety of paint chips in shades of brown, tan and peach. After the children help her find the chip that best matches her skin, she scatters the chips throughout the room. Children then help each other find the best match for their skin.

Teachers can also blend acrylic paints together to provide many different skin tone shades for self-portrait making. This lesson plan from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) includes direction for both creating a self-portrait and having discussions about skin tones.

Another great idea comes from educator Rita Tenorio, who invites students to create “me pockets” by filling a clear, letter-sized plastic sleeve (the kind used for baseball cards) with photos, drawings and other things that help others get to know them. After everyone’s me pockets are returned to the classroom, Tenorio creates a binder for them so children can look at them as if they were a book. As they look at them, children experience the cultural and linguistic diversity of their peers.

3. Prevent and Address Microaggressions with Role-Plays

Because children hear and absorb prejudices that are common in society, sometimes they will express them in the form of microaggressions. It’s important to address these incidents promptly, but without shaming children. Scolding will lead to children hiding their behavior rather than unlearning biases.

Role-plays are one way to anticipate prejudicial comments that are likely to happen, as well as to respond after a microaggression has taken place.

Persona dolls (which the teacher introduces and gives a backstory to) can be used for role-plays about bias. The role-play can include lots of discussion, including what could be done differently or what a bystander could say. Since persona dolls can be expensive, it might be a good idea to ask if a parent from the class who can sew can make some. I have also printed out and laminated stock photos of children and created backstories for them as alternatives to persona dolls.

Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves” by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards provides several examples of how to use persona dolls in roleplays. In one instance, a teacher introduced a doll named Lucia, who was upset because “when she drew a picture of her family — herself and her grandma — another child said to her, ‘That can’t be your family, ‘cause there’s no mommy and daddy in it!’” The teacher asked the children to name how Lucia might be feeling, and led them in a discussion about the many different forms families can take.

Role-plays with dolls or photo cards can also address incidents of bias after they happen. Before doing this, it’s important to privately talk to the child who was the target of the microaggression about what happened and how they’re feeling. Ask their permission before having a role-play with the class. During the roleplay, be sure to talk about feelings, as well as what other children could say if they witness a similar incident. The goal is not to shame children who have committed a microaggression, but to help all children understand why the comment was hurtful.

4. Explore the Stories of Social Justice Movements

As we talk with children about injustice, it’s important to share stories of the people and movements who have worked to change these injustices. This lays a foundation for children to see that all of us, no matter our age, can find ways to speak up.

As teachers introduce children to brave leaders for justice, they can share what these people were like as kids. For example, “Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis,” written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, describes how Congressman John Lewis learned about peacemaking and speaking up for the vulnerable as he cared for his chickens.

“Side by Side/Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/La Historia de Dolores Huerta Y César Chávez,” written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Joe Cepeda, shows how César Chávez and Dolores Huerta’s childhoods inspired them to fight for farm workers.

Adults should also offer stories that counter the idea of a single person being the only force that changed injustices like segregation. Look for books and other materials that tell the stories of ordinary people who were part of movements for justice. “Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation,” written by Andrea Davis Pickney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, talks about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King’s roles in the Birmingham bus boycott. However, the main focus of the story is the sacrifices of the ordinary citizens of Birmingham that made victory possible.

5. Provide Children with Opportunities to Speak Up About Bias

One of the best ways to teach children that they can challenge bias and injustice is to give them concrete opportunities to do this!

“Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves” shares how educator Nancy Spangler provided such an opportunity to her class.

Spangler’s 3 and 4-year-old class was a place where teachers and students worked hard to make everyone feel included. But one day when she pulled out a game, the teacher noticed that all the characters in the game were white.

She drew the children’s attention to this and asked them if the cards “look like all the people you know?” The children said no, identifying many kinds of people who were missing from the card set.

Spangler helped the children draft a letter to the maker of the cards, where the children shared what they thought was wrong with cards. The children also used skin tone pens they already had in the classroom to recolor the existing cards so they would “look real.”

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