Editor’s note: The author of this article is also the author of a resource listed below.
Too often, educators only offer activities on bias and racism on certain days, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But anti-bias education is most effective when it’s integrated into daily classroom experiences, rather than taking place only on special days. For children to internalize messages of affirmation, fairness and empowerment, anti-bias strategies must be incorporated into all aspects of learning.
But how to start? Few things interest young children as much as themselves! Anti-bias (and anti-racism) education works best when we start in our own classrooms. Even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance, every group of children is at least a little different.
It’s a good idea to design classroom experiences with diversity in mind (race, gender, family structure, social class, language, religion, and disability), especially the diversity represented by your particular students.
These strategies can help you begin or deepen anti-bias education in your classroom.
Incorporate various books that tell stories of children living everyday
Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw, authors of “Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms,” encourage educators to incorporate Indigenous stories into existing preschool units such as homes, families, and communities. This helps young children understand that Indigenous people live in the present, not just the past.
Jones and Moomaw insist on this idea because most non-Native children know of Native Americans only as peoples of the past. The principle of focusing on current life and ordinary experiences is also important when talking about other groups of people.
Books that explicitly address bias shouldn’t be the only diverse books kids know about. Young children are especially interested in everyday activities and topics such as food, play, family, and work. A crucial anti-bias strategy is to provide many diverse books on these topics.
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 like crayons and construction paper that can match many different skin tones helps kids feel seen.
Educator Katharine Johnson explores skin tones with her young students by reading “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 by Katie Kissinger. which helps children understand why we have different skin tones. In circle time, Johnson provides a variety of paint chips in shades of brown, tan, and peach. After the kids help her find the chip that best matches her skin, she scatters the chips all over the room. The kids then help each other find the best match for their skin.
Teachers can also mix acrylic paints to create many different skin tones for self-portraits. This lesson plan from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) includes instructions for creating a self-portrait and having discussions about skin tones.
Another great idea comes from educator Rita Tenorio, who invites students to create “pockets for me” by filling a letter-sized clear plastic sleeve (the type used for baseball cards) with photos, drawings and other things that help others get to know them. . After everyone’s pockets are returned to the classroom, Tenorio creates a binder for the kids to look at as if it were a book. By watching them, children experience the cultural and linguistic diversity of their peers.
3. Prevent and treat microaggressions with role play
Because children hear and absorb common biases in society, they sometimes express them in the form of microaggressions. It is important to deal with these incidents quickly, but without shaming the children. Reprimand will cause children to hide their behavior rather than unlearn their biases.
Role-playing is a way of anticipating harmful comments that may occur, as well as reacting after a microaggression.
Persona dolls (which the teacher introduces and gives backstory to) can be used for bias role-playing. Role-playing can include lots of discussions, including what could be done differently or what a spectator might say. Since custom dolls can get expensive, it might be a good idea to ask if a parent in the class who can sew can make one. I have also printed and laminated photos of children and created stories 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 using persona dolls in role-playing games. In one instance, a teacher presented a doll named Lucia, who was upset because “when she drew a picture of her family – herself and her grandmother – another child said to her, ‘It can’t be be your family, because there’s no mommy and daddy in it!’ The teacher asked the children to name how Lucia might feel, and led them in a discussion about the many different forms that families can take.
Role-playing with dolls or picture cards can also address incidents of bias after they have occurred. Before doing this, it is important to talk privately to the child who has been the target of the microaggression about what happened and how he feels. Ask their permission before having a role play with the class. During the role play, be sure to talk about your feelings, as well as what other children might say if they witnessed a similar incident. The goal is not to shame children who have committed microaggression, but to help all children understand why the comment was hurtful.
4. Explore the stories of social justice movements
When we talk about injustice with children, it is important to share the stories of people and movements who have worked to change these injustices. This lays the groundwork for children to see that each of us, regardless of age, can find ways to express ourselves.
As teachers introduce children to courageous leaders for justice, they can share through books what those people were like as children. For example, “Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis,” written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by EB Lewis, describes how Congressman John Lewis learned about peacemaking and advocating for the vulnerable while he took care of 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 the childhood of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta inspired to fight for farm workers.
Adults should also come up with stories that challenge the idea that one person is the only force that changed injustices like segregation. Look for books and other materials that tell the stories of ordinary people who have been part of movements for justice. “Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation”, written by Andrea Davis Pickney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is about the roles of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King 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. Give children opportunities to talk about prejudice
One of the best ways to teach children that they can challenge prejudice and injustice is to give them concrete opportunities to do so!
“Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves” tells how educator Nancy Spangler provided such an opportunity for her class.
Spangler’s 3- and 4-year-old classroom was a place where teachers and students worked hard to make everyone feel included. But one day, when she was pulling 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 everyone you know?” The children said no, identifying many types of people who were missing from the card game.
Spangler helped the kids write a letter to the maker of the cards, in which the kids shared what they thought was wrong with the cards. The children also used skin-colored pens they already had in class to recolor the existing maps so they “looked real”.