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Young kids need to be part of conversations about racism, early childhood educators say. Here’s why.

“Really, the early childhood years are pretty critical for laying some groundwork in equity and justice,” said Amy Betz, an early childhood specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. 

Avery Cartelli, a preschool teacher at Parkview Elementary
Avery Cartelli, a preschool teacher at Parkview Elementary, sent parents an optional video addressing the death of Floyd, grounding it in the emotions they’d spent all year learning to identify and express — things like sadness and frustration.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has spurred a social justice movement that’s rippled across the country, and around the world. 

Protests and policy changes have dominated headlines. And calls for white families to talk more frankly about racism are flooding social media platforms — along with a reminder that black children don’t have the privilege of learning about racism, because they grow up experiencing it. 

To help facilitate these important conversations, early childhood experts and educators have written op-eds, curated lists of anti-racism children’s books and shared other resources to help guide parents. 

Meanwhile, many local preschool and kindergarten teachers have taken the lead, adapting their final distance learning lesson plans to help their students think more deeply about racial injustices and inclusivity.

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These are the sorts of lessons that Amy Betz, an early childhood specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, says young learners stand to benefit a great deal from. Concepts like racial bias may seem complex. But they can be broken down in ways that young children can understand and learn to counter. 

“Really, the early childhood years are pretty critical for laying some groundwork in equity and justice,” she said. 

An impressionable age

Children begin noticing skin color in infancy, looking more at faces that match the race of their caregivers, researchers say. As they get a bit older, in the toddler years, they become more curious about it. 

By ages 3 to 5, they’ve already started to internalize racial bias and to assign more meaning to race, says Betz. “It’s going beyond just noticing these differences to really internalizing the messages given by important adults in life, the media — from all different directions.”

From ages 5 to 8, they start ascribing value judgments to those similarities and differences, she adds.

Given these early developments around concepts of race, it’s important for parents and educators to examine their own biases. If they feel uncomfortable talking about race, young children are likely to pick up on that tension. 

“When they pick up on that, it’s possible they start to view these differences as bad,” Betz said. “That’s why it’s so important to respond, speak clearly.”

Young children are curious and candid. They’re going to ask about differences in skin color. At the very least, it’s important to have a response that’s based in fact — like, “their skin has more melanin.”

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“Kids are satisfied with those answers,” Betz said. “As they get older, they’ll be ready for more depths of responses.”

At the same time, caregivers and teachers have the opportunity to equip young children with an appreciation for diversity and a sense of agency. Often times, that means reading books that feature diverse characters and building a strong sense of community in the classroom.

“Celebrating and embracing and talking about how much variety there is in the ways that people look and what they bring to the world and what they like to do is very much a part of the early childhood curriculum — as well as making sure that as teachers we are checking our own biases,” Betz said. 

The self-reflection piece is critical because even young children pick up on things like any preferential treatment given to white students, whether it be something like compliments or milder discipline measures. 

And lastly, Betz says it’s critical for caregivers and educators to intervene in any exclusionary play or actions because young children need guidance in this area as well. 

“They don’t need to learn about discriminatory lending in early childhood. But you can distill these pieces down to important pieces based in fairness. At least, if they don’t really understand, it’s putting it there for later,” she said. “We have to start giving them little tidbits at an early age that are developmentally appropriate.”

Examples from the classroom

After the death of Floyd, Jessie Begert, a kindergarten teacher at Anderson United Community School in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, invited her students to join a video chat, where she shared a reading of Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Other Side” — a children’s book about two girls, of different races, who become friends in a segregated town. 

“I think, at this age, that’s kind of what I teach — we’re all different and that’s a good thing,” she said, noting her read-aloud book selections throughout the year also focus on helping kids understand perspective taking. 

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“I can’t be colorblind. And I have to just assume that kids are not —  and that they want to talk about differences because they see them,” she said.  “They don’t always know what that means, for good or bad. They just notice.”

Kellie Farina, a kindergarten teacher at Edgerton Elementary in the Roseville Area Schools district, says the distance learning format has made it a bit more challenging to navigate addressing Floyd’s death with students, because she’s less aware of how much detail they’d picked up on from their parents, and from the news. So she started off by asking her students to talk about any fears they had. 

One student mentioned seeing lots of police in her neighborhood and about stores being burned down. She said she didn’t know what was going on, but that she wanted to be a detective and figure it out, Farina said. 

She followed up with this student’s parents over the weekend, to support them in helping her make sense of recent events. And for the rest of the class, she added a new optional read aloud, on Zoom — “Something happened in our town” — that teed up a discussion about race and police brutality.

After the read-aloud, she asked her students to brainstorm ways they could be an “upstander,” a person taking action to help someone else who is being treated unfairly. 

One kid said he could confront the mean person. Another thought that sounded too scary, so they talked about finding an adult who could come confront the bad behavior. 

“They need to know that they have power. That their words and actions have power,” she said. “And that they can use that for good or for bad.”

Working with even younger students in the same district, Avery Cartelli, a preschool teacher at Parkview Elementary, sent parents an optional video addressing the death of Floyd, grounding it in the emotions they’d spent all year learning to identify and express — things like sadness and frustration. 

In the video, she tells her students a man named George Floyd was hurt by a police officer and he died. “George had black skin and the police officer had white skin.” Then she goes on to reiterate messages about right and wrong and treating people kindly, even when they look different from you. 

In a follow-up lesson, she added a video lesson on celebrating diversity with a coloring crayon analogy. She talked about getting ready to color a bunch of animals. But when she dumped out her first box of crayons, she was disappointed to discover that they were all blue. 

Then she dumped out a crayon box filled with lots of different colors and modeled a much different reaction to help them make the connection that diversity should be celebrated. 

‘These crayons make me think of all of our friends in our room,” she said. “We’re all different. We all have different hair and eyes. Our skin is different. We’re all different shapes and sizes. And that’s awesome.”