34 6.5: Going One Step Further with an Anti-bias Classroom

“Numerous research studies about the early process of identity and attitude development conclude that children learn by observing the differences and similarities among people and by absorbing the spoken and unspoken messages about those differences.”(Hepburn, 2007). In order to teach children to respect and value diversity, educators should include the following elements in the early childhood programs:

Raising Cultural Awareness

Educators need to acknowledge that frequently developing their own multicultural awareness, attitudes toward children and their families, and knowledge and skills is necessary and significant. By doing that, appropriate instructional materials like multicultural literature should be provided in the class. In addition, an antibias and multicultural

Going One Step Further with an Anti-bias Classroom

The anti-bias movement was born out of the multiculturalism movement. Some of the people involved in the multiculturalism movement felt that it did not do enough to address social problems in the education system.

The anti-bias approach urges educators to be aware of biases that perpetuate oppression and create an inequitable environment and to eliminate them. The anti-bias approach is intended to teach children about acceptance, tolerance and respect; to critically analyze what they are taught; and to recognize the connections between ethnicity, gender, religion, and social class, and power, privilege, prestige, and opportunity. [72] Anti-bias curriculum also embraces differences and uniqueness. There is no such thing as “color-blindness.” We need to accept and acknowledge differences.

The National Director of the Anti Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman has said, “Children are born into this world without prejudice, but can learn prejudice as easily as the alphabet or tying their shoes; getting to children as early as possible is important when you want to instill them with positive images of themselves and others” (Anti-Defamation League, 2001, How Can We Stop Hate Before it Starts? section, para. 0). Therefore, while it is important to educate adults about bias and discrimination, raising children who will be anti-bias is an essential step towards achieving real change in our society. Incorporating anti-bias curriculum in early childhood education provides children with a foundation to fight for social justice later in their lives.

In the Classroom

A classroom environment rich in possibilities for exploring diversity provides children with opportunities to develop ideas about themselves and others, allows them to initiate conversations about differences in a safe environment, and provides teachers with a setting in which they can introduce activities about diversity (Stern-LaRosa, 2001, Talking to children about diversity: Preschool years section, para. 7). Teachers are an integral part of a child’s development, and can be key figures in shaping children’s perceptions of differences. They are influential role models who have the potential to teach children to be anti-bias.

A woman talking to a boy, who is making a hand gesture by holding his palms facing up.
Figure 6.2: Teachers are role models for anti-bias. [73]

The formation of children’s attitudes towards difference is a social process in which the family, school, and media all play major roles (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 15). Thus, in our society, children are constantly exposed to bias, prejudice, and discrimination, but the school is a place where these views can be challenged (Lee, 2006, p. 4). Because children absorb societal beliefs, it is important to teach them during their development to appreciate differences rather than allowing them to internalize society’s biases.

Children’s experiences in early childhood shape how they will approach differences throughout their life. The preschool years lay the foundation for children’s development of a strong sense of self, empathy, and positive attitudes towards difference and social interaction skills. The bias and discrimination that exist in our society has the ability to sabotage their healthy development in these areas. Through anti-bias activities and the help of educators, children can learn to resist various forms of bias (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 193). Even young children have the ability to be anti-bias; what children learn in the classroom can be transferred into action to combat the injustice they encounter in the world around them. [74] Children can be taught to be allies. This means that they are willing to stand up when they see bias occurring.


Anti-bias curriculum strives for the development of a student who will actively promote social justice. Through activities that build a strong sense of self, empathy, a positive attitude towards people different from oneself, and healthy social interaction skills, students may be guided towards the path of social justice.

The Anti-Bias Curriculum, developed by a multi-ethnic group of early childhood educators, promotes the following goals:

  1. To nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-concept and group identity.
  2. To promote each child’s comfortable, empathic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds.
  3. To foster each child’s critical thinking about bias.
  4. To cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for her/himself and for others in the face of bias (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 193).

These principles should be a topic of discussion and a part of primary activities, but also relevant to students’ role as activists, because, as Kalantzis and Cope point out, “Multicultural education, to be effective, needs to be more active” (Nieto, 2006 p. 26).

An integral part of anti-bias activism among young students involves awareness about the seriousness of the issue. It is therefore necessary to discuss and define principles and ideologies regarding prejudice with children from a young age. Sandra Fitzpatrick emphasizes the importance of starting with concrete examples and working towards the more abstract when working with particularly young students. She suggests role-playing and contextual conversations to help children grasp the concepts of race and prejudice. For example, the Dr. Suess children’s book, “The Sneetches” is particularly useful in explaining that what is on the outside doesn’t matter (Fitzpatrick, personal communication, April 24, 2008). Once students have a grasp on what prejudice is, and how it can hurt people, anti-bias activities can begin. Activism can happen right in the classroom, around the community, or in larger society.

One activity Louise Derman-Sparks recommends involves “flesh-colored bandages… a material of considerable interest to young children” (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 195). One day, while attending to a minor scrape, she said to the children, “Look at this—it says on the box that these bandages are flesh-colored. That means they are the same color as our skin. Let’s see if it really is true.” Each child then received a bandage on his or her arm, and they noticed that the bandages matched very few of the students’ skin tones. The next day, they invited members of other classrooms to participate in the experiment. Noticing that the bandages were, indeed, not a universal skin color, they opted to write a letter to the company. The children dictated what they wanted to say, Derman-Sparks added a description of their experiment, and the letter was mailed to the company. They also got families involved, sending letters home about what they were doing. A few weeks later the class received a box of bandages with a polite note reading, “Enclosed find some transparent strips which are more flesh-colored” (Derman-Sparks, 2006, p. 196).

Although teacher-led activities are a great way to get students into the habit of speaking out against prejudice, when the students themselves lead, it becomes more than just an activity. It becomes activism. Early childhood educators Tara Karr and Sandra Fitzpatrick have seen remarkable cases of anti-racist activism within their classrooms.

Tara Karr, a pre-school teacher at Gorse Child Study Center, has found that her students are also capable of responding to those precious classroom events we call “teachable moments.” This year she has a set of twins who are particularly vocal in reacting to other students’ comments about the families made of “scary brown people” in stories or the “impossible” family structures that have two moms. Karr has found that when the twins reply with, “What is scary? She is saying only good things to her daughter,” or “There doesn’t always have to be a dad, family is the people that love you,” the entire class jumps in for a student-led discussion about skin color, or what makes a family, etc. (Tara Karr, personal communication, April 25, 2008).

One year in Sandra Fitzpatrick’s career as a kindergarten teacher at the Three Rivers School, the gym classes hosted a “jump-a-thon.” The children were to raise money outside of school, and the students who had raised the most would win prizes. At the end of the competition, it was the students who came from wealthy families who had raised the most money, and therefore won the prizes. Fitzpatrick describes the students in her class who had not won prizes as “devastated,” and those who had won prizes were equally concerned. Having learned about prejudice earlier in the year, the class decided to take a stand against the biased system. They chose to return their prizes, talk to other classes in the school about the event, and make a video explaining why the system was unfair that they then sent to the American Heart Association, who had sponsored the event (Sandra Fitzpatrick, personal communication, May 5, 2008). [75]

Guiding Children’s Behavior in Culturally Appropriate Ways

Children are products of their environment and their families are their first teachers. When children are enrolled in school, they bring with them what they have learned from their home environment. This could be positive or negative and it may fit well into their new learning environment or it may not. [76] “For children whose home language or culture differs substantially from the norm in early childhood classrooms, this transition may expose them to conflicting expectations about how to behave and other potential sources of [cultural difference between home and the early childhood education program].” [77]

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Culturally Appropriate Positive Guidance with Young Children by Zeynep Isik-Ercan, we have to remember that children have cultural routines that heavily influence their behavior. When caregivers and teachers respond to behavior it is important to consider the cultural scripts that children might be following.

They should consider the issue through a lens of culturally appropriateness that takes into consideration factors such as:

  • Family traditions
  • Religious beliefs
  • Community etiquette
  • Social class
  • Contextual differences (such as urban, rural, and suburban practices)
  • Parenting style

When educators respect a families cultural practices, even if they don’t necessarily agree, they promote children’s social and emotional well-being. One way to accommodate families’ diverse perspectives on guidance is to provide a structure that is flexible to meet individual needs. And when children have conflict that stems from their cultural and linguistic diversity, educators can support children’s developing social abilities by helping understand social norms and mediating their relationships. [78]

Guidance through Peer Culture

“Peer culture—‘the stable sets of routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that children produce and share with each other’ (Corsaro 2012, 489)—is an important component of classroom culture. Teachers may gain valuable insights when they examine various elements of the peer culture in their classrooms and use children’s interactions to establish positive guidance.” Children can monitor and regulate their peers’ behaviors before they can do the same for their own behavior. By interacting with other children, they receive feedback that helps them begin to internalize social expectations about their behavior. [79]

Children brush the teeth of a dinosaur
Figure 6.3: What might happen next in this situation (where the child in the back is using the toothbrush on another child’s head) that will reinforce socially appropriate behavior?

Working through Conflict with the Anti-Bias Approach

In their book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves , Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards provide guidelines that can be used to help children navigate conflict related to diversity in ways that protect all children’s rights and are culturally responsive.

To support children’s ability to recognize unfairness and the negative impact it has educators can:

  • Notice and learn about the sources of children’s misconceptions and stereotypes.
  • Plan experiences that allow children to compare accurate representations to their inaccurate understandings
  • Support their attempts to make unfair things fair

Educators should remember that biased behaviors are just as serious as physical aggression. To help children act against prejudice and/or discrimination, educators can:

  • Notice when unfair practices affect children
  • Facilitate dialogue about the feelings and ideas about these situations
  • Provide information as needed to help children understand
  • Think about the children and families and what their needs are and take into consideration how they handle prejudice and discrimination
  • Provide diverse ways to handle discriminatory situations that will accommodate the diversity of families
  • Plan and carry out actions to address the problem with children [80]
  • If you are unsure how to respond, tell the child or children you will think about it and get back to them (ensuring that you always follow through)

Supporting Children’s Conflict Negotiation

It is important for educators to coach young children, step-by-step, as they learn conflict resolution skills. Model a predictable, effective sequence of steps children can eventually use on their own: acknowledge feelings, gather information about the conflict, restate the problem, ask children to suggest possible solutions, help them choose one to try, and then check back with them soon after as they implement their solution. As they mature and practice, gradually step back and take a less central role in solving problems, prompting children if they “get stuck” on the path to resolution. After they do resolve a conflict, briefly summarize the ways children solved the problem successfully. This reinforces children’s skills for the next time a problem arises.

Developmental Sequence of Conflict Negotiation

As children mature, they are able to better understand the perspectives of other people and can negotiate more constructively with peers to resolve conflicts.

  1. Beginning level : Children can express to each other (using words, actions, or facial expressions) their own desires, but adults need to provide ideas for resolving disputes.
  2. Next level : Children begin to use appropriate words and actions to express their perspectives and desires to each other and seek adults for help during disputes.
  3. Next level : Children not only express their own needs and desires to each other during a conflict but can suggest simple solutions based on their own perspectives.
  4. Mature or proficient level : Children can consider each other’s perspectives when there is a disagreement and can suggest and agree on some mutually acceptable solutions. [81]


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