Nora Hyland, Social Justice in Early Childhood Classrooms, Young Children, January 2010
Social justice in the Early Childhood Classroom can look a variety of ways - and it should. It’s about the concepts that underlie the big issues in an election like this one: fairness, equality, acceptance, diversity, trust, kindness, equity, and more. These are the teachable moments that I ask you to look for in your setting. They are not hard to find. Children are not going to learn about the nuances that surround these issues by adults labeling their actions as right or wrong.
What I’m suggesting is what I always push: emergent curriculum. Everyday, you have an opportunity to explore the moments in your classroom that can help children dig a bit deeper into the meat of what it means to be a citizen, to be a member of a community, supporting and advocating for people, even if they are different from you.
The words that we use with children might be different than the words when we dialogue with adults - we should not be abstract about these ideas with children. We can connect with children around issues that affect them: fairness and equality are naturally embedded into children’s lives. It requires us, the adults, to listen to children, to take them seriously, and to respect their opinions and experiences. When a child places blame, makes a comment, or does something unkind, that is a moment to stop and think out loud together: it is a teachable moment. When you catch yourself making an assumption about the way a child feels or thinks, wait. Support them in working through those ideas, with the child in the lead, supporting them with open-ended questions, carefully selected literature, media for expression - however you can.
We just spent an election cycle watching people who thought only they were right, and the other person was wrong. That is politics, I suppose, but it is also an example in front of ours and children’s faces. We bought it, so children are probably buying it, too. Our mandates in the classroom about what is right and what is wrong “because we said so” as adults leave no wiggle room for children to understand these ideas in a concrete way. We must take the time to engage children in dialogue about big issues when those issues arise. Children learn through experience, and through exploration of their world: they are products of the examples around them, and the information they gather from those examples.
This takes time. An action or a comment by a child, or an anecdote about something they saw or heard, is an opportunity to unpack an idea with children. That conversation may last 5 seconds, or two minutes; it may be one-on-one, or worth addressing as as group. The reason I believe we should work with children in this way is because it is honest and respectful. Our assumptions about children’s behaviors, and our willingness to engage with hearsay, demands reflection. Ask yourself, how might I support young children’s understanding of social justice? Where can you begin a discussion with your colleagues?
When that person called Donald Trump a “white trash piece of shit”, I cringed because that anger cannot stick around for long. Children are seeing an example that tells them you can be a bully, knock other people down, take advantage of them, and win. Yes, we need to stand up for ourselves, and for our friends and neighbors, and have zero tolerance for bigotry, racism, sexism, and hate. For kindness and tolerance to win in 2020, it cannot be by the same tactics that Donald Trump used to win this year.
I do not blame anyone who is still feeling angry: this is a fresh wound. I do hope that you’ll shift that anger into action in your classroom, and in your community for anyone who needs your support. So, boo if you want to, but I’m not putting my energy there. I’m putting my energy into supporting children, families, and communities: I’m taking action, not waiting.
Resources Worth Exploring
UNESCO Declaration of Principles on Tolerance
Social Justice in Early Childhood Classrooms
Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves
White Teacher by Vivian Gussin Paley
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