How Do We Teach Social Justice in Early Childhood?

The outcome of the US Presidential election has many people reeling.  Many, but not all.  I see people sharing their thoughts about shock and surprise and disappointment - that is the message I get across the board because I am reeling, too.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, and in the past year, I did not have a conversation about Donald Trump with a Trump supporter.  After 48 hours of grief, that is what I cannot get out of my mind: our lack of willingness to take on the full spectrum viewpoints and arguments about the political climate in the United States.  


The “Us V. Them” mentality was embraced on both sides of this election, creating a deep divide between red and blue.  One of the first things I said when reality set in on election night was that this outcome is a war on liberals - and I say that not because I disagree with the core values of Trump Supporters (which I do), but rather because this outcome keeps each group on its side of the fence, making assumptions.  We have stayed within the comfort of our bubbles, assuming that those outside of it were wrong, and that there could not possibly be enough people on the other team to organize a Trump win.  For over a year leading up to the presidential election, we stayed inside of those bubbles, listening only to the people who amplified our own voice, laughing and scoffing at the audacity of the other party. We all stooped low to jeer and make fun, from the primaries right through Tuesday night.


48 hours later, I have heard people call Trump supporters white trash - and call Trump himself that.  I have to cringe.  Isn’t that name calling one of the many reasons we did not want him to be President?  It seems we have been meeting intolerance with intolerance.  This is not just the past 48 hours, this is the entire election cycle.  We, who did not see this coming, are going through stages of grief.  The anger that seems to be rising up, the disbelief at the outcome: in my mind, we are going to have to move on.  


Moving on does not mean moving to Canada, or to New Zealand.  Moving on does not mean signing an online petition to overturn the election outcome.  These are things that we feel compelled to do, they feel like action.  But Donald Trump is the President Elect of the United States of America, and as looming as January 20 feels, it is coming.


As Early Childhood Educators, we need to start turning the anger, rage, sadness, and shock of the election outcome into action by supporting children’s thinking and learning around what it means to be a community member, and to live in a diverse and changing world.  That is the action you can take tomorrow, and every continuing day of your teaching career.


If you have read my writing before, you know I’m not much for tradition, or for the run-of-the-mill.  I do believe that children are capable of exploring hard topics, and the world is full of them.  As we approach January 20th, my focus is shifting to the people who are fearful of this Presidency, not just people who are worried.  People will lose their rights; meaningful policy will be overturned; new, fear-based policy will be implemented.  The budget will change and shift monies away from advocacy groups who spend every moment of their time fighting for the historically oppressed, and those who fight for the rights of people who are oppressed on levels that we cannot even fathom. I find it hard to be an American, and I find it dangerous to be a woman.  I am not a minority, but I am a member of a historically oppressed group; I doubt I am the only woman who feels like she has been physically pushed back after trying to stand up for herself.  The rhetoric that some people are better than others is the core of the problem.  No one should feel like they are “less than”.  But when you are told that outright, you will probably feel that way.

That calls for action, not for complaints or blame.  

You, the passionate Early Childhood Educator, care both for and about children.  When they leave your classroom at the end of the day, or the end of the year, you don’t dismiss them forever.  They stay with you in your thoughts - you wonder about them as you do the math and know that they are going to middle school, high school, into the working world.  I can look at a picture from my classroom 5, 10, 15 years ago and recognize children by name and conjure up an anecdote about them.  Those children will remember the vivid experiences, of course, of their play and their peers.  More important, though, is how our classrooms can provide a safe place to explore and discuss social justice.  

Social justice is a pervasive topic, reaching into all aspects of our lives.  An emphasis on social justice is not about indoctrination, preaching our beliefs and preferences.  Instead, it is how educators can frame an approach to an examination of values and motives in a reflective way, thinking critically about our choices, right alongside children.  

Children from very young ages internalize messages about power and privilege with regard to gender, race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and language, which they perpetuate through their play and talk. While families are a critical piece in shaping children’s values on such matters, classroom practices communicate and reinforce strong, subtle, and repeated social messages about what is and is not valued. The consequences of these messages are enormous not only for individual children, but also for a society that strives for equality and justice for all.

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


Teaching Tolerance


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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