Julie Olsen Edwards: How Teachers Can Help Children’s Identities Grow - Early Learning Nation

Julie Olsen Edwards: How Teachers Can Help Children’s Identities Grow

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

How do can the children’s individual identities evolve naturally and fully in the face of stereotypes that can often plague our communities and societies? As Julie Olsen Edwards, author ‘Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves’ explains, some of that help can come from teachers – and how they think about their curriculum.


Chris Riback:                 Julie, welcome to the studio.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Glad to be here.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you for coming by. What is Anti-Bias Education?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     It’s an approach to thinking about working with children. It’s a foundational idea as basic as developmentally appropriate education. It says that children are not only their individual personalities, their individual temperaments, but that all children have social identities. That they exist as boys, girls racialized identities around all the ways we categorize people. That children have identities around class, around culture, around language, and that those are as much a part of the child as their temperament is. And then in a world like ours where people are treated unjustly and badly, where the stereotypes come down on children, that there’s a constant process where children’s identity is being put up from the top down.

Chris Riback:                 Submerged.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Being pushed in from society onto the child and at the same time being created inside the child, which means that those of us who work with kids have the opportunity to help create a sense where children feel strong about who they are without having to feel superior, but can feel strong and proud about who their families, who they are and feel at ease and excited about the diversity of people. That rather than being fearful of people being different, embracing that. Have the skills at age appropriate ways to recognize what’s unfair in the world and kids are very concerned about fairness and have the skills to stand up for themselves and for others. And that frame is what we call Anti-Bias Education.

Chris Riback:                 And why is it so hard to attain?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     I think there’s a bunch of things. One is that the world is still an unjust place, that the world we live in continues to perpetuate and treat people differently based on their identities, and that’s a big thing to shift. Also that as teachers we carry our own identities and our own what we do understand and don’t understand about the world and ended up reinforcing a lot of the stereotypes, a lot of the behaviors that if we recognize none of us would do. And the system we’re in does not create the space or time for teachers to be meditative self-thinking, to work with each other, to learn those things. So it’s very complicated, but it comes through everything you do in this field as basic as developmentally appropriate, is this culturally appropriate?

Chris Riback:                 Its central.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     It’s everything you do. It’s not a curriculum.

Chris Riback:                 So let’s talk about the curriculum – and I know it’s not a curriculum – let’s talk about the aspects of what it should contain, because you recently wrote a piece titled Understanding Anti-Biased Education: Bringing the Four Core Goals to Every Facet of Your Curriculum. It’s not a curriculum, but you bring the goals to the curriculum. I understand teacher, yes-

Julie Olsen Edwards:     You learn well.

Chris Riback:                 Well thank you. What are the Four Core Goals?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     I said them just now, but I’ll be more specific. The children need to learn that who they are-

Chris Riback:                 Identity.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Who their family is, identity, who they are, who their family is, is a good thing. Not a superior thing.

Chris Riback:                 Yes.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     But a good thing. Second one is diversity.

Chris Riback:                 Diversity, yes.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     We are different, this is exciting, it is something to embrace. Third one is justice. Is it fair, is it not? And the final one is activism and the shorthand version of that is, “I’m okay, you’re okay, that’s not okay. Okay, what are we going to do about it?” So shorthand.

Chris Riback:                 So let’s get practical. How can this be integrated into actual curriculum?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Just about any curriculum you do has a space where you can talk about how we are all the same and we are all different and everything we do with children can carry that message, all the way from simple things like we all like to play at the blocks, we build differently with the blocks. Everybody’s different in their own way. We all like to eat, we eat different foods-

Chris Riback:                 You can really think about each activity.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Every activity.

Chris Riback:                 But think about it through the Anti-Bias Lines.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Carries that message and every activity carries the opportunity to help children move to, is this fair? Is this say, fairness is safety for children. We figured there’s one rule for our classroom, which is everybody’s feelings, things, behavior is safe here. This is a safe place for children and for families. Once you’ve got that rule established, you don’t need any others. They all fall into that.

Chris Riback:                 What reactions do you get? Is there ever any pushback?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     There’s always pushback. We’re talking about things that are, I mean nothing is more important to parents and their children and it’s pretty scary when their children start learning things that may not match the family’s values. Teachers struggle with, isn’t our children too young to care about issues like bias? Aren’t you putting ideas in their head when we talk about this isn’t fair, this is fair. But children don’t learn prejudice from learning about, they learn prejudice from prejudice behavior.

Chris Riback:                 Modeling.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     They don’t learn it from we are all different, we are the same, we deserve to be treated for who we are.

Chris Riback:                 You began your early childhood education career working as a Family Care and Family Childcare Provider. You work for Head Start, you taught in private and public preschools and parent cooperatives, kindergarten, reading and elementary schools.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     I’m old.

Chris Riback:                 No, no. You are accomplished.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Thank you.

Chris Riback:                 The older I get, the more I focus on being accomplished not aging. Even community teen mothers you’ve worked with – you have worked in a range of areas, some uncomfortable areas, some areas where I’m sure success as one wants to define it was hard to attain. What kept you going?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     The same thing that started me. I was absolutely amazed at what the young children’s capacity to learn their creativity, their intelligence, this huge capacity human children have. And I also was teaching remedial reading to adults who are illiterate and I thought, what happened? How come we all start with this wide capacity? And for so many of us, the path through education is a path of learning where we’re stupid, what we can’t do, what we’re afraid of, and it tied to a whole political view of the world. What do we need to do to make sure that children can become fully human, can take all of that capacity they come to us with and utilize that. And that’s what drives me, that’s what’s driven my work for 60 years.

Chris Riback:                 Leaving the world a better place isn’t such a bad thing to do, is it?

Julie Olsen Edwards:     No, it’s not a bad thing?

Chris Riback:                 Julie, thank you.

Julie Olsen Edwards:     Thank you very much.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you for what you’ve done, thank you for coming by the studio.



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