Alabama Governor Kay Ivey recently made headlines for forcing out the Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education over a resource book often used to support educators’ teaching practices with language about inclusion, cultural competence and structural racism.
The research-based resource, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs, developed and published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), includes methods that promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based approach to engaged learning. In this model, educators implement developmentally appropriate practice by recognizing the assets that all young children bring to early learning, both as individuals and as members of families and communities.
Ivey denounced the “woke concepts” in the book and ordered that its use be immediately discontinued. This was the latest high-profile action in a recent trend of conservative politicians banning literature—and, in this case, teacher training material—that promotes anti-racism. Censorship like Ivey’s doesn’t simply deny children and families an education that promotes justice and equity, it denies them a foundational, high-quality one.
The first years of a child’s life are the most critical period of rapid and immense brain development, and early childhood programs play a powerful role in supporting infants, toddlers and preschoolers as they develop physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. Strong educational and other long-term outcomes for children, however, can hinge on the quality of the education they are receiving — and research has shown us thatcentering inclusivity in early learning settings is core to quality.
A 2020 research study showed that children start to notice and process race earlier than previously thought — children begin to distinguish faces by race early in infancy, and racial biases are often formed by the preschool and kindergarten years. Other studies have indicated that not only are young children conscious of racial, ethnic, gender, class and ability differences but they can also produce social discourses that further discrimination, prejudice and biases.
Indeed, research has shown that when issues of race and privilege are not addressed in teacher training, it can perpetuate preconceived notions that race doesn’t matter or has no impact on students’ learning, putting at risk efforts to address structural racism starting with our youngest learners. Conversely—and encouragingly—studies also indicate that providing educators anti-bias, anti-racism training helps them become culturally responsive and sustaining educators who are equipped to promote social justice and the holistic well-being of children.
What the research makes clear, though, is that anti-bias, anti-racist education is only effective if educators are equipped with the training and resources to implement it in classrooms.
Neighborhood Villages, a Boston-based nonprofit that advocates for solutions to the greatest challenges faced by the early education sector, and Embracing Equity, a racial equity organization that harnesses immersive virtual learning to move anti-racism values into daily practice, are doing just that.
In Boston, Neighborhood Villages is partnering with Boston Public Schools and the LEGO Foundation to develop a new toddler curriculum resource and accompanying coaching model to support high-quality teaching practices that are rooted in anti-bias education. The goals of anti-bias education in early childhood are straightforward: young children should be validated and affirmed in their choices and taught to advocate for themselves and others, while families should be included as partners.
For a toddler, this might mean learning to hold open a door for someone in a wheelchair, modeling kindness to a peer who is upset, or having their parents or caregivers engaged in the classroom at pickup time. Much of this is already taking place in preschool classrooms across the country. Labeling and operationalizing these best practices through training simply provides educators with a valuable resource in their teaching toolkit.
At the national level, Embracing Equity is making high quality, equity-centered learning opportunities accessible to more people through a cutting-edge model that takes an ecosystem approach to dismantling systems of oppression. This starts with individual learning so people themselves raise their knowledge, awareness and action when it comes to identifying, analyzing and knowing what to do when facing oppression. This impacts interpersonal action because anti-racism work is community-building work, and we have to do it together. That’s how institutional transformation can create new systems and structures that center equity.
And there is proof that this kind of anti-bias, anti-racist education works to benefit teachers and students, as well as improve school culture.
A study found that for children as young as three, early childhood anti-bias programming was effective in reducing the development of early biases and had a positive impact on children’s respect for others. For example, children develop strong positive relationships with people outside their own identity groups when they are exposed to developmentally appropriate diverse literature.
Other research has shown that using multicultural literature helps to improve students’ self-esteem, involvement and engagement, and academic performance. It also found that children who read books that show children of different ethnicities and gender being friends have more favorable views of stigmatized groups. In the long term, this promotes well-adjusted children and a more cohesive community.
Children in every state deserve the right to grow and learn in an inclusive and anti-racist environment. And if we truly want to break the cycles of structural racism that have existed for far too long, we need to ensure our educators across our country are equipped to provide culturally competent and anti-bias education to our youngest learners.