Engaging children in conversations about diversity, discrimination, and inclusion

Engaging children in conversations about diversity, discrimination, and inclusion

Approaching conversations about diversity, discrimination, and inclusion with young children can seem overwhelming, and there is often backlash claiming that children shouldn't be a part of such conversations. However, diversity exists amongst all age groups. This means that there is no lower age limit on experiencing discrimination, or on recognising the importance of inclusion, so to opt out of such conversations based on age comes from a place of privilege. By making conversations about these topics accessible to children, educators can validate the experiences of children from oppressed groups whilst encouraging others to develop an awareness of identity and the way it shapes our experiences.

The idea that conversations about diversity are difficult is ultimately one that is taught. It is an idea that serves to uphold oppressive systems by creating a culture that discourages open dialogue about discrimination, reinforcing a wilful lack of awareness from oppressive groups. This means that in early years we have the opportunity to normalise open conversation and begin to break this cycle. Engaging children in such conversation isn’t necessarily a process of engineering dialogue. Children will talk about their differences, and will share their observations about the world much more freely than adults, so facilitating these discussions is a primary way we encourage open discussions about diversity. If a child starts talking about skin colour and educators become uncomfortable, or change the subject, this introduces the sense of it being a forbidden topic. If educators instead take the opportunity provided to open a dialogue about skin colour, race, heritage, and diversity, then children get the message that the conversation is not only allowed, but actively valued.

A part of successful dialogue about inclusion, at any age, is the way in which we reflect on our own views and listen to others. Educators can start to encourage a positive pattern of questioning bias early on. Children often repeat things they hear from others or in the media, and sometimes these repeated ideas will be problematic. When these statements come from children, it's important to talk them through it. Of course, age and stage will mean the right way to go about this varies greatly. Ideally, educators should ask children about why they have said something and direct the conversation through questions that naturally lead to a realisation the statement isn't true. In situations where this isn't possible, it's important to give relevant examples as to why something the child said is wrong, as when we simply shut the statement down we lose the opportunity to meaningfully disprove it. Children change their mind a lot more frequently and freely than adults, and so if educators can normalise this process of new information leading to a shift in opinions, there is the potential for children to carry this pattern into adulthood.

Educators must respect children's right to self identify. This can take a range of forms as children play around with and develop their own identities. Childcare and educational settings are often the first place children are spending a significant amount of time away from their parents/guardians. This means it’s likely to be children’s first opportunity to explore their own opinions, preferences and feelings outside of their family’s influence, and so it’s important to remember that educators have a responsibility to encourage that exploration. There's no set age at which a child becomes aware of their gender or sexuality, or when they assign language to their race or disabilities, and certainly the identifiers we use can change over time.  When it comes to young children establishing their identity, sometimes encouraging them to express themselves might take the form of serious conversations wherein children are confiding something or expressing distress about their own identity. Other times this will take the form of a child insisting you call them their favourite character's name all day. Both are essential opportunities to affirm children's right to define their own identity, and to insist that be respected.

There is rapidly increasing awareness of how inappropriate a lot of resources are when it comes to representation. Society treats white, heterosexual, cisgender, abled people as the default state of humanity and this is often reflected in educational settings. Educators must take the time to reflect on their resources and be willing to make changes as and when gaps in representation become apparent, even if that means getting rid of some things to make way for more inclusive alternatives. Every set of dolls, pictures, books, dressing up clothes and everything else needs to be visibly diverse in order to make meaningful changes to educational settings as opposed to tokenistic gestures. For cohorts that aren't particularly diverse it is just as important, if not more so, to actively create a space that recognises, and celebrates, human diversity. It's also essential to consider who makes and sells resources. There is always a lot of anger when people suggest moving away from bigoted authors and creators if their resources have been in educational settings for a long time. Celebrating diverse creators matters, as does where funding goes. The best way for children to see accurate diverse representation is to ensure resources are coming from lots of different creators to benefit from their lived experiences.

A range of stories is essential, not only so that children belonging to marginalised groups see themselves reflected, but so that children who don't belong to these groups get used to the idea their experiences cannot and should not always be centred. Creating an inclusive bookshelf means examining not just the range of characters, but the range of stories we see those characters in. For example, if lots of effort and attention has been put into making sure less than half of your books have a white main character, but all of your books about astronauts, firefighters, and superheroes have white main characters, you’re still sending clear messages to children about what race means for their ambitions.

Whilst more inclusive resources is an important step, educators must also take the time reflect on how best to use them. This requires an introspective approach to examining the ways we interact with our resources, and what message that might be sending to children. Lovely, diverse resources aren’t going to be of any use if they’re hardly ever out of the cupboard, if they’re not set out as part of exciting, and varied play opportunities, or if educators aren’t treating them with the same care and enthusiasm they show their old resources. Getting a new set of paints to better represent different skin colours is nice, but spending time mixing colours, using mirrors, talking about similarities, differences, heritage and looking at pictures of children and their families for reference is going to have a more meaningful impact. Educators must be able to explore resources that don't look like them and read stories about people whose identities differ from their own with the same enthusiasm and respect they treat resources that represent themselves. The most important resource will always be people, so educators need to recognise that toys and stories can only create meaningful change if they commit to being a part of that change.

When conversations about discrimination do take place, it's essential that educators get across that sometimes there is a clear morally right stance, and that hate speech isn't treated as simply a differing opinion. Educators attempting neutrality in these conversations aids the reinforcement of oppressive systems. The idea educators must be apolitical leads to giving oppressive views an equal platform to anti-oppressive views and essentially treating human rights as something that's up for debate. There is no morally sound way to 'both sides' discussions around discrimination. Educators being clear about their own values isn't about imposing views upon children but rather about modelling the need for strong stances. Children can't learn to stand up for what's right if educators give weight and validity to oppressive viewpoints. This doesn't necessarily mean not acknowledging alternate viewpoints at all. In fact, it may be beneficial to bring up 'counter-arguments' as long as they're followed up by explaining, or questioning, why that's wrong. There must always be absolute clarity that discrimination is wrong, and that discriminatory viewpoints don't need to be respected.

Whilst these topics are very heavy, there is still lots of room for joy in these conversations. Diversity is a beautiful thing and learning to celebrate that will only add to the depth of conversation when it does need to be more serious. If the default when talking about different communities is to jump straight to dangers and awful experiences then this also serves to reinforce negative perceptions. Children need to learn that identity can also be a huge source of joy and pride, both individually and as communities. There is space for conversations that handle the seriousness of oppression and conversations celebrating identity to coexist. Educators must talk to children about actively embracing differences in order to highlight that discrimination is the problem, not diversity.