There’s a lot of buzz about diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces and in schools. Parents may be aware that their child’s school embraces these complex, interwoven concepts to some degree, but not every parent is clear on the importance of educating with these ideas in mind during the early childhood years.
“One thing is certain: an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion — and belonging — is critically important because children spend the majority of their time in school among peers, right where this learning happens,” says Ashleigh St. Peters, Lower School Dean of Student Life at Francis W. Parker School, an independent JK–12 school in Chicago.
“You can’t underestimate the impact of the school community and environment on your child. Students are at school for much of their day. Deep and meaningful learning happens as students are building authentic relationships with their peers and teachers,” St. Peters says. “For children to have these shared experiences in a community that is supportive and identity-affirming is important. We should work toward the goal of seeing and welcoming students’ full selves.”
The faculty at Parker recognize diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) as a foundation for healthy identity formation and intellectual development. An education that includes DEIB — along with social-emotional learning and robust academics — helps students develop the skills needed to “…act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community,” St. Peters describes.
As an ever-evolving concept, the approach to DEIB is something parents should consider when selecting a school for their child, especially in the early years. Whether you’re well-versed in diversity, equity and inclusion, or you’re just beginning to understand why it’s important at your child’s school, learning about DEIB is a lifelong endeavor.
“The idea that waiting until children are old enough to talk about identity is naive and not supported by research,” St. Peters says. “Research shows that before children have reached their second birthday, they have already begun to understand and explore how gender identity plays out in the world, and as their language further develops, you want to be there to answer questions and be open — and allow them the space to ask questions. It’s arguably the highest stakes thing you can participate in.”
As conversations evolve, don’t be afraid you might say the wrong thing. “If you lead with questions, you can’t say the wrong thing. Show your child early vulnerability by saying, ‘I don’t know the answer.’ And then circle back. It’s OK to pause and think about it and talk again a little later,” she advises.
Parents can build robust libraries at home — and share their own identities with teachers to engage in meaningful conversations about materials the classroom offers.
“Dr. Seuss has a lot of fun, accessible rhyming books, but a problematic history representing folks of differing identities and races. Now we have new, young authors who represent myriad identities with awesome rhyming books and texts that cover all topics. When given the choice, I choose to uplift the new author,” St. Peters says. “I am by no means saying you should throw out all your Dr. Seuss books, but rather, consider making available books by authors who historically might not have been given a platform to share.”
“You can teach your child that people with power influence others, and it’s important to understand the ways in which power can be defined — as well as their own power in the world. This looks different for different ages,” St. Peters says.
“When I was a third-grade teacher, I had the pleasure of teaching the history of Chicago. With a developmentally appropriate approach, we were able to engage students in a year-long study that allowed them to examine how the landscape of Chicago has drastically changed during the last several hundred years. With a focus throughout the study on the vibrant indigenous communities who were the early inhabitants of what we now call Chicago, the students began to understand the nuances behind European Incursion and the implications of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. This study uses the community we live in as a vehicle to talk about power, money, resources and legacy,” she explains. “We want to teach children to understand the systems that they are already participating in and empower them to ask questions and disrupt.”
Before children begin school, they have already begun to learn about fairness and unfairness in the world. “When we talk about equity, we want children to know that equity means everybody gets what they need, not just what they want or what others have. Equity asks us to acknowledge people for their full and authentic selves.” St. Peters says. “Examples of equity in school might look like different seating for folks with physical disabilities, extra time for someone with a learning difference or affinity spaces for students of color.”
“This is a big topic. Hate is big, and it’s a big concept even on an adult level,” St. Peters comments. “When we talk about this with children, we focus on what is real for them and what is real in their own experiences.” It’s important to validate their experiences and create space for them to ask questions.
“With young children, we often talk about how behaviors and actions can be bad, but people aren’t bad. The idea that people can make choices and do things and come back and change — that hopefulness — is hugely important,” she says. “If not, why engage in relationships with those who are different from you?”
Learn more about how Francis W. Parker School approaches diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging atfwparker.org/DEIB.