Safe and Brave Conversations with Young Children on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Children experience everyday facets of life - such as events publicized in the news and interactions with diverse people- with a fresh point of view about what they see and hear. As we encourage children to be curious throughout their daily lives, in order to help them progress, we forget that children may also be curious to discuss these topics that adults may find uncomfortable or may fear due to concern for saying the wrong thing. Rather than stopping or avoiding children’s questions and curiosities about the state of the world, or about the diversity found within it, we should, instead, engage in developmentally appropriate conversations with children in order to help them create new understandings for themselves.
How Do You Talk to Children about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
Over the course of the past year, for instance, you may have children questioning a variety of “buzzing” subjects- racism, particularly toward African- and Asian Americans, mass shootings, police violence, the pandemic, death, disability, and more. So how can we, as the trusted and influential adults in children’s lives, help children to make sense of these big issues?
Conversations with children about tough topics can arise in a few different ways.
- Children may ask direct questions about the state of the world around them (e.g. about people dying as a result of the pandemic).
- Children may make comments or observations that may be interpreted as insensitive by adults (e.g. about a person with vibrant-colored hair walking down the street).
- Adults may notice that children are grappling with something based on their play themes or their artwork (e.g. children engaging in pretend gun play).
- Adults might just want to make sure that our children are appreciative of the diversity in the world around them (e.g. the racially diverse city in which they live).
Why is it Important to Talk About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
It is important to cultivate an environment that is a safe and brave space and invite conversation with children in all these instances. If we do not help children to develop these understandings about what they see and hear in the world, we teach children that it is not ok to discuss what is on their mind and that, instead, they must figure it out for themselves.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has created resources for creating these safe and brave spaces, and engaging in these conversations with children:
- “Conversations that Matter: Talking with Children About Big World Issues” is a guide for adults to talk with children about the various buzz-subjects in our nation today, with guides for conversations around racism, xenophobia, the pandemic, protests, and more.
- “Supporting Young Children after Crisis Events” is a guide for adults about how to talk with children about traumatic events- e.g. community catastrophes, death- in their lives, as well as a resource for identifying adjustment reactions in young children.
How Do You Engage in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
Play It Forward!
In addition to the above resources, play materials can also spark proactive conversations about appreciating diversity and fighting for equity in our world.
- Discuss your family appearance and make-up, the family appearance and make-up of your friends, and/ or the family appearance and make-up of the people pictured. Compare and contrast to acknowledge that there are many different types of families.
- Discuss what the families are doing in the images, and then compare that to how your family engages in those types of routines and traditions. Compare and contrast to acknowledge that families celebrate traditions in a variety of ways.
Engaging in dramatic and pretend play that features diverse people, in both the community, and in family make-up, can provide opportunities to expose children to all types of people and families. Pretend-play materials that allow families to be constructed in a variety of ways (such as these and/or these), as well as materials that represent diverse people in the community can support welcoming conversations about people’s differences. Talking points could include:
- Comparing and contrasting experiences in the community with community helpers with those featured in play
- Building a variety of different people, seeing how many different types of people, and family combinations, you can create
Partaking in art activities, where people can be represented more closely to how they truly appear, can support conversations about skin color. Ensuring that children have paint, markers (such as these or these), or colored pencils that support artwork featuring a wide variety of skin tones can open up conversation around this topic. Talking points could include:
- Which paint color is closest to your skin color? To mine? To a friend’s? How can we add to this color to make it match our skin perfectly? Discuss how skin color can range from light to dark, and how each person’s skin color is uniquely theirs.
- How can we create a picture that is representative of our community (e.g. the child’s classroom, people shopping at the local grocery story, or people playing in the local park)?
When reading books together, you can ensure that a variety of people (based on race, language, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, family make-up, socio-economic status, and more) are represented as children make connections about the world around them. Books could be focused on different types of families, family life, challenging gender stereotypes, social-emotional skills in the context of a diverse group of friends, and more! Talking points could include:
- Recognize the diverse characteristics of the characters in the book, including physical characteristics as well as the different actions and activities that the characters engage in.
- Discuss alternative solutions to those presented for problems that arise in text.
- Discuss how children feel about the books that they are reading, and label their feelings.
Regardless of whether the conversations that you have with children are a reaction to the events of the world, or proactive to promote a more inclusive and equitable society, it is most important that they happen on an ongoing and regular basis. By engaging in these conversations routinely, they will become more comfortable, and they will be most effective.
Zaina Cahill, Pre-K Regional Instructional Specialist for the School District of Philadelphia, is a graduate of New York University (B.S. in ECE and Special Education) and Walden University (M.S.Ed. in Elementary Reading and Literacy), and has worked in a variety of capacities in the field of education working with toddler through elementary school children and their families, including children with special needs. In particular, Zaina has a passion for working to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the education environment. In Pennsylvania, Zaina holds Level 2 teaching certification in ECE, as well as PQAS (PA Quality Assurance System) certification to offer professional development. In addition, she is a certified CLASS observer (Infant, Toddler, PreK). Zaina is also adjunct faculty at Arcadia University, in the school’s graduate program for Early Childhood Education. Zaina is a member of the NAEYC Affiliate Advisory Council, the Exchange Leadership Institute, and the Philadelphia Race Matters and Cultural Competency Learning Circle. In 2016, Zaina was an honoree in attendance at the White House Teacher of the Year Event, hosted by Barack Obama, and has offered testimony in congressional hearings advocating for children and early childhood educators. In addition to presenting at various local, state, and national conferences, Zaina has also made a number of written contributions to blogs and education publications.