Teaching Young Children to Understand and Accept Differences

Through anti-bias education, early childhood educators can create learning communities that support human differences. Discover how you can foster a more empathetic classroom.

Toward a More Just and Empathetic Classroom

Even the Youngest Children Notice Differences

"Why is my skin this color? Can I change it?"
"Why does he talk funny?"
"You are a baby, you can’t walk." (Comment to child in wheelchair)
"Martha has two mommies, does she have a daddy?"
"Girls aren’t strong. Boys can’t play with dolls."

These questions and comments from young children demonstrate their early awareness of differences. How adults respond to these questions impact how children will think about differences. Teachers and parents have an opportunity and responsibility to shape and guide children’s development during the critical early childhood years, and can do so with thoughtful planning.

Anti-bias education involves creating a community that supports all dimensions of human differences, including culture, race, language, ability, learning styles, ethnicity, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, and socioeconomic differences. It introduces a working concept of diversity into the classroom that addresses the impact of social stereotypes, bias, and discrimination in children’s development and interactions. In addition, it empowers children by giving them the tools to foster confident and knowledgeable self-identities, empathetic interactions, critical thinking skills, and activism.

Acknowledge, Ask, and Adapt

Program leaders, directors, and principals have a central role in anti-bias change. Their work involves strategic and thoughtful long-term planning that addresses all components of an early childhood program. This includes reading the context of programs, creating a culture of trust, supporting adult development in the anti-bias journey, working with families, and managing conflict. 

For example, when teachers and families come from different cultural backgrounds, there is an increased chance for misunderstandings of each other’s intentions and actions with regard to social values and a family’s child-rearing styles. Areas where common cultural conflicts often occur are discipline and child guidance techniques, gender roles, age-related expectations of children, sleep patterns and routines, diet and mealtime behavior, the child’s role and responsibility at home, and a family’s expectations of teachers and schools. 

Given the focus on building caring relationships in early childhood, many educators focus most of their energy on avoiding conflict and keeping the peace. Anti-bias leadership requires that early childhood professionals reframe how they view the nature and purpose of conflict, as well as the disequilibrium and emotions it evokes. When people feel supported in their learning, disequilibrium and discomfort can lead to real growth.
Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs

When conflicts arise, it is important not to make quick judgments and assumptions. When educators find themselves in a potential cultural conflict, early childhood consultant and anti-bias education expert Debbie LeeKeenan suggests using the Acknowledge, Ask, and Adapt strategy. The first step is to acknowledge that a culture or values clash may exist. Do not blame the child or family; the child is often caught in the middle. Then ask for more information from the family and other parties to gain a better understanding of what underlies the conflict. This is also a time for self-reflection. The last step is to adapt—look for common ground, find alternatives, and consider ways to adapt policies and practices based on the information gathered.

A New Resource for Early Childhood Education Leaders

Though many resources are available to help teachers think about and implement anti-bias curriculum in the classroom, very little has been written about what program leaders can do to create the culture for anti-bias work.

To help fill that gap, LeeKeenan, a former Lesley visiting professor, wrote a book, Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, that helps to expand current ideas on leadership practices in early childhood education. Published in October 2014 by Teachers College Press of Columbia University, the book is co-authored by colleagues Louise Derman-Sparks, international anti-bias education expert, and John Nimmo, early childhood consultant, all of whom have extensive experience in the field. Foreword is by early childhood expert Mariana Souto-Manning.