Can Elementary Educators Address Diversity and Equity Issues?

Students in Bret Turner's class working quietly. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Can elementary teachers address topics surrounding equity, social justice, civics or even racism in a meaningful and age appropriate way? Or should a curriculum that addresses social justice and equity be relegated to the middle and secondary classroom? What about having conversations about prejudice and discrimination in Pk-2 classrooms? Would topics such as these be considered inappropriate? Would the material be too sensitive for such young ears? The common assumption is that any conversations in the area of social justice can only take place at the middle and secondary level? However, these topics can be addressed at any grade level. In fact, the earlier the better. Teachers just have to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy.

Ideas for Starting Conversations
Teachers can connect conversations and lessons on racism to a unit on bullying. Even very young children can grasp the idea that it is wrong to tease or make fun of others because they are different. Lessons and pedagogy rooted in empathy can really help in having these conversations with elementary students, even those in pre-school through second grade classrooms. Here are some great lessons on bullying in early grades.

Another idea is to give certain students special privileges because of their hair color. The teacher might give students extra candy, a special eraser, a sticker, the privilege of erasing the board or more time on the computer. When the first group seems to be enjoying their extra privileges teachers can switch and pick a different hair color to reward. At the end of the activity each student will have been in a group where they did not receive extra privileges. At this point, teachers can have students free write or draw, then discuss how it feels to be treated differently because of who they are. This activity taps into student empathy, letting them know how it feels to be treated differently for something one has no control over. From here, connections can be easily made to discussing racism. It is helpful to use inquiry based pedagogy that teaches students questioning strategies that help them think deeper about social justice issues.

We have included other resources below that can assist educators in teaching topics surrounding issues of equity and civics in elementary classrooms.  

Videos:
Arthur on Racism: Talk, Listen, and Act | ARTHUR
Becoming a Citizen | ARTHUR
Speaking Out | ARTHUR
Finding Solutions | ARTHUR

Lesson Plans/Resources
Forgiveness | An ARTHUR Interactive Comic
Cultural Connections
A Folktale Play
Let’s Dance
TV Star

Other Resources
Teaching 6-Year-Olds About Privilege and Power
Black Lives Matter BrainPop
Racism Lesson Plan for Elementary School

Check out Dr. Jessica Klanderud at Berea College’s Carter G. Woodson Center and her animated videos teaching African American history to elementary students entitled: Ruling Through Race Part 1.

29 Comments

  1. I agree that it is important for teachers to address diversity within the classroom. Just like any other content topic, diversity knowledge should be built over time and progress. Students may not be fully able to process the depth and impact of racism; however, they will benefit from a discussion on differences and empathy. I appreciate the resources provided! I think a great way to start a discussion about these topics is to use a character that is familiar to students- like Arthur here.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article and I am excited to have these great resources to use in my future classroom. I had been wondering about different ways to incorporate diversity and equity into my classroom and I love how you have laid out many resources for us. While in a first-grade classroom I saw the teacher do a band-aid activity that I think goes right along with the information you have provided. The teacher asked one student where they had a visible injury and placed a band-aid over it. Every student after that told the teacher where their visible injury was but got a band-aid in the same spot as the very first student. This led to a discussion about fairness, equality, and different needs that people have. I have provided a link to a lesson similar to the one I saw done which may be helpful to other teachers. https://empoweringeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/25-EE_Fairness-and-Equality_Pt1_3-5.pdf

  3. I think our society has been reluctant to teach elementary age students about racism and its history in America. As Dr. Child’s states, “these topics can be addressed at any grade level. In fact, the earlier the better. Teachers just have to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy.” There are several creative ways to help children develop empathy for others, to view issues from multiple perspectives, and to understand equality. When my daughter was 8 years old, we read the American Girl series on Abby, a young African American girl born into slavery who finally experiences freedom. The book was age appropriate and helped her to look at our history through the eyes of someone treated unjustly.
    I also liked Dr. Child’s idea of giving privileges to certain students because of their hair color, then changing it every week so that all students can feel what it is like to be treated differently for something they cannot change. This would lead to some interesting journal entries and class discussions. The only way our society will change is through the hearts and minds of our youth. Teachers must unite and teach children to love one another, to accept and celebrate our differences, and to look at issues through multiple lens.

  4. This is an aspect of teaching that I fear the most, retaliation from parents, because they don’t feel their child should be learning such things. Which in a sense I understand but racism is a real thing, and it happens at every age. You cannot hide your children/students from things that are happening right in front of them. I like the idea of starting small with students and using bullying as a starting point, because all in all we should be nice to everyone no matter if they are different from us.

  5. I do believe even young elementary students can be taught about diversity and equality. Just like the article said bullying is a tough topic for children to discuss, but children of all ages are taught bullying is wrong and treating everyone with respect is right. Teachers and school administrators need to plan age-appropriate lessons about diversity and the current issues going on in America. There are great resources like BrainPop videos and picture books that include stories of diversity that all elementary children may understand. It just takes some extra planning for the teacher to make a lesson appropriate for each age group, but it can be done. It’s important that we do not shy away from teaching things that may make some students or parents “uncomfortable.”

  6. I agree that it is important to start at a young age in elementary to discuss diversity and equality to students. It is important to start s young as you can, and not all students are taught about this at home. I think by relating it to bullying is important to teach students how bullying is not okay, and you shouldn’t treat other kids different. I really like the exercise of rewarding certain students, and then have them express how they felt afterwards. This social experiment really teaches kids what it feels like to be treated different, this way they know how it feels and will understand it is not okay, and we should all be treated the same.

  7. This article is important because I believe that this is essential, for students to hear about all forms of bullying-which racism is a form. Many parents, teachers, and other adults are nervous to teach students these difficult concepts because they fear that the students may not be mature enough for it. Students are able to understand what is right from wrong at an early grade level. It has been said that “racism is a learned behavior,” which can hold true today. Students continue to play with each other, no matter the different ethnicities. Once students have understood what mistreatment is, they can lear about bullying. Students at a second grade level would easily be able to learn about racism and notice the issues behind it. The more students learn about racism, the less likely they will obtain it in the future. It is definitely a difficult decision to make as a teacher, although it’s important that students are fully aware of the world that they live in.

  8. I agree that it is very important to teach students early about social justice and equity related issues. Making it age appropriate and using developmentally appropriate pedagogy will help the students understand the concept of what is being taught. I love that this article includes resources to help teach these concepts. I really like the idea that is discussed in the last paragraph and I think it’s a great way to show the students what privilege is and how it’s not right to treat others badly just because they are different. If we want to make a positive change in society we need to start as early as we can to teach students empathy and compassion for others.

  9. This is such a powerful subject that I think a lot of elementary school teachers avoid for fear of being ridiculed or because they just don’t know how to approach the subject with young children. I for one appreciate the resources that you’ve shared. I agree that using empathy is a great way to get young children thinking. I especially like the idea of giving children special privileges based on something they can’t control and asking them to write about how it felt to be excluded from that group. Helping children take this perspective from a very young age is the best way to actually make a difference. If hate can be taught from a very young age (which it is) then surely we can teach children compassion, tolerance, empathy, acceptance, and love.

  10. I loved this article! When I was in elementary school, diversity or equity was never really talked about because I feel like teachers probably thought that it wasn’t appropriate or that we wouldn’t understand. Kids definitely understand more than we think and you don’t have to teach them in a way where it would overwhelm them, everything can be simplified. As you stated, it comes down to the basics that they should know how people should or shouldn’t be treated. The idea of it being incorporated into a lesson about bullying is such a great idea because students learn about that all the time. I just think that there are good ways to do it and it needs to be seen being done more because of the importance.

  11. I think that having this conversation at a young age is extremely important. While I can see why some may be hesitant or shy away from the conversation at a young age I think that having this conversation and having students understand at a young age can be important for helping students to be more aware of their actions as they get older. I think that there are some great resources here that can really be implemented into the classroom to help students have the discussion in a productive way. Helping students become aware at a young age and continuing the conversation as they get older can help our society as a whole to be more aware and hopefully result in change as time goes on.

  12. I have always thought about how I would approach this topic in a young classroom. I don’t remember my elementary teachers going over topics like diversity very much. If they did they just skimmed over the topic, or only addressed it once a year during Martin Luther King Junior Day. I really think that the topic of diversity is an important topic to address in every classroom. It is something I find very important, and I want to make sure that I can provide my students with knowledge on this topic. I really like the resources you provided and I look forward to using them to teach diversity and how they can show empathy towards others.

  13. I really enjoyed this article and think the examples included were very well thought out. These topics are often avoided by teachers and even parents which leaves the kids naive and potentially at fault with some of these issues. Being able to address these issues with kids benefits them in ways you wont see right away. For kids to get an understanding of issues such as bullying, helps them understand why racism is such a big problem. Kids who understand the feeling of being left out or discriminated against are less likely to put that pain and hurt on other people. There will always be exceptions to this due to environments children are raised in but even if it makes a little difference in how these students treat others, it is worth it. Keeping these big subjects out of classrooms does a disservice and that is not what teachers are supposed to do.

    I think incorporating simple lessons about equality and compassion can make a big impact on students. One time when I was in middle school, we had a really big issue with bullying in the classroom. The principle decided that it was time to call my entire grade to the gym and sit down and have a talk with us. We had students who had been bullied come up and talk about how they feel about the bullying and about themselves and it was honestly heartbreaking. With a few exceptions, this simple task turned our grade around and really helped us consider everyones feelings from there on out. It is the simple things that make a difference.

  14. I truly enjoyed reading this article! This is a topic I feel many teachers shy away from out of fear for the judgement/retaliation from administration, parents, and the community. While I understand where these educators are coming from, it is crucial that diversity and equity issues be discussed early on in a child’s academic career (as mentioned in the article). The most important concept that educators must keep in mind when planning lessons around equity and diversity as mentioned in the article, is to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy. The resources provided in this article are some I intend to hold onto for when I have a classroom of my own!

  15. I think that all teachers, no matter what grade level they teach, should talk about racism and equity in their classroom. I think that teaching racism through a bullying unit/lesson would be a great idea for younger students to understand. Some may think that older students in high school may not need to learn or talk about racism since they are older, yet racism still toady comes in all ages of even adults. I think that having a conversation over racism is very important for all students to learn more about or even to just re-fresh their knowledge on it. One of the resources provided that I really enjoyed was the Black Lives Matter Brain Pop. I think it is a great topic that is still happening and very relevant today. I also believe that this resource could be used for elementary students and even 6th or 7th grade students as well!

  16. I think that the lesson on equity and diversity can 100% be taught in elementary school. With younger students you teach them right and wrong in the aspect of bullying. Teaching empathy is key in this topic because if you are empathetic, then you can learn the true meanings of equity and diversity.

  17. I fully agree that teachers should address diversity in the classroom starting at a young age. I was actually having a conversation earlier today about the different amounts of exposure that we have to diversity just between neighboring school districts. It is amazing how much can change between two schools only 6 miles apart. Growing up in an area with little diversity between students or in lessons I have found myself more driven to find that information as a young adult. I really enjoyed this article and the ideas of how to present diversity early and how to start introducing an end to the stigmatisms that are presented today through the use of lessons on Bullying, Forgiveness, and Folk Play. I feel that the stories we share with students leave an impact, that books, tv, and music can all be fantastic tools to bring different cultures together. I feel these lessons do need to go beyond just looking at race but going deeper into the roots such as religious backgrounds, cultures, and how we can work together and be respectful even when we look and believe something different.

  18. I think that teaching students about diversity and inclusion is very important and its definitely better to begin these lessons when they’re young. Throughout my Elementary years, I remember that bullying and anti-bullying activities were focused on heavily and that they dropped off during Middle school. I personally think that anti-bullying activities and programs should be heavily focused on in Elementary school and Middle school because those are foundational years for a child.
    I enjoyed looking through some of the lessons about bullying (even though I think they’re definitely for young students) and really enjoyed “Spookley the Square Pumpkin.” It’s nice to have a bullying lesson that goes with the current season and it reminds me of something my grandma always used to say; “You should be a frootloop in a world cheerio’s!”

  19. I love the ideas talked about in this. Racism is such a tricky subject to approach regardless of age and I feel like it may be a tricky subject for particularly young students to grasp. Tying it into bullying or favoritism of hair color is a really unique, interactive, and effective approach to the situation! I wonder what kind of questions this might spawn in the classroom and how, as a teacher, one might approach them?

  20. I do believe that elementary educators can and should address diversity and equity issues. This was a very good read that brought about many different ideas in my mind. Just like all things you need to put it to a level that these young students can understand and relate to such as bullying or such discrimination based on the way that someone looks. Young students are learning at a very fast rate and are like sponges. The more that we bring these issues up to them and put it in a way that they can understand, the better the future will be because they will understand these issues at a much deeper level and will treat people with respect no matter race, gender, etc.

  21. I agree that a discussion about diversity and equity can and should take place in an elementary classroom. Teaching about empathy is a developmentally appropriate way to do this. Students will be able to have a conversation when they experience not being treated fairly. There are good ideas on how to teach these lessons, as well as some good resources to make sure the lessons are appropriate for the students. This was a good article that gives teachers a chance to think about how to incorporate these lessons.

  22. I think it is important, as teachers, to use our platform to create good citizens in the community. Saying this, I think it is important to address diversity and equity within our classrooms. Many of these children are living in homes where racism or other issues are going on and so they believe that is the normal. By creating conversation about these topics, it will allow students to learn right from wrong and to help build empathy and love for everyone. I remember doing the activity that was mentioned in the article where some students gained a privilege while others did not. This really helped me understand at a young age, that some of us have it a lot better than others. I believe the more teachers that start addressing these issues at the elementary level will result in much more love and empathy in the world.

  23. As a future elementary educator, this article really stood out to me. Looking back on my own experiences, bullying was a major topic that was discussed during my K-12 schooling. However, from what I can recall, none of the activities regarding bullying were like the privilege activity Dr. Childs discussed. Rather, we wrote mean words on paper, crinkled the paper up and were then asked to make the paper flat again. We squeezed toothpaste out of bottles while saying mean words and were then asked to put the toothpaste back in. The experiences I can recall learning about bullying dealt with understanding that words cannot be taken back. However, they never specifically focused on privilege. I like the privilege activity Dr. Childs discussed in the article because you can make each student part of the unprivileged group. As a result, students who may be privileged in society now have the opportunity to see what it feels like to not be privileged. Additionally, as Dr. Childs mentioned, this activity teaches students empathy, which I believe is an important trait for young students to learn.

  24. Thank you for sharing this article. Even young children are able to grasp the idea that bullying is wrong, and that we should not make fun of someone who looks different than us. This needs to be addressed in the classroom, and I appreciate all of the resources and the example provided for my future students. I think a conversation about empathy would be beneficial. These topics about diversity and racism should be talked about and I like that you mention that teachers just need to use developmentally appropriate pedagogy. This respects the age and individual needs of each child. I think many teachers are afraid of bringing up these ideas in class because they are scared of retaliation from parents, administers, etc. It is extremely important to talk to your students about bullying, diversity, racism, etc., because some of them may experience it every day. Discussing these ideas can help students of all age feel more comfortable in school.

  25. I enjoyed reading this article and felt it was very informing on ways that I can teach my students about diversity and equity in my future classroom. The exercise of rewarding certain students is a great way to introduce the topic of racism to children and how they may feel. Even though this may be a hard topic to discuss with children, all children should learn about racism and the exercise from the article is a great way to get students thinking and discussing the topic. Children may not be taught about diversity and equity at home, so the classroom is a great place to introduce these important topics. 

  26. I agree that elementary educators can begin to have conversations about treating everyone equally and nicely as well as teaching students about bullying. There are so many great resources to use to get these conversations started and I feel like I will use these resources in my own classroom to start those tough conversations. The lesson plans and resources will be very helpful and the activity idea of giving certain students special privileges is a good way to model to students these problems we are having today.

  27. This article gave insight on the idea that elementary educators should address diversity and equity. The article describes that the level of depth that the educator goes into these subjects is directly correlated to their age (developmentally appropriate pedagogy). For younger children, this could be as simple as a unit on bullying, in which they can understand that making fun of someone who is different than them is wrong. I liked the strategy of giving students privileges based on their hair color. I think that is really allows students to understand how it feels to have those privileges and what it feels like when those privileges are taken away. This is a simple but effective way to understand privilege in a kid-friendly way. The article also provides many resources to additional ways elementary educators can integrate teaching about the topics of diversity and equity in their classroom.

  28. This article has a lot of wonderful resources to use with students. It is true, that even though diversity and equity can be really tough concepts to tackle with such young children, empathy is something that students can relate to much easier. Letting empathy take root in young children about racism, sexism, ableism, or anything else can help students to grow up caring for people. Practicing exercises so that students understand how it feels to be treated differently or bullied are a great way to drive home these tough conversations. I definitely plan on using this resources and activities in the future.

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